In June 1995, I opened the doors of Frizzy University Network (FUN), a friendly online environment in which non-native speakers of English living outside of English-speaking countries could improve their ability and confidence in writing in English. Futu re plans for FUN include grammar workshops, individualized tutoring and a variety of non-traditional writing courses, including Creative Writing for ESOL students.
Over an eight-week period during Summer 1995, I taught the first online EFL composition class through FUN. FUN 101, a free, non-credit, university-level course which took place from June 5 through July 28, 1995, was conducted entirely online, via the Int ernet, through e-mail, a MOO, and a home page on the World Wide Web. [see Appendix 1 for Course Outline]
The class itself never met synchronously, but I met with each of the students individually, in real time, for essay conferences and less formal meetings during regularly-scheduled office hours. In addition, the students interacted with each other via e-m ail, discussing topics and exchanging essays for peer review.
Though the students participating in FUN 101 did not receive university credit, I did give them feedback on their writing based on the following grading scale:
The theme of the course--"English Composition Through Intercultural Understanding"--focused on the similarities between people across cultures. For this eight-week course, the students wrote four essays, and were required to read three articles, essays o r poems in preparation for writing each essay. [see Appendix 2 for sample essay topic] The readings came from magazines, newspapers and books. In addition, students were exposed to prewriting activities such as brainstorming and looping, as well as pee r reading, and occasionally completed grammar lessons based on the readings, or specific issues in their own writing. Other than the peer review of essays, most of the students' work was done on an individual basis, and not in pairs or groups.
My goals for the FUN 101 students were threefold. By the end of the eight-week course, I had hoped that they would be able to:
FUN 101 was divided into four sections, each requiring three readings and one essay related to a topic within the general theme of "Intercultural Understanding." The course started with the broad topic of stereotypes, then moved into comparisons of work and leisure time in different cultures. The third section focused on relationships between family members, friends and co-workers, and the last part of the class was devoted to exploring the role of the individual within cultures.
I distributed introductory materials (course outline, time zone chart, list of course participant names and e-mail addresses) to the students via an alias, which replicates a discussion list. Creating an alias is like creating a private list. I inputted the e-mail addresses of everyone in FUN 101 into a file in my home directory. Then, my server created an alias, an e-mail address, which would point to that file; therefore, it was only necessary to address an e-mail message to a single address, but it was distributed to all FUN 101 students.
After the first day of the course, most assignments and course materials were distributed via e-mail on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. [Toward the end of the course, students retrieved some of their assignments via the FUN web page.] Because the students and I were in eight different time zones, meeting in real time was not a possibility. Instead, the students set their own attendance schedule, logging on everyday, or once or twice a week, completing and submitting all assignments for the w eek no later than Fridays at noon (California time).
Students answered discussion questions on the readings, plus completed several grammar exercises based on the information in the readings. At times, they shared their responses with their classmates via e-mail. Each first essay draft was reviewed by me and by one classmate, then I alone responded to the final essays. Along with comments throughout the essay text, I also attached an evaluation sheet specifically tailored for each essay assignment.
Throughout FUN 101, I held regular office hours, three hours per week, in my online office at schMOOze University. Through this synchronous environment, the students and I were able to hold conferences in writing, in real time. It was like talking direc tly onto the screen. Each student would first send me an essay draft via e-mail so that I would have a chance to read through it before the conference. Then, we would discuss, at schMOOze, their questions about their essay (or their general progress in writing in English).
The population of interest to me in my overall research is university-level students learning English as a foreign or second language. From this population, the purposive sample for this particular case study was comprised of computer- and Internet-liter ate, university-level students living in non-English-speaking countries and learning English as a foreign language (EFL). The native countries of FUN 101 students are represented below. [see Figure 1 below]
FIGURE 1 - COUNTRIES REPRESENTED IN STUDENT POPULATION
|Hong Kong (25%)||Czech Republic (6.3%)|
|Croatia (18.8%)||Brazil (6.3%)|
|Japan (12.5%)||Egypt (6.3%)|
|Finland (6.3%)||Indonesia (6.3%)|
|Republic of Korea (6.3%)||Russia (6.3%)|
I recruited the students for FUN 101 over the Internet, in three different ways:
The students for this purposive sample were selected after I determined that they were typical members of the computer-literate, university-level, EFL learner community, by means of the following criteria. To participate in FUN 101, students were require d:
I found all of the students for FUN 101 via the Internet. EFL/ESL instructors worldwide passed along to their students the announcement I posted on several discussion lists [see Appendix 3]. In addition, I personally contacted students who were particip ating in schMOOze University and the EFL/ESL Student Discussion Lists after having established a camaraderie with them.
TABLE 1 - STUDENTS ENROLLED IN FUN 101
[note: * indicates students who completed course; real names not used]
|NAME||AGE||NATIVE COUNTRY AND LANGUAGE||OTHER LANGS.||PREVIOUS ENGLISH COURSES||ENGLISH- SPEAKING COUNTRIES LIVED IN||INTERNET USE PRIOR TO FUN 101|
ftp, telnet, www
|None||Secondary school||None||e-mail, gopher,
ftp, telnet, www
|Han||22||Rep of Korea/
|None||English major at university||None|
|Research writing||None||e-mail, telnet|
|Gulf dialects||British Council
|French||English major at university||USA||e-mail, gopher,
|Russian, German||English major at university||Canada, USA||BBS, e-mail, ftp, telnet|
|Swedish, French, German||University||USA||e-mail, telnet, www|
|German, Russian, Latin||Secondary school||England|
|None||None||England, Wales||e-mail, gopher, ftp, telnet, tin, www|
|French, Italian||Primary & secondary school||None||e-mail, gopher, ftp, telnet, tin, www|
|German, French, Russian, Czech||High school/
|None||e-mail, gopher, ftp, IRC, telnet, www|
|Mandarin||University||None||e-mail, gopher, ftp, telent www|
Students were selected based on their meeting the above-mentioned criteria. In addition, I took into consideration eligible students' representativeness of a wide variety of cultural backgrounds as well as first languages [see Table 1 above].
My goal was to gather a sample of students who had been exposed to writing in English at a beginning-intermediate university level. Requests for admittance to FUN 101 by students at an advanced level of writing in English were denied; however, I have kep t the students' names on file in the event that future FUN courses may be appropriate for them. Also, I wanted students who had some, but not necessarily a lot, of experience using the Internet. The requirement was basic familiarity with and comfort usi ng e-mail, as it was the basis of course facilitation.
In order to build validity and triangulation in this qualitative study, I used a variety of data collection instruments, reflecting different perspectives within the same situation.
Throughout FUN 101, I kept a journal of observations and analyzed student writing samples. After the course was over, I then conducted in-depth, one-on-one interviews with each of the students. I also made public, mostly via discussion lists and word of mouth, the address for the FUN web page, soliciting feedback from peers and colleagues. Thus, my findings are based on not only my own observations, but also the input of the students involved in the case study, as well as that of other instructors and colleagues serving as outside observers.
To collect data which reflected FUN 101 students' self-perceived confidence and writing ability in English, as well as their opinions on using the Internet to learn English, I conducted semi-structured interviews on line with each FUN 101 student. [see A ppendix 4 for list of interview questions] Because the FUN 101 students were located all over the world, it was impossible to interview the students in person. However, through schMOOze University, it was possible to interview the students on line. The se interviews took place during the last week of FUN 101.
Each student (with the exception of one, who lost his Internet access after FUN 101 ended), met me for an interview on the Internet for at least two hours (Bruce, 7/26/95; Edward, 7/24/95; Kiki, 7/30/95; Vesna, 7/25/95; Vishnja, 7/24/95; Zhang, 7/20/95). During these times, I recorded, with the permission of the students, each of our written conversations. Through my communication software (MacKermit), I was able to log all conversations and save them to my computer hard drive for later retrieval and an alysis. There was no need for transcription, as the lines in a MOO conversation appear on the screen one after the other, in mostly linear fashion, with the name of the speaker appearing at the beginning of each line [see Figure 2 for sample of MOO forma t].
FIGURE 2 - SAMPLE MOO FORMAT*
*Excerpt from FUN 101 student interview
Frizzy = FUN 101 instructor/interviewer
Edward = FUN 101 student
Frizzy asks, "Are there any Internet resources which have helped you improve your writing in English?"
Edward says, "So far, schMOOze and Frizzy University."
Frizzy asks, "How have each of those resources helped you?"
Edward says, "They help me to have an opportunity to practice and learn English writing skills."
Frizzy asks, "Would you recommend using these resources to other students learning English?"
Edward says, "Yes."
Frizzy asks, "Why?"
Edward says, "It is flexible and the students are coming from different places and there is no competition among the students. There is no pressure at all . . . "
Because the students' and interviewer's words were being transcribed in writing instantaneously, along with the conversation, there was minimal chance of garbled dialogue, or transcription discrepancies, as might be the result of the traditional interview ing technique of audio taping, and later transcribing.
In addition to providing information on the students' own perceptions of their writing ability and confidence, these interviews also served as participatory research in that the students gave me feedback to help improve future FUN courses.
During the inception, planning and facilitation of FUN 101, the instructor/researcher kept notes about experiences, impressions and observations in a journal. Analysis of this source of data reveals technical considerations, pedagogical concerns, and tea cher's perceptions of the changes in the students' ability and confidence in writing in English over the 8-week course period.
Because the entire course was conducted online, I was able to save all correspondence throughout the course, including teacher-student and student-student notes, homework assignments, peer reading worksheets, essay drafts and final essays with comments. Analysis of this material reflects the students' their attitudes toward using the Internet to learn English, plus their progress in developing their ability and confidence in writing English as well.
Other data collection resources
To begin discussion with other ESOL instructors around the world using the Internet in their classes, I created and began facilitating NETEACH-L, an online discussion list, in July 1995. Since then, more than 300 ESOL instructors worldwide have subscribe d and continue to discuss issues related to using the Internet in the ESOL classroom. All of the postings are archived regularly, and accessible for analysis.
Through TESLCA-L, an online discussion list which focuses on computer-assisted language learning in the ESL field, I obtained a great deal of technical and pedagogical advice, plus information regarding the attitudes and beliefs of teachers regarding usin g the Internet in their classes.
FUN Web Page
The FUN Web page served as a means of participatory research in that the FUN 101 students explored the sites linked to the page, then gave feedback to their classmates and me. Their feedback will help in the development of web-related assignments for fut ure FUN students. In addition, their feedback will be helpful as the FUN web page continues to develop and evolve as a language-learning resource and educational tool in and of itself.
I built the internal validity of this qualitative case study by using multiple methods to examine the data collected. Within this study, I did the following:
This triangulation confirms findings of the impacts of learning English on the Internet on EFL students, from the point of view of not only the observer, but the students and the instructor as well. Through this method, I show both an internal and extern al picture of the FUN 101 experience.
To further build internal validity, the interview questions underwent thorough peer evaluation during a graduate seminar on Educational Research, San Francisco State University, Summer 1995. In addition, I received ongoing feedback on all aspects of my r esearch project from colleagues who were concurrently conducting thesis research of their own (Frank, Goldstein, Shetzer, Younger).
Lastly, the aspect of this study which builds the most internal validity is my direct and continuous involvement with the FUN 101 students. As the instructor of FUN 101, I had an internal view of what took place in this classroom.
External validity has been built into this study in several ways. First, I concede that using the Internet is not the only classroom influence which will have an effect on the students. In fact, the teacher, classmates, course materials and other factor s involved all had major impacts on the confidence and writing ability of the students in this study. Therefore, rather than conducting a quantitative study in which the use of the Internet is isolated as an independent variable and prove or disprove its impact on students, this qualitative study accepts that the impacts of Internet use are in relation to the other factors involved concurrently, such as those mentioned above.
Second, I selected the FUN 101 students as representatives of a variety of EFL situations throughout the world. With representation from Europe, Asia, South America and Africa, the findings are applicable to many different EFL teaching/learning situation s in countries worldwide.
Overall, because FUN 101 was comprised of students from a multitude of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, it is realistic to expect that the findings of this study can also be applied to other EFL learning situations. However, future researchers are cautio ned to take into consideration the needs of each individual class, or group of students, when planning an online class.
Loss of Subjects
As with any university-level course, it was possible for FUN 101 students to drop the course on their own during the period in which the researcher was collecting data. In addition, motivation may have been affected by the fact that the students did not receive any university credit for FUN 101, though the workload paralleled a credit course.
The biggest influence in the participation of the students, however, was Internet access. Though I stated that Internet access for the duration of the course was required for registration, I think most students assumed that if they had access at the begi nning of the course, they would have it indefinitely. On the contrary, many students whose academic calendars conflicted with that of FUN 101 lost their access to the Internet and/or computer lab until the next semester, resulting in a substantial number of drops.
One student dropped the course because he was offered a promotion at work requiring a great deal of overtime, and another student left the course after finding out he had to have surgery which would require hospitalization and recuperation over several we eks.
Projecting that some FUN 101 students would inevitably discontinue the course for the above as well as other extenuating reasons, I registered a larger number of students (N=16) than I had hoped to end up with for the course. In the end, seven students c ompleted FUN 101.
Our main technical setback came four weeks (halfway) into the course, when I discovered that we could not set up a private newsgroup/bulletin board (BBS) as planned. The server on which our BBS was stored required that all students log on from the same s erver, and, as the FUN 101 students were all over the world, each on a different server, this was impossible. In the future, I will request a Usenet newsgroup, which could be accessed by students worldwide. Through this BBS, the students would have cond ucted peer review and class discussions in a more interactive way than through e-mail (the alias) alone.
Other technical difficulties, such as server inactivity, were experienced occasionally, but not frequently, during the course. The most frequent problem of this nature was with two students living in Zagreb, Croatia. Because of the escalating destructio n in their war-torn country, their server connection was often down. However, once an electronic mail message is sent, the message will try to get through to the recipient's mailbox for 5 days before it is returned. Therefore, sometimes the students rec eived their assignments a day or two late, but they did receive them.
In anticipation of problems with the server on which the FUN account resided, I utilized my personal Internet account (located on another server) as a backup for assignment distribution and collection. There were only two instances during the 8-week term in which this backup method was necessary.
Because I was the instructor of FUN 101, I had an inside window to the students' classroom experience. However, the possibility exists of researcher bias in reporting findings. To avoid such a situation, I established equal representation of not only my observations, but the perceptions of the students themselves, as well as feedback from other "observing" instructors.
In the case of FUN 101, the students in the sample already had some knowledge of and interest in using the Internet, as they were required to have Internet accounts and basic e-mail experience in order to participate in the class. As not all EFL students have either access to or interest in the Internet, this could potentially skew the findings of this research.
In addition, because I was their instructor as well as their interviewer, it is possible that the FUN 101 students might have been hesitant to criticize the course or my teaching strategies. To address this issue, when I began each interview, I asked the students to be as honest as possible when responding, explaining that honest answers would help me improve my teaching style and curricula, thus benefiting future FUN students.
As a result, the likelihood exists that the students were not biased, but, rather, more open to expressing themselves in this type of interview situation. Because they already knew and felt comfortable discussing their feelings and ideas with me, they we nt into greater detail and depth than I originally anticipated when answering questions. Having known and communicated with me for eight weeks already, the students appeared to be comfortable during their interviews, as we had already established a level of trust.
In addition, the students might have felt more confident about expressing themselves to me during our online interviews because we were not face-to-face, but, rather, communicating under pseudonyms, and in a more anonymous manner than in traditional inter views.
I collected the data for this case study through the following instruments:
These sources provided the data necessary for analysis of the thesis research question and subsequent categories of inquiry. In the sections below, each data collection instrument is described in detail, focusing on the data reduction and data analysis s trategies, including a rationale for each.
1. Interview transcripts
The interviews of FUN 101 students, conducted online, in real time, in writing, were reviewed using an open-coding approach. I first read through all of the student interviews, then reread them, the second time organizing the students' responses into com mon categories and subcategories. After this was completed, I compared these new categories to the my original categories of inquiry. This led me to discover which aspects of the research question had been answered, which had not, and which new question s had been brought up by the students themselves during the interview process. This open process was extremely beneficial for this study in particular, as its focus is on the impacts of the Internet on these students. On several occasions, the students brought up points that I had not thought of previously, but then explored withi n the context of this thesis, or, at the very least, will note within the conclusion as suggestions for further study.
2. Student writing samples
In analyzing the writing samples of the students in FUN 101 (including essays, freewrites, discussion questions based on readings, and general student-teacher correspondence), I used a selective-coding approach to interpret the data, based upon my origina l categories of inquiry.
Because there was such a large amount of data (all correspondence throughout the course), to make the most efficient use of time available, I chose a more structured approach to analyzing the students' writing than with analyzing the student interviews. Nevertheless, I remained open to discoveries beyond the categories of inquiry once in the midst of analysis.
3. Instructor's journal
The journal I kept throughout FUN 101 was coded selectively, based on the specific categories of inquiry (and subsequent subcategories). In this journal, I described my observations, concerns, and notes about changes that were indicated for future curric ula for FUN courses.
Through analyzing the student interview transcripts, their writing throughout the course, and my own teaching journal, I was able to see that FUN 101 was a beneficial experience for everyone involved.
Continue on to Chapter Four (Findings) 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.