Students' Perceptions of English Learning through ESL/EFL WebsitesShiao-Chuan Kung
This study investigated the potential role of ESL/EFL websites as a means to supplement in-class instruction. It evaluated a program in which forty-nine students enrolled in a high-beginner EFL class were introduced to five websites and instructed to use them for a homework assignment and for self-study. Data collected revealed that despite some difficulties encountered, students had an overall positive attitude to using the teacher-selected websites in their learning of English. The students found that learning English through ESL/EFL websites was interesting and that the teaching strategies used by the teachers were effective and necessary. A follow-up study was conducted a year later after the initial study and the results supported the original findings.
Technology, especially the emergence of the Internet, is affecting every aspect of education and changing the way we teach and learn. "It is no longer a question of whether to take advantage of these electronic technologies in foreign language instruction, but of how to harness them and guide our students in their use" (Paulsen, 2001). How to take advantage of Internet resources to facilitate language learning is an issue considered in many eloquent articles and publications (see Felix, 1999; Osuna & Meskill, 1998; Singhal, 1997; Sperling, 1997; Warschauer, 1995; Warschauer, Schetzer & Meloni, 2000). Numerous websites present compilations of online resources for language teachers (see Kitao & Kitao, 2000; Depoe, 2001). Still other sites such as the Internet TESL Journal at http://iteslj.org and Teaching with the Web at http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/lss/lang/teach.html contain ideas for using web resources as a language teaching tool. There are also currently many websites containing material for ESL learning accessible free of cost. [-1-]
According to Li and Hart (1996), the web's multimedia capabilities and interactive functions have made it an attractive medium to conduct instruction. Among the reasons for using the web in ESL learning increased student motivation, authentic language, and global awareness have been cited (Meloni, 1998). However, there are still many problems with the application of the Internet in the classroom including the reliability of the information on the web, the cost of the equipment needed to connect to the Internet, inequality of access between the haves and have-nots, and frustrating slow connections (Lyman, 1998; Sussex & White, 1996; Warschauer, 2000).
Despite the abundance of resources on the Internet, those resources are not likely to be useful unless the students can locate them and know how to use them to enhance their language learning experience. Egbert (2001) cautions us against having students do research in order to practice English in a way that the learner spends more time looking for resources than focusing on reading or writing English. Being exposed is not enough if the student does not have time or the English proficiency to analyze any of them. The degree to which the Internet is useful in language learning depends fundamentally on how well the materials found match the needs of the students and their ability level. For students with limited language ability, even websites specifically designed for ESL students will not prove helpful unless the content is relevant and the instructions understandable. In this regard, we have designed a project to introduce students to selected ESL websites and to find ways to use these sites to supplement their learning experience. The overall purpose of this study was to investigate (1) how teachers could effectively help students learn English through ESL websites already available on the Internet and (2) how students perceived learning English through these teacher-selected websites. More specifically, we intended to evaluate the effectiveness of the program in terms of the following research questions:
1. What strategies used by the teachers to facilitate learning through ESL websites do students find helpful?
2. Do students think it is appropriate to learn English through teacher-recommended ESL websites?
3. How likely is it that students will use ESL websites for further learning?
4. What problems and difficulties do students encounter when they use these teacher-selected websites?
The participants were a class of 49 (10 male, 39 female) students majoring in French and minoring in English at a technological college of languages in Southern Taiwan. The first language of all of the students is Mandarin Chinese and their ages range from 17-18. They place at the high-beginner level in language ability and have received at least four years of formal instruction in the English language. At the time of this research project, they were taking three required English courses: Conversation and Writing, Reading, and Listening. This project was implemented in the students' Conversation and Writing course, which aims to enable students to speak fluently on a variety of conversational topics as well as to write accurately in well-organized paragraphs. Vocabulary, including idioms and phrasal verbs, and grammar structures are two of the major foci of the class.[-2-]
During the last week of April 2001, the students were divided into two groups and each group was given the same 50-minute training session at the English department's resource center. The students worked in pairs on the computers at the learning center. The training session aimed to introduce students to the computer facilities at the resource center as well as to five websites that the learners could use to practice their language skills on their own. Before the training session started, the students were asked to fill out an anonymous questionnaire in their native language (Appendix 1) inquiring about their computer usage habits (experience using the web, frequency of web usage), and their familiarity with websites that they could use to practice their English skills. Then, they were instructed to point their browsers to a web page designed by one of the teacher-researchers (http://teacher.wtuc.edu.tw/sckung/ESLRes/Students.htm) with active links to websites which had sections thought to be appropriate to their level and related to the content being covered in the class. The five websites were:
The students were then given two weeks to complete a series of homework activities using the websites presented after the training session. The activities included exercises on slang expressions, idioms, phrasal verbs and vocabulary as well as reading, writing and listening practice. Moreover, students were asked to join a discussion thread in the student forums of Dave's ESL Café. They were also encouraged to play some of the language games found at the different sites. The homework assignment is included in this paper as Appendix 2.
Two weeks after the training session, the students were asked to hand in their assignments and to complete an anonymous questionnaire concerning their perceptions of the experience. In the 4-item Likert scale questionnaire (Appendix 3), 1 stood for "strongly disagree" and 4 indicated "strongly agree". It included the following sections:
Limitations of the Study
The primary limitation of this study is the self-reported nature of the data collected. Because one of the researchers is the teacher of the class, it is possible that the students might have over-reported on the effectiveness of the program. One control for this limitation was the anonymous nature of the questionnaires. Another control was the teacher's assurance to the class that the students' homework assignments would not affect their semester grades. She also indicated to the class that she wanted to see how the class as a whole, not individual students, felt about the program.
The study was conducted within a relatively short period of time; this may have negatively skewed the results obtained. The fact that the study was done with only one class of students in a college in Taiwan may also limit the extent to which the results can be generalized to other populations.
A great majority of the students indicated owning home computers. As Figure 1 indicates, close to 88% of students own computers at home. Most of the students, 63.8% to be precise, reported getting on line through home computers more often than through school facilities, such as the computer lab, the library, or the resource center (Figure 2). Data on how often the students get on line as specified in table 3 showed that 68.8% of the students got on line between one and seven times a week and 26.5% of them get on line more than seven times a week. 55.3% of the students reported spending between one and two hours on the Internet (Figure 4). The data collected suggested that many of them frequently spent a considerable amount of time on line. However, only 3 out of 49 subjects reported having ever visited ESL websites before this program (Figure 5). These findings suggested that regardless of their ample online experience, these students seldom visit educational ESL websites and may not be familiar with where they are located or how to use them. Regarding their interest in learning English we found that 73.5% were somewhat interested and 26.5% strongly interested (Figure 6).
Figure 1 Ownership of home computer
Figure 2 Most frequent location where students access the Internet
Figure 3 Number of times students get on line per week
Figure 4 Average number of hours spent on line each time
Figure 5 Prior experience with selected ESL websites
Figure 6 Interest in learning English
Generally speaking, the students were positive about their learning experience through ESL websites (Table 1). Although most of them indicated that learning English with the Internet is not only interesting (M = 2.89) but also effective (M = 2.75), some still have doubts. This could be explained by their overall interest in learning English with 73.5% of the students indicating that they were somewhat interested and only 26.5% indicating that they were strongly interested (Figure 6). The term "effective" might not have been the best word to use in the questionnaire since it is vague. It is also difficult for students to judge the effectiveness of a new technology after only being familiar with it for two weeks.[-6-]
|Using the Internet is an interesting way to learn English||2.89||0.71|
|Using the Internet is an effective way to learn English||2.75||0.69|
|N = 49|
Students' Perceptions of Teaching Strategies Used
Overall, the students reacted very positively towards the strategies that the teachers used to facilitate their learning through ESL websites as indicated in Table 2. Students in our study felt that they needed instructions for online navigation (M = 3.39), recommendation on useful sites (M = 3.37) and an introduction to the contents of the selected sites (M = 3.32). These results strengthen our belief that the students' lack of experience using educational resources on the Internet. In addition, the students found instruction in online navigation, introduction to the contents of the selected ESL websites (M = 3.00), design of a web page with links to the recommended sites (M = 2.97), and the homework assignment (M = 2.87) effective in their learning of English through ESL websites.[-7-]
|The teacher's instructions for online navigation were necessary||3.39||0.64|
|The teacher's recommendation of websites was necessary||3.37||0.60|
|The teacher's introduction to the content of the websites was necessary||3.32||0.77|
|Instruction in online navigation and the introduction to site contents were effective||2.97||0.64|
|The web page with links to the recommended sites was effective||2.87||0.81|
|The homework assignment using websites was effective||3.00||0.69|
|N = 49|
Generally speaking, the students were positive towards the appropriateness of the program (Table 3), especially its function in supplementing in-class learning (M = 3.16). However, they did not show as much agreement when asked whether the program was suited for their English proficiency level (M = 2.81). This is probably due to the fact that students in this class have varied English proficiency levels to start with. Moreover, they did not agree as strongly that the materials on the selected ESL websites were related to their current English lessons (M = 2.65). This may be due to the amount and variety of information that can be found on these sites. Not everything on these sites is closely related to class content.
|The program was an appropriate supplement to in-class instruction||3.16||0.42|
|The program was appropriate for the skill level of the students||2.81||0.60|
|The program was appropriately relate to course content||2.65||0.59|
|N = 49|
Table 4 shows that although a fairly high number of the students hoped the teacher could recommend more websites (M = 2.71), not as many of them indicated that they would revisit the ESL websites if the teacher did not assign homework (M = 2.48). Even fewer of them reported that they would look for more ESL websites themselves for self-learning (M = 2.43). These findings suggested that students' attitude towards self-learning is somewhat passive. They found this supplemental mode of learning interesting and wanted more recommended sites, but are not likely to visit these sites on their own unless they are told what to do with the information on the sites. The results of this study did not seem to confirm Meloni's (1998) claim that the medium increased students' motivation. Whether this phenomenon is correlated with their learning attitude in general or with this particular way of learning (i.e. through ESL websites) needs to be further investigated. [-8-]
|I hope the teacher can recommend more websites||2.71||0.84|
|I will use the recommended sites even if the teacher does not assign homework||2.48||0.64|
|I will look for more ESL websites myself||2.43||0.68|
|N = 49|
The students did encounter difficulties and problems during this program as shown in Table 5. The main problem perceived was spending too much time visiting the websites (M = 3.06). This is a possible result of the program being an add-on rather than an integral part of the in-class instruction and accordingly, the students might have thought that they were spending extra time on the assignment. As far as technical problems are concerned, not being able to download sounds (M = 2.95) was perceived to be a more serious problem than not being able to get on line (M = 2.30). Taking into account that a majority of the students reported having home computers, it is surprising to find out that not having enough access to computer equipment was still a problem (M = 2.77). Perhaps, many students attempted to complete the assigned homework together using school facilities so that they could seek immediate help from each other. There might not have been enough computer equipment at school to satisfy the students' demand for Internet access. A number of students also expressed not being able to understand the instructions on the websites (M = 2.64). This leads us to conclude that either the selected sites were too difficult or that we need to provide more guidance. [-9-]
|I had to spend too much time||3.06||0.89|
|I got disconnected when downloading sounds||2.95||0.97|
|I did not having enough access to computer equipment||2.77||0.98|
|I did not understand instructions on the websites||2.64||0.78|
|I could not get on line||2.30||0.89|
|N = 49|
A year after the previously described program, a follow-up study was conducted with the same group of students. The students were asked to complete a questionnaire with open-ended questions regarding their recollections of the program and their current use of the Internet resources presented.
Of the 46 responses we received, only 5 students reported ever going back to the websites presented. This result seems to confirm the results obtained in the first questionnaire where we found that the likelihood of students' going back to the websites is relatively low (Table 4). [-10-]
One student reported accessing the ESL sites once a week. This student told the researchers that he or she browsed all areas of these websites including the sections on listening, reading, and writing. Another student reported getting on the sites once every two or three weeks. He or she admitted liking the sites where there were stories categorized by levels. He or she found it "an interesting way to kill time and learn English." A third student said that he or she only went back to the ESL sites only once to play a puzzle game on one of the sites. Two other students reported going to the websites soon after the conclusion of the program for a while but then stopped. One of these two students went to Dave's ESL Café to discuss issues with other students. The other said that he or she got online to ask questions about different cultures.
The main reason why the other 41 students did not go back to the websites was a lack of time. Students said that they were too busy with their schoolwork; they didn't have enough time to study the material assigned by their teachers, let alone other materials. One possible interpretation of this finding is that students do not consider learning English a priority since they are French majors. The other possible interpretation is that students place work assigned by their teachers ahead of learning on their own. This interpretation is supported by three students' comments. They reported not having gone back to the websites because they had "no pressure" from their teacher and she "did not give extra points." Interestingly, of those students who claimed they didn't have enough time, seven very reflective ones said they were probably "lazy" or "not aggressive enough" in their learning of English.
Another reason for not going back to ESL sites is related to the suitability of the Internet as a way to learn English. Twenty students were dissatisfied with the content on the websites (too many new words, difficult navigation, uninteresting material, unavailability of material useful for writing reports) and the other group did not think that the Internet was a good medium to learn English. They mean that there are other more effective and convenient ways to learn English such as using the radio, TV, and magazines. Five students mentioned getting easily distracted by "more interesting stuff" when they are surfing.
A third reason why students did not go back to ESL websites concerns equipment and bandwidth. Fourteen students reported not having easy access to computer equipment when they wanted to get on line and some reported not having a high speed connection.
Twelve students mentioned forgetting the locations of the websites as a reason for not going back to them. This leads the researchers to believe that these students might not have been interested enough in these websites or not interested enough in learning English.
A few students brought up not being used to getting on line to learn as a reason for not using the ESL websites. They mean that they mainly use the Internet for other purposes such as e-mailing, chatting, and participating in BBSs.
When asked about their recollections of the experience, most students said that it was a positive experience. Over twenty students appreciated the rich content on the websites, the variety of the material on them and the fact that some websites divided the content into different levels. Some mentioned the possibility of interacting with people from different areas of the world as the best part of the websites presented. [-11-]
Most of the negative aspects that they recall from the experience were the same as the reasons why they do not currently access the websites. Some students claimed to be intimidated by screens where all the words are in English and felt that teachers' guidance was very important. This corroborates our earlier finding that teachers' guidance through these websites was necessary and effective.
This study evaluated a program aimed at familiarizing students with ESL resources on the World Wide Web. The results of this study affirmed that students consider the Internet a useful tool to supplement in-class instruction. The students deemed it appropriate to learn English through teacher-recommended ESL websites. However, students needed instruction regarding where the sites are and in how to use them. This finding echoes Paulsen's (2000) remarks about the importance of guiding the students in the use of Internet resources. The strategies used by the teachers (constructing a web page with links to recommended sites, instructing students in online navigation, introducing the contents of the selected sites) were helpful and necessary. Satisfaction with the strategies that the teachers used and the contents of the websites outweighed dissatisfaction due to difficulties accessing and using the assigned websites. Spending too much time and getting disconnected were perceived as the main problems for the students to complete their assignment. Analysis of the data also indicated that this particular group of students is not likely to use ESL websites for their further learning unless they are assigned to do so. These findings were confirmed by a follow-up study a year later. The results showed that students do not currently access ESL websites on their own because they believe they do not have time and there are more convenient media that they can use to learn English.
For further research, several recommendations are offered. In addition to websites designed particularly for ESL/EFL learners, it is worth looking at the possibility of integrating other websites containing authentic materials such as online reference books and commercial websites into the ESL/EFL curriculum. Besides studies of learning perceptions, research studies should also explore whether learners' target language proficiency improves from the use of Internet resources. Last but not least, a comparison between a curriculum using Internet resources and one without will shed light on what the best strategies for teaching ESL/EFL are. [-12-]
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Tun-Whei Isabel Chuo is a senior lecturer of English at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages in Taiwan. She is currently working on her Ed.D. degree in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis on TESOL at La Sierra University in California, USA.
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