The Fifth Utility and Learning Styles
When was the last time you saw someone walk into a room, flick the light switch, and go "Wow. Light!"?  Within a very short space of time so it will be with the Internet. It will be that commonplace. Professor Nigel Paine of the Technology Colleges Trust (UK), refers to the Internet as the Ďfifth utilityí to emphasise the commonplace nature of this new phenomenon. (The light switch analogy is also his.) Stating the obvious, he says that the Internet is primarily concerned with the transmission of information, and that has been part of educationís core business since day one. We as educators therefore, have a responsibility to hijack at least part of the internet agenda, to ensure that at least some of the information is worth knowing (and we all know that the net weighs heavy with plenty of dross), and that it is imparted effectively.

Thatís where we, EFI teachers, come into the picture. We have chosen to embark on teaching English over the Internet. Itís fairly safe to assume that most would agree that English is worth knowing, and to teach it by means of any medium is worth the doing. But so avidly have ESL/EFL teachers taken to the Net that it is already swamped with sites designed to assist in the teaching of English. And they are not all good. So, as online English teachers we have to deal with the same problem as with the Internet generally. There might actually be too much stuff out there! 

So how do we determine which are the better sites? I think a good starting point is to ask why we are using the Internet at all. Despite the Internet being an obvious medium for educators, it is important to evaluate why we do what we do. There are other times though, when asked why Iím doing it, I answer simply that the Internet is a runaway train: you can choose to be on board or not be on board. And I for one, hope that not everyone comes on board. We will always need classroom based experts. Teaching (and learning) via the online medium is not for everyone, and teachers should not be made to feel that it is. Let those who want to go there. Let those who wish to remain in the classroom do so. 

Letís assume that if youíre reading this you have at least made it past the initial evaluation stage and have decided that online teaching is worth trying. The next question is 'what do we do?' Itís very tempting to just repeat what weíve done in the classroom and transfer it to the online context. An easy example of this is to upload a reading comprehension and questions to the Internet. It may look fancier and more colourful than the traditional printed page (beware the seductive nature of the web - just because it looks good doesnít mean that it is!), but in this case there is no attempt to exploit the medium. There are countless examples of online courses that consist of a lot of reading material with questions. Presenting such courses via the net does save paper (though youíd probably find that most students would print off the material for easier reading), but the same outcome could have been achieved just by sending the materials through the post. This is not a bad thing of course. Itís just that there is a school of thought that says that we should be using the Internet to teach in a way that was not possible before. Itís a new medium and it requires a new pedagogy and new processes. 

Metaphoric Learning Environments (or Metaphoric Training Environments) 

Iím aware that much of what I say here will not directly relate to what you are doing with EFI, but I assume that many of you are or will be teaching an online course at your institution. Most educational institutions have syllabus or curriculum documents or similar. You may be asked to deliver a course via the net that hitherto was delivered in classrooms face to face, or perhaps as a print based distance education offering. Such courses were not written for online delivery but are now being delivered that way with little or no modification. We can do better than that. 

Suppose you teach "Communication Skills". Such a course would normally include opportunity to roleplay and demonstrate the practical application of skills and knowledge learned. This is much harder to do in an online course than in a classroom setting . A group at the Canberra Institute of Technology approached the problem in this manner. They went right back to the drawingboard and noted the skills students should have at the conclusion of the course. Then they constructed a 3D world with various characters and posed conflict situations between them. In this case it was sited in a virtual company. The students are assigned the roles of the various employees in the company and are tested on their ability to negotiate and resolve conflict via a series of realtime online meetings, and email correspondence. All online correspondence is assessed by tutors who provide feedback and links to resources that assist students with the theory behind the practice. This is a metaphoric learning environment, and it instructs in a way that would not normally be possible in the traditional classroom context. It maximises the potential of the Net as a delivery medium for educational purposes. 

The Palace Virtual Schoolhouse (which many of you may have visited) is an example of a metaphoric learning environment that attempts to recreate the experience of a real classroom. Other 3D worlds such as Interspace and Active Worlds have the potential to be utilised in the same way. The challenge for we teachers is how best to do that. The temptation, and perhaps the easier pathway, is to let the software/technology do all the impressing. And it is impressive, and fun, but richer rewards await those teachers and students who can really exploit these technologies to develop different pedagogical approaches. That perhaps should be the subject of another lecture. 

Teaching/Learning Styles 

A factor which remains constant in both classrooms and this new educational online world is the fact that teachers need to offer a smorgasbord of approaches to satisfy all the different needs of our learners. That has always been the case in classroom teaching. In the online context some of us are very happy with the technological path. The more complicated and whiz bang the technology, the more we feel we have achieved as teachers if we master it sufficiently to instruct our students in its use, and see them in turn using it capably. And that is quite a feat; a wonderful achievement for an online teacher, especially if  our goal is the imparting of techno skills to our students. We are however in the business of teaching English. Sure teacher-student dialogue that results in an effective sharing of a new technology involves a great deal of language, but not a lot of it may be transferable to the everyday world. Itís a built-in pitfall of online teaching that a lot of the language exchange revolves around the use of the technology.  This suits some students (and teachers). From my experience of my classes at the Palace it is also clear that some students would prefer to keep the technology to the bare minimum, and concentrate more on serious discussion or focused grammar work, for example. Students come to online classes with different goals, have different needs, and bring an array of learning styles. 

In my real life work at present I am involved in a project that seeks to present a model of how people learn. There is nothing new in this. It has been the subject of many studies before now. What people on this current project are doing is trying to pinpoint whether all extant learning styles can be catered for in online learning. To that end we are looking at courses available on the Internet, examining the software tools in use, and how they are being used; in particular, how they are being used to satisfy the different learner types. Iím referring to many of the obvious tools of the Internet - email, chat, 3D environments, bulletin boards, Net based classrooms such as Nicenet, etc. 

Checks and Balances Model 

Go to <http://www.tafe.sa.edu.au/lsrsc/one/natproj/tal/bestprac/imagemap.htm >. This is the front page of the Checks and Balances Model, developed by a colleague of mine, Marie Jasinski.  I encourage you to explore the parts of this model (and its many links) later, but for now go to the Strategies page. You will see that this section refers to FOUR main stages in the teaching cycle - Motivating/Connecting, Informing/Understanding, Coaching/Applying, and Evaluating/Integrating. The question that should be formulating in your mind by now is of course "how do I do these things when Iím teaching online?" 

What I am going to be doing in the next few weeks is looking at each of those stages in the teaching cycle and hunting around the Net for concrete examples that illustrate how those stages are addressed in online courses. For example, on the Strategies for Evaluating and Integrating page, the first point dot point is the use of chat, forums, and email to assist those students who like to share findings with others (an important aspect of some students' preferred learning style). In a recent module that a colleague and I have recently written we actually stipulate that students share their findings about a current world news event with other students on a class bulletin board.  As well as provide us with data for assessment, it should satisfy those social learners who like to share information. What courses do you know of, or could imagine, that provide other illustrations of this?  (And how would you cater for the learner that does not enjoy sharing their findings?!) 

Optional Assignments! 


As you browse the following pages: 

it would be of great assistance to you professionally, and to me personally, if  you could provide examples of these strategies from real or imagined courses. They do not have to be English courses. While you're searching for half a dozen (or more!) examples it may prompt you to think more closely about what and how you are teaching online, and provide me with a bank of data that I might use to flesh out this project! 

Our eventual aim is to post links to examples for each dot point on these four strategies pages, and perhaps incorporate them into an online professional development activity for intending online teachers. So PLEASE SEND ME ANY EXAMPLES YOU FIND. 

AND, if you would like to have a look at what I think is an excellent teacher training course that illustrates many of the above strategies, check out Elaine Hoterís course from Israel - English through the Internet

I know David Winet has already given you a session in the use of audio so I wonít go on about it here, but I have made a beginning towards using music online as a tool to initiate activities with EFI students. If any of you are able to use Real Audio, and have the time and the inclination, I would appreciate it if you could try the cloze listening exercise at <http://www.chariot.net.au/~michaelc/fearsongcloze.htm>, and tell me: 

  • do you think the level is appropriate for upper intermediate - advanced level students? Is the audio and singing clear enough, and the context of the lines of the song sufficient  to enable students to decipher the missing words?
  • how else could you use this kind of webpage for online teaching?

Thank you for wading through this paper. I know it is short on helpful handy hints that you can use in your teaching tomorrow, but I trust in the long term that considering the issues under discussion here, and applying them in practice, will make us all better teachers, and afford greater credibility to this whole business of  online teaching in the eyes of the Luddites. And for those who have already been down this path, Iím sorry for telling you how to suck eggs! 
If youíre interested in some of my more general comments about using the Internet for ESL/EFL teaching have a look at the summary of proceedings from the English Teachers Association of Israel international conference in July. (http://www.chariot.net.au/~michaelc/confrefs.htm

All comments and feedback welcomed. 


Michael Coghlan (12/10/98)