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Spring 2000

Theme: Technology

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Content-Based Internet Collaboration

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Higher Education

Content-Based Internet Collaboration

by Loretta F. Kasper

Research (see, for example, Kasper, 1997, 2000) has demonstrated that content-based instruction, especially sustained content study, is effective in improving ESL students' linguistic skills, more quickly enabling them to pass institutional assessments and enter the college mainstream. As part of a sustained content course, students may be asked to choose a focus discipline (e.g., psychology, sociology, mathematics) to study over the entire semester, independently researching issues and reporting on findings in a series of papers. This research is facilitated when an extensive body of informational resources is available. The Internet represents such an abundant informational resource. In addition, it has tremendous educational potential in being able to facilitate intercultural exchanges through which students may work collaboratively, first gathering and sharing information, and then discussing and analyzing issues.

This article describes a study that explored this potential through a content-based intercultural exchange in which high intermediate ESL students at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY (KCC) conducted focus-discipline research, collaborating via the Internet with ESL students at Canisius College in Buffalo, Kiev State Linguistic University in Russia, and Broward Community College in Davie, Florida.

 

Planning the Project

One of the most important considerations in planning an Internet collaborative project is finding compatible partners. To ensure cohesiveness in the project, I needed to find partner teachers who would be willing to coordinate course activities with me by implementing sustained content study, focus-discipline research, and Internet collaboration into their courses. One place facilitating such collaboration is Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections (IECC) <http://www.iecc.com/>, an e-mail list devoted exclusively to assisting teachers in the establishment of intercultural classroom partnerships. The IECC list helped me to locate my partner teachers: Karen at Canisius College, Konstantin at Kiev State Linguistic University, and Mary at Broward Community College. After "meeting" via the Internet, my three partner teachers and I spent several months planning, developing, and coordinating project activities and assignments. During the planning phase, we communicated via e-mail two to three times per week. We chose texts, discussed and designed possible focus-discipline projects in each of the content areas to be covered in the course, set up a schedule of assignments, and agreed upon and developed means of assessing student progress. We each agreed to use the text Interdisciplinary English (Kasper, 1998), which covers the following content areas: linguistics, psychology, sociology, mathematics, environmental science, business, computer science, anthropology, biology, and diet and nutrition. Students choose a focus discipline during the first week of the semester. Based upon these choices, we would then create the focus-discipline groups that would be at the heart of the Internet collaboration.

I also instituted a project listserve, CBESL, through egroups.com, an Internet company that provides this service free of charge <http://www.egroups.com/list/cbesl>. Students would use CBESL to post questions and comments; instructors would use it to post assignments and make announcements to the entire group. Although e-mail was our primary means of communication for the Internet exchange, when possible, we also arranged to have students meet in the CBESL chat area for synchronous discussion. Finally, to assist students in using the Internet to facilitate both language learning and focus-discipline research, I created a course home page <http://kccesl.tripod.com/>, which contained links to a variety of resources available on the Internet.

 

Project Activities

The overall study involved four high intermediate ESL classes from KCC and one high intermediate to advanced ESL class from each of the partner institutions. Students set up e-mail accounts, either through their university or one of the free e-mail providers on the Internet (e.g., yahoo.com, hotmail.com), the one requirement being the ability to send and receive e-mail attachments. This was necessary because they would be sharing their writing with Internet partners as well as with their classroom instructors. Students communicated via individual e-mail and weekly postings to CBESL. They were required to post at least one message per week to CBESL and were encouraged to use the list to ask questions, make comments on their research and writing assignments, share and suggest useful resources, and discuss the development of the project Web page. In collaboration with their classmates and Internet partners, each of the students in the study produced a portfolio of writings, consisting of several progressive essays and two longer research projects, dealing with key topics in the focus discipline (for examples see <http://members.aol.com/Drlfk/projects.html>). With students' permission, this written work was publishedon the class Web site so that all students in the project could learn from each other. This class Web site also served to illustrate the results of the Internet collaboration to others interested in sustained content-based instruction.

 

Fine-Tuning the Project

As the semester progressed, we noted successes and made adjustments as necessary in course activities. The project continued for a full academic year. This enabled us to use the insights gained during the first semester to improve the collaborative intercultural exchange as it continued for a second semester with new ESL students from KCC and the three partner colleges.

 

Results of the Internet Collaboration

The project produced a number of educational benefits to the students who participated in it. For example, the students produced written projects that demonstrated their improved language skills. At my college, the pass rates on reading and writing assessments rose to 92 percent overall, and 69 percent of students who passed achieved scores high enough to allow them to skip a level of ESL. All students who participated in this project benefited from enhanced performance, increased motivation, and greater confidence in their ability to handle academic tasks (as evidenced by their responses to feedback questionnaires).

 

Final Comments

Each of us who participated in this Internet collaboration learned a great deal from it. As instructors we benefited from exchanges with colleagues who, as a result of individual teaching situations, each brought distinctperspectives and insights to the project. Our students marveled at the resources available to them via the Internet, and, as they gradually becomemore comfortable and competent with the technology, they also benefited from sharing information and opinions with peers and learning from not only their instructors but also each other.

 

Note: This research was supported by a grant from The City University of New York PSC-CUNY Research Award Program.

 

References

Kasper, L. F. (1997). The impact of content-based instructional programs on the academic progress of ESL students. English for Specific Purposes, 16(4), 309-320.

Kasper, L. F. (1998). Interdisciplinary English (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kasper, L. F. (2000). Content-based college ESL instruction. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

 

Loretta F. Kasper is associate professor of English at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY and the author of Content-Based College ESL Instruction, Interdisciplinary English, and Teaching English Through the Disciplines: Psychology. <LKasper@kbcc.cuny.edu>

 

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