presentation at 
ESL Educators Professional Development Forum (27/3/99)
As with everything else involving the use of the Internet, using it as a tool and a medium for ESL teaching is leaping ahead at a rate of knots. The number of websites dedicated to ESL teaching and learning increases almost daily. Software tools for the online teaching of ESL are similarly proliferating. Most know by now that the Internet is a vast resource on just about everything. The problem we have as educators using the Net is distinguishing between what is worth using, and what is just more grist for a rapidly growing mill. And we have to assess whether or not it is sensible to use the Internet as a resource when perhaps more traditional resources may do the job better and quicker.

To wit: 

    "For a project on wolves, I got more information from a $6 book than I did in two hours on the on the Internet."

    "For a project on Oklahoma, and the origin of the state flower, after hours of fruitless research on the Internet, I rang a librarian and got the answer at 11.00 pm."

These comments are taken from a recent email discussion about the value of using the Net as a resource. I will not argue a case for or against here, but these comments serve to highlight the fact that there is an issue around someone automatically turning to the Net to find their information. It is a wonderful resource but we should also be encouraging our students to learn and maintain traditional information seeking skills.

And what of those courses that are offered wholly online? There are now countless certificate, diploma, and degree courses available. Are they as good as face to face courses? Some hold extreme opinions:  

    "Does anyone really think they can get a degree online that is the equivalent of getting one from a real university where you can brush shoulders with colleagues in a professional and academic environment? ONLINE EDUCATION IS A SCAM. BIG TIME."
This comment and the subsequent reply below are also from an email discussion list.

"If I hadnít been able to do my Masters in Business Admin online it never would have happened. I was able to do it:

  • while looking after my family
  • without childcare costswhenever I wanted
  • without stress
  • with no travel costs
I received:
  • more one to one attention than I ever got in a face to face course
  • a reply to queries and assignments within 24 hours, and often 12.

Clearly there are those for whom online education is a godsend and who swear by it. Others doubt its effectiveness. What is interesting is that distance education has been around for years quietly achieving results in the background, and rarely was an eyebrow raised in objection. With the advent of the Internet and the spread of online education many now know that distance education is a fact and want to join the debate as to its effectiveness. A quick examination of the literature will tell you that online education is no more or less effective that traditional teaching for those who choose this option, just as older types of distance education courses (correspondence courses, tele- and video conferencing) do the job equally well for those who choose to study in distance mode. The point is that the Internet is just another medium available for the delivery of educational programs, albeit a very glamorous one. It is not the answer for all who prefer human contact in the flesh.

Face to face v distance mode

Implied above is the fact that the Internet can be used both as a tool for classroom based learning, where students and teachers are in a classroom together and may for example be looking at various sources of information on the Internet. Distance mode refers to those courses that are offered entirely online where the teacher and their students in all likelihood will never meet. Many exercises can be employed in both situations.


  • grammar drills These are particularly useful for ESL learners who can be set to work on a body of exercises on a particular grammar point or language structure. Most ESL websites with this kind of exercise have built in correction and feedback so the teacherís involvement is minimal once the student is shown the site.  
  • find and report (scanning, skimming) This is where the Internet can be a wonderful asset or a cumbersome beast that is overloaded with information. Except for all but extremely advanced students it is advisable for teachers to direct students to particular sites that the teacher knows have the required information, and where the language level is suitable. A useful side outcome here can be the practising of skimming and scanning skills, and indeed, the very phenomenon of reading text online - a skill that is not the same as reading the printed page, and one that students need gentle encouragement in. (It is not a good idea to always print out everything.)
  • specific topic research (see above)
  • comparison of media (current news) The Internet allows us to read newspapers around the globe from the same day. Students can for example compare the headlines of newspapers around the world to see if they have the same front page stories. Many ESL sites too have links to sites where news is presented in modified language for ESL learners.
  • email projects These are an exciting way of exploiting the Internet for language students and already have been the subject of a lot of research. How effective are they in developing students language skills? We are not talking here of  the kind of brief, lightweight email contact that students usually engage in initially. We must all start that way, but the email medium becomes a far more powerful educational tool when classes of students link up with another class elsewhere in the world on a regular basis and engage in collaborative projects that might involve problem solving, negotiation, joint creation of web sites, etc.
  • chat Chat is a word that has been co-opted by the Internet and it refers to those places where you can meet other people and engage in real time chat. In Internet chatrooms chatting of course means talking by typing, and this kind of communication can quickly become trite if left unsupervised. Teachers need to set discussion questions, or specify a purpose for the chat for this to be an effective language learning strategy in the longer term. A very useful feature of Internet chat is that a teacher can often log the chat and give it back to the students later as a written text and use it as the basis of a range of exercises. This is a good example of something you can do on the Internet that you cannot do in normal classroom teaching.
  • listening exercises It may come as a surprise to some that one can make extensive use of the Internet as a listening resource. Sound files of all types are all over the Net and again there are now several ESL specific sites that present a range of listening activities, and most new PCís these days come with speakers and sound capability.
  • creating web pages This is a very exciting and demanding adventure to embark on with students. There are many stories from teachers that testify that once this kind of project gets underway you cannot get the students out of the computer room. My experience has taught me that this is not always so but creating web pages is a great way of demystifying the Net for students. Once you have your own page the Internet is no longer a phenomenon outside your experience. Having your own website gives you part ownership of the Internet!

I mentioned above that there is no shortage of software available to facilitate teaching online. I will just mention the few tried and tested tools that I use.

  • MARKIN (Freeware* by Martin Holmes)
If you are receiving student written work by email and need to send back corrected work electronically this program is indispensable. This program basically converts the corrected text into a web page so that when the student gets it back it looks clean and uncluttered,  and has annotations (like marks in the margin of a page) to indicate location and type of student errors. (NOTE: Freeware means that the product is freely available from the Internet but the understanding is that if you like the product you will eventually be honest and pay for it.)
  • ICQ (I seek you!)
This gem of a program is already used by thousands all over the world but is an invaluable program that allows students and teachers to exchange email and chat privately. With ICQ you can also see instantly if the person you want to talk to is online.
The Palace is widely known as an Internet pick up joint but it also has a virtual campus attached to it and teachers can arrange to conduct lessons in their classrooms. The advantage of the Palace is that it is a 3D environment that allows participants to have a Ďbodyí (an avatar in Net parlance). People can actually move around the 3D space and handle props and offer each other drinks, etc. It is an excellent way of simulating real world situations.


  • Pure Voice
For one to one communication via email. You record your spoken message and send it via your email program. Listening assignments can be sent and received this way, and it enables a teacher to check a studentís pronunciation.
  • Real Audio
This program (also widely used by general Net users) lets you listen to thousands of news programs, music, radio, speeches, etc. 

Education Listservs (Public Email Lists)

The quotes referred to at the beginning of this article came from email discussion lists called listservs. They are public email lists that are set up to allow people with a common interest to read and discuss issues. There are many lists that focus on various aspects of education. I have found those that deal with language teaching and technology on the Internet to be of enormous professional development value. Before  actually jumping in and working with the Internet, listservs are great resources for  simply reading  and learning  to your heartís content. You can also contribute to the discussions. Your email inbox will never be empty again though so be warned.

Here in South Australia there is already a listserv set up (under TAFE auspices) for ESL teachers. It is called ESL_SA. Sadly to date it has been very underused and I would urge everyone who has regular access to email to join the list and help spark it into life. Though it was set up by TAFE it is a public list and open to all education sectors. What can you do with this kind of list? One that I know of, the English teachers association of Israel list, uses it for:

  • sharing lesson plans/ideas
  • announcements concerning meetings, policy developments, reactions
  • opinions/suggestions (re student types, admin issues, strike action, etc)
  • advertising for jobs/relief teachers
If you would like to join this email list (and please do), please see instructions in the resources list at the end of this article.

In conclusion, I suggest that not all teachers make the switch to teaching on the Internet. It is hard to escape the conclusion however that having a basic knowledge of the Internet and its potential for language teaching will be an essential skill for all future teachers. This knowledge can of course be incorporated into classroom teaching. There will simultaneously be a need for teachers who go down the path of delivering ESL online. If you choose this path, be ready for the technological challenge, and the excitement that this mode of delivery can provide, and keep it human. Though online delivery may seem on the face of it to be a comparatively impersonal pursuit, research on successful online teaching is very clear - if the student does not feel a personal link with the teacher and sense a of being part of a learning community (class), most students will drop out.


ESL  Websites

Volunteer Teaching on the Internet Teacher Email Lists (an essential Professional Development activity)
  • ESL_SA - almost dormant at the moment; join it and make it come alive! 
     To subscribe: 
    1. send a message to
    2. write subscribe ESL_SA in the body of the message
    3. leave subject line blank and turn off automatic signature if you have one
  • Education Resource - very active list with many R-12 members 

  • Just send a blank message to:
  • NETEACH - very active list; more for teachers of adult ESL/EFL students using Internet/computers. See further info at: 
  • TESL-L - an incredibly prolific list; concerned with ESL/EFL teaching in general 

  • 1.  Send a message to: TESL-L@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU
    2.  Write subscribe TESL-L in the body of the message.
  • DEOS - a very active list for distance education in general  

  • To subscribe to DEOSNEWS and DEOS-L, just post the following commands to LISTSERV@LISTS.PSU.EDU
    SUBSCRIBE DEOS-L Your Full Name
Places to find E-Pals FREE SOFTWARE 

* Michael Coghlan's Homepage:

* list of ESL sites (needs updating!)

* short article - The Fifth Utility:

Michael Coghlan
ESL Coordinator
Douglas Mawson TAFE
Tel: 82040921