Below, I summarize the students' responses to my interview questions, and then continue the discussion based on the students' writing and my journal. The following findings reflect the advantages and disadvantages of teaching and learning writing in Engl ish as a foreign language in the completely virtual classroom.
During the post-course interviews with the students of FUN 101, I asked them how they felt about their confidence and ability to write in English, and the impacts of the Internet on those perceptions. We also discussed what they felt were the primary adv antages, as well as any disadvantages, of learning English online [see Figure 3 below].
FIGURE 3: SUMMARY OF FUN 101 STUDENT INTERVIEWS
|Use natural English (6)|
|Improve overall writing ability (5)|
|Exposure to natural English (5)|
|Necessity to think in English (5)|
|Intercultural interaction (5)|
|Timely reader response (4)|
|Learning beyond classroom (3)|
|Exposure to process writing (3)|
|Freedom of expression (3)|
|Learn new vocabulary, grammar & idiomatic phrases (3)|
As Figure 3, above, demonstrates, all of the students interviewed (six out of seven who completed the course) agree that the most important benefit of learning English online is the opportunity for using natural language (i.e. not just "textbook" language ). In addition, most FUN 101 students feel that their overall writing ability has improved since they began using the Internet, some claiming that any exposure to natural language is beneficial for language learners (Kiki; Zhang). As Zhang explained:
In my experience, we learn formal English in Hong Kong. The English you don't hear people talk or write in daily life. On the other hand, we've a greater variety of materials in Internet. From very serious articles in philosophy to foul
languages. From dirty jokes to hot debates in nuclear tests. It feels to me that they are living English, not just English on the books.
Zhang clearly emphasizes the desire to be exposed to English as native speakers actually use it. This is especially important for students learning English as a foreign language, as their exposure to natural language might be limited or, in some cases, n on-existent. Along the same lines, several students also mentioned that the Internet (e.g. the FUN Web page) provides opportunity for practicing or being exposed to English beyond the classroom (Bruce, Kiki, Zhang).
Another important discovery of the FUN 101 students is that using English for authentic communicative purposes helps them develop their ability to think in their target language. "For me," says Kiki, "the most important thing was being given some issues that make me think deeply. FUN gave me a chance to think, and organize my thinking in English."
During the interviews, most students also mentioned intercultural interaction as a major benefit of learning to write online. As Zhang comments, "It is amazing to read essays of your classmates on the other side of the earth." Vishnja adds that small, i solated countries, such as her native Croatia, can feel connected to the outside world through communication over the Internet. In fact, at different times during the course, both Vishnja and Vesna told me that it was motivational to them knowing there w as a group of people all around the world connected to them during a time of political upheaval and social unrest. They felt inspired by their intercultural connections.
Furthermore, evidence of the benefit of intercultural awareness through the Internet can be found in one excerpt from a FUN 101 student's essay on combating cultural stereotypes:
Stereotypes help to create unsure feelings between people too. They deny each person's genuineness, originality and personal value. It is very dangerous to make a generalisation about a nation, or even a person, on basis of one or two inci
dents. Someone had asked me through Internet if every Czech was blond. I had to laugh for just a small percentage of Czechs are blond. That person made a judgment according to our tennis players that (by coincident) are all blond. (Mirishka)
In this example, Mirishka shows how people can use the Internet to educate themselves and others about people and cultures outside of their native surroundings in order to prevent the perpetuation of false stereotypes.
When asked what they learned about writing in English through FUN 101, some students felt that their use of vocabulary, grammar and idiomatic phrases improved (Edward, Kiki, Vishnja, Zhang). In addition, Vishnja claims that through FUN 101 and other onli ne resources she has learned "how to communicate" in writing in English, in an environment which encourages free and open expression. "The proof of it," she says, "is maybe the realization of our FUN 101 class."
Indeed, in many foreign countries, educational systems are in place which encourage students to look to their teachers as all-knowing, and the source of all inspiration for learning, rather than looking within themselves. Students mentioned to me through out FUN 101 that they were surprised, but pleased, with the process approach to learning writing in English. One student had never been asked to give subjective opinions in a paper before, but rather facts (Bruce). Others had only taken writing courses which focused on grammar, rather than content (Vesna, Vishnja), and were motivated by my attention to their ideas.
Throughout the course, and during their interviews, though the students focused mainly on the positive aspects of using the Internet to learn English, most of the students were concerned that using the Internet requires a moderate command of the English l anguage, which is something that not all EFL students possess. Though this might provide motivation for some students to learn English in the first place (i.e. to be able to use the Internet), some beginning learners might not be able to keep up as much as advanced learners once on the Internet. As Bruce pointed out, "You must know English before you use the Internet! For FUN 101 all discussions deal with writing. A student with below standard language level, he will get lost."
Other FUN 101 students added that in order for the online learning experience to be successful, students must be able to decipher standard or conventional English from Cyber-English, as well as information which is well-written and accurate from that whic h is poorly-written and inaccurate (Vesna, Zhang).
Overall, my impression from the FUN 101 student interviews is that these learners found the Internet to be a valuable tool in learning English, but not the only way to learn English. As Zhang pointed out, the Internet should be used as an auxiliary tool, but not as the sole means of learning a language.
Additional Benefits Of The Virtual Classroom
In examining my FUN 101 teaching journal, as well as reviewing the students' assignments and correspondence, I discovered the following benefits for students of learning ESOL writing online (in addition to those which the students addressed in their inter views).
Motivation to write with authentic communicative purposes for real audiences
In sifting through the many pages of students' writing, I discovered instances when students explicitly expressed an interest in writing to their peers. On the third day of FUN 101, after having read e-mail postings from the other students, Ivan made his first contribution to the class discussion:
Does anybody have a feeling, that our discussion grows more and more philosophical? When I looked at this subject, my first thought was "Damn me, if I can handle it without a week's thinking, collecting facts and arguments and final writing some hundred p
ages". Than I gave a new look at it and decided to make an attempt. The text below is a fruit of this attempt (I do not complain, I am just excited ! :) )
Not only was this student motivated to join his intercultural peers by adding to their existing discussion, he was inspired by the subject matter to think.
I witnessed this kind of excitement in many students, as reflected in the following journal entry:
I don't know if it's the topic, the excitement of being online, or a combination of the two, but the class dynamic is really strong already. After only one week of classes, the students are very motivated to write and ask each other quest
ions about their postings. The discussion list was a good idea, I think, and one which will hopefully give the students a sense of class interaction throughout the course. (Frizler, 6/10/95)
Perhaps it was the excitement of being part of a pioneering class in language learning, or the opportunity to interact with international peers, sharing and learning at the same time. Also, the only means through which these students could communicate wa s through writing to each other, as they never met in person. Whatever their inspiration, these students were motivated to participate in the class, and it showed in their writing.
Opportunity to learn when inspired
In the traditional classroom, courses take place at specified times and days. If a student does not feel well, or is not focused on the subject of the course at the time when it is offered, there is little he can do other than miss the class. However, t he student may feel better, or more focused later in the day. Virtual classes provide students with more flexibility and more control over when and how they will study. This is especially helpful to students who have full-time jobs or who like to study at odd hours.
With the virtual classroom (except for specific times which might be arranged for MOO meetings), students can log on when they feel inspired, and not when the class is scheduled. For example, if a student wants to practice his English at 2:00 a.m., he ca n do so at schMOOze, as students and instructors all over the world participate, so there is almost always someone logged on. In addition, teachers can post assignments at 3:00 a.m. or 3 p.m, as long as they reach the students by the specified date/time they have set forth. Along the same lines, students can download assignments early in the morning or late in the evening, as long as they complete the work by the deadline set by the course instructor.
Online classes provide increased flexibility in not only time, but space as well. In addition to working at odd hours, students and teachers alike might prefer working at home rather than in an overcrowded or uncomfortable traditional classroom. Moreove r, students and teachers can do their teaching and/or learning in whichever clothes they feel most comfortable--even in pajamas!
Increased student responsibility for learning
Students who are required to participate in their own generation of knowledge, retrieval of course materials, or creation of materials for publication are naturally more responsible for their own path of learning. This is especially important for student s who feel as though they do not quite `fit' the education they are receiving. They can take their education into their own hands and adjust it for their own learning purposes.
Furthermore, participation on the Internet is viewed by its users as a two-way street. As Vishnja describes in her essay on restoring racial harmony:
An active tradition of the Internet and all other computer networks is that each individual will give back time, information and effort to the Net. In mass media, the vast majority of participants are passive recipients, in electronic med
ia the vast majority of participants are active creators.
Thus, students using the Internet are not simply being filled with information by their instructors, but they are actively creating their own knowledge and sharing with others as well.
On the Internet, students have the option of using pseudonyms, which results in increased student openness and expressiveness. In fact, one-third of the students in FUN 101 opted to use pseudonyms during the course rather than their real names.
This can especially be beneficial for ESOL students afraid of losing face if they make mistakes. If they make errors under their pseudonyms and not their real names, they might not feel as badly about it. This is especially true for students using MOO, as Falsetti (1995) describes so well:
One does not `lose face' so easily on a MOO since one has no face to lose. Because the other people with you on the MOO only know what you choose to tell them, not understanding something which was said or making a grammar error does not
produce the same `sense of shame' that face-to-face encounters so often do . . . Since the interlocutors may never meet in real life, the demands of social self-preservation are much less inhibiting.
Students are more likely to take risks in their use of a second language without the pressure of having to protect themselves from ridicule or embarrassment.
Removal of cultural, racial and sexual barriers
On the Internet, the focus is on what is being communicated, as opposed to age, race, ethnic background, gender or sexual orientation. Also, students are less likely to be intimidated or daunted by the loudmouth in class (i.e. the person who always speak s up before anyone else gets a chance to). If an online student does not want to read another student's posting, it is possible to skip over it, or in e-mail delete it. This can be very empowering for students who would normally be apprehensive about pa rticipating in a traditional classroom with such a person (Hiltz 1990).
Students can also learn without the sense of peer pressure which is so prevalent in many traditional classrooms. According to one FUN 101 student, the online course "is flexible and the students are coming from different places and there is no competitio n among the students. There is no pressure at all. They will not be afraid to express their ideas as they cannot see each other and they will not be shy" (Edward, 1995).
Limitations Of The Virtual ESOL Writing Classroom
Opportunity for plagiarism
As with any writing course, there is the possibility of students copying the work of others, or having others do their writing for them. In fact, some claim that online courses provide increased opportunity for plagiarism, as teachers might never even me et the students in person, or see for themselves that the students are doing their own work (Winet). However, this relates back to the notion of students claiming more responsibility for their own learning. The assumption is, of course, that students wh o truly want to learn will do their own work.
Lack of spontaneity
In the virtual classroom, lessons must be planned very well and in advance (in enough time to distribute to students via e-mail or markup in HTML), whereas in the traditional setting, a teacher can be walking down the hall, run into another teacher who ju st had a successful lesson, take one of her handouts and copy it, then use it for her class moments later.
This could potentially happen online if both teachers were online and one could e-mail a lesson to another teacher or that teacher could download it herself from a Web page. When a colleague recently led a successful lesson using WWW in her writing class , she stored the lesson itself on her Web page, then e-mailed me to let me know it was there, so that I could review it, or even use it in my own class. This all transpired within an hour or so of having used the lesson in her class (Shetzer). However, the more likely experience is that a teacher might find a lesson plan or materials on line to use when preparing in advance for a class, but not necessarily at the last minute.
Feeling of isolation
As the instructor of FUN 101, I felt very isolated, as I worked by myself, without the support of fellow staff or faculty. In fact, I was the only employee of FUN! However, I think this could be remedied if an online instructor were an integral part of an ESL department at a university. Regardless of whether classes are conducted online or in the traditional classroom setting, teachers need connections to each other.
My solution to this problem was to become connected with ESL teachers all over the world, via discussion lists such as TESL-L and NETEACH-L, and through schMOOze University. Surrounding myself with virtual comrades gave me the encouragement and support I needed to try out my ideas which were not understood or regarded by many in my real-life surroundings.
Technical problems which slow down the whole class
When some students do not receive their assignments on time (due to server inactivity, usually), it can throw off the entire class dynamic. For example, if instructors ask students to conduct peer review, but the students do not receive each others' essa ys, it could push back the schedule of the entire course. There is really no way to avoid such problems, and they must be dealt with as they arise.
Exposure to poorly written English
It is no secret that most anyone who has an Internet account and Web access can store information on the World Wide Web. As a result of this freedom of expression (which is the foundation of the Internet), a sizable amount of information found on line is disorganized and poorly written. However, rather than protect our language learners from such atrocities (note that we would also have to prevent our students from watching films, listening to song lyrics, or having conversations with native speakers), we can use this as an opportunity to help students discover for themselves proper and improper usage of English, and empower them to be better communicators themselves by learning the difference.
Self-discipline and self-motivation necessary
Although students and teachers alike can determine their own schedule for posting and submitting assignments, etc., this does not ensure that they will live up to their agreements.
It would be very easy to simply not log on one day, if a student did not feel like doing any work. However, this might only be the case with non-credit courses. FUN 101 students were free not to participate because they were all volunteers who were not receiving any credit for the course.
Limited availability of resources
This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that instructors and students alike will face. In fact, some opponents of educational technology focus on the fact that Internet is not accessible to all people, everywhere in the world. On the other hand, n either is an education in a traditional setting. In some respects, a virtual classroom might be more accessible to certain students than a traditional class (e.g. students with disabilities).
Physical reactions to overuse of computer
One major limitation of the virtual classroom is the strain on one's eyes, back, neck, and overall body (lack of exercise!). However, if one gets a headache from staring at the computer screen for too long, that person can get up and walk around, go outs ide and jog for half an hour, or do any number of active things. The online learner is not bound to remain in front of the computer for any specified amount of time, whereas the traditional classroom requires that students sit down in a chair (usually ol d and uncomfortable) for a pre-determined amount of time, and in a space not necessarily conducive for the student's learning style.
Continue on to Chapter Five (Discussion) 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.