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A Virtual Learning Resource Center
by Vance Stevens, Lecturer of Computing, Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, UAE
DRAFT: This is a pre-publication version of an article which appeared in the Dec 2003 issue of the TESL-EJ (Electric Online Journal). Please do not cite from this version of this article. Please reference http://writing.berkeley.edu/tesl-ej/ej27/int.html instead.
From the Editor:
Portals sprouting links into virtual online educational resources abound. Why then reinvent this particular wheel? As with many such projects, I was put in the position of having to seriously consider how visitors to the web-based portal of a resource center I was setting up could possibly make sense of the wealth of material available to them online. This article traces my thinking on the subject and points to links in the portal site I eventually produced.
I conceived my version of a "Virtual Learning Resource Center", or VLRC, as an extension of an actual Learning Resource Center which I had been planning in my capacity as CALL Coordinator at the Military Language Institute in Abu Dhabi before my departure from there in June 2003. The VLRC was meant to have the following characteristics:
Why Learning Resource Center?
The name of the center was carefully chosen to reflect its purpose and underlying philosophy. I conceived the facility to be a place where learning resources could be accumulated, maintained, and made accessible. These resources might be of interest to teachers as well as to students. The physical LRC would be a place where teachers and students alike could come to find resources appropriate to their projects (and hopefully the distinction between teacher and student would blur a bit as each helped the other work with the tools most appropriate to the task at hand). The scope was therefore intended to be wide-ranging and not focused only on the clients suggested in names such as 'student resource' center, or 'independent learning' center.
The same approach is reflected in the choice of materials for the VLRC. I am often asked "Who is it for?" and this is indeed a fair question, especially considering the expectation that a center operating from a language institute would focus on materials for students. Of course, pinpointing resources for teachers does lead to materials for students, and teachers often express a preference for producing materials particular to their students while complaining of the pitfalls inherent in too much reliance in 'off the shelf' materials. Reality lies somewhere between. Teachers appreciate directing their students to resources ready made, which frees them to further appreciate sites where they can find materials to re-purpose as they see fit, and the training to accomplish the repurposing. My portal attempts to touch on all these needs.
Accordingly my links can be seen as falling into the two broad categories of (1) teachers' and (2) students' resource libraries as well as (3) a category encompassing sites (a) promoting professional development through fostering of communities of practice of language learners and practitioners, (b) where the tools for online community formation can be obtained and explored, and (c) those offering training in use of online communications and web development tools.
Tending as it does toward entropy, the Internet defies attempts to so grossly categorize its contents so we find that sites often overlap categories or are classified summarily. The categories of links (1-3) are grouped here color coded yellow, grey, and green respectively: http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/vlrc/start.htm.
Perspective: How have others approached the problem?
The first task of a site such as this one was to overview how others had approached the task of setting up such resource centers. Of particular interest would be interface used, how the links are categorized, and the scope of such sites (given that each caters to its own perceived constituency). As can be imagined a wide range of resource portals already exist, ranging in scope from library sites with institutional backing, to other resource center portals, and on down to some excellent efforts by individuals to create portals for their students. The project reported here, by the way, is maintained as an individual effort with no institutional support whatsoever.
One obvious category of resource is the numerous libraries online. I mentioned above some resources for locating huge numbers of these libraries, but many of these simply list their holdings online. More useful as extensions of a LRC are libraries that share their holdings over the Internet: http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/vlrc/libraries.htm. One example of such a library is the US Library of Congress, and an example of a page where resources are shared at its site is the Links, Databases and Resources page at http://international.loc.gov/intldl/intldlhome.html . In general I like the layout of the LOC pages, with topics designed to appeal and lure. For example, at the portal, explore the Galleries and Exhibitions, or click on Kids and Families and then JUMP back in time, MEET amazing Americans, or See, Hear, and Sing.
Once into a library, most readers of this article will know what to do there. This is because we were taught how to conduct research in a library, and accordingly, many readers of this article are in the position of teaching these skills to their students. Links at this page can help with that: http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/vlrc/lrskills.htm. The Bedford/St. Martin's "Hone Your Research Skills" page teaches essential Internet and library search skills, while the University of Aukland's English Language Self-Access Centre had at one point a virtual Flash tour of its ELE or electronic learning environment (and as happens on the Internet, at this particular moment of writing, links from that site are not working, but when and if they are it provides a good example of how a portal to a brick and mortar facility can be introduced through an online preview). Another kind of interface to a virtual resource page is Barbara Dieu's spider web mind map at http://members.tripod.com/the_english_dept/Inspiration/sitemap.html
Continuing our overview of what is already online in the way of virtual learning centers, we find at http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/vlrc/portals.htm that our choices range from institutional to individual efforts. One of my favorite institutional portals is the Hong Kong Virtual Language Center which has a modest collection of student activities and teacher tools, but which has for years pioneered in providing a facility for fast and easy online concordances. Also listed on this page is Michael Krauss's Independent Study Lab, which has received favorable reviews on the Neteach and TESLCA-L lists lately. I maintain my own list of "Web sites for ESL learning and discovery" which points to dozens of other teachers' sites I've become aware of over the years. These sites vary in quality from remarkable to cursory, but they are usually worth exploring to see what links have attracted the attention of other teachers on the hunt for practical virtual resources.
So now we've found the virtual libraries, where are the books? These days, finding a LOT to read on the Internet is about as hard as falling off a log. So many websites, so little time! A major force (since 1971) in digitizing whatever literature exists that is no longer copyrighted is Project Gutenberg. The texts churned out can be used as raw material in all manner of data-driven activities, as well as in reading for pleasure. Project Gutenberg focuses on digitizing the material, but a site such as http://www.literature.org displays selected texts attractively for reading (and for any other re-purposing teachers can imagine).
Literature is only one genre of text available. What library would be complete without a newspaper rack? (There's a virtual one at http://www.onlinenewspapers.com/). A wide variety of periodicals are available online; the one in which you have found this article for example. Besides professional and training materials, there are also periodicals for ESL students. A favorite of mine is The Learning Edge (3 issues so far), while more advanced language learners might enjoy New Internationalist Magazine or Global Issues for Learners of English. For students, and the rest of us, who need an occasional boost from the reference section, there are dozens of dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, and any other kind of reference imaginable available online. A good portal for reference sites is http://www.libraryspot.com/, and for having a librarian virtually at your fingertips, the Librarians' Index to the Internet. An eye-catching concept in thesauri can be found here: http://thesaurus.plumbdesign.com/index.jsp.
At my VLRC, you link to the books from these pages:
Activities for Students
We've already touched on areas where teachers can help students find things to do in the VLRC, but activities more directly geared to students are listed at http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/vlrc/elearning.htm. Here can be found links to sites such as the Tower of English, with its wealth of activities to be pursued on the Internet, and the prolific output of Charles Kelly's http://www.manythings.org. There are more links to pages at my ESL_Home site and Speaking Phonetics from the University of Iowa, a great site for teaching pronunciation through illustrations of all aspects of phonology.
The Internet is particularly suited to multimedia . Of particular note is Randall Davis's media-rich ESL-Lab. Randall's site is unique not only for its prolific output but also because Randall produces all the material on his site with the help of friends and family members in Utah. Another home-grown effort at Real English Online aims to bring teachers up to speed in producing materials from Mike Marzio's royalty-free video footage, and in so doing, material is created and linked here for students. Another site of note here is ESL_Notes, The English Learner Movie Guides, which provides materials allowing teachers to exploit popular cinema. Teachers who enjoy movies and Internet probably know that many film and TV scripts are available online. The same goes for music lyrics, and the music itself can be streamed into the classroom (or office) over Internet radio. In the VLRC, sites for language learning utilizing video and sound are linked from here: http://www.homestead.com/prosites-vstevens/files/vlrc/multimedia.htm
Communities of Practice
This brings us to what I think is the most important aspect of a VLRC, and by this I mean the people who go there. People who go anywhere to further a particular aim or develop a skill form what we call a 'community of practice'. Communities of practice embody the notion that learning is a social phenomenon and that individuals learn through interaction with others in their zone of proximal development. High on the list of the most important work of a VLRC therefore should be to put people in touch with others trying to learn skills similar to what they have come to the VLRC to learn.
A VLRC or Virtual Learning Resource Center exists on the Internet where students and their teachers can go to pursue their goal of lifelong learning. This article has discussed sites chosen for this portal.
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Last updated: November 29, 2003 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0