The following paper was published in WORLDCALL: Global perspectives on Computer-Assisted Language Learning (1999), Swets & Zeitlinger.

Web-based language learning: A window to the authentic world

Uschi Felix, Monash University, Australia


Abstract. The developing interactive Web technologies offer potentially useful tools for language teachers. This article looks at how these new technologies are being exploited, not so much in the cause of grammar teaching, but more in an attempt to take advantage of the unique strengths of the Web and of what it is best suited to do, by giving language learners some control over their learning and by exposing them to authentic language experiences at different levels of interactivity, tailored to their individual interests and capabilities.

1. Introduction

During the relatively few years in which language learning materials have been available on the Web, the technology has evolved tremendously in terms of the types of interactivity on offer, with text-based environments being gradually replaced by virtual classrooms. If we compare an early electronic textbook in German (Smith 1995) with sophisticated recent materials (Goelz 1998, Kretschmer et al 1997), the advances are obvious — from a grammar text presented electronically with some added sound, to sound with some video, grammar exercises with online feedback, interactive tasks linked to authentic Websites, and direct communication with the teacher and others. Smith's own site illustrates the advancing technology with the latest version moving further away from being a textbook on the screen. While there are many sites of the earlier sort in a large variety of languages and particularly in a dialogue-driven format, only a handful of sites of the latter sort have so far appeared, and particularly not in the form of fully fledged courses (Felix 1998a).

What is clear about the development is that pedagogy has been driven largely by technology, with the advent of CGI, helper applications, plug-ins, JavaScript and Java adding interest to the material (for excellent online demonstrations see Goodwin-Jones 1998 and Mills 1998). Developers have been excited from the start by what could be done with little effort, and recent authoring resources that need no programming knowledge (Holmes and Arneil 1998) have made the enterprise even more tempting.

This paper reports on the variety of ways in which the Web is being exploited for language teaching. Since the environment is still evolving, any picture of what is available will be a mixed one, with approaches ranging from fairly traditional grammar teaching at one end to experiential learning at the other. Nevertheless, the direction of the developments is becoming clear. There appears to be a gradual shift from teacher-centred approaches, largely reflected in the explicit teaching of grammar, which exploit the technical potential of the Web, to student-centred learning, reflected in meaningful task-based activities, which exploits the new medium's unique potential for authentic learning experiences. The paper focuses on how an environment often perceived as uncontrollably chaotic can be harnessed for meaningful language learning, especially in terms of interactivity and authenticity.

2. Grammar teaching on the Web

Even on the Web, the attractions of grammar explanations as well as drill and practice and online testing continue to be evident. Grammar explanations often take the form of daunting slabs of complicated explanatory material filled with specialised vocabulary, with few even offering the clean layout heightened by the use of contrasting colours found in Smith (1995). Grammar drills are typically limited by the fact that the same few questions are presented every time the exercise is repeated, and by non-existent or not particularly helpful or appropriate feedback. Notable exceptions are Friedman (1997), Lee (1998) and especially Arana (1998). The latter provides an excellent example of what is possible: students choose an appropriate response in Spanish to a given situation from a list where none of the choices is obviously ludicrous and more than one might be "correct", and each response generates a sentence in Spanish explaining why that answer is right or why it is not fully appropriate.

Testing can range from purely grammatical questions in English to the ubiquitous fill-ins, often in multiple-choice format. Many sites at least seek to provide a coherent context for the questions in the form of complete sentences with fill-ins, while a few go further and locate the work within an extended and coherent narrative (Friedman 1997, Arana 1998). Coherent narrative is not the same thing as authentic material, however, and it is rare to find a site that bases grammar on fully authentic texts as the ALFAGRAM project aims to do (Melis et al 1998).

Where the whole approach to grammar is concerned, Websites continue to illustrate the central dilemma of course designers and their pedagogical beliefs. If the coverage of grammar is to be systematic and comprehensive (Blyth 1997), then it is virtually impossible for the material to be extended, coherent and authentic because control of structures and vocabulary is so difficult to achieve. To put this the other way, if the course is based on authentic material (Biddulph 1998, Calvi et al 1998, Melis et al 1998), then it is virtually impossible to provide systematic and comprehensive coverage of grammar, particularly in any logical progression of difficulty.

What is obvious from a survey of a large number of sites (Felix 1998a) is that the current level of sophistication is not high. The day when the Web might provide an extensive and changing range of grammar exercises with helpful feedback and storage of student results — still less, an analysis of student weaknesses to allow both for appropriate and helpful feedback and for the tailoring of future work to identified needs — is some way off. As Lamy (1997) already showed for French grammar, Websites fall well short of the potential, and even her favourite site France à la carte does not meet her own rigorous criteria of excellence. The situation has not changed much in the period since she reported, even though the technology has become more flexible and some sites are focussing more on interactivity and authenticity.

Given the limitations of existing Web-based grammar programs, it will inevitably be wondered what the point is of using the Web for this purpose when CD-ROMs offer obvious technological advantages, especially in terms of speed.

The most significant answer to this question is that the Web is accessible in a way that a CD-ROM is not — resources can easily be updated (this is not to say that all material is, in fact, regularly updated), and communication facilities can be integrated. In any case, distance education courses will naturally want to provide a complete teaching and learning package and so will include explanations of grammar. In addition, it must be tempting to offer grammar exercises as well, even if the Web, stricken as it is by the slowness of the connections, is not a particularly attractive medium compared with a CD-ROM loaded into a local computer. Mastery of structures remains a popular goal: students constantly surprise by their interest in grammar drill and practice (at least in an environment where grammar is tested), second only to their enthusiasm for games (Felix 1997).

Nonetheless, the basic point is persuasive. The Web should most sensibly be used for the unique potential that it offers. Whatever legitimate place traditional teaching content and styles may have in a Web-based course, it seems odd to use the Web to focus on them instead of exploiting the new medium for student-centred task-based and collaborative learning in true to life or, better still, authentic settings.

3. Rethinking the teaching approach: from teacher-centred to student centred

Materials on the Web reflect teaching approaches. The teaching of grammar as illustrated above, whether contextualised in authentic materials or not, reflects a teacher-centred approach — systematically controlled, prescriptive and linear. The attractions are immediate feedback, the potential for less marking and a definite sense of what has been learnt. Drawbacks are the failure to allow for differences in students' learning strategies and styles, motivation, attitudes, preferences, backgrounds and personalities.

In his keynote address at WorldCALL, Barson (1998) boldly put the view that the biggest hindrance to learning is… teaching! This may sound radical, but it makes sense in a world in which we are dealing with "children of chaos" (Rushkoff 1996) – non-linear thinkers used to negotiating complicated intuitive computer games and comfortably navigating cyberspace communities and resources (for discussions of the implications of cyberliteracy for education see Snyder 1997 and Dudfield 1998).

Caution is still needed. The conclusion should not be simply to adopt a student-centred approach which hands over all responsibility to the learner, in the hope that autonomous learning will turn out to be a natural skill and that knowledge will be acquired by osmosis. Students may have the technical skills and the inclination to negotiate hypertext and images, but the acquisition of how-to-learn skills, however individually based, still requires help. A more desirable and more effective approach, therefore, may be to hand over control to the students in an environment where some guidance is provided (Hoven 1998). In most recent times the Web has become a treasure trove for finding ready-made or creating meaningful interactive tasks to support this approach.

4. Meaningful interactive tasks in authentic environments

Since the early days of communicative teaching the goal has been to make learning a language meaningful and authentic. To this end, attempts have been made to inject an air of authenticity into the classroom by means of simulations and role-plays that reflect, mirror or represent authentic settings. My own experience as a native speaker of German teaching French to Australian students highlighted the problem of providing truly authentic experiences. Even authentic materials in videos, newspapers or magazines were often out of date and it was not until the arrival of real-time television news that students were brought into contact with topical, up-to-date and authentic resources.

All this has changed radically. With the advent of the Web, activities no longer have to be simulated or artificially contextualised but can be excitingly authentic. The real world of the target language can now be brought into the students' experience with the creation of meaningful tasks tailored to their interests and capabilities at different levels of interactivity.

4.1 Low level interactivity - point and click activities

The lowest level of interactivity resides in point and click activities. However, these can now be located in settings that offer greater cultural and linguistic richness. In the Vietnamese materials (Felix 1998b), beginning students can click into sections on geography, economy, history, people, politics and culture, illustrated with maps and photographs; switch to language exercises; practise pronunciation; read simple poetry; attempt translations; and analyse culture-specific behaviour in videos. What makes this resource different from similar ones on CD-ROM is that students can also visit a number of sites in Vietnam to get authentic information about such things as poetry, songs, street signs or recipes.

While this particular course provides a structured virtual classroom for beginning students, other sites adopt a more open approach. The German course at Victoria (Goelz 1996), through its strategic links to other sites, includes a vast variety of materials from which students at any level can profit. A simple click will immerse an intermediate student in authentic German literature forums, the Website of the hottest German pop group complete with song clips, or German film noir. Similarly, an advanced student can enter the world of real-time German television news.

4.2 Medium level interactivity - resolution of information gaps

A higher level of interactivity involves some form of information gap which has to be resolved using language as a communicative tool, with the learners having a limited influence over the outcome (Foot 1994). There are a large number of sites, mostly in European languages, which offer creative activities of this sort. In Adesso (Di Fabio and Hemment 1997), a beautifully presented site sponsored by Heinle & Heinle, students are asked to answer questions by collecting information from linked sites, to fill in forms, or to prepare challenging materials such as an advertisement for the Caffé Florian in Venice.

While most such tasks in a variety of languages are presented on proformas to be printed out and delivered to the teacher in class, some can be submitted electronically. They range from self-contained brief tasks designed to be completed in a relatively short time, as in the information-collecting exercise on Bavaria (Prokop 1997), to extensive problem-solving activities, as in the Chinese Long Walk (Clayton 1998). The latter is one of a series of structured teaching plans by a variety of contributors to an Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations project. The target audience are students in the school sector and contributions so far include Chinese, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese and Turkish. Activities vary in approach, content and scope but all provide interesting ideas to cover several teaching sessions. A site listing similar activities for school students in a range of languages has been produced by teachers in the California Foreign Language Project.

This type of interactivity can also be created in MOO and Chat sites (Fanderclai 1995 and Truna 1995a). Chat facilities, through which users can interact in real time by way of written communication, are now available in a large variety of languages (Felix 1998a). They tend to be more user-friendly than MOOs even though they do not offer the same scope for creative interaction offered by the best MOOs. The essential advantage of the MOO space is that it is an object oriented environment in which users can create and manipulate objects. In most MOOs this is still restricted to text-based creations, such as descriptions of rooms, people or objects, which can be demotivating for students expecting a world full of colourful graphics or animations. However, the environment is changing as rapidly as everything else on the Web, and sophisticated MOOs like Active Worlds are appearing where users can create virtual objects represented graphically.

There are two interesting examples of how a potentially chaotic environment can be used with some guidance while still allowing students room for individual contributions. One is the treasure hunt in Truna (1995b) where a variety of objects are left in different locations of the MOO for students to discover; another the topic-related chat sessions suggested by Ferguson (1998). An attractive idea in the latter is the presence of native speaker experts to avoid the artificial situation of students chatting only to students and recycling their own varieties of interlanguage, potentially leading to what Garrett (1986:133) termed so aptly ‘irremediably inaccurate fluency’.

4.3 High level interactivity - experiential learning

The highest level of interactivity offers a range of experiential learning, involving users in real interaction in authentic or virtual true to life settings, quests with a meaningful goal, or the production of materials.

The most authentic interaction can be achieved in MOO and Chat sites operating in the target language country rather than those created especially for language teaching purposes. The latter may have the advantage that more guidance can be given, but there is a contrived and simulated feeling to them, with many instructions in English and large amounts of inaccurate language generated, especially when the environment does not support accents. Sites situated in the target country, by contrast, operate exclusively in the target language and have native speakers engaging in authentic conversation online. This can be seen as either challenging or threatening: while it may be an excellent environment for advanced students, beginning and intermediate students may not have the courage or skills to attempt it. All the same, a simple exercise like discovering where people are, who they are and why they are there should not be beyond students at any level. In any case, a useful aspect of this environment is the possibility of communicating through assumed identities which can have a liberating and empowering effect (Turkle 1995): no one ever needs to worry about exposing their mistakes, a common complaint in the communicative classroom.

The difference between the two types of site is illustrated by the contrast between the MUSH Peter Goelz created for students at the University of Victoria in Canada as early as 1996 (Goelz 1996) and Planet Talk. The former allows students to meet in different teaching rooms and in other locations resembling a university environment. The site also operates in French, Spanish and English and offers its own novice tour in English which is highly recommended for anyone new to this environment. While this may well be a good starting point for beginners, these types of multi-user domains tend to be limited in the sorts of interactions that take place and generally need some initiative from the teacher if interesting exchanges are to be set up. They also so far do not support the creation of accents, and instructions are generally in English. The reason for this – another illustration of pedagogy being hampered by technology – is that they operate via Telnet and tend to use standard MOO commands

Planet Talk, by contrast, is one of the most user-friendly chat sites imaginable, on the subject of love and fun in Germany. There are people online at all hours offering instant communication with native speakers. The site also supports extended characters so that the writing is by and large accurate. Interaction tends to be very fast if many people are online but users can choose to respond just to one person. These sorts of sites are ideal vehicles to expose intermediate students to the specific "netspeak" discourse of young people in the target language. When testing the site I got a severe grilling from one of the 22 people online about whether I was really in Australia, and had to give information on population, animals and geography in a naturally authentic information gap exercise.

A challenging site for students is Active Worlds, a three-dimensional environment available in German, Spanish, French, Russian, Italian and Norwegian with each site located in the country of the language. Here, users can explore many virtual worlds and even create their own. They can meet others and interact as a 3D, lifelike, animated figure. Sites use objects just like hyperlinks to send mail and surf the Web, and include games, puzzles and mazes.

Quests with a meaningful goal can be found in many, mostly European, languages (Felix 1998a). They are often beautifully produced by publishers as teachers' resources linked to a specific textbook. One example has been given above in Adesso (Di Fabio and Hemment 1997) which offers 17 further activities of a similar kind. An equally impressive site, produced by Prentice-Hall, is Mosaicos (Lee 1998), which provides excellent examples of goal-oriented tasks, explicitly covering activities for the development of all four skills. In chapter 7, for instance, students are asked to identify the capital, cities and artists of Venezuela; to find information and write about one of the states in Venezuela; and to exchange ideas and cultural information with native speakers via e-mail and a chat room, and discover more about the geography, president, museums, cities and artists of Venezuela. Of course, even the best designed activity risks running foul of a lack of interest in Venezuela on the part of the student, but an impressive characteristic of such sites is the number and variety of the activities available.
Further models can be found in sites which are integrated into a particular course such as first year French at the University of Texas (Blyth 1997). This provides 14 self-contained activities, such as the simple task of calling up the issue of Paris Match published on a student's birthday and describing what is on the cover, or finding vacation accommodation through real estate sites in France. The two series of structured teaching plans mentioned earlier also offer activities of this kind and in languages not normally covered. One example is the activity for background speakers of Turkish which requires students to search for subjects that interest them to obtain information for use in a trivial pursuit-type quiz (Sperou 1998).

Where the production of materials is concerned, it is becoming common for this to be part of the students' learning experience. The work might include one-off short tasks leading to a tangible product, or substantial longer-term collaborations that might even include negotiating the curriculum (Barson 1997). Tasks and projects can be generated through various modes. Commercial sites offer a variety of potentially meaningful activities, MOOs and Chats are ideal for constructing imaginary worlds or communities, and Web-distributed environments (Debski 1998) offer promising new ways towards process-oriented collaborative learning.

Of the commercial sites, Virtual Florist allows real or virtual flowers to be sent to a recipient, together with a message composed by the sender. The best version of the genre is the Virtual Card Shop which allows greeting cards to be sent in a choice of 14 languages. One advantage is that all instructions are given in the respective language. Another is the complexity of what can be done, with students able to create their own version of the available models by adding backgrounds, choosing colours and attaching tunes and links, and even to create entirely new cards, in each instance processing relatively sophisticated language items. This provides an excellent opportunity for goal-oriented learning in which students end up with a tangible product in the target language which they can keep in printed form or send to someone. This activity could easily be set as an assignment with a card to be sent to the teacher. A nice touch is that the e-mail message that is automatically sent to the receiver is also in the target language — and in language of good quality rather than in some hack translation.

A similar activity is provided by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board site in which users produce a collage that expresses their idea of Singapore. Initially this was set up as a competition with a prize which made it even more motivating and meaningful, but even without the prize users end up with something to show for their work.

Where MOOs and Chats are concerned, an interesting example of how to use them to create student-generated materials is demonstrated by Jarp Town, a creative writing experiment on the Integrated Cyber Environment and a cyber community created through collaborative narratives (Truna 1998). A group of ESL students in Brisbane, Australia have developed a variety of characters who then interact in a village environment built in the cyber community Connections. The results of these interactions are then turned into narrative writings and posted back on the Web. As the project progresses, it is hoped that readers will be able to 'walk into the community' and in their own turn join in the narratives.

There are many ideas for collaborative work using the Web such as the 5 week teaching plan in which online Indonesian newspapers are researched and ideas gleaned for use in the creation of a class home page (Elliott 1998). Taking the idea of collaboration still further to link groups in different countries, Debski (1997) reports on two groups of students – American and Polish – who created sophisticated Web pages about their own campuses. A larger-scale version of this has been trialed at the University of Melbourne (Debski 1998) in a project in which teachers, students and different language groups collaborate in negotiated student work, supported by a Web-distributed Global Learning Environment especially created for the purpose. This approach certainly reflects a significant move away from teacher-centred approaches and, as such, would seem to require a great deal of courage. As Barson (1997:5) puts it:

An activity-driven classroom cannot be fully known in advance, nor can an activity-based curriculum be prescribed without altering the fundamental charge to the learner to elect and engage their intellect and psyche in accomplishing a project.

5. Discussion

What has become obvious over recent years, noticeably through reports at WorldCALL and EuroCALL conferences, is that technology is moving into the background. The fascination with gadgets and bells and whistles that characterised the early days of multimedia development has given way to a focus on the student, with a shift from what the technology can do for the student to what the student can do with the technology.

While there continues to be, for obvious reasons, an interest in instruction in grammar and structures, and while a renewed interest in the teaching of grammar has surfaced (Goodfellow and Metcalfe 1997), the Web is best suited for task-driven activities in which students, working individually or in groups, have some degree of control over their learning.

As yet, however, there is no documented hard evidence of any effects on language learning outcomes for this approach — as compared with the detailed knowledge we have of what has been achieved in grammar, even if the achievement is relative and knowledge of structures does not naturally lead to communicative competence in the language.

There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence, however, suggesting positive effects of task-based learning using the Web in a variety of projects, approaches and languages (Barson et al 1993, Meagher and Castanos 1996, Warschauer 1995). Some of these have been confirmed at Monash in a Web-enhanced Japanese subject where a positive effect on retention rates and on the volume and quality of work generated, especially by weaker students, has been observed. In addition, there has been greatly increased communication with the teacher by e-mail, allowing for faster, more individualised and more frequent feedback. Similarly positive judgments on the Vietnamese program have been reported, with the lecturer delighted that students could work simultaneously on different parts of the course at their own pace, leaving him free to respond to questions and provide more detailed feedback (Felix 1998b). Higher motivation and a better attitude towards learning have also been reported in Web-based teaching (Atkinson 1998), which seems to reflect general findings in CALL where effects on learning outcomes have always been equivocal at best, but where positive affective factors have been consistently reported.

Interestingly, less resistance to task-based learning on the Web appears to be reported than in the pre-Web era where students were often found to resist the use of technology, and to prefer to work with pen and paper (Felix 1997, Gillespie and McKee 1998). From observation, students seem fascinated with the vast variety of materials and approaches available to them now. An interesting example is the Vietnamese bulletin board at Monash where students write to each other and to the teacher even when they are all in the same room together. The students are apparently fascinated by how the system works and are motivated to write more, and at what are reported to be surprising levels of accuracy. How far this is a novelty effect remains to be seen.

This is not to say that all problems have been solved. What appears to be the case is that any resistance now is more likely to be to the teaching approach rather than to the medium. As Levy (1997) observes, project-based collaborative learning is not necessarily every student’s preferred learning style, and potential problems with assessment, group dynamics and time commitment need to be carefully considered (Barson 1997 addresses some of these). Similarly, the extra time teachers now spend on course development and responding to e-mails also needs to be taken into account.

The great advantage that Web-based teaching and learning offers is variety of content, approach and media. It allows flexibility in finding meaningful activities, often available at no cost, for different students, and most of all it allows for authenticity. The Web is an exciting new tool for language teaching: it may have its own problems, but it can add a valuable dimension to face to face teaching by providing an environment for meaningful interactive tasks in authentic settings, or at least in settings that are rich in authentic language and culture. There is no sense in advocating Web-based learning as the sole medium of instruction, but, used at its best, it can be seen as a uniquely valuable addition to already excellent teaching in the classroom.


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