An Interview with Thomas N. Robb about Recent Shifts in Focus of Online CALL Activities

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Amanda Gillis-Furutaka, Kyoto Sangyo University

Thomas N. Robb is a founding member of JALT. He first taught English in Japan for Panasonic in Osaka. In 1981, he started teaching at Kyoto Sangyo University, where he is now a professor in the Department of English. He has done a lot of pioneering research into Extensive Reading, preparing students for TOEFL/TOEIC, and is currently one of Japan's leading experts in CALL. His home page has many useful links for people interested in these and other areas of development in English Language Teaching.

He was on sabbatical during the academic year 2003-2004 and was based at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. In this interview he talks about the shifts in focus of online CALL activities and the need for teachers to track the work their students do alone using computers. He will be speaking at the upcoming Kyoto JALT Conference on the need for tracking CALL online activities.

AG-F: You have spent the last year away from Japan on sabbatical researching, attending conferences and giving presentations. What has been the main focus of your activities?

TR: Developing materials for language learning, primarily English, using the computer. Actually, not so much the materials as ways to keep track of what students are doing with them. This is partly for the purpose of evaluating the materials themselves, to see if they are being used as expected and if the learning outcome is what is expected. But, the most important thing is to first make sure that students are actually using the materials before you can evaluate them in this way. When a teacher sets a homework assignment to be turned in next lesson, they need to know who has and has not done the work. Unlike traditional homework, if the assignment is a self-access assignment on the computer, students usually cannot bring anything to class to show that they have done it.

AG-F: Is this really a problem??

TR: Many teachers, like you, are asking if students really want to learn English, will they do the work set by the teacher without knowing that the teacher is going to check? I have found in my research that, in many cases, even if the students are sincerely interested in learning English, they usually have a lot of other classes (especially university students) as well as other activities. With limited time for studies, which would you do, the work that will not be turned in and evaluated or the work that will be assessed and will enhance your grade?

AG-F: The answer to that one is very clear! So this past year you have been working on developing ways to track students' work online.

TR: Yes, a few years ago, I developed an online site for a large EFL publisher and have been looking at how to build in a tracking system to be used with the site. I've also been working on integrating a tracking system into the Hot Potatoes software that many teachers are using to create their own materials.

AG-F: Could you explain a little about what Hot Potatoes are?

TR: This is a software program that has been developed by two teachers at the University of Victoria in Canada. Teachers can input texts they are using and create all kinds of activities such as cloze activities, crossword puzzles, matching exercises, and so forth. However, with no tracking system, unless the teachers are present in the room, there is no guarantee that students are going to use the materials. To solve this problem, I have developed a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) called Moodle, which is something like WebCT or Blackboard. It allows teachers and students to see how long students spent on the activities, how well they did them, their highest score, and so forth.

AG-F: Is this a direction that most online materials developers are moving in?

TR: No, a lot of CALL practitioners who are in the forefront are working on online, interactive environments like live video conferencing. Although this is something which can be highly motivating for students to do once or twice, it is just not practical to schedule into a curriculum because the students need to meet on a regular basis with students in other parts of the world. This is a shift away from using computers to create a non-threatening learning environment in which students can work at their own pace. With these kinds of live, online activities the teacher has to be in charge, controlling the activities. Also, because these interactive activities are not scripted and the language is not controlled, the students aren't learning much useful language even though they may find the cross-cultural interaction highly motivating.

AG-F: Are there other new developments that you think are more useful for language learners and teachers?

TR: Yes. Individual teachers, instead of making their own exercises and activities for a home page, are now moving towards creating Virtual Learning Environments, which I mentioned earlier. In fact, whole distance learning courses can now be run using VLEs because they provide all sorts of functionality. For example, the teacher can set activities for the students to do. There is a place for students to ask questions and have discussions. There is also a system to track the students. The teacher can see when students logged in and how long they spent on an activity.

AG-F: Is this happening in Japan too?

TR: Yes, in Japan many universities have built their own VLE, which means that they are reinventing the wheel to some extent. They cannot create something as well working individually as they could by working on a cooperative project. And this is where Moodle, that I mentioned earlier, comes in. It has had a lot of time put into its development. It was originally created for the constructivist approach to learning, based on discussion but has many different functions which are useful for language learning.

AG-F: Is it a team project?

TR: Well, it has one main developer in Perth, Australia, called Martin Dougiamas. He has a site where people can subscribe and discuss how they use Moodle and send in suggestions. The program is set up in such a way that independent developers can develop modules which only need to be dropped into the Moodle file directory in order to work. This has encouraged teachers with some knowledge of programming to enhance the functionality of the basic Moodle program for their own specific needs.

AG-F: Is a VLE a modern equivalent of a self-access center?

TR: It's an online self-access center, but more than that. It's more like an online school with classrooms, a library, and even social spaces. For example, you can log in and see all the courses you belong to, you can go into one you are registered for and find all that instructor's materials as well as student responses and questions and even quizzes and your quiz scores. Studies have shown that, for some types of students, and for some learning styles, students who are reticent in class blossom in an online environment.

AG-F: Do you think that this kind of course will take the place of the classroom?

TR: It already is in the case of distance learning courses which used to be run by manual and video and audio tapes. But I don't think that they will ever replace live classrooms. Murrey Goldberg, the inventor of WebCT, found in his original research that a combination of regular classes plus online activities was significantly more effective than either approach used alone.

AG-F: Thank you, Tom! We are looking forward to your presentation at the Kyoto JALT conference in October.


Thomas N. Robb's Conference Presentation Title and Abstract for the Kyoto JALT One-day Conference October 9, 2004.

  • Presentation title: Reassessing "Self-Access" and "Learner Autonomy"
  • Abstract: While instructors strive to implement technological advances in their online CALL activities they have inadvertently shifted the focus of activities to those which work best with motivated, autonomous learners. This presentation documents this shift, examines the dangers involved, attempts to explain the dynamics behind it, and makes suggestions for restoring an appropriate balance.

Amanda Gillis-Furutaka teaches full-time in the Faculty of Foreign Languages Department of English at Kyoto Sangyo University, together with Thomas Robb. She has an MA in TEFL from the University of Birmingham and is the Recording Secretary of Kyoto JALT chapter as well as Program Chair of the upcoming (October 9, 2004) Kyoto JALT one -day conference "Innovations in Teaching".