|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2010, 26(7), 1062-1074.
Netbooks in sixth-grade English language classrooms
Janet Mei-Chuen Lin and Yi-Jiun Wu
National Taiwan Normal University
As netbook computers are becoming an attractive option for K-12 educators, they have the potential to be a more integral part of language learning. In this study 45 sixth graders in two classes used netbooks to learn English as a second language. Forty-four students in two other classes served as the control group who received traditional instruction. It was found that the use of netbooks encouraged the instructor to design more innovative learning activities which greatly enhanced student engagement in learning. The activities provided students with much more opportunities to practice listening and speaking. A questionnaire survey and individual interviews showed that the netbook-using students not only liked English language class more and were more attentive during class but were more confident in being able to learn English language well. It was also revealed that the netbook-using students significantly outscored their non-netbook-using counterparts. These encouraging findings confirm the potential benefits of netbooks in language classrooms. However, this study also discovers some possible problems of implementing netbook-supported learning activities, including increased classroom inefficiencies caused by unstable network connectivity and slow boot and application load time, the increased anxiety felt by the participating teacher, and the extra effort needed to gain parental support on the use of netbooks in class.
Researchers have found consistently positive results from classrooms participating in laptop projects (e.g., Barrios, et al., 2004; Grimes & Warschauer, 2008; Hinson & Crain-Dorough, 2009; Mouza, 2008; Rockman, 2003; Silvernail, 2005; Suhr, Hernandez, Grimes & Warschauer, 2010; Warschauer, Grant, Del Real & Rousseau, 2004; Zucker & McGhee, 2005). Benefits claimed included greater access to online resources, increased student engagement, reduced digital divide, development of students' 21st-century skills (e.g., problem solving, communications, self management, and thinking), qualitatively better writing skills, and gains in state standardised tests. Integration of laptops into higher education has also seen significant improvements in student learning (e.g., Efaw, Hampton, Martinez & Smith, 2004). The inception of the even smaller, lighter, and less expensive netbooks in late 2007 has reduced the financial burden of one-to-one education further. Cramer, Beauregard, & Sharma (2009) have found the design of netbooks appropriate and engaging for the unique needs of primary school students.
Laptops have also proven their potential to become a more integral part of language learning. For example, in Warschauer, Grant, Del Real & Rousseau's study (2004), two K-12 schools used technology, including a laptop computer for each student, toward the development of English language learners' language proficiency and academic literacy. The use of technology was found to result in sophisticated student products, highly engaged learners, and high standardised test scores in relationship to school demographics. The authors emphasised that the success of the laptop program was due to teachers' deliberate integration of technology into the reading/language arts curriculum. According to McGrail (2006), most secondary English teachers saw the benefits of laptop technology in addressing individual students' learning needs, raising their self esteem, improving certain language and study skills, and supporting constructivist pedagogy. However, these teachers also revealed a great deal of ambivalence about technology in English instruction in the context of a school-wide laptop initiative. The reasons cited included teachers' having little control over the decision to join the laptop program, the conflicts surrounding standardised tests' uncertain relationship with technology mandates, the institutional pressure to use the technology most of the time in disregard of teachers' perception about the degree of its use in the classroom, and the difficulties that some teachers faced for having to follow the curriculum and integrate the technology at the same time.
Godwin-Jones (2008) analysed the "lighter, faster, smarter" mobile-computing trends and pointed out that the changing computing and networking environment had opened up new vistas for language learning. Regarding the use of mobile devices in EFL (English as a foreign language) teaching and learning, many researchers adopted mobile phones. For example, Thornton and Houser (2005) carried out the LOTM project in which the researchers emailed 100-word English vocabulary mini-lessons three times a day to the mobile phones of 44 Japanese university students in two EFL classes. It was found that delivery of vocabulary lessons via mobile phone email was effective in promoting regular study; in addition, students who received mobile email learned more than other students who were urged to regularly study identical materials on paper or the web. Similarly, Lu (2008) explored the application of the short message service (SMS) in EFL learning in Taiwan by sending SMS vocabulary lessons to 30 vocational high school students. The results showed that students recognised more vocabulary through reading SMS lessons than they did through reading the relatively more detailed print material. The participants also held positive attitudes toward learning vocabulary via mobile phones.
Some other researchers adopted tablet PCs in EFL teaching and learning for its user-friendlier bigger screen size, as compared with hand-held devices. In Lan, Sung & Chang's study (2007), a mobile device supported, peer assisted learning (MPAL) system was developed to support collaborative reading activities for beginning level EFL learners, using tablet PCs. It was found that MPAL seemingly reduced students' anxiety, enhanced their motivation to learn, increased their confidence in oral reading, and facilitated collaboration among students. Students, especially low and medium achievers, also became more attentive to the assigned reading tasks. Hung, Young and Lin (2009) investigated if 32 sixth graders who used a face to face collaborative English vocabulary acquisition game system, called WiCFG, installed on tablet PCs would be more motivated to learn English vocabulary. Their findings indicated that WiCFG helped to engage students in learning and improve their motivation.
As a more recently developed portable device, netbooks offer almost all the features that one will need from a small portable computer at very affordable prices. They have potential for further enriching the language learning experiences of students. However, studies on the use of netbooks in EFL classrooms have hardly been reported in the literature so far. The purpose of this study is to investigate how netbooks can be integrated into EFL teaching and learning in an elementary school in Taiwan. Specifically, we aim to understand what kinds of learning activities the instructor would design around the use of netbooks and how the use of netbooks would impact on student learning in terms of students' performance in exams, their attitude toward English learning, and their classroom behaviour.
To ensure comparability of English language ability between the two groups, all the participants were given a pre-test. No statistically significant difference was found between the experimental group (M = 42.13, SD = 11.11) and the control group (M = 39.61, SD = 10.47), indicating that the two groups were comparable in their English ability before the experiment was conducted.
The experiment was carried out from February to June 2009 for 19 weeks. English language was taught to the participants for two 40-minute periods per week. Netbooks were distributed to students in the experimental group at the beginning of each class and collected at the end of the class. The netbooks were put on students' desks with lid closed and were to be opened only when instructed by the teacher to perform certain learning activities, as will be described later. Students in the control group received traditional instruction in which textbooks, paper-based worksheets, and CD players were used.
Data were collected during the course of the experiment through classroom observation, video recording of classroom activities, reflective journal kept (in Chinese) by the English language teacher, a questionnaire survey, a final exam, and individual interviews with the participants. Student behaviour was observed and recorded using a coded data sheet for a time sampling observation. Categories of students' classroom behaviour were defined by the researchers and the English language teacher together. A total of 12 categories were identified, including listening to lectures, reading practice, listening practice, speaking practice, paper/pencil practice, peer discussion, taking notes, asking questions/seeking help, answering questions posed by the teacher, distracted behaviour, miscellaneous computer-related tasks, and others. Anecdotal records documenting significant incidents occurring during class hours were also kept utilising an anecdotal observation form. Each record included the following information: name of the observer, date of the incident, time when the incident occurred, name of the student(s) involved, a description of the incident, observer's remarks, and teacher's and the involved student(s)' explanation for the incident (obtained through after-class interviews).
In order to understand if significant difference existed between the two groups in students' attitude toward English language learning, all participants were asked to fill out a 12-item questionnaire, as will be shown later in Table 2, both before and after the experiment. Each question was rated on a 4-point Likert scale (from 1 = Strongly disagree to 4 = Strongly agree). The overall Cronbach's coefficient alpha for the questionnaire was 0.89.
Figure 1: The first two sections of the written test
The final exam contained two parts, written and listening, each constituting 50% of the total score. The written test comprised four sections: look and write, read and choose, read and write, and choose and write. Figure 1 shows the first two sections of the written test. The listening test was made up of six sections: listen and match, listen and choose, listen and number, listen and circle, listen and write, and listen and answer. Figure 2 shows Sections 2 and 3 of the listening test. Students' speaking ability was tested separately. In the speaking test the teacher conversed with each individual student using the words and sentence structures that had been taught during the semester.
Figure 2: Sections 2 and 3 of the listening test
Figure 4: Tallying and displaying scores using Moodle's poll feature
Students are typically more afraid to take listening and speaking tests. Therefore, I tend to make these two parts easier than the written part so as not to impede their confidence. Those two tests might have been too easy to differentiate.
|* p < .05|
Some clues may be obtained from students' comments as to why the experimental group performed better in the final exam. For example,
The netbook enabled me to learn more and memorise words and sentences more easily.
I listened to my own recording and didn't find it good enough, so I did it again and again. It gave me a lot of practice. ...When I saw the problems on the exam paper, I knew the answers immediately because I had practised so many times.
Whenever I was not sure how to pronounce a word, I would ask the teacher right away; otherwise I would not be able to make a good recording for uploading.
|1.||I like English language.||2.96||.80||2.59||.90||2.03*|
|2.||I like to learn English.||3.07||.84||2.59||.79||2.76**|
|3.||I like to use English.||2.82||.96||2.41||.95||2.04*|
|4.||I am interested in knowing information about English.||3.00||.74||2.37||.95||3.47**|
|5.||I am scared by English.||2.11||1.05||2.00||.91||.53|
|6.||I like my English language class.||3.18||.86||2.64||.97||2.79**|
|7.||I am attentive in English language class.||3.29||.59||2.78||.83||3.39**|
|8.||I felt nervous in English language class.||2.02||.92||1.95||.96||.34|
|9.||I can learn English.||3.29||.69||2.93||.90||2.10*|
|10.||I will be successful in my English language class.||3.33||.64||2.93||.87||2.48*|
|11.||English language is a difficult subject.||2.49||.94||2.89||.92||-2.01*|
|12.||I studied hard for the English language tests.||3.04||.74||2.73||.92||1.79|
|* p < .05 ** p < .01|
The English language teacher also noticed meaningful changes in some students' classroom performance. As noted in her reflective journal (translated from Chinese by the authors):
Sammy used to be very reluctant to come forward and speak English in front of the class, but he looked happy talking to the netbook. To my surprise, he raised his hand in class one day and asked me how to pronounce a new word. He even brought his netbook to me and wanted me to listen to his recordings. It seems he feels much more at ease talking to the computer than to humans.The participating teacher was especially encouraged by the positive effects brought about by the use of netbooks on students who were shy or withdrawn such as Sammy. It was observed that almost all students, including the shy ones, had fun recording and listening to their own voice. Hence, netbooks not only provided shy students with more opportunities for oral practices but helped to raise their interest in learning to such an extent that they seemed to have temporarily overcome their shyness.
When students listened to their partners' recordings, they were quick to point out and correct their partner's incorrect pronunciations. They seemed to enjoy the feelings of being able to teach each other. Peer coaching became so natural when students used netbooks in class.
The classroom atmosphere was greatly enlivened in netbook-using class.
Among the students who were interviewed at the end of the semester, more than three-quarters of them felt that netbook-supported activities made the English language class much more fun than before and student-teacher interactions were also increased.
As can be seen in Figure 5, students in the control group spent more than twice the amount of time listening to lectures. The netbook-using students in the experimental group, on the contrary, spent much more time on speaking practice (26.4% vs. 5.9%) and listening practice (10.1% vs. 6.8%). Apparently netbooks had provided students with more opportunities to practise listening and speaking. It was found from the qualitative data we collected that only a handful of students in the control group were frequently called on to practise speaking in class while most of others seldom had the chance.
Figure 5: Time sampling observations reported as percentage
Students in the control group also exhibited distracted behaviour more often than those in the experimental group (10.4% vs. 2.3%). This may seem somewhat unexpected because it is commonly believed that students can be easily distracted when they use computers in class. They may be tempted to visit websites or play computer games instead of listening to instructions/lecture or concentrating on the assigned tasks. According to our observations, the reason why these distracted behaviours seldom occurred in the experimental group was that netbook-using students usually had to pay great attention to the instructions given by the teacher, to be able to successfully complete a computer-enhanced task; besides, the learning activities were interesting enough to keep them on task. As Lei & Zhao (2008) have reported, the issue of students not concentrating in class varied greatly from class to class and from teacher to teacher. Some teachers had effective strategies for monitoring students and were able to keep students engaged in their tasks. Apparently the teacher who participated in our study is one of these teachers.
It is also worth noting that students in the experimental group spent almost 5% of class time asking questions or seeking help, as compared to 0.1% for the control group. The qualitative data collected showed that most of their questions were about computer and network problems. If we further include the time (12.8%) that netbook-using students spent on miscellaneous computer-related tasks such as turning on/off netbooks, connecting netbooks wirelessly to the network, and uploading/downloading files, approximately one-sixth of class time was wasted on computer-related tasks that had nothing to do with English learning. Even so, students in the experimental group did perform better in the final exam; their attitude toward learning English language was also more positive. These seem to justify the time overhead associated with the use of netbooks in class.
In general, netbooks have allowed teachers to implement innovative, student-centred pedagogies. These encouraging findings further confirm the potential benefits of netbooks in language classrooms. As Penuel (2006) and Lei and Zhao (2008) have pointed out, aside from project evaluations, there has been little research-based evidence on the effectiveness of laptop initiatives on student learning. This study has attempted to provide arduously gathered quantitative and qualitative data to support our findings. However, a much larger-scale study would be needed to provide more evidence in this regard. Unfortunately, large-scale studies involving the use of netbooks are often beyond the capacity of individual researchers who typically are faced with limited research resources.
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|Authors: Professor Janet Mei-Chuen Lin PhD (corresponding author)|
Graduate Institute of Information and Computer Education
National Taiwan Normal University
162 Hoping East Road, Section 1, Taipei, Taiwan 106
Miss Yi-Jiun Wu
Graduate Institute of Information and Computer Education
National Taiwan Normal University
162 Hoping East Road, Section 1, Taipei, Taiwan 106
Please cite as: Lin, J. M.-C. & Wu, Y.-J. (2010). Netbooks in sixth-grade English language classrooms. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 26(7), 1062-1074. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet26/lin.html