The Centre for English Corpus Linguistics (CECL, UCLouvain, Belgium) has an opening for a PhD fellowship for a total period of four years, starting 1 October 2020.

The position is part of a large multidisciplinary project that aims to investigate socio-cognitive conflicts in online educational platforms via the prism of several theoretical frameworks from the humanities and social sciences: “MOOCresearch2.0: A mixed-method and multidisciplinary approach to socio-cognitive conflicts in online educational platforms” (Prof. M. Frenay, Prof. F. Lambotte, Dr. Magali Paquot & Prof. V. Swaen). (Open) online education poses a variety of challenges for higher education, one of which is how to foster social interactions and induce beneficial socio-cognitive conflicts to promote learning in an environment where interactions are primarily written and asynchronous. In educational research, socio-cognitive conflicts are considered essential for progress and learning to take place: they are differences in point of view that are socially experienced and cognitively resolved. As put by Darnon, Buchs, & Butera (2002, p. 140), “confrontation with a partner creates a double imbalance. This imbalance is both social (inter-individual) because it is a discrepancy between two persons, and cognitive (intra-individual) because it makes each individual doubt about his/her own answer. (…) In order to coordinate the different points of view, a cognitive work emerges from this socio-cognitive conflict, leading to a more elaborate level of reasoning” (see for more info).

Online education is becoming increasingly popular but is mainly offered in English. Research in bilingual education and content and language integrated learning (CLIL) has shown that new disciplinary concepts are not acquired as well in the foreign language as in the first language. This is especially true for concepts that cannot be directly observed or related to what learners already know, and which comprehension largely relies on linguistic mediation (e.g. Babault & Markey, 2001), and for students with lower foreign language proficiency who find it almost impossible to describe disciplinary concepts in English (e.g. Airey, 2009). Studies have also shown that results of evaluative tasks performed in a foreign language are largely dependent on L2 proficiency (Ventura, 2016). If we transpose these findings to online education, and MOOCs more particularly (as they aim to increase access to education, cf. Rohs & Ganz, 2015), it seems particularly important to investigate whether non-native speakers find in discussion forums a place where to check comprehension, ask for clarification, and discuss concepts in social interactions.

The main objective of the PhD project will be to investigate the effect of language status (native speaker vs. learner) and language proficiency on negotiation of meaning and the unfolding of socio-cognitive conflicts in asynchronous forum discussion boards. The following questions will guide the research programme:

  • To what extent are non-native speakers present on forum discussions? What role do they take? How does this compare with native speakers’ presence and assumed roles?
  • To what extent do non-native speakers negotiate meaning with a view to resolve a misunderstanding due to language problems vs. content-related and cognitive problems?
  • To what extent do non-native speakers take part in the richer content-based interactions that can potentially give rise to socio-cognitive conflicts and learning?
  • To what extent does language proficiency impact non-native speakers’ online presence, the range of roles they assume, the type of discussions they are involved in, and the types of posts they write?

To answer the research questions, the candidate will rely primarily on techniques from corpus linguistics and natural language processing.

Job description:

The candidate will work under the supervision of Magali Paquot (CECL, Institute for Language and Communication). The candidate will be affiliated to the Institut Langage et Communication (ILC, UCLouvain) and be a member of the CECL.

The PhD candidate will also be working in a multidisciplinary environment with other researchers from the Social Media Lab (, the Interdisciplinary Research Group in Socialisation, Education and Training (GIRSEF,, the Center on Consumer Relations and Responsible Marketing (CERMA, and the Centre for Natural Language Processing (CENTAL,

Activities that the candidate will perform include:

  • develop and implement (i) theoretical concepts in line with the focus of the research project and (ii) appropriate methodological procedures for investigating these concepts;
  • extract relevant data from MOOC platforms with appropriate computational and NLP techniques (note that the PhD candidate will be expected to help other members of the team with data extraction and structuring)
  • conduct analyses of forum posts by L1 and L2 speakers of English;
  • interpret the results of the analyses and report on the project in conference presentations and academic publications;
  • by the end of the four-year term, submit and defend a PhD dissertation based on the project.

Requirements and profile:

–    Master degree in (Applied) Linguistics or Natural Language Processing, with a master thesis on a topic relevant to the project (note: a degree in English Linguistics is an asset, not a requirement);

–    excellent record of BA and MA level study;

–    excellent command of English,

–    good command of French is an asset but not required 

–    excellent and demonstrated analytic skills;

–    knowledge of corpus-linguistic techniques is a requirement

–    knowledge of statistics and statistical software is an asset;

–   programming skills in Perl or Python are also an asset (if no expertise in programming, the candidate should be willing to learn Python during the first year);

–    excellent and demonstrated self-management skills, ability and willingness to work in a team;

–    willingness to live in Belgium and to travel abroad (to attend international academic conferences, etc).

Terms of employment:

–    the contract will initially be for one year, three times renewable, with a total of four years.

–    the candidate receives a doctoral fellowship grant (starting at approx. EUR 1982 net per month) and full medical insurance.

–    the position requires residence in Belgium, preferably in or near Louvain-la-Neuve

–  applicants from outside the EU are responsible for obtaining the necessary visa or permits, with the assistance of UCLouvain staff department.

Application Deadline: Review of applications will begin on 1 August 2020, and continue until the position is filled

Please include with your application:

  • a cover letter in English, in which you specify why you are interested in this position and how you meet the job requirements outlined above;

–    a curriculum vitae in English;

  • a concise academic statement in French or English, in which you outline your expectations about and plans for graduate study and career goals;

–    a copy of BA and MA diplomas and degrees;

–    a copy of your master thesis and academic publications (if applicable);

–    the names and full contact details of two academic referees.

Shortlisted candidates will be invited for an interview (in situ or via video conferencing) in the second half of August 2020.

Applications (as an email attachment) and inquiries should be addressed to:

Dr. Magali Paquot                                                     

Centre for English Corpus Linguistics

Université Catholique de Louvain