Chapter 4: Description of site

Having examined the theoretical background and implications for the use of WWW in language teaching in Chapters One and Two, in Chapter Three a theoretical framework was formulated for the use of WWW at ELI. What follows is the application of these ideas on a practical level as the materials designed, and the rational behind them, are described in more detail.

4.1 Introduction

Criswell (1989) offers ten steps for the design, production and evaluation of material for computer-based instruction. In a general sense, in Chapters One, Two and Three of this dissertation, the first steps have been concluded, those of establishing the context within which the material will be used and providing a framework for the effective use of materials within this context. According to Criswell the following steps are those of sequencing the topics and tasks, writing the material and designing and programming the material while providing any supporting documents deemed necessary. These are the stages which will be analysed in this chapter, leaving the last steps, those of evaluation and follow-up, for the remaining chapters of this thesis.

ELI has a website which is relatively active in the sense that it has not been designed solely for marketing purposes. It is not simply an advertisement for the school and its courses, but is also intended to have a much wider promotional goal. It aims, for example, at providing students with detailed information about the school and its courses, at keeping them informed of news at the school, providing a forum for pages they may wish to publish on the web in English, and at providing them with a series of links for further exploration of English in their homes.

These links were also intended for, and have been exploited by, teachers for use in class. To aid this, a number of lesson plans and worksheets have been produced on paper for some of the web sites included in these links pages. Nevertheless, as has been outlined earlier, use of the WWW has remained limited, and there are serious doubts as to how effectively it has been exploited. The key problems are those of experience on the part of both teachers and students, the enormity of the source and the lack of training as to how best to manipulate and exploit the range of material available. Existing attempts at making the materials more manageable had obviously failed, so the task was to go further and also to do so on-line: only then would the full implications and the strengths and weakness of the medium be recognised and successfully dealt with; only then would the material begin to realise its potential and allow teachers to begin to prepare lessons and explore the material outside of the school while providing equal freedom to students, who may begin to exploit the resources outside of normal class time. The overall aim is to provide sufficient guidance and support, while gaining maximum use from the flexibility that access to on-line materials offers.

4.2 Description of materials designed

The initial decision was to move from the existing set of on-line links to something much more concrete. A simple indication of material which could be exploited was clearly not enough; it had to be embedded within a structured support system, one which would be flexible enough to scaffold without overwhelming and capable of aiding and encouraging a move towards more autonomous exploration of the ideas as confidence grew.

A key starting point was the necessity of reducing or filtering the amount of information available and outlining how it could be effectively used in the language classroom. The initial step in reducing the potential overload of input was that of creating a specific homepage for all the levels at ELI on the main ELI web site. This creation of a homepage as recognised by Heimans (1995) can help overcome "logistical difficulties" when dealing with the WWW. One of the first great challenges of the WWW, that of searching for material and evaluating the potential maze of the initial search results, is thus greatly reduced, promoting a less threatening introduction to the material, the WWW and its potential use for the specific purpose of language learning.

The new system, whereby each level had its own page, was intended to facilitate a starting point while also encouraging a sensation of both control and ease. It was also important, however, to create a general homepage for the whole project as students move from level to level and often do not know what level they are in. For parents also, it was necessary to have an address from which any level could be reached. Thus, students or teachers could either remember their own level or, particularly as they grew accustomed to the system and moved from level to level, go to the homepage of the project and find the homepage corresponding to this level from there. In other words there were many homepages within one. It was thus possible to type to get a list of all the levels and their corresponding pages or type the same address followed by the name of any level at ELI to go directly to the homepage devoted to this level.

Having determined this framework, it was then necessary to work on what material would be included for each level on their homepage, taking into account factors such as age, level and their related experience with the WWW. As an initial starting point it was decided to incorporate a range of vocabulary and grammar practice activities with content specifically related to ELI courses. The idea of such "personalization" was to provide material which would appeal to students and attract them to the site. It was also seen as particularly useful for lower levels, especially younger learners who have in the past been seen to both enjoy and benefit from such computer-based practice. However, his was seen as a starting point only, with the more general goal being the exploitation of existing websites and the authenticity they provide. These would be divided into two principle areas: those with tasks related to topics in the students’ coursebooks and sites for more general, freer exploitation. This required a process of searching and evaluation as these sites were selected.

Furthermore, the whole issue of fully utilising such a homepage had to be considered in terms of what other features would encourage students and teachers to explore the material and, indeed, to return to the page again and again. This implies careful consideration of the support material necessary: what on-line guidance is necessary to help people towards the most effective use of the material and what off-line support there should be to provide adequate teacher and student training.

The different elements of the homepages designed for specific levels is described in more detail below.

4.2.1 Vocabulary Section

This section of the homepage offers a series of activities, using Java for more vocabulary and grammar-centred practice and Flash for more graphically attractive games, particularly suited for younger learners. These aim at recycling vocabulary and grammar points from this level's coursebook. This, in many ways, is a very traditional, instructivist use of CALL, effectively using the WWW as a new platform for more traditional CALL activities, albeit a platform that has the advantages of existing beyond the class or ELI computer room. For higher levels it also provided a quick solution for teachers with "early finishers", by providing an easily accessed source of extra material while avoiding the dangers of students surfing without purpose or control.

As a criticism of such an approach, Warschauer and Healey (1998) argue that: "While both teachers and learners see some utility in basic language drills, such as of irregular verb forms, repetitive practice only fits into a small part of language learning when the goal is communication in the target language." Nevertheless, particularly for lower levels, this has traditionally been a very successful and profitable use of CALL material at ELI. The intention was that the inclusion of similar material on the website would provide a familiar and unthreatening starting point for many teachers and students, encouraging familiarity with the homepage and ultimately leading to more creative and deeper exploration of the range of material and potential available.


4.2.2 Coursebook Section

While the above activities have been specifically designed for ELI levels it is also possible to access a wider range of similar material on-line through sites specifically designed for ESL students. These sites may also offer opportunities to exchange opinions and information with fellow students. Indeed, Chuan & Kung (2002) indicate that from their research: "The students deemed it appropriate to learn English through teacher-recommended ESL web sites…" but they continue to highlight the fact that even using such controlled sites: "... students needed instruction regarding where the sites are and in how to use them." Such sites do have potential but so too do sites which are not directly related to ESL at all, as Teeler and Gray (2000: 65) point out:

"…there are many ways of practising language without restricting yourself to ELT pages. In fact, it can be argued that through using these authentic sites that students may find increased motivation and language learning potential given appropriate support and well-designed tasks."

This section of the ELI class homepages is considered fundamental for the development of long term and profitable use from a more constructivist approach, centring as it does on the provision of carefully designed tasks which offer the opportunity of expanding coursebook topics and material from the class into the real world.

In many ways this is the central area of the whole project, implying as it does, effective use by teacher and student within a pedagogical framework entirely compatible with what happens in standard ELI classes. As mentioned in Chapter Two, many newer coursebooks already provide similar on-line resources. Nevertheless, there is a vast difference between material and tasks presented on a very general scale and those designed for the very specific audience, the teachers and students of a particular language academy represent. It is hoped that this attention to detail aids the effective exploitation of the material and ideas offered. What is clear, is the potential advantages of taking a theme introduced in a coursebook and supplementing this with authentic input. Eastment (1998a) gives a sample activity, "Virtual Shopping" and says: "This kind of activity involves authentic language, authentic information, and the use of real-world skills in retrieving the information." One specific example at ELI clearly illustrates this point. A coursebook used at ELI devotes a unit to the theme of Soap Opera, producing an artificial soap opera with characters, reading and listening texts in the process. What has been found at ELI is that using an authentic WWW site, developed around a real TV soap opera is far more interesting, stimulating and can be exploited for similar language benefits when used in conjunction with the coursebook but while replacing artificial with authentic input.

Choosing and evaluating web sites is time consuming but crucial to the successful outcome of the project. Eastment (1998b) offers the following criteria as being essential in the choosing and evaluation of web sites: aim, accuracy, authority, currency, depth, design, regularity of update. Warschauer, Shetzer and Meloni (2000: 61) come to similar conclusions as they highlight the need to consider who wrote the page for whom and with what purpose through a series of questions they propose as being important when evaluating a website.

Previous experience of web sites changing addresses, disappearing, or the content changing and not always being maintained, combined with the above guidelines, led to the decision to use web sites which, where possible, belonged to reputable organisations. These were more likely to be regularly updated, remain in place and to contain appropriate content. Search Engines specific to children and younger surfers were also used to increase the likelihood of appropriacy of content. Sites were also selected with a view to level of the English included and also the use of images, graphics and other multimedia material which may aid make the language easier to assimilate.

Indeed, the whole question of design was vital in aiding the selection of pages which were easy to surf yet attractive to use. One final aspect which was evaluated positively was that of potential interaction: from submitting votes, to forms, to emailing, any opportunity for student interaction with a site was seen as a potential attraction, increasing motivation and the opportunity to use language actively in an authentic context.

What remains is the question of how best to exploit this resource on a larger scale. The nature of the activity, what students and teacher are required to do, how they are asked to do it and how they are prepared to do it are crucial. Teeler and Gray (2000: 59) point out that such activities lend themselves to task-based learning and, as already seen, such an approach will fit closely with existing practices at ELI. The same authors (2000: 83) offer a list of what good tasks should achieve including, as mentioned in the previous chapter, the involvement and individuality of the learner and the necessity of providing a challenge without being threatening.

The worksheets offered in this area of the site aim at providing tasks which are suitable for the level, which are clear, which incorporate multimedia elements of the WWW where possible, as mentioned in Chapter Two, and which provide flexibility by allowing for students to adopt individual learning paths. These activities clearly promote pre- and post-computer activities which encourages the teacher and student to incorporate the computer based work within the more general framework of what is happening in class and in doing so, use the input and stimulus of the WWW-based material to the maximum, in order to develop not only language exposure and awareness but also reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, as students are stimulated by this exposure. In this way, tasks build on tasks, classroom and WWW material can be interlinked and a whole range of language learning avenues and opportunities explored.

These tasks draw on many of the concepts fundamental to Web Quests. The creator of the concept, Dodge (1997) highlights that: "There is questionable educational benefit in having learners surfing the net without a clear task in mind ..." and thus, according to this author, Web Quests should contain the following: an introduction; tasks that are doable and interesting; information sources needed to complete the tasks and if possible embedded in the web quest document itself; a description of process learners should go through to accomplish task; guidance on how to organise the information acquired; and finally, a conclusion. These issues have been central to the development of the tasks for exploitation of coursebook topics on-line and therefore also in terms of complying with the aims of integrating WWW material and with normal ELI teaching approaches and goals.



4.2.3 Websites Section

The Web Sites section of a homepage offers something very different to the previous section. Brandl (2002): discusses tasks that move from being teacher-centred to student-centred: "When shifting from teacher-centered to student-centered designs, the students’ levels of proficiency play an increasing pivotal role that also needs to be taken into account." This proficiency may refer to both language and to effective navigation skills; adequate confidence on both these levels will avoid cognitive overload within new on-line environments. This section is aimed very much at students who may have attained sufficient exposure to on-line materials and their manipulation for language learning purposes and feel confident enough to develop their own approaches as to how best to use a given site for their own personal needs. This clearly requires a degree of self-awareness and thus of learner autonomy, although the level required may depend on the given site.

This area of the homepage is designed more for future than immediate exploitation. Once students have had experience with more controlled tasks and activities on the homepage, beginning perhaps with more limited instructivist grammar practice, developing confidence in class with the manipulation of more complex task-based activities centred around topics from their coursebook and under guidance of their teacher, it is hoped that students may return to their homepage outside of class time, explore areas they have previously seen and perhaps eventually develop the confidence and skills to explore the more demanding, challenging, but potentially liberating, Web Sites section.


4.2.4 Exam Practice Section

One final area of the site is that which offers information about the exam contexts of both mid-course and end-of-course exams at ELI for each level. The intention is that the homepage becomes a centre for students, not only to practise their English, but also to rely on for very specific information about their course, with a view to instilling a general sense of awareness of the usefulness of their level’s homepage and in the process aiding both Integrative and Instrumental learner-motivation. The primary aim of this area is thus promotional: it may serve to bring students to the site and while there, they may begin to explore the wider range of possibilities offered. Java-based activities, which will provide specific practice for these exams, are currently being developed to further these intentions.

4.2.5 Support

What can be clearly noticed through these web pages is not only a range of pre-selected activities, but the necessity for a range of aids aimed at illustrating and teaching both students and teachers how best to exploit this material, which ranges from very controlled individualistic grammar or vocabulary practice, to more task-based class-integrated work, to particular activities which students can explore by themselves outside of class without the help of a teacher but within the comfort and familiarity of a framework which will provide support, training and ultimately the ability to gain increasing autonomy. These support features take various forms.

Firstly, all the tasks in the coursebook section have links on the left-hand side to an on-line grammar and dictionary and a search engine, which encourage students to explore these options at will. There are also links to TIPS for students and teachers. These TIPS provide a collection of hints, information and points to consider when using the WWW as a whole and also individual aspects, such as on-line listening, reading, images and how these factors can be combined to aid overall comprehension. The TIPS section is highlighted on each homepage and effective manipulation it is considered invaluable for further self-study and the development of learner autonomy. The TIPS are envisaged as a support tool which the student may use more than once. Indeed, these TIPS may be most helpful when returned to on a more continuous basis, as ideas develop and a series of wider questions and experiences emerge.

There is also a large amount of paper-based support material aimed at encouraging the full exploitation of these pages in class. Firstly, there is a simple questionnaire for first-time users aimed at eliciting information on students’ perceptions of the WWW and their skills in using it. There is also a paper-based pack introducing the WWW with typical terms, diagrams of the main features of a browser and a series of simple activities to explore essential skills, such as manipulating hypertext, typing addresses, scrolling, manipulating different windows etc. This has been used with both teachers and students. To aid understanding of the website and what it contains, copies of a typical homepage and a typical task based on a coursebook unit have been printed, adapted and photocopied, providing students and teachers with the task of identifying, on paper, the different elements included in these pages.

Finally, for teachers, there has been a continuous campaign of maintaining awareness of the WWW through a regularly produced in-house leaflet "Netmag". This includes up-to-date information about innovations within ELI, references to sites of use for teachers and occasional lesson plans for seasonal topics such as Christmas. Finally, a site aimed specifically at guiding teachers was created, with the idea of promoting a positive perception of and encouraging interaction with the WWW on or off ELI premises. This site,, offered a growing collection of worksheets for use by teachers in class. Not directly related to the overall project, it is seen as serving a promotional function.

4.3 Implementation

The initial website was developed from January 2002 to April 2002. It was initially introduced to teachers in May 2002. This introduction was for all forty teachers working full-time at ELI. This was close to the end of the standard courses, which finish in June, so it was seen more as an initial presentation than a serious attempt at implementing the material. Nevertheless, many teachers did explore with the material and three teachers spent some time experimenting with the Web pages in more depth over the final two months of that course, as part of an initial exploration and evaluation period. This period, and people’s experiences were used as an initial opportunity to experiment in the phases Criswell (1989) describes as evaluation and revision.

On the basis of this initial, often informal, appraisal certain changes were made. One of the crucial ones was that of changing many links for the Coursebook material, as it was quickly discovered that a page, no matter how interesting, if not from a major organisation will all too quickly disappear at worst, or remain inactive at best. A certain revision of the sites initially selected was necessary with the corresponding alterations to the given tasks. It was also noted that the questions included in the tasks would have to be, whenever possible, as general as possible to accommodate ever-changing content: thus, "note down two adjectives to describe a picture you can see" has a longer active life than: "note down two adjectives to describe the picture of a train on the left of the screen".

What was also observed was the unexpected complexity of the homepages and tasks when presented to teachers. The initial presentation proved too detailed for many teachers, who remained without a clear idea of the objectives, the material available or the potential for use within their classes. In presenting the site, while expecting teachers to have certain problems navigating, their overall miscomprehension when presented with the range of what was available was underestimated. As a direct consequence, the whole presentation of the site to teachers was re-designed. As outlined earlier, support material on paper was also extended. Worksheets were produced heightening awareness of the different parts of the site and coursebook related tasks. Likewise, teachers were aided in how best to present it in class through initial surveys gaining information about their students experiences and perceptions of the WWW in general, and in terms of English learning.

After this initial exploratory period, October 2002 provided the opportunity to investigate the material afresh from the beginning of a school year - October 2002 to June 2003 - at ELI. The material was presented to all teachers again but, after previous experience, with the addition of more support material on paper and a much clearer list of activities to accomplish with this material. Teachers were given a presentation outlining the material, the theory and also the potential for use in class. In the computer room they followed the WWW support pack which was also provided for use with their students. Teachers were thus given an introduction to both the material available and to how they could present it to their students as effectively the material they had just experimented with could, in turn, be used by teachers in class to provide a similar introduction of for their students.

This initial presentation was followed by an initial trial period when all teachers were encouraged to attempt one or two lessons with some of their pre- to upper-intermediate teenage or adult groups. Teachers were asked to complete a feedback questionnaire on each group and if feasible each student in the class also completed a personal student feedback questionnaire. Meanwhile, a focus group of five teachers continued to experiment more regularly and more extensively with some of their classes.

Two months into the academic year a further training session was held with teachers in which experiences, which varied from a single attempt with one class to teachers who had at this stage used the material reasonably regularly with various classes, could be exchanged. As expected, a large number of ideas, experiences and indeed problems were noted and discussed. Overall, however, initial experiences were positive and people were left with the desire to explore further. This provided the stimulus for the remainder of the year, while the focus group of five continued exploring the area consistently with certain groups of students.

The in-house WWW newsletter for teachers, Netmag, also continued to serve as a forum for ideas, novelties and feedback throughout this period. Further training and feedback sessions might have been useful but it was decided that this would be too much of a workload for an already hard working staff. It was also felt that, after initial training and encouragement, breathing space needed to be given to the material rather than forcing its acceptance with possible long-term negative effects.

Apart from use in class, the site was also promoted to students and parents outside of class, through publicity such as the in-house magazine but also in a brochure aimed at raising parents’ and students’ awareness of what the school offered and, of course, through the ELI website itself.

4.4 Within The Theoretical framework

As discussed in Chapter Three, in order to fulfil its potential the site would have to comply with a series of pedagogical implications and the framework within which they were summarised. What follows is an analysis of the site under the general areas selected in the previous chapter.

4.4.1 Language Learning potential

It is hoped that there is a lot of potential. Students are exposed to authentic language, which implies increased motivation but also the necessity of dealing adequately and efficiently with this real input. The tasks designed in the Coursebook area attempt to address this challenge and bring it into the language classroom in a positive and accessible way, focussing particularly on skills development and the impulse authentic material provides. The site also encourages students at home, outside of normal class time, to explore the same information and input and attempts to help them develop the skills necessary to make the most of such opportunities. The learning potential, in terms of language and in terms of skills practice is great and the intention is to make sure that sufficient and effective support exists to maximise such opportunities and potential. Furthermore, it is hoped that the language learning potential will grow and expand with time as students and teachers develop more confidence and move into exploring the full range of possibilities, rather than concentrating on one specific area or task type.

4.4.2 Learner fit

The homepages clearly intend to cater for of a range of learning styles, experience and IT knowledge. From simple-to-use games, to more complex coursebook lesson plans, to completely autonomous use of web sites which have been recommended as useful, these homepages attempt to accommodate to a wide range of student expectations and experience. Initially, the teacher will be present to help initiate the first contact and guide the students towards a fulfilling exploration and discovery of what is available and how they can use it. The site itself contains further guidance in the form of TIPS. The division of the site into levels also aids the intention of providing material very specifically designed for a certain level and age group. Also, of vital importance is the fact that the coursebook tasks closely fit existing ELI methodological practices and thus follows a pattern both students and teachers are familiar with and have grown to expect. Once again, over time this area will develop as learners hopefully gain the experience necessary to choose and tailor activities and websites even more closely to their individual needs.

4.4.3 Meaning focus

The range of materials available, from simple drill and vocabulary practice exercises to more complex task-based material will provide some scope for a focus on form and meaning although, what is clear, is that the teacher may play a crucial role in the full development of this area, initially at least. While specific language practice activities automatically focus students on form, more general web-based exploration may lead to concentration on skills practice rather than grammatical form, unless a teacher or task specifies otherwise. What may be developed over time is that meaning focus becomes the result of the exploration of authentic material and the skills practice they and associated tasks generate, rather than of direct explanations and input from a coursebook or the teacher.

4.4.4 Authenticity

One of the enormous benefits of what has just been outlined is that the majority of the material is embedded in an authentic context. The focus on form and meaning is anchored within real language input, as is the stimulus for skills practice. Initially, students may need help in dealing with this, but the intention is that through scaffolding from the teacher, the site and the support materials, students will develop their own evaluative powers and navigational skills to gain maximum benefit from authentic sources rather than being cowered by the range of input they may represent.

4.4.5 Positive impact

All the above are intended to stimulate the positive impact on the learner and on the teacher also; both these elements are clearly very closely interrelated. Great care must be taken, however, in the initial stages and presentations: what begins positively may very well grow efficiently in a variety of ways. On the other hand, an initially negative perception may have equally long-term repercussions. A fully positive impact will hopefully imply that, in the medium to long term, teachers but especially students will begin to explore the homepages outside of class, outside the school.

4.4.6 Practicality

This is a crucial area, as once something does not work teachers and students ignore the experiment very quickly and return to the familiarity of their standard classrooms. In terms of technological needs the material was designed to make the least demands on given WWW access capabilities: thus, for example, potentials such as real time video feeds remain something to be explored in the future when the speed of connections improve. Furthermore, the material was designed to make as few demands on student and teacher technological experience as possible, excluding for example chat rooms and other interactive environments which may demand more specific training. Although some teachers have investigated their potential, the whole areas of email exchanges and the creation of personal web pages by students have also been reserved for future exploration. The result may be a heavily text-based approach but it is only seen as a starting point. Once familiarity has been gained, more specific areas may be investigated and trained for.

As already mentioned, paper versions of all coursebook related tasks all exist and students and teachers are encouraged to use them if they feel more comfortable with both a text copy and a copy on screen. Furthermore, the inclusion of the Vocabulary Practice section and Exam Information have the practical intention of making the Web pages useful in an immediate, practical manner, which may draw learners into the more complex but perhaps in the long term more beneficial opportunities offered by the site for language learners at ELI. Design

Effective design is a crucial aspect of the issue of practicability. Herrington and Oliver (1997: 142) for example, highlight that: "... we need to be cognisant of the various design factors which can impede or enhance learning. In multimedia environments, these include such elements as the motivational aspects of the environment, the interface design, and the navigation elements employed." Saxena, Kothari, Jain and Khurana (2002) make similar points: "The need to select and combine images, words, and increasingly other multimedia components of textuality in electronic media should make us aware that design is, and has always been, a generic if often implicit function of literacy." In terms of specifying what good design may incorporate, Kristof and Satran (1995) provide checklists which in many ways highlight simplicity above all else as being vital, a notion supported by Hedberg, Harper and Brown (1993) and Kelly (2000) who also discuss what makes a good web page.

The design of the site has intended to make the range and variety of material available as clear as possible. Key to this has been the decision to develop a framework through which, by typing a set address followed by the level at ELI the user gains access directly to a homepage for that level. A main page with all the levels is also available and promoted. Navigation through the options on all pages is intended to be immediately striking but unobtrusive, with colour and images highlighting options and what is available in a discreet but hopefully, clarifying manner.

In terms of the Coursebook lesson plans, the point raised by Higgins (1986: 48) has been taken into account when he points out that instructions on screen need to be recallable as: "... people are evidently not skilled at absorbing information in discrete screenfuls." For this reason, students and teachers are encouraged to print the instructions if necessary, which is feasible at ELI, while another key feature is that the START and other links on the site open in a new window. This creates, as was discovered with initial presentations to teachers, the necessity of instructing students and teachers in the ability to surf between windows.

4.4 Conclusions

Attempting to include the issues outlined in Chapter One and Two within the pedagogical framework outlined in Chapter Three, this chapter has described the material designed. What remains is to outline how it has been tested and what results such analysis has provided.