Concept-Acquisition: Tapping the Internet for Ideas

Jack Kimball

The influence of electronic media on college English teaching has been greatly accelerated by technological innovations available through the Internet. What are these innovations, and why should we care?

First, some definitions: the Internet is a technology somewhat like a phone line that connects computers; the now-familiar worldwide web (WWW) is a popular protocol within the Internet that links data from one computer to another. Together, the Internet and WWW are the means through which we connect with new media for the L2 classroom: online texts, graphics, audio/video elements, e-mail, video conferencing, and the like.

As far as benefits of the technology, I want to suggest that the Internet and new media (1) grant students more turns for taking language practice, (2) promote a questioning mind and deeper processing of information, (3) help bring about expanded cycles of learning. To spell out the why as well as the how of these benefits, it will be helpful to concentrate, first, on theory and, second, on practical examples.


A central challenge in adapting Internet media is to situate such practice within a lucid framework of language learning theory. By definition, current deployment of Internet-generated materials for language instruction is in its infancy. Nonetheless, language teachers' early experience with technologies like the Internet resonates with salient ideas debated among developmental psychologists, namely, the sometimes complementary and more often contrary influences of behaviorism and constructivism.

Behaviorist theories of B.F. Skinner (1968, 1971) are based upon learning as observable change (behavior). Change results from an individual's response to environmental events (stimuli), and this behavior produces overt consequences such as defining a word or solving a discrete problem. When stimulus-response (S-R) patterns are reinforced (rewarded), the individual is conditioned to respond. S-R approaches for teaching L2 foster repetition, memorization and "response" to bits of language -- isolated words and phrases or stand alone passages often divorced from applicable situation or purpose. Limits to rote memorization and decontextualized response notwithstanding, behaviorist approaches achieve defined goals according to measurable criteria like maximizing the mean performance of a class and minimizing its performance variance (Atkinson, 1972).

Accordingly, teaching and learning processes can be rationalized into replicable syllabi and tests.
It is important to note that S-R and operant conditioning (OC) are at the very roots of first- and second-generation computer-aided instruction, and in fact continue to pertain to pedagogy generally and, more specifically, to applications of electronic media in course design. OC, for example, is widely used in programmed learning and hence it is commonplace in educational computing. OC occurs in graduated frames of question and answer; learners receive immediate feedback; questions are arranged so responses are likely to be correct and thus positively reinforced (Markle, 1969). This practice can be concatenated into drills, dialogues, scripted routines and so forth. The learner "graduates" into longer and longer frames of OC, covering a whole textbook, say.

Behaviorist approaches work in initial stages of L2 development, but behaviorism as a psychological theory cannot account for cognitive development in L2. More important, behaviorist approaches cannot inform us on how to move from a focus on language to a focus on concepts, the language-based building blocks of cognition and psychological development. For this, we turn to constructivism.

To envision the constructivist approach, imagine the learner engaged in practices that do not reward or punish isolated responses, but require the learner to figure out what she or he needs and then to proceed "constructing" ways to do it, making meaning from stimuli by way of prior experience (Bruner, 1990). Lev Vygotsky refers to this meaning-making as "internalization," a theoretical figure that moves the notion of language development far beyond passive intake or memorizing (as typified by behaviorist theory). Vygotsky also uses the term "transform" -- that is, the learner transforms a stimulus, such as a new vocabulary item, from the social setting where it originates (Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985). The learner thus internalizes vocabulary, for example, by way of both constructing its content and reconstructing its social form.

Further, the learner internalizes both content and form -- taking in the meaning of a vocabulary item -- to extend our initial example -- by way of creating a "best guess" approximation of its meaning. The learner does this by (1) cross-referencing the item with other acquired items (constructing content) and (2) placing the vocabulary item within a range of potential concepts, taking contextual clues from the social setting (reconstructing form).

What about the Internet?
Materials culled from Internet media constitute an ideal point of departure for constructivist approaches that invite concept development. In the case of college classes, one way students can break with their overly-conditioned patterns of memorizing is to become immersed in subject matter like literature, economics, business administration, medicine, etc. Here, Internet-generated materials can be flexibly arrayed to engage students with topics and cognitive tasks relevant to students' professional futures. Such an immersion elevates pedagogy from mere language training to the cultivation of language for acquiring new concepts.

To define "concept" informally, the term incorporates far more than learning vocabulary. Rather, a concept is a matrix of associated meanings and experiences enriched by language, practical tasks, and other mental operations. With regard to acquiring new concepts, through judicious use of data gathered from Internet media, teachers and students can avail themselves of material to "construct" appropriate subject matter. In aggregate, subject matter can be pitched toward higher level inquiry, or, internalization and acquisition of concepts, by keeping in mind the following hypothesized axioms related to constructivism.

1.) Ideally, learning activities provide multiple perspectives of content (Spiro, Feltovitch, Jacobson and Coulson, 1992);

2.) activities avoid oversimplifying content -- but support context-dependent knowledge (Spiro and Jehng, 1990);

3.) the use of case-based instruction emphasizes internalized construction of concepts (Jonassen, Ambruso and Olesen, 1992);

4.) the deeper the processing -- the better, that is, activities should incorporate visuals and other aids for making associations (Craik and Lockhart, 1972);

5.) activities should encourage the SQ3R formula: surveying, questioning, reading, recalling and reviewing materials under study (O'Neil, 1978; Schmeck, 1986).

I'll set aside generalized accounts of how these axioms and corollaries are quite commonly in play in the Internet classroom -- corollaries such as how learning activities via the Internet trigger collaboration and provide learners with the "glue of physical context" (Eggebrecht et al., 1996). But as I continue with samples of my own experiments using Internet-generated materials, I will refer to many of these points.

Cases in practice
Earlier I proposed that the Internet and new media, such as e-mail and online texts, help promote a questioning mind, increase students' participation, and widen and deepen cycles of learning -- cycles that might incorporate, for instance, reading online texts, journal writing via e-mail, the teacher's and others' reading and commenting on journal entries online, in-class discussion augmented by Internet graphics and/or video conferencing, and so on. Internet-generated media encourage higher mental processing, then, via a dynamic mix of elements, a toolkit of interactivity to help students learn more. In this context, the basic teaching tool for the English classroom is the online text whose advantages may include not only reading matter, but also the mix of video/audio and other elements to enrich and increase ways to encode text, as well as rapid access to associated data that can be searched, updated, and used for other purposes.

When we access the Living Arts section of The New York Times, for example, we and our students can partake of cultural information from North America that would not otherwise be available for our immediate and collective perusal. Imagine choosing one article of dozens available any day, an article that contrasts heroic stereotypes as portrayed in recent film releases. This topic might work for a humanities class dealing in mythology, film narrative, cross-cultural analysis, etc. Since this is an online text from a major newspaper, it offers more than contrastive rhetoric. It also supplies us with dynamic graphics (stills from the films under discussion), links to related articles (that is, fast access to other reading matter via the Internet), and videos (action clips featuring the characters written about in the article). All of these elements, the online text, graphics, links to other texts, and links to videos constitute a unit of interrelated data to deepen our engagement and increase ways for us to encode the essential information.

Regarding my recent experience teaching via the Internet, I will refer to a set of files or texts I developed over the last year by, among other means, gathering and adapting materials procured online. That is, I have compiled files of information for teaching and learning via the Internet, and in turn, via the Internet I have "published" these files, accessed and read (and available for appropriation and adaptation) by my students and others worldwide.

Let me set up my teaching strategy by sketching some background. I work with bright second-year medical students. They come to class in groups of 25 with some experience using a computer -- some have a great deal of experience -- though very few have done much computing in English. In terms of computer resources, they and I work in a newly equipped lab where the ratio is something like two Macs for every student.

In brief, the text I designed, "Topics in Medical English," is for highly capable undergraduate doctors-in-training. My objective has been to expand the traditional focus on technical vocabulary in order to include more substantial subject matter -- more substantial linguistically and intellectually. I developed topic categories with the aim of having students use English to think medically, to become more analytical and to conceptualize in clinical contexts. Thus, the topic areas balance technical data, such as anatomy, with clinical narrative and case-study to increase ways for students to encode the technical information, and transform it into richer and better integrated conceptual understanding.

When students confront a technical file like "Anatomy of the Elbow," they find specialized data, vocabulary, supportive graphics and text, but the text becomes animated by students' following the link to a subsidiary text on "Tennis Elbow," a clinical scenario detailing a reality based context to encode vocabulary and apply anatomical information. In sum, students move from skeletal vocabulary, the bare bones (conceptually and literally), to a detailed description of a human condition! In this way, processing technical information that may have led students to mere memorizing leads to analyzing data more deeply and more flexibly.

Similarly, a file on cardiovascular vocabulary leads to case-based "Heart Topics," articles that extend the lexicon so that students can start to apply vocabulary to context-defined problems. These "Heart Topics" feature a variety of files, such as the following "Women's Issues": changes in cholesterol during post-operative rehabilitation, gender and therapy, the estrogen factor, etc. Students not only read these articles, they also follow links to other data associated with these topics. Their reading of the Internet texts is supplemented by numerous opportunities to internalize the content and contextual form of the information they are trying to comprehend. These opportunities include frequent turn-taking in class discussion and debate, shared dialogues in the review of texts (fact-checking, for example), and impromptu group-conferencing while writing up their findings from texts and discussion. As well as encouraging greater cooperation among students -- collaborative invention of a sort -- the Internet-assisted cycle of reading texts, discussion and writing offers students more L2 practice and, over time, creates social and physical contexts for them to better acquire concepts in L2. Additionally, in the process of probing data mediated by the Internet, students reveal to themselves how knowledge is constructed -- that is, by the very flexible means they are deploying to master concepts under review.

With respect to college English, the key behind the Internet and the new media is a teaching and learning environment ripe for internalization, an environment where each student develops a more questioning mind, fostered by multiple perspectives of the form and content of cognitive tasks. The inquiry-based classroom, in this sense, becomes the "robust" connection to the Internet. It follows that the teacher takes on new roles as media-specialist and pilot-and-curator of data in appropriate forms. Here is an example of such piloting, suggestive of one future outcome of college language teaching, although this is not an account of an L2 class, but of an engineering class at Rensselear Polytechnical Institute:

Instead of large lectures supplemented with tutorials and labs, students attend each class for fewer hours per week, but in smaller, more concentrated sessions. Professors monitor students working together on computers, breaking to give minilectures when students get stuck on the same problem. The goal is mastery of concepts, not memorization of a body of knowledge. (Arenson, 1996)

Many of us will soon be moving our English classes into the computer lab, or, alternatively, moving computers into the English classroom. Even now, though, we can take advantage of the Internet -- with or without direct student access to computers. In instances where computer availability is limited, teachers can provide students with "hard copies" of valuable data assembled and organized for concept mastery. When our classes incorporate strategies such as this, whether or not teachers and students tap simultaneously into the Internet, we are tapping into a new mindset, one whose aim is to transform information into conceptual understanding.

Kimball's Research Index

Arenson, K. (1996). Institute shapes curriculum in a real-world way. The New York Times. Available: (October 9).

Atkinson, R. C. (1972). Ingredients for a theory of instruction. American Psychologist, 27, 921-931.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Craik, F. and Lockhart, R. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.

Eggebrecht, J., Dagenais, R., Dosch, D., Merczak, N., Park, M., Styer, S. and Workman, D. (1996). Reconnecting the sciences. Educational Leadership, 53 (8), 4-8.

Jonassen, D., Ambruso, D. and Olesen, J. (1992). Designing hypertext on transfusion medicine using cognitive flexibility theory. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 1 (3), 309-322.

Markle, S. (1969). Good Frames and Bad. New York: Wiley.

O'Neil, H. R. (1978). Learning Strategies. New York: Academic Press.

Schmeck, R. R. (1986). Learning Styles and Learning Strategies. New York: Plenum.

Skinner, B. F. (1968). The Technology of Teaching. New York: Appleton Century-Crofts.

Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf.

Spiro, R. J., Feltovitch, P. J., Jacobson, M. J. and Coulson, R. L., (1992). Cognitive flexibility, constructivism and hypertext: Random access instruction for advanced knowledge acquisition in ill-structured domains. In T. Duffy and D. Jonassen (eds.), Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Spiro, R. J. and Jehng, J. (1990). Cognitive flexibility and hypertext: Theory and technology for the non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter. In D. Nix and R. Spiro (eds.), Cognition, Education, and Multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, J.V. (1985). Culture, Communication, and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives. Cambridge University Press.