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


The concept of distance education (students taking courses via technology from remote locations) at the university level is not a new one; in fact, instruction across much of the curriculum has been available via modem and public access television for yea rs now. However, distance education in ESOL has not traditionally been a viable option, as tools were not previously available to do more than deliver information (Berge & Collins, 1995). Thanks to increasing opportunities for interaction on the Interne t, it is becoming possible to not only transmit instruction, but facilitate communicative and collaborative learning for our language students at a distance.

Though the Internet has existed for nearly twenty-five years, only recently has its surge of mainstream popularity (and, thus, increased access) motivated researchers to begin exploring its educational value. ESOL teachers worldwide, myself included, are conducting classroom research by using the Internet as a teaching tool in language classes. As we analyze and publish the results of this current classroom research, more information will become available to help other ESOL instructors make informed dec isions about how and why to use the Internet to teach English.

While we wait patiently for the latest research results, articles and books already published provide some idea of both the benefits and limitations of integrating the Internet into existing ESOL curricula. In the meantime, suffice it to say that the bod y of published material which currently exists on the subject of using the Internet in the ESOL classroom is sparse at best. In fact, I found approximately 75% of the information for this thesis, beyond my direct experience, through online discussion lis ts and their archives, newsgroups, the World Wide Web, and e-mail communication and MOO discussions with international colleagues.

In many ways, these forms of information retrieval were much more beneficial to me than documents published in print, as I could more easily ask questions of the author of an e-mail message than the author of a book. Moreover, I could conduct my research at any time of the day or night, and not just when the library was open. Furthermore, doing research on line saved me a great deal of money I would have spent making copies of library books or articles.

Because there is little information available on the advantages and disadvantages of using the Internet to teach ESOL, this is an important area which needs further research. As my personal and professional interests are in the area of university-level E SOL writing instruction, I have conducted my research specifically in this area, though the literature reviewed for this paper (which includes material both in print, i.e. books, journal articles, etc., and online, i.e. discussion lists, newsgroups, perso nal communication with other ESOL instructors) covers a broad, yet related, area of discussion topics:


The Virtual/Online Classroom

Much of the current debate in educational technology across all disciplines is whether or not the virtual classroom will or should replace the traditional classroom completely. In fact, some educators believe that an upheaval of the current educational s ystem is not only likely, but necessary. According to Perelman (1995):

Schools are training people for the wrong jobs. And the more dramatically the economy changes in the Information Age, the worse the mismatch will be. What's needed are methods of delivering learning more cheaply, and with more relevance to the working world. Computer-based multimedia and telelearning systems are already proving more efficient than the conventional teacher in a classroom.

Though most of Perelman's extreme opinions are unsubstantiated by facts, Doheny-Farina (1995) offers support for one of his more reasonable claims--that economics will necessitate the need for the completely virtual classroom in the not-so-distant future. "Distance education will become the norm, the least expensive way to deliver the education product, while face-to-face teaching will be so expensive that it will become something only for the well-to-do."

Doheny-Farina addresses the fact that there is, as of yet, no empirical proof which demonstrates that the virtual classroom indeed costs less or enhances the learning process in any way. Nevertheless, he continues to assert, "Whether or not these enterpr ises are effective, they will continue to expand until most of the children in the world who have access to education will be educated via virtual schools."

A key point brought up by Doheny-Farina and others is the issue of students' access to technology and, thus, education. Smith (1995) claims that with the support of government and big business, cross-cultural access and distribution of information will b ecome so easy that "education will change from the traditional teacher/classroom environment to a virtual classroom with no walls."

Though some educators such as Perelman (1995) make unwarranted claims that the potential for the virtual classroom to replace the traditional one (and traditional teachers) exists, others support the notion that teachers are necessary for the successful f acilitation of learning, regardless of whether than education takes place in a traditional or virtual setting. In fact, these researchers claim that whether traditional or virtual, classes need teachers, as learners need guidance based on analysis of the ir individual styles, abilities and learning strategies. "Computers alone," claims Cameron (1995), "will never replace the need for the human instructor. Only an actual instructor can teach students to utilize computer-based tools to further their educa tional goals."

Indeed, it is not the teacher who must be replaced, but rather the outdated teaching philosophies and approaches some continue to employ. The classroom of the past is in many ways no longer applicable to the world in which we are attempting to prepare ou r students to function (Kemp, 1994; Berge & Collins, 1995).

Because change in educational paradigms does not occur overnight, some educators and researchers have discovered a common ground--integrating and combining the traditional and virtual classrooms. By bringing elements of technology such as the Internet in to the traditional classroom, students get the best of both worlds. On the one hand, they have access to vast amounts of timely information, as well as opportunities for authentic communication for real purposes with Internet users worldwide. On the oth er hand, they can also have the social aspects of the traditional classroom some enjoy, meeting with their instructor and peers in person, in the same physical space. As Kilian (1994) explains:

Online courses are an important development in distance education, but they're not going to make [traditional] classrooms obsolete. [They] won't save money or provide a "secret weapon" for troubled schools. If anything, they're much more labour-intensive than [traditional] classroom teaching. Whatever the subject, they require strong skills in writing and course design.

But they will offer new opportunities to many students, and they may even create a kind of tutorial intimacy that most students and teachers have never known. The online medium is not only feasible, it creates the potential for literally world-wide mark ets--for teaching students anywhere in the world. The implications are considerable.

Regardless of whether the virtual classroom replaces or supplements the traditional classroom, there are opportunities that virtual learning affords which are worth exploring in ESOL teaching. According to Berge & Collins (1995), computer-mediated commun ication (CMC), and specifically the online classroom, offers opportunities for the following:

Benefits of online teaching and learning over traditional classroom instruction are numerous, and well-summarized by Smith (1995) in describing Houston Community College System's highly successful distance education via modem program. As compared to equi valent traditional courses offered offline, the following are the perceived advantages of the online program:

  1. Immediacy -- especially compared to print-based correspondence courses.
  2. Sense of group identity -- the computer system became a meeting place for students.
  3. Improved dialogue -- students correspond more than in traditional classroom setting.
  4. Improved instructor control -- the computer system can log activities.
  5. Active learning -- student participation improved.

Though these benefits sound appealing, educational experts warn that the virtual classroom is not for everyone. Learning and teaching online require great tolerance of ambiguity and chaos (Warschauer, Turbee & Roberts, 1994). In addition, students with low proficiency in keyboarding, reading and writing might find it difficult to remain motivated, perceiving the virtual classroom as a hindrance to learning more than a benefit (Hiltz, 1990). On the other hand, Hiltz maintains:

For those with high levels of motivation, adequate reading and writing skills, and access to a computer, the virtual classroom is likely both to improve access to learning opportunities and to provide a better learning environment than the traditional college classroom.

Though not appropriate for all students and teachers, the virtual classroom does provide opportunities for student-centered, collaborative, and task-based learning, as well as motivation to explore previously uncharted educational territory. Regardless o f learners' and instructors' preferences, however, the future of education may not offer a choice about whether or not to teach and learn online.

ESOL Language Learning Theories and the Philosophies of the Internet

Raimes (1983) has described the existing paradigm of teaching language as one which:

How, then, does the Internet support this paradigm of the student-centered, communicative and collaborative classroom?

In general, to use the Internet is to communicate (Anderson, 1995). The main purpose of the Internet is to connect people all over the world to share information, experiences, and opinions. Because the Internet is a natural resource (i.e. not a textbook created for the purpose of teaching a language), it contains real language. As students navigate their way around the primarily text-based Internet, they must read and write in English, which helps them acquire the language (Falsetti, 1995). Furthermo re, various functions of the Internet appeal to different learners' styles. For example, students who are motivated by working independently, or who are visual learners, might benefit more from using the World Wide Web, while students who like to interac t and work in collaboration with others would more likely benefit from using MOO.

On the Internet, students and teachers can communicate with individuals and groups, talk in real time, and retrieve information and resources (Warschauer, 1995). The emphasis is on people working together in collaboration rather than in competition with each other. By helping each other, we expand our own realm of knowledge in the process. Internet users store information on Web pages so that it is easily accessible (and downloadable) by others. Participants in on-line discussion lists share informati on and ideas with each other, including lesson plans, activity suggestions and tips on getting started using various Internet functions.

Berge & Collins (1995) further emphasize the collaborative and communicative nature of the Internet:

As an agent for socialization and collaboration, the networked computer has an even greater potential in education than does the stand-alone, knowledge-server type of computer. The active environment of social learning provided by a compu ter with access to local, national, and international networks increases interaction and communication among students, their teachers, peers, parents, and other members of the world community.

In addition to sharing information and resources, there is a general sense that it is important to help others who are new to online environments, rather than judge them negatively for not having prior knowledge of Internet functions and awareness on neti quette (online manners). This supportive environment can be especially helpful in empowering ESOL students, as they will feel comfortable asking questions or taking risks with their language use.

Through computer networks such as the Internet, connecting students and teachers internationally, students gain social skills which increase their empowerment in the classroom. Furthermore, networking fosters autonomy, equality and learning skills among ESOL learners (Warschauer, Turbee & Roberts, 1994).

Crawford (1995) claims that the Internet will have a direct effect on the way we teach our students, especially if our global goal is to prepare them for life outside the classroom:

The networking culture that will find its way into all schools (if they are to survive) requires participants to be more than just consumers of information and knowledge. They must also becomes contributors as well . . . Our kids will bec ome actively involved in research, synthesis and presentation of knowledge rather than passive observers of it.

Furthermore, some researchers describe a shift from a teaching environment to a learning environment in which students are taught through the Internet "to become lifelong learners by helping them locate the resources to continue learning [outside the clas sroom]" (Berge & Collins, 1995).

Overall, the Internet promotes philosophies of shared resources and knowledge, plus active involvement in the learning process. Indeed, this rich resource lends itself naturally to being an effective teaching and learning tool for the student-centered, c ommunicative and collaborative ESOL classroom.

Connecting ESOL Writing and the Internet

Through on-line discussion lists, many ESOL instructors tout the benefits of using the Internet in their classes, though there is little empirical evidence to support these claims. Of course, so much of what happens in the writing classroom is not provab le. As Kemp (1994) notes, "More often than we realize, we change what we do in the humanities because of our enthusiasms, not because somebody has proved something."

Nevertheless, much of the published qualitative classroom research which does exist on this topic shows that Internet-related language-learning activities can be beneficial to ESOL students, as "the most timid language students can come alive while creati ng meaningful communication" (Kroonenberg, 1994/1995). Through the Internet, students write to communicate with a variety of people for authentic purposes. Therefore, students are motivated to write for a broad audience which extends beyond the classroo m, and not just compose assignments for the teacher (Berge & Collins, 1995). The following example of such motivation to write was posted to NETEACH-L by an ESL instructor:

Last semester I had a student from Albania who was quite homesick. Once he had an e-mail account, I introduced him to Usenet News, and he linked up with a newsgroup discussing Albanian history, culture, etc. The coordinator of our open l ab told me that the student practically LIVED in the lab after that, sending e-mail messages, reading the news, etc. You can imagine how this young man blossomed, especially in writing English, but also in his ability to read and enjoy the language. In fact, the first time he EVER asked for editing help with his writing was when he wanted to send his first posting to the newsgroup. (I think I have finally discovered how to teach students the concept of "audience"!) (Rippberger, 7/18/95)

This example demonstrates not only the student's improvement in his ability to write in English, but also an increase in his motivation and connection to content which is meaningful to him.

Individual Classroom Projects

During the past year, I have participated in several online discussion groups, and have read postings from fellow subscribers detailing how they use the Internet in their ESOL writing courses, and what they perceive to be the benefits and drawbacks for th eir students (Aghbar, 11/14/95; Corio, 11/15/95; Lepintre, 11/16/95; Lou, 9/22/95, Opp-Beckman, 11/13/95; Shetzer, 11/14/95; Spelman, 9/22/95; Turner, 11/1/95; Vilmi, 11/14/95; Whittaker, 11/26/95; Winet, 2/16/95). These international ESOL writing teache rs have been experimenting with such innovative online classroom activities and projects as:

Creative writing(Opp-Beckman)
Dialogue journals (Aghbar)
Electronic penpals (Lou, Spelman, Whittaker)
Interclass discussion groups on parallel readings (Corio)
Student publishing (Frizler, Lepeintre, Shetzer, Turner, Vilmi)
Research projects (Vilmi, Winet)

In response to my recent posting on NETEACH-L, international ESOL instructors described what they perceived to be the benefits for their students in using the Internet in their writing courses. The Internet offers opportunities for interactivity, especia lly with students in other parts of the world, which results in increased cultural awareness (Vilmi). Also, in searching for and retrieving information from the Internet, students have greater interaction with the course materials, providing them with a sense of ownership (Shetzer), as well as enjoyment of the course content (Opp-Beckman). Furthermore, opportunities for online publication give students motivation to write for authentic audiences with real purposes (Opp-Beckman, Vilmi).

Success in any of these online activities then gives students the confidence to try more complex writing activities (Opp-Beckman, Vilmi). As Vilmi summarizes, "The students learn an enormous amount content-wise and cultural-wise, as well as language-wise , plus they all learn how to use new technology."

As with any teaching tool, along with the benefits come some drawbacks as well. The teachers mentioned time requirements in learning new ways to give feedback online (Whittaker), teaching software programs to students (Opp-Beckman), and facilitating and participating in online projects which are just getting started (Vilmi). Shetzer also warns that some activities can provide interaction between the student and text (or computer), but not necessarily between students themselves.

Nevertheless, though these teachers address concerns based on their experiences using the Internet in the classroom, they all convey a sense that the advantages of using the Internet as an educational tool far outweigh the disadvantages.

International Online Projects

In addition to individual class projects, several online projects and sites have been created to help students worldwide who want to practice and develop their writing skills in English. One example is the set of nine ESL/EFL Student Discussion Lists cre ated and facilitated by an international group of ESOL instructors (Holliday, Robb, Warschauer, & Turbee, 1995).

The Student Lists were established in February 1994 to provide a forum for cross-cultural discussion and writing practice for college, university and adult students in English language programs around the world. There are currently nine st udent lists, but more may be added as the demand for them becomes evident:

CHAT-SL General Discussion List (Low level)
DISCUSS-SL General Discussion List (High level)
BUSINESS-SL Discussion List on Business and Economics
ENGL-SL Discussion List on Learning English
EVENT-SL Discussion List on Current Events
MOVIE-SL Discussion List on the Cinema
MUSIC-SL Discussion List on Music
SCITECH-SL Discussion List on Science, Technology & Computers
SPORT-SL Discussion List on Sports

--from EFL/ESL Student Discussion Lists announcement

Through these lists, students can practice communicating in written English via e-mail to discuss with international peers specific topics of common interest, on lists such as MUSIC-SL or SPORT-SL, or have general discussion about any topic which comes up , on lists CHAT-SL and DISCUSS-SL.

Another online project designed to help international ESOL students practice writing in English in a meaningful and communicative way is schMOOze University, a MOO designed by ESL Instructor Julie Falsetti, alo ng with colleagues Eric Schweitzer and Jon Wanderer, with second language learners in mind (Falsetti, 1995). SchMOOze University is a virtual community filled with characters, rooms (such as dorm rooms, offices, a cafeteria, a library and classrooms), an d language learning tools. At schMOOze, students navigate their way around through text. In order to move, play games (such as Scrabble or Hangman), or communicate with others, they are dependent on the English language. Students also use text in Engli sh to describe themselves and their surroundings.

In addition, schMOOze provides participants with access to an online dictionary, Usenet feed, gopher, e-mail, and a grammar maze, through which users are propelled forward by recognizing proper usage of English grammar. Teachers can also hold class discu ssions at schMOOze, in a classroom where only those on the roster are admitted into the room (Falsetti, 1995).

The Helsinki University of Technology Virtual Language Centre (HUT VLC) is another virtual environment, similar in many ways to schMOOze, is currently being developed by ESL Lecturer Ruth Vilmi for use by ESOL students worldwide. As described by the proj ect manager:

The aim of HUT Virtual Language Centre is to create software for language learning, but goes beyond the normal approach in some aspects. The VLC is a [virtual reality] environment, where students can meet and interact with each other. As the VLC is situated on the Internet, people from around the world can participate, without the need to ever physically meet each other.

The VLC is in its early prototype stage, but is already in active use. This autumn the HUT language centre organised an international course that used the VLC as one means of communication. The participants came from Finland, Korea, USA, Japan and Egypt (Sars, 11/28/95)

Online resources for ESOL instructors and students are continually in the process of being developed, which is part of the excitement and motivation throughout the field in utilizing the Internet as an educational tool.

Possible Limitations

Because the ability to express oneself in writing is a crucial aspect of using the Internet, some researchers propose that this puts students who lack interest or skill in writing at a disadvantage (Berge & Collins, 1995; Lundstrom, 1995). Lundstrom also points out that the quality of English found on the Internet is often non-conventional, and may actually hinder students in their progress toward communicating in person with native speakers of English (Lundstrom, 1995).

Another factor which affects the ESOL-Internet classroom is that of social interaction. While many students enjoy the creative and imaginatively social aspects of the Internet, some students may prefer to be in a traditional classroom, watching and liste ning to a teacher and peers in person (Berge & Collins, 1995). Other drawbacks include technical problems such as lost files or forgotten passwords. However, these issues can usually be remedied by the instructor or lab personnel (Kroonenberg, 1994/1995 ).


In general, the research published thus far emphasizes the positive aspects of using the Internet as an educational tool in the ESOL writing classroom. Students become empowered because they develop self-discipline and confidence though increased respons ibility for their own learning processes (Berge & Collins, 1995; Warschauer, Turbee & Roberts, 1994). In addition, they are judged by what they say, not what they look or sound like, which can also give them a great sense of confidence when communicating in the target language.

On the other hand, a major issue impeding the introduction and use of technology in the ESOL classroom is when and how to teach our students keyboarding and basic computer skills (Hiltz, 1990). Moreover, questions about the necessity of the human teacher make some educators hesitant to accept the online classroom as a sole option for instruction.

Though some extremists, like Perelman (1995) claim that traditional teachers and classrooms will eventually be replaced by computers, my impression, from reading the existing literature, discussing the topic with other instructors and students, and my own experiences, is that most view technology as a tool, and not as a substitute facilitator of learning. Indeed, most educators and students, myself included, seem to agree that human beings are necessary to teach, regardless of the tools they employ.

Overall, though researchers are thorough in their examination of potential drawbacks when introducing technology to the ESOL classroom, most point out that the benefits far outweigh any limitations.

Continue on to Chapter Three (Procedures) 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.