Ju Seong (John) Lee has recently defended his doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). His research interests include English as an International Language (EIL), Informal Digital Learning of English (IDLE) and Computer Mediated Communication (CMC).
Interview by Cristina Sánchez-Martín
Thank you John for taking the time to do this interview with us. You have recently defended your dissertation, so congratulations on your accomplishments! To start off the interview, please, tell us about yourself.
I was born and grew up in South Korea. During early childhood and adolescent, I had a deep interest in the world outside my home country, and discovered English as a means to learn and explore the world. I also enjoyed teaching others and helping people learn. So, I majored in English education and TESOL for my B.A. and M.A degrees, respectively. In addition, from 2000 to 2014, I gained hands-on experience by teaching ESL/EFL, Korean as a foreign language (KFL), computer literacy, and physical education in a variety of educational (public/private university, secondary school, primary school, community/private language school, cram school, summer camp) and multicultural contexts (USA, New Zealand, Korea, Mongolia, and Thailand) for diverse students (4 years old, K-12 students, university/graduate students). I am currently pursuing my PhD degree in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction with a specialization in Second Language Acquisition and Teacher Education (SLATE) at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Recently, I have defended my dissertation, titled “Informal, Digital Learning of English (IDLE): The Case of Korea University Students.”
Your research interests include English as an International Language (EIL) and Informal Digital Learning of English (IDLE) within Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL), how did you become interested in these areas?
I built up a foundation in EIL when I took a course in English and English education in Japan in the age of globalization with Dr. Yuji Nakamura during Spring 2014 at Keio University, Japan. During my time as a doctoral student at UIUC, I completed the certificate program in SLATE and took several linguistics courses including Ling. 500: Sociolinguistics 2 Theory and Practice (taught by Dr. Rakesh M. Bhatt), which solidified my foundation in EIL and broadened my grasp of theoretical issues in language use. Currently, I am a proponent of Matsuda’s (2017) conceptualization of EIL – “a function that English performs in international, multilingual contexts, to which each speaker brings a variety of English that they are most familiar with, along with their own cultural frames of reference, and employs various strategies to communicate effectively” (p. xiii). This definition encompasses many diverse perspectives known under different terminologies or referred to as ‘critically oriented scholarship,’ such as English as a Lingua Franca, Global Englishes, English as a Global Language, and World Englishes.
In respect to IDLE, I traveled to Morocco in May of 2014 to work with my advisor, Dr. Mark Dressman, to plan his Fulbright Senior Scholar project on English learning at three Moroccan universities. During this trip, I was surprised by the fluency and communicative competence of nearly every Moroccan student with whom I spoke. How could this be? Dr. Dressman and I wondered how under-resourced Moroccan university students excel in oral communication whereas fully resourced Korean students struggle to speak, despite similar colonial histories, English language policies, and EFL contexts. Although several variables (e.g., geographic location, learning style) may influence the English acquisition of Moroccan students, the preliminary data suggest that they actively engage in IDLE activities independently of their teachers, while Koreans are heavily dependent upon formal in-class learning (Dressman, Lee, & Sabaoui, 2016). In a broad sense, IDLE can be understood as ‘self-directed, naturalistic, digital learning of English in unstructured, out-of-class environments, independent of a formal language program.’ For example, EFL students autonomously write on or view others’ Facebook walls in English for the purpose of connecting with others. But a teacher does not affect this behavior.
With the advent of new technology and its enormous pedagogical benefits, recent studies have begun implicating the pedagogical benefits of CALL on the development of EIL competence among EFL learners. However, past studies have been conducted in formal educational contexts, leaving out an in IDLE context, an emerging CALL territory. Hence, I have decided to examine the under-researched relationship between IDLE and various dimensions of EIL competence.
As a collaborator in the article “Effects of videoconference-embedded classrooms (VEC) on learners’ perceptions toward English as an international language (EIL)” (2017), you argue that Videoconference Embedded Classrooms have positive pedagogical benefits in students’ learning English as an International Language. Could you describe how other English teachers could implement VEC in their contexts? What hypothetical drawbacks could they encounter?
Recently, Dr. Yuji Nakamura (Keio U.), Dr. Randall Sadler (UIUC) and I have noticed two significant gaps in current EIL knowledge: (1) EIL studies with detailed overviews regarding how to implement EIL pedagogy are few, and (2) fewer empirical studies have been conducted. To address these issues, we have taken an interdisciplinary approach by tapping into the fields of EIL and CALL. More specifically, since 2014, we have established and hosted a virtual roundtable six times, in collaboration with 18 internationally-renowned TESOL/applied linguistics scholars from 15 universities. Additionally, using this online platform, we have also developed and implemented an original pedagogical design, “Videoconference-Embedded Classroom (VEC),” with the goal of helping Japanese EFL university students improve their EIL awareness level.
Pedagogical details (consisting of three stages) are described in the paper: 1) pre-videoconference task (VT), 2) during-VT, and 3) post-VT. At the Pre-VT stage, students engaged in both in-class and out-of-class tasks by reading EIL-related materials and having follow-up group discussion facilitated by an instructor. At the During-VT stage, the instructor set up the videoconferencing using an LCD projector, the Internet and audio-visual equipment in collaboration with the university staff. Students could interact with EIL scholars and other students from inner, outer, and expanding circle countries during the videoconference. Based on the Pre-VT and During-VT, the students wrote reflective essays at the Post-VT stage. As a consequence of VEC, students could engage in critical thinking by reviewing diverse opinions on EIL themes during Pre-VT, comparing/contrasting a particular issue from various perspectives discussed by the EIL experts (and users) during During-VT, and coming up with their own original opinions in the form of a reflective essay and final presentation during Post-VT.
We also provided a practical guideline for how to overcome potential challenges based on a series of our trial and error. For example, the coordinator should identify the tech-environment and logistics of each participant (e.g., Wi-Fi-connection, microphone, web-cam etc.) and constantly troubleshoot a range of unanticipated technological issues. Additionally, since the participants reside in different time zones, the coordinator has to consider those different time zones in addition to academic schedule in each institution and individual schedule.
Having defended your dissertation recently, what advice would you give to other PhD students as they move on in the different stages of their dissertation (data collection, data analysis, and writing activities)?
During the early stage of a doctoral program, it is important to choose a topic you are deeply passionate about and you can be the best at. However, it is also crucial to choose a topic that your advisor may find interesting or at least relevant to his or her research areas. In my anecdotal experience, by selecting the topic (that closely aligns with my advisor’s), I have become involved in his various projects; Consequently, I can spend an ample amount of time with him, developing my personal relationship with him, while getting direction, advice and feedback related to my academic and professional issues. That’s why it is important to choose a topic that is closely aligned with your advisor at the beginning stage.
During the data collection and analysis stage, a thorough preparation is required for making both processes smooth. For example, I received formal letters of invitation to collect the data at three investigation sites and obtained approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB). At the research sites, I also needed to arrange several meetings with my gatekeepers (and collaborators), administer surveys, conduct interviews, and observe classes. And the list goes on and on. Many times, I also had to be flexible and “thick skinned.” In retrospect, every step was not easy. But throughout these processes, my advisor was a tremendous help for its preparation and implementation through constant help, feedback, support, and encouragement. Another piece of advice is to start writing while collecting and analyzing data. My advisor said one common mistake many doctoral students make is they tend to first collect data in their third or fourth year of the program and then wait. After that, they start analyzing and writing it up. This is not a recommended practice because it takes longer to complete the work. PhD study is full of a series of unexpected personal and professional delays and interruptions.
In respect to writing activities, the “divide and conquer” technique worked best for me. I think writing a dissertation is like climbing a high mountain or running a marathon. It is long and boring. And it is often exhausting! Based on my experience, I highly recommend that you divide your writing tasks into small segments and work on your daily task one at a time. Putting differently, you should strive for tiny, daily advances rather than attempting to do everything all at once. It is also important to reward yourself when you meet your short-term and long-term goals, which help you sustain your writing without being burnout. At the time of writing, you may not feel like much progress is being made, but this will become big improvement after one, three, and six months of your continuous work.
During the final stage of your doctoral study (a.k.a. ABD), you need a high level of personal motivation and ability to work independently because now you must work in “unstructured” environments. Personally, my support (and inner circle) groups such as my wife, parents, Dr. Dressman, and Dr. Nakamura have helped me keep focusing on the completion of the dissertation. At this stage, I suggest you learn to pace yourself and take advantage of your support groups who love you and whom you trust.
You have been an active member of the NNESTs of the Month Blog and TESOL International, among other associations, in what ways have these professional development opportunities influenced your work?
I firmly believe that my current scholarly work is the sum of all that I have known (and met) through NNEST-of-the-month blog and TESOL International. This NNEST blog community has helped me learn and disseminate the EIL concept and its pedagogy and establish professional networks with EIL-oriented scholars around the world. This has led me to get more actively involved in TESOL International by serving as a proposal reviewer on World Englishes and NNEST research strand as well as an award reviewer on Albert H. Marckwardt Travel Grants and The Ruth Crymes TESOL Fellowship for Graduate Study at the TESOL International Convention and English Language Expo.
I highly recommend graduate students attend national and international TESOL conferences where they can meet scholars in their areas of specialization. You can meet with them, have a meal together, and ask for their counsel on your research and career on several formal and informal occasions. You can gain a lot of practical advice and wisdom from senior and junior scholars who have gone through this process. So, please show initiative and talk to them. Sometimes, it only takes a conversation and a follow-up email to someone else to start collaborations, too. These professional activities have had a significant influence on my work.
Finally, tells us about your future plans in the field. What research and teaching projects are you going to be involved in?
At present, there is no validated EIL measurement scale. So, my collaborators and I developed EIL Scale (EILS) that is theoretically underpinned and empirically validated through exploratory factor analysis (EFA) and confirmatory factor analysis (CFA). This process generated a four-factor structure with 14 items. However, this new instrument has been validated only in a single country (i.e., South Korea), which limits its validity and applicability in other cross-cultural contexts. So, for future projects, we want to examine the factor structure of EILS among other EFL students and examine if EILS can be considered as a validated assessment tool for measuring EIL competence in broader cross-cultural contexts.
In addition, my recent studies (Lee & Dressman, In press; Lee, Accepted) investigated the relationship between the quality of IDLE activities used by Korean university EFL learners and their English outcomes. It was found that a diverse use of IDLE activities by participants contributed to greater willingness to communicate (WTC) online and higher productive vocabulary scores. But we want to further explore the relationship between different language outcomes such as English writing and reading abilities and IDLE activities. We also want to delve deeper into how personal sources of variance such as students’ majors, study abroad experiences, or family socioeconomic status may affect the English learning outcomes in relation to IDLE activities.
Dressman, M., Lee, J. S., & Sabaoui, M. A. (2016). Paths to English in Korea: Policies, practices, and outcomes. English Language Teaching. 28(1), 67-78.
Lee, J. S., Nakamura, Y., & Sadler, R. (2017). Effects of videoconference-embedded classrooms (VEC) on learners’ perceptions toward English as an international language (EIL). ReCALL. doi:10.1017/S095834401700026X
Lee, J. S & Dressman, M. (In press). When IDLE hands make an English workshop: Informal digital learning of English and language proficiency. TESOL Quarterly.
Lee, J. S. (Accepted) Informal digital learning of English (IDLE) and second language vocabulary outcomes: Can quantity conquer quality? British Journal of Educational Technology.
Matsuda, A. (Ed.). (2017). Preparing teachers to teach English as an international language. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.