The paper below was presented at the ECIS-ESL conference in Vienna on 17 February 2001. The author and presenter works as an ESL teacher at Frankfurt International School. He has been doing web projects with ESL classes for the past 3 years.
Doing a web project with an ESL class is not something to be undertaken lightly. Web projects require sustained hard work from both students and teachers if they are to be brought to a successful conclusion. It is important, therefore, that teachers are convinced of the pedagogical value of such an undertaking. A good starting point for any decision to do a web project is a consideration of how it would fit within existing ESL teaching practice at your school and whether the necessary time can be spared to complete the project properly. A web project could be done as something additional to the usual practice of working through an ESL coursebook such as The New Cambridge English Course. Alternatively, the project may fit seamlessly into the existing curriculum model and teaching philosophy of the ESL department.
To exemplify the second of these alternatives, it is useful to look
briefly at the ESL curriculum model at Frankfurt International School (FIS).
The ESL curriculum in the middle school at FIS is topic-based. ESL students
study 4 or 5 major topics during the school year that have some link to
their mainstream curriculum; topics include ecological problems, inventions,
healthy living, disasters, the class field trip to London and so on. Topic-based
work allows the integration of language learning with various skills, as
shown in the model below.
Language learning skills
It should be clear that the FIS topic-based curriculum model is a suitable framework into which a web project can be embedded. It is equally clear of course that the FIS model works without involving the students in web projects. There must be some further reasons why teachers would wish to go to the trouble of doing a web project with their class. Here, briefly, are some of the more compelling ones:
A large majority of students really enjoy using computers, and are motivated to work much harder to complete their work. And of course they are at the same time learning computing skills that are becoming ever more important in the outside world.
Another motivational factor is the amount of learner autonomy that web projects permit. Students can be allowed varying degrees of freedom in their choice of topic title and content, as well as in the design of their web pages. They can be involved in planning the stages of project completion, assessing the content and presentation of their fellow studentsí pages and evaluating the success of the project as a whole.
Web projects lend themselves very well to co-operative groupings. Different students can be set to research different aspects of a topic, which they then have to put together into a coherent whole. Very often some students will have computer skills and knowledge that others in the group do not have. In these cases those students can be set to teach their colleagues; and in many cases, they can teach the teacher. This kind of authentic sharing of skills and knowledge is very empowering to students, and a good preparation for many work situations when students leave school.
There has been a lively debate about the importance of authenticity in English language teaching (ELT). Although probably few ESL teachers nowadays would take the strong position (and avoid using any specially-prepared materials), it is equally clear that one of the most important reasons for the growth in the use of the Internet in ELT has been the easy availability of a huge amount of authentic material. The world wide web is a natural resource for students researching for a web project. At the same time the teacher has the opportunity - in an authentic context - to teach the essential skills of finding and evaluating information in digital form. In addition, students usually take more care with their writing, both its content and the mechanics, when they know that there is an authentic audience.
Web projects have been called Real work for real people in the real world. That someone on the other side of the world can read their writing and possibly send them a response often motivates students to create work of a standard far beyond what they usually produce.
In most cases students work disappears into their binders when it has been returned by the teacher, and is never seen again. Work posted on the web has a greater permanence and for this reason alone may be taken more seriously by the student. Web pages can be readily added to an electronic portfolio of a studentís work. Apart from this, work posted on the web can serve as a model and inspiration to students doing future projects.
Having made the decision to do a web project with your ESL students, you now have to choose the method of preparing pages for viewing on the web. Every web page must be written in a computer language called HTML, which stands for Hypertext Markup Language. Pages in this format can be read by programs called browsers, which interpret the code and present the familiar mix of text and graphics. (Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator are currently the two most popular browsers.)
The text in the yellow box below shows a example of a simple HTML file. The words between the brackets < > are called tags; they instruct the browser how to present the content of the page.
<HTML> <HEAD> <TITLE>Grade 8 ESL ecology project</TITLE> </HEAD> <BODY> <H2>Ozone Hole</H2> <P>This is the first paragraph. It contains a <A href="linkfile.htm">link to another file.</A> </P> <P>This is the second paragraph containing a graphic:<BR> <IMG src="graphic.gif"> </P> </BODY> </HTML>
The following yellow box shows how the page would be presented by a browser. The tags have disappeared of course.
This is the first paragraph. It contains a link to another file.
This is the second paragraph containing a graphic:
There are many different methods of producing the HTML code that is required by the browser in order to present the page in the desired way. The method you choose will depend on your own interest in and knowledge of HTML programming, and the type of software to which your students have access. Below is a list of the some of the possibilities. with a brief discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each:
There is no reason why a combination of these methods should not be used. For example, you could start with a simple template to ensure that basic page elements are the same for all students, and then use a web editor to put in individualized special effects. Of course this approach can add to the complexity of the project for both teachers and students.
Once you have made the decision on how the HTML pages are to be produced, you are ready to introduce the project to the students. The following list shows the most important stages leading to the completion of the web project, once the main theme has been decided and the specific sub-topics have been allocated to individual students or groups.
Here are some more suggestions on how to bring the web project to a successful conclusion:
It is useful to have a fairly firm deadline in mind by which time the project is to be completed. Working back from the final deadline, you can decide how much time to allow to the various stages of the project. Many students benefit from having a checklist in their binder or on prominent display in the classroom. They can then mark each stage as it is completed. It is useful to spend a few minutes at the beginning of each lesson finding out what the students intend to work on in that lesson.
Be prepared for the deadlines to be pushed back. It is almost certain you will need more time than you planned for your first project!
It is strongly recommended that all the studentsí web pages, including graphics files, are stored in a single folder or directory. This makes file management much easier to control. (See the next paragraph for further reasons to follow this advice. ) It also makes a lot of sense to tell the students which file names they should use for their work, rather than let them call the files any name they choose. If you have the students complete a small wall chart with the name of their file and its contents, it makes it easier for you to keep a check on progress and for other students to put in cross links from their own pages.
All files should have the suffix .htm or .html or they cannot be read by the browser. In general it is better to use a name of 8 letters or less; e.g. ozone1.htm or airpoll3.htm.
Students will want to put links in their page to a separate page in
the same project suite. For example, a link from their project page to
their personal page; or from their project page to the project homepage.
Wherever the link leads to, there is a choice between using an absolute
reference and a relative reference. An absolute reference contains the
complete path to (or location of) the file being linked to; for example:
A relative link to the same file would look like this:
As you can see the relative link is much shorter and has the further advantage that it will still work even if the project files are moved to a different location. However, one very important condition must be fulfilled in order that this should be the case: All the project files must be saved in one and the same directory (folder). You will spare yourself a lot of problems if you follow this advice.
In such a long-term and complex project, there are many problems waiting to happen. If you are aware of the likely difficulties, however, you will be in a better position to head them off. Here are some of the potential problems, with suggestions on how to avoid them or deal with them if they arise.
A very common problem with any long-term project is that students will work at different paces and some may be finished (or think they are) before others have even got going. One way to preclude a too great variation in the speed at which students progress through the various stages is to have fairly rigid deadlines. For example, students could be told that they have only three lessons in which to research their topic, or that the first draft must be done by a certain date. Any student in danger of not meeting these deadlines can be set to complete the work at home.
In the case of web projects, however, there is a certain advantage in some students finishing before others since there are many tasks they can perform to help in the overall completion of the project. Here are some suggestions on what they can do:
Another excellent way to occupy early-bird students is to have them make a personal page. (In fact, you may wish all students to have this opportunity, in which case some students will need to work at home in order to get finished.)
Some students may have had no prior experience in using the computer. The concepts of cutting and pasting, opening and saving files may be totally unfamiliar to them. They may never have surfed the net and may be unfamiliar with the keyboard. If the class contains many such students, I recommend putting off doing a web project with the group until the students have acquired some fundamental skills. Web projects are demanding enough without having to learn basic file management and text manipulation techniques, let alone keyboard skills, at the same time. If there are only one or two such students in the class, they will probably learn quickly enough from their more computer-literate peers. Alternatively, they could be set tasks that involve book research and hand-writing of notes ready for computer entry.
Clearly, if you the teacher have only rudimentary computer skills and no knowledge at all of HTML, then doing a web project with your class is going to be problematic. However, there is no need to give up the idea entirely. If you are really keen to give your students the chance to work on such a project, you could do the following:
The long-term answer to such a problem, if you have the time and the interest, is to learn a little of the required skills. There is no question that it is much more comfortable to do a web project with your students if you yourself have some rudimentary knowledge.
Web projects require that the teacher spends a good deal of time working with individual students or groups. There is therefore great potential for the other students to be off task and possibly even disruptive (although as noted above, students are usually very keen to work with computers and will not wish to lose this privilege). It helps if the teacher has already done a fair amount of non-web project work with the class - and so the students are familiar with procedures and expectations. For this reason it is not recommended that the teacher starts the year doing a web project with a new class. It may also be thought undesirable to attempt such a project at all with a particular group of students, although it could be that the greater individual freedom is an additional motivating factor for some otherwise disaffected students.
Researching on the web offers easy opportunities, through cutting and pasting, to use other people's work and ideas. It is equally easy to use other people's graphics. It is important to sensitize students to issues of copyright and plagiarism, and to tell them you will not accept any pages that infringe in these areas. In general a discussion of this topic plus knowledge on the student's part that you will read carefully through all pages will be sufficent to preclude any major problems.
If students are producing a personal page as part of the project, there is a danger that they may include inappropriate or even offensive content. They may also make a link to a pornographic, racist or otherwise offensive site. An increasing number of prospective parents are using websites as a way of gaining information about which school to send their children to. It would certainly reflect very poorly on a school that allowed offensive material to be published on its web site.
This can be precluded if you make it clear to students that their personal pages will be checked carefully before uploading onto the web site. It is then necessary to actually carry out this check on each and every link.
Unfortunately there exists a certain small percentage of web users who surf around looking for minors to target with offers of offensive materials or practices. One way to preclude having your students approached in this way is to advise them not to have a link on their site to their private e-mail address. If you want to be really careful, you can have them include only their first name or a nickname.
At this point you may still be unsure whether you want to commit yourself to the complex, time-consuming demands of doing a web project with your ESL students. You first want to find out more from other teachers who have done web projects with their classes.
Alternatively, you may feel tempted to take the plunge but would like to learn a little about HTML before you start. Whatever further information you want, the obvious place to look is on the web itself. Out of the ever-growing number of useful sites, I have listed one or two below that offer a good starting point for further investigation.
Two general introductions to the major issues concerned with doing web projects with ESL students.
Aimed at younger web writers. Contain instruction in HTML tags and advice on web page design.
Advice in all aspects of making web pages, but aimed at teachers, not
Contain tutorials in all aspects of writing web pages with schoolchildren,
with specific advice on using Netscape composer and Microsoft Word 97
Advice on how to design web pages that look good and load quickly. (Assumes basic knowledge of HTML.)
NoteTab Light is an excellent text editor that allows the easy addition of HTML tags to an HTML page. It can be downloaded free.
Finally, you may wish to look at a web project done by ESL students at Frankfurt International School. This was done within about 3 hours of class time, using HTML templates that I had prepared. The students wrote the texts in Word and then copied them into the HTML template. Students taught each other to scan in photos on a rolling basis. (We started with a student who already knew how to use a scanner. She taught a couple of scanner-illerates, who in their turn taught the next ones, and so on.)