Students Guiding Students Through the Web
A Collaborative Web-based Project Developing Students'
Autonomy and Life-long Learning Skills

by Natalie Cigankova

Such a powerful tool as the Internet allows the teacher to use the wealth of on-line resources to enhance the students' learning at the Academic Writing lessons. As many educators have already noticed, a spontaneous, chaotic process of harnessing the Web by students is taking place independently from teachers, causing frequent cases of plagiarism and various citing errors in academic assignments. Even when students use the Internet for "proper" purposes, "one challenge for language teachers is to shape some of their computer-using experiences into language learning experiences" (Chapelle, 2001:2). The purpose of this article is to suggest one of the possible solutions: a collaborative web-based project aimed at incorporating the information technology (beyond word processing) into the process of developing advanced academic writing skills.

Evaluating websites and writing critical reviews for peer reading, actively involves students into a purposeful language learning activity. The development of all language skills takes place when students read authentic and relevant texts on-line, write several review drafts, and discuss their contributions to the collective project and the content of the future Internet guide-book. The learning resources, collected by students for their own and other students' use, become tailored to the students' profiles and learning context, because the future users themselves have been involved in their careful selection and evaluation. The crucial importance of the relevance of on-line materials to local educational contexts and learner profiles has been emphasised by the applied linguists investigating the usefulness of on-line self-tuition courses (Sercu, Peters 2002:45).

Apart from developing their language skills using relevant and, thus, more effective learning materials, students acquire a valuable quality - an ability to study independently. Anyone who is engaged in teaching students to write in academic English aims at developing life-long learning skills, enabling the learners to achieve academic and professional success in future. Students will need to further develop their writing style while they are climbing their academic or professional career ladder. However, what is most important for students to develop, is the ability to learn without instructor, to find, evaluate, and choose materials that would be the most useful for them. The collaborative website review writing project aims at developing students' autonomy in learning and at "helping learners learn how to learn" (Wenden, 1991:11).

The Project

The purposes of the project work, exploring resources for student writers on the Internet, were to offer students a useful and motivating writing task, to help them develop a critical attitude towards the information on the Web, and to encourage students to develop knowledge through collaboration. Originating from well-known academic books and articles review writing, the activity fosters the process of students' learning how to find and evaluate information on the Internet, compare it with the information from traditional printed library resources, and synthesise it in writing website reviews. Similar activities were described in ELT literature (Dudeney, 2000; Sperling, 1999, Teeler and Gray, 2000); however, we aimed at developing a simple activity of review writing into a full-scale collaborative project connecting generations of students into a community of on-line learners.

Starting the project in 1999 with Latvian undergraduate students preparing to write their first academic papers, we aimed at introducing an activity that can help to use the Internet for developing student's on-line academic research skills and at proving that the use of the World Wide Web in academic writing instruction can benefit students. During three academic years as part of their study program the students analysed and evaluated the websites that might be of interest for writing students. The experience gained allows the author to suggest the following plan for the activity:

Stage 1. Pre-writing
Lower levels of language or computer skills
Advanced level
Before the class: teacher chooses the websites according to the students' age and language level. A web page with links to the websites could save time at the lesson and make it more organised. Before the class: teacher tries different combinations of the key words for Web search to pre-view what students might see when looking for the websites for evaluation.
In class: teacher gives students a step by step instruction on paper, so that students would not get lost on the Web. Teacher may also want to pre-teach some difficult vocabulary that students will see on the websites. In class: students decide what they would like to find on the Internet (e.g. information on citing the Internet sources) and write down the task for themselves not to forget this purpose while searching the Web.
Teacher prepares students to use technology to the extent necessary for the lesson (mouse skills). Psychological preparation of students for working with authentic texts and information overflow.
Teacher decides how to manage the lesson time. Students decide how much time to spend on browsing, on reading and note taking, and on writing itself during the lesson.
Teacher can provide the students with the following guidelines for review writing:
1. Address
2. The purpose of the website and assumed readership
3. Currency: when the website was created and last updated?
4. Ease of use
5. Content
6. Links to other Web pages and websites
7. Interactivity
8. Special features
9. Recommendations (would the student recommend the website to other students?)
Students discuss the list of possible criteria for website evaluation provided by the teacher or develop their own criteria working groups.Example criteria developed by students:
1. How inspiring is the website for writing? (Motivational potential)
2. Overall clarity, including the language.
3. How informative the website is?
4. The relevance of the information on the website; currency.
5. How can the website support writing students: does it contain dictionaries, sample essays and papers, e-books and reference resources?
6. Teaching qualities of the website: are there interactive exercises and self-tests?
7. Does the website offer information for students with different learning styles, e.g. sound, animation and other special features?


Stage 2. Web sites analysis and evaluation (students on-line)
Students read the content of the website and take notes answering the teacher's questions. First reading: for general idea or impression (e.g. the purpose of the website). Second reading: for specific details (the date of construction, the author or the university etc.). Students read the content, evaluate it according to their own developed criteria, and take notes on their findings.


Stage 3. Review writing (off-line)
Students organise their notes into review drafts according to the plan provided by the teacher. They can also compare the information from the website with the textbook or other resources. Students should realise that they are responsible for the accuracy of the information on the website if they recommend it to other students. They should mention the mistakes in their reviews. Students compare/contrast the text with the information in the textbooks and with other Web and library resources. They can also group the websites they visit according to some criteria (e.g. assumed readership, clarity, etc.). Students decide whether to recommend the website to other students or not. They should explain their decision and point to the mistakes and inaccurate information.
Students exchange the drafts with their group mates for peer feedback. They should find what they like the best in the review, and what is not clear for them and should be rewritten. Peer feedback. Discussion on the presentation guidelines. Students decide whether the reviews should be presented in paper form for publishing in a book or in electronic form for on-line posting.
Writing second drafts, which can be sent by e-mail to the peers for feedback if students continue writing at home. Rewriting and peer editing of the reviews. Discussion on the organisation of the book or a website for publishing the reviews.

This plan can be used with students of different levels of language and computer literacy skills. The teacher can further tailor it to accommodate the particular students' needs in the particular situations. Students' comments are collected and published in a self-published book to guide the next generation of students through the Web, so that they, in their turn, could contribute to the project and update the information in the Internet Guide for Writing Students.


All of the students evaluated the website review writing as a useful learning activity in their reflective essays and post-class interviews. The results of the formal assessment at the end of the term demonstrated a growth in the quality of students' writing in the target group, participating in the project, in comparison with the control group. However, the results of formal testing cannot reflect much more valuable outcomes, such as growing students' interest, confidence, and independence in learning. The analysis of students' reflective essays and post-class interviews generally support the results of yearly students' opinion surveys, showing an amazing change in the attitude toward the subject (from 70% negative and very negative towards 67% positive and very positive) and growth in students' confidence in writing, although such a change in students' attitudes could be explained by the excitement from the novelty of the Internet. Nevertheless, the experience of almost four years of using the activity allows me to conclude that in this case the difference between students' wants and their needs is very small.

Working over the project, students practice the following valuable skills:

• language and writing skills
Students read authentic texts, take notes, and rewrite their reviews several times to achieve the publishable quality.

• Information management skills
Students learn to cope with too much information on the website, to choose the relevant and to skip irrelevant information.

• Critical thinking skills
Students learn to evaluate relevant information, to compare and synthesise the information from different sources.

• Time management skills
Students learn to use the Internet to complete a concrete task in a limited period of time.

• Interpersonal communication skills
Students learn to work in collaboration to achieve the best results.

• Life-long learning skills
Students learn to understand their learning needs and preferences and how to satisfy them; they learn how to find on-line resources for further independent learning.
The skills that students obtain participating in the project can be transferred to other subjects, improving the overall quality of students' learning.

As possible drawbacks of the web-based project should be mentioned the anxiety of teachers and learners caused by the use of technology, the necessity of teaching computer literacy skills at the lesson, and a slow Internet connection or computer failure during the class. The teacher can reduce the negative effect by filling the website loading time with useful activities, e.g. giving the instruction on paper or organising short discussions on the students' experience of the Internet.

The highly positive results of the project allow the author to recommend this form of instruction as one that is useful, comparatively easy to organise, and highly stimulating.

1. Dudeney, G. (2000). The Internet and the Language Classroom Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
2. Jones, C. (1986). "It's not so much the program, more what you do with it: the importance of methodology in CALL" System 14/2
3. Sercu, L and E. Peters (2002). "Learning e-learning - a comprehensive investigation of course developers' and language teacher trainees' views regarding the usefulness and effectiveness of a multimedia self-tuition course" In: ReCALL Vol.14, Part 1 (pp.32-46). UK: Cambridge University Press
4. Sperling, D. (1999). Sperling's Internet Activity Workbook. Prentice Hall Regents
5. Teeler, D. and P. Gray (2000). How to use the Internet in ELT
6. Wenden, A. (1991). Learner Strategies for Learner Autonomy: Planning and implementing learner training for language learners Prentice Hall International

The following websites provide the information on website evaluation:


Natalie Cigankova teaches Academic Writing and Grammar, Applied Communication, Methodology of Teaching EFL Writing, and The Internet for ELT courses at the University of Latvia in Riga, Latvia. She holds an MA in English Philology from the University of Latvia and is currently working over the Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics in the field of CALL/WELL and computer applications for linguistic distance education.
Natalie's interests are concerned with second/foreign language acquisition in the computer environment, computer discourse and computer mediated communication for language teaching.
Now she is engaged in a new E-university project creating web-based courses for linguistic education on the WebCT platform.

Natalie can be contaced at:University of Latvia
Visvalza iela 4a, LV-1050 Riga, Latvia
Tel: +371 7034811
Fax: +371 7034813
E-mail address:

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