A web site for the developing language teacher

Students Guiding Students Through the Web
A Collaborative Web-based Project Developing Students'
Autonomy and Life-long Learning Skills

by Natalie Cigankova
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Such a powerful tool as the Internet allows the teacher to use the wealth of on-line resources to enhance the students' learning at the Academic Writing lessons. As many educators have already noticed, a spontaneous, chaotic process of harnessing the Web by students is taking place independently from teachers, causing frequent cases of plagiarism and various citing errors in academic assignments. Even when students use the Internet for "proper" purposes, "one challenge for language teachers is to shape some of their computer-using experiences into language learning experiences" (Chapelle, 2001:2). The purpose of this article is to suggest one of the possible solutions: a collaborative web-based project aimed at incorporating the information technology (beyond word processing) into the process of developing advanced academic writing skills.

Evaluating websites and writing critical reviews for peer reading, actively involves students into a purposeful language learning activity. The development of all language skills takes place when students read authentic and relevant texts on-line, write several review drafts, and discuss their contributions to the collective project and the content of the future Internet guide-book. The learning resources, collected by students for their own and other students' use, become tailored to the students' profiles and learning context, because the future users themselves have been involved in their careful selection and evaluation. The crucial importance of the relevance of on-line materials to local educational contexts and learner profiles has been emphasised by the applied linguists investigating the usefulness of on-line self-tuition courses (Sercu, Peters 2002:45).

Apart from developing their language skills using relevant and, thus, more effective learning materials, students acquire a valuable quality - an ability to study independently. Anyone who is engaged in teaching students to write in academic English aims at developing life-long learning skills, enabling the learners to achieve academic and professional success in future. Students will need to further develop their writing style while they are climbing their academic or professional career ladder. However, what is most important for students to develop, is the ability to learn without instructor, to find, evaluate, and choose materials that would be the most useful for them. The collaborative website review writing project aims at developing students' autonomy in learning and at "helping learners learn how to learn" (Wenden, 1991:11).

The Project

The purposes of the project work, exploring resources for student writers on the Internet, were to offer students a useful and motivating writing task, to help them develop a critical attitude towards the information on the Web, and to encourage students to develop knowledge through collaboration. Originating from well-known academic books and articles review writing, the activity fosters the process of students' learning how to find and evaluate information on the Internet, compare it with the information from traditional printed library resources, and synthesise it in writing website reviews. Similar activities were described in ELT literature (Dudeney, 2000; Sperling, 1999, Teeler and Gray, 2000); however, we aimed at developing a simple activity of review writing into a full-scale collaborative project connecting generations of students into a community of on-line learners.

Starting the project in 1999 with Latvian undergraduate students preparing to write their first academic papers, we aimed at introducing an activity that can help to use the Internet for developing student's on-line academic research skills and at proving that the use of the World Wide Web in academic writing instruction can benefit students. During three academic years as part of their study program the students analysed and evaluated the websites that might be of interest for writing students. The experience gained allows the author to suggest the following plan for the activity:

Stage 1. Pre-writing
Lower levels of language or computer skills
Advanced level
Before the class: teacher chooses the websites according to the students' age and language level. A web page with links to the websites could save time at the lesson and make it more organised. Before the class: teacher tries different combinations of the key words for Web search to pre-view what students might see when looking for the websites for evaluation.
In class: teacher gives students a step by step instruction on paper, so that students would not get lost on the Web. Teacher may also want to pre-teach some difficult vocabulary that students will see on the websites. In class: students decide what they would like to find on the Internet (e.g. information on citing the Internet sources) and write down the task for themselves not to forget this purpose while searching the Web.
Teacher prepares students to use technology to the extent necessary for the lesson (mouse skills). Psychological preparation of students for working with authentic texts and information overflow.
Teacher decides how to manage the lesson time. Students decide how much time to spend on browsing, on reading and note taking, and on writing itself during the lesson.
Teacher can provide the students with the following guidelines for review writing:
1. Address
2. The purpose of the website and assumed readership
3. Currency: when the website was created and last updated?
4. Ease of use
5. Content
6. Links to other Web pages and websites
7. Interactivity
8. Special features
9. Recommendations (would the student recommend the website to other students?)
Students discuss the list of possible criteria for website evaluation provided by the teacher or develop their own criteria working groups.Example criteria developed by students:
1. How inspiring is the website for writing? (Motivational potential)
2. Overall clarity, including the language.
3. How informative the website is?
4. The relevance of the information on the website; currency.
5. How can the website support writing students: does it contain dictionaries, sample essays and papers, e-books and reference resources?
6. Teaching qualities of the website: are there interactive exercises and self-tests?
7. Does the website offer information for students with different learning styles, e.g. sound, animation and other special features?


Stage 2. Web sites analysis and evaluation (students on-line)
Students read the content of the website and take notes answering the teacher's questions. First reading: for general idea or impression (e.g. the purpose of the website). Second reading: for specific details (the date of construction, the author or the university etc.). Students read the content, evaluate it according to their own developed criteria, and take notes on their findings.

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