What website counters can tell us - Operation MathLog revisited
by Rolf Palmberg

Two years ago I designed an internet-based EFL maze entitled ‘Operation MathLog’. It comprises language tasks of different types, e.g. anagrams, acronym tasks, enclosures, jumbled sequences of letters, word search grids, categorisation tasks, word chop exercises, cryptograms and problem-solving tasks (see Palmberg 2006a for more details). As the name implies, the maze is aimed particularly at logical-mathematical learners, i.e. learners who are fond of logical reasoning and numbers (as characterised in Howard Gardner’s theory of the multiple intelligences; 1993, 1999). The main purpose of the maze is to increase learners’ general knowledge and understanding of English vocabulary.

The rationale behind Operation MathLog is simple. Learners have to solve a series of language tasks, starting from the one presented on the opening web page of the maze. Each task occupies a web page of its own. Since the only website address (or URL) available is that of the opening web page, learners have to solve the task in order to proceed. When they have figured out the wanted keyword, they must replace the word ‘mathlog’ (which is included in the URL of the opening web page) with that keyword. The same principle applies throughout the maze: the word that constitutes the solution to a given task is the new keyword that allows visitors to change the current URL and find the next web page (and get the next task).

In 2006, various attempts were made to make the maze known to the general public, or rather, to as many logical-mathematical EFL learners as possible. Each web page was provided with a counter to keep track of the number of visitors. The information collected was hoped to give tentative answers to questions like: How many people visit the website? How far towards the closing web page do they proceed? What is the average dropout rate from task to task?

The counters used for the present purposes were provided by AddFreeStats, a website statistics service. Once a counter has been activated (i.e. a specific HTML code has been incorporated into the HTML code of the target web page), the system starts collecting information. A click on the AddFreeStats logo displays the following information for each visit (the information can be protected by a password if the website owner so decides): an image of a flag indicating the location of the host computer, the date and time of the visit, the hostname (or, if the cursor is placed on it, the visitor’s IP number), the entry page of the visit (i.e. the URL of the web page that the visitor came from), the number of page visits made within the website, and the number of days lapsed since the previous visit (or an indication that the visitor is “new”). An image of a magnifying glass, when clicked, opens a box which summarises the information about the visit and the visitor.

The most useful information concerns the number of visitors. Thus, during a randomly selected eleven-month period of time (July 1, 2006 - May 31, ç2007), the opening web page of the maze was accessed by 465 visitors (*) (as identified by their IP addresses). Of these, 414 represented the five continents in the following proportions: Europe (40.3%), America (36.0%), Asia (19.3%), Australia (3.9%), and Africa (0.5%). 49 different countries were represented, topped by the U.S.A. (102 visitors), Finland (74), South Korea (18), Canada (17), Spain (15), Australia (13), Israel (13), Japan (12), France (11), China (10) and the U.K. (10). The system failed to identify 51 visitors’ country of origin and registered them as “unknown”.

The above figures inevitably include visitors who just wanted to take a quick look at the web page or who did in fact search for entirely different types of websites. The information collected for the second web page of the maze was therefore assumed to be more informative for the present purposes. After all, its 190 visitors would not have found the second web page had they not demonstrated at least some interest in logical-mathematical language tasks (when solving the task presented on the opening web page). 175 of them represented 30 different countries, the continental distribution of which was similar to that for the opening web page: Europe (49.7%), America (29.1%), Asia (16.6%), Australia (4.0%), and Africa (0.6%). The top ten countries were Finland (57 visitors), the U.S.A. (32), Canada (10), Japan (9), Hungary (7), Spain (7), Australia (6), Israel (6), South Korea (5), and the U.K. (5). The 15 remaining visitors were of “unknown” origin.

All web pages (other than the opening web page) have deliberately been left ‘orphan’ (i.e. they are not linked to other web pages) and cannot be found by search engines. Therefore, at least in theory, for any given web page, each visitor must have seen and solved all preceding language tasks. The number of visitors was therefore expected to drop gradually from the opening web page towards the closing web page of the maze. This assumption proved to be true; yet the decrease in the number of visitors was unexpectedly strong. Only 44 visitors solved the second task and continued into the parallel routing system of the maze (where visitors are required to choose one of two possible routes; see Palmberg 2006b for more details).

The number of visitors continued to drop towards the closing web page. 24 visitors went missing in the parallel routing system, thus producing an average dropout rate of three to four visitors per task. By the time the visitors had reached the web page containing the final task, their number had been reduced to ten. Only seven visitors completed the final task and continued to the closing web page. They represented the following countries: Finland (3), Israel (2), Australia (1), and Canada (1).

Country lists as such are of course uninteresting since finding the opening page of the maze is largely a matter of chance in the first place. Similarly, the entry-page information provided by AddFreeStats was of interest for the present purposes only concerning the opening web page. For all other web pages, as explained above, visitors have to enter their URLs manually, a fact that – inevitably and not unexpectedly – always resulted in the same information: “no referring URL”.

The visiting dates and times, on the other hand, are much more informative (assuming of course, that the information has been registered correctly by the statistics service). By comparing the date and time of the opening web page with those of the closing web page of the maze, one can easily calculate the task-solving timetable of individual visitors. The Australian visitor, for example, solved all tasks in a single go (it took him or her one hour and 36 minutes), whereas the Israeli visitors preferred to solve a task every now and then. More specifically, one of them completed the maze in seventeen days and the other one in twenty days.

In conclusion one can state that the information provided by the AddFreeStats statistics service shows that Operation MathLog is indeed operational and that it is possible to figure out the various URLs all the way to the closing web page. It is equally obvious that the statistics may be blurred by the variety of ways in which IP addresses are allocated to individual users or computers by different host servers. Nor can the statistics service know – or even be expected to know – whether or when returning visitors are in fact using computers that are hosted by entirely different organisations in other cities or countries. The biggest question of them all, unfortunately, remains unanswered: why do only two or three per cent of all visitors complete all tasks and reach the closing web page of the maze?

(*) This figure does not include my personal visits or those made by colleagues and students at the Faculty of Education at Åbo Akademi University.

References

AddFreeStats. http://www.addfreestats.com

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple Intelligences. The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence Reframed. Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. New York: Basic Books.

Palmberg, R. Operation MathLog. http://www.vasa.abo.fi/users/rpalmber/mathlog.htm

Palmberg, R. (2006a). “Operation MathLog: An internet-based EFL maze for mathematical-logical learners”. In 2006 International Conference. Beyond the Horizon: Extending the Paradigm of TEFL (pp 91-94). Seoul 2006: The Korea Association of Teachers of English.

Palmberg, R. (2006b). “Operation MathLog - a progress report.” http://www.englishclub.com/tefl-articles/mathlog.htm

Biodata

Rolf Palmberg is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Teacher Education at Åbo Akademi University in Vaasa, Finland, where he has taught EFL methodology since 1979. His publications comprise a number of books and papers mainly in the fields of applied linguistics and EFL methodology.
He is also the author of a range of CALL programs and Java applets, available at: http://www.vasa.abo.fi/users/rpalmber/download.htm His non-academic interests include geographical enclaves and tripoints.

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