Karl Hildebrandt


Karl Hildebrandt


Memorial University




Through a review of the literature, this paper discusses emergent themes, language theories, instructional design principles, and research-driven application of technologies as possible solutions to the barriers and challenges now faced in the design and teaching of second language acquisition online in K-12 contexts due to COVID-19. Themes of interaction and collaboration, student motivation, engagement, authentic learning, and learner-centered environments emerged in the review of the literature as essential elements for instructional designers and educators in the creation of successful digital language learning environments online. SLA (Second Language Acquisition) theory and CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) frameworks are analyzed through the learning theories of Connectivism, and CoI (Community of Inquiry) to better guide facilitation of and the pedagogical practices of second language instructors online. By utilizing existing Web 2.0 technologies, gamified applications, opportunities for risk-taking, multiple modalities, while fostering peer interactions online, educators can develop second language learning environments online. A discussion of VoiceThread, Kahoot!, Quizlet, and Google Classroom follows and how their application in research can be used in pedagogy to address the emergent themes from literature. This paper suggests that by beginning to build professional communities and to network through social media, professionals and all stakeholders in second language instruction can begin to inform their practices. Future studies are needed to bridge the gap in new technologies, addressing speaking skills online, academic achievement in gamification, and the perceptions of educators using online learning environments.


Second language acquisition, interaction, collaboration, learner-centered, authentic learning, digital language learning environments


Click the link that follows to access the video resourcesSecond Languages Online (09:55)


The COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease) pandemic has presented the world of education with a host of unprecedented challenges as universities, classrooms, and schools across Canada were required to close their doors in March, 2020 in hopes of reducing the spread of COVID-19. Instructors of second languages needed to rapidly adapt language learning to a fully online format in response to school closures despite their existing gaps in research in the authentic use of second languages, in the production stage of second languages, in developing listening skills, and in fostering collaboration between learners in online settings (Chakowa, 2018; Derakhshan & Hasanabbasi, 2015; Ozverir, Herrington & Osum, 2016). Through a review of the literature, this paper discusses possible solutions to the barriers and challenges now faced in the design and teaching of second language acquisition online and presents guidelines for instructional designers (ID’s) and second language instructors to follow for the integration of second language courses online.

Literature Review

The following themes emerged from the review of the literature and can inform educators of second languages of both the challenges and potential solutions in transitioning learning online. Pertinent language learning theories, instructional design principles, and technologies suited for second language acquisition that are most useful for K-12 teachers will be reviewed.

SLA Theory and the Challenges of Online Learning

Krashen’s (1982) Second Language Acquisition (SLA) theory was frequently referenced in online language studies, and according to the theory, the acquisition of any language is subconscious while learning is conscious, meaning that learning an L2 (second language) depends heavily on structure, the environment, and comprehensible input from other language learners, or in the formal setting that the learning occurs (Flores, 2015). The main goal of SLA is to “teach children the elements of language that are learned much more informally in their native language” (Flores, 2015, p. 37) like how we learn an L1 (first language) and which Flores (2015) argued is not conducive in virtual or online settings. Bozkurt and Ataizi (2015) supported that “language acquisition is the process of mastering language through natural ways, communicating and exposing language in a natural context” (p. 159). The researcher’s statements pose an additional challenge to instructional designers and teachers of second languages who need to support both natural and structured, meaningful, engaging language learning opportunities without face-to-face interactions, now in fully online contexts. In K-12 settings, young learners may be lacking the technical skills and potentially lack access to technology, adding more complexity to process of transitioning online. Other barriers to online language learning included age, economic problems, and gender (Derakhshan & Hassanabbasi, 2015).

Teacher Perceptions of Online Language Learning

Paepe, Zhu, and DePryck’s. (2017) study focused on teacher perceptions of online language learning in their research as teachers directly impact the success of decisions in pedagogy and instructional design in online environments. Pulling from CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) research studies, Paepe et al. (2017) uncovered four fundamental roles needed by language instructors to ensure successful online language learning: as a practitioner, developer, researcher, and trainer (Paepe et al., 2017). Online teachers need practical computer literacy, the ability to recognize their learners’ skills and competencies, intervening when necessary, to facilitate students’ interactions while supporting a “collaborative online learning” environment (p. 558). Paepe et al. (2017) argued that teacher presence, pulled from the Col (Community of Inquiry) framework, is an essential element needed to foster communication strategies and to increase confidence in students’ language learning. Similarly, Azhar and Iqbal’s (2018) literature review revealed that a school administrator’s negative perceptions in their teachers’ ability to use technology further can sometimes prohibit the adequate training and integration of technology in schools. Often, online language teachers are self-taught professionals and lack professional development opportunities in this area (Paepe et al., 2018). These research studies provide insight into the added level of challenge teachers and instructional designers face in planning and designing fully online language learning environments.

Interaction and Collaboration

Connectivist theory and the design and teaching of second language acquisition environments complement one another as both understand that for learning to occur, it must happen through interactions and collaboration, a theme that emerged in the review of literature. In educational designs, we must provide learners with opportunities to communicate with other people, organize themselves online by creating discussion groups, and build communities of practice (Garcia et al., 2015). Bozkurt and Ataizi (2015) stated that connectivism believes “knowledge is distributed across a network of connections and therefore learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks” (p. 158). Furthermore, Downes (2010) posited that integration of learning activities in an online context must account the “context of the students’ wider life, a wider frame of reference” (p. 27). Technologically enhanced environments should include “conversation[s] and interaction[s], with friends and associates” (p. 27) which lends itself to the learning of a second language which requires interaction and collaboration to occur, both inside and outside of the classroom, for students to utilize a language authentically.

The Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) framework adheres to a set of principles for second language acquisition to occur, which echo connectivism. These principles include “an emphasis on learning to communicate through interaction in [the] target language” (Flores, 2015, p. 36), the “enhancement of the learner’s own personal experiences as important contributing elements to classroom learning” (Flores, 2015, p. 36), and linking “classroom language learning with language activities outside of the classroom” (Flores, 2015, p. 36). Tinmaz (2012) similarly argued that ID’s “should pay attention to the fundamental characteristics of connectivism in terms of its central design elements: the person, the social interactions, and networked communities” (p. 237). Both ID’s and teachers of L2’s are required to facilitate the process of altering students’ existing knowledge while assisting learners in moving “beyond their knowledge by establishing connections to other people” (Tinmaz, 2012, p. 237). Connectivist theory is vital to ID’s and instructors as it can be used to direct their efforts in terms of supporting and promoting interaction and collaboration in language learners online. Learning languages does not occur in isolation, and connectivists criticize the concept of autonomy, which is understood as “learners learn[ing] in their own pace and interest” (Mattar, 2018, p. 212), as this does not accurately describe the knowledge needs of language learners in the digital age.

The Community of Inquiry (CoI) model (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 2001) is another theory accepted by researchers that is concerned with increasing interaction and collaboration and aligns well with the goals of second language acquisition, in a fully online context. The CoI model incorporates three elements that unite learning communities, which include “social, cognitive, and teaching presence” (Sarieva & Badrinathan, 2016, p. 2323). Social presence was defined as the learner’s ability to identify with the community. Cognitive presence refers to the ability to construct and confirm meaning in the community, and teaching presence refers to the design of content and facilitation of collaboration and learning by the teacher (Sarieva & Badrinathan, 2016). When designs reflect and support these practices, they encourage students to become autonomous: “learning to learn, constructing knowledge and language skills and collaborating would be its key elements” (Sarieva & Badrinathan, 2016, p. 2323). Establishing teaching presence and social presence through human connections online with young language learners is essential for cognitive presence to develop in online language environments.

CoI and Connectivist theory share similarities as both theories require the learner to understand how to navigate complex information networks, to communicate and collaborate effectively, and to learn how to utilize outside information in an attempt to become autonomous. The concept of autonomy has shifted to an understanding of it as the development of meaning through tapping into the networks or nodes formed with other people online, realizing that knowledge can be lost but retrieved again, within a forum, online discussion or from information stored online, and within a community of inquiry (Mattar, 2018). Both ID’s and instructors can utilize the principles of connectivism and Col to support and guide the development of pedagogy, of interactions, and collaborations amongst students in second language learning environments online.

Increasing Students Motivation and Engagement

Another theme that emerged from the review of the literature was the ability to instill motivation and engagement in language learners through integrating online technologies such as Web 2.0 (the read and write web). Bozkurt and Ataizi (2015) defined Web 2.0 as being driven by “user contributions and interactions, [that] encourage social and active learning and support social connectivity” (p. 156), and a “dynamic structure that changed the rules of the game” (p. 159) by turning technology into an environment that can support authentic language acquisition online. Wiki’s, blogs, and discussion forums that utilized peer feedback in second language writing reported success with language learners (Sun et al., 2013). The characteristics of Web 2.0 technologies: the creation, refinement, and distribution of shared content, and cooperation align well with the practices of ID’s and educators of second language acquisition. When combined in design, learners have access to other language users to practice the target language, orally and written, and to use the target language for mutual interest (Bozkurt & Ataizi, 2015), further supporting the motivation and engagement of learners through the utilization of good instructional design practices. However, researchers have argued that while there is evidence to support improvements in reading and writing, there is insufficient research to support the use of Web 2.0 technologies for beginner language learners (Chakowa, 2018) and in supporting listening and speaking activities (Derakhshan & Hasanabbasi, 2015).

The integration of game-based student response systems (GSRS), an instructional design element that promotes engagement, increased student motivation, and increased “on-task mobile use behaviour” (Licorish et al., 2018, p. 2). GSRS’s are defined as educational games that have integrated gamification techniques such as leader boards, badges, and point systems into student response systems that provide immediate feedback, formative feedback for instructors, and integrate gamification principles into formal assessment procedures (Licorish et al., 2018). GSRS’s can be integrated by ID’s for second language acquisition as the main goal is to increase participation and contributes to “positive development of some personality factors like self-esteem, risk-taking, and most of all motivation” (Flores, 2015, p. 37).

Taking risks in language learning can be a challenge for students in face-to-face settings, which online environments can accommodate. Licorish et al. (2018) argued that gamification techniques support a language learner’s motivational, emotional, and social outlook while providing a safe place for reluctant learners to participate who do not usually do so in face-to-face contexts. SLA theory proposed that as learners acquire language, a subconscious act, students may go through a silent period where they are absorbing knowledge but not using it, however, gamification affords these learners a meaningful way to participate, anonymously if they wish, while building confidence and developing risk-taking practices (Flores, 2015). However, researchers cautioned that proper sequencing of activities and attention to students’ ZPD (zone of proximal development), content that is just beyond that of the skill level of the learner, is necessary to scaffold game activities from lower cognitive tasks to higher difficulty ones when utilizing GSRS’s in instructional design for second language acquisition (Chakowa, 2018). Licorish et al. (2018) similarly argued that gamification techniques should induce a state of flow, in which the difficulty of the activity is set just slightly above that of skill level the language learner. These are essential instructional design considerations to ensure the success of online language learning environments.

Development of Authentic, Learner-Centered Environments

Marden et al. (2009) argued that learners’ motivation and engagement in the study of a second language could decrease should instructional designs and educational activities not account for direct experiences of “engaging meaningful and authentic dialogue with competent native speakers and taking part in rich and purposeful tasks” (p. 1864). Situated learning (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989) or authentic learning occurs when blending formal and informal education in L2 instruction. Instructors set up students for future language interactions that happen outside of a formal classroom. Marden et al. (2009) applied the concept of cognitive apprenticeship, how learners acquire and develop language skills by interacting and observing others, to describe how learners in an L2 online context need authentic language opportunities, which include interaction and collaboration with more experienced community members. If this occurs, only then will beginners or newcomers become “involved and absorbed in community practices, develop social relations with other community members and learn from them” (p. 1865).

Similarly, Sun et al. (2013) found that the theory of social constructivism accurately depicted the process of motivating and engaging online learning in digital learning environments for language learners. In the social constructivist view, knowledge is the “process by which individuals are introduced to a culture by more skilled members” (p. 1747). Scaffolding between the more skilled members and less experienced members becomes paramount in online settings as learners can “construct knowledge and internalize it when engaging socially” (p. 1747). By utilizing authentic, meaningful language opportunities through the interactions of members in an online environment, ID’s and instructors can begin to shift language learning from teacher-centred to environments that promote learner-centeredness.

In designing authentic L2 language activities online, Atkinson et al. (2018) argued that learners need to opportunities to be actively involved in conversations, be attentive, and responsive “to the quality of their linguistic experience[s]” (p. 473), not just preoccupied with input-provisions and processing tasks. In an online environment, shifting to a learner-centred teaching style can foster more “responsive, collaborative, problem-centred, and democratic” language experiences that focus on meaning rather than forms and structures (Ozverir et al., 2016). Ozverir et al. (2016) emphasized the lack of research studies for the “authentic use of the language” (p. 484) in online L2 education and that learners often fall short of transferring their knowledge of the language in the production stages. Ozverir et al. (2016) synthesized a list of essential design principles to follow when planning authentic and learner-centred online environments in an L2 context. Designs should promote opportunities to examine language tasks from different perspectives, to collaborate and are encouraged to use peer-scaffolding, an provide opportunities to reflect, and where teachers seamlessly integrate assessment that begins with “can-do” (Ozverir, 2016, p. 489) statements, similar to the process of instructional designers in education which utilize the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation) model.

Furthermore, to support authentic learning and to promote exposure to different perspectives online, ID’s and language instructors need to support multiple modalities of learning. In sequencing learning activities that align with assessments and learning goals, ID’s and instructors need to plan for variety in activities in order not to bore language learners (Flores, 2015, p. 37). With a rapidly evolving CALL field in education, teachers struggle to stay abreast of new technologies, applications, and software for online language teaching (Paepe et al., 2017). Further development of instructional design in the field of online language learning is critical, to develop an online community of ID’s and instructors that can build “communicative competence” (p. 559) in online interactions and support each other through “peer coaching, teaching inquiry groups, and teacher networks” (p. 559).


The review of literature and research studies revealed existing technologies and frameworks that can be applied to the design and instruction of second language acquisition online. However, as Chakowa (2018) stated in their study of supportive online language learning for beginners, it is unlikely that one tool will address the needs of all learners. It is rather “advisable to combine different [technological] tools to optimize online learning environments” (Chakowa, 2018, p. 11) to support differentiated instruction and access for all learners. The following section will discuss research-proven language technologies, frameworks, and how they have been proven successful in the integration of learning a second language online.

Critical Factors of Online Language Learning Environments

Volery and Lord’s (2000) research study aimed to identify critical factors for the successful implementation of WebCT (known as Blackboard Learning System at present), a virtual learning environment system. Though the researchers’ study did not specifically look at online language courses, their findings are significant as they can help guide the decisions of inexperienced instructors or ID’s in identifying the essential characteristics of language learning environments online. The ease of access and navigation was identified as a factor by the researchers and further supported by other second language studies in online education (Azhur & Iqbal, 2018; Licorish et al., 2018; Paepe et al., 2017). The interface of the platform must be appealing, well designed, and structured (Volery & Lord, 2000). The online environment must support the ability for interactions between student-to-student and student-to-teacher, teachers to build empathy, effective communication while exhibiting practical technical competencies to achieve authentic interactions in the target language.


Sun et al. (2013) argued that the geographical isolation of students makes it harder for ID’s and language instructors to “support social interactions among them” (p. 1747) and utilized VoiceThread, a Web 2.0 tool, to support activities in their research of second language speaking in higher education. VoiceThread allowed users to upload a combination of materials, including documents, images, and audio-video, which care arranged in a slide show and opportunity for instructors to document and assess speaking online. VoiceThread further allowed instructors in the study to support a “collaborative, reflexive social interaction environment” (p. 1750).


Kahoot! is a gamified learning tool that allows teachers to draw upon course content to design quizzes in which students participate as players, “thus integrating gamification principles into formal assessment procedure” (Licorish et al., 2018, p. 3). Gamification elements include leaderboards, a ranking system, and points. Although the free version of Kahoot! requires synchronous play by students, paid features to allow teachers to challenge students asynchronously, and quizzes can be played multiple times. Licorish et al. (2018) examined how Kahoot! influenced classroom dynamics, engagement, motivation, and language learning. The researchers concluded that Kahoot! can capture, sustain, and increase student motivation to pay attention, pay closer attention and scrutinize questions, provide a decisive break from learning, promoted critical-thinking and supported interactions and collaboration between language users (Licorish et al., 2018).Kahoot! allowed students to remain anonymous, allowing students to feel more comfortable in taking risks with language and motivated individual students to prepare in advance when they knew certain concepts would be done on Kahoot!. Competition in Kahoot! led some students to focus more on competitive factors such as leaderboards, points, and having fun rather than learning (Licorish et al., 2018).


Quizlet is a multifaceted CALL software that helps language learners to develop vocabulary fluency and addresses the need for vocabulary proficiency from “which all language learning skills will be flourished” (Toy & Buyukkarci, 2019, p. 44). Quizlet uses flashcards with audio and visual aids combined with the repetition of words and presents learners with “metacognitive strategies in the sense that they can decide on which/how/how often words to practice” (Toy & Buyukkarci, 2019, p. 52). In their study of Quizlet, the researchers found that students improved recognition of vocabulary and improved students’ engagement and motivations toward learning vocabulary in language learners and an increase in the amount of time-on-task while using Quizlet (Toy & Buyukkarci, 2019). The researchers concluded that Quizlet helps students to learn vocabulary at their own pace and improves the tracking of individual student progress (teachers can create a class and have students join) (Toy & Buyukkarci, 2019). Quizlet integrates learning with entertainment, provides flexibility, lowers anxiety by evaluating learners against themselves rather than ranking them, offers a diversity of learning modalities, and increased motivation in learners (Toy & Buyukkarci, 2019). Furthermore, the researchers discovered that “students with learning disabilities developed positive perceptions about Quizlet” (Toy & Buyukkarci, 2019, p. 48), increasing its versatility in language learning.

Google Classroom

Google Classroom is a free LMS (Learning Management System) for teachers and students, which Azhar and Iqbal (2018) argued is well suited for developing countries and subsequently in the context of ID’s and instructors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The study focused on teacher perceptions of using Google Classroom in a peer tutor program for English as a Second Language (ESL) for Grade 6 students. The study revealed that Google Classroom provided an “easy way to upload, announce, and assess assignments online” (p. 60), that the application enhanced student-teacher interactions (teacher presence), opportunities for L2 students to interact outside of the classroom, and an improvement in classroom organization (Azhar & Iqbal, 2018). However, the study revealed some perceived challenges as well, including some teachers who felt that Google Classroom was not familiar or easy to use, was concerned about the misuse of mobile and technology in the classroom, and was not skilled enough to use the technology effectively (Azhar & Iqbal, 2018). Furthermore, evidence from previous studies, though there are not many studies on Google Classroom concerning online language learning, identified that the integration of learning analytics is lacking (Azhar & Iqbal, 2018).


Networking and the Duality of Technological Progress

The evolving nature of the CALL field has a duality: one as a necessity to continually improve computer-assisted technologies for educational purposes but another that renders certain technologies to become outdated and replaced by ones that are more efficient. The challenge for ID’s and instructors is to keep abreast of new emergent technologies for education while the evolution sometimes leaves professionals behind as the paradigm continually shifts focus. With the recent event of school closures across Canada due to COVID-19, IDs and instructors of second languages are presented with a unique opportunity for collaboration and through the affordance of time (or at least comfort of) while working from home, to begin to develop virtual connections with other professionals in the field and to start looking at the opportunities and affordances of the integration of technology in teaching and learning languages online.

ID’s and educators have experience in using blended-learning environments as a means to enhance second language acquisition in unison with face-to-face classes, and this is an opportunity for them to reach out and to extend a hand to those professionals who may need help, faced with the daunting task of producing a fully functioning online course for the first time. However, this is not a time to look inward at the shortcomings of the lack of face-to-face connections or the lack of knowledge and training in online learning (Paepe, 2017) but rather should be seen as an opportunity to look outward and to begin to develop professional networks of communication. Administrational and divisional support will be crucial to support the efforts of all stakeholders.

Social Networks for Professional Communities

Teachers have already begun to utilize social media to enhance and extend their classrooms into the informal settings of students and parents by setting up classroom accounts on Twitter and Instagram, and by designing course input or in requiring student output tasks through applications such as TikTok, and SnapChat. However, these are newer applications and research lags behind, the nature of the CALL field. Similarly, Derakhshan and Hasananbbasi’s (2015) study of social networks focused solely on the use of Facebook to foster interaction and collaboration in the target language, which in 2020 has now become outdated, especially in the eyes of a K-12 learner, and few studies in the review of literature in this paper were conducted in a K-12 context.

Social networks for second language acquisition have a prominent future in L2 education. Obtaining membership and beginning to contribute in one should be the beginning point to any instructor’s search in transitioning to courses online. However, there is a healthy fear of social networks for educational purposes, stemming from the idea that “social media may cause to reinforce students’ negative behaviour and has [a] negative social promotion” (Derakhshan & Hasanabbasi, 2015, p. 1091). Necessary considerations into the accessibility, privacy, security, and how information is gathered and disseminated will be needed when planning designs for young learners and will continue to be an area of future research as new technologies and applications emerge in the future.

Gaps in Research and the Future

Further investigations are needed in the affordances that LSM’s like Google Classroom (Azhar & Izbal, 2018) that can be easily accessed and managed by language learners and also for other web tools in other “domains of language learning” (Toy & Buyukkarci, 2019, p. 57) such as speaking and listening (Derakshan & Hasanabbasi, 2015; Sun et al., 2019). More quantitative studies are needed as evidence to support improved academic performance through use of gamification elements or GSRS’s such as Kahoot! over traditional methods (Licorish et al., 2018), and further research to support to use of online learning platforms to support beginner language learners (Chakowa, 2018). Additionally, the perceptions of teachers of online learning, especially with a focus on second language learning, needs further research as well (Paepe et al., 2017).


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Integration of Instructional Design and Technology to Support Rapid Change Copyright © 2020 by Karl Hildebrandt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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