Vol. 10, Issue 3, March 2010

Webbing In
Eugenia D. Coutavas and Christina Cavage

MyNorthStarLab - Point/Counterpoint

Debbie Coutavas

Beginning last summer, I decided to use MyNorthStarLab, a publisher-produced CMS based on one of their titles, for an intermediate-level listening/speaking class.  My decision was based on a two-hour talk I attended, about an hour of which outlined MNSL.  My interest was piqued.  I like to think I am a teacher who is open to using new technologies in my ESL classroom, so I forged ahead without any real instruction – other than the on-line tutorials – learning while using.  (I went on to use it twice more in different programs and at different levels.)

Christina Cavage, an ESL professor with extensive experience using technology in the classroom, and I answer the question:

Do you think classroom teaching/student comprehension is improved by the use of products like MyNorthStarLab?

In short, my answer would have to be “I’m not sure.”
Let me begin with my in-class instruction.  As a teacher, I cut my teeth developing my own materials to suit the level and skill I am focusing on.  This can be very tiring and time consuming, and as someone who works in three or four programs at a time, I’m always on the lookout for quick, easy, and adaptable ideas to help my lesson planning.  But once you commit to using the package a publisher created (in this case the book, CD, DVD, and online component), you are basically following someone else’s lesson plan.  That’s not to say it’s a bad thing pedagogically.  All the materials in the books I used were well-structured, level-appropriate, and more or less realistic.  It just feels like you’re on cruise control as a teacher.  And so, I would have to say that my in-class instruction simply followed the prescribed lesson plan (based on the number of contact hours for the semester), and there is no way for me to quantify if my students learned more (in class) by me using this packaged product rather than if I had used my own materials.  Of course the advantage was that I could walk into class without having had to do much prepping.  Chalk one up for the tired teacher!

On to student comprehension.

Again, here I would have to have done more research over a longer period of time to garner whether my students actually learned more because they were using on-line resources that supported their textbook.  Actually you would have to compare data done using your own materials to get a truly accurate assessment.  The best aspect of using MNSL is the recording feature.  Being able to send feedback to students’ recordings via a sound file is great.  But all three times I used this product, students had problems accessing the site, using the software required to record, and overall technological problems.

One final note, although there are benefits to using MNSL and similar products, I am worried about their impact on face-to-face instruction.


Love at First Byte?

Christine Cavage
Christine Cavage

Blended learning, e-learning, web-based environments . . . these are terms that we are bombarded with on a daily basis in this 21st century.  However, are these new and emerging technologies applicable to the ESL classroom?  And more importantly, are they effective classroom tools?  Do they truly improve learning and increase learner gains?

Of course the developers and marketers of such materials would assure us they do all that more, but I decided to find out for myself.  Always having had an interest in technology in the classroom, I decided to participate in a trial of MyNorthStarLab with Pearson Education.

Intrigued, but somewhat cautious, I oriented my high beginning class to the web-based tool.  I will never forget the faces of my students that day.  They were hooked, and so was I.  Thus, the love affair began. From an instructional standpoint a web-based instructional tool like MNSL enhanced learning. 

First, blending classroom instruction with a web-based tool allows the learner to interact with the course content at a higher frequency.  Students who might normally open their books for 15 minutes an evening to study or do a vocabulary exercise were now spending two or three hours an evening online interacting with the course content.  I wanted to be sure it wasn’t just the novelty of it all, so I decided to conduct my own little classroom research.  For one unit in the text, I assigned all the vocabulary exercises on MNSL for students to complete.  One of these exercises was a pronunciation exercise where students had to listen to the vocabulary item and its definition and repeat both, recording themselves.  I received these recordings via MNSL, listened to my students, and recorded feedback back to them.  Additionally, as the instructor, I could see how many times they recorded and could even listen to each of the recordings they attempted.  However, for the next unit, I decided to only assign the very traditional vocabulary exercise in the book, I even hid the exercises on MNSL.   I assessed both vocabulary units through a test.  The unit in which the students had to complete the MNSL exercises, all 18 students in my class scored an 80% or higher on the assessment.  However, for the second unit vocabulary, only 55% scored 80% or higher. 

Now, I realize that this was not a scientific research project, however, it demonstrated to me, and to my students, that the level of engagement was much higher when they were using the blended learning environment of the online lab. 


Eugenia "Debbie" Coutavas received a B.A. in History of Art with a minor in photography from the University of La Verne in Athens, Greece, and an M.A. in TESOL from Hunter College. In addition to teaching for more than ten years, Debbie was also the Web site coordinator for Hunter College's IELI Web site.

Christina Cavage is an Associate Professor of ESL and the ESL Department Chairperson at Atlantic Cape Community College in southern New Jersey.  She recently completed a one year fellowship at Princeton University where she researched the pedagogical effectiveness of Web 2.0 and blended learning in an ESL classroom. 

Please send your questions and responses to "Webbing In" at dialogue@nystesol.org.