Monday, October 1, 2012

CEP 811 MERLOT evaluation post

Finding resources in MERLOT for use in my courses is not particularly easy.  First of all, there isn’t a category that accurately matches my teaching situation. The closest category I can find is ESL under World Languages.  This may seem appropriate since I teach English courses to non-native speakers.  However, teaching of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) is often loosely split into English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL).  The former generally means that English is the main language of the general environment in which the instruction takes place and learners must use it in their daily life.  For example, students in the USA who are not native speakers of English would be considered ESL learners.  In contrast, EFL generally refers to learning of English in an environment where it is not the first language and perhaps not widely used, and it is often taught as an academic subject. My own setting is an EFL setting.  I teach English courses which are breadth requirements for students in a Japanese university and none of the approximately 250 students that I currently teach are English majors.  One example of how this difference manifests itself is in looking for writing resources.  I could find several resources such as online writing labs and downloadable worksheets but they are geared for a much higher proficiency level than that of my students.

Secondly, doing a search can be somewhat complicated.  Let me give an example of trying to find resources in one of my main areas of interest: reading instruction.  The first step I took was to go through several links, finally drilling into the ESL resources area, and then did a search for the keyword “reading” from within there.  It returned only one resource, which, from reading at the description, actually seemed to be a content-based unit not focused on reading skills. In addition, it is a broken link with no access to the actual materials anyway. Using an advanced search inputting “reading” into a variety of fields returned six resources, but four were for other languages and one was a journal.  Though the one remaining resource is geared towards younger learners in an ESL environment, I thought I would have a look at it.  However, I am unable to actually run it on my computer; I get an error message that I need to be connected to the Internet even though I am connected.  So, I went back into advanced search, and I found that I had to go through several searches to be able to actually choose ESL as a category again.  Once I did that, though, I managed to get 31 resources listed in the results.  Most of these seem to be only partially related to reading and as I checked through them I found one I thought I might want to come back to later to look at again so I saved it to a collection.  However, in this process I lost my search results and had to use a combination of my browsing history and re-creation of what I had done to get back to them.  While I did manage to find a couple resources for evaluation and potential use, it was quite a convoluted process doing so.

Ultimately, for this assignment I decided to review a website called English Language Centre Study Zone, located here:  This site was created by the English Language Centre of the University of Victoria, New Zeeland.  It is geared towards adult learners of English, and has five levels.  It attracted me because it had reading exercises and the lower levels were consistent with many of my students’ proficiency levels.

First of all, I would like to address the quality of content.  Language teaching, when compared to many other academic disciplines, is much more focused on skill building than what is traditionally referred to as content.  The structures and vocabulary, and perhaps the cultural background, of a language could be seen as content, but it is fairly common within TESOL to aim to give learners skills and support in managing their own language learning and use effectively.  That said, over the five levels, this resource presents students with a variety of practice exercises and some limited instruction, all of the types of which are commonly used within TESOL.  On the site there are two distinct types of readings, referred to there as either reading or themed reading.  The regular reading passages offer multiple choice comprehension questions, vocabulary previewing, gap fills, restructuring the story, and guided summary writing.  The two uppermost levels offer the themed reading passages, which have much greater variety of exercises, including various previewing and reviewing activities and critical thinking exercises.  As a resource in support of this particular educational program, the content seems quite appropriate and is pedagogically sound.  Where I would say it falls somewhat short is in the limited number of readings and exercises available.  At the lowest level there are only two reading passages, and a total of only 18 of the regular reading passages spread over four levels.  The fourth level also has a themed reading and the top level has only the themed reading.

Secondly, I would like to address another drawback, which is related to its potential effectiveness.  While students could use it for their own practice, it does not really represent a stand-alone instructional tool.  Not only is there the issue of the limited amount of practice it allows, there is also the fact that there is almost no explanation, description, or demonstration of skills or content; it is almost exclusively practice exercises.  There are brief descriptions of scanning and skimming in exercises in the highest level only, and which I think are meant merely as reminders to learners who have had previous classroom instruction in these strategies.  Since the specific target learners are ESL students receiving instruction in the English Language Centre in Victoria, use of this may be effectively scaffolded within that environment and the learning objectives are likely more clear than just on the website.  Furthermore, as is, this website has some drawbacks for more general use and applicability.  As mentioned, the number of readings are limited.  There also appears to be no functionality for new users adding new readings and exercises, which I believe would greatly enhance its usefulness to TESOL instructors and learners.  At this point it can only be used as a limited practice tool.

Thirdly, I would like to address the ease of use.  First of all, for all of the regular reading exercises the appearance and navigation are consistent, distinct, and fairly attractive.  There is always a colorful banner across the top with a breadcrumb trail all the way back to the home page.  There are also clear buttons for moving forward or back through the questions or on to the next exercise.  Unfortunately, this is lost in the themed reading pages.  Once you click a link to a themed reading you are presented with a list of text-only links in outline form.  Once inside the exercises there are sometimes attractive visuals, but the banner is no longer present and the pages are primarily text.  The navigation buttons are also different and inconsistent, don’t generally include a “home” button, and can be counter-intuitive (e.g. “next exercise” on the left and “go back to contents” on the right).  In the regular readings, there is feedback to users.  For example, a countdown clock is displayed during exercises that have a time limit, whether an answer is correct or not appears, the number of completed and total questions for a passage get displayed, and sometimes hints as to why an answer is incorrect or points to a particular area to look for the correct information are presented.  The material does not require a lot of documentation or instruction on how to use it, and for the target users it seems likely to be very familiar and easy to use.  However, as a public resource it is not particularly flexible as content cannot be added nor edited. The site also seems somewhat visually attractive at times, but could be improved in this respect with increased visual support of the content and more interesting feedback pop-ups.

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