After receiving an invitation to teach English at the Czech Technical University´s (ČVUT) Faculty of Nuclear Science and Physical Engineering (FJFI), my mind raced with the possibilities of using the high tech resources that would surely exist at this school. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto, I had experimented with posting seminar handouts, and class projects on the Internet (specifically the World Wide Web) for my fellow classmates. None of these projects were very ambitious in scope, and the benefits that my classmates gained were minimal. However, for a full-time teacher, the WWW can be a great teaching instrument. This should be especially true, or so I thought, at a university where the facilities are extremely wired and the student population is very Internet savvy.
After arriving in Prague, I became even more determined to use the WWW to provide my students with extra reference material, study guides and exercises. The primary reason for using the Internet us that the textbooks used by my department are too expensive for the students to buy. Without a book to take home, many students would not get the needed reinforcement of studying well presented material. Early into the semester (and perhaps still), I found myself making hundreds of photocopies to handout to my students in an attempt to fill the void left by the absent textbooks. However, as our department is financially strapped, guilty feelings crept into my mind every time I pushed that big green button on the copier. "You are being a wasteful American!" my superego kept screaming at me, "Just look at all this paper and money you are wasting." Added to this feeling of monetary wastefulness is environmental guilt enhanced by images of the carnage and devastation left by lumber companies in the rain forest and Pacific Northwest. The color of the copier´s print button serves to haunt over imaginative minds with the ghosts of once green and vital plants. In contrast to my wastefulness, some of my colleagues have created little booklets of material that students can photocopy at the library. This method saves the department money, and, to some extent, the environment as not every student will copy the material provided in the booklets. The booklets, however, fail to truly solve the environmental issue, and they fail to provide the students with any mental interaction above reading and simple "check your answers in the back of the book" type exercises.
However, the Internet can provide a greater level of student/material interaction. The "back of the book" becomes a hyperlink to the correct answer. This type of interaction, however, is not that different from a static document. However, using computer programs that are accessed on the WWW server or downloaded to the user´s computer creates the means for high level interaction. Simple interactive programs can be set-up on the server to analyze and provide feedback on a student´s works. The level of sophistication can vary depending upon the complexity of the program. A program can provide the correct answers, percent correct and possibly even suggest ways to improve written work (much like a grammar checker in a word processor). Downloaded to the users machine, programs written in JAVA, a programming language created with the Internet in mind, allow multimedia effects like animated graphics and sounds to be incorporated into the exercises. It is tempting to just think of these effects as merely "bells and whistles"; however, people like playing games, and the enjoyment level of the exercises can be raised from drudgery (homework) to something fun (or at least more fun than normal homework). More importantly for language teachers, sounds and sound analysis can be incorporated into the lessons. Students could hear recordings of natives speakers on the Internet, and the possibility exists that the speech patterns and pronunciation of students can be analysed and corrected by the computer program. As the level of JAVA programming increases (the language is relatively new and is growing as needed), the possibilities for interactive WebTutors to give more feedback then just a list of correct answers will be much greater.
Ideally, the Internet should be an incredibly valuable tool; however, in practice it´s net worth for my classes is not as golden as it could be. Two factors are responsible for this gap--my work load as a professor and the students´ willingness to use the resources provided them on the net. The former refers to my not having enough time to create all the WWW pages and JAVA programs that I would like. Since I do not have a home computer (at least here in Prague), I have been staying late at work during the week and coming into the office on the weekends to work on my students´ WWW pages. So far, I have only been able to put the syllabi, vocabulary lists and a grammar references on the Web which are barely interactive and definitely not sophisticated multimedia programs. Having to type all the information is one of the drawbacks of this method. With old fashioned handouts, one only has to find a good source and photocopy it. The second factor refers to the students´ willingness or perhaps their ability to access the information. Since my pages are not full of fun and games (at least not yet), the prime motivation factor for getting apathetic students to use the pages is the treat of quizzes and exams. Along with the motivational problems is the fact that my first-year students can only use the computer labs for ten minutes at a time. This does not allows them to truly study the material. Time, or lack thereof, is also a key to their ability to view and use the information that I have worked so hard to give them. The other classes in the faculty demand much from my students, and, on the totem pole of priorities for my students, English holds a lower position than linear algebra.
Still, my little WWW pages will improve with time. Winter break will soon be here bringing much needed "free time" to cram more information onto the Internet. Also, with many of my students studying computer science, a student or two could be bribed to help create the pages and to write interactive programs. I could also have the students, for a group project, make Web pages and JAVA programs for their fellow classmates. One group could do the parts of a sentence; another group might create exercises using verbal phrases, and so on. Finally, if my experiments prove useful and if I´m able to stay in Prague one more year, there exists the possibility of getting grant money from some organisation to pay for student programmers/Web designers, a Silicon Graphics Webforce server and any existing interactive software. One can always hope and dream. :- )
TS Fulk´s Internet Assisted WWW pages are located here: