VALUATING EVALUATION: ONLINE INSTRUCTION OF EFL/ESL
During the past few years the author has led more than ten workshops to introduce EFL instructors to the Internet, and to help them use the new media in their classroom activities. The keen enthusiasm they have shown in their participation is eloquent testimony that a new era of language teaching is beginning with the advent of the Internet. However, the changes that are taking place are so fast and overwhelming that we are not yet ready to cope with the new situation.
One of the questions that has been invariably raised in the question and answer session at the end of workshops is, "How do you evaluate your students?" The author has been unable to supply a satisfactory answer to this question, and as far as the author knows, there has been no attempt so far to solve this problem in the EFL/ESL academic community .
This paper will attempt to supply a solution to this problem. By answering this question we will be able to identify the problems facing us and the strengths and weaknesses of using the Internet in EFL/ESL instruction. It is from this viewpoint that we shall consider the problem of evaluation in the online teaching of EFL/ESL.
A NEW MEANING OF LANGUAGE LEARNING
In the traditional writing course, class work is often assigned as follows. The instructor gives students an assignment such as writing a paragraph with a topic sentence. When the composition is returned, the instructor checks and corrects the structures and organization. The students will have a chance to correct mistakes and complete the writing. As long as linguistic formalities were correct, nobody cared about the content.
When the Internet is introduced to EFL/ESL classes, a most interesting thing happens. The content of the teaching and learning changes entirely. In an international email exchange, for instance, the students' attention is focused on the content rather than the accuracy of language. Email written by non-native students usually abounds in errors. These errors, however, are scarcely a problem in communication. For example, how would a student respond, in an international email project, to a message that says "I have a curry hair and big eyes"? One of the most probable responses could be something like "How I wish I could see your picture! Do you have your web page with your picture?" rather than "I spot a spelling error in your writing. 'Curly' is the correct spelling. Say 'I have curly hair and big eyes.'"
As McLuhan (1965) pointed out in his axiom "The media is the message," the medium influences the content of the message. Education via the Internet is no longer the same as it has been in the traditional classroom setting. It is of course possible to teach a language course in the traditional format via the Internet. In fact, as evidenced in distance education, it might facilitate the educational process for people who are geographically disadvantaged. However, the significance of the new media is not in its efficiency. When using the Internet the real significance lies in the fact that people's approach to the content of education undergoes changes.
If one taught a language course in the traditional format using the Internet, students could hand in their assignments by email rather than submitting typed or hand written pages in the classroom. Instructors would then correct mistakes and return the assignment online. If it saves time for both the learner and the instructor, it has certainly improved educational efficiency. The significance of the Internet however is not just in improving efficiency, but in reorganizing relations between learner and instructor, and assigning new meanings to human endeavors.
The Internet has enabled us to teach and learn languages in actual context. In the traditional writing course, there has often been no authentic communication. The students wrote an essay not because they had anything to communicate, but because it was part of their course requirement. The instructor read his or her students' essays not so much because they were interested in the messages, but because it was part of his or her duty to do so. There were no writers and readers in the true sense. The students had no authentic readers to whom they should address their messages.
McLuhan's axiom applies to email and WWW. Email and WWW are a revolutionary means of communication not because of their efficiency, but because of their impact on reformulating relations between people. If we stick to the old format of language teaching on the Internet, the significance of the new media will be lost.
BEHAVIORAL AND EXPRESSIVE OBJECTIVES
Behind the question "How do you evaluate your students?" is an assumption that a language course should focus on language skills and that they should be described in terms of objective behaviors. As any course book shows, language learning programs have been built around the conviction that language learning is a structured process and the outcomes are observable as behaviors. In the traditional EFL/ESL course, therefore, a set of educational objectives is defined at the outset of the course, and when the course is completed, language skills are measured by an achievement test.
In an online EFL/ESL course, however, it is difficult to describe educational objectives because the content of the course is entirely different from the traditional format. Most online EFL/ESL courses appear to lack organisation. They consist of an exchange of email, creating web pages, and chatting online. In the traditional view of language learning, these activities would be considered outside the scope of the course.
Educational activities can be classified into two types according to their objectives. In mathematics, where the goal is to attain a prescribed level of skills, the students' performance is measured by an achievement test. Subjects like art and music, however, rely less on administering achievement tests because their educational objectives are different. The educational objective in art and music classes is not primarily to attain skills after a period of instruction, but to experience educational and artistic activities. Kubiszyn and Borich (1990) call the former behavioral objectives, and the latter, expressive objectives.
It has been customary to view language learning in terms of behavioral objectives. Books on language testing in circulation today devote most of their pages to the discussion of achievement testing. The do not look at language learning from the same perspective as art and music.
What is done in the online instruction of EFL/ESL, however, is closer to what is done in art or music classes. What is encouraged in an email exchange is to express oneself and build trusting relationships with other people. In a project to create a web page in a foreign language, students read their classmates' pages and learn from each other. It might be compared to a ball game undertaken as part of a school's athletic program. By participating in a game students learn how to cooperate with each other to score points. We do not only evaluate students by the number of hits they achieve.
A NEW PARADIGM OF LANGUAGE LEARNING
EFL/ESL in the traditional setting has been taught to pursue behavioral objectives. The focus of instruction has been on language skills, and their effectiveness has been measured by achievement tests. In a writing course, for instance, what mattered was the linguistic accuracy the students demonstrated in their work. The content of the message may be of secondary concern, or even outside the scope of educational consideration.
In online EFL/ESL instruction, however, traditional language testing loses its meaning. When students exchange email with their peers from different cultures and create web pages, their interest is directed to the content of their messages. Language learning on the Internet is a different kind of educational experience from the language learning experience in the traditional classroom setting. When EFL/ESL instruction occurs via the Internet, educational activities assume a new meaning, and we therefore need a new paradigm of evaluation to assess this new meaning.
Before the advent of the Internet, Rivers (1972) was aware of a new paradigm of language learning. Rivers (1972) identifies two levels of language behavior: the level of manipulation, and the level of expression of personal meaning. Manipulation refers to the process of acquiring fixed language elements through mechanical repetitions. This first level of language learning involves the acquisition of vocabulary, syntax and phonological elements. As closed systems, the acquisition of these elements requires structural practice.
The second level, on the other hand, requires decision on the part of the learner. After students have learned, for instance, the modals can and may, they will be able to distinguish the semantic difference. For the students to communicate, they have to make a decision about which form to use according to different situations. In this sense, the second level is an open-ended system in which the learner has to choose one from an infinite variety of possibilities.
Rivers argues that for language learning to be complete, these two levels have to be pursued at the same time. In the traditional EFL/ESL setting, however, the second level has been neglected. In most classrooms, a situated dialogue or role play has been used to consolidate a learning outcome. It is doubtful, however, if these efforts were meaningful, for these activities were, in short, a simulated experience.
The Internet has provided language learners with a new environment. When students exchange email internationally, their experience is real. When they write email, it has a reader. The significance of the Internet in language learning is not in its efficiency, but in the new learning environment it facilitates.
"How do you evaluate your students?" From the discussion above, this question should be more appropriately paraphrased as "How do you test your students' progress (when the learning outcome is not defined)?" First of all, it is necessary to distinguish between testing and evaluation. Testing is an educational process used to measure progress and to assist us in making educational decisions; that is, to evaluate. Traditionally, language learning has been viewed as a process of acquiring language skills. For this reason, evaluation has been seen in terms of achievement. Online language learning, however, is a different process. The educational objectives here should not be defined behaviorally. Language learning on the Internet is more similar to painting, singing in a chorus, or playing a ball game on a team.
Visiting a zoo and a museum, painting, singing in a chorus, listening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: all these are examples of activities relating to expressive objectives. It does not make sense to evaluate students' progress by giving them a test. If we test students, after they listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, on their knowledge of biographical facts about the composer, the educational significance is all but lost. The educational value of these activities is in the experience itself, and not in the acquired levels of skill. In this sense, online language learning has more in common with studying art or music.
The educational objective of online language learning is expressive rather than behavioral. The use of email and WWW in a writing course necessarily directs the writers' and readers' attention to the content of the messages rather than to the accuracy of their language. For this reason, traditional achievement testing is incompatible with the new EFL/ESL learning in the new media.
TCC Online Conferences