Learning Online: Choosing the Best Computer-mediated Communication Activities

Ishbel Galloway & Douglas O'Brien

As Tim Newfields' recent article in The Language Teacher (1997) made clear, Internet growth in Japan has been considerable in the last few years. It seems clear that Internet use in Japan's school and university classrooms lags well behind that of North America, Australia, or western Europe. In this article we look at Japan's late start in computer-mediated language learning and consider some issues unique to the Japanese context.

While it was still standing-room only at the computer- related presentations at JALT's Hiroshima conference in 1996, attendance at similar TESOL '97 events was quite poor. It's possible that this indicates that the euphoria is passing for some ESL teachers in North America and they are now becoming a little more skeptical about how the use of networked computers impacts on language learning. Those readers who follow the Neteach or TESLCA-L discussion lists will be aware of the increasing concerns that teachers are raising about the lack of empirical evidence showing the benefits of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in language learning, as well as the time demands of teaching students to use the technology.

It's no coincidence, then, that the inaugural issue of the new electronic journal edited by Mark Warschauer, Language Learning & Technology <http://polyglot.cal.msu.edu/llt> is a special issue devoted to "Defining the Research Agenda". Chapelle (1997) writes that "a glance through the computer-assisted language learning (CALL) literature of the 1990s reveals the profession's quest for principled means of designing and evaluating CALL." She concludes, "What is needed then is a perspective on CALL which provides appropriate empirical research methods for investigating the critical questions about how CALL can be used to improve instructed SLA." Similarly, most of the claims made thus far for the use of networked computers in language learning are impressionistic and anecdotal, and, here too, there is an urgent need for empirical research to investigate how CMC impacts on the nature of linguistic exchanges, and thus on the interactionist model of SLA.

In the short term, however, as Internet connectivity booms in Japan and teachers here begin to use networked computers in their language teaching, they need to develop a critical perspective in order to assess the efficacy of the various activities proposed in several teachers' resources on Net-teaching now available both on-line and in hard copy (see Appendix). Our purpose here is to provide some guidelines to help teachers discriminate between activities that are likely to be successful with Japanese students and those that are not.


Different teaching contexts have different constraints. In Japan, some of the major constraints are technological, but others have to do with pedagogy and learner profiles. As David Kluge (1997) remarked in the final Internet article in The Language Teacher series, narrow bandwidth can make connectivity to the World Wide Web and downloading information impossibly slow. As Internet enthusiasm grows among students, campus overuse makes accessibility even to local newsgroups sometimes impossible. Telnet connections which are usually the gateways to MOOs like SchMOOze University [see Davies et al. this issue. Ed.], are often unrealistic because of slow response times. An additional problem in Japan is the fact that, in many universities, EFL classes are competing for space in the school's computer labs, rather than using multi-media language labs specially set up for foreign language learning. This means that there is little, if any, English software installed. This presents an instructional problem for teachers who cannot read Japanese. Finally, technical support is variable and communication with computer staff is often difficult.

In spite of the fact that the Mombusho's study group for educational computing recognized computer literacy to be a fundamental skill in 1985 (Newfields, 1997), it is dismaying, twelve years later, to discover that very few first-year students have learned basic computer skills in high school. In our experience, most students do not even have keyboarding skills which makes it impossible for them to participate in real-time activities like MOOs and IRC, perhaps the most interesting applications for improving oral skills. There is also the fact that Japanese students are neither independent nor self-motivated learners. As Karla Frizler (1995) has said, "The virtual learning experience necessitates the learner-centered classroom and it is likely that students will bear the brunt of responsibility for their own learning." Japanese students do not yet see learning as exploration, but instead wait for the teacher to lead them. In addition, even those whose spoken English is reasonably good usually do not have efficient reading skills and have trouble dealing with the overwhelmingly text-based nature of the WWW. Even intercultural key-pal projects, one of the simplest and most successful e-mail activities, sometimes fail because of the cultural reticence of Japanese students to self-disclose. Finally, the fact that the Japanese school year begins in April makes coordination of international projects difficult.

However, in spite of these constraints, networked computers still offer a great deal to language learners in Japan. Indeed, given the slowness of pre-college education to teach computer literacy, we owe it to our students to get as many of them on-line as possible. Computer literacy is fast becoming basic literacy. What is necessary, then, is to provide teachers new to using computers in the language classroom with the tools to evaluate computer activities and make an appropriate match so that they, and their students, will have positive first experiences in the computer lab.

Criteria for evaluating CMC activities

Based on the experiences and survey responses given by university teachers in Japan who have used the Internet in their classrooms, the following eight questions were developed to identify problem areas in CMC activities. In our opinion, if teachers use these questions to evaluate the potential of an activity, they will be able to anticipate problems and make appropriate adjustments. Just as some activities that are slightly weak in several areas can derail a lesson plan, so also can an activity that is quite weak in only one area. Teachers need to keep in mind that these criteria are not equally weighted.

Question #1: How much technical support and information is required? Students need to be able to find simple answers to technical questions quickly.

The focus of the activity should always be on using the computer for communication and not on struggling to get it to do what you want it to do. Teachers must be familiar with the applications that the activity requires and know the solutions to common problems that may arise.

Question #2: How reliable is the network? Students need to be able to log on easily at different times and from different locations. Local networks often have traffic congestion and unscheduled down times for system maintenance and repairs. Long distance communications add the additional factors of network delays, especially in real-time activities. Teachers need to take these possible problems into account when giving deadlines, and especially when planning an online lesson. Expect the unexpected and have a backup lesson ready. Teachers can discuss with students their schedules, computer availability, and realistic expectations before assigning completion dates for homework.

Question #3: How much computer experience do the students need?Teachers often assume students have basic computing skills, such as typing skills and knowledge of the terminology. However, there is wide divergence in the background experience that Japanese students have. Some students lack even the most basic skills, and are easily frustrated with activities they find overwhelming. Some Multiple User Domains (MUDS) and MOOS are difficult for students because they require knowledge of commands and the ability to type them quickly. Creating web pages can demand a high level of technical knowledge. Activities requiring less expertise include e-mail, newsgroups, and web browsing.

Question#4: Is the activity communicative?Students are easily engrossed in computing activities and work their way through step-by-step exercises, but the lessons should primarily be using the machines as a mode of communication, and not simply teaching technology in a second language. Activities where students must read and reply to ideas another student has written are much better than ones that simply ask them to give an opinion or to find information. The most useful communications are those that are individualized and highly interactive.

Question#5: Is the activity task-oriented? Clear goals need to be defined, and it should be easy for both teacher and student to determine when they have been reached. Activities that simply have students explore and websurf do not inform them of what is expected of them, nor do they train students to use computer time well.

Question#6: Is the activity integrated into the curriculum?

Computer activities not connected to the overall course plan do not give students focus, nor do they build on what has been learned or prepare students for the upcoming lessons. It's important for students to understand how their computer lab work reinforces their other course work.

Question #7: Is the activity appropriate for the students? Activities that are beyond the students' cultural, emotional, and intellectual abilities will not be as successful as those which take into account these factors and address them at the students' level. In different cultures, certain subjects are considered taboo and students are reluctant to discuss them. Teachers need to be sensitive to these considerations in Japan, and, if they're engaged in intercultural projects, students need to be aware of sensitive issues in the cultures of their keypals. Involving students in the process of topic choice for activities can help identify sensitive areas before the project gets underway.

Question #8: Can the task be easily monitored? Teachers need to be able to see a clear and consistent documentation of the students' achievements. Frequently activities are completed, but no record exists to prove this, much less to give the teacher an indication of a student's progress and improvement. Also, some activities are very tedious for the teacher to maneuver through, such as having students post to newsgroups. Having students keep electronic copies of their work to turn in at the end of the project is one solution or having them keep a log of computer time might be considered.


Using these criteria to analyze activities will go a long way toward anticipating and correcting problems that can arise with CMC activities. Let's consider how three popular computer projects used by language teachers measure up against these criteria.

Activity #1: The local discussion newsgroup. This is an activity popular in content classes. Teachers post a question based on material being studied in class every two weeks. Students have the two-week period in which to respond, expressing their opinion about the topic. Teachers read the students' posts and can respond by e-mail.

Students are evaluated on task completion, as well as their ideas and expression.

Activity #2: International Keypals. This is a very popular activity in Japan, especially in elective classes dealing with intercultural communication. Typically, students are given three or four keypals with whom they correspond, and discuss a topic of their choice. They're evaluated on an oral presentation [DEL: which they make] based on what they've learned in their keypal correspondence.

Activity #3: Collaborative web page design. The joint creation of a web page by two classes, sometimes in different countries, is one of the most ambitious and rewarding of the CMC activities being used. Students work in pairs to create material for the web page and get the opportunity to write for a real audience.

Figure 1; Criteria for evaluating CMC activities

The Eight Questions Activity #1 Discussion Newsgroup Activity #2 International Keypals Activity #3 Collaborative Web Page
#1: how much technical support is needed? not muchcheck not muchcheck highly demandingX
#2: how reliable is network access? variablecross e-mail (easy)check variablecross
#3: how much computer experience is needed? not muchcheck not muchcross a lotX
#4: is the activity communicative? noX highlycross highlycheck
#5: is it task-oriented? yescheck can becross yescheck
#6: is it integrated into the curriculum? yescheck can becross yescheck
#7: is it appropriate for the students? possiblycross possiblycross possiblycross
#8: are results easily monitored? very time-consumingX can becross yescheck

check= good

X= a problem -- what can you do to minimize it?

cross= a potential problem -- how can you design the activity to avoid it?


Evaluating activities in this way, it immediately becomes clear where the weaknesses lie. The major problems in the Newsgroup activity are that is not interactive and is very time-consuming for the teacher. Both these problems can be minimized by having students work in pairs (to reduce the number of postings) and by building an interactive component into the task. For example, the class could be divided into two groups, one required to respond to the teacher's question and one required to read and respond to the first group's comments.

There are no major problems in the keypal project, but the four question marks make it clear that some control is necessary to avoid trouble. The teacher must think very carefully in order to define clearly the tasks that the students are to accomplish in their keypal correspondence. It won't work if the students are given too much freedom to explore any topic of their choice.

Although the collaborative web page activity is potentially the most interesting, the high degree of technological expertise required by both teacher and students make[makes] it an inappropriate choice for a class new to CMC projects.


CMC activities are a great resource in the foreign language classroom when they are chosen judiciously. The ideal CMC task which promotes interaction that is both collaborative and cooperative, involving negotiation and peer assistance, offers students an authentic context for communication that is motivating and encourages learning. We hope that the guidelines proposed here will assist teachers in selecting appropriate activities that make optimal use of the students' time and the technology available.


Chapelle, C. (1997). CALL in the Year 2000: Still in Search of Research Paradigms? Language Learning & Technology , 1(1), 19-43. <http://polyglot.cal.msu.edu/llt>.

Frizler, K. (a.k.a. Frizzy) (1995). The Internet as an educational tool in ESOL writing. Unpublished Master's thesis. San Francisco State University. WWW document: URL <http://thecity.sfsu.edu/~funweb/thesis.htm>.

Kluge, D. (1997). The Internet: Promises, problems, and possibilities. The Language Teacher. 21(6), 31-35.

Newfields, T. (1997). Classroom perspectives on the Internet. The Language Teacher 21(5), 42-49.


Sperling, D. (1997). The Internet Guide for English Teachers. New York: Prentice Hall Regents.

Warschauer, M. (Ed.). (1995 ). Virtual connections. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.