Spain today: Language and contemporary society at your fingertips

Authors: Jacky Collins and Ariane Bogain


Many institutions have introduced e-learning into the languages curriculum, often with a commensurate reduction in the number of contact hours. The authors describe this approach using the Spain Today web site at Northumbria University. Student motivation was reported to be high and the site was regularly visited, though the interactive tools available were not greatly used. However, a blended mode was strongly supported by a majority of students. It was found that overall student performance was actually slightly lower than when more contact hours were included. The authors also note that e-learning often shows itself to be far more time-consuming than traditional teaching.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Introduction

In Higher Education, learners are increasingly faced with reduced contact-time with tutors with E-learning heralded as the solution to compensate for these reductions. This paper will offer an evaluation of e-learning at Northumbria University within the context of the Spain Today' website, designed specifically to support the learning and teaching of Spanish language and contemporary society at ab-initio level after contact time was reduced from 8 to 6 hours.

2. Design

The website consists of a set of topics mirroring those covered in class chosen both for their linguistic value and their insight into contemporary Spanish society. Each topic includes two reading comprehensions and two vocabulary tests with instant feedback. A summary is set to be submitted in class and links to further reading, from additional sources, are also provided. Finally, students can access a message board.

After reviewing studies on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and ab initio language learning, the site was designed around four key decisions:

  1. The design had to complement the content to make it as user-friendly as possible and to reflect the way students would do the prescribed activities at home or in class.
  2. A sound instructional design was essential. It was felt, based on certain studies, that a strong dose of objectivist / cognitive tasks are still required for ab-initio learning (Davidson, 1998; Jonnassen and McAlleese, 1993). However, it was also decided that some constructivist tasks should be included.
  3. Students should use the website in a blended mode since studies show that if e-learning is not integrated into a taught programme and is not seen as "counting", then users tend not to exploit the resource (Alexander, 2001:242).
  4. Where possible, students' different learning styles should be integrated into the site. (Honey & Mumford, 2001). Therefore, students were given the opportunity to choose the combination of tasks best suited to them.

3. Research questions

The main aim of the project was to collect data on the following points:

  • Student reaction to a new web-based mode of delivery in terms of use and motivation.
  • The effect of a blended approach on student use of the website.
  • Learning styles and any emerging patterns.
  • Student reception of the instructional design as well as a comparison with other learners with a more constructivist type of websites.
  • The effect of the website on student performance.
  • The effect of e-learning on the tutor's workload.

4. Methods

Data was collected via discussion and feedback questionnaires. Two other similar research projects were used as a comparison: one cohort of intermediate learners using a French grammar site in a blended mode and two cohorts of higher learners using the same site on a purely independent basis.

5. Findings

5.1 Students' reaction

All students engaged with the site and found it a valuable experience.

bar chart 1 - do you find the site; useful, enjoyable, boring, dull?

Most students (80%) established a pattern of visiting the site once a week. It therefore appears they regarded this activity as part of their workload. Further proof was given by the fact that most students chose to redo the exercises if they scored badly.

However, it was interesting to note that the only exercises that were always completed were those required by the tutor. Moreover, few students exploited the additional web-links. It could be that ab initio students in particular require clear tutor-guidance due to a fear of the unknown, since intermediate learners did not display such attitudes. Alternatively, some students might have chosen to adopt a strictly utilitarian attitude by concentrating only on the points that were seen as counting because they were checked by the tutor.

Student motivation remained high throughout the year, yet the interactive tools remained unused. A similar trend was observed in the three cohorts using the French site. This is an interesting finding, as much of the literature on ICT stresses the advantages of on-line communication and makes it a key requisite for any valuable on-line experience. In the case of our ab initio students this could be explained by the blended mode of delivery, i.e. they had the opportunity of asking questions in class. However, that students using the French site on an independent basis did not use it either seems to imply a strong reluctance towards interactive tools and a need to find alternative ways to engage students with them.

5.2 Implementation within the programme

The blended mode was strongly supported by the vast majority of ab initio students.

bar chart 2 - do you think the integration of the site as part of BAI language; essential, useful, useless?

bar chart 3 - the monitoring of the work is; essential, useful, useless?

Similar results came from the French cohort on a blended mode, even though far fewer wanted their work monitored by the tutors. This difference can be explained by the security factor amongst ab initio students: having their work regularly monitored by their tutors is a way of making sure they are on the right track.

5.3 Learning styles

Various approaches were taken, highlighting the need for a flexible e-learning platform, capable of catering for different learning styles.

bar chart 4 - order of activities

This was seen by the tutor as an advantage as class teaching is very often based on a prescribed pattern.

5.4. Instructional design

In contrast to the intermediate and higher learners of the French site, ab initio students preferred the security of a prescribed order of exercises.

bar chart 5 - would you prefer to choose the order of the exercises?

The security factor amongst ab initio students is again clearly evident.

The fact that hardly any student used the interactive tools or explored the recommended websites tends to show that the more open-ended constructivist tasks were not popular. However, this does not mean that constructivist tasks have to be discarded, but rather that students have to be trained into understanding their value.

5.5. Student performance

In comparison to previous years, when students had two additional contact hours, it was noted that the performance of our piloted cohorts was somewhat inferior. Therefore although the website has gone someway to compensating for the reduction in contact time, it did not enable students to make the same progress.

5.6. Tutor's perception

The design of the site proved far more time consuming than class teaching as the absence of the tutor on-line meant that careful and lengthy planning had to be made concerning the presentation of information.

6. Conclusions

In conclusion, e-learning should not be presented as a cost-cutting exercise as it can often prove more time-consuming that traditional teaching. It should instead be presented as a way to enhance students' learning and help them to become more independent learners. This means, however, that institutions have to give enough support to staff wishing to embark on the e-learning road, in terms of development time and technological support.


Alexander, S (2001) E-learning developments and experiences. Education and Training , 43, No. 4-5, p.240-248.

Davidson,K.(1998). Education in the Internet linking theory to reality. (

Honey, P and Mumford, A (2001) The learning styles helper's guide, Peter Honey Learning, Maidenhead.

Jonassen D. Mayes T. and McAleese R. (1993) A manifesto for a constructivist approach to uses of technology in higher education. In Duffy T. M., Lowyck J., Jonassen D. H. and Welsh T. M. (Eds) Designing Environments for Constructive Learning. Springer-Verlag