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Team 2 Group Project

Loretta Kasper, Bob Keim, Stu Rutherford

The course that we chose to evaluate was FC-1 (Fundamentals of Communication 1) at New Jersey City University (NJCU). Loretta knew about this course, and she has met the instructor Steve Haber at several regional and international TESOL conferences. FC-1 was an experimental course offered for the first time in Spring, 1999. The course has an interesting format, in that it is 1/2 F2F and 1/2 online. Because of its mixture of F2F and online components, we thought that the course might have the potential to offer the best of both worlds to ESL students. Unfortunately after evaluating it, we believe that, although a basically good idea, as it is presently designed and implemented, the course falls well short of its potential.

Course Description and Objectives

According to the description provided in the Course Outline, "this is a six credit course, [which] meets... three hours per week in the classroom. The remaining three credits of coursework is earned online by completing the readings, activities, and assignments available through the course web site."

The Course Home Page contains links to a variety of course components--the syllabus, the course outline, the student list, the writing archive, the teacher's page, the college home page, online resources for research and technical support. The objectives and expectations of the course are defined through the course outline, which provides a comprehensive description of each of the course goals, the course format, both the student's and the teacher's responsibilities, the process of assessment with percentages awarded to each aspect of the course. There is a link to the instructor's web page, which provides some information about his background and gives the students several ways (e-mail, phone, fax, office hours) to contact him. On the course home page, the instructor tells the students that this course format (1/2 F2F, 1/2 online) is experimental. There are links to course assignments and due dates are clearly posted.

Assessment and Instructor Feedback

Students are assessed through 12 essays and a group research project and presentation. Unfortunately information on this group work is sketchy. Students are asked to keep a "self-evaluation" folder, but this seems to be more of a portfolio of their writing than anything "self-evaluative." There are practice exams as well as a final test, which is graded by two ESL teachers and which must reach pass criteria. The criteria for passing are not listed; however, a six-point scale ranging from extremely weak, weak, fair, good, very good, and excellent is provided with a description of skills required for each level.

Students' overall grade is divided as follows:

25% attendance/participation

25% online activities

20% group research/presentation

30% compositions

There is no indication as to how the online activities are evaluated. It seems strange that although 50% of the course credit is obtained through the online component, online work accounts for only 25% of the total course grade. This doesn't seem to place appropriate importance on the online component.

According to the course outline, the instructor provides students with feedback on their writing in the areas of content and grammar. He does this both in person and online. Aside form the group interview project, there is no mention of feedback from peers.

Technical Support for Online Work

If students have a technical problem while working online, they can contact the MIS developer (although it's not clear what MIS stands for) or the technical support section by e-mail. Links to this information are tucked away on the course site, and students must navigate through several pages to reach technical support information. Once there, they can report a problem and must declare themselves as student, staff, or faculty. Although students working in the college computer lab should have relatively ready access to tech support, those working at home could be stuck for hours waiting for an e-mail response from tech support.

Site Navigation

Although the course site contains some good features, it is very weak on the basic principles of site navigation. Navigation of the site is often problematic, and this would be particularly true for novice computer users or students whose native language is not English. In fact, the site uses a lot of fairly complicated elements (Frames, Javascript) for no good purpose. Since students were not required to use the college computer system, they might have been accessing this site using browsers without Javascript capabilities or the ability to display frames. This fact should have been taken into account in the site design.

The home page presents a number of icons, which are supposed to represent the various aspects of the course. A Javascript mouseover makes the icon bigger and puts a text label for the icon in the middle of the screen. This is confusing since the viewer is probably looking at the icon (which simply gets bigger) and not at the middle of the screen (where the corresponding text label appears). In addition, the icons do not present clear graphic representations of the content of the link to which they direct the user. We each had difficulty figuring out most of the icons, and since the text label is placed in the middle of the page, rather than beneath the icon, it did not help.

In addition, many of the pages within the site were uninformatively titled. It was often difficult to tell exactly where you were in the site, what week you were in. There were also no links at all on many of the pages themselves.

We found one link in particular especially bothersome. It said "Go to the Fun and Games page." The directions on this page say "Punch gingerly for serious fun. Click ever so lightly for games and quizzes." There was a picture of a jester on the page with numbers from 1 to 10 going down, each number supposedly linked to a page of "fun and games." It took a long time to find anything; in fact, only the numbers 1 and 2 led to working links. And getting to the link had nothing to do with "punching gingerly or clicking lightly." We found this annoying, but many ESL students might become frustrated, believing that they could not navigate the site due to poor English or poor computing skills.

We believe that the site would have been much more user friendly if basic principles of good site navigation had been followed. Every page on the site should have working links, a link back to the home page, some indication of your position in the overall site. Another problem was that the text navigation bar provided on the lower portion of the screen was cut off, even on a 17" computer monitor. The same was true of the lower part of the frame used on the left-hand side of the screen.

Using the Potential of the Online Environment

Although 1/2 of the course hours are "conducted" online, the course does not fully exploit the potential of the online environment. It appears that the teacher used the online tools more for classroom management than for anything else. He has a list of rules, goals, and contact points together with a list of assignments and exercises. The web exercises and assignments are to be e-mailed directly to the instructor, which seems to indicate to us that the chance of something interactive taking place online has been missed. With their permission, students' writing is published on the course web site; however, it is not clear if other students are required to respond to this writing, either online or in class. In fact, in a course where 1/2 the hours are conducted online, the students don't seem to be encouraged to do anything together online. It seems to us that they would just use the web site to access and print out course materials.

The home page provides links to grammar exercises, which, while closely related to the topic under study (something we all liked), were really just worksheets posted to the Web. This was a place where the use of more advanced Web capabilities like Javascript would have made the online component more meaningful. For example, the teacher could have (at the cost of some work) created online multiple choice grammar exercises with hypertext explanations of errors and links to pages that provide more work or more information.

The course format lists collaborative learning as a goal of the course and the Group Research Project and the Presentation of Group Research determine 20% of the student's grade. There is no recommendation about how this collaboration is supposed to take place. Students could meet face-to-face at the college; however, online learning accounts for 1/2 of the course content. Yet there is no tool set up to provide the context for student collaboration in an online environment. Here the teacher could, and we believe that he should, have taken advantage of online tools for web-based conferencing. He could have used something like WebX, or even more simply, set up an e-mail discussion list through a company like egroups.com. He could have required that students post messages to this online system, that they use it to comment on each other's work and to work together on their group project.

We believe that making an online conferencing system an integral part of this course would have had several benefits:

      1. It would have provided students with an easy means of online communication and communication outside class time.
      2. It would have encouraged them to collaborate online.
      3. It would have provided the instructor with a means for monitoring the time students spent online. This is important since 3 of the 6 course credits were earned through the online portion of the course.
      4. It would have better prepared the ESL students to take and succeed in the many online course offerings available to them at NJCU.

Evidence of Constructivist Learning Theory

There is some evidence of constructivist theory in the assignments. The writing assignments ask the students to respond meaningfully to the readings, to connect them to their own experience and to other texts that they have read. However, there seems to be little peer collaboration, which is a key element of constructivist learning theory, and there is also a lack of a clear thread relating the topics studied in the course. Although they each represent a current social issue, the reading topics are not sufficiently related to enable students to create associations easily between new information and their existing knowledge base.

The course covers:

      1. Personal experience
      2. Immigration and culture
      3. Single parent families
      4. Sex education
      5. Right to die
      6. Gun control
      7. Language and multicultural issues

It takes time to construct knowledge, and knowledge construction requires that associative links be formed between new and existing knowledge. Because students are constantly switching topics, they do not have enough time to build knowledge and to use the content as the means and the tool to acquiring vocabulary and other language and computer skills. The instructor could have had students choose one or two of these topics to explore in some depth and given them the time and the opportunity to do extended research in that topic. A good deal of research has shown that when students study a subject over time, they acquire both language and academic skills more effectively than if the topics studied are not closely related to each other. This is especially true if they choose an area of interest--this adds relevance and increases student motivation.

Our Overall Evaluation of This Course

We believe that this course has several very strong points that should continue to be developed in future semesters. With its unique format of 1/2 F2F and 1/2 online instruction, this course represents a step in the right direction for ESL instruction. It has the potential to offer students valuable experience in online learning, while still providing them with the support and F2F interaction of the traditional ESL course.

The course is also well-organized. The instructor has clearly posted assignments, provided links to required readings and useful online resources. He has also made sure that all students are able to contact him, by giving them a number of alternatives.

The Internet-based research activities are well-designed. There is good advice about how to get the relevant information from the Internet. In particular the instructor avoided the "search the Internet" syndrome, where students are given some topic, told to search the Internet, and led to blind alleys and screens full of not very useful material. Instead the instructor specifies which search engine to use and what searches to engage in. He suggests specific keywords. This leads the students to lots of information that is related to the topic under investigation. He also handles controversial subjects in a sensitive manner.

In spite of these positive aspects, we found that the course did not take sufficient advantage of online capabilities. The web site had a number of serious design flaws--difficult navigation, dead or missing links, etc. The online component of the course appeared to be mainly an online collection of materials that could have been printed and copied and handed out in class. The grammar and reading exercises were not interactive, yet they could easily have been made so in an online context. With the exception of the group research project, there was little indication of student collaboration, particularly in an online context. There was no tool set up to encourage or facilitate students' online collaboration.

Through an e-mail communication with the instructor, Loretta learned that he found no difference in the performance of students in this course and those in traditional F2F courses. That doesn't support some of the work we've read in this class, where several of the articles found that students in online courses do better than those in F2F courses. However, in light of the way in which the online component was used (or the ways in which it was not used), the instructor's results are not really surprising at all.