the impact of global technologization, many educational institutions have been
tempted, and have attempted, to technologize their campuses (cf Bigum &
Kenway 1998: 375) while teachers have tried hard to acquire the latest computing
knowledge and skills (cf Bigum et al, 1987, cited in Bigum & Kenway 1998:
376), which they hope will benefit their teaching and thus improve their
students’ learning. Based on my previous experience as a language-teacher and
teacher-trainer, however, I have observed that this fad has produced several
negative effects. Firstly, some institutions
tend to conform to this trend, without much detailed planning before
computerizing their schools. While these rich institutions might be in the
minority, there are some other institutions which may not have sufficient funds
and resources to support their technologization (cf Bigum & Kenway 1998:
388) and thus claim that it is hardly possible for them to use new technologies.
Secondly, I have also found that some teachers,
perhaps especially those from arts subjects, tend to find it difficult to keep
their computing skills up-to-date (cf ibid 1998: 390), and in fact even able
teachers might not easily find time to do so (cf Okan 2001: 49). Thirdly, while
many students nowadays might have wide
access to computers at home as well as in schools, there are some other students
who gain little access to computers outside schools (cf Bigum & Kenway 1998:
391). Teachers or schools therefore have to attend to this problem in order to
avoid the situation that some students become disadvantaged simply because of
their lack of access to computers (ibid). The situations described above do seem
fairly common, and yet unfortunately not many educational technologists are very
keen, or perhaps able, to offer any practical help or advice. This paper will
thus try to introduce the concept of educational efficiency in order to help
institutions and teachers re-consider the use of new technologies in educational
settings. A case reflection (cf a case study), based on a genuine experience of
the writer’s, will be used below in order to illustrate this concept.
This introduction will be followed by some (1) background issues, which will explore the concept of efficiency as
it is related to education, and which will also explain in certain detail why a
case reflection is being used. After this will be (2) a literature review, in which previous work on using new technologies
in language learning will be critically discussed. (3) A case reflection and (4) a
critical discussion will then follow before (5) the conclusion, in which the concept of efficiency will be further
1. BACKGROUND ISSUES
all, this section will try to clarify the concept of efficiency as it is used in
education. While effectiveness considers outputs only, efficiency involves both
inputs and outputs (Lockheed & Hanushek 1994: 1779), which means that
“what is effective is not necessarily what is most efficient” (ibid: 1780).
In other words, the concept of efficiency includes
effectiveness, but it takes a step forward in order to consider the best
possible relationships between input and output, i.e., what is invested in any
production process and what is gained from it. Moonen (1997: 68), on the other
hand, has distinguished four parts of any production activity (including
education): input, process, output and outcome, and he thinks that outputs are
more ‘direct and immediate’ (such as knowledge/skill/attitudinal changes)
while outcomes are less so (such as career-prospects or life-fulfilment) (Moonen
1997: 69). Thus the introduction of ‘efficiency’ is by no means to deny the
importance of ‘effectiveness’; on the contrary, the concept is indeed built
upon, and further developed from, effectiveness. When related to education,
efficiency would mean maximizing desired outputs (and hopefully outcomes too)
while minimizing certain inputs, those that are not absolutely necessary, during
the whole learning process; applying specifically to learning with new
technologies, it would mean the best possible enhancement (+) of:
the flexible use of resources,
the quality of learning, and
quantity of learning,
the common constraints (-) of:
accessibility to resources,
teachers’ capability to handle resources, and
students’ ability to use resources.
can include both human and material properties but in our present context will
mainly be computing facilities, either software or hardware. The explanation
above will provide a conceptual framework for the critical discussion in section
explained the concept of efficiency, I will now justify the use of my own case
reflection. Firstly, it would not be possible to persuade educational
practitioners into believing and practising the efficient use of new technologies if no real
cases were presented. Thus the case below is a genuine and ordinary experience so the details to be provided are not
imaginary or idealistic! Secondly, the course is EFL (English as a Foreign
Language) type, which is based on communication skills, rather than on subject knowledge
so (electronic) communication technology (CT), in this case email, is needed,
especially because EFL circumstances, unlike those of ENL (English as a Native
Language) or of ESL (English as a Second Language), typically require more
opportunities for interaction not only (1) between students and teachers but
also (2) between students and students, and (3) between students and
English-speaking people. The uses of CT, though not uncommon in some language
classrooms today, tend to demand too much time-consuming preparation or
co-operation alike, which quite often entails unrealistic communication.
Therefore the case here, following the theme of efficiency, would try to
minimize the use of unnecessary (1) resources and (2) computing or subject knowledge and yet try to maximize the
production of authentic communication, i.e., spontaneous or natural interaction
(cf Graddol 1994, cited in Kramsch et al 2000: 81). Thirdly, the class is at
tertiary level, which according to Light & Light (1999: 162-3) is a fairly
under-explored area although a few recent and latest studies on both sides of
the Atlantic, among others, have been attempting to fill this gap (e.g., Kirkley
et al 1998, Barnes 2000, Breen et al 2001). In terms of the three major reasons
given above, the case reflection below will be my own experience of using email
for EFL learning in a higher-education setting.
2. LITERATURE REVIEW
the major sections of case reflection and critical discussion, this section will
critically examine some relevant studies on the use of new information and
communication technologies (ICTs), mainly in language-learning settings. Due to
the space limit here, however, only a selective review can be made.
(1997) and Warschauer (1995) have provided some detailed discussions and
suggestions on the use of email in language learning. Their focus, however,
tends to be effectiveness (rather than efficiency) as many of their suggestions
require substantial inter-school or even inter-national co-operations. While
effectiveness, as discussed above, is important, efficiency, built on
effectiveness, should be considered and developed since their suggestions would
almost certainly entail a major demand for inputs, some of which might not be
necessary, and in addition I would doubt the authenticity (Kramsch et al 2000)
in this kind of communication process since both parties are psychologically and
physically prepared to undertake so-called ‘authentic’ communication, such
as the case reported in Fedderholdt (2001), where the cross-cultural students’
email-exchanges were undertaken simply or mainly because “[t]he Japanese and
Danish teachers agreed that both groups should begin by exchanging introductory
emails” (ibid: 275); in addition, their exchanges seem to have been made
according to some fairly rigidly pre-arranged times and topics too (ibid: 276).
Therefore, the paradox here is that technologists or teachers themselves often
tend to spend much effort and resources exploiting the many ‘affordances’ of
ICT, here email, for classroom language learning, which means that they tend to
like attempting, sometimes ‘over-attempting’, different uses
of ICT in language learning but somehow forget the value and importance of its
“original affordance”, i.e., “one-to-one communication” in the case of
email (Barnes 2000: 240), which arguably is what language teachers should in
fact try to aim at (among others) when providing learners with opportunities for
(electronic) interactions. Indeed, the papers included in Davis &
Samways (1993) and Hogan-Brun & Jung (1999) have also described and
discussed different ‘affordances’ of ICTs, like developing projects
involving different classes, institutions or even countries with some huge
consumption of both human and material resources, i.e., with concern over
effectiveness alone, and O’Malley (1995) and Warschauer & Kern (2000)
report some older and later studies, which also tend to neglect the benefits of
the original affordance as far as language learning is concerned.
major theme of efficiency is to draw both technologists’ and teachers’
attention to a more ‘considerate’ approach to using technologies in
educational settings, which is not only to
do the best (effective) but also to
use the least (efficient) of both human and material resources. Thus, the
concept of ‘efficiency’ is not to
dismiss ‘effectiveness’; rather, ‘efficiency’ is introduced here in
order to advance ‘effectiveness’, considering the limitations commonly found
in many education contexts and making
the best use of what is available in a specific context. A critical discussion
of this theme will follow the case reflection below.
3. CASE REFLECTION
Sometime ago the writer
was given an opportunity to teach a course ‘Social English’ to three classes
of first-year undergraduate students. Two of them were pre-service
student-teachers while the third was a group of in-service teachers. There were
certain differences between the first two and the third. The former were all
young would-be teachers, in their late teens, while the latter were generally
experienced teachers, most of whom were around thirty years of age.
two groups of young student-teachers were receiving initial teacher education,
but very few of them were prepared to become English-language teachers although
some of them came from English-medium schools. Their English level varied
greatly because quite a few were from Chinese-medium schools. However, their
computing knowledge was fairly similar as many of them had the habit to use the
internet for information and communication.
Those experienced teachers, on the other hand, taught mainly in
Chinese-medium schools so virtually all of them had no opportunities to use
English in their work and in their daily lives, and only two of them were
English-language teachers in primary schools. The English proficiency of this
group, therefore, was rather low in the sense that many of them were not able to
write or speak a continuous discourse in English. In addition, only some of them
had used computers before so their computing knowledge was also rather weak.
instructor (i.e., the writer) had learnt computing as part of his undergraduate
studies but was obviously not a computer specialist. He had been using the
internet to search for information and to communicate with overseas scholars for
several years, during which he had also joined some staff computing training
courses on WebCT, powerpoint, webpages etc.
job as an instructor was to acquaint students with some basic English
communication skills in general social situations. He had consulted lecturers
who had taught this course and read their course syllabi, which tended to focus
on speaking skills, which were quite normal in most, if not all, social English
classes, but he tried to maintain a balance between speaking and writing skills
because EFL learners, he believed, typically had more opportunities to write
than to speak although both were invaluable to them for communication purposes.
The syllabus was roughly built on task-based learning with both functional and
topical approaches, and one of the topics was ‘asking for information’,
where dialogues in daily situations were introduced, but one of the major tasks
was to let them ask for information on study opportunities or on summer courses
at overseas universities. The task involved the use of email, a reasonably
popular communication technology today (Biesenbach-Lucas & Weasenforth 2001:
There was a computer
laboratory for all students in the department, but no computers were available
in classrooms. As computing classes had the priority to use the laboratory, it
was not quite feasible to ask students to perform the task during class. The
instructor therefore tried to incorporate the use of computers into
‘out-of-class’ activities, and it was also necessary to do so in order to
allow a period of time when they were able to obtain replies from the
institutions of their own choice.
The instructor told the
students that they could try to use email to ask for information on summer
courses in English-language skills as the summer was approaching. Many students
seemed to be quite interested, and so the instructor asked the students whether
they had ever used email to communicate with friends or foreigners, but not all
of them had this experience so the instructor introduced a way to write email
messages. The focus, however, was more on the content or stylistic details than
on the techniques for sending messages, which were dealt with in their
introductory computing classes. This introduction to writing email was made
possible by means of a website on the topic which the instructor had found
before class. In addition to in-class explanation, which had to be brief due to
the time limit, the instructor encouraged the students themselves to read the
information on those webpages so that they could have more details about writing
email messages. A few of them had no email accounts so the instructor asked them
to open their own on any public service. The students were then provided with a
‘portal’ website where they could gain access to all the university
homepages, from which they could choose three to five overseas institutions from
which to ask their own desired information.
the second class, the students brought their printed messages to the class for
discussion. Some of them, after a week’s time, had already received one or
even two replies from their chosen institutions while the others had not yet
received any. The instructor asked them to get into groups of four or five to
share their messages, and during this part, the instructor tried to join their
discussions by checking what they had written and what they had received. Those
who had got no replies tended to be the ones who were not able to write proper
questions or who still had some language problems. Therefore the instructor
tried to provide some more focused guidance for these learners and on the other
hand encouraged them to write another message. Those who had got replies were
requested to send another message to ask for further details about the summer
courses or study opportunities from their selected institutions.
Before the third and last class, virtually all of the students had
received one or two replies. Some of them had even got three, but the instructor
was not going to judge their performance in terms of the number of replies.
Instead, he was looking for two major parts: (1) whether their enquiries had
been made accurately (in linguistic
forms) and appropriately (in
communicative contexts) and (2) whether the institutions provided the relevant
information they had requested. These two parts formed a complete communication
process and provided a natural interaction opportunity for these EFL learners by
means of email.
This was a communication
task for only a few weeks’ time and yet the students really used
their English to communicate with genuine English-speakers, for instance, by
asking questions about those overseas courses they were interested in; more
importantly, they did it according to their own needs, i.e., asking for the
information they wanted (e.g., tuition fees, application procedures, etc). This
situation provided them with a natural language-context which was closest to
their daily language-use circumstances not only because they communicated with
genuine English-speakers but also because these English-speakers had never
(psychologically or physically) prepared for all these interactions beforehand.
In addition, many of the students’ messages, after some further guidance, were
eventually written in some reasonably clear English. Although no concrete data
were collected and reported as in a formal case study, these results could
suggest that the students had achieved certain ways to use English to ask for
some study information they wanted and needed. A critical discussion of this
case reflection will be provided below.
4. CRITICAL DISCUSSION
This section will discuss
the case described above in terms of the major theme of efficiency. We have
mentioned that efficiency is concerned with (1) the maximum production of
desired effects (outputs or outcomes) and
(2) the minimum use of resources (inputs) which are not absolutely necessary or
which are not readily available. From the case above, we could find several
points which were successfully minimized (-). For example, (1-) the need to
access computers, (2-) the use of the teacher’s capability to handle new
technologies and (3-) the use of students’ ability to operate computers. On
the other hand, several crucial effects were skillfully maximized (+). For
instance, (1+) the flexibility of the use of technologies, (2+) the quality of
language learning (i.e., communication authenticity and language formality) and
also (3+) the quantity of language learning (i.e., in-class and out-of-class
interactions), all of which will be discussed below with illustrations drawn
from the case above.
(1-) Accessibility to computing facilities
As described above, there
were computers available in the department; however, they were used mainly by
computing classes so there were several problems involved in the accessibility
of students to computing facilities. Firstly, this implied a serious financial
problem, which meant that the instructor could not ask students to buy or bring
their own computers merely because of this inaccessibility. Secondly, the spatial
limit was another problem because it was not possible to find another computer
laboratory which was close to all of the students, especially most of whom had
different classes elsewhere before and after. Thirdly, a temporal
problem was considered here in this case because not all of the students had
24-hour access to computing facilities so a reasonable period of time had to be
allowed before any adequate learning could be achieved. Therefore, this case has
considered and thus minimized the financial, spatial, and temporal problems due
to their inaccessibility to appropriate resources.
(2-) Capability of teachers to handle new technologies
Language teachers are not
computer specialists and so it is not reasonable to demand too advanced
computing knowledge and skills from them, and it is also not feasible to ask
them to do various computing courses after hours’ of heavy workload each day.
Indeed it is argued here that some basic use of computing facilities, if given
some careful thought, could be able to benefit language learning, as in this
case, where the instructor had no crucial need to make use of any advanced
computing techniques and yet he could still create some reasonable
computer-mediated language-learning. Also, language teachers’ cyberphobia
could then be minimized. The instructor had no major feelings of nervousness or
anxieties because he was simply exploiting the computing knowledge and
techniques he already knew, without some great pressure to learn a great variety
of knowledge or skills which might be beyond his mental, emotional or physical
(3-) Ability of students to operate computers
In addition to
teachers’ capability, students’ ability has to be considered because we have
to be clear that the use of computers in language learning is for mediating or supporting
purposes so it is not reasonable to ask for too much computing knowledge from
the students either, and here in this case the instructor tried not to introduce
computing skills that were unnecessary for them to perform the task. It was
important especially when the instructor had to assign the same task to the
group of in-service teachers who had some weak computing knowledge. In order to
avoid their situation as disadvantaged learners, the in-service teachers were
given the chance to approach the instructor either in person or by email, which
provided another realistic, and perhaps less intimidating, means by which they
could try to use English to ask about
the task that they had to complete.
(1+) Flexibility of the use of new technologies
It was shown that the
task did not require prolonged planning
and preparation, which tends to be the
case in much of the literature reviewed above. In addition, the process
and the output could be completed within a reasonable period of time because
they did it at a time outside class which was best suitable for their own
individual schedules. It involved few rigid arrangements as they were given
sufficient time to write and obtain messages. This was necessary particularly in
the case of in-service teachers, who had their own work during the week and
could use only their time after class to complete any coursework; hence it
seemed a more flexible and thus useful arrangement especially for them.
(2+) Quality of language learning: authenticity and
In addition to
flexibility in time arrangements, the quality of language learning could
actually be enhanced. The task, though rather simple, involved some reasonable
language, activities, and interactions. Because the students were asked to
communicate with people working in higher-education institutions, they could
have access to some clear formal native English, which was invaluable to them as
EFL learners, who had few opportunities or needs to communicate with educated
English-speakers. This chance provided them with a genuine need to talk to
English users by means of email. In addition, the task-based activities, though
with an explicit focus on written language (writing emails to English speakers
for some fairly formal information), implicitly involved substantial authentic
spoken language partly because email writing is based on spoken as well as
written language (Biesenbach-Lucas & Weasenforth 2001: 136) and largely
because they had to share their messages with (1) their fellow classmates as
well as (2) their instructor. It is argued here, therefore, that the quality of
language learning could still be enhanced without too many pre-arrangements.
(3+) Quantity of language learning: in-class and
Apart from the
enhancement of the quality of language learning, the quantity of communication
and interaction could also be increased because there were in-class opportunities for students to discuss their use of email
communication and also out-of-class
chances to use email to communicate with native English-users and their
instructor. Communication, therefore, was not limited to the in-class exposure
but drastically expanded to part of their daily lives as they had to use English
to ask their instructor about the task as well as to perform the task per
se. Some high-level mutual and natural relationships between in-class
and out-of-class interactions were then established. The quantity (as well as
quality) of authentic communication mediated by email here became quite possibly
not lower than that produced in inter-institutional or even cross-cultural
projects (e.g., Townshend 1997, Fedderholdt 2001).
The sections above have
discussed and illustrated the major theme/concept of educational efficiency,
which is built on and developed from educational effectiveness. In applying the
concept of educational efficiency, however, one has to be careful in minimizing
the right items. For example, here in
this case reflection, the main point was to enhance language learning, both
quality and quantity, and email was for mediating purposes only so the
instructor considered the constraints of (1-) access to computing facilities,
(2-) teachers’ and (3-) students’ (advanced) computing knowledge and skills
as they were not readily available, nor were they absolutely necessary for the
successful completion of the language-learning task. Thus the major point would
be eradicating those items which are not crucial to any successful learning. If,
however, something (like the computer) is crucial but not readily available, an
instructor will then have to consider flexibility in using it, such as adapting certain learning
activities so that students would not have to rely on it in a specific place or
period. Therefore, institutions and instructors should try to consider the major
theme of educational efficiency before investing their funds and time in
acquiring further computing facilities and skills while the actual outputs (or
outcomes) may not be substantially greater or better.
paper has benefited significantly from the detailed, critical comments and
suggestions given by Professor Rosamund Sutherland, to whom I am most grateful.
Thanks are also due to several other scholars who have provided their help.
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by C. Lai. Posted on ITFORUM on January 6, 2004. The author retains all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/