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It is widely known that face-to-face instruction has remained dominant in language classroom for such a long time. Face-to-face instruction (or instructor-led training), which refers to the situation where students attend campus classes and listen to lectures on a daily basis, is considered to be helpful in promoting teacher-student and peer group interaction. However, this type of instruction is not free from deficiencies because it fails to meet the individual student needs and reach every student and results in outdated course books, and curriculums, etc.
As the rise of digital media has brought dramatic changes to teaching scenarios in the 21st century, many people will think of e-learning in replacing the traditional face-to-face teaching methods. Although e-learning seems to be innovative in terms of flexibility, mobility, cost-effectiveness and personalized training experience, some of its potential drawbacks in terms of excessive technology dependence, student-student isolation and a requirement of computer competence were also found by many researchers.
As a matter of fact, both face-to-face and e-learning environments have their own advantages and disadvantages thus cannot be used solely without considering the other. If these approaches are combined, they will fill in each other’s missing piece thus probably help meet the demands of the educational system. This is when blended learning, an integration of face-to-face instruction and e-learning, appears to be the solution to the problem that many school systems have been struggling with.
Blended learning approach is becoming more and more popular, especially in higher education in recent years. To illustrate, according to Tham, K.O. & Tham, C.K. (2011), a white paper published by the Ministry of Education and Korea Education and Research Information System shows that blended learning was used in about 63% of university education courses in Korea in 2002 and 67% in 2003 and by 2004 there were 17 cyber-universities in Korea.
In spite of blended learning’s advantages and popularity, the employment of this type of instruction faces a number of challenges. Boelens, Wever, and Voet (2017) found out four key challenges to this approach, namely: incorporating flexibility, stimulating interaction, facilitating students’ learning processes, fostering an effective learning climate. In another study, Kosar (2016) addressed lack of training, time management and increased workload as main difficulties among instructors of blended learning. Likewise, in the Vietnamese context, Duong (2016) and Vu (2014) also stressed on such obstacles as technology resistance, lack of support from the board of management, computer skill competency as well as inadequate Internet access. As a result, research on how universities administrators and teachers take actions to solve the problems above is very necessary to conduct.
In the context of Nong Lam University, most non-English majors come from remote provinces outside Ho Chi Minh City. They are believed to have little chance to practice English in high school thus have low proficiency levels of English when attending university. They study English because this is a compulsory subject that they must complete in order to graduate from university; consequently, a low motivation for learning English appears quite common among them. This creates a challenge to the administrators and teachers within the institution in creating an effective blended learning environment that foster interaction among teachers and students.
In fact, blended learning has been newly adopted in the last two years in English programs for non-English majors. More specifically, thanks to the Dispatch 52 – Project 2020 approved by the Ministry of Education and Training, the course book Life and MyELT Web-based learning interface developed by National Geographic learning and Cengage learning has been using in EFL classes along with other universities and institutions all over Vietnam (Hanoi University, Hanoi Open University. Hanoi University of Pedagogy, Hue University, HCMC University of Technology and Education, SEAMEO RETRAC, Can Tho University, etc.). The course book is taught in two compulsory courses namely English 1 and English 2 for non-English majors, each of which extends for 12 weeks and conduct both online and offline sessions. Throughout the course, the students have one meeting per week with their teachers and the lessons are delivered by face-to-face instruction within the class meetings. Along with that, students are required to log on to their accounts on MyELT online learning interface to complete homework assignments on the lessons they have learned and encouraged to do further exploration on the related topic. In the first year of employing blended learning, the teacher is responsible for both delivering face-to-face lectures and monitoring their students’ online activities. This resulted in excessive work load for teachers and required excellent computer competence of teachers. In light of this, within the academic year of 2017-2018, the administrators decided to recruit a team of teaching assistants who are English majors from the Faculty of Foreign Languages in Nong Lam University to take over students’ online assignments.
Although the solution of having teaching assistants seems to be successful in reducing teachers’ work load and bringing a relief of using technology outside classes to teachers, a new problem arises as teachers and teaching assistants are currently taking separate duties instead of cooperating with each other to assist students in a better way. In other words, teachers are not required to examine the difficulties that students face from online assignments while teaching assistants are not allowed to participate in class meetings to address these issues to the teacher. Consequently, any problems in students’ performance cannot be approached and any improvements that students achieve cannot be noted by the teachers.
Therefore, there seems to be little possibility that a mere integration of face-to-face instruction and online learning by name can make wonders for these non-English majors. Although the idea of having teaching assistants in the course is innovative and helpful, it is essential that considerations on suitable strategies to make use of the role of teaching assistant in blended learning should be taken by Nong Lam universities administrators. With respect to this issue, although blended learning has been widely applied in higher education throughout Vietnam, there still very few studies investigating on the teaching assistant’s role in blended learning environment. For these reasons, the researcher is prompted to conduct this study to look into the actual practice of blended learning and the role of teaching assistant at in EFL classes for non-English majors at Nong Lam University. Furthermore, this study will be conducted in order to provide some pedagogical recommendations for employing blended learning more effectively.
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