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Data for this project was collected over a five-month period lasting from November 1995 to April 1996. These consist of qualitative data gathered from a detailed observation study followed by a series of semi-structured interviews, and more quantitative data gathered from a questionnaire survey of Web use amongst language learners. A staff questionnaire survey was also carried out to assess general awareness of the learning potential of the Web.

3.1 The subjects

The original intention was to focus the observation study on two classes who had been asked to use the World Wide Web as an integral part of their course work.

The first, a final-year Spanish class for Modern Languages students, was asked through their course documentation “to make full use of the enormous potential for self-access learning afforded by the resources provided in the Language Centre” in order to “maximise active learning,” and “to spend a large part of the week actively engaged in critically reading, listening to and viewing reports of, and commentaries on, current events in Spanish”. Learners were asked to work in groups of five and six, to agree a current affairs topic covered by the Spanish and/or Latin American media and then to plan their research over a four week period. The final detailed reports, which should include both a focus on language (style, vocabulary, grammar etc.) and content (a critical analysis of treatment by different media, etc.) were to be written in Spanish. With his encouragement, the member of staff responsible for the class fully expected that the World Wide Web would be used extensively as a topical information source by all the students. This did not turn out to be the case, learners preferring to use more familiar sources, probably for all the reasons of inexperience on the part of the users that the survey and observation study uncovered and because of its current technical limitations (see 4.2.2 and 5.5).

The second class, a small group of third-year students taking the Master in Engineering with European Studies, had been asked to gather information on the region and the universities where they would be located during their forthcoming year abroad. They were asked to gather information for an oral presentation in French and were particularly recommended to use the Web. It was seen both as a good source of up-to-date information and a likely source of useful email addresses (through, for example, departmental Home Pages and on-line student magazines) from which contact could be made with staff and students at the destination university. Again, the teacher concerned expected that a large number of learners would make use of the Web, and was disappointed to find that only a small number actually did so.

Given the limited take-up from these two classes, the study was therefore widened to include a number of other learners using the Web in the Language Centre, making fourteen in total.

3.2 The observation study

The observation study was based on an evaluation procedure designed by Professor Diana Laurillard (1994) of the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University for TELL, a TLTP (Teaching and Learning Technology Programme) Modern Languages consortium. The procedure, involving questionnaires, an observation schedule and an interview schedule, derives from a model based on a view of the teaching/learning process which emphasises four iterative elements—discussion, interaction, adaptation, reflection—and the way in which these relate conversation, cognition and learning (Laurillard 1993). The model is discussed in more detail in Piper, Watson and Wright (forthcoming).

Eleven language learners were observed using the World Wide Web and fourteen post-use semi-structured interviews were carried out. Several of the interviewees had been observed beforehand, others had not, but all had just completed a Web session in the Language Centre. It was planned that learners would work in pairs, or in their work-groups of three, so that the observer would have some insight into typical shared learning experiences. Learners working on their own were asked to talk the observer through what they were doing. This use of talk as contributing to the data is based on claims (e.g. Fisher 1993) that talk at the computer does not just reflect what is taking place but actually enhances it.

Before each observation session, users were asked to complete a pre-use questionnaire, which asked them to note down their learning objectives and then to use the Web for their own purposes. While they were working, the researcher noted the way learners used the Netscape software (the Language Centre Web browser), the routes they took and the steps they followed, any relevant dialogue or comments, and any technical difficulties. After the observation period (30-40 minutes), users were invited to fill in a post-use questionnaire stating what they had learnt and giving their opinion of the Web, and then to ask any questions they wished. The semi-structured interviews which followed were designed to expand on answers given in the post-use questionnaire and on any significant points which had been noted during the observations.

3.3 The questionnaire study

To gain a picture of the extent of Web use amongst language learners in general, it was decided to complement the observation study with a questionnaire survey of all students enrolled for a language class at Southampton; the questionnaire used (see Appendix 1) was based on those used with the observation study students and sought to gather information on learning objectives, learning strategies and views of the Web as a learning resource compared with other teaching and learning contexts. Staff views on the usefulness of the Web were also sought via a short questionnaire (see Appendix 2).

Teachers of both specialist and non-specialist linguists were asked to distribute questionnaires in class. Only ninety-two questionnaires were returned out of a possible seven hundred, the low response rate possibly reflecting pressures of work before the end of a semester together with a surfeit of course evaluation questionnaires. The response rate from staff was no better, with nine questionnaires returned out of a possible seventy members of part-time and full-time staff.

Despite the low response rate, the number of questionnaires returned was sufficient to give an interesting snapshot of how the Web is currently used in the Language Centre.

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