This paper considers the criteria that should be used when assessing an online language school. So far, there have been very few, if any, discussions of online language schools in the CALL literature. There is a considerable body of research into the influence of technology on open learning and distance education . None of this, however, addresses the problem that faces a potential learner when they first investigate an online school.
Specifically, this paper proposes a framework for evaluating online webschool sites. It discusses a number of these sites in the light of the proposed framework, and then goes on to describe the authors' attempts to enrol into a number of them. The paper concludes by looking at the potential problems facing the schools and their students, and concludes that the concept of cyberschooling is still at too early a stage in its development to fulfil the promise it appears to hold.
A recent newspaper article in the Melbourne newspaper, The Age (7 Aug. 1999) entitled ‘Teaching by the minute’, outlined an initiative by the Australian State Government of Victoria to provide online tutorial support for year 12 students in a range of subjects. Victoria's Education Department has entered into an agreement with a private company to set up a website that links students to a range of teachers, each accessible by email, and each ready to provide one-to-one online support for students needing help with their assessment tasks. (The url for this company is http://www.Worldschool.com/).
This is a clear indication that mainstream education is beginning to recognise the viability of real-time online teaching, and that web-based delivery of some forms of education are gaining a legitimacy that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. It also indicates that a significant sector of the education industry considers web-based delivery to be cost-effective.
The growing legitimisation of web-based education coincides with a growth in the number of websites that claim to be ‘virtual’ English language learning centres. Some of these ‘virtual’ schools are free, but an increasing number of them demand payment for enrolment. Many of them claim to be a viable alternative to face-to-face teaching for students who cannot or will not attend more traditional language classes. However, a lack of consistent educational standards can make a student's choice of a ‘cyberschool’ a somewhat hit-and-miss affair.
As web-based learning becomes more acceptable within the wider community, and the number of cyberschools increases, it will be necessary for teachers and learners to have a set of criteria that will enable them to evaluate these cyberschools. This paper investigates a number of cyberschools currently available on the Web and attempts to provide some initial discussion on what these criteria might be.
While a number of investigations have been published exploring the influence of technology on the provision of open learning and distance education , and while many of these studies discuss the advantages and disadvantages of online delivery (see, for instance, Tella 1996), none of them address the problem that faces a potential learner when they first investigate an online school.
There appear to be very few discussions of online language schools as such in the literature. The ‘schools’ are of course a manifestation of distance learning and so it may be useful to examine them in the context of distance education. Sussex argues that there are strong links between distance learning and open learning, and describes the major features of both forms of learning thus:
both distance education and open-access learning involve high levels of student control and direction … And both, if well designed and delivered, allow students to learn in ways that make reduced demands on a scarce human resource.(Sussex
Sussex goes on to describe how in the previous decade an increasing number of institutions had begun offering undergraduate language courses in the distance mode.
Sandery outlines a number of positives and negatives for open learning which are particularly valuable starting points for an examination of cyberschool sites:
On the positive side:
On the cautionary side:
We based our investigations on Sandery's points, and set out to discover how many of the sites exploited the positives and attempted to cope actively with the negatives. In our evaluation of the sites we looked for the following;
Our investigations were in three stages: (1) identify a number of suitable cyberschools; (2) assess them according to the set of common criteria based on the list above; and 3) enrol into a number of the cyberschools to assess their viability as learning resources.
The sites we investigated were mainly taken from a list to be found on the Dave's ESL Caf_ website , but we also included other sites that we came across on the Web that seemed relevant to our investigation. Not all of the sites on the ESL Cafe site were relevant or appropriate: some were advertisements for traditional language schools, and some were part of tertiary credit courses and closed to the general public. The number of sites at the Dave's ESL Cafe website that were relevant to our research were, therefore, somewhat reduced.
Following the classification outlined above, we carried out an evaluation of the sites according to the following criteria:
Urai, the ‘learner’ in our team, intended first to enrol into a number of free sites, and then into several fee-paying sites. As will be explained below, the second stage of the enrolment activities was not carried out.
There were number of these on the Dave's ESL Caf_ site, some requiring a college student number before they could be accessed. The ones that are accessible to the general public are included in Table 1 (8, 9, 14, 15) (the numbers in brackets in the rest of this paper refer to the entries in Table 1). They range from colleges in the US to universities in Japan, and include a teacher-training course that takes the form of an interchange between teacher trainees in the US and ESL learners in Israel. These are interesting only to the extent that they underline the trend elsewhere for sites that consist of a range of self-access materials with a teacher available in the background, to be called on when help is required. If one of these sites is open to the general public, it is usually because the outside students are being used for some form of research. A good example is Number 34, whose introductory pages contain the following explanation:
The purpose of the project is to explore and expand the educational potential of Internet by offering free online instruction by volunteer teachers to students from all over the world, in order, in part, to facilitate the learning of English by students who might otherwise not have access to, or resources for, ‘real world’ and/or paying classes; and in part to identify:
One cannot help wondering how many students there are worldwide who ‘do not have access to, or resources for, real world and/or paying classes’, but do have access to a computer, an Internet service provider and a phone line.
Virtually every site in this category calls itself an online English course. This group of sites, however, provides little if any interaction between student and software, and none at all between student and teacher. Most of these sites contain lists of information on traditional English courses (see 7, 24), and provide a small number of language exercises. An example of this category is The Internet Mini-Course, maintained by Helen Hoyt Schmidt (31). The website contains a set of definitions and explanations about the course Schmidt is involved with, a number of simple English tests, and a sample lesson or two. For reading comprehension exercises the site typically provides a reading text and some comprehension questions which students must print out and work with offline. This would be a useful resource for teachers in a traditional classroom, but not for students working on their own, as there appear to be no opportunities for having their work corrected.
Even though there is no active communication between the teacher and the students on these sites, students can sometimes get forms of feedback that are quite sophisticated, even to the extent of being told why what they've done is wrong and what they need to revisit in a particular learning module.
The schools in this category are similar to each other in that they offer ongoing tuition which includes a facility to interact with a teacher and (usually) with other enrolled students via a chat-room or real-time online communication.
They do, however, differ considerably from each other in a number of ways. Some are free (such as 24 or 31), while others debit a monthly fee from each student's credit card until told to stop (16). Some offer a range of languages apart from English; some provide regular weekly or monthly teaching materials year-round (16, 19, 22, 24, 31, 33, 35), while others have discrete ‘terms’ and expect students to log into online tutorials using audio and video software (the most advanced of these is probably Number 5 in Table 1).Some are technically quite demanding: they expect students to have a fast computer with an audio card and a video camera (5, 20).
These schools are discussed at greater length in the next section.
It is not as easy to enrol into these sites as one would at first think. Urai Salam, our ‘learner’, attempted to enrol into a number of these, with varying success. In fact only two responded, and only one ever began sending learning materials. In the light of this experience, we decided not to enrol into any of the cyberschools that required a cash payment: we had a growing fear that the ones requiring payment might take our money and never respond.
Two online courses we tried to enrol into were very slow in responding. English for the Internet (34), for example, claims to offer comprehensive learning modules: English for business, English for special purposes, TOEFL preparation, Chatroom, and real time classes where students around the world log in at a scheduled time to have a ‘class’ using free demo versions of virtual reality software that they have been told to download from the Web. When we subscribed to this course, it took two weeks before we got a (computerised) response apologising for the delay and promising to contact us as soon as possible. After two months of waiting, we were yet to ‘enrol’, and at the time of writing, there had still been no response. We had a similar experience with Online English_English as International Language of Understanding (35). Despite displaying a set of very promising web pages, nobody appeared to be home. The only site we were finally able to enrol into was English by E-mail maintained by Elek Mathe (33). When we subscribed to this course, the welcome email contained the following paragraph:
You'll get lessons every week; sometimes only two, sometimes maybe four or five. It depends on how much time I have. The answers will be posted a few days after the lessons. In a 14-day period we received 12 lessons, six exercises and six answers (see Appendix A for an extract from one of the emails that we received). Usually the teacher sent exercises (vocabulary, reading, grammar) on one day, and on the next day sent the answers to the previous exercises. The lessons we received from English by E-mail consisted of question-and-answer language sessions: no explanation, no discussion. Initially we wondered why Mr Mathe was offering such a free service, until the emails begin to arrive, containing quite a lot of advertising (see Appendix A).
By far the largest group in the survey were the full-blown virtual schools. They are perhaps best described in terms of the following criteria:
This is usually linked to whether the school is free or not. Some sites offer a lesson a week, or a lesson whenever the teacher feels like posting one (see the email extract below), while others provide a complex set of tasks that require students to be working online for a number of hours a week (see, for example, 23).
Most do not specify equipment requirements, which presumably means that a web browser is enough. Others, however, encourage students to utilise video and audio facilities linked to their computer. Clearly, the more complex the setup, the more advanced a student's computer literacy needs to be.
Some schools run ‘terms’ starting on specific days and running for a fixed number of weeks; some are continuous, offering materials whenever a student wants them; some require online attendance at specific times and on specific days.
The majority of the schools we investigated offer a ‘course’ of lessons followed by feedback from the teacher (8, 10, 11, 16, 17, 19, 29). Some of them offer a ‘conferencing centre’ which is in essence an email listserver that students can use either for messages to each other or for the teacher to communicate to the students (24, 26, 30). The most ambitious schools attempt to recreate the college atmosphere by offering semester-long courses and encourage students to have a video camera and an audio link to the teacher and to the rest of the ‘class’ using Microsoft's NetMeeting software (5, 20, 22, 23, 28).
There are a surprising number of blank squares in our table — most worrying perhaps are the ones in the ‘Cost’ column. We found none with a formal syllabus posted on their site. One, Number 28, based its courses round a published textbook, which could be seen as a form of syllabus. Few even attempt to indicate that they follow a particular a teaching philosophy. It is possible that we may have missed some of the information when we searched the sites; however, if we were capable of missing them then it is most likely that potential students will miss them too.
The level of attendance at these cyberschools is hard to gauge. Many of the schools demand an up-front payment before enrolment, and give no indication of how big the classes are. Occasionally small clues betray the size of their enrolment: Compuhigh (16), for instance, claims to have a ‘daily posting responding to student questions’ that is freely accessible to the casual visitor. On the day we looked, there were four postings, one asked about how to enrol, one asked about how to unenrol, one asked about the content of the program, and only one had a genuine language question. Four responses to questions indicate the likelihood of a very small number of enrolments. Another cyberschool (30), which claims to have eight-week ‘terms’ running throughout the year, has not even bothered to post the dates of its terms beyond May 1999, probably indicating no students whatsoever. This is presumably also true of the two schools we attempted to enrol into, but which did not respond to us.
Students face a number of problems that are inherent in the uses of technology for distance learning: in particular, a lack of computer literacy, and the need to maintain a sense of purpose (in other words, the need for strong motivation).
In the cyberschool arena, these problems surface as:
Debski & Gruba identify all three of these problems in the survey of tertiary instructor attitudes that they carried out in Melbourne.
Most of the schools examined here do attempt to cope with some of the issues raised above: if they are unsure about the technology, students are encouraged to email for help, though they would need to be quite advanced learners before they were able to describe their problem, let alone understand the instructions on how to fix it. Some of the schools offer a range of scheduled times for their classroom activities in an attempt to cover different time zones, but this does not overcome the problem of only having a fraction of the total student numbers available for any one class.
Motivation is an important element in any learning situation. Warschauer cites a survey that he carried out which indicates that using computers for learning is motivating in itself. He identifies three factors that bring this about:
It should be safe to assume that if a student is enrolling into a cyberschool he or she is already motivated by these factors. However, to maintain a student's motivation to stay enrolled for any length of time, a different set of factors is required. Many of the cyberschools address this aspect of motivation by setting students attainable goals: a student is more likely to stay online for eight weeks if the class is designed to last eight weeks (and particularly if the student has paid for all eight weeks up front),
Motivation is perhaps the hardest of all to deal with at a distance, but it is perhaps the most important of all to overcome if students and the cyberschools are to have successful outcomes.
On the positive side, a common set of characteristics do appear to be evolving among the more ambitious cyberschools. These are:
There is, however, a significant negative side as well, all of which currently militates against successful uptake of cyberschooling:
The industry (if it can be called that yet) has a serious image problem. Most of the sites are unwelcoming, with few graphics and only a sprinkling of images of people that would provide a human ‘face’ to the organisation behind the site. There is the occasional photograph of an individual teacher or principal, but otherwise most sites consist of pages of form-like exercises to fill in and faceless emails to read. An exception to this is TestDEN: Your Personal TOEFL Trainer (29), which has a particularly lively, approachable interface.
As we have already discussed, many of the sites offer incomplete information, and what there is often hard to find. Some (1, 2) offer little or no information until after student enrols.
Many offer a set of free exercises as a sample of what is to come once payment has been made: some offer a free week's enrolment, but none offered any kind of syllabus document that shows student what they will be studying and when. Even the personalised instruction offered by many sites is not accompanied by examples, which would show potential students what they can expect.
As we have indicated earlier, our brief experience of cyberschools leads us to suspect that very few of these cyberschools have large enrolments. The very fact that they do not mention student numbers makes us think that enrolments must be in the tens at the most. Of course we may be quite wrong about this — there is no way of telling. If we are wrong, then the more successful sites are doing themselves a grave disservice. In most cases, potential students are asked to send their credit card number to a website on the other side of the world with an authority to withdraw hundreds of dollars. In a number of cases, the authority is an ongoing one — the site is authorised to keep withdrawing the same amount on a regular basis until told to stop. Anyone who is contemplating giving total strangers this kind of access to their money will want to know that the organisation behind the school is legitimate and reliable, and that the service provided is of good quality: The best way of showing that is by telling potential customers how many students are currently enrolled and how many of these have reenrolled. Nothing boosts confidence like an appearance of success.
Further examples of poor marketing skills are the cyberschools who offer little or no information about themselves until after a potential student has sent details about himself. This seems to be a particularly unwise strategy in the highly competitive web environment.
When it comes to paying for their involvement in cyberschooling, students are likely to find that there are a number of hidden costs. Apart from the computer and the software necessary to access the Internet and to work on written materials, there are also the costs involved in purchasing time with an Internet service provider (ISP), making the necessary phone calls to connect to the ISP (relatively cheap in Australia, but not necessarily so in other countries), and in purchasing the additional equipment recommended by the cyberschool, such as a sound card and a video camera and the associated hardware/software to go with it.
These are hidden costs that may well put cyberschooling beyond the financial reach of many in the more developed nations, and well beyond the reach of most in less developed nations. In most cases it would be cheaper to go to a local language school than to enrol into an overseas website.
Our experience of cyberschools has been a rather disappointing one. The industry is still very much in its infancy, with a significant proportion of sites in existence that are little more than teachers' personal web pages.
The future viability of independent cyberschools very much depends on the credibility of what they offer. It could be said that the ESL/EFL industry only became viable when it began to teach towards internationally recognised standards: the Cambridge Certificate, TOEFL and IELTS. None of the cyberschools that we investigated even pretended to offer IELTS or Cambridge training, though a number of them did offer TOEFL training. There is no reason to believe that the cyberschool industry is going to be any different from the traditional language schools of the 1960s. Until cyberschools can offer students an internationally recognised certificate that will open the door to other opportunities in their lives (typically higher education or a better job), there is little likelihood that cyberschools will be more than the poor relations of the language teaching industry.
Mike Smith(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer at the Horwood Language Centre of the University of Melbourne, Australia. He runs ESL programs, and lectures on the Centre's postgraduate programs in CALL. He is currently studying for a PhD, investigating learning strategies within the CALL context.
Urai Salam is a teacher of English as Foreign Language in the Language Development Unit at the University of Tanjungpura Indonesia (http://www.untan.ac.id/). He is currently studying for a Masters in CALL at the Horwood Language Centre.
This an example of materials from one email lesson received from EnglishLearner.Com at
This an example of materials from one email lesson received from EnglishLearner.Com at
Numbering in the first part of this list (01-30) refers to the entries in the list at Dave's ESL Cafe on 1 October 1999, when the survey was carried out.
Any omitted entries were not relevant to this survey.
01 English Connection
05 Ed USA Online
07 English Page - Free Online English Lessons
08 English on-line reading
09 English Through the Internet
10 English Tuition Online - English for your needs
11 English Online
14 Fullerton College composition online
15 Language Learning Forum
17 EuroTitle Email Course
19 Knowledge 2000
22 Net English teacher
23 NetLearn Languages - The On-Line Language School
24 Study English Online for Free
25 Robinson's Online English
26 Roggy's ESLweb
27 Sat Caliber
29 TestDEN: Your Personal TOEFL Trainer
30 The English Writing Academy
31 The Internet Mini-Course
32 Guide to Grammar and Writing
33 English by E-mail
34 English for the Internet
35 Online English