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Discourse and identity in online language learning: A case study of a community college ESL classroom

Dissertation
Author: Yueh-Ching Chang
Abstract:
Focusing on the process of learner socialization among Second Language (L2) students, this dissertation investigates one key aspect of this socialization process--the role of student identities in a school-based online language learning activity. Although the integration of online technology is gaining popularity in L2 classrooms for developing L2 students' electronic literacy while cultivating their language skills, research in this area has seldom considered the issue of identity in relation to L2 students' participation and interactional patterns in formal online language learning. Drawing on Gee's theory of Discourse and identity, which conceptualizes identity as multiple, dynamic, and contextually situated, the study asked three research questions: (a) what are the dominant norms and values that the institution attempts to socialize the ESL students into, (b) how do the diverse discourses that L2 students participate in within their life worlds shape their development of student identity at school, and (c) how do ESL students enact their social identities through their discursive practices of online language learning, and how is such identity enactment related to the dominant values of the institution and the discourses students participate in within their life worlds outside school. Using a qualitative approach that included discourse analysis, the researcher explored a case-study community college ESL classroom that incorporated online discussion forums. Data included records of class and on-line participation for six focal students as well as interviews with these students, their instructor and the department administrator, and institutional documents. Data analysis showed that students' investment in school-based language learning activities was mediated by the social identities with which they affiliated. Furthermore, situated in an institution that highlighted Academic Discourse, the students each negotiated this discourse in their own way, recreating the interactional dynamics and role expectations underwritten by the dominant discourse of the college. The study suggests that L2 students' language practices in school-based online language learning need to be understood in a holistic institutional/instructional context with reference to students' identities inside and outside school and the human agency that L2 student draw on in learning and using their L2 in different learning contexts.

Table of Contents Chapter 1: Introduction Background to the study…………………………………………………………………2 Research Questions and Outline of the Dissertation…………………………………….6 Chapter 2: Discourse, Identity, and Second Language Learning Literacy, Discourse and Identity………………………………………………………..10 Recognition and Discourses……………………………………………………………12 Political Complications of Discourses…………………………………………………14 Social Languages and Identity Construction…………………………………………..17 Second Language Learning and Identity Construction………………………………..21 Language and identity construction within the context of classroom……………..23 Institutional influences on identity construction in classrooms…………………...29 Identity construction in the everyday life world outside the classroom ………….33 Toward a Nested-context Perspective on Identity in Online Language Learning…….40 Chapter 3: Studying Discourse and Identity in Online Language Learning Design of the Research………………………………………………………………..42 Selection of Case-study Classroom and Focal Students………………………………44 Sources of Data………………………………………………………………………..48 Participant observation in classroom meetings……………………………………49 Participant observation in the class online forums………………………………..50 Interviews…………………………………………………………………………51 Document collection………………………………………………………………54

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Impact of the Researcher’s Social Identities on the Research…………………………54 Data Analysis…………………………………………………………………………..57 Thematic analysis………………………………………………………………….57 Discourse analysis…………………………………………………………………59 Overview of the Case-study Classroom and the Focal Students………………………61 The institution………………………………………………………………………61 The class…………………………………………………………………………….64 WebBoard in Ms. Jones’s Level Four ESL Block…………………………………..66 The focal students…………………………………………………………………..67 Comment………………………………………………………………………………..81 Chapter 4: Discourse in Context: Rose Hill College and Ms. Jones’ Level Four ESL Class Rose Hill College as a Transfer-focused Community College…………………………83 The Academic Discourse for ESL at Rose Hill College………………………………..92 Curriculum Enacted in Ms. Jones’ Level Four ESL Block Class………………………99 Molding students into stylistic structure…………………………………………..100 Socializing ESL students into the student dispositions that were assumed valued in U.S. college classroom…………………………………………………………….114 Nurturing the American cultural frame……………………………………………123 Conclusion……………………………………………………………………………..135 Chapter 5: The Community College ESL Students Students’ Perception of Education and Future Opportunities………………………….140

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Students with the academic goal of getting transferred……………………………141 Students with non-academic goals…………………………………………………156 Students’ Investment in English Language Learning………………………………….169 Students’ conformity to Academic Discourse……………………………………..171 Students’ accommodation of their prior language and culture in classroom discourse…………………………………………………………………………..177 Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………….185 Chapter 6: Students’ Identity Online Ms. Jones’ perception of the WebBoard………………………………………………189 The Students’ Identity Enactment in the WebBoard…………………………………..199 Students’ enactment of the student identity……………………………………….200 Students’ enactment of peer identity……………………………………………...210 Students’ enactment of life world identity………………………………………...219 Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………….234 Chapter 7: Conclusion Implications for Research……………………………………………………………..246 Implications for Educational Practices………………………………………………..250 Limitation of the study………………………………………………………………..254 Coda…………………………………………………………………………………..255 References …………………………………………………………………………...257 Appendix Transcription Convention …………………………………………………………….266

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List of Tables Table 1: Selection of Focal Students …………………………………………………48 Table 2: Synopsis of the Focal Students ……………………………………………..67 Table 3: Numbers of Threads the Focal Students Posted in the WebBoard …………204 Table 4: Sample Discourse from the Focal Students’ Online Written Texts…………229

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List of Figures Figure 1: The ESL Sequence at RHC ………………………………………………62 Figure 2: The ESL Blocks at RHC ………………………………………………….63

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Chapter 1 Introduction Computers have been used to assist language learning since the 1960s (Bultler- Pascoe & Wiburg, 2003; Fotos & Browne, 2004; Warschauer & Meskill, 2000). In earlier decades, computers were mainly perceived as tools for drilling language learners in accurate linguistic forms through working with multimedia software, or as resources for learners’ desktop publishing through working with word processors or concordancers. The rapid development and spread of networked technologies in the mid 90s, however, have propelled the use of computers in language classrooms into a new landscape. Networked computers now assist language learning mainly through engaging learners in online communication 1 , including World Wide Web authoring and browsing, and diverse forms of computer-mediated-communication, such as email correspondence, threaded discussion forums, and online chatting (Warschauer, 2001). This integration of online communication into language curricula has been drawing language teachers’ attention. Online communication brings language learners into live interaction with other human beings, such as teachers, peers, or unknown audiences at a distance. Such interaction is consonant with the prevailing sociocognitive view of language learning, which assumes that language development results from learners’ language use in social interactions with

1 Drawing frorm Warschauer (2001), I use the term “online communication” to refer to any acts of reading, writing, and communication via networked computers. The term encompasses a) synchronous computer- mediated communication whereby people communicate in real time via Internet chat or discussion software, such as Daedalus Interchange, with all participants at their computers at the same time, b) asynchronous computer-mediated communication whereby people communicate in a delayed fashion by computer, such as e-mails or electronic discussion board, and c) the reading and writing of online documents via the World Wide Web. I use the term “online language learning” to refer to language curricula and instruction that encompass any forms of online communication. Particularly, the term “online language learning” emphasizes thinking beyond the immediate context of online communication and encompasses the broader sociocultural contexts where online communication is embedded to engender language learning.

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others in authentic contexts or for meaningful life tasks (Kern & Warschauer, 2000). Online communication, therefore, is perceived as a valuable tool to enable learners’ language use in context. In addition, the various forms of online communication have now penetrated into our daily life, making it impossible to learn a language without learning the linguistic practices of these new communication genres, and language teachers are attempting to socialize learners into these new communication genres through situating learners in the practices of online communication in their classrooms (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro & Cammack, 2004; Warschauer, 2004). In order to better understand how students socialize into these new genres, this dissertation explores this socialization process, focusing on a key aspect of such socialization, students’ identities as constructed and displayed as they interact in online language learning. Background to the Study Although networked computers have reinforced the teaching and learning of second/foreign (L2/FL) languages within classrooms, the research on computer-assisted language learning, in particular research on how the contextual features of such teaching and learning (e.g., the existing culture of the studied institution, the particular ecology of the studied classroom, the pervasive social norms and cultural values of institution, classroom, and students, students’ roles and identities in relation to these, and so on) shape and become shaped by social interaction in online communication is only recently becoming a central consideration. In earlier decades, L2/FL researchers focused more on the quantity and quality of learners’ language productions in their interaction with peers and teachers via networked computers to sort out participant structures, discourse

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functions, and syntactic complexities in computer-mediated discourse. Their analyses, however, failed to take contextual features into account, and therefore yielded only a partial picture regarding the integration of networked computers in language classrooms. For example, a number of studies (Chun, 1998; Davis & Thiede, 2000; Kern, 1995; Markley, 1998; Sullivan, 1998; Sullivan & Pratt, 1996) quantitatively compared the amount of teacher and student participation in computer-mediated-discourse with that in traditional face-to-face classroom discourse. Their findings indicate a more balanced participation among students and more student participation than teacher’s talk in computer-mediated discourse. On the basis of these findings, online communication is said to stimulate student-to-student interaction, facilitate more democratic participation, and decrease teacher control in the classroom, and therefore has the potential to transform traditional teacher-centered classroom dynamics. In addition, some studies (Abrams, 2001; Chun, 1998; Kern, 1995; Pellettieri, 2000) found that in online communication, L2/FL learners produced more lexically and syntactically complex sentences, took more varieties of participant roles (e.g., informant, challenger, supporter and joker), and used a wider variety of discourse functions (e.g., initiating and expanding on topics, asking for clarification and giving feedback on peers’ messages)—which are rarely seen in the face- to-face oral discourse of L2/FL classrooms. Other researchers (Markley, 1998; Warschauer, 1999) adopted qualitative approaches to examine L2 learners’ discourse in online communication and found that in addition to more learner-centered classroom dynamics, online communication served as a site to facilitate social interaction between students by offering mutual supports to their language learning experience. For example,

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Warschauer (1999) found that in a synchronous threaded discussion conducted in a university-level ESL academic writing class, foreign born L2 learners discussed not just the topic assigned by the teacher, but also the academic difficulties and frustration they encountered in their lives as university students, such as linguistic barriers and alienation from the school environment. As most of the aforementioned studies adopted a product-oriented approach, focusing on the skills and content acquired regardless of the learning process, to the study of online discourse in L2/FL classrooms, learners’ online discourse was interpreted as isolated text, independent of connections to the institutional and instructional contexts where online communication was embedded, or the broader sociocultural contexts where learners were situated. In addition, participants in online communication have tended to be perceived as unitary, faceless language learners/teachers, with the variations of individual learner/teacher disregarded. As Kern and Warschauer (2000) state, “To understand the full impact of new forms of interacting in the language classroom, we must look beyond the texts of interaction to the broader contextual dynamics that shape and are shaped by those texts.” (p.15) In a review of the research in online language learning, Kern, Ware and Warschauer (2004) noticed that a second wave of research in online language learning has been attempting to fill in the contextual gap by paying attention to particular practices of online language use, described and analyzed in terms of how specific sociocultural contexts shape or are shaped by learners’ online activities. For example, studying ESL students’ participation in web-based discussion boards and chat rooms in their first-year university writing course, Ware (2004) found that how

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students make meaning of their participation in online writing conferences did not necessarily correspond with the teacher’s instructional goals. Although many of the students in her study indeed were writing prolifically, they were just adding words to the computer screen to complete the instructors’ tasks, not necessarily engaged in active social interaction with their online peers as previous research suggested would occur. Shin’s (2006) qualitative case study, investigating a group of university ESL students’ construction of the context of their synchronous online chatting, showed that not every learner participating in this online communication was engaged in the same learning process. Each student’s ways of using the tools and interacting with peers or the teacher in online communication involved social and cultural practices that were developed in other discourse communities beyond the classroom. The new wave of research in online language learning suggests that online communication is not independent of the larger sociocultural contexts where L2/FL learners are situated nor is online communication insulated from the instructional settings where the online learning activity is embedded. Teachers’ instructional goals and the diverse arrays of linguistic and cultural backgrounds that learners bring with them appear to affect how learners perceive the value of a particular form of online communication implemented in the language classroom and, therefore, shape the interactional patterns observed in a particular online communication and the kind of learning context that gets constructed online. Despite the fact that recent studies in online language learning have taken into account some of the contextual features that shape learners’ interactional patterns online

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and the values they give to their participation in online learning activities, there is a dearth of research that systematically investigates the key aspect of identity construction in relation to L2 learners’ social interaction in school-based online language learning events. From a sociocultural perspective, learning takes place through social interaction with other human beings. Consequently, learning, especially language learning, necessarily involves learners’ identity construction, that is, becoming a member, a kind of person/participant in a social community (Rogoff, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978; Wenger, 1998). Through participation in social interaction and cultural practices, human beings construct who they are, give meaning to what they do, and understand what they know. Learning, therefore, embodies the process of identity construction― “choosing what to know and becoming a person for whom such knowledge is meaningful” (Wenger, 1998, p.273). Hence, as L2 researchers attempt to understand the full impact of new forms of interacting in the language classroom, it is central to our understanding to take the issue of identity construction into consideration, asking how L2 learners, referring to their sense of self, make meaning of their participation in online language learning, and what role learners’ identities play in shaping their learning experiences in the classroom. Research Questions and Outline of the Dissertation Given the pivotal role that identity plays in one’s learning process, this dissertation attempts to fill in the gap of online language learning by closely examining how L2 students construct and enact their identities when they participate in social interaction in online language learning and how such construction shape and is shaped by the broader sociocultural contexts where the students are situated. Specifically, the study was guided

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by the following research questions: What are the dominant norms and values that the institution and the instructor attempt to socialize the ESL students into? How do the students respond and react to the norms and values upheld by the institution? How do the diverse discourses that ESL students participate in within their life worlds shape their development of student identity at school? How do ESL students enact their social identities through their discursive practices of online language learning? How is such identity enactment related to the dominant values of the institution and the discourses students participate in within their life worlds outside school? To answer the above questions, I drew from a sociocultural perspective on language and language learning to examine six community college students’ learning experience in a case-study ESL classroom where an online discussion board is integrated into the formal ESL curricula. The study was able to show that, situated in a community college that emphasized academics in the service of fostering student transfer to four-year universities, the ESL curriculum enacted in the case-study classroom functioned to socialize the students into the kind of Academic Discourse seen to be valued at the college, inviting them to acquire a specific combination of saying-being-doing-and- valuing that proffered them an academic identity assumed to be valued in North American academia. Despite the academically-focused context, however, the students drew from the social practices and cultural norms valued in their homes and communities to construct the kind of student identity they desired to align with at school and to make it

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through the ESL course. Rather than exclusively assimilating into the academic identity that the college/instructor sought to socialize them into, the students participated in Academic Discourse only as it suited them. Further, it was online participation that helped them shape their own multiple discourses, developing and using English in varied useful ways outside the Academic Discourse that the instructor promoted. Below, I briefly outline how I will lay out the study in the subsequent chapters of the dissertation. In chapter 2, I focus on the theoretical underpinnings of this study. I discuss Gee’s theory of Discourse and identity in detail, looking into how Gee conceptualizes the notion of Discourse as an identity kit that one draws on to furnish oneself as a certain kind of person. I suggest that Gee’s theory provides an ideal theoretical lens for the study of ESL students’ identity construction in school-based online language learning because this theory, while perceiving identity as constructed in local interaction through the use of social languages, also recognizes the interpretive system of the broader sociocultural and historical contexts in shaping the local construction of identity, and recognizes as well the role of human agency in negotiating with competing life world Discourses. Gee’s theory, hence, allows me to investigate identity construction in online language learning without dismissing the influence of broader contexts on the interactional patterns and discursive practices locally constructed online. In this chapter, I also review research literature that draws on a sociocultural perspective on L2 learning to investigate the process of identity construction within classrooms, factors that shape such construction, and the impact of identity construction on the process or outcomes of L2 learning. Chapter 3 lays out the research design of the study, processes of data collection, data

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sources, and analytical methods. It provides a rationale for using qualitative case-study and discourse analysis as methodological and analytical frameworks for the study of Discourse and identity in online language learning. Furthermore, I give a narrative description of the college, the case-study classroom and the focal students to provide readers with an account of the researched site and participants of the study. In Chapter 4, I provide an analytical account of the institutional and instructional contexts in which the case-study classroom is situated, delving into the dominant value system of the community college. In Chapter 5, I portray the focal students’ identities inside and outside the college. I discuss how the focal students perceived themselves as students learning ESL in the college, and how they drew from the social practices and cultural norms of their life worlds outside college to construct their college goals, respond to the kind of student identity that the college invited them to take on, and make meaning of ESL learning in the classroom. In Chapter 6, I map out the roles that the focal students enacted in their classroom’s online discussion board, linking these to the kind of student identities they desired to position themselves in within broader classroom and non-classroom contexts. In the concluding chapter, Chapter 7, referring back to the research questions I asked at the outset of this study, I summarize and discuss findings of the study in light of related research and scholarly work. I also suggest significance and implications that this study brings to future research and practice in L2 learning online and to issues of L2 identity.

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Chapter 2 Discourse, Identity, and Second Language Learning To examine the relationship between L2 learners’ social interaction and identity construction in on-line language learning, I draw on sociocultural theories of language, both oral and written. Specifically, I suggest that Gee’s theory of Discourse and Identity is an ideal theoretical frame to examine L2 learners’ identity work in online language learning and its relation to broader contexts where L2 learners situated. In this chapter, I first illustrate how Gee’s notion of Discourse closely ties one’s literacy practices--the use of oral and written languages--to his/her identity work, which is conceptualized as discursively constructed in local interaction while recognizing the local construction as contextually situated within broader social and historical backgrounds. Then, looking into literature on identity and second language learning, I suggest Gee’s theory of Discourse and identity will corroborate our current understanding of identity and second language learning, in general, and ESL students’ identity construction in online language learning, in specific. Literacy, Discourse and Identity Literacy is often commonly assumed to mean decontextualized and isolatable skills of written language use, that is, reading and writing as simple decoding and encoding of text. However, sociocultural scholars of literacy (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; Heath, 1994/2001; Scribner & Cole, 1981/2001; Street, 1995) have shown that literacy is not a neutral or technical skill but is closely related to “ideological practice, implicated in power relations and embedded in specific cultural meanings and practices” (Street, 1995,

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p.1). From this perspective, the forms and functions of language use depend on the social practices that written or oral languages mediate and the preferred cultural norms valued in a particular speech community. That is, any act of language use is influenced by the prevailing beliefs, practices, and social relationships in particular social or cultural groups. Elaborating on theories of language and literacy as sociocultural practice, Gee (1996; 1989/2001; 2001; 2002) argues that one’s use of language 2 does not just mediate activities within social practices, but also mediates different socially and historically situated identities within different sociocultural practices. The notion of Discourse with a capital D is essential in understanding Gee’s theory of language use and identity. Extending conventional notions of discourse (with a lower case d) as language in use, Gee conceives Discourse as: a socially accepted association among ways of using language, other symbolic expressions, and ‘artifacts’, of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or ‘social network’, or to signal (that one is playing) a socially meaningful ‘role’ (1996, p. 131) In other words, a Discourse is a combination of semiotic, material, and expressive resources which act as an “identity kit” (1989/2001, p.526) to frame one’s actions and talk so as to take on a particular social role that others will recognize. The person thus acquires the membership of a particular social group or social network. For example, being a student in U.S. universities involves not only speaking or writing in

2 By language use, Gee refers to both oral and written language practices, rather than restricting his meaning to the reading and writing of written text.

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grammatically correct English, but also embodies the socially acceptable ways of being a student and doing “studenting” in U.S. culture, such as writing to appropriate genres that are recognized and valued by the university (Bartholomae, 1986; Ivanic, 1998), demonstrating acceptable interactional routines with faculty or peers (Gee, 2002), and using tools and technologies in particular ways to accomplish academic or social tasks (Kern, 2000; Warschauer, 1999). In other words, language and literacy learning are about acquiring distinctive ways of saying-being-doing-and-valuing that allow people to enact and/or recognize a specific social identity in social institutions other than one’s primary Discourse—the home-based socialization that one acquires early in life. Gee calls the Discourses of the non-home-based social institutions (e.g. religious groups, community organizations, schools, businesses, or nations) secondary Discourses (1996, p.143). From Gee’s point of view, language and literacy learning are more than the acquisition of a set of decontextualized grammatical rules, but the mastery of or fluent control over a secondary Discourse, that is, acquiring ways of saying-being-doing-and-valuing in the various non-home based social institutions so as to become a member of them. Literacy, therefore, is always plural―literacies―because there are many secondary Discourses and people all have some and fail to have others. Recognition and Discourses Since Gee defines a Discourse as a distinctive combination of saying-being-doing- and-valuing that one uses to enact a certain social role, a central issue is how and by whom a particular combination is to be recognized. That is, human beings must see each other in certain ways if there are to be identities of any sort. A combination is recognized

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in a certain way because, for social and historical reasons, there are people who recognize such combinations in certain ways. In Gee’s term, there is always a certain interpretive system that guides people’s recognition process. He asserts: One cannot have any identity of any sort without some interpretive system underwriting the recognition of that identity. The interpretive system may be people’s historically and culturally different views of nature; it may be the norms, traditions, and rules of institutions; it may be the discourse and dialogue of others; or it may be the workings of affinity groups. What is important about identity is that almost any identity trait can be understood in terms of any of these different interpretive systems. (2000-2001, p.107- 108) Thus, some interpretive systems (e.g., institutional norms, taken-for-granted cultural beliefs, common sense gender behaviors, etc.) must be at work, guiding people to recognize a certain combination in one way rather than others—for example, recognizing a combination as saint rather than mental patient. Furthermore, Gee (2000-2001) argues that interpretive systems that underwrite people’s recognition process are not universal or static, but varied by social and historical contexts. That is, “at one period of history, or in one society, certain combinations result in recognition of a certain sort, while at a different period of history, or in a different society, the same combination would be unrecognizable or recognized differently.” (Gee, 2000-2001, p.110). For example, the combination that get one recognized as a saint in the medieval church would, today, in many places, get one recognized as a mental patient. In

Full document contains 280 pages
Abstract: Focusing on the process of learner socialization among Second Language (L2) students, this dissertation investigates one key aspect of this socialization process--the role of student identities in a school-based online language learning activity. Although the integration of online technology is gaining popularity in L2 classrooms for developing L2 students' electronic literacy while cultivating their language skills, research in this area has seldom considered the issue of identity in relation to L2 students' participation and interactional patterns in formal online language learning. Drawing on Gee's theory of Discourse and identity, which conceptualizes identity as multiple, dynamic, and contextually situated, the study asked three research questions: (a) what are the dominant norms and values that the institution attempts to socialize the ESL students into, (b) how do the diverse discourses that L2 students participate in within their life worlds shape their development of student identity at school, and (c) how do ESL students enact their social identities through their discursive practices of online language learning, and how is such identity enactment related to the dominant values of the institution and the discourses students participate in within their life worlds outside school. Using a qualitative approach that included discourse analysis, the researcher explored a case-study community college ESL classroom that incorporated online discussion forums. Data included records of class and on-line participation for six focal students as well as interviews with these students, their instructor and the department administrator, and institutional documents. Data analysis showed that students' investment in school-based language learning activities was mediated by the social identities with which they affiliated. Furthermore, situated in an institution that highlighted Academic Discourse, the students each negotiated this discourse in their own way, recreating the interactional dynamics and role expectations underwritten by the dominant discourse of the college. The study suggests that L2 students' language practices in school-based online language learning need to be understood in a holistic institutional/instructional context with reference to students' identities inside and outside school and the human agency that L2 student draw on in learning and using their L2 in different learning contexts.