On-line course management systems and language teachers
Sharon Widmayer & Holly Gray
CALL in the 21st Century Conference
Barcelona, Spain, June 2000

What are course management systems?

Online course management systems (OCMS) are software packages designed to create on-line course content, provide opportunities for learning interactions and assessment, and allow teachers to manage their course. As such, they provide tools for both pedagogical reasons, such as discussion boards, on line quiz creation, and student work space, and administrative functions, such as grade book and an interactive calendar. Additionally, course management systems typical provide templates or interfaces to help them with page design and layout of their web-based material. Some popular course management systems include WebCT, CourseInfo, and TopClass.

Since these systems are web-based, they are accessible from any computer with an Internet connection and a Java-enabled web browser. What this means then, is that although these systems provide an opportunity to work with computers in class, especially if there is a computer lab available, their greatest advantage is that they provide a means for language teachers to set up communicative activities that can be done outside the classroom, providing real opportunities for authentic practice in the target language overseen by the instructor beyond the in class activities.

What can language teachers do with them?

Writing and grammar 

The ability for teachers to easily set up space for students to share their work and read each others writing makes course management software a natural venue for the writing process. In WebCT, for example, students can upload essays saved in HTML or text format to be viewed by the entire class.  Bulletin board tools can be used to set up student groups where students can work together to write and post essays, do peer reviews, receive teacher feedback, and hand in revisions.   Additionally, some systems have chat rooms available for real-time collaborations.  Best of all, there are no printers needed and no papers to lose, and work can be read and revised at any time, in or out of class. Instructors as well as students have easy access to this work stored in the course management tool on a web server, giving them a window into the writing process.

What about grammar?  Grammar explanations and examples can be put in content pages, and on-line quiz makers can be used to create grammar quizzes that test discrete skills, but these can be gotten from any CD-ROM or workbook.  Students can also practice their grammar in a communicative context by using the real-time chat rooms, even if they are at home, miles apart. Best of all, the conversations in these chat rooms are often recorded. One of the problems with communicative language practice activities such as role playing is that since all the communication is "real time" and teachers do not want to interrupt the flow of the conversation, many grammar "teaching moments" are missed. With the chat rooms, however, teachers can use the recorded logs to have students analyze their speech, look for certain grammatical structures, and do self assessment on how well they were using grammatical structures they learned in class. Students can use the "find" feature on their computers, for example, to search chat room logs for instances where they used past tense verb forms.

Teachers can send their students "outside" their course management folder to electronic journals or online newspapers on Grammar WebQuests--activities which encourage students to scan for examples of the grammar in context.   This type of activity also works with with verb tenses, transitions, and direct vs. indirect speech, and even punctuation and articles.   Once students have found their quota of examples, they cut and paste them into a word processing program along with the reference, a usage explanation, and/or their own modifications.  (Modifications depend on the nature of the grammar point they are studying.  For example, students may be required to summarize information, change  verb tenses, or change a quotation into indirect speech.)

Authentic resources and Course Management Systems

As shown in the example above, activities do not have to be done entirely within the course management tool.  Instead, a course folder can be the jumping-off point for web-based activities that use other resources on the Internet as well.  The instructor can put the assignment explanation, links, and examples inside the course folder, but  students connect to other websites to complete the activities. For example, students will listen to an interview on NPR, read an article on Washingtonpost.com, and then take a "quiz" the instructor created with the OCMS to check their comprehension or post their observations to the bulletin board.  This moves the focus from the technological bells and whistles to where it should be—the language and content—all the while strengthening students' computer

Another popular activity is similar to the Grammar Quests mentioned above. In a Web Quest, students gather information about a topic, summarize, and present the information. In this type of activity, students practice their comprehension using authentic material, as well as learning research skills, and writing skills such as summarizing & synthesizing. To create a webquest, an instructor would post an introduction with background information, a description of the task, a set of links needed to complete the task, tips on organizing the information students acquire, and a conclusion all within their course folder on the OCMS. However, content itself-- the links that students need to look at to gather the information-- is authentic material that the instructor has preselected and made available to the students. In this way, instead of worrying about the class downloading MP3 files in the lab, instructors can let their students loose on the Internet, but do so in a controlled way where there is a pedagogical focus based around a defined task.

WebCT and oral communication, listening, and pronunciation

WebCT is not just for writing, reading, and grammar.   There are a lot of authentic materials to listen to and watch as well.  Students can listen to audio and video clips at their own pace, replaying clips as needed, and focus on topics that interest them.   While teachers can create their own listening tasks fairly easily (assuming that their schools provide server space), there is a vast array of multimedia sites with both authentic listening and activities scripted for the language learner, free to anyone with a proper connection, speakers, and free plug-in programs such as Real Player, Quicktime, or Shockwave.  A good way to combine a OCMS course folder and these authentic listening clips is to use the course management system to create listening comprehension exercises or have the students use the bulletin board to discuss things they have listened to.

Students in oral communication and pronunciation classes can benefit as well.  The simplest way to go about
this is to have the assignment explanation, examples, and resources in the OCMS, then have the students go off-line to do the assignment on their own, and then discuss their observations on the bulletin board.  This works great for out-of-class projects such as surveys or interviews.  However, the teacher need not stop there.  Assuming that
students have access to multimedia equipment such as speakers and a microphone, instructors can download free plug-ins from the Internet to have the students record themselves.  These recordings can be handed in electronically or posted in the OCMS for their classmates to review. For example, students could create short audio introductions to post on-line for classmates, or record a pronunciation exercise that their partner must then listen to. Chat rooms, although they are for written, not spoken, communication, are also good ways to have students practice language functions they are learning and then use the chat room logs to analyze any difficulties they may be having.

Research skills and cultural knowledge

With the proliferation of resources available online, both good and bad, the language teacher must address
issues of research,  evaluation, and fair use.  Many language students doing research on-line for the first time
use the first related sites they find, whether they are valuable or not.  As a result, it is worth spending some time
explaining the research and evaluation process.  Often, the school or university library is a great resource for information on how to find and evaluate resources on the web. University of Maryland, for example, provides several good websites on these topics, and George Mason University has librarians who will come to classes to talk to students about these issues.

Especially for students living abroad, the Internet can be a great resource for learning about the community when field trips are impossible. For example, if students are learning about clothing and shopping, it may be nice to take them to a clothing store, but such outings are often difficult to arrange. Why not ask them some questions about this weeks specials at eddie bauer's on-line store. It has pictures of the merchandise, descriptions, and information about sizes, color, and price. It is categorized for easy web surfing. However, be careful to make sure that students understand that if they put in their credit card number, they will buy real stuff.

What are the benefits for language teachers?

First of all, when students use the Internet, they have access to hundreds of exercises and other activities created by other teachers that are freely available on the Net. Secondly, the Internet is open all day everyday, meaning students can work when it is convenient for them, as long as they have a computer with Internet access to do so. Additionally, for instructors who are teaching some place where classtime is limited but there are computer labs available, it is possible to make sure that students are interacting with the language outside of the classroom-- reading, writing, listening, and maybe even speaking-- in an environment that's non threatening and nonjudgmental. After all, the computer does not care how often it has to repeat something.

Information on the Internet is also interesting and appealing to today's students. They are motivated to learn, especially when students can take advantage of all the information that is on line to read and listen to something in the target language that interests them. Multimedia learning, where students can read and listening at the same time also appeal to different learning styles, which may make things easier for students who have trouble in traditional classroom settings.

But wait, aren't these advantages of the Web in general? What is the added value of course management software?

First of all, with course management software, instructors can add interactivity to their webpages without having to learn advanced programming skills to do so. Setting up a chat room or bulletin board requires no more than a few clicks of the mouse. Additionally, templates are provided to make it easier to for instructors to design a folder and layout webpages. For teachers new to technology, OCMS can make it easy to set up a course website and create on-line assignments, even for those who have never created a webpage before. Additionally, these systems usually provide productivity tools such as an on-line grade book, a calendar, and student tracking to help instructors run their course smoothly.

For students, OCMS provide an opportunity to easily communicate and collaborate outside the classroom with their peers. It is also a scaffolded introduction to the great big world of the World Wide Web, and an opportunity to interact with authentic web-based material in a more controlled setting. It is also password protected, giving students an opportunity to post essays and write notes to classmates without that material being available to the wider web community.

How can an instructor start to use course management software?

First of all, it is important for instructors to find out if their institution has a site license and training for one of these OCMS packages. If there is not OCMS available on campus, both Blackboard Course Info and WebCT offer free course folders to instructors on their corporate websites. Another important aspect to consider is your university's policy towards on-line course development. Do they have a policy? Who owns such courses? Do they have to meet certain requirements or approval? Lastly, it is helpful to find some good help resources for both the instructor and his/ her students. There are many on-line help sites available, including help on the Blackboard corporate site (http://company.blackboard.com/Support/index.html) and the George Mason University WebCT Resource Page (http://www.irc.gmu.edu/WebCT/default.asp), just to name two.

Issues to think about when designing on-line instructional material

When faculty design their course folders, it is important to take into account common web design issues such as ease of navigation, page layout, ease of reading, and appropriate use of graphics. However, faculty need to think about pedagogy as well. Ask yourself if there is enough information in each section to complete the  assignments and course goals and if the assignments are clearly defined and explained. Teachers should make sure that there is a mechanism for students to get feedback about any on-line assignments and that the feedback is timely. Instructors should also be sure to provide your students with a means to interact and a way to find help. Websites should also be accessible by any disabled students in the courses. Above all, faculty should always make sure that the technology they use help fulfill the educational goals of the course.

Advice for using course management software

If faculty are new to OCMS, it is for them easy to get overwhelmed by all the features available. We recommend starting by first clearly defining your learning objectives, and then thinking about using just one or two features of the OCMS to help you achieve those learning goals.

Giving instructions and deadlines are also really important.   Teacher must give much more detailed, specific instructions than typically given in a face to face class.  Even with precise notes such as "Click on the chat icon and log into the grammar group," some students will without fail go to the wrong room, post in the wrong forum, or forget to take their writing test.  It is good idea to have a couple of student users at various levels test assignments before they are actually used during the course of a class. In this way, instructors can see what problems arose and decide how to rewrite or add to the instructions to make them clear to all students. Redundancy also helps.  For example, Holly posts deadlines in both your announcements and on your calendar.

Synchronous tools (i.e. the chat room) can be difficult to use with the whole class.  Setting a time when everyone can log in is tricky, and trickier still is trying to keep a logical, meaningful discussion going with more than 5 or 6 people.  However, by structuring chat rooms to keep them open for the teacher’s office and for peer and group meetings, you can make use of the chat feature without placing an undue burden on the class as a whole.  If a really useful discussion arises, the log can be copied and pasted to the bulletin board for the entire class to read.

Some examples of language courses using course management tools:

* Holly Gray's ESL Course
* ENGL 302B

References and Resources