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Findings from both studies are presented here under the headings of learning objectives and learning strategies.

4.1 Learning objectives

Most learners had views on the potential of the Web and most had specific learning objectives when they came to use it.

4.1.1 General use of the Web

The Web is used for a variety of purposes. Out of the ninety-two questionnaire respondents, forty-four had used it at some time. Thirty of these had used it for leisure and general interest, twenty-two had used it to find out more about the culture and related areas of the countries whose languages they were studying, while a similar number had used it for developing foreign language competence (19). Nineteen had used it for study purposes not related to language learning and six had used it for other non-specified purposes.

Learners cited a number of reasons as to why they had started using the Web initially. Fifteen started through “interest” or “curiosity”—four specifically referring to “the hype” surrounding it, one calling it “a new toy”—ten needed to carry out research for essay, project or course work, four said it was recommended by friends, two said it was recommended by staff, and two needed to access course notes delivered on the Web.

Learners also claimed to use the Web with varying levels of frequency. Nineteen used it less than once a week and seventeen used it once or twice a week. Five used it as many as four times a week, with four claiming to use it at least once a day. Most Web sessions, according to twenty-one questionnaire respondents, last between one and two hours, while eighteen suggested that they lasted thirty minutes or less. Eight others said timing varied, especially when Web delivery is “slow”. The questionnaire did not ask how long respondents had been using the Web, but most learners in the interview study had only been using it for up to nine months.

4.1.2 The potential of the Web: the learners’ view

Over half of all student questionnaire respondents (47/92), both users and non-users of the Web, had views on the potential it offers language learners. Thirteen identified particular language skills and subskills on which the resources of the Web could help them focus. Seven respondents saw it as a useful source of reading practice, others referred to general language practice (3), vocabulary development (1) and grammar (1). Ten mentioned the existence of on-line courses. One learner saw the use of bulletin boards and foreign language on-line discussion groups such as Webchat as a ‘chance to improve writing’. One learner in the observation group mentioned the usefulness of bilingual sites where documents exist in both the target language and English. The learner concerned thought this might be an interesting source of translation practice but was too often tempted to use the English version as “it is faster to read and easier to understand.”

Most learners, however, seem to view the main value of the Web as a source of information about the countries whose languages they are studying (seventy-one different examples were given). Thirteen specifically mentioned the value of up-to date materials, while three suggested that some sources on the Web would not be available elsewhere. Certain information is thus being made far more accessible than it would otherwise be.

4.1.3 Specific learning objectives

Learners when they sit down to use a resource necessarily have either some short-term learning objective in mind (e.g. to find out the semester dates for the new academic year at Potsdam University) or else a longer term learning objective, such as “improve my writing”, which they then, if they are using appropriate learning strategies, break down into smaller more manageable tasks. Although we might expect that the Internet as a new resource might encourage a merely browsing or ‘Web surfing’ mentality, the learners who filled in pre-observation questionnaires wanted to achieve a range of objectives. Several mentioned wanting to learn how to do things better—”to learn how to find relevant pages quickly”, to develop “better search strategies”—while others wanted to locate information in order to write essays or prepare for an oral presentation. Several non-specialist linguists mentioned searching for technical vocabulary, presumably to increase their specific expertise in this area.

In the questionnaire study, nineteen learners gave examples of recent search aims. These varied widely but without exception were all topic focused. One explanation for this response is that a large number of courses now require or recommend the use of the Web, a total of fifteen courses being mentioned. Information being searched for included:

These searches, it seems, had a varying degree of success. However, not all learners claimed to know where they are going and what they are looking for. As one learner commented, “I don’t know what I‘m doing—I just click on what looks useful and play around”.

4.2 The strategies learners employ to achieve their aims

The data described below seem to suggest that Web users have to be confident in a number of areas if they are to succeed in their aims. Technical, research and linguistic skills, together with the appropriate language learning strategies, would all seem to be vital components for the successful self-access language learner using new electronic media.

4.2.1 Technical skills

Learners need to be confident in a learning environment if they are to operate effectively. Figure 1 shows that the majority of learners in the questionnaire survey are not very confident computer users. A study carried out by Jamieson and Chesters (1995) has also revealed “surprisingly widespread unfamiliarity with computers” amongst language students. The learners in the present survey obviously feel that they can operate basic resources such as email and language learning software in the Language Centre but are not at all confident with the World Wide Web.

Figure 1 User confidence with computer-based resources

                        very confident    quite confident   not at all confident
using computers               30                46                 14
using a mouse                 55                32                  3
using Windows                 40                39                 11
using email                   42                34                 14
using computer-based          28                34                 28
language resources
using World Wide Web          12                29                 49

Total = 90 (several of the 92 respondents did not answer every question.)

Despite, this lack of confidence in their technical skills, the observation study revealed (see 4.2.2) that some learners were able to use the basic facilities of Netscape such as ‘bookmarks’ and the ‘Netsearch’ button in order to navigate, although not all users were aware of the print facilities. Only one or two of the more proficient Web users had developed skills to reduce the waiting time for documents to download by, for example, switching off the images, or to minimise printing out time by cutting and pasting from multiple information sources into a single Word or Notepad document before printing.

4.2.2 Study and research skills

As the Web seems to be mainly used as a source of topical documents, it is important that learners have the necessary search skills to locate such material. In general, however, this does not seem to be the case, and most searches monitored in the observation study or described in the questionnaire study lacked in sophistication (see also Oliver and Oliver 1996).

Keyword searches seemed to be the most common starting point. The Webcrawler and the Netsearch button provided the normal entry route rather than the use of a known Web site address. In the observation study, seven out of the eleven users accessed resources in this way. Others used known Web site addresses: addresses ‘bookmarked’ by tutors; topic buttons on Netsearch (e.g. ‘sport’ to search for information on rugby in France); ‘homepage’ directories of commonly used Web sites; registered-user access to online foreign language journals with their own search facilities.

A fairly typical example of a search pattern and the steps it involved was given by a Spanish language student seeking information on the Spanish election results:

Go to Webcrawler - type in keywords Spanish and elections - check all finds - return to ‘Webcrawler’ - amend search by translating keywords into Spanish.

Both the questionnaires and the observation study revealed that search terms chosen were sometimes very broad in the first instance, suggesting that users had little perception of how vast the amount of material available on the Web was. Some frustration was evident during observations and from questionnaire comments indicating that the time-consuming and laborious process of checking through endless lists of ‘finds’ did always not turn up the kind of information users were seeking. The idea of regularly reviewing and amending search terms, particularly during the initial stages of a search, did not always seem to occur to users.

Of the nineteen users who completed Question Five of the questionnaire (eliciting an example of the various steps involved in a typical search they had undertaken), only five mentioned amending their initial search procedure by broadening, narrowing or changing the keywords they used. An equal number of users concluded by indicating that the amount of unsolicited information that their searches had produced meant that they could not locate the information they were seeking. One user reported that they had abandoned their search for information on “natural resources and ecology in the third world” after typing in the keywords ecology, pollution, earthquakes which produced “too many finds” and “sources (that were) too complicated”.

When users did amend their choice of search words, they sometimes made their searches unrealistically narrow and predictably received no results, or they employed the opposite strategy which resulted in an equally unsuccessful outcome. This was exemplified during one of the observations when a user, seeking information relating for his year abroad in a French university, first typed in the full name of the institution in France. When this failed to produce any finds, he amended the keywords to the type of institution (École Polytechnique) which produced possibly the entire list (100) of such institutions in France. Later still he broadened the search terms to Éducation + Paris (where his institution was located) which resulted in an even greater number of finds (698).

Needless to say, this rather hit-and-miss unskilled approach to searching seemed to be the source of at least some of the frustration experienced by many Web users. On the other hand, some users admitted to making extremely useful finds more by luck than design. Those who may have benefited most from this kind of Web searching pattern could well have been users whose learning objectives were less clearly defined. For example, a student with a concept around which she wanted to write her essay (values of the French Revolution and their relation to contemporary French politics) but without a precisely formulated essay title, was able to use the range of vaguely related material she had found on the Web as a stimulus to provide her with different perspectives on the topic and to move towards focusing in on a possible essay title. A rather unfocused style of searching even when there is a specific study-related aim involved, can have some benefits in this respect, helping you, as one user put it, to “get on to topics more interesting than the one you're supposed to be learning”.

4.2.3 Language skills

In both studies, little forethought was given to the language of the search terms in a keyword search and how this might influence the scope and quality of the finds, particularly if, as in one case, a user was looking for the latest information on the Spanish election results and the information did not prove to be available in English. In another case, a learner had established that the home pages of Potsdam University were in German, but when searching for information on the start of the new semester he still used the keywords Potsdam University term dates. This hesitation to use the target language may well reflect the lack of confidence learners have in their own language competence and inappropriate general and language learning strategies.

4.2.4 Language learning strategies

In the observation study, several learners showed little awareness of how the foreign language documents of the Web can be exploited for language learning purposes and, although they may work with a dictionary looking up keywords that they do not understand and making notes of words they want to remember, they did not immediately perceive this as a language learning strategy. As the researcher interviewed Web users, however, and pushed them to identify their own learning strategies, it became obvious that some learners may have evolved a number of low-level strategies which help them learn, but that they are thinking little about the learning process itself and how to make further progress as independent learners. It may be that a computer-based learning environment discourages a reflective and adaptive attitude to learning (Laurillard and Taylor 1995) in some learners, or, as a previous learner-diary study in the Language Centre has shown (Piper 1994) it may be symptomatic of many learners working alone and unequipped with the necessary study skills. This whole area would benefit from further investigation.

4.2.5 The influence of the teacher

It is apparent that teachers have significant influence over students’ use of particular learning resources. A total of 23 specific references were made by questionnaire respondents either to named French, German and Spanish lecturers who had directed students to the Web or to specific courses, of which 15 different ones were mentioned. Half of the learners in the semi-structured interviews had also received general encouragement from their lecturers to investigate the foreign language resources on the Web and to make use of them in their studies.
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