Investigation of the perceived usefulness of a VLE group discussion facility by international students.

Andy Gillett, Claire Weetman

School of Combined Studies, Faculty of Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Hertfordshire








The University of Hertfordshire Internal Bridging Programme prepares Students in Higher Education for post-graduate study at the University of Hertfordshire. To follow the programme, students usually have a first degree and the appropriate academic qualifications to enrol on a Masters degree. However, the students' English competence is inadequate for a postgraduate course so it is necessary for them to improve it. Hence they need to follow our course or a similar one elsewhere. It is a one-year course and the students take several different modules. The largest module is English for Academic Purposes. It consists of 16 hours per week of class contact in Semester A and 6 hours per week in Semester B.

The main aims of the Semester B course are to:

By the end of the course they should have a knowledge and understanding of:

and they should be able to:

Our objectives are defined by the needs of the students' academic courses in the following year. The main job, therefore, in preparing these courses is to investigate what our students will have to do in their academic course, work out what aspects of language - grammar, vocabulary, skills etc - they will need and then find ways to teach and assess it (Gillett, 1989).

One skill needed by postgraduate students is the ability to take part in discussions. It is generally accepted that student-student interaction, both formal and informal, is beneficial in higher education (Pica & Doughty, 1985 Topping, 1996 Tan, 2003). It has also been reported that many Students in Higher Education, especially those from Asia, find this difficult and do not participate well enough in these discussions (Jones, 1999 Leki, 2001 Basturkmen, 2002). So participation in discussions is included as one of the objectives of our course. For several years, we have included a face-to face discussions of an academic article, whereby one student introduces an academic article to the class and then leads a discussion.

With the recent introduction, though, of StudyNet, our in-house VLE, and a strong belief that any effective use of a VLE must begin with clear integration of the VLE into the course, it was decided to extend this aspect of the course to include an on-line discussion using the StudyNet group discussion facility. One reason is that much research has shown that on-line discussions produce more interaction (Dysthe, 2002). They also allow quieter students to participate and show that Students in Higher Education will participate more if they have time to think about their contributions and plan the language they want to use. It has also been reported that international students have increased motivation to use the target language and therefore produce more language (Bump, 1990 Beauvois, 1992 Kern, 1995 Oliva & Pollastrini, 1995). Moreover, there is a more balanced participation (Kern, 1995 Sullivan & Pratt, 1996 Warschauer, 1996). Students also use a wider variety of language (Chun, 1994 Warschauer, 1996), which is syntactically and lexically more complex (Warschauer, 1996). This structured use of the VLE benefits students with a range of learning styles from a wider range of sociocultural backgrounds (Pennington, 1996). It was hoped students would find this to their advantage.

Thus there is evidence that group discussion is beneficial in education and that on-line discussions can also be valuable. However, how predominantly East Asian students would deal with an on-line discussion was an important question. Often, their view of education is that it is essentially a passive process, something that happens to them, not something they have to do for themselves, something that is mainly the job of the teacher (Jin & Cortazzi, 1993 Cortazzi & Jin, 1997 Catterick, 2004). So the purpose of the research was to investigate whether such students would undertake the task in the manner set, whether they regarded the activity as being advantageous to them and whether they would see the underlying reasons for such a task. Finally, it was useful to determine whether the students perceived learning was in fact occurring.


The programme had about 120 students in 2003/2004, divided into 9 groups for teaching purposes. The on-line discussion took place in the first four weeks of the second semester. The educational purpose of the on-line discussion, which we did nor evaluate in this study, was to help students improve their ability to read an academic article, to take part in discussions on such an article and to experience this via StudyNet. As with most of the teaching on this programme, the purpose of this is twofold: to improve students' language and study skills, and also to experience using StudyNet in preparation for their future academic lives. They were given very clear instructions about exactly what was required of them and their contribution was assessed, in order to encourage full participation.

The on-line discussion element was worth 6.25% of the coursework element of the course for the semester. All the students discussed the same article and were told they could read the article on-line, print it out or copy it to their own computers. At the end of this discussion period, the lecturers evaluated the students' contributions. The assessment consisted of a combination of the quantity of contributions to the discussion and the quality - ideas, interaction and language. In other words, students were rewarded for contributing more than the minimum, as well as using the activity as a learning tool, not simply as a bare assessment. The students were then asked about what they felt about doing this activity and what they learned from it. This was done via a questionnaire in which students were asked how they took part in the discussion, what they felt about taking part in the discussion and what they thought they learned from it. The questionnaire was given to all the students who had taken part and they were asked to complete it in class time. This was done in weeks seven and eight, three to four weeks after having completed the activity. The questionnaire consisted of twenty-two questions, divided into multiple choice and short-answer questions. The rationale behind the questionnaire was to assess the perceived worthiness of the task by the students.

The students were told that a grade would be given for their contribution to this discussion, and that a good contribution consisted of demonstrating knowledge of the article and making a relevant contribution to the discussion in appropriate English. They were instructed to make their first contribution by the end of week 2 of the semester and their second by the end of week three. Two contributions was the bare minimum if they wanted to pass and more was expected for a good mark. Each contribution had to be four or five sentences.

The students were advised on, and given practice in class, about what a contribution consisted of. This could include, among other things:

They were told to read all the contributions from their group members, not just those from the lecturer and furthermore to respond not only to the lecturer's points, but carry on a discussion with the other members of their group as well. Appropriate language needed to be used as this was a formal academic discussion, not an e-mail to a friend. Their contributions had to be written in accurate academic English and it might therefore be useful to compose their contributions in a word-processor, check it for accuracy and then paste it into the discussion. Their mark would depend on how well they achieved this task.

Results and discussion

The purpose was therefore to see whether or not students undertook the task, what advantages they saw to it, whether they saw the reasons for doing it and what they thought they learned from it. 112 completed questionnaires were received. The questions most relevant to the research aims will be discussed, with the hope that it will be useful for lecturers in similar circumstances.

First is the question of the extent to which students undertook the task. This was measured by looking at the number, frequency, style and length of students' contributions. Although the minimum number of contributions was two in order to achieve a pass, they were encouraged to contribute as much as possible, in order to be successful, and for their skills to be practised. The assessment period being over 4 weeks, 35% of students made one contribution a week, 23% twice a week, while 36 % of students contributed three times a week or more (Figure 1). It was certainly clear, therefore, that most students were contributing more than the minimum. It may be the case, though, that very few decided that doing any extra work for an assessment that counted such a small amount of the overall course mark was not worth the effort.

Figure 1: Frequency of contribution

Considering the style of discussion, with threads connected to single opinions or ideas, one would have expected students to have read all or most of the contributions on the list prior to adding their own point of view. Figure 2 shows that 48% of students claimed to have read more than 5 previous contributions, while 22% of those students had read more than ten. Surprisingly, though, 10% of students claimed not to have read any contributions before adding their own. It can thus be speculated that these students do not quite understand the concept of a discussion, though, but this is predicated on there being 10 contributions to actually read.

Figure 2: Contributions read prior to contributing

As regards the length of their own contributions, 42% stated they had written a paragraph, while the rest either equally wrote a few sentences or more than a paragraph. This was confirmed by the class lecturer, who monitored the contributions on a weekly basis. The students were expected to write at least a few sentences, so in this respect, it can be deemed successful.

It was felt that the level of participation would depend to some extent on whether they had enjoyed the exercise. As can be seen from Figure 3, less than 2% said they hated it. Almost 50% chose 'OK' and 29% said they had enjoyed it. It was pleasing to note that 12.5% asserted that they had enjoyed it very much.

Figure 3: Degree of enjoyment

Secondly was whether or not the students found the exercise advantageous or useful. More than 50% of the students responded affirmatively (Figure 4), while only 6% of students did not it find it useful. No one considered it to be a waste of time. This was crucial for us, considering this was the first attempt at this type of task and is an evaluation method which needs to be used more actively in the future, as the use of the on-line facility is playing a larger role in academic life (Browne & Jenkins, 2003).

Figure 4: Relative usefulness

Thirdly, the open question of 'Why do you think we used the on-line method for discussion?' elicited numerous favourable responses. Chief among these, the students were of the opinion that it would improve their reading and writing skills. Why they believed their writing skills would improve is not quite certain, as none of their contributions were corrected. In any case, they were making use of English in a formal academic style to communicate their ideas, an essential part of learning to write. Furthermore, the act of reading others' contributions and being able to compare grammar, vocabulary and level of sophistication of an argument with ones' own writing is a key part of peer learning, which is an aspect which is greatly emphasised in second language learning (Flower & Hayes, 1981 Grabe, 2001 Vincent, 1999). In addition they felt that it would allow them to analyse ideas more clearly and to think more independently. This may be linked to the time factor involved in being able to formulate ideas without pressure due to language ability and peer observation. This is particularly relevant to the quiet students who are often unwilling to be in focus in a class situation. They did consider that it would allow everyone more time and opportunities to discuss ideas and was particularly useful for the shy students. This is what was hoped for. Often the amount of time for discussion in class is limited, so allowing students this extra time to debate is of great importance.

Lastly we wanted to see if the students thought they had learned something from the exercise. In this case, only 5 of 112 students said no, and 3 'not really, but it was good to practise.' Thus the great majority were of the opinion that they had learned from the task. Whether the students' perception is borne out in reality was not the focus of this research but should be researched at a future date. The areas they highlighted are being able to see the grammar mistakes of others, and being able to learn from them. Here the previous comment on peer learning is reflected.  They decided that their knowledge, vocabulary and discussion skills had been enriched by the task. Some also considered that the experience allowed them to share ideas better than in class, and allowed them to feel more confident to give their opinion. This is a core issue, as many Students in Higher Education, especially those from the Far East, usually have a great deal to say, but lack the confidence when surrounded by local students with whom they often have minimal actual contact. If their confidence can be initially improved in this way, one hopes it can be extended to class situations. The chance to summarise and organise ideas better was another issue mentioned. These are essential skills all students need.


Post-graduate international students at UK institutions of Higher Education often find difficulty dealing with seminar type discussions. An attempt was made to help students with this by utilising the group discussion facility of a university Virtual Leaning Environment (VLE). However, as most of the students were from East Asia, who often consider education as essentially a passive process, it was felt necessary to investigate whether they would undertake such an activity and what the benefits were. Despite some criticisms, the students generally took part in the activity seriously and saw the usefulness of it. They were generally found to understand the purpose of the activity and felt they had learned from it. Thus, overall, when the activity was clearly seen to be related to the learning outcomes and integrated into the course, the verdict was overwhelmingly positive and the rationale understood. By taking the various points students made and adjusting the task slightly, by integrating the on-line discussion more into class work, involving the lecturers more and by thinking more about the text, we hope that the positive outcomes can be further cemented, and further areas probed and students helped to take part in seminar style discussions more confidently and competently.


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