From: The Internet as an Educational Tool in ESOL Writing Instruction, by Karla Frizler


If asked to define and describe a college classroom, many instructors and students would likely describe it as a physical space (a room) with four walls, located in a building on a campus. The room is filled with desks and chairs which face a chalkboard (or each other), and there is an overhead projector screen or a map rolled up and stored on the wall, above the chalkboard. In this room you find a teacher, a group of students, and perhaps a teaching assistant, all of whom interact instantaneously, in r eal time.

Until recently, this description would, for the most part, be considered acceptable when explaining the concept of a "classroom." However, use of the traditional classroom (as I will refer to the above description throughout this study) is no longer the only option for teaching and learning. With technology, and the computer in particular, becoming integral parts of most facets of our lives in the late 20th century, the virtual classroom is on its way to becoming a viable option for the facilitat ion of learning. [NOTE: In the context of this study, the term "virtual" refers to the computer-related definition of `that which is created through the imagination,' and not the more literal definition of `unreal'].

To describe the virtual college classroom, however, there is no established protocol, no background schema, which helps us paint a mental image of what that classroom looks like. In fact, the virtual classroom is one that teachers and students create spe cifically to suit their own purposes and needs, and can change from one semester to the next, or even one class session to the next. Created through text (expanding to audio and video in the near future) stored on a computer server, a virtual classroom c ould be located on Mars, or on a beach in Greece, or in an online campus, simulating a traditional classroom.

It may contain desks and chairs, and have a chalkboard on the wall, and it may not. Virtual classrooms, of course, have teachers, but they may or may not be in the same space with their students at the same time. Communication between teachers and stude nts can take place either asynchronously (at different times), synchronously (at the same time), or both.

Ideally, the purpose of both the traditional and virtual classrooms is to provide a space in which the facilitation of learning, and learning itself, can take place. If we accept that the role of the classroom, whether traditional or virtual, is to offer students an environment in which to learn, then we instructors must ask ourselves how we can best utilize both environments for the benefit of our students.


This qualitative study explores the benefits and limitations of teaching university-level English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) online, via the Internet, offering suggestions for integrating the Internet into the ESOL classroom and vice versa, as the case may be.

Through the case study of an online composition class taught to international students of English as a foreign language (EFL), this researcher examines the technical and pedagogical aspects of facilitating a virtual EFL composition class. The technical c onsiderations deal with how virtual courses can be conducted, which leads to an exploration of why the virtual classroom is beneficial for university-level ESOL composition students in particular.

The overall intention of this research paper is to provide ESOL writing instructors with a framework in which to begin creating new curricula or integrating the Internet into their existing curricula, utilizing it not only as a means of classroom facilita tion, but also as a teaching and learning tool in and of itself.


As we move closer to the 21st century and further into the Information Age, technology is having an impact on society unparalleled since the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the potential impact of one form of modern technology--the Internet--has been lik ened to that of the printing press 500 years ago (Crawford, 1995; Hemphill, 1995).

While access to and interest in the Internet grow, traditional concepts of work, home, human relationships and education are being dissected and revised as we move into a paradigm shift across all facets of life. Employees now telecommute to work, consum ers shop without leaving their homes, friends call each other through the computer instead of the telephone, and students have greater opportunities for taking college or university courses online.

As a result of the widespread effects of technology throughout the world, it is no surprise that university-level educators are being challenged to rethink and revise their approaches and goals in teaching in order to effectively prepare students for what will be expected of them in the "real world." Black (1995) summarizes well the importance of using computers as educational tools: "Students like working on computers and the use of real data is highly motivational. It adds a relevance to their work a nd is a skill they will need as they move into the workplaces of the 21st century." Because the way in which we retrieve and interpret information is changing and evolving, so must the education which prepares students to successfully accomplish these ta sks.

In the state of California, K-12 teachers are now being required to have not only technical but pedagogical proficiency in the use of computers in the classroom, without which they will be denied teaching credentials (new teachers) or lose their jobs (cur rently-credentialed teachers). As described in Governor Wilson's recent report on information technology (1995), by the Fall of 1997, new teachers will only be certified if they meet "rigorous standards for teacher competency in computer-based applicatio ns and their effective use in the classroom."

In addition, the Governor has called for the implementation of in-service training for already-credentialed teachers. In order for these teachers to remain in the California public school system past the year 2000, they must also be able to meet the stan dards mentioned above, and described in greater detail in the following excerpt from the Governor's report:

Technology should be used across the curriculum to facilitate a student-centered learning environment. This will require that computers, communications networking, and multimedia equipment be fully integrated into California's schools so t hat they are available when and where they are needed to improve learning. This will provide tools for effectively presenting course materials, as well as resources for helping students learn how to access, analyze, and interpret information, and how to c ommunicate their findings (Wilson, 1995).

Now, if our K-12 teachers, and thus students, are not only learning about but utilizing technology in the classroom, then it is logical to expect that educators at the university level should be able to build upon what these students have already learned. Though many of us teaching today grew up and were educated without the luxury of computers, this is not reflective of the experience of new generations of students, many of whom have no concept of a world without computers. In order to help them develo p and build upon the skills that they will need to survive and succeed in today's world, we must include technology in our teaching across the curriculum.

Moreover, universities such as Harvard now require students to possess personal computers in order to be accepted into a degree program. Even the Cal State University system in California is in the process of developing a similar requirement which would necessitate that students not only possess computers, but know how to use them as tools to help further their educations.

In addition to practical matters such as preparing students in general for academic study and the workplace of the future, the virtual classroom is also beneficial for learners of English in particular. With an estimated 80-85% of information on the Inte rnet appearing in English, and much of the documentation for computer software and hardware distributed internationally in English, non-native speakers are motivated to learn English if they want to use these resources (Torcal).

Furthermore, distance education over the Internet makes learning English as a foreign or second language more accessible for both local and international learners, including those who:

--adapted from Winet (8/11/95)

If we accept that educational technology can be beneficial for our ESOL students, then the next logical step is to determine how and why to incorporate it into our existing classrooms, creating new curricula (or adapting existing curricula) which best uti lize technology, such as the Internet, as an educational tool.

This study can help ESOL writing instructors, at the university level in particular, focus their efforts and objectives in curriculum design and development involving use of the Internet as an educational tool. In addition, this research can guide instru ctors toward the best methods through which they themselves should learn about the integration of technology and language-teaching pedagogy to implement the Internet to its fullest potential in their ESOL composition classrooms, maximizing the benefits an d minimizing the limitations for students and themselves as well.


General familiarity with the following terms will help readers follow references to specific functions of the Internet throughout this paper. Meanings will become clearer through examples of their application.

Bulletin Board/Conference (BBS):
Users post asynchronous messages to be read and responded to by a larger group of people. Responses are connected by subject matter, and can be read one after the other. Can be public (open to any Internet user) or private (open only to members of a particular group, e.g. a class).

Discussion List/Listserv:
Through e-mail, participants form groups to discuss (asynchronously) topics related to particular themes. Users send to one address an e-mail message which is distributed to all subscribers of that list.

Electronic Mail (e-mail):
Users send and receive individual written messages. It is the online equivalent of sending a letter through the regular mail (though much faster). This type of communication is asynchronous, as the writer and reader do not need to be online at the s ame time. In fact, it takes several minutes (at least) for an e-mail message to be delivered.

File-Transfer Protocol (ftp):
Function through which users can transfer files from their Internet accounts to their computer hard drives (or a floppy disk), and vice versa. For example, ftp allows users to write a document (e.g. an e-mail message) with a word processor and then u pload (transfer) it to the Internet. Users can also do the reverse, downloading information directly from the Internet to a computer hard drive or floppy disk.

MOO (MUD--multi-user dimension, object-oriented):
Text-based virtual reality environment through which participants communicate synchronously, in real time, using text to describe their characters and surroundings, plus navigate through their environment.

User connects from own server to others (e.g. libraries, museums or universities), many of which provide access to documents or software available for downloading (through `ftp,' see above).

World Wide Web (WWW):
A worldwide `library' of pages of text, graphics, audio and video connected through keyword links. Through WWW, users can view documents, and then connect to other related documents anywhere in the world by clicking the mouse on a word or phrase.


This qualitative report is written as a reflection on a case study in which the Internet was used to conduct a virtual university-level composition course in English as a foreign language (EFL). However, a major goal of this project is to explore pot ential applications of the Internet in all ESOL writing classes (not just English as a foreign language). To help ESOL instructors make the connections between my findings and suggestions and their language classrooms, following this introduction, I have organized the results of my research as follows.

In Chapter Two, I will provide a review of the existing published literature and current online discussion on the virtual classroom and its connection to teaching ESOL. In addition, I will summarize current online projects designed to help improve ESOL students' confidence and writing ability in English.

Chapter Three details the methodology of the case study upon which this research is based. This chapter contains detailed information about the sample and population of the study, as well as descriptions of the data collect ion and analysis procedures.

In Chapter Four, the focus is on the findings from the case study, a description of the unique benefits and limitations of teaching and learning English online, taking into account both the students' and the instructor's per spectives.

Chapter Five provides a detailed discussion of what I learned as an ESOL composition teacher during and upon reflection of the case study, as well as an exploration of the potential applications of the findings in Chapter Fo ur to other ESOL classroom situations.

Finally, Chapter Six offers a summary of the benefits of the virtual classroom for ESOL writing students, projects a paradigm shift in education involving the Internet, and recommends further exploration in a variety of rela ted areas by future educational researchers in second language acquisition and educational technology.

Continue on to Chapter Two (Literature Review) or return to Table of Contents.

Copyright © 12/06/95 by Karla Frizler. Reprinting of this chapter in its complete, unmodified form for strictly non-profit purposes is both authorized and encouraged provided that this copyright is included.