January 1997 — Volume 2, Number 3
Taking Stock: Assessing Five Years of Internet in the EFL/ESL Classroom
Janet Sutherland, Forum Editor
The following discussion began as a week-long (8-14 September 1996) conversation on the TESL-L branch list dedicated to CALL-related concerns, TESLCA-L. Originally, it appeared under the subject heading “5 Years of Internet Pedagogy” but as the discussion suggests, it may well be premature to suggest anything as systematic or coherent as a pedagogy where our use of the Internet in ESL/EFL teaching is concerned. We are still exploring — the technology as well as its effective use in the classroom. Our initial enthusiasm has been tempered by experience; the list of disappointments includes e-mail exchanges that fall short of our expectations, long waits while Web pages are being downloaded, and time-outs that break the connection just as we start to search the online catalog of a distant library. Occasionally, the technology is available or within easy reach, but policymakers or administrators refuse to let us or our students make use of it. Then again, some of us work in parts of the world where full Internet access is hard to come by or is reserved for others’ use. The obstacles can be daunting. But despite the difficulties, we continue to learn from our mistakes, developing strategies that work, and that work around the shortcomings of the Net.
We are learning that — unlike some earlier technologies which reputedly have been used more often than not as “add-ons” or enhancements to prevailing pedagogies — the Internet can be an integral component in a learner-centered, project-oriented, constructivist pedagogy.
Here, then, is the edited text of our stock-taking. Where it seemed appropriate and feasible, I have cut and pasted to bring together for the linear reader those parts of individual messages that address a single aspect of the whole. Sometimes this meant altering the order in which individual statements were made, but I have resisted otherwise “mucking about” with anyone’s words but my own (which I confess I occasionally used as grout to hold things[-1-] together). Incidentally, this turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated, since participants often responded to more than one previous post in a single message. The result may be more chunky than one would wish, but the alternative of simply reprinting the postings as they appeared in my mailbox does not seem to me to capture the richness of the conversation as I experienced it. As often happens in such Listserv groups, parallel conversational “threads” with new subject headings appeared during our focussed discussion — bits and pieces of which were nevertheless directly relevant to our 5-year stock-taking.
To make it easier to distinguish between my editorial interpolations and comments I made during the discussion, the former are identified as “Forum” and the latter as Janet Sutherland.
Janet Sutherland: As we begin our discussion, I’d like to ask each of you to indicate briefly how you got involved with using Internet resources professionally and to summarize the ways in which you have used these resources, perhaps indicating some of the high and low points along the way.
In my case, the story began in 1991, when a couple of my computer science students taught me how to use electronic mail and presented me with an inch-thick printout listing all the electronic discussion groups in the world. For several months I lurked and learned. Along with 18,000 others around the world, I took part in Richard J. Smith’s e-mail Internet course, “Navigating the Internet: An Interactive Workshop,” which covered the then-available services (telnet, FTP, gopher, Archie, Veronica, WAIS) and resources (online conferences and databases, ERIC, CARL, OCLC, etc.). At the time I think I was one of four e-mail users at our institution. When the wife of a visiting professor suggested one of her colleagues in the German department at Mesa Community College (Arizona, USA) might be interested in doing some kind of e-mail exchange with my students, I more or less jumped at the chance.
Since then, e-mail exchanges and “one-off” projects, list-based learning circles, large-scale distributed simulations and Web-based activities (creating learning webs, information mining, etc.) have been added to my teaching repertoire.
The high point, if I were to choose one, was being able to facilitate a team of polytechnic students who took part in the Project IDEALS simulations.
What made it especially memorable was the extent to which we were able to do what had previously been not only not been done, way students from three different countries and a half-dozen different disciplines (microsystem technology, computer science, mathematics, mechanical engineering, business administration, and social work) pooled their talents to a number of things they had never imagined[-2-] they could do: produce a weekly, English-language news magazine that reported and commented on the simulation’s treaty negotiations; define the roles they and their teacher/facilitator would take; defy the polytechnic’s tradition of keeping students in the various disciplines neatly compartmentalized according to semester and major; learn from — and be impressed by — each other and other teams around the world, across barriers of age, gender and culture.
Rather than singling out this or that Internet “low” point over these five years, I’d like to suggest several areas where my colleagues and I have miscalculated, misunderstood, or misjudged some aspect of our joint undertaking.
— Technology: We have often underestimated the ways in which introducing the Internet into the classroom could complicate our lives, whether through ill-timed malfunctions, steeper than anticipated learning curves, or rethinking our roles to include Internet know-how transfer. In addition, we have often miscalculated the affective impact of the technology on our students (irresistibly, even addictively “sexy” for some, intimidating or terrifying for others). Often we are so keen on using all the technological resources we have that we plan “high-end” projects that automatically exclude many potential partners.
— Collaborative work: Here, again, we often seriously underestimate the importance of building relationships — and the time and attention it takes to build those relationships, both among the participating faculty and among the students involved. We forget that many of our students have little or no experience with any form of written correspondence, and that those who have had penpals tend to impose their “penpal” expectations on their “e-pal” correspondents.
— Classrooms and learning: In this area, experience has been a good teacher for those who have paid attention. As Simon Sergeant noted recently,
…I tend to spend more time on learner training in class making sure students understand the purpose of an activity, what they need to do, etc. and after-wards eliciting what has been learned and dealing with any problems, then summarising individual learning so that it becomes the collective property of the other students.
On those occasions when we have tried to fit the Internet into existing lesson plans without adjusting and adapting along the way, the old and the new tend to rub and push against each other like the two sides of a geologic fault.
Anthea Tillyer: I started using the Internet with students in [late] 1991. I only used email, doing a lot of penpal stuff. Although there was wild enthusiasm for it among the students, I fairly soon gave up [-3-] penpal arrangements because I found that the whole activity took more time than was justified by the amount of language improvement I could see. I guess, then, that one of the things I have learned is not to be dazzled by student excitement and enthusiasm, to try to step back and evaluate all the activities by how much learning is going on – hard to judge sometimes.
David Tillyer: I, too, have been using Email and other Internet facilities over the past five years. In fact, one of my earliest exchanges was with Janet Sutherland.
Unstructured Email exchanges don’t work. I have come to the conclusion that, without an assignment (a goal), Email exchanges are an exercise in frustration. Not only should both ends of the exchange have an assignment, the assignments should have equal weight. If one class has no assignment while the other class has a gradable assignment, students in the first class will abandon the project as soon as their schedule fills up around mid-term or shortly thereafter and the other class will be left high and dry with no partner and no resources. Both teachers in a partnership need to understand this before they begin.
Janet Sutherland: How right you are, David! About the only kind of “unstructured” exchange I’m willing to do these days is a bilingual one, where both parties act as learners and peer teachers. With good facilitating at the beginning, those can work quite well.
Surprisingly, with well-planned exchanges, it doesn’t seem to matter whether both groups are working on the same assignment — or even studying the same subject. What’s important is that the working relationship be balanced, that the expectations on both sides be commensurate, and that the two teachers have similar levels of commitment. Just as one student can’t be expected to keep a correspondence going without any feedback from his/her partner, one teacher can’t reasonably be expected to do all the organizing, troubleshooting, mentoring required to develop enough momentum to keep things rolling. In cyberspace, as on the dance floor, it takes two…
Deborah Healey: At the English Language Institute we’re divided about how much value there is in students’ exchanging friendly letters in fractured English (thought of as possibly interlanguage but more often as romanized Arabic/ Thai/Japanese etc.). These are not homework-related messages, so they fall into the completely unstructured category.
We started with e-mail, since that was what our AppleTalk network would support. I had students in my advanced writing class set up a group address so they could e-mail their homework to me and each other. It was difficult to get them to do much peer commenting that went into any depth at all, in large part because I was still [-4-]
trying to get the tasks set up clearly and compellingly enough. There were times when it seemed like no one was writing to anyone but me, though it may have been that they simply weren’t cc’ing me with their messages to each other. That was a few years ago. I’m hoping for better luck this coming term, since I’ll have more specific tasks and the students will be old hands with e-mail.
Anthea Tillyer: I think that I used to have a sort of “missionary position” with regard to the internet:-) I thought I would save the world with it and that Internet stuff was THE ANSWER to student motivation and, therefore, learning. But, like Janet, I have seen that some students simply do not like doing stuff with computers and that we have to be sensitive to that. They won’t learn if they are forced to use a particular “method” all the time. The problem is that students often have a pretty steep learning curve – depending, of course, on the student and on the complexity of the local system – and once you have invested significant time in teaching this technology, you feel that you HAVE to continue with it. This means that students who are not comfortable with technology or can’t learn that way spend more time on the computer than is fair to them.
As for activities that work: I find student research activities and reports are good. It means using the Internet in a way that cannot be replicated in a traditional library because the resources are so much more vast. I teach all the various resources – lists, newsgroups, gopher, ftp, WWW – and encourage my advanced students use all of them.
I think the net is good for task-based, project-based learning and teaching, particularly in teams or pairs. This is the only situation in which I now have students use email for a class activity (other than to write to me)… They correspond with their team mates when doing a project. They also write email to another class if we are doing a simulation.
Janet Sutherland: Anthea mentioned that her students write to her. Isn’t there significant payoff in using e-mail or chat programs to hold electronic office hours? Students can tell us what kind of feedback they would like (if any) on their correspondence. They are using at least three senses (visual, kinesthetic, and I’d bet auditory in most cases), they can read and write recursively, and so on. When I have been able to use some form of electronic conferencing, I have experienced a change in level and quality of interaction with my students, but I couldn’t document this empirically – I mean the kind of hard empirical evidence that could convince reticent school administrators that the “risks” of Internetworking are worth taking.
Pat Gooley: I agree with Anthea and Janet about using e-mail with students, but have no measurable results. I suppose I could have [-5-] one class submit a written exercise by e-mail; this is a university where everyone takes computer use courses. In general, though, I believe that free use of any language is beneficial, whether spoken or written. Koreans have a long history of rote work that makes it difficult for many to use anything they haven’t “patterned” already. When my students send e-mail, they are developing new skills, even if there are many mistakes at first.
David Tillyer: I find that I have a much closer relationship with my students now that they communicate with me by email. A student who will not open his mouth (another problem) in class, may be the one who will send me three or four messages a week. I have learned things about my students on Email that I never would have known in the three minutes while I’m gathering stuff up after class. I’m an adjunct professor, therefore, I’m not necessarily on campus when a student needs to talk to me. However, I’m always available to my students through Email.
I also have a small listserv list for my class. This is an interesting organism. It dies when there is no assignment or interesting discussion. It also turns out that the leaders on the list are more often than not the students who are the most silent in classroom discussion. This allows for broad participation in a healthy variety of ways.
Deborah Healey: I’m also seeing much more e-mail use by students, both for classes and for general correspondence. This has meant that they tend to keep up a correspondence with me (and possibly with some other students) after the class is over. I like that ongoing relationship, despite the fact that it means more time spent doing e-mail.
Lilliam Hurst: I have my students (on the BBS that is run by the Computer Centre) write me “Grammar Agony Aunt” letters, with (as David said) some very interesting turn-arounds: students who never speak INNUNDATING me with messages, pouring out their souls, with the certitude that I am going to respond to every single message. They can ask me questions about grammar, literature, general education, etc. I even helped one girl decide on her field of study after she left our school!
Janet Sutherland: What we seem to be saying is that electronic communication is especially attractive for those of us who are in some way “marginalized” – for students who are reluctant to speak up in class, for teachers who teach in several locations or who teach part-time and probably don’t have an office of our own except at home. While it increases our availability to our students, e-mail also has the distinct advantage of being non-intrusive. We read and respond when we can, and are probably more relaxed (?) and better able to respond effectively. [-6-]
Forum: While e-mail and related services (BBSs, Listserv lists) were the most frequently mentioned Internet applications, the World Wide Web and MOOs also figured in the discussion.
David Tillyer: The Web is useful for research and, even at a very low level, Web searches are great for spelling and accuracy. Give a dictation of a URL and students get immediate results…yeah or nay.
Deborah Healey: After we got the Ethernet network, Web use took off. Now I’m not the only one having students do research online. The most gratifying development in the last few years is that now all of our advanced and most of the intermediate writing teachers have incorporated the Internet into their classes in one way or another. People started with accessing the library books online, then went to the CD-ROM collection in the library (that took longer because the interface is distinctly unfriendly to Macs), and now to full Internet searches. “Boolean operators” have become part of the vocabulary in our writing classes–but it’s taken years to reach that point. We now discuss how to deal with the volume of dreck and spend more time talking with students about knowing one’s sources and thinking critically.
Anthea Tillyer: I never use the specific ESL sites because my style of teaching is whole-language and therefore lends itself to “authentic” texts, both on an off the net. One of the most successful “authentic” texts is the lyrics of songs available from the fan-club sites on the WWW. Students *LOVE* to do that. We can then sing them in class. I find that they get deeply into the words and analyze them carefully. I often hear snippets of songs in their speech and read it in their writing…so I know that this activity definitely causes language acquisition!
Pat Gooley: I am … working with a group of students producing the web site/home page for this university. The Korean version is done, but they need help with the English one. I am checking their material as they translate it to English, to offer improvements at the difficult spots.
David Tillyer: I’ve also used MOOs for class projects. This is very productive if managed carefully. As chat rooms, they’re useless, in my opinion. However, if there’s a whole-language activity that needs a meeting, they’re pretty useful.
Forum: Lilliam Hurst, List Manager of TESLCA-L, actually was among the first to join the discussion, but I have included her opening statement (or a good part of it) here, since she raises several new issues: the empowerment of our students, the significant time investment involved in Internetworking, the related questions of access, oversight, with its implications for policy-making and privacy. [-7-]
Lilliam Hurst: I started out with the AT&T Learning Network, in 1992, and was very gratified to observe the interest with which my students went at it. We took part in one Learning Circle that year, and I didn’t count all the time I was spending preparing material for them as overtime, so great was MY enthusiasm.
Both the colleague who introduced me to AT&T Learning Networks and I noticed that students – when writing for peers – were far more careful about avoiding what THEY viewed as “sloppy” writing. After all, when it was ONLY for me (viewed as THE JUDGE), they could get away with *almost* anything. But their peers, that was another matter altogether!
During the following year I organized two on-line conferences: one with students in Columbus, Ohio – Vero Beach, Florida and a high school in California, the name slips my mind. That was done in one of the conference rooms at the CompuServe Education Forum. The other one included headmasters, the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, and several other elected officials, as well as a group of politicians on our end.
That was also a lot of work, but oh, so gratifying. My students were the go-betweens language-wise, translating what the French-speaking politicians were saying for their peers on Columbus, reacting in English and translating back into French for the local participants, and so on.
Two years ago another group of students took part in a project which involved writing Bio-Poems with partners in California; again I saw great enthusiasm, and more writing than *I* had ever been ever to generate.
I found them more assured in their writing after all of the above experiences; I found them eager to put their best foot forward, and careful in their proofreading. I had students almost demanding that I re-read their writing, where before they might have viewed my corrections as invasive.
However, now: – I find that our access is becoming less assured. We do not have access to the WEB at the school where I teach (although they say we *might* in two years’ time), and I cannot even count on having internet (via telnet) access all the time. Which translates into not being able to follow through with all the exciting things I read about here. I cannot teach them to create Web pages because they haven’t got the WEB; I am not allowed to give them individual e-mail accounts, because our politicians believe this is a “waste of time”. I can see all the interesting things that would be possible, I quite admire Janet’s analysis of her situation; I only wish I were in a position to be able to analyse my own in a similar fashion. [-8-]
Janet Sutherland: It sounds as though the Neo-Luddites have the upper hand in Lilliam’s part of Switzerland — a bit odd, when you think of it, since it was a group of scientists at the Swiss research facility CERN that developed the Web in the first place. Of course, they intended it initially for internal use. Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to a suggestion that might help those with locally networked PCs but no (or extremely limited) Internet access.
Netscape and the other browsers don’t _have_ to be used in the Internet. There’s lots of talk these days about Intranets – local area networks that use the same programs to communicate and share resources _within_ an organization. Students write their reports and turn them into hypertext documents with links to others’ reports, images, sounds, and so on. The nice thing about the learning web that results is that it can grow and change with each successive group of students.
Forum: Intranet activities might be appropriate for those who have access to networked PC labs, but Paolo Rossetti has found other ways of using Net resources with his students.
Paolo Rossetti: My experience using Internet with my students is quite limited. So limited, in fact, that none of my students have Internet access.
Therefore I have only been able to tap into Internet resources from the perspective of a teacher seeking materials and ideas. And what a great tool this is! I have been able to bring to my students an abundance of authentic language relevant to their needs and interests; the language was all neatly typed (professional looking), easily formatted to suit the activity (cloze, etc.) and certainly beyond the reach of an Internet-less teacher (newspaper articles from any country, etc); it was cool, up-to-date materials that the students actually looked forward to and it was, of course, off the Internet!
Janet Sutherland: When I started using the Internet, the people “at the other end of the line” were by far the most valuable resource available, and I suspect that has affected my thinking and planning of projects in the past (i.e., I have tended to favor communication- intensive uses rather than “information mining”. But now, as Paolo rightly points out, there is a wealth of materials that can be downloaded and used as they fit into more traditional (meaning non- networked) settings.
Paolo Rossetti: I think that using the internet for materials and ideas gave me a great boost forward in my classroom. Even if it reached the students in a more traditional photocopied form, it gave them a little window of access to what is happening electronically around them. And I didn’t meet any of the get-the-students-used-to- computers problems mentioned on this thread so far.[-9-]
Forum: And, as Paolo suggests, a lack of full Internet access at all “endpoints” of an exchange need not mean the end of the project.
Janet Sutherland: I used to do a “mixed media” exchange where one group had e-mail access and the other didn’t (except for the teacher) at the Chamber of Commerce Continuing Education Center in Regensburg, which had no Internet connection but was willing to pay to fax all the letters my students wrote. It meant all incoming messages were channelled through my account, but it had the advantage of keeping me aware of how things were (or weren’t) going. While I agree with Anthea that tasks and projects help keep e-mail activities moving, I am not convinced that merely assigning a task as we might do in a traditional classroom (where the students presumably know pretty much what is expected of them) is sufficient, as long as the technologies we are using have not become as accustomed as pencils and books. I also wonder if there aren’t concrete ways in which we can increase the odds of having these projects be successful. One way is by doing pretty intensive follow-up during the first few weeks — helping the students get the feel for e-mail as opposed to other means of communication they are familiar with.
Forum: Toward the end of the week, the discussion turned philosophical:
Dan Kubilos: Silly isn’t it, how we load so many expectations onto one tool or one particular approach. CALL can’t do it all any more than the communicative approach can do it all.
The Myth of Internet technology as educational necessity helps get technology funded but it does have annoying side effects. I have heard people claim that without access to the net our K-12 students are condemned to jobs flipping burgers. Statements like these are hogwash.
The basic tools of education are speaking, listening, reading and writing. They always will be. I am a little perplexed as to why people view speaking, listening, reading and writing on a computer screen as somehow different.
A teacher uses a chalkboard. His students learn. The chalkboard is not very relevant.
A teacher uses the Web. His students learn. The Web is not very relevant.
Martin Holmes: It seems to me that it’s not the fact that we’re overly enamoured of technology that has hampered the effectiveness of both CALL and Internet for the language classroom, but the fact that we’re enamoured of *cutting edge* technology. Many people have made the point that there are some very useful DOS and 16-bit [-10-]
Windows programs still in use, as well as loads of Apple IIe material; meanwhile, the attention of the people with bucks to spend is usually on bells-and-whistles multimedia stuff which needs to run on fat expensive machines and can’t be adequately delivered over the Internet. It takes time for the teaching community to become familiar enough with any piece of technology to begin to create useful materials for it; then it takes much more time for a useful bank of materials to be built up, and the most effective ways of using the medium to emerge. Both CALL and Internet pedagogy are constantly prevented from achieving this kind of stable maturity by the sheer speed with which the technology evolves.
Other technological aspects of our classroom practice are relatively stable. I don’t know when the first overhead projector was put into a language classroom, but I do know that I have OHP transparencies I made five years ago, and when I use them today, students have no way of knowing that I didn’t make them yesterday. (One exception is colour transparencies printed on the inkjet, though!) Many exciting and effective ways of using the OHP have emerged in the past decade or more, and most teachers would feel that it’s part of their basic training to become familiar with them. Computers and the Internet are not like this at all.
It doesn’t seem that the rate of development or evolution is likely to slow very much, either; we can’t really look forward to a period when the world of computers remains technologically stable for a period of years. Given this, it seems to me that we are unlikely to be able to build up a stock of effective materials and methods unless we are prepared to do two things: first, insist on keeping older effective materials and technology in operation, upgrading them where possible, but refusing to be ashamed of using old tech where it’s effective; and second, identify those areas of the technology which are likely to remain stable for long periods of time and concentrate on them. An example of the second case might be HTML: anything we write in 1996 HTML will be readable, I think, by browsers or whatever replaces them in the year 2000, so if we spend some time concentrating on learning to use that particular medium effectively, we’ll have some skills and materials that will serve us well. On the other hand, standards for video and audio, both on stand-along computers and over the Internet, are so unstable that it would be unwise to invest our time in trying to produce materials which use them.
Janet Sutherland: Lest we be lulled into an excess of self- satisfaction as our stock-taking draws to a conclusion, I’d like to raise three more questions we ought to continue thinking about in the future.
1) As language teachers, we have a history of love affairs with technology — maybe “one-night stands” would be closer to [-11-] the point. The morning after, we wake up to discover we have spent a fair amount of money on technology and nobody is sitting in the lab using it. Is there any reason to expect computer and Internet technologies to be different? What justification is there for massive investments in computers and networking?
2) For several years it has seemed to me that the Internet has the potential of allowing relatively poor individuals and nations to share in perhaps the only resource that is not “used up” when it is consumed, not lost when it is given away: information. It seems — or seemed — that in one sense the playing field had been or was about to be somewhat levelled. That those who had access to and made good use of information would reap some benefits. Now I think there are technological AND cognitive thresholds that must be reached before one can benefit from Internet resources. What can or should we be doing to nourish the “equalizing” potential of the Net?
3) Finally (for the moment, at least), what can and should we be doing to help create and sustain the kinds of cyber- environments we want to share with our students?
Anthea Tillyer (quoting Sutherland): “we have a history of love affairs with technology”
Absolutely! So may I suggest that our list song be that wonderful old 60s girl-group classic — “Will you Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
Tongmyong University of Information Technology, Pusan
English Language Institute, Oregon State University
University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia
EFL/Eng Lit/CALL Facilitator
Bremen Post-Secondary Language Center (University of Bremen)
City University of New York
City University of New York
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