This report is also available as an Acrobat file.
THE WORLD WIDE WEB AND ITS CONTRIBUTION TO FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING
The study has raised a number of issues about the suitability of new media for teaching and learning and about the skills that are needed if the learner is to hope to operate effectively. This section describes learners’ and teachers’ views of the Web as a learning resource compared to more traditional media, and makes a preliminary evaluation of learning outcomes.
5.1 The Web compared with classes and lectures
Most questionnaire respondents felt that while the Web could serve as a good complement or addition to classes and lectures, the absence of several of the key features of a traditional learning environment meant that it would have some significant weaknesses if it were to replace the classroom. It was pointed out that, unlike the Web, classes and lectures were “structured”, give “feedback” and provide opportunities for real “interaction”. The key element missing from the Web was the presence of the teacher and his/her associated role in the teaching/learning process. As one respondent expressed it, the Web “doesn't teach you the language as such”, although as several observed, it may be a good way of reinforcing classwork as well as providing a source of stimulating ideas. Only one or two respondents allowed for the possibility that the Web could operate as a valuable learning tool in any independent capacity. It was seen to have the advantage over classes and lectures that it was accessible at any time and allowed for “individual learning”.
5.2 The Web compared with separate media resources
Views on how the Web compared with separate media resources such as reference books, topic related materials, satellite TV, videos and so on were diverse. In general, the Web was seen to be inferior due to its lack of structuring and superior in terms of the up-to-dateness of the information it could provide. Individual preferences seemed to play a significant part in influencing users’ responses to this question. For example, one user found the Web to hold information that was too diverse to be “really useful, unlike a collection of individual related resources e.g. newspapers, videos etc”; another believed that it “ranks equally with separate media resources—it combines all the elements” as it allows the user to “research material that is written, pictorial or audio”. One user found that the Web could be “faster than wading through books”, in contrast to another who stated that it was “easier to find information in books”. Despite clear differences of opinion on some points, individual audio and video resources were agreed by those who referred to them specifically to be superior for language learning to the Web, at least until all Web sites are equipped with a similar capacity. One notable advantage of the Web noted above (and perhaps reflecting the increasing student reliance on fewer resources) was the fact that the Web is accessible to any number of enquirers at the same time, and at “inconvenient times”.
5.3 The Web compared with other electronic media
The Web was seen by many questionnaire respondents to compare favourably with other electronic media, such as newspapers on CD ROM or specific language learning software, because of its capacity to link users to up-to-date information. One user found the Web “better in general because it is more flexible”, because, for example, it allows “links to related topics, unlike newspapers (on CD ROM)”. In contrast the fact that the information located may not always be relevant to the searcher's aim meant that for some respondents it was faster to use than other dedicated electronic media. In general, respondents varied in their feelings towards the Web as compared to other electronic media, showing evidence that personal preferences and experience form the basis of most of their reactions towards different media and their effectiveness for language study purposes.
5.4 Evaluation of the Web by teaching staff
Of the nine members of staff who returned their questionnaires, five were Web users while four were not. All but two of the respondents, however, (one user and one non-user) had recommended it to their students. Those who had done so had recommended specific sites (3) or the use of the Web in relation to a taught course or to a specific course module (4). Respondents were uncertain (1), negative (1), or uninformative (4) about the degree to which their students made use of the Web. An additional response was that, “so far only enthusiasts (among his students) have made use of WWW”.
Staff views on how the resources of the Web compare with more conventional learning models and media were noticeably mixed. While perceived weaknesses of the resources of the Web in relation to other resources were similar to those observed by student respondents (i.e. searching for information is “a haphazard and time-consuming business” and student use of Web resources requires a lot of “teacher preparation”), staff were clear and specific about more of its potential benefits. These included the extent of target culture related material and the range of document types offering sources of diverse and specialised vocabulary in the target language. They observed that it “might make a better vehicle for the delivery of some materials, especially texts which are in high demand”, a point also noted by student respondents. They also commented on its “interactive” nature (“more user-driven than TV or audio”), and its capacity to provide access to “more up-to-date” as well as “more real” (authentic) materials.
Staff also referred more than students to the perceived limitations of conventional resources, observing that CD ROM newspapers could be “fault-ridden, prone to break down and difficult to work with”, and topic related collections need constant “expansion” and manual updating. Four of the respondents also called for more guided Web access for students (e.g. in the form of “a Beginner's Web with useful ‘starter’ addresses”, more “links from the Language Centre homepage” to useful sites and “structured links to material we want to direct students to”) and “a push to put (course) material on the Web”.
5.5 Design and technical considerations
A number of student users seemed aware that some of their frustration derived from their limited skills in using the Web. They expressed a desire for clear instruction and guidance (3) or for ready-made lists of useful site addresses for foreign language study (5). One wondered whether people were really “as computer literate as they are generally supposed to be” and if they are “using it in a useful way”. Interestingly, however, there was a feeling amongst learners that the Web is probably a potentially valuable resource if only it can be harnessed effectively.
The lack of flexibility of the Web itself was held partly responsible for the frequent failure to obtain what was wanted. Some students, although sensing that the tool itself was not very user-friendly, seemed confused about how it could best be modified to suit their purposes. Some said there were too many “menus”, others that the list of results from a keyword search yielded insufficient information about the actual content of the suggested Web pages. But overall the lack of effective indexing was felt by many to be at the heart of the problem. There were frequent references to the need for a “better (system of) organisation—indexing” and the “sectioning of topic areas”, along with a reduction in the time taken for information to be transferred to the work site. These are two key areas which will have to be improved if the Web is to become an effective educational resource.
5.6 Learning outcomes
Laurillard’s (1993) conversational model of learning (c.f. 3.2) suggests that true reflective learning does not take place on-line (see also Laurillard and Taylor 1995) but is much more likely to happen in the interaction of the classroom. The data described above do nothing to disprove this hypothesis. The environment of the Web, and the use which the majority of our learners make of it, make it currently more of a one-stop convenience store than a true learning environment. The whole vocabulary associated with the World Wide Web seems to encourage either a go-get attitude—you perform a ‘search’, you ‘navigate’, you ‘follow links’, you receive a certain number of ‘hits’ —or a more aimless ‘browsing’. Documents are located and taken away (or notes made) and learning takes place elsewhere. Other on-going development and evaluation projects at Southampton, however, (Watson and Wright 1995; Wright 1995; Teremetz 1996) are showing that learners working with multimedia language learning materials in a supported open hypermedia environment (Microcosm) are able to make an intellectual leap away from the exercise or task in hand and move on to other concerns. These may involve drawing conclusions about the way in which language works, about the learning process, or even appraising the design of the learning materials. It may be that this high degree of reflection stems from the level of support contained within the materials, from the learners’ perceptions of their relevance or simply from their level of comfort with the interface and design of the package (Piper et al 1995).
Virtual Environments Visualisation