Englishtown.com’s : Could Be Further Improved ™ System
CoCo Research Centre
Faculty of Education and Social Work,
October 30, 2007
This paper reports on aspects of the possibilities and potentials for Englishtown.com’s further improvement from the perspective of user experience. It could help online language teaching program developers, both from Englishtown.com or other institutes consider the ways that they could make progress.
Englishtown.com is an online English learning website operated by Englishtown Inc, a division of Education First Group () which is said to be the world’s largest private educational organization, with 26,000 staff, 300 schools, and 75 offices in 50 countries. Englishtown asserts that they have combined EF’s 40 years experience in language training with over $40 million in research and development to their Efekta™ System for learning English (Englishtown, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c).
There are four main components in Efekta™ System (Englishtown, 2007b):
l Teachers: live, online teaching, 24 hours a day
l iLab: interactive tutorials and study tools
l Coaching: constant feedback and guidance
l Community: classmates from 120 countries
Teachers in Englishtown.com give 45-minute-long conversation classes every hour for the different levels of students based on different topics. Averagely, eight students of the same level will participate in one class. Students can make their own plans for conversation class and self-study in iLab but it is not compulsory for them to keep strict with the plans. In iLab, students will take their lessons by participating in different interactive activities. The lessons are divided into 15 levels and every level has 8 units. Based one topic, every unit has 13 parts: Introduction, Movie, Simulation, Map, Listening, Speaking,
Though Englishtown has achieved some success and been recognized by many personal and corporate clients, it still need to be improved. As the rapid development of learning technologies and theories has increased the affordance for online learning (Conole & Dyke, 2004), only those education providers keep adapting themselves to emerging technologies and to the dynamic needs of students and clients, can maintain and increase their predominance in the more and more competitive global education market.
Hence, this paper will focus on the shortcomings and outdated components of Englishtown.com and provide suggestions for its further development. The developers of Englishtown could consider this paper as a reference for their future work, while other distance education providers, including Englishtown’s competitors, would consider surpassing Englishtown or doing better in their own fields by employing some idea from this paper.
2. Placement Test and Study Plan
Before enrolling in any course of Englishtown, users will be asked to take a placement test to determine which level of course they are advised to take. Placement is “a process of matching students and courses to achieve the best fit between what students know and what they need to know…[It helps make] the best possible match between a student’s current achievement status and the prerequisites of various alternate course sequences” (Frisbie, 1982). Englishtown’s placement test is significant for their realizing the slogan of “customized for each student” and they say they will “evaluate your [users’] weaknesses, interests, schedule and personality”. Based on that data, they create a customized study plan for users (Englishtown, 2007c).
Englishtown does provide a placement test concerning grammar, listening and reading to determine a user’s level according to the score he or she gets. However, they do not really “evaluate” users’ interest, schedule and personality and create a plan really based on that result. In stead, the only thing that the users will experience concerning the “evaluation” is being asked to answer the following multiple choice questions:
l What is your main reason for wanting to learn English? Professional? Academic? Social? Travel? Other?
l Which area of English would you like to focus on? Speaking? Pronunciation? Listening?
l How many hours per week do you intend to study? Light – 1 to 2 hours a week?
l How many conversation classes do you plan to attend each week? One per week? Two per week? Three or more per week?
l For how long do you want to keep your study plan active? 3 months? 6 months? 12 months? 18 months?
l When do you prefer to study? Morning? Daytime? Evening? Weekend? Weekdays?
It seems that the developers for this part misunderstood the word “evaluation”. Actually, rather than directly asking for the result, “evaluation is an applied inquiry process for collecting and synthesizing evidence that culminates in conclusions about the state of affairs, value, merit, worth, significance…” (Mabry, 2005). If Englishtown was really evaluating users’ interest, schedule and personality, the users should be asked to provide some personal information to let the system make conclusions and suggestions for their own study plans. However, by asking the questions above, Englishtown virtually let users directly make the final conclusions. Even though the users do submit their answers, the significance of the data deserves suspicion. Since the user have not known much about what exactly is in the system, it is difficult for them to imagine the teaching style and the most useful component in the system, the outcomes of the courses and the time they should spend on it. When is asked “what is your main reason for wanting to learn English”, the users would be confused with the meaning of “English” in the question—the English courses in Englishtown or the English spoken by native English speakers? When is asked “which area of English would you like to focus on”, the users would consider whether they are being asked the weakness and whether this information determines the structure of their courses…
When the “customized study plan” is created, the users will receive a changeable calendar with random located course names according to the answers to the third, fourth and sixth questions in the “evaluation” (See Figure 1). Then the system will provide some pieces of study advice based on the answers to the first two questions. The disappointing content of the advice is basically the repeat of the introduction of some components of the system. For example, if users answered “writing” to the second question, the advice would be “The Englishtown Writing class is a great way to develop your Writing skills. Submit your essay to a teacher and get detailed feedback within 48 hours.”
Englishtown tries to let the potential users imagine how they could convey learner-centred curriculum, especially when the users are asked to process the study planning with the “evaluation”. However, no curriculum can claim to be truly learner-centred unless the learner’s subjective needs relating to the process of learning are taken into account (Nunan, 1988). Englishtown has not linked users’ subjective needs, such as their will to overcome the personal weakness in English, to the content, structure, procedure, objectives, learning style and assessment method of the courses. Every user actually does receive a personalized suggestion for the appropriate level and weekly study plan. Virtually they are still provided the same courses because there is not any change of the courses according to the result of the pre-evaluation.
Figure 1 Weekly Study Plan Calendar
Back to the placement test, without a timer, different users spend different time on the test, which could lead to the fallibility of the result of grammar and reading test. Furthermore, in the listening test, the audio clips can be played unlimitedly and some of the questions even use the same audio clips.
One of Englishtown’s Competitors—GlobalEnglish.com, has a better placement test with a timer in every session and a limitation of times (twice) for listening to the same audio clips in listening test, which is worthwhile for Englishtown to refer.
The fatal objection to Englishtown’s goal—“customized for each student” is not only the suspect placement test and the poor designed questionnaire, but the lack of a cyclical needs assessment and summative evaluation plans during the whole period of the courses. (Smith & Ragan) (1999) created a figure (see Figure 2) to interpret that the conclusions of a needs assessment should provide the reasons for developing or providing the appropriate instruction (p. 32). So the really customized study plan is not a calendar or some advice, but specific instruction that meets the users’ exact needs. Different from traditional face-to-face learning environment, system can prepare different solutions for predicted result from needs assessment and provide the most suitable one to the right user. A further evaluation for the study plan after implementation would provide the basis for modification of the solutions.
Figure 2 Relationship Between Needs Assessment and Evaluation
According to “discrepancy” model of needs assessment (Kaufman & English, 1979; Rossett, 1988), the placement test and the questionnaire should help find out the gap between “what is” (what learners are currently able to do) and “what ought to be” (what learners should able to do) and determine which of these gaps should be addressed within the instruction—the customized solution. Without a pedagogical context, new users with different social backgrounds usually don’t know much about these two statuses and the gaps between them. So in order to create a customized study plan and provide the most appropriate solution, it would be better for Englishtown to analyze other more concrete information from users and make up the determination, rather than to let the users input their preference based on speculation. And the instruction, including the suggested study plan, should be scientifically in relation to the analysis of the data collected.
3. Conversation Class
The benefits of conversational interaction between native and nonnative speakers or between nonnative speakers in their acquisition of second language have been investigated, claimed and proven (Gass, 1997; Long, 1996; Mackey, Perdue, & McDonough, 2000; Pica, 1994). Englishtown highlights its conversation class in many occasions and does give great effort to maintain and promote it by employing lots of certified, native-speaking English teachers to teach online 24 hours a days and encouraging users to participate more in it. However, conversation class in Englishtown still has two main weaknesses, detailed in the following subsections:
3.1 Lack of Preparative Materials
Englishtown’s conversation classes are separated from the topic within a study unit. There are different conversation class topics for every day and students can choose their favorite topics by taking the conversation classes on specific days during the week. Before entering the virtual classroom, students are encouraged to do some preparation by listening to a dialog and studying the new vocabulary. We do know that it is impracticable to arrange teachers to give the conversation class based on a specific unit because there are too many units and there may be not enough students available for the class at the same time and in the same unit, which leads to extreme increase of the cost. As a result, the preparation session for conversation class becomes important. However, currently this session is quite simple and doesn’t have much pedagogical significance. For the one hand, only if the class has been started can the students know the structure of the lesson. While looking through the content presented on slides, they are asked to answer questions. This leads to students’ high cognitive load and a higher cognitive load should result in more errors (Ayres & Sweller, 1990). Since our working memory is limited (Miller, 1956), if we read, listened and spoke at the same time, our brain would be overloaded. According to Sweller (2007), conversation class teachers’ PowerPoint-based instruction “can backfire if the information on the screen is the same as that which is verbalized, because the audience’s attention will be split between the two.” Furthermore, language classrooms which require oral communication are more anxiety-provoking (Horwitz, 2001; Kim, 1998). This emotional factor further increases students’ cognitive load. To overcome this problem, the conversation class teachers could utilize students’ schemas* by providing more preparative materials to them, such as the details of the subtopics, activities and tasks in class. Teachers could even ask students to do some preparation for specific questions and provide some websites for them to find useful information. These activities before class would help activate students’ schemas which help them answer questions and solve problems “automatically” without much consideration in working memory while they are in class. So they could focus on improving their spoken English skills, rather than the content of the topics. To realize this, Englishtown should create a path for conversation class teachers to provide preparative materials to students.
3.2 Cursory Feedback from Teachers
Conversation class teachers will grade and feedback on students’ performance in class. The problem is that there is insufficient quantitative standard to support the grading and feedback. As a result, students don’t know their progress and exact weakness. See some samples below:
Sample 1: I hoped you enjoyed talking about
Sample 2: You have developed some really good skills. You simply need to fine tune these to improve your English; practice makes perfect! See you again soon in class. Grade: 83%
Sample 3: Your vocabulary is very good! Thank you for your enthusiastic participation in class today. Keep practising the vocabulary you have learnt in class today so that you continue improving. Keep reading books and listening to television so that you improve your grammar. Hope to see you soon. Grade: 80%
Sample 4: You did a great job! Thanks for your excellent contributions to today’s lesson. I enjoyed hearing your ideas and opinions about parties. You demonstrated a solid understanding of the topic and showed that your skills in English are strong. Keep up the good work and see you in class again soon! Grade: 88%
Sample 5: Excellent! You are speaking very well in class. You have great skills and you have a sound understanding of the topic areas. I hope that my corrections during class have helped. Keep up the good work! See you again soon in class. Grade: 86%
In the feedback samples, those words underlined and in red have focused on specific points in relation to language learning, such as intonation, tune, vocabulary and understanding. It helps students recall what they said and heard during the class and be aware of their zones of proximal development (ZPD) † by thinking of what has been actually developed and what could be developed potentially. Though after class the teacher could not provide further help, the students could know their updated goals and then give more effort on them. But it seems that the teachers focused more on what students had achieved while seldom described the potential development levels for students.
The comment in blue in the samples seem either too simple or irrelevant to the students’ personal situation known from class. In Sample 2, 4 and 5, teachers gave much positive feedback without details. Students will want to know what exact aspects they have done well. Though general positive feedback may motivate the students at first, they would ignore it if they received too much without satisfying reasons. On the other hand, the first sentence in Sample 1 and the fourth sentence in Sample 3 are just repeating what have been said in class and the audiences are the whole class.
Because different students have different preference for feedback in second language learning (Brandl, 1995), it would be better for Englishtown to let the students choose the kind of feedback they would receive before class and let teachers know their options. If the teachers even could see the portfolio of every student, they would provide more relevant and useful feedback. Furthermore, though the system provides flexible learning environment, students should be still encouraged to take the conversation class given by the same teacher according to the teacher’s personal time table, rather then encouraged to try classes from different teachers through out the whole learning duration to demonstrate how “flexible” the system is. The more the teachers know about their students, the more effective and relevant the feedback could be.
To raise the quality of feedback, Englishtown could also create a criteria system to assist teachers’ evaluation work and let students know how the grading comes out. Hyland (Hyland, 2001) pointed out that over a half of online second language learners wanted to know about their strengths and weaknesses, which, from their perspectives, was considered to be the main purpose of teachers’ written feedback (p. 241). While most teachers prefer not to interrupt the communication by correcting students’ errors in class (Engwall & Bälter, 2007) and students’ performance is more likely to improve if they are encouraged to correct errors by themselves (Hendrickson, 1978; Lyster, 1997), it would be better to assign students some small oral practice tasks in relation to their personal errors and weaknesses perceived by the teachers in class when giving feedback according to the criteria system. Thanks to the student-only voice chat room in Englishtown, students have the opportunity to do the tasks with their peers after the conversation class.
4. Online Community
Englishtown builds an online community for English learners by promoting their friendship. Actually it is like a SNS (Social Networking Service) website, where users are asked to create a profile that includes personal information such as gender, age, nationality, introduction, interest, etc, and can upload their photos and write articles and comment. Based on that the profiles, users can search for their pen pals according to some conditions they input, and then use English to communicate with each other by sending text message. There are also some chat rooms with different topics, where users can practice English instantly, but only subscription members are allowed to use voice chat rooms. The voice chat rooms are labeled with levels of English—Beginner, Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced.
While the era of Web 2.0 has arrived, many SNS websites become popular and have much influence on people’s life on line. The educational potentials of SNS websites are worthwhile for us to explore and realize. Online learning website can also integrate the functions of typical SNS website to analyze learners, to help instruction and to enrich users’ learning experience (He, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c). Englishtown’s SNS product—Englishtown Friends, is still in its Beta. It has not been integrated into the main instruction system.
Englishtown could begin to promote this integration in “Student writing”. It is a place in the system for users to post their own writing. Users can also comment on other’s articles. Actually this is like a discussion board. Users can post whatever they like. Some users post their written assignments finished in a unit’s learning but most of the messages are like casual writing. The so-called 9 million users seem seldom participate in such a section shown in the column of “
(a) the users are not required to participate in it while they are learning in the system;
(b) teachers don’t give feedback for the writing in it;
(c) since the writings are not linked to the authors’ profile, it is difficult to develop and maintain a friendship in it.
To encourage learners to participate more and to realize the instructional functions, Englishtown could integrate three things: (a) written assignments from every unit, (b) teachers’ coaching notes for written assignments and (c) Englishtown Friends (users’ profiles). This means that the section of “Student writing” could directly display every user’s written assignments submitted from Writing Class in unit study and teachers review them and write coaching note there. Every user could read and comment on others’ assignment and relative coaching note. Teachers could answer users’ further questions referring to a specific assignment. When an author’s name is clicked, the page could turn to his or her profile page in Englishtown Friend. Users’ profile pages could also display all the written assignments. Considering users’ privacy, the system could let the users decide whether the system publishes their writing and relative coaching note.
This integration could not only promote peer learning but also enlarge the significance of teachers’ coaching—it becomes open to everyone! Furthermore, from peers’ writings, users could find more favorable friends because they know more about a user’s background, interest, goals and other information. Typical friend finder will not help find the right person like this.
Besides written assignment, users would have more to discuss about what they have learned in a unit. The discussion board could also build separated folders for each unit’s topic. While learning in a unit, users could click a link to turn to the relative folder in discussion board and post a message. They could reflect what they think about the topic, ask or answer questions and provide further materials such as some pictures and video clips. As usual, they could find their favorable friends during the discussion. Besides text version, voice chat room could be another good place to discuss and share something about a unit’s topic. Then every unit could have its own voice chat room.
Furthermore, during conversation class, participants more or less disclose some personal information such as their interests, goals, locations, occupation, etc, some of which may become the base for further communication and even friendship. Hence, a tracking record of classmates with links to their profiles would be benefit for those who would like to process further interaction.
Last but important, assessment for users’ participation in the activities above should be taken into account. The system could report how much the user has participated in the community during a unit’s learning through commenting on others’ written assignments, posting message or chatting in voice chat room about the topic, making new friends, and maintaining friendship by sending private message or chatting in text or voice chat room.
5. Some Bugs
While evaluating different aspects of Englishtown.com, the author experienced some bugs:
l Inappropriate Suggested Learning Time—the suggested time for every session is not like the real situation. If you finished a task much quicker than expected, it would indicate that you haven’t completed the session and you are not allowed to continue to next session, especially for the Writing Class—you could actually finish the written assignment within 30 minutes while the system expect you to spend 120 minute. To avoid this error, the suggested time could be designed to be displayed dynamically according to learners’ previous completion time for a specific session. That is, the current "predicted time" for completing a session is based on previous average time spent on the same kind of session.
l Unchangeable Input—it seems that once writing class teachers submit their grading and comments on students’ writing assignments, they can not make any change by themselves until an administrator with higher privilege help. The author has experienced that a teacher provide much positive feedback for the writing assignment but gave a very low grade—9%. The author received three same feedback emails from the teacher. It seems that the teacher wanted to change the grade by further submitting or something, but failed. Then the author requested the administrator to help let the teacher reexamine the assignment. Several days later, the author received an email indicating that the grade has been changed to 90%. Hence, it would better to develop an error avoidance mechanism for teachers.
l Inconsistent Statistic Data—it is said that Englishtown.com has millions of users all over the world. But in terms of the exact number, they have different versions in different web pages. From the “about us” page, they have 2 million users; from the message sent by the moderator of “Englishtown Friends”, they have 7 million users; and from most other pages, such as the register page, they have 9 million users. The numbers of active users, former users and total users may be changing every moment. So the places that show the numbers could be replaced as some variables defined and controlled by administrators. Then once a variable is changed, all pages including the variable will be changed automatically.
There are always a gap between advertisement and real situation, a gap between clients’ expectation based on advertisement and the real experience and a gap between technologies’ potentials and the current status of a product. Englishtown.com has successfully set up a good example for e-learning by providing proven English courses. However, since learning science and technologies keeps developing, previous success of Englishtown does not guarantee forever success unless it also keep being improved based on updated technologies, feedbacks and researches.
In this paper, we have discussed the weaknesses of Englishtown mainly from the aspects of placement test and study plan, conversation class and online community, and provided solutions. We can conclude that currently Englishtown provides poor placement test and study planning tools and does not really customize students’ learning; Conversation class provides insufficient preparative materials and cursory feedback; online community’s instructional potentials have not been fulfilled; and there are some bugs influence users’ experience. However, these weaknesses could be eliminated by better design, such as creating a better learner analysis system, a path for conversation class teachers provide preparative materials, a better feedback system with more explicit criteria, an SNS-integrated learning system, etc. All in all, Englishtown should keep being improved if they want to keep the dominant status in online English learning industry.
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* A schema is a cognitive construct that organizes the elements of information according to the manner with which they will be dealt. It effectively increases the amount of information that can be held in working memory by chunking individual elements into a single element. (Sweller, 1994)
† The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978).