Virtual Classroom Project Report (1997)

Paper presented at JALT Conference,
Hamamatsu, Japan 1997

Contents

Introduction

The aim of the Virtual Classroom project is to create an environment that will help stimulate purposeful communication between English language learners across the globe.

In the real-world, language teaching is becoming increasingly concerned with giving students the ability to use their new language spontaneously to express their thoughts, needs and desires. In the classroom context, the process is greatly enhanced when the provision of new language skills occurs in a supportive environment where these new skills are allowed to develop though use and experimentation.

In the Virtual Classroom we are attempting to approximate the shared and supportive environment of a real-world class. As a starting point we felt that it was necessary for all the participants in the Virtual Classroom to use the same course materials, since this would provide them with some common ground regardless of their geographic distance from each other. The trial phases of the Virtual Classroom were restricted therefore to learners attending language classes using the same published course text, ‘Words Will Travel’.

The classroom material is supplemented by extra activities available from the Virtual Classroom pages of our web site via the internet. Student responses to these Virtual Classroom activities are also presented on web pages in the site for other students (and teachers) to discuss and comment on.

Core Materials – ‘Words Will Travel’

The core course material for the Virtual Classroom is Level 1 of ‘Words Will Travel’, a video-based communicative English language teaching course. This intermediate level course is currently used throughout Australia and in Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, Taiwan and Korea.

One of the main reasons for the great success of ‘Words Will Travel’ in the classroom is the way the video drama creates for teachers and students the shared context necessary for purposeful and meaningful communication. With the Virtual Classroom we aim to take this shared context beyond the walls of individual classrooms and into cyberspace.

Virtual Classroom Trials

There have been two trials of the Virtual Classroom, involving more than 500 students from 19 classes in 6 countries; Australia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia and the United States of America. My sincere thanks to all the teachers and students who participated in these trials for their support and patience and, above all, for their feedback which contained a wealth of suggestions and ideas.

The first trial ran from October to December, 1996. The second trial started in May 1997. Most participants had completed the trial by July, with the exception of two groups of students who remained until October.

First Trial

During the first trial we decided interchanges should be on a class to class (rather than an individual student to student) basis, with each class teacher acting as the mediator between the students in their real-world class and the activity in the Virtual Classroom.

Teachers printed out Virtual Classroom activities from the web site for their classes. Students then worked through an activity and the teacher sent in their responses via a standardised electronic form. We then posted the responses in the Active Classroom page of the web site. Teachers printed out the contributions from other classes for their students to discuss and comment on.

In order to ameliorate the problem of restricted individual student access to the Virtual Classroom, we offered to pass on e-mail addresses so that students could contact each other directly. We also included in the Virtual Classroom a variety of open-ended activities and joint activities to provide the stimulus and basis for direct exchanges between participating classes and students. We hoped that after establishing contact through work on shared activities, individual students in different classes would seek each other out to exchange ideas, firstly about core course activities and later about more general issues that arose.

New Materials

Twenty-eight new activities were prepared for the first trial, drawing on the context provided by the ‘Words Will Travel’ video drama and accompanying audio and print materials. Broadly speaking, these Virtual Classroom activities fell into four categories.

1. Getting to know you activities

Two new activities in Unit 1 provided students from participating classes with an opportunity to learn more about each other. We hoped that this early exchange of information would help develop a collegiate environment in the Virtual Classroom.

2. Extension of core class work

Most of the activities extend the existing core classroom activities. For example, the video drama in ‘Words Will Travel’ is set in a small country hotel called ‘Treetops’, which is owned and operated by June Wilson. From the video and print material students know that eight years earlier June Wilson’s father and her husband went fishing together in a small boat but did not return.

The answer to the riddle of what happened to the men can only be found in the Virtual Classroom. In an ‘information gap’ activity two classes are matched. Each is sent a different cloze passage of the story, ‘What the Seabirds Saw’. The information missing in one cloze passage can be found in the other. The partner classes work together via e-mail to complete the clozes and find the answer.

3. ‘What’s Your Opinion’

The object of the ‘What’s Your Opinion’ activities contained in each unit was to explore the potential of the Virtual Classroom as a forum for the free exchange of student opinions. Rather than setting specific tasks, each of these activities offered several controversial statements relating to the unit being studied. Teachers were asked to encourage their students to discuss the statements, formulate and post opinions and compare them with the opinions of other classes. Our aim was to stimulate the creation of ‘threads’ that students could follow.

4. Exploration of cross-cultural issues

Many of the activities in the Virtual Classroom allow for cross-cultural comparisons on a range of issues, including the use of titles and nick-names, giving advice and compliments, crime and punishment, and even food and cooking.

Outcomes

We had considerable difficulty finding classes to participate in the first trial of the Virtual Classroom. Unfortunately the scheduled starting date for the trial did not fit in with the academic timetables of most of the institutions that had initially expressed an interest in joining. Also, a few teachers who were interested in the project had not used ‘Words Will Travel’ before and were reluctant to commit themselves to a trial using unfamiliar materials.

When it came to running the trial, the variations in academic year from country to country was a significant problem. The considerable differences in course and class lengths as well as the teaching styles of participating institutions also caused some difficulties.

Building the Virtual Classroom around common course materials for all participating classes worked very well. The video drama at the heart of ‘Words Will Travel’ successfully achieved our aim of generating a shared context.

We relied greatly on feedback from participating teachers to ascertain the level of student interest and involvement in the project since the number of student responses, or postings, displayed in the active classroom area of Virtual Classroom site varied from activity to activity. For example, although the information gap activity, ‘What the Seabirds Saw’, referred to earlier, was one of the most popular with students, we did not post any of the responses we received because general access to information contained in the clozes would have compromised the activity for other students.

On the other hand, the preceding activity, ‘What Do You Think Happened’, which involved students speculating about the fate of the missing men, generated eleven postings that took seven pages to print. Many of the contributions were about myths and legends which have been used by different societies to explain the disappearance of people at sea. Several of the participating teachers reported using the responses of other classes as the basis for cross-cultural work in their classrooms.

Seven of the nine participating teachers reported great benefits from using the Virtual Classroom, particularly as a way of stimulating discussion on a range of cross-cultural issues. There was also considerable initial interest from students. However, the lack of direct student access to the Virtual Classroom saw this interest begin to wane.

The first trial clearly demonstrated the need for direct student involvement in the Virtual Classroom and the process of making postings. Without this involvement students are likely to see the internet as just another resource for the teacher, to be photocopied and handed out in class.

Initially we felt that activity in the Virtual Classroom would be largely self-generating, allowing us to automate the process of collecting and posting contributions in the web site. As a result of the first trial we now realise that, if the Virtual Classroom is to be a dynamic learning environment, we will need to take a more pro-active role, stimulating and moderating postings where necessary.

Second Trial

After the first trial we decided to make a number of significant changes to the Virtual Classroom before commencing the next trial. In particular, we wanted to greatly increase the opportunities for direct involvement by participating students in the project.

We re-designed the second trial so that most of the postings to the Virtual Classroom would be made by students and not the teachers, as was the case with the first trial. However, since we were not in a position to process individual postings from possibly hundreds of students for each activity, we asked the teachers of participating classes to break their classes up into a maximum of eight groups with no fewer than three students in each group. To increase the opportunity for speaking practice we suggested teachers require the students in each group to speak only English when negotiating both the use of the computer and the group response to the task at hand.

During the first trial all interactions with the Virtual Classroom were administered via the class teacher and so the instructions were written for teachers. Since the second trial was to be more accessible to students all the Virtual Classroom information was rewritten. We also prepared different teacher and student instructions for each activity. These were presented in separate Teacher and Student areas of the web site. The responses of student groups to each activity were presented in the Active Classroom area of the site.

Although all the formal Virtual Classroom work was done by each student group working as a unit, there were plenty of opportunities (and the support) for individual students wishing to make direct contact with other students.

The Virtual Classroom web pages were re-designed to make them easier to use. A change in the menu structure enhanced the speed of access to specific activities while greater use of hypertext allowed students to follow ideas and threads within an activity more easily.

Materials

Twelve new activities were designed for the second trial of the Virtual Classroom to help foster net literacy and the development of World Wide Web research skills. In addition, most of the existing first trial activities were re-worked to allow for a higher degree of interaction between individual students and groups of students.

e-mail

Activities in Unit 1 gave students an introduction to the basics of e-mail, first using a provided e-mail form and then using the standard e-mail software they have on their computer. During these early exchanges each student group contacted two or three other groups by e-mail. They learnt more about members of the other groups and had an opportunity to obtain the personal e-mail addresses of other participants.

World Wide Web

An activity in Unit 2 introduced students to the World Wide Web. Students were shown how to find the answers to questions about several places Yoshi and Tomoko Ito, two of the characters in ‘Words Will Travel’, visited while on holidays in Cairns, Australia. An activity in Unit 3 builds on this knowledge by introducing students to a search engine and then asking them to use it to find the lyrics to a popular song.

Listservs

In a similar way, students were also introduced to exchange forums like Dave’s ESL cafe and the Student SL Lists, and shown how to use them as means of finding key-pals or obtaining information.

Shared research

A series of shared activities later in the course give students an opportunity to apply the Internet skills they have learned for joint research and collaboration with others in the Virtual Classroom. Two student groups from different countries work together using available resources, including the WWW and student exchange forums, to prepare recipes for national dishes from countries other than their own.

Outcomes

43 student groups from ten classes participated in the second trial, which started in May 1997. Once again, variations in the academic years of different countries was a major problem. It was also difficult to accommodate the wide differences in teaching schedules of the institutions involved. For example, students in some of the participating groups attended English classes for as little as 1 hour per week as part of a full time course in some other field of study, while others attended intensive 5 week courses doing more than 20 hours English language study a week.

During the trial we found there was a wide variation in the language skills of the students from different institutions. Although “Words Will Travel” is an intermediate level course and all the student groups came from classes which were considered to be at this level, the student groups from two institutions found the core course materials a little difficult, while the experience of those at another institution was the opposite. For most of the student groups, however, the core course materials and the extra activities in the Virtual Classroom were at an appropriate level.

These variations in course schedules and language skills meant that it was always going to be difficult for two student groups to establish an on-going working relationships that would continue for a number of activities. We tried to alleviate this problem by providing activities that would help groups combine on an ad-hoc basis for individual activities. Several of the participating teachers however, felt that their students were spending too much time trying to find groups with which to do activities.

With one exception, all the class teachers of the participating student groups actively supported the project helping to facilitate the involvement of their students in the project and providing valuable feedback to us. Most of the student groups from these classes participated in the Virtual Classroom until the end of their institution’s course.

As already indicated, the second trial of the Virtual Classroom was much more student driven than the first. Rather than the teacher acting as a mediator, student groups interacted directly with the web site and each other. This change to the design of the project achieved the aim of enhancing student interest and involvement in the process. Several of the student groups continued with the Virtual Classroom activities out of class hours using their own computers at home. In the case of one class in Korea, the students were so keen to continue with the project at the end of the semester that their teacher agreed to work with them for several hours a week during the vacation doing the class work necessary for them to continue making postings.

A more learner orientated process also had some downsides. It was a greater imposition on teachers to moderate the activity of a number of student groups rather than the class as a whole, as was the case with the first trial. In addition, when it was the teachers who were obtaining the activities and responses from the Virtual Classroom web site, it was easier for them to expand on issues as they emerged through directed class discussion. For example, the activity ‘What Do You Think Happened’ in the first trial resulted in dynamic exchanges in the Virtual Classroom which teachers were able to use in their real-world classes to raise a number of cross-cultural issues. In the second trial, however, this activity was not as successful. Nearly all the student groups responded to this activity with a list of possible reasons for why the men might have disappeared. Few student groups commented on the responses of other groups. As a result, there was no on-going exchange of opinions and ideas for teachers to build on.

It was very tempting to strive for the highest level of sophistication when we designed the Virtual Classroom. However, in order to accommodate internet users with very basic machines and browser software, we limited the complexity of the site and trial protocol to enable access to the Virtual Classroom by as wide a range of people as possible.

Although no one experienced problems accessing the Virtual Classroom, some students with a high level of computer and web expertise (and the machines and software to go with it) found the simplicity of the site and the limitations we imposed frustrating. One of the teachers was also frustrated by our use of faxes to distribute certain resources which were ‘for the teacher’s eyes only’ and/or which contained formatting that could be lost if transmitted by email. He suggested that we should try sending such information in an HTML file attached to an email sent directly to the teacher. The teacher could then view the file using a web browser. While this would clearly allow us to send formatted material, it still leaves us with the problem of ‘sensitive’ information where teachers and students are using the same machine.

Teachers generally reported a high degree of student satisfaction with the project and most asked to be included in any future trials of the Virtual Classroom. As with the first trial, most teachers felt that the use of the video based course “Words Will Travel” to provide a shared context for all participating students worked very well.

English Language Systems

15 October 1997

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