Asynchronous communication is one of the most versatile tools that can provide an excellent medium for reflective thought through discussion (Prestera and Moller, 2001; Bennedsen and Caspersen, 2003; Meyers, Bennett and Lysaght, 2004).
A great number of students desire a higher degree of flexibility as their family obligations and job responsibilities frequently discourage them from employing synchronous communication technologies.
Asynchronous communication tools, such as email, listservs and discussion forums, can be more convenient, since they provide students with the opportunity to have more control over the pace of education and work during times that are most appropriate to them (Leach and Walker, 2000; Alessi and Trollip, 2001: 379; Kuljis and Lines, 2007: 674).
Furthermore, asynchronous communication technologies offer shy and reflective students the freedom to reflect before composing a response to their tutor or classmates (Burge, 1994; Dede, 1995).
Utilizing Email in the ESL Writing Classroom
Undoubtedly, the acquisition of Internet skills has become an increasingly common aspect of work and private life as we enter the 21st century (Cahoon, 1998; Liao, 1999).
With respect to the implementation of email in the writing classroom, Devlin (1993: 266) maintains that it may have beneficial effects on the development of students’ skills in structured communication and in reflective writing.
Mansor (2007) adds that email can be utilized in a collaborative learning environment incorporating the stages of writing process approach and pair work activity. Through email, teachers can adapt instruction to learner needs and interests (Turner, 1998: 65) ensuring that learning takes place in relation to the identified outcomes (Nagel, 1999).
Additionally, we could claim that the implementation of email in the ESL writing classroom increases language proficiency, inculcates interest and positive attitudes which, in turn, will improve students’ performance in the writing classroom.
Email can also enable learners to use computers in realistic, authentic situations in order to develop communicative and thinking skills (Singhal, 1997; Gonglewksi, Meloni and Brant, 2001). Furthermore, as email is easy to use, even timid or inhibited students may benefit from the meaningful interaction and communication.
In addition to the aforementioned advantages, the asynchronous nature of email communication also encourages students to confer electronically both with their classmates and their tutor about their writing at times that are more convenient to them.
Belisle (1996) asserts that the interaction and feedback that takes place between a teacher and the students over a writing project is vital as it is not restricted to the confines of the classroom setting.
Students can also utilize email to submit their final draft to the teacher who will make comments and return the assignments to the students electronically. Providing feedback shortly after the learners have completed their project seems to have a more notable effect on their revising process.
Implementing Discussion Forums in the Writing Classroom
Chen (2004: 800) and Shaw (2005) acknowledge that discussion forums have been widely used in web-based education and computer-assisted collaborative learning with the aim of promoting learning and student collaboration.
Web courses that utilize discussion forums also seem to promote student involvement and feedback (Newlands and Coldwell, 2005: 360).
Bonk and Dennen (2002: 335) add that the implementation of discussion forums in the ESL classroom can alter traditional instructor-led discussion formats and promote student interaction, critique, and collaboration activities based on constructivist learning theories.
Furthermore, another advantage of the discussion forum is that it is not “subject to the tyranny of the ever present ‘now’ of the face-to-face classroom that doesn’t allow the participants the benefit of an ‘instant replay’ ” (Markel, 2001: 10).
The discussion forum permits an infinite number of replays and comments on a discussion topic at times students consider more convenient.
With respect to the development of students’ writing skills, the meaningful interaction occurring between the tutor and the adult students can create a unique synergy based on reflective thought which is then converted into insightful writing (Serdyukov and Serdyukova, 2006: 210).
A final comment we could make is that the teacher who coordinates a discussion in a forum should maintain a high frequency of messaging that will facilitate the discussion and also ensure that all learners participate, offering contributions that can enhance the quality of the discussion (Liu and Ginther, 2002; Gerosa, Pimentel, Fuks and Lucena, 2004: 262).