COLLABORATIVE FOCUS DISCIPLINE RESEARCH AND THE INTERNET:
A CONTENT-BASED INTERCULTURAL EXCHANGE

Loretta F. Kasper, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Kingsborough Community College/CUNY


Brief Abstract: Research (see References) has demonstrated content-based instruction, especially sustained content study, to be effective in improving ESL students' linguistic skills, more quickly enabling them to pass institutional assessments and enter the college mainstream. As part of a sustained content course, students may be asked to choose a "focus discipline" to study over the entire semester, independently researching issues and reporting on findings in a series of papers. This research is facilitated when an extensive body of informational resources, as found on the Internet, is available. Because the Internet will likely become a key component of the college classroom of the future, to be fully prepared for college-level work, ESL students should become comfortable and proficient using it. While the Internet represents an abundant informational resource, its real educational potential lies in its ability to facilitate intercultural exchanges through which students across the country/world may work collaboratively, first gathering and sharing information, and then discussing and analyzing issues. The proposed study will explore this potential through a content-based intercultural exchange in which CUNY ESL students will conduct focus discipline research, collaborating via the Internet with college students in other parts of the country/world. The project goals include: (1)developing and refining ESL students' linguistic, research, and networking skills, (2)teaching and promoting Internet use and sustained content study on an institutional level, and (3)creating a web site of content-based resources to be used internationally.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

Introduction: A number of studies has shown that content-based instruction accelerates students' progress through the ESL sequence by enabling theses students to attain higher pass rates on institutional reading and writing assessments (Babbitt & Mlynarczyk, 1999; Kasper, 1994; 1997). While content-based instruction can follow a variety of models incorporating a wide range of pedagogical activities (see e.g., Snow & Brinton, 1997; Kasper, 1999a), a specific variation called "sustained content study," i.e., studying one content area over time (Pally, 1997), has been especially effective in facilitating and hastening the development of the linguistic and academic skills key to success in college.

I have been researching the effects of sustained content study for a number of years (Kasper, 1994; 1997), and my recent work has concentrated on how the Internet may be used to facilitate and enhance a specific activity which I call "focus discipline research" (Kasper, 1998; 1999b). In this activity, students choose a focus discipline from among several content areas studied in the ESL course, and using the Internet as an informational resource, pursue sustained and independent study of that discipline over the semester, producing three progressive written reports and a research project (see Project Design). The focus discipline activity has yielded a number of educational benefits to my students, including higher pass rates on reading/writing assessments (92%), increased motivation, and greater confidence in their ability to handle academic tasks (as evinced by responses to feedback questionnaires).

Although the Internet has enormous potential as an informational resource, its real potential lies in its ability to facilitate the sharing of information through international and intercultural communication. It is the goal of the proposed study to explore that potential through a content-based Internet project that will engage ESL students at CUNY in collaborative focus discipline research with students in a college or university in another state or country. This project will enable students to develop and refine language skills and to practice and hone academic research skills. The project will also develop students' networking skills as they participate via the Internet in a content-based intercultural exchange, sharing information and discussing interdisciplinary issues with students across the country/world.

Project Goals: Based upon my previous findings, I expect that the proposed study will enable students to benefit from improved linguistic and academic skills, resulting in higher scores on institutional assessments and enabling ESL students to become full members of the CUNY academic mainstream more quickly. Moreover, because computers will likely become a key resource in the college classroom of the future, another goal of this study is to teach and promote the use of the Internet and sustained content study on an institutional and an international level. This will be accomplished through university colloquia and through the creation of a web site of content-based Internet and print resources that may be used internationally by teachers and students and of a class web site for the publication of student writings.

Background: Academic literacy, which "encompasses ways of knowing particular content…(and) refers to strategies for understanding, discussing, organizing, and producing texts" (Johns, 1997, p. 2), is key to success in college. Recent research demonstrates that ESL students' academic literacy skills are effectively developed through a functional language learning environment. A functional language learning environment may be defined as one that engages them in meaningful and authentic language processing through planned, purposeful, and academically-based activities (Adler-Kassner & Reynolds, 1996; Shea, 1996) that teach them "how to extract, question, and evaluate the central points and methodology of a range of material, and construct responses using the conventions of academic/expository writing" (Pally, 1997, p. 299). Because it engages students in close reading and in-depth discussion of salient issues in science, psychology, business, and other academic disciplines, sustained content study provides a functional language learning environment that enables students to acquire the linguistic and cognitive tools necessary for academic success.

When as part of sustained content study, students engage in focus discipline research, completing assignments of progressive complexity in which they define problems, examine evidence collected from a variety of sources, and make objective judgments on the basis of extended research, they learn to synthesize knowledge and practice the critical thinking skills necessary for a successful academic experience (Kasper, 1998). The educational benefits of focus discipline research may be further enhanced and facilitated by using the Internet as an informational resource.

While the Internet is effective in enabling individuals to access a wide range of information necessary for sustained content study, its real potential lies in creating a context for collaborative learning across classes of students within the same school, across the nation, or even the world. In fact, recent research has demonstrated that collaborative computer-based learning yields a number of significant educational benefits to students; specifically it facilitates growth in both linguistic fluency and complexity as it encourages learners to co-construct and share knowledge (Warschauer, Turbee, & Roberts, 1996) and engages them in tasks that require independent problem solving and critical thinking (Sotillo, 1998).

The proposed study will explore the educational potential of the Internet for sustained content study by setting up an Internet collaboration between CUNY ESL students and college/university students in another state/country. These students will work together on coordinated focus discipline research projects and will use the Internet to both access and share information. Depending on course registration, the overall study will involve a total of two to four high intermediate ESL classes, or one to two classes per semester, in collaborative Internet-based research. Based upon normal ESL course registers, it is expected that the study will involve approximately 40-80 CUNY ESL students. Through the Internet collaboration, students in these classes will produce three papers, each dealing with a key issue in their chosen focus discipline and a research project requiring the analysis and synthesis of information gathered throughout the semester.

References:

Adler-Kassner, L., & Reynolds, T. (1996). Computers, reading, and basic writers: Online strategies for helping students with academic texts. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, 23(3), 170-178.

Babbitt, M., & Mlynarczyk, R.W. (1999). Keys to successful content-based programs: Administrative perspectives. In L. Kasper, Content-based college ESL instruction(pp. 26-47). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Johns, A.M. (1997). Text, role, and context:Developing academic literacies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Kasper, L.F. (1994). Improved reading performance for ESL students through academic course pairing. Journal of Reading, 37(5), 376-384.

Kasper, L.F. (1995). Theory and practice in content-based ESL reading instruction. English for Specific Purposes, 14(3), 223-230.

Kasper, L.F. (1997). The impact of content-based instructional programs on the academic progress of ESL students. English for Specific Purposes, 16(4), 309-320.

Kasper, L.F. (1998). Focus discipline research and the Internet: Keys to academic literacy for at-risk college students. Paper presented at WebNet 98. Orlando, FL. Available online: http://members.aol.com/Drlfk/WebNet98paper.html

Kasper, L.F. (1999a). Content-based college ESL instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kasper, L.F. (1999b). Sustained content study and the Internet: Developing functional and academic literacies. In M. Pally (Ed.), Sustained content-based teaching in academic ESL/EFL: A practical approach (Chapter 4). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Pally, M. (1997). Critical thinking in ESL: An argument for sustained content. Journal of Second Language Writing, 6(3), 293-311.

Shea, P. (1996). Media, multimedia, and meaningful language learning: A review of the literature. Paper presented at WebNet 96. San Francisco, CA. [Online]. Available: http://aace.virginia.edu/aace/conf/webnet/html/159.htm

Snow, M.A., & Brinton, D.M. (Eds.). (1997). The content-based classroom: Perspectives on integrating language and content. New York: Longman.

Sotillo, S.M. (1998). English-as-a-second-language learning and collaboration in cyberspace. NJTESOL-NJBE Newsletter, Fall, 17-19.

Warschauer, M., Turbee, L., & Roberts, B. (1996). Computer learning networks and student empowerment. System, 24(1), 1-14.