December 2000 — Volume 4, Number 4
Weaving a Virtual Web: Practical Approaches to New Information Technologies
Sibylle Gruber (Ed.) (2000)
Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English
Pp. xxxi + 326
ISBN 0-8141-5649-5 (paper)
US $26.95 (NCTE members US $19.95)
Designing and Teaching an On-Line Course: Spinning Your Web Classroom
Heidi Schweizer (1999)
Boston: Allyn and Bacon
Pp. vi + 122
ISBN 0-205-30321-8 (paper)
Earlier this year, a colleague of mine enthusiastically described a software program she had seen demonstrated at the university where she teaches. This courseware program allows teachers to create their own class Web pages, manage student assignments and grades, set up bulletin boards, and communicate using e-mail, virtual bulletin boards, and chat. Some weeks later, I learned that my university, too, had adopted this courseware, and I attended an introductory session where the program was demonstrated. I was so impressed (and infected by my colleague’s enthusiasm) that the following morning I applied for and was given an access code to set up Web pages for my own courses.
A word about my computer background: I know how to surf the Web, send e-mail, do word processing, and play solitaire. Just recently, I have learned how to use instant messaging and to scan photographs. Whenever I need technical support, I turn to the experts: my 14-year-old daughter and my 12-year-old son. My point is that you do not need an extensive background in computer science in order to create Web pages and use the Internet and other multimedia in your classroom (you do not even need to know how to code in HTML, but it helps). In fact, I am certain that many of you in my audience reading this now are already more comfortable with computer technology than I am, and quite proficient in the use of advanced, even arcane programs and utilities.
But this brings us to another, more complicated and much more interesting question: How does the use of computer technology change the ways in which we “deliver” our courses to our students? Is the computer simply a tool such as the blackboard and the overhead projector? Or does the incorporation of multimedia and interactive technologies alter in some fundamental way the presuppositions, methods, and pedagogies we bring to our students? The two books discussed here address this question, along with many of its corollaries. Weaving a Virtual Web: Practical Approaches to New Information Technologies examines the theoretical, pedagogical, and practical aspects of using hypermedia technologies in the classroom, while Designing and Teaching an On-Line Course is a chatty, informal handbook which takes the novice through the steps of creating class Web pages. Together, these two books give the teacher who is interested in using this technology in the classroom the theoretical depth necessary to examine course goals and pedagogical objectives, as well as practical, hands-on suggestions for what works well in a class Web page. [-1-]
Weaving a Virtual Web is the more theoretical of the two books. In their forward to editor Sibylle Gruber’s collection of essays, Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe, the authors of the forthcoming Global Literacies and the World Wide Web (Hawisher & Selfe, in press), explain that although “highly practical,” this text “grounds itself deeply in the theory and pedagogy that have revolutionized writing and literacy instruction over the past few decades” (p. ix). These two teachers propose a series of questions which are associated with the use of technology in the classroom, among them questions of narrativity and representation on the Web; of private and public access; of the visual and the textual; of methods of communication between teachers and students on the Web; of Web literacies versus more conventional literacies, and so on. The essays in Weaving a Virtual Web, they contend, “offer teachers and students of composition studies, English studies, literacy, language arts, and many other disciplines a constellation of issues to explore” (p. xiii).
Weaving a Virtual Web is intended for both first-time users of the Web in the classroom, as well as for those teachers who have already had experience with this technology. In fact, as an overview of questions of literacy, production of meaning, and audience in general, it provides a clear and concise discussion of these important issues, which are undergoing a reevaluation in the age of the virtual world. When we introduce computer technology into the classroom and into our curriculum design, we do not simply adopt yet another classroom tool; rather, the environments which are then created, and into which we insert our students and ourselves, require that we closely reexamine the theoretical underpinnings of our teaching. Questions of who owns and creates classroom knowledge, and thus of power relations between teacher and student, are renegotiated in the virtual space. Even the fixed nature of the printed text itself is put into question once students start to read and write on the Web. The associative nature of the Web with its hypertext links makes us look carefully at the ideology of a linear narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Weaving a Virtual Web is divided into four broad sections, each of which contains essays contributed by various experts in a wide range of fields such as hypertext theory, composition studies, education, electronic publishing, and instructional technology. The authors of these twenty essays are all teachers who actively use the Web with their students; therefore, the theoretical aspects discussed in the essays are always closely linked to practical applications in the classroom. As if by means of practically demonstrating its point, the book is linked to a comprehensive Web site (http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~sg7/weaving/), which provides additional resources dealing with the topics discussed in the book, including links to professional journals such as Kairos (http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/). In fact, the existence of this Web site modifies somewhat this reviewer’s task, in that what used to be done primarily in print (e.g. describing the table of contents and organization of the book, etc.) can now be better achieved through the use of hypertext links. Thus, the authors’ contention that the once fixed nature of the text is now transformed through the use of associative hypertext is aptly demonstrated in a review such as this one. Readers can now see the table of contents for themselves (http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~sg7/weaving/TOC.html): the four sections (“Planning and Structuring Web-Enhanced Courses,” “Encouraging Research on and with the Web,” “Supporting Collaboration and Interaction,” “Publishing on the Web”) of the text are followed by an appendix which contains an extremely useful resource and reference essay for teachers who want to use the Web in their classes. [-2-]
While all of the essays are extremely thought-provoking and, I would dare to add, required reading for anyone teaching today, one essay in particular addresses the particular concerns of ESL professionals, if only in that it illuminates the use of the Web in the foreign-language classroom. In chapter 7, “Foreign Language Resources on the Web: Cultural and Communicative Wealth on the Wires,” authors Jean W. LeLoup and Robert Ponterio explain how the Web provides “ample opportunities to experience second language as it is spoken and written in the target cultures” (p. 91). LeLoup and Ponterio do not exaggerate when they write that teachers who use the Web “have a nearly inexhaustible source of authentic materials related to their focus of study” (p. 91). While their essay focuses on the use of the Web in the French language classroom (their Web site (http://snycorva.cortland.edu/~ponterior/civ/) provides some concrete examples), to say that Web-based resources available to teachers of ESL are abundant is an understatement. Based on my own brief experience using the Web as an integral part of my ESL teaching, I can say that the use of this technology increases the contact hours between student and the class material, between student and language, between one student and another (via chat and e-mail), and between the student and the teacher (as “virtual office hours” are possible using chat). As well, the students are able to follow links to sites which interest them, and even access audio and video materials for listening and pronunciation practice.
Heidi Schweizer’s Designing and Teaching an On-Line Course: Spinning Your Web Classroom is a practical handbook which is grounded in research in instructional technology. The book is aimed at both the novice and the experienced instructor, and provides helpful advice and detailed examples to assist in the development of a collaborative, performance-based on-line course. Features of the book include: a) examples from previous successful on-line courses; b) “It’s Your Turn” sections to give readers an opportunity to try their skills at developing and teaching an on-line course; c) “On-line Insights” that offer comments from previous on-line students; d) illustrations showing sample screens that will be viewed by the students; and e) answers by noted experts to FAQS (frequently-asked questions). Its nine chapters cover the following topics: “Demystifying the On-line Environment.” “Guideline for On-line Course Development,” “Creating Performance Based Assessments,” “Planning On-line Activities and Resources,” “Creating On-line Discussion Groups,” “Being a ‘Visible’ On-line Instructor,” “Technology, Evaluation and Visual Design,” and finally, “What Do the Experts Say?” An appendix covers technical issues such as the hardware and software required, course evaluation forms, and so on.
In an encouraging, almost chatty tone, Schweizer takes the instructor through a step-by-step process of setting up a course Web site. Some on-line courses, according to Schweizer are “poorly designed, pedagogically unsound, and amount to not much more than lecture notes or textbooks cut and pasted onto a Website” (p. 1). Schweizer proposes, then, that on-line courses take advantage of the capabilities of multi-media technology, and she proceeds to show the reader how to do so. [-3-]
The first step is to select the courseware, or software which is designed to deliver educational courses. While Schweizer’s book is based on her experience with an earlier version of LearningSpace (Lotus Development Corp., 2000), many other products are available. Teaching institutions often adopt one platform which all their teachers can use. Then the institution provides technical support and on-line or in-person workshops for both teacher and student. The most important aspect of the courseware product (and the most welcome by the novice Web page designer) is the fact that the program provides low-tech and user-friendly templates with easy-to-follow instructions. Before the advent of WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) design, only geeks, hackers, and teenagers could make their own Web pages.
What does a course Web site look like? LearningSpace, like other courseware products, provides the designer with a home page which can be customized. Various icons indicate a calendar or schedule, a place in which course material can be uploaded, links to pages where students can track their progress, and a site for interactive communication, using bulletin boards, private one-to-one e-mail, or chat. While Designing and Teaching an On-Line Course is abundantly illustrated with screen shots, these apply primarily to the use of the courseware program LearningSpace; this said, however, these illustrations do serve as models which users of other programs can adapt. Teaching in a cyberspace environment (whether it is a completely on-line course, or an on-line component as an adjunct to traditional classroom teaching), according to Schweizer, “encourages active learning, as opposed to passive, rote learning” (p. 4). An “active, student-centered environment” (p. 5) is already a characteristic of second-language classrooms, and the pedagogy of ESL teaching, in which students make important discoveries about language on their own, can easily be adapted to an on-line component of the course.
A mentor of mine once said that you can’t really teach students; you can only provide them with opportunities for learning. This statement has stayed with me for many years, and Schweizer’s book, with its pedagogy based in part on Howard Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983), shows the teacher how to provide the student with varied opportunities for learning. As Schweizer correctly asserts, “we have moved into a very different format for teaching and learning,” and “real education does not occur in classrooms or on a campus. It occurs in the minds of our students” (p. 5). I would argue that the real strength of Schweizer’s book lies not in its analysis of the process of setting up a course Web site (a process which is most often user-friendly and built into the courseware programs themselves), but in showing the reader how to transform well-thought-out course goals and objectives into activities and tasks that the students can perform on-line.
Schweizer also suggests that any teacher planning to integrate an on-line component be aware of, and prepared to address, four psychological needs of the student (belonging, freedom, power, and fun), which ESL teachers already do by the nature of our profession. Schweizer explains how each of these needs can be met. A “collaborative, supportive relation” (p. 6) among students as well as between students and teacher can be achieved in a number of ways: a) supplementing on-line courses with face-to-face meetings (in courses where the curriculum is delivered solely on-line); b) using cooperative learning; c) promoting freedom by giving students options for completing assignments; d) giving students power by designing “learning experiences that are self-directed or that involve discovery learning” (p. 9); and finally, e) making the course fun (and therefore attractive to students and an incentive to learning) by, for example, allowing the students to be creative in making their own Web pages. [-4-]
Schweizer correctly addresses “the inconsistent or unreliable nature of technology” (p. 12). It is important, she maintains, to make the students aware that there will always be “glitches,” from the simple (typing in a password with lower case letters instead of upper case or vice-versa), to the seemingly unfixable hardware, software, or system problems (chapter 7, “Technology”). Also, I might add, not all students have access to computers or the Internet at their homes, and when they do, they often do not have the high-speed connections necessary to avoid long and frustrating downloads, unlimited Internet access (the lack of which makes on-line time expensive), peripherals such as speakers to hear audio components of the course (important in the language classroom), or some of the plug-ins (e.g., Real Player or Windows Media Player) needed to take advantage of the multimedia aspects of the course.
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Schweizer’s book form the theoretical backbone of this work. In the first of these 3 chapters, “Guidelines for On-line Course Development,” Schweizer underscores the importance of detailed planning of an on-line course. She suggests that the course be developed using a “Performance Based Model for Curriculum Design” (p. 15) in which outcomes precede activity planning in the design of a course. For ESL instructors, this is not a large leap forward, as most, if not all, language courses are designed with skills objectives in mind. We all ask ourselves, “What should our students know, and be able to do, at the end of this course, semester, or year?” We then proceed to develop activities that help the students gain an understanding of, say, the present perfect tense in English. These outcomes should be made clear to both the teacher and the student. This information can be incorporated into the class Web page in terms of what the learner will be able to accomplish at the end of the course. Schweizer suggests using a system such as Bloom’s taxonomy (Appendix 2, p. 108 or http://www.dlrn.org/library/dl/guide4.html), which provides six levels of complexity (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) to help write the outcomes desired. For example, using the verbs classified according to Bloom, a teacher could expect a student (in increasing order of complexity) to list, describe, demonstrate, analyze, integrate, or judge a particular aspect of the course material.
As a complement to this method of clarifying the outcomes with the focus on the learner, Schweizer continues, in the next chapter (“Creating Performance Based Assessments”) to focus on the needs and capabilities of the learner. Relying on current research and theories on learning and assessment such as Howard Gardner’s (1983) multiple intelligence theory (pp. 38-39), she explains that on-line teaching (like any teaching) should take into account that “learners need a complex, activity-rich learning environment which arouses interest, curiosity, and offers multiple ways to make meaning” (p. 29). On-line teaching, whether the primary or adjunct method of delivering the curriculum, can provide such an environment through the use of hypertext and mutlimedia, as well as the opportunity for students to interact with each other, the teacher, and the material. In this chapter, Schweizer explains that by taking into account the multiple intelligences and various strengths and weaknesses of individual students, teachers can provide a variety of opportunities to let students demonstrate in creative ways what they have learned in the course, such as discussions, projects, interviews, and so on (p. 40). [-5-]
As a final but no less important aspect of the on-line course, Schweizer gives the teacher tips on graphic design and visual appeal of the course, as well as a variety of appendices to support various technical questions raised in the book. Chapter 9, “What Do the Experts Say?,” brings together a variety of responses to questions of curriculum development (e.g., “How much of a ‘techie’ do I need to be to design and teach a Web-based course?”), problems of on-line students and instructors, and administrative and fiscal issues.
To sum up, then, I would agree with the statements made by Aijun Anna Li and Margery D. Osborne in their essay “Using the Web to Create an Interdisciplinary Tool for Teaching” in Weaving a Virtual Web. While teachers, they explain, are aware that the new technology is both an information resource and a communication tool, “they find it difficult to actually integrate the Web into preexisting curricula and pedagogies. In fact,” they continue, “the use of such technology involves a rethinking of curriculum goals and teacher and student roles” (p. 138). Our task as teachers will be then, not only to learn in a hands-on way the techniques necessary for us to manipulate this technology to produce Web pages and other classroom materials, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to be sure that we understand the theoretical underpinnings of our pedagogy within this new educational space. These two books help us to achieve both of these goals.
For more on using the Web to teach English pronunciation, visit the site of Holly Gray (http://www.wam.umd.edu/~hgray), who (with Sharon Alayne Widmayer), gave an excellent and enlightening presentation on this subject at TESOL 2000 in Vancouver. Also, visit Widmayer’s excellent Sounds of English site (http://classweb.gmu.edu/swidmaye/sounds/sounds.htm ).
Gardner, Howard. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Hawisher, G. E., and Selfe, C. L. (in press). Global literacies and the World Wide Web. London and New York: Routledge.
Lotus Development Corporation. (2000). LearningSpace. (Version 4.0). [Computer software]. Cambridge, MA: Author.
Université de Montréal
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