For the first time in the history of ESOL writing instruction, a course was conducted via the Internet, connecting students all over the world to improve their ability and confidence in writing in English. The potential impacts of my experience are important in the field of ESOL instruction, opening up opportunities for international teachers and students alike.
Through FUN 101, I learned a great deal about the technical and pedagogical aspects of teaching an online ESOL composition course, and utilizing the Internet as a powerful language teaching and learning tool. As the students of FUN 101 all agreed, interactivity between the students is the key to the success of an online course (or any language class for that matter). In future courses, I will increase the use of schMOOze for class discussions, and will also assign projects which students can work on collaboratively, either through schMOOze, e-mail or a newsgroup (conference), or the World Wide Web.
In the future I plan to integrate technology into the classroom, as well as the classroom onto the Internet. Many educators predict the eventual extinction of the traditional classroom, but I do not think it will happen. As with any teaching tool or instrument, we do not simply accept it in and of itself as the end all to be all. In fact, it is advisable to utilize as many different teaching tools in the classroom as possible, appealing to a wide variety of learners' and teachers' styles, abilities, interests, and strategies. Using the Internet as a tool in the ESOL writing classroom does not presume forfeiting established teaching and learning tools which have helped students in the past.
Rather, the Internet can add to and improve upon what ESOL teachers have been doing for years now--teaching writing in a student-centered, communicative and collaborative classroom environment. Whether learning takes place completely online or in a traditional setting in combination with the virtual, students can extend their learning beyond what the traditional classroom offers for the improvement of their ability and confidence to write and communicate in English. Indeed, the Internet provides ESOL students with opportunities for:
Furthermore, using various functions of the Internet, such as e-mail, MOO and the World Wide Web, can help ESOL students further develop their skills in reading (including skimming and scanning), writing for specific purposes and audiences, and, most of all, critical thinking. Moreover, students enjoy being a part of the newly-developing Internet community.
Throughout the process of conducting research for this project, several themes emerged repeatedly. From the feedback I have received at conferences, during casual in-person discussion, and on line (through discussion lists and personal communication), one of the major concerns of ESOL instructors is the time required to train some students in basic keyboarding and computer skills in order to be able to participate in online activities. Future research will be helpful in determining the ideal role of ESOL teachers in this area (Should we be expected to teach computer language, too?), and making recommendations on who should be facilitating our students' learning of how to use a computer. This is an area which warrants research in not only ESOL, but across the curriculum, as computer skills will benefit students in all university-level courses, and not just English.
Another consideration is that of establishing Internet access for language learners in rural, remote or impoverished locations. Is practical to think that the Internet will provide education to people who currently do not have the means or money to attend traditional colleges or universities? Though it is possible, is it likely? Research would be highly valued which examines the potential costs and time required for establishing technical connections in this area. Also worthy of consideration are the time and resources necessary for training teachers and students how to use the technology, not only technically, but pedagogically as well.
Lastly, and perhaps most important to our field, is the exigency for ESOL instructors in various settings throughout the field to begin integrating suggestions based on my research and that of others. Thus, even though my results are based on an EFL teaching experience, these findings are applicable to a variety of classroom situations.
Indeed, as ESOL teachers around the world experiment with the Internet as a teaching and learning tool, and share their results on discussion lists, or in trade journals, magazines and books, we will all benefit and become empowered as instructors working to best prepare our students for a future of lifelong learning and success in the real world.
The virtual classroom is indeed a reality, and will become increasingly important as education moves into the 21st Century. However, though the possibility exists for the replacement of the traditional classroom with the virtual, based on my research, I do not think this would be beneficial for all students or teachers.
Granted, for the students mentioned in the introduction to this thesis (i.e. those for whom the virtual classroom makes education accessible), learning online may be their only option for furthering their education. However, that is exactly what the entirely virtual classroom should be--an option. There is little concrete proof available which shows that students learn more (or more effectively) when taking courses completely on line.
However, researchers have shown that, when used as a teaching tool to supplement the traditional classroom, elements of the virtual classroom can indeed be beneficial to both students and teachers. In fact, as the world around us evolves technologically, learning online may better prepare our students for the thinking and tasks they will be expected to accomplish not only in the work place, but across all aspects of their lives.
What I have discovered through my own research is that there are benefits to teaching and learning online as well as in traditional settings. Rather than choose one over the other, I recommend combining the best aspects of each in order to create a setting which is most conducive for students learning how to think and write as they will be expected to do not only in academia, but in the outside world as well.
Learning to navigate the Internet and sift through and decipher large amounts of information with speed and accuracy will prepare students for the challenges they will face as society delves deeper into the Information Age. It is especially helpful for students to develop thinking skills inside the classroom which parallel those commonly used outside the classroom. As Kemp (1994) asserts:
Now the search for academic proof has shifted to the use of computers in classrooms and in instruction, as if instructional activities are qualitatively different from occupational activities. "Granted that almost everyone who needs to write uses a computer to write"-- the argument goes-- "but that doesn't mean that computers have a place in the classroom." The implication here is that writing instruction doesn't involve writing, that whatever it is we do in the classroom, it is qualitatively different from whatever it is that people do when they actually write in life. This doesn't make sense to me.
By exposing our students to resources such as the World Wide Web, which functions much in the same way as people think (i.e. in non-linear fashion), we are providing our students with an education that will prepare them for the kinds of thinking and writing they will be expected to do once out of the shelter of our classrooms.
As the Internet affects our lives across all disciplines, those who can write and think quickly and critically will be the ones who are ultimately successful in what is the goal for most human beings--to communicate (Anderson, 1995). However, those who do not possess fluency in the use of computers and writing will be considered by academic standards to be uneducated, and will likely fall behind not only on college campuses, but in their work places as well.
Moreover, as intercultural connections in academia and the work place increase, it is especially important for ESOL students to gain skills in writing for not only one person (a teacher), but for global audiences, which is possible through the Internet. What's more, the Internet supplies a multitude of purposes for writing, which provides the ESOL instructor with many ideas for lessons (some of which have already been tested and posted online by other teachers).
At the present time, the virtual ESOL writing classroom has no established protocol, so it is up to those of us currently experimenting with this alternative to traditional teaching to bear the responsibility and duty of sharing what we learn with others. As a community of instructors, many of whom feel stifled by traditionally-accepted teaching methods in ESOL writing (i.e. writing essays) and a lack of application to the `real world' (i.e. writing for the teacher only), we are in a position to work collaboratively, discovering and developing what the protocol for teaching ESOL online should be.
Teachers who accept this challenge with enthusiasm and positivity will not only be at the forefront of historical change, will but also have a creative outlet in which to explore new and inventive ideas for teaching language, thus helping to develop a new paradigm in education.
Because the Internet removes barriers of color, race, ethnicity, gender, age, disability and other attributes which people use against each other in everyday life, I find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand how anyone in the field of ESOL instruction could see the Internet as anything but educational.
It is time that educators and administrators accept the influence and impact of computers on life as we know it. Once we concede that some past approaches to education which still remain in place are no longer applicable to the world in which we are preparing our students to function today, we can then work together to effectively utilize the tools at our disposal, such as the Internet, and offer our ESOL students the education they deserve and crave.
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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.