Skip to content

E-learning technologies for science writers

Scaffolding Literacy in Adult and Tertiary Environments (SLATE) is an academic literacy project built within an existing e-learning system, Blackboard Academic Suite Release 8, hosted by the City University of  Hong Kong.

While the pedagogical model of the whole SLATE project is very clear – it is based on the genre theory developed by the Sydney School of linguists, and has the Bruner/Vygotsky concept of scaffolding at its heart (Mahboob et al. forthcoming/2010) – the e-learning technology appears to have been selected mainly because it was already in use for other purposes for this group of students in this university. An analysis of how the technology supports the project raises issues of affordance, usability, and communication between project participants.

This analysis is based on key factors for successful integration of ICT within education summarised from the literature by Vallance, Vallance and Matsui (2009; summary table attached). Where applicable, other examples of e-learning technologies have been discussed to illustrate some of these factors.


To develop the English language writing skills of selected undergraduates at the City University, Hong Kong (CityU), language experts from the University of Sydney prepared authentic scientific writing tasks using Rothery’s 1996 model of the teaching-learning cycle of deconstruction, joint construction, independent construction (see my post on Genre theory approach for an illustration).

This is how this model is fleshed out in the CityU / USyd environment:
SLATE sequence

Already apparent in this overview are the restricted contacts between participants in the sequence, and the importance of the modelled text and the language tutor’s annotations in Grademark™ for driving the learning.

Tools in detail

Blackboard’s document storage function, often called ‘Course documents’ in the menu, is used in the SLATE /CityU project as the repository of tutorial documents, such as a lecturer’s Powerpoint presentations, as well as of guidelines for academic writing from the language expert and outlines of assignments and administrative forms.

The feedback on the students’ writing is managed by Turnitin within Blackboard. As well as indicating the percentage of content common to the submitted assignment and other documents in the wider database (an anti-plagiarism function), the application allows the submitted assignment to be loaded by Grademark, which offers a small range of commenting tools:

  • free text insertion boxes – the size of the text box is practically constrained by available marginal space
  • highlight tool, with attached comment box
  • a general comments section, no limit to free text entry
  • a custom rubric on 15 text quality measures
  • an attached comment bank – common errors at the punctuation, text, clause and sentence level, identified by number, and with hyperlinked supporting explanation.

The students can either view all the comments on their work, or none.

Criteria for analysis

Just a few tools within Blackboard are currently employed by the SLATE project processes. The following diagram summarises how these tools align with the criteria nominated for successful integration of ICT in education as listed by Vallance, Vallance and Matsui (2009).

[seems to work better in Firefox]

Overall, the e-learning project scores well for integration: there is an element of constructive learning in writers creating their own representation of course content; training for the language tutors integrates the desired feedback required for the students with the technical operation of the system; and, while simple, the electronic format for the markers’ comments allows a quick turnaround in marking, so that learners can create multiple versions and receive timely feedback.

The SLATE project does not fulfil the other criteria categories as fully, and does not use any student-to-student collaboration tools. There is communication between the language experts, the language tutors, and the students, but this communication is highly regulated. For the language tutors, their communication with the students is one-way only, unless there is some failure in the Blackboard assignment submission process: the students submit their drafts, the tutors annotate their drafts, but there is no opportunity for dialogue between the tutor and the student around the text and its strengths and errors. This has possible difficulties for both parties: because the student is not going to ask for clarification, the tutor needs to finely hone their suggestions and corrections, perhaps giving a more detailed account of a grammatical feature or a discussion of register choice than they would if they could converse with the student directly; and the student may try and follow up a suggestion without sufficiently understanding what the tutor means.

The absence of a personal relationship between tutor and student tends to emphasise what interaction there is between these two participants: comments from the tutor are important, but also the mark, which for language tasks is a small part of the entire assessment, gains unhelpful additional weight.

Obviously this situation is not the result of the technology choice: there are ample collaborative and communicative tools built into Blackboard, a ‘monolithic learning environment’ (like WebCT in 1999, Ellis 2000). Rather, it may be due to the constraints of staffing resources – the tutors are paid for a set contract of marking, not the flexible requirements of ongoing student support – and also perhaps of the design of the research project, which is in part tracking the most successful strategies (and genre features) of written tutor feedback, and in part seeking to standardise the tutors’ responses as much as possible across the group, ‘so that all coaches were using the same understandings about language’ (Mahboob et al. forthcoming/2010, p. 5). Because the tutors are in Sydney and the students are in Hong Kong, there is no prospect of face-to-face discussion; but it is not surprising that the coordinators of the SLATE project see ‘online joint construction activities’ as a likely future direction in forthcoming iterations of the project. Thus it may be that when the SLATE project achieves its next technological development, the evaluation framework of Vallance, Vallance and Matsui will be more applicable.


Currently, in the absence of other support, it is the clarity, warmth and encouragement in the SLATE tutor’s feedback that is a critical factor in the student’s uptake of their suggestions: this is a considerable burden for some simple comments to carry, and this is where the issue of affordance arises. Part of the extensive tutor training includes a standard procedure and layout for tutors using the embedded Grademark tools, but tutors may develop their own refinements in giving feedback, to try to add clarity with brevity. For instance, the highlighting tool allows the in-text marker to be one of a dozen symbols – a notepad, a tick, a star, a stop sign, etc: without formal direction, tutors may develop their own code to flag a student’s successful rewrite or strongly draw the student’s attention to a problematic construction. The ‘general comments’ section is a single undifferentiated column; markers may decide to use a combination of in-text ‘footnotes’ linked to headings within this pane so that they can add the lengthy comments needed to pages without marginal space. These adaptations of a limited symbolic language show the combined faces of opportunity and constraint typical of an affordance.


The current function of the Grademark tool within Blackboard to give writing feedback has some serious usability barriers. The tutors are working on home computers, with standard size screens, but the amount of screen real estate that is locked up in the Grademark interface, framing and toolbars means barely a paragraph of the student’s draft is visible at a time – this is a problem for a marker giving feedback on whole-text-sized features such as genre. There is also the issue of access: ideally, the marker should be able to compare the first draft of a particular student’s work with the second, but it is not possible to display the texts side by side or even to look at all the submissions from one student without opening multiple windows (which can trigger a login failure). The text boxes are difficult to manipulate, and there are no tools, such as Find or Spelling check, carried over from the Word application into the Grademark version. The comment bank has many cryptically named items, so that the marker needs to place the correction comment and then open it to see if that is the item needed.

Alternative technologies

Perhaps all educational technologies have at some time been selected as suitable for supporting learner writers, including blogs (e.g. Drexler, Dawson & Ferdig 2007), wikis, videos, tapes, webpages, Authorware, Flash, Word itself, and so on. Within our class, Narinder Gill demonstrated an excellent deployment of Screencast to give voice feedback to the student, using highlighting within the text to make specific comments. Even for the CityU students, an alternative feedback mechanism via Skype or through a shared screen in a whiteboard session could give greater satisfaction to the students and their markers.


The SLATE project has adapted a handful of tools within an existing installation of Blackboard to build an e-learning system which is theoretically well focussed but technically imperfect. A final look at the project, after the semester is concluded, reveals perhaps the most anti-instructional characteristic of Blackboard – all the feedback produced by this semester’s markers, all the developments made by students within drafts, is now inaccessible to the markers, and unavailable to the students, closed off in end of semester procedures.


Drexler, W, Dawson, K & Ferdig, RE 2007, ‘Collaborative blogging as a means to develop elementary expository writing skills’, Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education, vol. 6, available at

Ellis, RA 2000, ‘Writing to learn: designing interactive learning environments to promote engagement in learning through writing’, in Learning to choose, choosing to learn, eds R Sims, M O’Reilly & S Sawkins, proceedings of the 17th Annual ASCILITE Conference, Lismore, Southern Cross University Press, pp. 155-166.

Hammond, M 2009, ‘What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of ICT in education?’, Education and Information Technology, DOI 10.1007/s10639-009-9106-z.

Harrison, R & Thomas, M 2009, ‘Identity in online communities: social networking sites and language learning’, International Journal of Emerging Technologies & Society, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 109-124, accessed at

Mahboob, A, Dreyfus, S, Humphrey, S & Martin, JR [forthcoming: 2010], Appliable linguistics and English language teaching: scaffolding literacy in adult and tertiary environments (SLATE) project, chapter 3 of Appliable Linguistics Reclaiming The Place Of Language in Linguistics, eds A Mahboob & N Knight, Continuum, London.

Prefume, Yuko 2007, ‘Constructivism in foreign language learning’, Academic Exchange Quarterly, March, available at

Sun, PC, Tsai, RJ, Finger, G, Chen, YY & Yeh, D 2008, ‘What drives a successful e-Learning? An empirical investigation of the critical factors influencing learner satisfaction’, Computers & Education, vol. 50, no. 4, pp. 1182-1202

Vallance, M, Vallance, H & Matsui, M 2009, ‘Criteria for the implementation of learning technologies’, Handbook of research on Web 2.0 and second language learning, Information Science Reference, Hershey, Pennsylvania, accessed via UTS Library at

Woo, Y, Herrington, J, Aghostinho, S & Reeves, TJ 2007, ‘Implementing authentic tasks in web-based learning environments’, Educause Quarterly, no. 3, pp. 36-43

Attachment: Summary table from Vallance, Vallance & Matsui 2009

Table 1. Key factors for informed ICT integration

Characteristic Key factors Description
Activities Flexible Be flexible enough to address different learning styles (Jordan & Follman, 1993; Sandholtz et al, 1997).
Pedagogy Focus on the quality of teaching and types of learning as many studies in technology integration tend to concentrate merely on the practical advantages (Knipe & Lee, 2002).
Opportunities for learning A key factor in the success of synchronous inter-networking is the instructor’s skill in creating opportunities for interaction (BECTA, 2003).
Integration A constructive environment Use technology to create constructivist environments which supported higher level thinking skills (Hesselbring, Barron & Risko, 2000).
Integration Training in the integration of technology into the curriculum is nearly always more helpful than basic technology skills training alone (Parr, 2003).
Adding value If ICT is used in learning then it should be done with the intention of adding value to good tasks. That is, the technology should make these tasks even more worthwhile (Towndrow & Vallance, 2004).
Collaboration Collaboration Collaboration among students (Sivin-Kachala & Bialo, 1996).
Cooperation Use cooperative learning models (Sandholtz et al, 1997).
Communication Increase communication between students and instructors (Jordan & Follman, 1993; Sandholtz et al, 1997).
Shared spaces Shared space The activities, learning context and shared space should aim to meet the five qualities within a knowledge construction, constructivist learning environment: (1) instructors supporting instructors; (2) dialogues; (3) reflections; (4) observing best practice; (5) taking risks (Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1999).
Making connections Relate the skills to real-life situations (Jordan & Follman, 1993; Sandholtz et al, 1997).
DOI 10.1007/s10639-009-9106-z
No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: