Abstract

In this post, I explore the practicalities of integrating ICT with the TBL framework devised by Willis (1996). This is done by drawing a comparison with an established learning framework that already incorporates ICT, by reflecting on what ICT could add of educational value to TBL tasks, and considering the compatibility of TBL and published language learning activities that make use of ICT. The issue of preservation of task design quality is addressed and it is noted that TBL offers useful guidelines for devising communicative tasks for educators outside TESOL who employ ICT. I also argue that it is desirable for teachers and materials writers to acknowledge the development of thinking skills in ICT in TESOL lesson plans in a standard way and as a matter of standard practice.

Introduction

Two comments in the literature about TBL prompted me to explore the practicalities of integrating ICT with TBL. Knight (2000) suggests that “Long and Crookes’ model of TBL is transferable and therefore realizable in Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) contexts.” He also puts forward the opinion that “other models of TBL may also be relevant for CALL” but does not pursue this line of enquiry. Moreover, Warschauer and Healey (1998) identify TBL, project-based learning and content-based learning as methods to develop both language and ICT skills within authentic contexts.

The aim of this post is to consider whether a TBL framework conceived primarily for language teaching in the classroom, as proposed by Willis (1996), is still workable and perhaps enhanced when ICT is employed. I take three approaches:

  1. Comparing the characteristics of TBL with those of a learning framework not specific to TESOL (i.e. WebQuest) that purposefully integrates ICT;
  2. Conceiving ways to incorporate ICT into TBL tasks and reflecting on the educational benefits of doing so;
  3. Examining the task types used in published TESOL materials that integrate ICT to see whether they match either TBL or WebQuest task types.

As a result I hope to identify, gather and synthesize positive aspects of existing practice into guidelines for integrating ICT and TBL. In addition, I reflect on a possible two-way exchange of insight between TESOL and other branches of education.

The aim of this post is not to debate the validity or usefulness of TBL. I do not wish to constrain course designers, materials writers and teachers by promoting TBL as the best way to integrate ICT with language learning. Whether to adopt TBL is a choice left to those professionals.

Finally, before proceeding, it should be mentioned that the learning scenario envisaged by me is that of ICT being used to compliment and enrich a face-to-face course rather than one which is conducted purely online.

Two learning frameworks: TBL and WebQuest

TBL is an instructional framework, a methodology for language learning. There is a full expression of TBL for classroom teaching in Willis (1996), according to which each task-based lesson has three phases. The first is to activate learners’ schemata regards the topic and to clarify relevant vocabulary (without knowledge of which students might struggle to complete the central task). The second phase is the main communicative task together with preparation and presentation of a reflective report on how the main task was performed. The final accuracy phase is a focus on language items used during the main task together with additional practice of those items. The idea is to provide as genuine a communication opportunity as possible given the restrictions of the classroom. Willis also details ‘processes’ in example TBL lesson plans which may be interpreted as thinking skills (e.g. analysing) or as functions of language (e.g. giving opinions). The language teacher will see the primary value of TBL as a means to develop learners’ language proficiency. The development of thinking skills through the group processing of information is of secondary concern.

The task types proposed are:

  • Listing
  • Ordering, sorting, classifying
  • Comparing, matching
  • Problem-solving
  • Sharing personal experiences, anecdote telling
  • Creative tasks, project work.

Which learning theory underpins TBL? TBL is closely identified with Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). Willis also refers to cognitive theory and learning styles.

Webquest, a model for learning developed by Dodge (not the car manufacturer) in 1995 at San DiegoUniversity, bears some resemblance to TBL. According to Dodge’s description, the model features an introduction to set the stage and provide background information, a task that is achievable and interesting, a clear process, the teacher should provide guidance, and some kind of closure is required. A clear process may be advocated but the guidelines for preparing a WebQuest are less specific than those in TBL. To be fair, this is partly because WebQuests may be cross-curricular rather than subject specific. An example of a short-term WebQuest is online research followed by student reports to the whole class. A long-term WebQuest involves creating something concrete that can be responded to by others. This can be an authored electronic product (e.g. a digital video story).

Webquest task types include:

  • Responding to a series of questions
  • Summary writing
  • Problem-solving
  • Researching a position to be defended
  • Creative work.

However, these are not the only possibilities and Dodge’s criterion of a good task is “anything that requires processing and transformation of the information.” (Some thoughts about WebQuests)

Which learning theory underpins WebQuest? Dodge makes reference to the work of Marzano (1992) on thinking skills. Marzano’s model is an expansion of Bloom’s taxonomy. The emphasis of this learning framework is on developing thinking skills (e.g. classifying) as well as subject knowledge.

A major difference between the two instructional frameworks is that TBL is largely informed by an approach to learning that is distinct from general learning theory. This can be justified in that “L2 learning needs to be understood in its own terms rather than approached via something else.” Richards (2001). Despite adherence to different approaches, TBL and WebQuest are similarly structured frameworks for learning and even share one task type, namely problem-solving.

A comparison with published TESOL materials that integrate ICT

In Dudeney (2000), a wide range of tried and tested activities are presented in which the Internet and other technologies are employed. Amongst others, the following task types are represented:

  • Basic research
  • Projects
  • Reviewing and classifying
  • Getting opinions
  • Problem-solving

These are reminiscent of WebQuest task types and the task types in TBL that involve more complex cognitive operations.

The value of adding ICT to TBL tasks

Can anything of educational value be added through using ICT in TBL tasks? For a quick reminder of TBL tasks here are examples from Willis (1998):

For example, taking the topic “cats,” a listing task might be: List three reasons why people think cats make good pets. A comparing task might be to compare cats and dogs as pets. A problem-solving task could be to think of three low budget solutions to the problem of looking after a cat when the family is absent. An experience sharing or anecdote telling task could involve sharing stories about cats.

As it stands, the listing task – list three reasons why people think cats make good pets – relies solely on students’ general knowledge. Based on this, students are pretty likely to come up with common, unsurprising reasons. By contrast, given access to the Internet, search skills (and a sensible time limit) students could locate reasons not imagined by any of the class members or evidence to back up their reasons and so promote more stimulating discussion during the comparison stage. Indeed, one group of students could research the pros of cat ownership while a second group does the same for dogs. Members of different groups could then pair up and argue the case for their kind of pet. Alternatively, pairs or small groups of students could sit around computers to discuss the reasons they have found as they cut and paste into PowerPoint slides for presentation to the rest of the class. If the classroom is equipped with an interactive whiteboard, then presentation of ideas is very conveniently managed. It is also true for problem-solving tasks that having the Internet available for access to a wide range of authentic materials is a major advantage.

Importantly, through searching for and gathering ideas from websites, students read and then discuss for a genuine reason, evaluate the ideas they find and synthesize them into something worthy of presentation to their peers. In this example, both language and cognitive skills beyond those intended by classroom-based TBL are exercised through the introduction of ICT. In addition, by completing TBL tasks that employ ICT, students are also given opportunities to hone their ICT skills.

Maintaining task design quality

The advantages of integrating ICT with TBL (or using Webquests in language teaching & learning) will only be realised as long as teachers and materials writers maintain quality in lesson design.

Here are some examples, from my experience, of ways in which poor design can reduce the benefits of TBL lessons that incorporate ICT:

1. Topic rather than task

Simply asking students to spontaneously contribute to an online discussion thread on a given topic does not qualify as a ‘task’ in TBL terms because it lacks communicative purpose. Some students will have sufficient extrinsic motivation to participate, and some may be motivated by the topic itself, but many learners will not be particularly enthused. Moreover, when presented with a topic rather than a task, students tend to tangent or diverge from the topic.

2. Insufficient preparation for the main task

When the first phase of a TBL lesson is too economical the main task may fail or not progress very far. An overview of the topic by the teacher can have a leveling effect, making sure that all the learners are aware of common knowledge about a topic. Then, their online research can push that knowledge further. Linguistic preparation in the form of pre-teaching key vocabulary is also vital to lubricate the main task. An example where a main task has ground to halt is when a written role play was set up on a Bulletin Board System (BBS) with insufficient contextualization beforehand. It was difficult for students to imagine the next lines of characters in the role play without full details of those characters and the situation.

3. A lack of audience

Students may publish Web pages as a means to present project work or creative tasks. This appears to offer an easy solution to the challenge of finding an audience, an important element in authenticity of tasks. People outside the school could view and respond to their work. But this requires more thought and preparation otherwise those Web pages are never visited. One solution is to teach students how to use HTML meta and title tags to improve their ranking in search engines. Another is to upload student work to a free online platform such as Oracle’s Think.com if your institution is a primary or secondary school.

A lesson for TBL from WebQuest

The development of thinking skills is not something that ESOL teachers are in the habit of expressing in lesson aims and objectives. In the Willis version of TBL this is addressed by the inclusion of ‘processes’ in sample lesson plans. However, reference could be made to a more-widely recognised classification of levels of thinking (as WebQuest does by referring to Marzano). It may be the case, if this is not done, that a bias develops in TESOL course materials to develop some thinking skills to the exclusion of others. Another benefit of using a common terminology is that liaison with teachers from other disciplines would be facilitated, especially where ESOL teachers are working in a state or international school. Greater recognition of the relationship of TBL with wider social and psychological processes occurring in classrooms is recommended. This also accommodates humanistic approaches to language learning, the desire to develop the whole person.

 A lesson for WebQuest from TBL

The TBL framework can contribute to quality assurance in WebQuests. By following TBL guidelines for designing communicative main tasks, this ensures that tasks are purposeful, meaningful, real world and probably more memorable. This is reminiscent of Vygotsky (1986) who sees a central role for language in cognition in young minds. He emphasizes that learning should take place in meaningful contexts. If no ‘real’ communication opportunities are provided in the classroom, I question whether conditions are optimum for cognitive development. Putting students in situations that include an information gap between them is important because it is by trying to clarify matters with and for others that we reach a better understanding ourselves.

Conclusion

This was an investigation of the marriage of a TBL framework and ICT. The conclusion reached is that TBL is practicable when ICT is introduced and offers the bonus of supplementary linguistic, cognitive and ICT skills development as long as lesson design quality remains high. In the process of considering TBL and WebQuest, I came to believe that each framework has something to offer the other. TBL has the virtue of a central communicative task which should also be valued in general education and WebQuest makes overt reference to a model of thinking skills.

References

Dodge. B(1995) WebQuests. URL: http://edweb.sdsu.edu/courses/edtec596/about_webquests.html

Dudeney, G. (2000) The Internet and the Language Classroom. CambridgeUniversity Press.

Knight, P. (2000) The role of language and learning models in student-directed CALL. In: Brett, P. (ed.) CALL in the 21st Century. IATEFL.

Marzano, R.J. (1992) A different kind of classroom: Teaching with dimensions of learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Richards, J. (2001) The ideology of TESOL. In: Carter, R. and Nunan, D. (eds.) Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. CambridgeUniversity Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986) Thought and Language. The M.I.T. Press.

Warschauer, M. and Healey, D. (1998) Computers and language learning: an overview [Online]. Language Teaching, 31, 57-71. URL: http://www.gse.uci.edu/markw/overview.html

Willis, J. (1996) A Framework for Task-Based Learning. Longman.

Willis, J. (1998) Task-Based Learning: What kind of adventure? [Online]. The Language Teacher Online, Issue 22. 07-July 1998. URL: http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/files/98/jul/willis.html

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