The Internet

DTP allowed us to become publishers. With the World Wide Web (WWW), we can now all broadcast our multimedia documents and market them to the rest of the world. As with multimedia authoring packages, it is the power of linking that makes the WWW so useful. A document stored on a computer on one side of the world can be linked to a document, picture or computer program stored on another machine several thousand miles away. However, switching from one to another happens seems so effortless to the user.

Connected ESL specialists are probably well aware of on-line resources like Dave's ESL Cafe.


The internet is not just the WWW!

A computer is only a machine. Many years ago in Creative Computing magazine, there appeared a simple BASIC program called Eliza. It used to give people the illusion that they were conducting a conversation with the computer through means of a parser that recognised about 36 keywords. A similar program called Dr Z gave you the impression that you were conducting an interview with a Rogerian counsellor. The trouble was, they were just computer programs, nothing more. They gave the illusion of interaction, but only because the parser split the text you input into clauses that it could manipulate. A conversation might look like this:


I'm upset


Why are you upset?


I'm upset because I think I'm late for class.


You say you are upset because you think you're late for class?




I see...

This type of tool doesn't give much scope for practising English, as the computer relies on your input for its responses. However, things are a little more sophisticated now in the world of artificial intelligence. I was once told an entertaining story (probably apocryphal) about a medical expert system that was being tested at a university. Although they encouraged the medical students there to use it, the researchers found that most students used it only for a very short time, but one student seemed to use it for several hours each day. Upon interviewing this extraordinarily keen student, they discovered that he was a foreign student using the expert system to improve his English conversation skills...

However, the internet brings personal interaction back into the world of personal computing.

Now, with the internet it is possible for students to communicate with one another or with their tutors in real time, or via email. A listserv or a web-based bulletin board for ESL students to discover that there are others sharing the same goals and aspirations, encountering the same problems or experiencing the same triumphs would be a useful tool to make use of. If the cost of setting up such a service for a class seems daunting, it may be worth pointing out that some listservs can be set up for free, in return for allowing a short advert to appear on the bottom of messages. The number of free home page providers seems to steadily increase, particularly as the big, long-established names seek to re-model themselves as portals, and other, smaller companies try to emulate them. Two examples that might interest EFL specialists looking for a home with minimal technical expertise required are NiceNet's Internet Classroom Assistants, or the new communities at Excite.

Then again, there is always usenet. I always start there when looking for an authoritative opinion from a world expert on almost any given topic. DejaNews provide a very useful archive of usenet postings.

One of the most exciting developments for us in high schools is the concept of the collaborative on-line project. Now students can work together on a common task, perhaps even work with others from the other side of the planet, or receive tuition from world experts in their field of inquiry. They can publish their work so that their friends, neighbours, relatives overseas and anyone else in the world can appreciate it and give them positive feedback. There is no reason why ESL students in South America should not communicate and collaborate with similar students from Europe, Asia or anywhere else to complete suitably designed projects.

None of this takes place in real-time however. If you ask an adolescent what they mainly do on the internet. If they are anything like the students I have taught from the Bahamas to Kuwait, the answer is chat! Whether it's IRC, mIRC, ICQ or java-enabled chat-rooms, they will be doing it. The response is in real time. I have a colleague who uses ICQ to conduct tutorials with a group of his students at a pre-arranged time each week. A student who is not an active participant in class is a regular contributor to these tutorials and works hard to produce additional research material for this extra class. Chat is also more anonymous. As the old saying goes, "On the internet, no-one knows you're a dog!" Therefore, students who are too shy to volunteer information in class, find that they have something worthwhile to share in an environment where they feel one step removed from the process of direct communication.

Our captain on this voyage, John Hibbs, is very fond of metaphors. The internet lends itself to them so well. Particularly the metaphors of the old American Western Fronier. We have domain name prospectors and data miners. There are no real laws, so we have the same old snake-oil salesmen trying to make a living off people's gullibility. We even have the Microsoft Railroad Company. This all fits in so well, because the internet is essentially uncharted territory bas it is in a constant state of change. This is where people like myself come in. We may only have a hazy idea of the big picture, but we know our territory well enough to act as a native guide to any travellers we come across who want to go where we've been. The most useful things on the internet I have found have always been through word-of-mouth. It is this interconnectedness that helps foster a sense of community between us.

I am anticipating that I will receive feedback from this from educators asking questions like; "What is usenet?", "What educational listservs would you recommend subscribing to?", "What collaborative projects are you planning to do with your students this academic year?"

The more questions like that I receive, the more worthwhile participating in Global Learn Day will have been for me. You may email me at if you wish.

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