Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Webquest Evaluation

Webquest Title and Website URL: Conflict Yellowstone Wolves

Grade/Age Level: 6-9

Language: English

Content: Ecology, History, Environmental Studies, Persuasive Writing, Problem Solution

1) What is the intended purpose of the webquest?

(a) To get students to take a reasoned stand on the issue of the Reintroduction of The Gray Wolf to Yellowstone and to central Idaho.

(b) To expose students to the history of The Gray Wolf in Yellowstone and Idaho, and what the Wolf Reintroduction Program is trying to accomplish.

(c) To expose student to ecological information about wolves and The Gray Wolf in particular, such as their habitat, characteristics, etc.

(d) To get students to realize that there is usually more than one reasoned perspective to a conflict and solutions must be found.

2) What is the content of the webquest and how is it presented?

(a) Typical webquest format- an introduction, a task, a 5-step process of exploration, resources and grading rubric.

(b) Online and print information about wolf conservation, wolves and the Yellowstone wolf

(c) Live controversial information, e.g. interviews from experts on both sides of the fence, the challenge argued by the American Farm Bureau Federation on behalf of Yellowstone farmers, testimonies, etc.
The presentation is simple but very effective - simple one page layout with integrated links leading to resources. The picture of the gray wolf dominates, maintaining the central theme. However, the picture of a sheep as the symbol of its prey, and a picture of the farmer are strategically placed within the process section of the webquest to remind students of the other perspective.

Very well-developed guiding questions, in each of the five steps lead students through a thorough investigation. A Pre-Write graphic organizer is provided to guide student in organizing their argument, complete with names and titles of officials to whom emails will be sent. Active email message formats to key lobbyists are also provided.

3) What external documents does the webquest include? Are they effective?

(a) Planet Earth ecology page with activities (conservation issues).

(b) The Museum of Television and Radio homepage (joint-initiators of web-based ecology projects with Poway United School District (PUSD)

(c) PUSD webpage and draft curriculum standards in 3 areas - The Nature of Science, Unifying Concepts and Processes, and The Living Environment.

(d) 2 Teacher Toolbox pages (confusing) providing webquest timeline, project tools, guest book, brief suggested development for other Planet Earth activities listed, etc.

External documents are very effective, but some of the links are dead. They give the webquest a living quality emanating from within an active community. Titles of activities are engaging, e.g. The environment is counting on you, Make a Difference in your world, The Earth’s Treasures. The guest book includes comments from teachers who have used the webquest and their brief feedback is useful.

4) In what ways is the webquest interesting to the target audience?

(a) The graphics of the wolf, the sheep and the farmer are strategically used on the main page to accentuate the opposing sides of the conflict.

(b) The introduction is calculated to attract the attention of students, pitting the wolf first in the context of the well-known The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood fairy tales, and then exposing the real controversy of Yellowstone.

(c) The haunting howls of the wolf lead off Step 1 with audio from the resource pages.

(d) The task is framed in controversial language: ‘Should the wolves in Yellowstone National Park be removed?’

(e) Vibrancy in selection of resource material such as interviews which are strongly worded.

5) For what language goal(s) is this webquest useful/effective?

Persuasive writing, live debate (oral), journalism, television interviews, and documentaries

6) Does this program or webquest offer practice? Assessment? Feedback? Of what kinds? (give examples)

(a) The webquest takes students into the real world of the concerned citizen. Students have to defend their views on a human vs wolf survival issue. In this respect the webquest offers more than practice.

(b) However, the assessment or guiding rubric is very tame. Considering the strong views, assessment should have given more weight to a balance between rhetoric and reasoning skills.

(c) Serious ambiguity: The one item of feedback the project offers, the AFBF interview, seems to sabotage the authentic nature of the project, and thus its teaching/ learning effectiveness.

(d) Apparently judgment had already been passed in favor of the farmers in the courts. This information is alluded to in the closing statement of the interview above, which is a reply to the teacher. It is disappointing that this information comes in Step 2 of the webquest, and was not more strategically used in the construction of the entire webquest.

7) Is this webquest easy to navigate (layout, etc.)?

Very easy to navigate; the single main page allows the steps of the webquest to flow and develop logically like a storyline

8) What are the strengths of this webquest?

Webquest strengths: Its live, engaging feel and sense of immediacy; the involvement of students in a real controversy; the alluring manner in which it frames research and background information; the clarity with which supportive steps are outlined.

9) How can this webquest be improved?

(a) The rubric could be more challenging to include more Language Arts (Persuasive Writing) and Ecology curriculum standards.

(b) Alternatives should be found for inactive links.

(c) The placement and the function of the AFBF interview in the webquest should be rethought. The interview should be better integrated so that it does not undermine the authentic educational value of the webquest.

(d) The ambiguity of having 2 Teacher Toolbox pages should be resolved.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Software/Website Evaluation #3

Website Title: Primary French

Website URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryfrench/

Grade/Age Level: Elementary School age; 5-12yrs.

Language & Content: French

1) What is the intended purpose of the website?

To teach French to speakers of English in the elementary school age-group. The website informs that the ‘Primary French website is a pilot project.’ It invites users to email feedback ‘to inform development of subsequent language resources.’

2) What is the content of the website and how is it presented?

Primary French is a well designed, highly interactive Beginners French website. The homepage is laid out in English with links to the topics and external documents, but once the program begins, all lessons are in French. The user can opt for a flash (animated) version or a non-animated version. The flash option loads quickly and even while it loads a cartoon-imaged ‘punk’ kid rides expertly up and down the screen window on his skateboard. Primary French has the feel of a software program. It consists of 2 graded levels - Level 1 and Level 2 of French in authentic situation in conversation mode.

Topics include greeting people, counting, my family, my pets, and What’s your name? Each topic or lesson is composed of a suite of 5 reinforcements. The first sequence is based on careful, oral enunciation of lesson elements; the second lays out the material enunciated in written form; the third encapsulates the material in pop song or rap rhythms, incorporating a variety of True-False question formats; the fourth sequence builds on the basic material ‘en France,’ taking the learner to extended situations, in which the element is practiced with wider community interaction; the fifth sequence invites the learner to print a worksheet and practice the lesson elements.

3) What external documents does the website include? Are they effective?

External documents on the website include teachers’ and parents’ pages on the use of the materials; BBC pages replete with resources in a variety of formats and media for teachers, parents, and children. These include educational language games, in various subjects for different age groups. The mix of external documents is very effective in that parents and teachers can link to a multiplicity of pages on which they can get detailed and comprehensive information on various aspects of elementary and secondary British schooling and on syllabuses.

Children can find numerous interactive edutainment sites, where they can play games supportive of school study, e.g. the Sandcastle quiz on phonemes. Some materials capitalize on topical events, e.g. the Final Countdown, which is a game built around the recently concluded World Cup.

4) In what ways is the website interesting to the target audience?

The website is likely to have high appeal to its target audience of mid-to-upper primary schoolers, because it is not 'starchy.' Prior to the start of the game children are introduced to trendily-dressed, 11 year-old Roller and his ‘gang’ or ‘mates.’ Roller is likely to appeal because he is cast in the image of a performing pop or rap artiste.

As an interactive performer, microphone in hand, he leads some of the True-False assessments. There is also a multi-ethnic, inclusive feel. For example, in sequences such as My Family, the cartoon figures come in different complexions. There is much interaction, especially in the catchy tunes and the invitation to perform and sing-a-long.

5) For what language goal(s) is this website useful/effective?

The website caters both for independent use by a student at home, or for classroom use. The parents and teachers pages contain comprehensive guidelines for getting the most out of the website. For instance, the following is a suggested use for teachers:
With an interactive whiteboard:
By using an interactive whiteboard you can both teach the language and demonstrate to the class how to use the website independently. Work through the sections with the class, encouraging maximum participation in repeating the language and joining in the song.

The language goal is formal French, although the material itself is mainly conversational French.

6) Does the website offer practice? Assessment? Feedback? Of what kinds?

The website offers copious practice in oral, aural, and written modes, in interesting, iterative formats. Additionally, the sidebar of the site offers the components of the lesson, such as the songs and worksheet, for print and use separately. Assessment is built into the lessons themselves in the quizzes and interactive games.

Although the assessment is a Thumbs up from Roller, True/False, and Oui/Non, it requires good listening skills, attention to oral and written French expression, and critical judgment. The user cannot move on if the answer is incorrect. However, only three choices are offered, one of which is correct. There are no penalties for wrong answers, but assessment is supported by revision, in that the user can opt to do the lesson Encore.

7) Is this website easy to use? (i.e., navigation, layout, etc.)

The website is easy to use. An external document informs that the game allows for the computer screen to be adapted for children with vision disabilities and dyslexia. According to site information, Primary French operates under a partnership between bbc.co.uk and AbilityNet toward this end. Even outside of this, the website is very easy to use. Its instructions are in English and movement requires just a click of the mouse on forward and backward arrows.

Its user-friendly, interactive, and iterative features make it seem more like a software program. Its animation, applause, and curtain fall at the end of sequences give it the semblance of a live performance. Additionally, the choice of characters and the pop music effects are likely to involve youngsters in the lives of the characters.

8) What are the strengths of this website?

Strengths include: the material is authentic; its interactive and well-chosen youth characters can be a motivational; its external links provide a wealth of resources; it is totally in French; revision is built into the lesson. Additionally, the website provides good iterative reinforcement in oral, aural, written and song formats.

9) How can this website be improved?

No suggested improvement I would like to make. This website is well-crafted both in terms of content and affective appeal. It brings together parent, teacher and child. Its language philosophy is laudable in that it promotes language in use, yet it does not sacrifice content.

Reading Reflection # 4

Autonomy in Language Learning

Healey (1999) initiates her discussion on autonomy in language learning with a definition of terms, making a distinction between autonomy, ‘the degree of independence’ learners assume over what and how they want to learn, and ‘self-direction’ the attitude with which learners approach learning designed for them (p. 391).

In my opinion, the trend in education today is toward saddling both horses. Without doubt, learner autonomy is thought to sit higher on the learning totem pole, so most prescribed courses try to give an illusion of autonomy while what they really do is encourage learners to give their best effort at self-directed learning. It is the reason, for instance, for the preliminary questions that greet most learners in the beginning week of most courses: Why did you enroll in this course? What would you like to see in this course? What do you hope to gain from this course?

The new technologies have certainly narrowed the divide between self-controlled learning (learner autonomy) and learning controlled by a provider (learning in which the best outcomes emanate from good self-direction). In most classrooms today, teachers control content, but channel this illusory autonomy through a variety of multimedia, in particular the computer. They allow students to learn and extend their learning through means such as webquests; they allow them to design their own outcomes in electronic portfolios.

Further, when one looks at the preconditions for motivating learning that Healey cites from Good and Brophy (1987), both situations of learner autonomy and prescribed learning aim at the same mix (Healey p. 397). What is significant too is that the computer facilitates all of them: the computer can provide appropriate levels of challenge and difficulty; provide meaningful objectives and variation in teaching methods; it can provide various levels of feedback; and increasingly, with facilities such as open source, barriers to learning have been considerably broken down.

An examination of compulsory schooling shows that educational psychology and cognitive theory are concerned with these identical issues. Of course, teachers still use behaviorist motivators such as marks to enhance learning. However, they know that the drive from within (self-direction) is the most powerful means to meaningful learning. Added to this, metacognitive practices such as reflection through strategies such as journaling are used to inculcate meaningful personal and societal outcomes. Goleman’s emotional intelligence is put alongside Gardner’s multiple intelligence to target humanistic outcomes, enhanced acquisition of knowledge, and critical thinking. The entire mix of EI, MI, and AI is geared toward propelling learner autonomy.

Thus, the aim of the entire combination of educational psychology and cognitive theory is to ensure that whatever is learnt serves the good of both the individual learner and humanity. And so, I am of the view that when one looks at the thrust of prescribed schooling, the intention is no different from the intention of situations of learner autonomy. They both aim at what is usually referred to as ‘life-long learning.’

To argue as I have done, putting both self-direction and learner autonomy on the same plane, is not to diminish either, but to indicate, as I think Healey does, that both have their place in contemporary education. To clinch the point, it may be useful at this juncture to cite David Little’s definition of autonomy as quoted in Schwienhorst (1997):

[A]utonomy is a capacity - for detachment, critical reflection, decision-making, and independent action. It presupposes, but also entails, that the learner will develop a particular kind of psychological relation to the process and content of his learning. The capacity for autonomy will be displayed both in the way the learner learns and in the way he or she transfers what has been learned to wider contexts (Little, 1991:4).

The point is that while learner autonomy gives the learner control over learning, learning is just as much about means as it is about outcomes. I will go even further to say that in all the four points on Healey autonomy/ self-direction quadrant, the same learner means or variables are crucial: (1) degree of self-motivation; (2) preference for an independent style; (3) knowledge of how one learns best; and (4) knowledge of what once needs to learn. These four ingredients determine learning in both situations of self-direction and learner autonomy.

The truth is that the new technologies, in particular the computer, have erased the difference between self-direction and learner autonomy. Online learning adds the benefit of control over pace and time. Improved software and hardware, plus improved understanding of the use to which computer generated output such as email can be put, currently ensure more than mechanical feedback in language learning. For an excellent example of this, see the BBC educational website Primary French evaluated on this blog. In like manner, MOOs and tandem learning can give learners under the guidance of tutors in organized programs, just as much control over ways of learning as learners who seek control over their own programs.

In my view, the computer has certainly brought learner autonomy within the reach of every learning paradigm.

Healey, D. (1999). Theory and research: Autonomy in language learning. In J. Egbert & E. Hanson-Smith Eds.) CALL environments: Research, practice and critical issues (pp. 391-402). Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc.

Schwienhorst, K. (1997). Talking on the MOO: Learner autonomy and language learning in tandem. Paper presented at the CALLMOO: Enhancing Language Learning Through Internet Technologies, Bergen, Norway. © Copyright Klaus Schwienhorst 1997.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Software/Website Evaluation #2

Website Title: English Grammar - The Easy Way

Website URL: www.english-the-easy-way.com

Grade/Age Level: ESL Freshman University; mature, immigrant starting out as a professional in the corporate world; upwardly mobile young person.

Language & Content: English; Grammar and Composition Style Sheet

1) What is the intended purpose of the website?

Primarily to provide a comprehensive reference manual for foreign language students in the areas of grammar, punctuation, editing, and proofreading. However, the page is also an advertisement site for English services, resources, and teaching jobs linked mainly to Google.

2) What is the content of the website and how is it presented?

English Grammar the Easy Way is composed of two main elements - English Grammar and English Writing linked to two subsidiary pages containing more than 100 items of grammar and English composition presented on a wallpaper background. Grammar elements are categorized by parts of speech, with an emphasis on verbs and tenses, while writing elements are composed of links to sentence structure, editing, proofreading, and resume writing. Each grammar and writing element is hyperlinked to an inner page on which brief rules, examples and practice quizzes are provided. The site is connected to Google, Amazon.com, and copious education resources. The layout is an appealing, easy-to-access, color-coded, grid format. A sidebar on the inner pages with their rules and examples leads back to the homepage, the subsidiary grammar and writing pages, and to other inner content pages with their rules. The sequencing of items is not easy to follow.

3) What external documents does the website include? Are they effective?

Google ads are discreetly, but prominently nested in the middle column of the home and subsidiary pages that carry the grammar and style sheet items. The bottom of the homepage also carries 6 teachers’ sites, including a TESOL site, and UK Best 50 Sites for Kids carrying a safe rating. The linked sites are very effective, in that they do not challenge the study manual with its 100 or so items.

4) In what ways is the website interesting to the target audience?

Each study page is headed by a confidence-booster such as, ‘Student and Non Students Can Understand English Grammar Like an English Professor!’ The upwardly mobile student or young professional is likely to be impressed by the voluminous, but concise coverage of basic English elements in everyday usage.

5) For what language goal(s) is this website useful/effective?

The website is suitable for academic and written, independent, language study. It is more suited for mature foreign language students, who have already studied the fundamentals of English language up to high school level. It is also a good revision for American students taking college entrance exams such as the SAT or TOEFL.

6) Does this website offer practice? Assessment? Feedback? Of what kinds? (give examples)

Limited practice offered. Minimal assessment. Extremely limited feedback, even in the few quizzes which offer a choice between either 2 or 3 answers, with correct answers easily visible on the far right of the page; e.g. the ‘Determiners,” quizzes on the indefinite article, and on ‘some-and-any.’

7) Is this website easy to use? (i.e., navigation, layout, etc.)

Very easy to use and to navigate; pages load quickly. The ruled format, bulleted information, simple, table, graphic organizers, make the material easily readable. Not time-consuming. Rules and examples are written in simple language.

8) What are the strengths of this website?

Extremely handy resource for home and independent study; good teachers’ resource for building learner’s autonomy among goal-driven students; useful for quizzes and projects.

9) How can this website be improved?

The site lacks a user’s guide. Progression within a topic is not always clear from the inner study pages. Provision for oral and written work would enhance this very useful grammar compendium. The examples are isolated sentences and lack context. Therefore, connected text would be useful. Generally, the information on the site is accurate, but the site needs to be carefully checked for inaccurate spelling of terms, for example: Model Verb Rules instead of Modal Verb Rules.

Friday, July 07, 2006


It’s 4.04 am Friday July 7 to be exact, and I've just come offline from the most interesting chat I have had in a long while. Guess where … On TappedIn. I went looking for info on podcasting. But while I hesitated, a guy who was in asked me if I needed help. Seems as though he could see every pause my cursor made. So I told him what I was looking for, and he advises “The Blogstreams Salon.” So I enter and he also enters. And I’m browsing the hyperlinks, and the guy says something like, “What kind of info are you looking for? Click on the green i and you can join and post a question.”

Sorry, Dan! You didn’t say we could join, but I joined.

So the guy turns out to have, of all things, an anti-podcasting link. I rib him a bit about him being a bad guy. I read his stuff meanwhile, and tell him that although I don’t know much about podcasting, I don’t agree with his 5 points. So we banter a bit about the 5 points and I eventually read all the listed replies. There is only one reply that agrees with him in a couple of areas. After a while I thank him for giving me an ear and helping me around. And I exit.

My evaluation of the site? I never thought I would respond to this optional task to comment on TappedIn, because I had been on the site twice before and retreated. I found the pages too cluttered. I didn’t like the ruled, copybook format. The rooms were too silent. I found the info good, but there was so much that I was confused ...

Now? I’ve changed my mind. I realize I should have taken Dan’s advice and sought help the first time. My experience is nothing strange. As educators we all know that the greeting one gets at the portals of any learning community makes a hell of a difference to how much one learns there afterward. One thing I know - When I go to browse around TappedIn again, I will not feel as intimidated as I felt the first time.

PS1. Dan, are you sure it was not you in the chatroom? One of the first things the guy said to me … Unasked! …was that ‘Refresh It’ wouldn’t have erased the whiteboard. Only the owner of the whiteboard could.

PS2. Guess what? In my mailbox today is a transcript of the chat I had last night. Now for an added evaluation of the site, in my book that function alone deserves top score!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Reading Reflection # 3

Achieving ‘Text and Task Authenticity’ Through CALL

It’s a while since I have listened to my Pimsleur audio downloads in Spanish, Mandarin, and French, but they must still be serving many in my generation who want a crash course in authentic language just before their next foreign trip. There is no doubt that the new technologies have revolutionized language learning. But what about language learning in the classroom context? Does the plethora of ways of language learning satisfy Ellis’ (1990) criteria of authenticity, in offering students both (1) ‘real operating conditions’ and (2) ‘meaning-focused language activities’ (Guariento & Morley, p. 349)?

My recent experience in a Latin American situation, where I had to express my needs and defend my rights (at least once) with my grammar-based, high school, Seville-accented, espagñol causes me to reflect on two points raised in Text and task authenticity in the EFL classroom (Guariento & Morley 2001). The first is ‘can authentic material be simplified without losing its authenticity’ (348)? The second is what are the most effective ways of achieving task authenticity?

But first I want to point to a subtle distinction between the terms ‘authentic,’ and ‘real world,’ because although their meanings overlap, in pedagogy I do not believe that they necessarily refer to the same kind of experience. To me, ‘authentic’, as used in pedagogy, can be both real word or simulated. ‘Real world,’ on the other hand, denotes life in its actuality; here there is no simulation.

Having split this very delicate strand of hair :), I would say that with regard to simplifying authentic material for the language learner, I think instinctively of the way that young children learn language. They learn mainly in real world situations which are over their heads and are most times, not simplified. And this makes me feel that simplification in language learning becomes a necessity when teachers insist on maintaining as their only learning exposure, the walled classrooms they have traditionally used. Further, in my view such simplification is dangerous, because not only does it run the risk of containerizing all members of the class in one level and pace of language acquisition, but it could also prevent the normal learning in the ZPD that Vygotsky has observed natural language learning in the real world thrives on.

A good case in point is the learning of the use of the subjunctive which is usually delayed until the upper levels in most traditional language learning classrooms. Can a language learner in the real world really avoid the subjunctive ‘May I’ or ‘Should I’?

I would also like to point out that in real world situations, the language learner is usually exposed to iterative encodings of the same experience – there is no one way in which the story of life, society and daily happenings is told. Peer groups, television, the taxi driver repeat the same news, each from their own level of understanding, interest, and language competence. Therefore, if the message is important enough, the novice language learner is bound to catch at least one version, or find a level at which a relevant question could be asked.

With regard to the second issue of the most effective ways of achieving task authenticity, Guariento and Morley discuss four current views: (1) the language should be used for a genuine purpose (Willis 1996); (2) the task should relate to a ‘real world’ activity (Long and Crookes 1992); (3) the learning situation need only have ‘potential authenticity’ (Breen 1985); and (4) the task should ‘engage’ the student (Widdowson 1978).

In my opinion, the first two views of authenticity above are similar, and have influenced pedagogic shifts in language teaching from grammar and audio-lingual approaches to more current communicative approaches. However, Breen’s argument intrigues me, because in his use of the term ‘potential authenticity’, he shifts the focus from the actual provision of real world situations, to the more important issue of what the language learner does with the real world situation that is either provided or simulated. Widdowson’s element, ‘engagement’ also intrigues me, because it extends Breen’s point. For, I believe that language learning is less dependent on real world situations, than it is on engagement and simulation of real life; and in support I will cite a personal experience.

My flight through Caracas back home last week was cancelled, so I was put up in a hotel and allowed one call home at the hotel’s expense. But the call did not go through, and I was told if I wanted another, it would have to be at my expense. In my high school grammar-based, Seville-accented espagñol, I launched a protest. To say the least, it was embarrassing! Not so much because I was not understood, but because my espagñol was culturally out of context and a couple generations obsolete.

Now, in my view, one couldn’t hope for better language engagement! But this real world experience was not what I needed to improve my language competence. What would have been more helpful would have been many more exposures to Breen’s ‘potential authenticity’ in prior, less heated, simulated, language learning exposures. The point is that the language learner could never experience all the ‘real world’ situations that are necessary to become proficient at language.

Furthermore, the language learner does not need to be knocked on the head by ‘real world’ experience to gain language competence. To me, Breen’s potential authenticity and Widdowson’s engagement are far more powerful and far-reaching in providing learners with effective language learning experiences. And to me, in ipods, in e-pals, in voice Messenger-ing, CALL classrooms can provide ‘potential authenticity’ that is suitably effective.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Reading Reflection #2

To me the most powerful statement that Joy Peyton makes in Theory and Research: Interaction via Computers is that ‘Computers are not replacing teachers but rather are changing the nature of their work’ (p. 26). In her chapter she outlines the need for negotiation in light of this new challenge. However, at the same time, she draws attention to how rooted computer networking is in long-standing, interactionist and socio-cultural, Vygotskian principles.

She also notes how the concepts of ‘text and talk,’ whether in real or delayed time, are no longer as discrete and distinct as once perceived. To all these shifts that computer-mediated learning has brought, she argues that teachers need to be continually examining their interactive learning spaces toward understanding how they can shape them for best learning outcomes.

As I reflect on Peyton’s chapter in light of our own online class CALL 530, I am struck both by the variety of modes of interaction, and the quick and subtle shifts in the relationship between talk and text that I myself do. This claim warrants an explanation, so here goes:

I was unable to schedule my online tutorial for any of the group Messenger chat times that my instructor had set, so we scheduled a mutually agreed time for a one-on-one. On the appointed day, we knocked on the door of time at 8 p.m. and began our conversation.

We began in text, both of us in a writing conversation (real-time), but as the written chat (Note the oxymoron!) proceeded, my instructor remembered that I had posted on our class forum earlier (time-delayed), that I had a webcam. By mutual agreement we switched modes to voice and video conversation. Therefore, in this chat room tutorial, not only was my instructor who had known me for a week, seeing me for the first time, but we had switched modes of interaction.

These varied modes of interaction and my merged use of text and talk were not the only classroom interactions that I had done for the day. A couple hours earlier, I had had yet another kind of learning interaction – this time through peer-scaffolding. In that instance, I had a joint conversation with two members of the class whom I had seen online, and asked for help with an assignment that I did not understand.

Of course, Peyton’s chapter focuses on text and talk in quite a different way from my experiences above, in that she examines text and talk from the perspective of the nature of writing instruction in the language learning classroom. My CALL 530 is not a traditional language learning classroom. However, a fundamental analogy between her classroom and mine exists. As she puts it: ‘Computer-mediated interaction revolutionizes notions about writing, radically challenging traditional distinctions between speech and writing’ (p. 20).

Peyton also develops the challenges of computer-mediated interaction, citing its newness, its immediacy, its faceless and diffuseness, as features that often make it prone to (1) antisocial prankish responses, (2) less thoughtful effort from students, and (3) the teacher’s feelings of loss of control. In my opinion these challenges are most likely to found among adolescents. They require ‘negotiation,’ and certainly justify her call for teachers ‘to continually examine the types and quality of [their learning] interactions and find ways to shape them.’

Peyton cites Kremers (1990) on the kind of computer-mediated interaction that was once a dream, but has now become almost the norm in my view – the networked classroom, ‘in which authority is shared, decentralized, distributed, even communal; a class in which teachers sometimes participate directly in the discussion and t other times stay out of things, letting their students take control of their own dialogues; a class in which students compete among themselves for influence in the group through the force of their language and the clarity of their arguments’ (p. 25).

In my opinion, CALL 530 has achieved that platform.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Software/Website Evaluation # 1

Software: English Key Stage 3 - Full Marks; CD-ROM, © Plus Factor Limited. Published by idigicon Ltd.; Web Site: www.idigicon.com

Grade/Age Level: Key Stage 3 (British education system); 11 to 14 age group

Language: English

Content: Standard Assessment Tasks (informally called SATs) for British junior secondary students in the subject area, English.

1) What is the intended purpose of the software?
A tutorial providing revision and testing in ten areas of English: Spelling; Punctuation; Prefixes & Suffixes; Parts of Speech; Writing and Reading Skills; Letters; Advertisements; Narratives; Articles; and Terms used in English.

Mainly entertainment-oriented, ‘designed to make revising for SATs Key Stage 3 more fun than ever thought possible.’

2) What is the content of the software and how is it presented?

A suite of English MCQs in ten English areas. Study notes also part of the package. The MCQ feature is more prominent. It is animated, sound-tracked, and in game format. A choice of four survival games, Jetman, Alien Diner, Rescue, and Pursuit, can be applied to any of the 10 areas or levels.

However, the player must also have good English competence in the various levels, good discriminatory skills and quick recall of grammar rules and language elements to complement his gaming skills. It is a single player game and the player gets 3 lives. The player can print his score card at the end of the game.

The revision notes feature is a dense and compact series of notes in MS Word on the Start menu page. This feature is overshadowed by the red game button that invites the player with the words ‘Start Game.’

3) What external documents does the software include? Are they effective?

There are no external documents, and this is one of the limitations of effective use. Two key elements of Key Stage 3, speaking and listening, could be incorporated, especially since the real Key Stage 3 syllabus does not include MCQs.

4) In what ways is the software interesting to the target audience?

The software was most likely created to appeal to 11 to 14 year-old males of a decade ago. The adolescent of today might find the software archaic. In fact, it is difficult to conceive of an adolescent in any era choosing to play an English Comprehension, Spelling, and Punctuation MCQ game.

The arcade features of the software may cause it to have limited appeal among female adolescents.

The software really targets educators and parents. Teachers and parents are the ones most likely to buy a game such as this, thinking that it would appeal to adolescents.

5) For what language goal(s) is this software useful/effective?

This software is likely to be most useful for peer group English language revision, but since only one player can play at a time, interest is likely to wane, especially since the test questions within each level increase in difficulty.

The revision notes feature is not likely to appeal, because there is too much text to wade through.

6) Does this program offer practice? Assessment? Feedback? Of what kinds?

The program offers practice, because it can be repeated as often as desired. The player can ‘pause’ the game by striking the spacebar at any point. Pausing the game offers the choice to exit, but not to consult the revision notes. If the player exits, the game is over. Pausing the game should be modified to also incorporate a feedback feature.

The program offers gratuitous feedback in the form of a flashing CORRECT, and with a bonus of extra lives if the player achieves a high score at any level. Negative sound-effects feedback occurs if the player makes the wrong choice on a question. The player then gets 2 more tries. After 3 wrong tries, the game is over.

The player can choose the option to see his/her score throughout the game to the right of the screen. At the end of the session player can print a report.

7) Is this software easy to use? (i.e., navigation, layout, etc.)

The software is easy to use. The navigation requires just the normal 4-point directional dragging of the mouse, and a left-click for the right answer.

A talking robot initiates the software with a Game Screen Help menu with arrows pointing to and labeling the icons of the game. Just click 4 icons to begin the game.

8) What are the strengths of this software?

The software is a self-monitoring, language learning, and assessment tutorial. It uses an entertainment format to motivate students toward language learning.

However, the ‘About the Program’ interface contains the following caveat: ‘As we cannot monitor the use of the software we recommend that you discuss the results with your class teacher, rather than rely on our assessment alone.’

This caveat suggests that a student can cheat or manipulate assessment outcomes.

9) How can this software be improved?

Make the revision notes more attractive, so that they would become more central to the language learning.

Less skill and drill, and more emphasis on language in context, especially in the early levels of the game, especially since it is well known that students do not always transfer language elements that they get correct in isolated spelling and punctuation exercises into their connected writing.

The suggestion above should be seriously considered, since Key Stage 3 English assessment uses short and long answer formats, and not MCQs. Format of the game could be aligned more with Key Stage 3 English syllabus, e.g. listening and speaking, components of the Key Stage 3 syllabus, could be included.

Feedback and assessment features should minimize guessing. Players could be directed to the relevant revision note when their answer is wrong, instead of being encouraged to guess.

External documents, e.g. additional passages should be included in the package, to extend its life and interest, since after a few sessions, all the plays are known.