ASET-HERDSA 2000 Main Page
[ Proceedings ] [ Abstracts ] [ ASET-HERDSA 2000 Main ]

Using information technology to enrich the learning experiences of secondary English students

David Nettelbeck
St Michaels Grammar School, Melbourne
The learning outcomes of upper secondary students in the Victorian VCE could be achieved through writing or face to face discussion but this often means in practical terms in a classroom, friends talking to friends or like minded talking to like minded.

A number of initiatives have been taken by the English Faculty to embed technology based learning in the curriculum. Most correction is done online, examinations are partly online in core subjects, concept mapping and hypertext responses are accepted alongside traditional linear essays and the reviewing toolbar is used in a variety of ways for poetry responses. Students at this school are well used to email as a social and pastoral and communication tool but it has rarely been see here as part of the learning culture nor has it's use been embedded in the course structures.

Online threaded discussions were set up for groups of 6 Year 11 students randomly allocated to each group. A record of what each student wrote was kept. Each teacher monitored 4 of the groups and was asked to evaluate the frequency and quality of the student responses to the text, particularly how students follow and contribute to a discussion, present evidence and respect and respond to the views of others.

With the help of a lecturer from Melbourne University Faculty of Education, a group of students and staff were interviewed before the project began, a questionnaire established and random focus groups for interview formed for interview at the conclusion of the project. The results of the survey indicated that the learning experiences were valid and these responses to a literary text challenged the thinking of many and gave an opportunity for those preferred this a learning style to respond in this more reflective way.

We believe that the new learning technologies have the potential to change the way teachers teach, the was students develop self directed learning and their ability to work in teams, think critically and solve problems. This paper will demonstrate one way in which this hypothesis has been tested.

Setting the scene

St Michael's Grammar School is a co-educational day school for over 1200 students from pre-school to Year 12. The English, Social Science and Science Faculties have been over that last 5 years at the forefront of trialing and thinking through the implications of the use of new information technologies in the classroom to enrich and broaden the learning experiences of students.

The School had mandated the use of notebook computers progressively through the four senior years, primarily to capture a marketing initiative. Some teachers were concerned that these expensive 'toys' should not be left in lockers or used as elaborate word processors so that student work could now simply be printed and easier to mark. This group of generally 'risk taking teachers' were prepared to confront the terror of change, learn the underlying skills along with their students and ask the hard questions about the value and effectiveness of what they were doing. They did this from a practical, rather than a theoretical framework as they were trying to make something work in the classroom without guidelines or a research base. At the same time, they were coping with an ever disappearing horizon of changing skills and the 'wow' factor which suggests that everything new and glitzy must be good.

The initiatives taken would not have been possible without the infrastructure of a stable network and a supportive systems manager attuned to the educational goals of the Faculties. There are 30 network points in most classrooms and a carrot and stick approach to staff professional development. All were required to undertake 40 hours a year of computer skills training and teach parent groups, but were given notebooks computers and generously supported in PD programs inside and outside the school. Thus new initiatives were not left as the province of a handful of 'nerdy' teachers but embraced widely, though not universally. We were also fortunate to have librarians who were keen to integrate the integrate a variety of new digital resources into their traditional print resources.

Computers in the English classroom - some initiatives

I was fortunate in being able to combine the roles of Head of English and Director of Staff Professional Development so was able to both encourage staff and monitor classroom change from both perspectives.

All English task sheets, lists of useful web sites, sample exam papers and the like are posted on the School's Intranet in a Drive exclusively for that purpose. That drive will soon be available on a password protected web site so that students can access their assignment work from outside the school. Most teachers now have email distribution lists for each class for the setting of tasks and many students submit work via email or seek advice in a 1:1 tutoring situation. Through shyness or the sheer frenetic pace of a busy school, this was not always possible and we believe that student-teacher interaction has actually increased because of the digital facilities.

We are moving towards the paperless classroom. As part of an annual computer fee, each student has an allocation of 300 sheets of paper per semester. This will be gradually reduced by 50 sheets per semester over the next 2 years to encourage the greater use of online submission of work and to wean staff away from the safety blanket of paper copies. We will accompany this with professional development sessions to teach better strategies to streamline online correction. For online examinations and routine work, students can submit work on a specified drive which makes access easier than email for teachers.

As part of the paperless initiatives, examinations have been conducted whole or in part online in major subjects for the last 4 years and this has built up a body of expertise on how to do this equitably for all students. It has also forced the hand of the reluctant teachers who keep wanting to retreat to paper. Most examinations and some classroom tests include the use of a web based multiple choice question tool. Details of how we conduct examinations online are available on the School's web site at [[ 

Students continue to respond to texts in the traditional linear essay format but are also open to new approaches. We have used widely the Inspiration and Story Space software for concept mapping. This has made it possible for students to conceptualise characters, plot and themes in different ways and to demonstrate relationships in a graphic format. They are still writing the traditional 400-500 words, or whatever the specification, but doing this in a series of notes which explain the concepts or patterns they have established. In a similar way, they have used hyperlinks to demonstrate lateral thinking about an issue or to illustrate points away from a linear format. It has been a challenge for the teachers to evaluate these explanations and respond to them but we have never doubted the validity of this style of response nor the quality of thinking that lies behind them. We have seen students with perhaps different dominant brain quadrants freed from the traditional essay structure and approaching the texts in new ways.

Poetry has lent itself particularly well to responses via footnotes or 'yellow sticky note' comments from the Word Reviewing tool bar. Some students have used call out boxes to respond to specific concepts or language in poems. In others classes we have used the table function to put the poem verse by verse in a box on the left then ask the students to respond in particular ways in a box on the right of each verse. This gives a framework and dimension for their response but still allows them to explore the poem in a personal but quite sophisticated way.

We have seen better oral presentations where students have used PowerPoint to plan their talk and organise the structure of it much more carefully than they might have in the past. Of course they have to be taught to use the screen as an adjunct or focus for the audience rather than just reading off the screen as though it were notes.

One interesting initiative was to invite students to present pictorial essays. They were given lines of poetry or key phrases from a novel and asked to present a collage in Word or PowerPoint, in some cases to support a brief oral response. It took only a few minutes for even the least competent to find pictures from the Internet to illustrate the point they were making. The interesting thing from the teacher's point of view was the pictorial choices they made, the visual design features they were able to bring to the task and the concepts that were quite different in many cases to what they might have expressed in a traditional essay.

The topics or stimulus for creative writing have broadened as we have pointed the students to web sites which have thousands of pictures of works of art catalogued by subject and easily down loaded. We have started to use the digital camera for students to use to photograph activities around the school as a starting point for a piece of writing. In a sense this is no different to taking in a folio of pictures as we might have done 20 years ago and asking them to choose one as a starting point for writing. The essential difference is that the camera has a great deal of flexibility and immediacy, even to the extent of pictures being put on the Intranet after an excursion or event for all to use.

I have made the assumption in all of the above that the Internet is a live and valuable research tool available as an adjunct to the other resources of the library including some excellent CD-ROM discs available on the School's network. The Internet is particularly valuable for newspaper study. A current issue can be viewed and studied by every student simultaneously from the latest edition of a local newspaper and this report or comment can be compared to that in a local or overseas newspaper on the same day. Such a comparative activity provides such powerful teaching in itself that almost nothing further needs to be said by the teacher. It captures the immediacy of the event while it is in the forefront of the student's mind and lets them see in stark terms how different countries and media outlets report the same events.

In Term 3 this year, we will try to establish a web site for each class so that student work can be published. There will be a standard format for favourite fiction, web sites that the class has found useful, book reviews of favourite fiction and samples of creative writing.

Does it make a difference?

The teachers who have taken these steps into this new digital learning environment were in most cases trained many years ago. They see students in the digital classroom more engaged in their learning and responding in new ways. They have the gut feeling that it is all worth while but is this perhaps an effort to justify their own agony in coming to terms with the new skills and the more challenging classroom management strategies? They bring together their nous and natural antennae for judging whether student learning is effective but where is the empirical evidence? The practice has come first and they have tried to construct the theory later but we believe that our higher education colleagues have so much to offer in helping the primary and secondary teachers think through the implications and effectiveness of what they are doing.

One of the most negative perspectives on the value of computers to aid learning comes from Clifford Stoll in his book Silicon Snake Oil where he asks on p.148, 'What exactly is being taught using computers? On the surface, a student is learning how to read and type and use programs. I'll bet they're really learning something else.

Kids learn to stare at a monitor for hours on end. How to accept what a machine says without arguing. That the world is a passive, pre-programmed place, where one click on the mouse gets the right answer. They're learning transitory and shallow relationships from instant email. That discipline isn't necessary when they can zap frustrations with a keystroke. That grammar, analytic thought, and human interactions don't matter. In these ways computers compliment television. No technological pathway - neither Muppet nor modem - leads directly to a good education.'

On the other side of the coin, McLaughlan and Kirkpatrick (1999) in their article 'A decision making simulation using computer mediated communication' review a teaching context where technology was used to supplement traditional face to face communication. They concluded that 'measuring participant engagement and contribution through the level of interaction can be problematic'. They found that 'creating conditions for adequate learner interaction and experiences while maintaining a realistically simulated environment presents a significant design challenge.' In spite of some negatives and difficulties, 'the use of electronic dialogue through group discussion software was found to be an extremely useful communication strategy.'

Karelena MacKinley from the Glenrothes College of Further Education, Scotland [ ] undertook a pilot study to determine whether email as a teaching and learning tool does indeed enhance learning. She reported (MacKinley 1999) that learners who were not regular email users and not expected to use email in any other part of the course did not cope well. She concluded that 'if the online learning activities are embedded into the course design then this will hopefully begin to encourage change in the learning culture and attitude of the learners when using information and communication technology as a learning tool.' To improve the outcomes and avoid the pitfalls which the pilot study isolated, she suggested the following actions should be taken to ensure greater success in gaining potential benefits from an effective online learning environment. These she summarised as:

In her study Writing and Learning with Computers, Carolyn Dowling (1999) says that 'Much of the writing traditionally associated with education and with the workplace now takes place via the Internet, and alongside this a burgeoning collection of new writing environments and new purposes for which to write. ....Writing through the Internet a real experience. It is for the most part highly interactive, with the participants varying within different contexts from the few and the known to the many and the unknown.' (p.58) Dowling sounds a warning to teachers, 'For one thing, failure to at least acknowledge these writing environments could well result in students perceiving your traditional classroom activities as outdated and irrelevant - and they may have a point!' (p.66)

Without consciously being aware of it, we appear to be following a constructivist theory of learning. In this theory, 'knowledge is not simply transmitted from teacher to student but actively constructed in the mind of the learner' (Kafai and Resnick 1996). The NBEET Report no 43, 1996, Education and Technology Convergence, concludes (p.84) that there has been a shift to constructivist theory and practice. This theory suggests that 'the learner constructs his/her own world picture (reality) from individual experience.... In an information rich society, where learners can electronically access primary sources of information related to learning projects, teachers are no longer required to be the source of information through their role as an instructor, nor do they acquire their authority on the basis of their command of this information.'

Setting up a research project

The English teachers at St Michael's Grammar School were very conscious of a lack of a sound theoretical framework against which to measure the validity and success of the things we were doing. We were particularly conscious that while millions of dollars had been spent on a very effective network and all students had email addresses, the use of email as a learning tool was certainly not embedded into the culture of the school.

Our Year 11 teachers were a particularly cohesive group and willing to trial a new way of learning. They were conscious that the new Victorian VCE statement of outcomes requires that students will focus on among other things :

We defined other goals of the project which could be achieved through learning technologies as:
  1. Encourage students to engage in a reflective and thinking activity with someone outside their class, normal friendship group and normal comfort zone.

  2. Carry out a group discussion in a way that would be educationally sound but more difficult in a direct face to face way.

  3. Provide a basis for further oral responses as students look at the various levels of meaning in the text.

  4. Give students an opportunity to interact with an English teacher other than their own and so enrich and broaden their learning experience.

  5. Experiment with the technology to ensure that we can use this method for further online discussion at other year levels and between schools
These learning experiences could be achieved through face to face discussion but this often means in practical terms in a classroom, friends talking to friends or like minded talking to like minded. Such practices can fail to fully realise the community building and cognition building potential of such an activity.

We decided therefore to use the facilities of the web as learning environment by setting up online threaded discussions in Feb 2000, with one student from each of the Year 11 English classes randomly allocated to a group of 6 or 7 students. Each teacher across eight classes moderated 6 groups with students not necessarily their own. A record of what each student wrote was kept electronically. Each teacher/moderator was asked to evaluate the frequency and quality of the student responses to the text In the Lake of the Woods, noting particularly how students follow and contribute to a discussion, present evidence and respect and respond to the views of others.

We invited Dr Kristina Love from the Department of Language and Literacy, Faculty of Education, Melbourne University to evaluate the project. She helped us reflect on the way students learn, how they construct meaning in a semi-public, controlled learning environment, and whether this is a valid learning tool in fulfilling some of the goals of the VCE Outcomes for English.

Dr Love conducted pre-trial interviews with all staff and a group of students, a post-trial questionnaire was distributed to all participants and random focus groups were interviewed at the conclusion of the project which ran for about 5 weeks in Feb/March 2000.

Some conclusions

Dr Love summarised her conclusions as follows:
  1. The very fact that all Form 5 students (ie one whole cohort) made a contribution in a manner that was unfamiliar to them was a significant measure of the basic success of the online discussions. This involvement testified to the fact that, over a six week period, all Form 5 students attempted to use the online technology, had formulated a response of some sort and had contributed to an on-going dialogue of some sort. These are skills that otherwise might not have been rehearsed.

  2. As an approach which complements current curriculum approaches and which articulates with the text response outcomes of VCE English, Unit 1, the online discussions have proved to be a valid pedagogic tool in secondary English. In particular, the online discussions achieved to a large extent two of the key specified purposes, which were for students to carry out a group discussion in an educationally sound way and for students to look at the various levels of meaning in the text. The mode of online discussion offered a means that had been hitherto unavailable for students to formulate and reformulate their thinking about literary text. Many (though clearly not all) students were explicit in their evaluation of online discussion as a useful additional means of exploring text in English.

  3. The online discussions were also successful in achieving that purpose related to encouraging students to engage in a reflective activity with someone outside of their normal social groups. Analysis of the student questionnaires, the teacher responses and the actual online contributions together pointed to the fact that the vast majority of students engaged in a scholarly dialogue with someone outside of their normal social interaction. For a minority of students the dialogue may have been less than scholarly, but represented at least a limited movement away from the use of email for casual spoken-like social interaction.

  4. Online discussions not only provided all students with an additional mode of expression in text response, but also made available to some students a preferred mode of expression. Shyer students, ESL students and students who valued opportunities for more reflective debate in particular appeared to value online discussions over face to face discussion of the class text. A face to face discussion environment will no doubt continue to be provided for such students in order that their oral discussion skills be developed. However, in providing, in addition, an online discussion environment, the needs of students with specific personality and learning styles can be met in ways that have not been easily accommodated through other modes

  5. While both staff and students had helpful suggestions to make about the structure of the discussion program as an electronic application, participants generally thought that the technology worked reasonably well as a medium of electronic communication. The trial allowed for some of the shortcomings of both the program and the school wide supporting infrastructure to be identified and worked on.
She made a number or recommendations which we will take on board when we use the same groups to study Eliot, Conrad and Modern literature in the final term this year. The online discussions will not replace face to face discussions, nor was that ever intended. They will be however an additional mode for students who are shyer, for those who need more time to frame their thoughts and organise their expression (particularly ESL students) or for those who simply prefer to discuss issues in a more deliberate 'written-like' fashion.

Dr Love also recommended that the teachers clarify the degree to which online discussions are used as an expression of formulated thinking in formal expression and the degree to which they are to be used as a tool for exploratory thinking. She also suggested that the structure be used for a shorter more intense period after the more basic literal comprehension of the class text had been consolidated. Teachers could highlight or model examples of good student-student interaction and make more explicit the criteria for assessment. We will also look at other web threading mechanisms so that chains of topics, comments and responses can be more easily tracked and built on.

In her final evaluation of the project, one of the students wrote, 'I didn't enjoy posting responses because what I wrote could be misinterpreted when you can't see the person's body language and you don't know them well.... but I became aware of different angles and opinions and by the end, I was able to structure my opinions and arguments better.' This student in fact continued to post responses while in a short exchange in Germany so the classroom without walls is really with us.


Dowling, C. (1999). Writing and Learning with Computers. ACER.

MacKinley, K. (1999). Planning to use email to support the learning process.

McLaughlan, R. and Kirkpatrick, D. (1999). A decision making simulation using computer mediated communication. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 15(3), 242-256.

Kafai, Y. and Resnick, M. (1996). Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking and Learning in a Digital World. Erlbaum.

NBEET (1996). Education and Technology Convergence. NBEET Report No 43.

Author: David Nettelbeck, M Ed, BA, Dip Ed, Dip T, Dip RE. Director of Staff Professional Development and Head of English P-12, St Michaels Grammar School, 20 Redan Street, St Kilda Vic 3182. Tel: 03 9539 4577 (0), Fax: 03 9590 9392.

Please cite as: Nettelbeck, D. (2000). Using information technology to enrich the learning experiences of secondary English students. In Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference. Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July. ASET and HERDSA.

[ Proceedings ] [ Abstracts ] [ Program ] [ ASET-HERDSA 2000 Main ]
Created 16 July 2000. Last revised: 29 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
This URL:
Previous URL 16 Jul 2000 to 30 Sep 2002: