The Design and Utilisation of an Internet Resource for Business English LearnersMichael Vallance
The article details the design of a hypertext decision making activity located on the Internet for business English students wishing to review exponents and vocabulary associated with conducting business meetings (http://www.stir.ac.uk/epd/higdox/Vallance/Diss/FP1.htm). Statistical data from students who contacted the activity worldwide is discussed and recommendations offered for future development of Internet resources for language learners.
IntroductionInterest in Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) and Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL) is currently undergoing a resurgence as we approach the new millennium and access to computers by individuals and institutions increases worldwide. Over the past 12 years studies by Stevens (1984), Windeatt (1986), Pennington (1989), Taira (1993), Cheung & Harrison (1994), Mohan (1994), Evans (1996), and Lasarenko (1996) have attempted to analyse the improvements made by learners utilising computers and CALL software. However, Windeatt concluded from his evidence that "the students were not more motivated by having an activity presented in one medium (computer format) rather than the other (paper format)" (Windeatt:86;86). Eight years later Mohan similarly concluded from experimental data that "the computer role as a stimulus for speaking may not be an entirely appropriate one" (Mohan: 94;124). Furthermore, teachers and students often demonstrate unrealistic expectations of CALL, sometimes leading to complete aversion (Chen, 1996), or express criticism that teaching 'with' computers means teaching 'about' computers and not teaching English (Lasarenko, 1996). It was therefore decided to examine the effect of a completely new medium for EFL learners by developing a unique Internet Aided Language Learning (INTALL) resource entitled 'Business Meetings' targeting business English learners.
The development of 'Business Meetings'Deciding upon the scenario of a company meeting to discuss the decor of a new hotel in Tokyo, the first stage of writing 'Business Meetings' consisted of creating a flow diagram of the decision maze format utilised as exemplified by Mario Rinvolucri's 'Mazes' (1981), Joni Farthing's 'Business Mazes' (1981), and LONDON ADVENTURE (Hamilton,1986). At the beginning of the maze a situation was described and a number of options offered. The user had to select one of the given options where the corresponding action would take him/her to a response. The consequence of this action may take the form of a further situation, a problem or some advice. Subsequent actions were offered and the maze progressed until a final outcome was reached (see figure 3 below). Correct and incorrect options were explained at each linking page providing the user with information regarding form or appropriateness of the choice made. A sound file was available for users if they wished to listen to a native speaker model of the selected phrase, together with a picture on most pages to contextualise and demonstrate the carefully chosen exponents in action. A 'Help' menu allowed the user to leap out of the activity and return to the Instructions page at any time. However, users could not skip stages and jump to the end of the activity as a number of various outcomes were available, each one dependant upon the decision route taken by the user. At the end of the activity learners were encouraged to undertake the multiple-choice 'Business Meetings' test and complete a questionnaire.
The most common (and easiest) program language for designing Internet pages is HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) detailed in HTML for Dummies (Tittle & James, 1995) or on-line in HTML Editor (Giles, 1996): figure 1 exemplifies the HTML commands for the 'Business Meetings' Introductions page and figure 2 illustrates the corresponding page as viewed by the student on the Internet.
Figure 1. 'Introductions' source code page.
<BODY bgcolor="#ffffcd" text="#000000" link="#0000ff">
<td><H3>breaking the ice</H3></td><td><H3>starting a conversation in order to get to know someone and create a relaxing atmosphere</H3></td>
<H1 ALIGN=center>Starting the meeting</H1>
You all seem to be getting along very well together. However, it is your responsibility to start the meeting.<BR>
<B>How do you begin?</B><P>
<A HREF="4A.htm">Right, shut up everyone.</A>
<A HREF="4B.htm">Shall we start?</A>
<A HREF="4C.htm">Sit down. Sit down.</A></I>
Figure 2. 'Introductions' page as viewed via Netscape 1.1N
In all, 110 pages were written providing learners with the opportunity to review exponents and lexis associated with starting meetings, presenting opinions, accepting and rejecting proposals, presenting alternatives, building up arguments, and concluding the meeting. The learner was also encouraged to undertake a test which was checked and results directly returned to their e-mail directory.
Figure 3. An example 'Business Meetings' outcome.
ObservationFrom a multiple-choice questionnaire survey of students connected to 'Business Meetings' worldwide an overwhelming 93% thought the activity was a useful resource and worthwhile activity. Learners expressed they felt that the Internet activity was a 'comfortable method to learn some particular expressions in business English', 'imaginative', and 'would like to see more in the future.' On the other hand a number of learners suggested there was too much information on each linked page with some users unsure of the technical operation of the Internet such as downloading sound files and the use of scrolling pages. Some users wanted the option of returning to a previous page; a facility I deliberately did not include as I wanted learners to consider their actions prior to moving forward on the assumption that, although a simulation, once someone has regrettably said something or undertaken an action in real life the circumstance needs to be redressed. The odd humorous moment (for example, an employee angrily walking out of the room) was welcomed and users suggested that more of these unexpected actions would have made them more cautious when making decisions. Furthermore, students commented that they remembered a new lexical item due to the aforementioned employee's reaction. This suggests that problem solving activities with a particular focus on contextual clues and unpredictable outcomes may provide an opportunity for language acquisition for some learners. Teachers were also pleased that the inappropriate options were not met with a 'wrong-try again' response, but were given possible reasons for inappropriacy and the opportunity to rectify the situation or correct themselves at a later, similar situation. As observed by Evans (1996) and confirmed here, students not only used the Internet activity on their own (74%) but prefered doing so (75%). In the introduction to 'Business Meetings' I recommended users find a partner for negotiating and making decisions. This was encouraged both by the overseas contact teachers and locally when I supervised users. However, students appeared to self-initiate individual use of a computer terminal, sometimes ignoring partners. It was also observed that the more computer and linguistic confident students tended to dominate the terminals, with the less confident learners passively observing and gradually becoming bored. Furthermore, informal observations of local users indicated that students tended to read out loud the function phrases offered thereby neglecting the prosodic features of connected speech, even though models were provided for students to download (ie/ selecting the corresponding sound icon on the page). It is also ironic that using the Internet in its current format seems to reinforce the reading skill at a time when it was imagined that an oral culture based on television and telephones would reduce the role of the written word. An overwhelming 95% of students said they would like to see further similar activities available on the Internet. The response from EFL professionals was similarly in favour. Comments from remote users indicated they linked to 'Business Meetings' on more than one occasion: some users wanted to follow the scenario through to a conclusion; some wanted to observe the results of selecting incorrect responses; others wished to follow the scenario a second time prior to undertaking the test. Although it may be prudent to be cautious about data which relies on learner evaluations of CALL applications, as pointed out by Higgins (1995) and Brett (1996), the overwhelming impression from the data is that learners enjoyed using the Internet activity, were generally motivated and would certainly like to see further decision making activities on the Internet.
ConclusionA negative feature of a hypertext activity is the potential for passive viewing, with the learner failing to engage with the materials in ways which result in effective learning. However, if learners understand what is required of them, and actively think about the materials, their structure and relationship to learning, the opportunity for communication and linguistic development may be enhanced by decision making, hypertext activities available on the Internet. Such exercises which focus on contextual clues incorporating problem solving and decision making that are expected to produce sustained communication through corresponding negotiation requires planned pre-activity preparation and guidance. 'Business Meetings' was designed accordingly and questionnaire feedback suggested that the activity motivated learners, providing them with a valuable resource that can be refered to at any time either as a group activity or for individual self study. Furthermore, personalised learning programs may be authored by teachers with the provision to negotiate individual learning activities. What Brett has to say about multimedia programs is also relevant to the Internet:
"Teachers may then be able to negotiate and to provide personalised learning programs consisting of individualised sequences of learning tasks as suggested by a true 'process' syllabus. Learners could use computers loaded with vast repositories of learning material and tasks to work on at their own pace, towards their own desired objectives, using preferred types of material and exploiting their own preferred learning strategies." (Brett:96;209)
Finally, investment in staff and student training is recommended for institutions to make substantial utilisation of the Internet and its associated technological and pedagogical benefits.
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Michael Vallance has been teaching general and business English for 8 years, primarily in Japan with ILC Pacific and in Italy with The British Institute (Florence). He became interested in CALL while teaching part-time at Temple University, Tokyo and was encouraged by the positive reactions of the students to language learning utilising computer technology. He now teaches at the British Council (Malaysia) having recently completed his MSc in CALL & TESOL at the University of Stirling under the supervision of John Higgins.
The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 10, October 1996