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English learning websites and digital resources from the


perspective of Chinese university EFL practitioners
Huizhong Shen, Yifeng Yuan and Robyn Ewing
ReCALL / FirstView Article / July 2014, pp 1 - 21
DOI: 10.1017/S0958344014000263, Published online: 22 May 2014

Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0958344014000263


How to cite this article:
Huizhong Shen, Yifeng Yuan and Robyn Ewing English learning websites and digital resources
from the perspective of Chinese university EFL practitioners . ReCALL, Available on CJO 2014
doi:10.1017/S0958344014000263
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doi:10.1017/S0958344014000263

English learning websites and digital resources


from the perspective of Chinese university EFL
practitioners
HUIZHONG SHEN
The University of Sydney, Australia
(email: hui-zhong.shen@sydney.edu.au)

YIFENG YUAN
The University of Sydney, Australia
(email: yi.yuan@sydney.edu.au)

ROBYN EWING
The University of Sydney, Australia
(email: robyn.ewing@sydney.edu.au)

Abstract
English language learning (ELL) websites and digital resources have been recognized as an important source of linguistic and cultural knowledge for English as a foreign language (EFL) learners to
explore. The up-to-date information carried by authentic materials is invaluable for learners to
develop an understanding of the target language/culture. However, there appears to be a gap
between what the designer intends and what the user wants. This paper investigates Chinese university EFL teachers perceptions of online English language websites and resources. The study
focuses on a number of components of major language areas and skills in ELL websites, website
materials, language users preferences, and website usability. A total of 1519 English academics
from 139 universities across China completed the online survey, and 164 of them voluntarily participated in focus group interviews anonymously.
The empirical evidence of this study has highlighted that a pedagogically-oriented ELL website,
targeting audiences with a variety of language prociencies, was much liked by the Chinese EFL
teachers. A preference was observed to see more current authentic language, examination-oriented
English learning materials and tasks, and Eastern/non-Anglophone topics in the websites. In addition, it
is found that website usability is another key factor that would impact ELL website popularity. A welldesigned ELL website can effectively assist Chinese EFL learners to enhance their language competence
and achieve optimal learning outcomes. This study provides a context-specic empirical base for innovative web-based EFL learning and teaching as well as website design and materials development in
China. The proposed key features of a preferred ELL website may help better inform website designers,
content writers and evaluators in their ELL website design/evaluation.
Keywords: English language learning (ELL) websites, digital resources, language users, website
design, language pedagogy

H. Shen, Y. Yuan and R. Ewing


1. Introduction

There is no doubt that a nation-wide enthusiasm for learning English (Jiang, 2002) has
spread across China. English, as a global language, has been widely used in international
politics, trade and business, and information communication (McArthur, 2001); mastering
English could enable Chinese people to participate in global competition more effectively
(Wu, 2009). China has the largest population currently learning English, varying from
440 to 650 million (Bolton, 2003; He & Zhang, 2010). A high level of prociency in
English will enable users to score extra points in job hunting and career advancement
in an increasingly competitive job market (e.g., 51 candidates competed for one civil
service post in China in 2013), thus, a huge number of school students in China are keen
on learning native-like English and spend large amounts of time learning the language
(Shen & Yuan, 2013).
Technology, particularly the internet, is widely used in everyday life, even in underdeveloped western areas in China. Technology has become invisibly embedded in peoples
everyday practice (Bax, 2003). By the end of June 2013, Chinas population of internet
users reached 591 million, with 78.5% of them (464 million) using mobile phones to access
the internet (CNNIC, 2013). It has been long accepted that the internet, computers and
mobile devices should be applied in learning English in China (Li, 2008). The internet has
offered a unique learning channel and opportunity for English language learners to learn and
practise English (Yang & Chan, 2008). The new College English Curriculum Requirements
has proposed that Chinese university students acquire linguistic and cultural knowledge
to achieve adequate language competence with the support of advanced technology,
such as computers and the internet (Chinese College English Education and Supervisory
Committee, 2007).
English language learning (ELL) websites serve as platforms for language learners to
acquire and practise their language knowledge, particularly for non-native English speakers
(Vogel, 2001). Many ELL websites have been constructed to attract different levels of
Chinese English language learners. Most of these websites are operated by government
institutions, such as China Daily and China Central TV University, or enterprises, such as
Shanghai Hu Jia Cultural Media Ltd. Co. and Foreign Language Teaching and Research
Press. English training institutes, such as The New Oriental School, have set up their own
websites, which are used by their enrolled students for independent learning. Online
curriculum support courses and English websites are other digital resources used by Chinese
English learners and users to acquire their knowledge of English language and culture.
These resources provide language learners with up-to-date information as well as authentic
learning materials assisting Chinese English language learners to enhance their language
competence.
As Chinese EFL teachers play an indispensable role in this changing process of English
language teaching and learning, this study investigates their views on the design and use of
ELL websites from the users perspective1. This article reports on the ndings of Chinese
university teachers perceptions of online English language practice by analyzing in detail a
1

This study was included in the second phase of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage
Project: Image, perceptions and resources: Enhancing Australias role in Chinas English language
education.

English learning websites and digital resources

number of popular ELL websites as well as a variety of language materials. The key
research questions examined in this study are:
1)
2)

How do Chinese EFL teachers perceive ELL websites and digital resources in terms
of their usefulness in teaching English practice in China?
What counts for a good ELL website in the eyes of Chinese EFL practitioners?
2. Components of ELL website analysis and design

As good websites provide valuable information and insights for their users, there is an increasing
amount of literature focusing on the criteria for evaluating overall website information.
Objectivity, content, navigation, currency and authority, for example, are scrutinized carefully
(Laura, 1999; Wilkinson, Bennett & Oliver, 1997). While learning websites serve as teaching
aids or self-directed learning opportunities, they need to consider users abilities, qualities,
motivations, materials, and potential interaction among website users (Furner & Daigle, 2004).
Recent armchair research (Kettle, Yuan, Luke, Ewing & Shen, 2012) has indicated that the most
popular Chinese ELL websites have been predominantly pedagogical, providing a wide
range of learning materials, linguistic or cultural, as well as instructional scaffolding, learning
strategies, and self-directed practice for diverse English language learners.
Moreover, English language learning is not different from other language learning as the
language embodies part of a persons identity, and is used to convey ones identity to others
(Yang & Chan, 2008). Learning a language involves learning cultural knowledge, social rules,
linguistic functions, and psychological reactions apart from language knowledge itself (Davies,
2001; Liu, Liu & Hwang, 2011; Saville-Troike, 2006; Williams & Burden, 1997).
Hubbard (1988) has proposed that learner and teacher are two essential components in the
evaluation of courseware to t the development and implementation of Computer Assisted
Language Learning (CALL). As not every language teacher has the opportunity to receive
professional training in using computers, they may have limited knowledge of how to utilize
technology in their teaching practice (Hubbard, 2006). This study focuses on examining
Chinese EFL teachers views of the application of technology and web-based English
materials in ELL websites for their classroom English teaching and learning.
Major language areas, skills and learning materials are chosen as various components in
eliciting Chinese EFL teachers views of English learning websites as they help language
users develop both linguistic and communicative competence through online learning
practice. Additionally, language users preferences and website usability might directly
affect the options of ELL websites. These various components will be taken into consideration when examining language users opinions of ELL websites.
2.1. Major language areas and skills
Grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, pronunciation, listening, speaking and culture are
major language areas attracting a diverse range of CALL technologies and approaches in
second language or foreign language learning (Levy, 2009). Major language areas are
closely connected with all language modes: reading, writing, viewing, listening and
speaking, which inuence learners communicative competence in their language development process (Liu et al., 2011). An effective integration of these language modes in ELL
websites may help learners to develop their language knowledge as well as skills of the

H. Shen, Y. Yuan and R. Ewing

target language. As major language areas and skills have played key roles in the process of
achieving language competence, this study invites teachers views of how these language
and skill areas are being developed in ELL websites and other sites with appropriate digital
resources.
2.2. ELL website learning materials
Rich and diverse language learning materials can assist learners to better achieve their aims in
the teaching of the target language (Tomlinson, 2003). ELL website materials provide a variety
of teaching and learning resources, including a range of texts and audio-visual materials, for
language users to nurture their target language (Shield & Kukulska-Hulme, 2006). With high
technologies, it is much easier for language users to utilize ELL website learning materials
through multi-channel opportunities to practice their language skills as well as language areas
that help to develop their language competence (Chapelle, 2009). Hence, functionally integrating learning materials with information and communication technology (ICT) can enable
language users to interact with the website learning materials to achieve success in language
learning (Liu, 2005; Liu et al., 2011). Recent research (Kettle, et al., 2012) conducted a detailed
content analysis of various ELL websites by PageRank (a technical method to measure the
level of popularity of websites in a number of components as determined by Google Internet
search engine). Our study examines the teachers point of view of the materials provided by
ELL websites, which could offer valuable data for the design of ELL websites, particularly in
material selection and task development to better cater for users needs.
2.3. Language users preferences
Consideration of users preferences is essential when evaluating the design of a language
learning website (Karoulis, Demetriadis & Pombortsis, 2006; Shield & Kukulska-Hulme,
2006). Users are able to benet from the learning system of a website that is based on their
preferences (Pituch & Lee, 2006). Website content and the practical use of the website may
inuence the users perceptions (Hughes, Mcavinia & King, 2004; Sykes & Cohen, 2008).
Users choose to use the online content as well as the website according to their preferences (Liu
et al., 2011). Thus, the language users preference, which is a signicant factor in the evaluation
and design of an effective language learning website, is a major focus in this study.
2.4. Website usability
Website usability, which makes systems easy for users to access and learn, affects users choice
of website (Preece, 1995). Ease, user experience, and interaction design are the three key components of generic website usability (Shield & Kukulska-Hulme, 2006). A highly interactive
website is marked by ease of use of the functions. This could provide a better user experience and
ensure the popularity of the website. Language learning websites are often used as a supplementary learning tool in classroom teaching and learning, or as a method to acquire language
competence independently (Pituch & Lee, 2006). Accordingly, it is crucial to engage users
in a website of content-rich learning contexts and hypermedia-based programs with an easily
functional system that can help users to achieve better learning outcomes (Liu et al., 2011).
All these components have been considered in the research design and methods of
this study.

English learning websites and digital resources

3. Method
3.1. Participants
A total of 1519 English language academics from 139 universities across 25 out of 31
provinces or municipalities in China, who were attending pedagogical training workshops
in Beijing, China, completed the online survey. One hundred and sixty-four of them
voluntarily participated anonymously in interviews. The workshops were organized and
supported by the China National Research Centre for Foreign Language Education of
Beijing Foreign Studies University and the Foreign Language Teaching and Research
Press2 aiming at improving English language teaching standards across China. Prior to these
workshops, there had been no training workshops designed for introducing online English
language practice. All participants were informed of the aims of this study by the researchers
and showed their interest in participating in the research, as online English learning is an
emerging trend as well as a new requirement in classroom English instruction in China
(as stipulated in College English Curriculum Requirements by Chinese College English
Education and Supervisory Committee (2007)).
Among these academics, 689 of them (45.34%) had over ten years of experience in
teaching English; 449 of them (29.54%) had taught English from six to ten years, and 381
academics (25.12%) had taught English for less than six years. Only 243 of them (16.03%)
had more than three months of overseas language learning experience. The interviewees
were divided into eighteen groups, sixteen groups of nine participants and two groups of ten
participants for focus group interviews.
3.2. Online survey
The purpose of the online survey for this study was largely to capture a broad picture of
Chinese EFL teachers perceptions of English language teaching and learning with the
integration of computers and supported by web-based English resources. Specically in this
study, it helps set the scene for a more exhaustive study of the participants views of the
emerging instructive mode and the English resources carried by these ELL websites. The
online survey was also used as a means of recruiting interviewees for this qualitative study.
The survey consisted of close-ended and Likert-type questions. Questions were developed
on the basis of the ndings of previous studies (for example, Chapelle, 2009; Kettle, et al.,
2012; Liu et al., 2011; Sykes & Cohen, 2008). It took participants approximately twenty
minutes to complete the online survey.
There were 30 Likert-type questions with 7-point scales ranging from: 1 = strongly
disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = disagree somewhat; 4 = neutral; 5 = agree somewhat;
6 = agree; 7 = strongly agree, to collect statistical data. The use of Likert-type scales can
effectively avoid loading participants with immense work and ensure an accurate report.
A sample Likert-type question applied in the study was: Chinese ELL websites provide
sufcient materials for a variety of examinations (see Appendix 1: Online survey).
Percentages, means and standard deviations were used to analyze the questions. Results
were presented in tables as well as described in words. The Statistical Package of the
2

One of the industry partners of this ongoing ARC Linkage Project. The Press helped recruit the
participants through its network, while the authors conducted the data collection afterwards.

H. Shen, Y. Yuan and R. Ewing

Social Sciences (SPSS) Version 17 was used to obtain descriptive analysis of the data
only as the research sample of this study was large and it was not appropriate to employ
inferential analysis, which was used to analyze a small number of research samples.
Inuenced by traditional Chinese Confucian culture, the participants avoided showing
their extreme preferences, for example, strongly disagree/agree (Category 1 or 7), when
they completed Likert-type statements. They were more likely to give the moderate answer
to each statement. A number of them (around a quarter) preferred to choose the neutral reply
(Category 4), indicating their uncertainties about the emerging digital English learning
resources, such as ELL websites or English news/magazine websites. In order to present a
clear and concise data report, the researchers employed positive (Category 57) or
negative (Category 13) aspects to report the results of the Likert-type statements. As
indicated earlier, this was a qualitative study that focused primarily on the interview data
and only engaged some online survey data as illustrative or supportive evidence. A separate
quantitative study will follow to analyze in great detail the online survey data gathered from
a large sample to map statistically the scope and scale of EFL teaching and learning in
Chinese universities as part of a large project.
3.3. Interviews
The interviews in this study aimed to collect data about Chinese English academics
viewpoints on ELL websites or English news websites. Their opinions on the current
supporting online resources for English textbooks used in China were also sought. Due to the
various roles these academics had played, such as language mentors and learners, they were able
to provide related data on both teaching and learning aspects. Interviews were conducted after
the workshops in order not to disturb the normal training programs. Each focus group interview
lasted 60 minutes, and interviewees replies were recorded by the researchers.
Interview questions were developed on the basis outlined in the online survey, and were
prepared in both English and Chinese. Sample interview questions utilized in this study were:

Do you often visit English learning websites or English news/magazine websites?


What is your opinion of the examination materials provided by Chinese English
learning websites?
What other teaching resources and self-study materials are needed apart from those
provided by the online learning course? (See Appendix 2: Interview questions)

The interviews were carried out in Chinese as all participants could better understand the
interview questions and express themselves much more freely and accurately in their rst
language (L1). All the written records were in Chinese and back translated (Brislin, 1970)
by a professional translator: translating from Chinese to English, and back to Chinese to
ensure the reliability of the data. Across the eighteen group interviews there was a convergence of interviewees opinions. The collected data were compared and reported in one
voice as the overlapping data were removed in order to avoid redundancy in data reporting.
Pseudonyms in place of real names were used in data categorization and report. Participants
were given identication codes to ensure anonymity.
Prior to this research being conducted a detailed ethics application was prepared and
approval was obtained from the Human Ethics Committee of the University of Sydney,
Australia.

English learning websites and digital resources

4. Data results and analysis


The collected data from both online survey and interviews were grouped and presented by
means of word description as well as descriptive statistics, such as frequency and percentage. As
all participants attended the interviews anonymously, pseudonyms were used in data reports and
discussion. The data were reported in three broad categories: (1) Chinese English academics
viewpoints of the online support courses compared to classroom teaching and learning materials; (2) their opinions of both Chinese and overseas ELL or English news/magazine websites,
and (3) their understanding of a popular ELL website among Chinese English language users.
An attempt was made to arrange into various categories data regarding major language areas and
skills, learning materials, users preferences, and website usability.
4.1. Online support courses compared to classroom teaching and learning materials
As computers are required to be integrated into the pedagogy of English as a foreign
language (Chinese College English Education and Supervisory Committee, 2007), almost
all materials used in Chinese EFL classrooms have been provided with online support
courses for classroom teaching and learning, and students independent learning and selfassessment. All interviewees (100%) agreed:
The EFL classroom teaching and learning materials published by various large publishing houses have their online support courses, for instance, Experiencing English,
New Horizon College English, New College English, and 21st College English.
One hundred and nine interviewees claimed that online support courses were applied in their
classroom teaching, while 92 teachers indicated that online courses were utilized for students
independent learning after class. There appears to be some overlapping in the number of
responses from the interviewees. This could be explained by the fact that some teachers indicated one purpose (for classroom teaching only or students independent learning only) and
some teachers (37 out of 164 participants) indicated more than one purpose. The following table
displays the major purposes of the application of supporting online courses (Table 1):
Fifty interviewees (30.49%) indicated they would not search for additional online
resources to supplement their teaching. They believed that the current online courses were
mainly composed of listening and speaking sessions, focusing on the assessment of classroom teaching and learning (for example, interviewees Lin, Mike, Peter & Young). Almost
all materials came from the US and the UK (Martin). Ann highlighted:
The online courses should include more cultural knowledge of English speaking
countries, and materials should be from diverse countries or areas, for example, Canada
and Australia, instead of the US and the UK only.
Table 1 Major purposes of supporting online courses

Number
Percentage

Classroom teaching

Independent learning

109
54%

92
46%

H. Shen, Y. Yuan and R. Ewing

More than half of those who used online courses for students independent learning
(51.83%) pointed out that materials provided by online courses were not adequate (for
instance, Fan, Jane & Zhang). Most online courses were electronic versions of hardcopies of
textbooks, and there was no point in students taking extra time to repeat the same learning
content in their self-study (Jenny). Many academics (for example, Dai, Ni & Zhou) thought
that online courses should include audiovisual materials and cultural knowledge, as well as
testing materials to assist students in improving language competence in their independent
learning. Additionally, they suggested that the selected materials should cover various
countries or areas, not solely concentrating on the USA and the UK.
A large number of participants (114 interviewees) indicated that they would search for
extra online materials to support their teaching in addition to those provided by publishing
houses. The most common resources they liked to access were authentic audiovisual
materials, such as English songs or movies, Voice of America (VOA) news or the British
Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) recordings, which could provide students with up-to-date
information and language. Students could also acquire some cultural knowledge and
practise their listening ability while using these materials. Videos or pictures could help
students better understand the context of the situation and acquire language knowledge (for
example, Jane & Tom). The interviewees also indicated that they would try to acquire from
the websites some testing materials to be utilized in their teaching (for example, Wang &
Yu). Thus, online learning materials, to some extent, have provided additional information
or knowledge for English language practitioners in China. The following section provides
more detail about participant teachers opinions of the design and use of ELL or news/
magazine websites in China and overseas.
4.2. Chinese and overseas ELL or English news/magazine websites
With respect to ELL or English news/magazine websites, 1232 participants (81.13%) in the
online survey indicated that they often visited these websites. Distribution of source
countries of the ELL and/or English news/magazine websites used by the respondents are
listed in Figure 1.
It was found that China-, US- and UK-based ELL or English news/magazine websites
were frequently visited by Chinese EFL academics, with respective percentages of 38.46%,
34.25% and 22.84% among all accessible websites. Australian or Canadian websites each
took up around 2% of the user market share in China. On the other hand, thirteen interviewees (for instance, Kim, Lucy & Xiao) claimed:
We do not visit any of ELL or English news/magazine websites as we do not have time.
Current English textbooks have provided enough information for Chinese learners.
Chinese EFL teachers are much divided in terms of their preferences for Chinese ELL or
news/magazine websites. Table 2 shows the range of this differentation.
Data showed that less than one-third of the participants in the online survey thought that
Chinese ELL websites (30.02%) or Chinese English news/magazine websites (32.80%)
could meet users needs in learning English. On the other hand, more than two-fths of
academics agreed that Chinese ELL websites provided support and supplement to the
classroom teaching and learning (42.62%) as well as adequate materials for different
examinations (46.64%). Also, more than two-fths of participants (40.53%) indicated that

English learning websites and digital resources

45%
40%

38.46%
34.25%

35%
30%

22.84%

25%
20%
15%
10%
5%

2.12%

2.04%

Australia

Canada

0.29%

0%
China

US

UK

Others

Fig. 1. Distribution of source countries of ELL or English news/magazine websites.

Table 2 Chinese EFL teachers preferences for Chinese ELL or new/magazine websites
Question

1 (%)

2 (%)

3 (%)

4 (%)

5 (%)

6 (%)

7 (%)

Mean

SD

Q10
Q13
Q14
Q15
Q18
Q19

5.55
2.41
2.41
4.17
3.01
4.43

12.86
10.23
7.88
11.20
10.56
13.15

25.20
17.91
15.33
23.28
21.64
22.95

26.37
26.83
27.74
28.55
28.03
27.08

19.94
24.93
26.50
20.50
21.42
19.85

7.45
13.30
14.96
9.59
11.74
9.00

2.63
4.39
5.18
2.71
3.60
3.54

3.75
4.19
4.34
3.90
4.04
3.86

1.39
1.39
1.38
1.37
1.38
1.42

Note: 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = disagree somewhat, 4 = neutral, 5 = agree somewhat,


6 = agree, 7 = strongly agree, SD = Standard Deviation.
Q10 Chinese ELL websites satisfy users needs in learning English.
Q13 Chinese ELL websites provide support and supplement to the classroom teaching and learning.
Q14 Chinese ELL websites provide sufcient materials for a variety of examinations.
Q15 Chinese English news/magazine websites satisfy users needs in learning English.
Q18 Chinese English news/magazine websites provide support and supplement to the classroom teaching
and learning.
Q19 Chinese English news/magazine websites provide materials for a variety of examinations.

Chinese news/magazine websites did not include examination materials, and only around
36% of respondents agreed that these websites supported the classroom teaching and
learning.
In the interviews, 79 participants indicated that they often visited China-based websites,
while 85 responded that they frequently visited overseas websites. The most frequent
Chinese ELL or news/magazine websites that the interviewees visited are listed in Table 3.
The interviewees gave a variety of explanations as to their options for these Chinese ELL
or news/magazine websites. Victor indicated:
We are able to acquire language learning and teaching materials as well as testing
materials from various Chinese ELL websites. These websites are helpful to language
users to acquire language knowledge as well as testing materials to pass a variety of
examinations.

10

H. Shen, Y. Yuan and R. Ewing


Table 3 Frequently visited Chinese ELL or news/magazine websites

Category

Name

Website address

ELL websites

Hu Jiang English
Big Ear English
Love Thinking
New Oriental Online
51 IELTS
English Language Learning
English Dian Jin
Ke Ke English
Put English Learning
VOA English
21st Century

www.hjenglish.com
www.ebigear.com
www.ell.com.cn
www.koolearn.com
www.51ielts.com
www.ell.com.cn
www.chinadaily.com.cn/language_
tips/index.html
www.kekenet.com
www.putclub.com
www.tingvoa.com
www.i21st.cn

China Daily
Xinhua Net
Beijing Review

usa.chinadaily.com.cn
www.xinhuanet.com/english
www.bjreview.com.cn

News/magazine websites

Flora commented that:


Language users can access various Chinese ELL websites focusing on different
English tests or examines, such as Hu Jiang English, Ke Ke English and Put English
Learning. Both written and audiovisual learning materials and testing materials can be
downloaded from these websites.
As examinations are still used as the benchmark in evaluating English language users
achievement, it is common for many Chinese ELL websites to provide testing materials
besides language knowledge. The academics believed that whether the ELL websites provided testing materials or not directly inuenced the popularity of the websites. Additionally, the topics, informative or directive language options, and webpage design also had
effects on the popularity of ELL websites. Victor added:
Though the content provided by ELL websites covers a wide range of topics, the
topics appear to centre around western countries. We hope that topics concerning
Eastern/non-Anglophone countries can be included in the content of the websites.
In addition, Nelson believed that:
Whether the Chinese language or the English language is used as informatives or
directives does not inuence users options of the websites. However, the Chinese
language allows easy access to various sessions of the website.
Cindy states that:
The webpage design of Chinese ELL websites is similar to Chinese news websites, for
instance, Yahoo, SOHU and SINA. The webpages have exhibited all information that
is easy for users to achieve. The Bulletin Board System (BBS), forum, blog, or similar

English learning websites and digital resources

11

Table 4 Chinese EFL teachers preferences for overseas ELL or new/magazine websites
Question

1 (%)

2 (%)

3 (%)

4 (%)

5 (%)

6 (%)

7 (%)

Mean

SD

Q20
Q23
Q24
Q25
Q26
Q29
Q30

2.68
1.54
1.78
2.40
2.53
1.85
2.46

8.10
8.34
7.80
8.37
8.58
8.17
8.62

20.34
19.38
16.29
16.03
19.48
20.57
17.94

28.44
24.56
25.56
20.06
24.85
25.58
24.25

23.62
25.79
25.79
20.06
25.46
23.11
22.86

12.92
14.44
15.98
22.62
12.81
15.10
16.94

3.90
5.95
6.80
10.46
6.29
5.62
6.93

4.17
4.32
4.41
4.57
4.26
4.28
4.35

1.36
1.39
1.41
1.56
1.43
1.40
1.47

Note: 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = disagree somewhat, 4 = neutral, 5 = agree somewhat,


6 = agree, 7 = strongly agree, SD = Standard Deviation.
Q20 Overseas ELL websites satisfy users needs in learning English.
Q23 Overseas ELL websites provide support and supplement to the classroom teaching and learning.
Q24 Overseas ELL websites provide materials to pass TOFEL, IELTS, etc.
Q25 Overseas ELL websites seldom consider Chinese English language users and learners language
prociencies and needs.
Q26 Overseas English news/magazine websites satisfy users needs in learning English.
Q29 Overseas English news/magazine websites provide support and supplement to the classroom teaching
and learning.
Q30 Overseas English news/magazine websites provide materials to pass TOFEL, IELTS, etc.

network systems of the websites provide a platform for users to interact with each other
or with language education experts.
Only nine interviewees indicated that they frequently visited China-based news/magazine
websites to read news, such as China Daily and Beijing Review.
As these China-based news/magazine websites do not provide testing materials, the
number of website users is certain to shrink a lot. (Sen)
Due to the high English language standard and wide-range topics, it is hard for lower
level or even intermediate level language users to understand all the information provided by these websites. (Wei)
On the other hand, Chinese EFL academics identied their perceptions of overseas ELL
or news/magazine websites in the online survey. Table 4 illustrates key statements of
related aspects.
More than two-fths of them believed that overseas ELL websites (40.44%) or news/
magazine websites (44.56%) could satisfy Chinese users needs in learning English. Also,
around 45% of the participants were sure that these websites could provide support and supplement to classroom teaching and learning. Nearly half of them (48.57%) agreed that overseas
ELL websites provided materials for exams, such as TOFEL and IELTS, and 46.73% agreed
that overseas news/magazine websites provided examination materials. However, more than
half of the participants (53.14%) indicated that overseas ELL websites seldom considered
Chinese English language users and learners language prociencies and needs.
In the interviews, those who often visited overseas websites listed the websites they
frequently accessed (see Table 5).

12

H. Shen, Y. Yuan and R. Ewing


Table 5 Frequently visited overseas news/magazine websites

Category

Name

Website address

News/magazine websites

VOA
Cable News Network (CNN)
BBC
The New York Times
Time
The Times
U.S. News & World Report
Financial Times
British Council

www.voanews.com
edition.cnn.com
www.bbc.co.uk
www.nytimes.com
www.time.com/time/
www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/
www.usnews.com
www.ft.com/home/uk
www.britishcouncil.org

It is not difcult to observe that all the websites listed in Table 5 are overseas news/
magazine websites. The interviewees indicated that they did not know any overseas ELL
websites and only tried news/magazine websites.
We can acquire pure native English language and cultural knowledge from the overseas news/magazine websites. These websites update the content in a fast speed and
provide a huge amount of stuffs, for example, reading and audiovisual materials.
(Candice & Ying)
The authentic language and materials provided by overseas news/magazine websites
can nurture Chinese language users language competence and comprehensive cultural
quality. (Anson)
The webpage design of overseas websites is scattered and interactive. Only the most recent
and important stuffs are displayed on the rst page. It might not be convenient for users to
nd the information if they are not familiar with the layout of the website. (Benson)
During the interviews, participants also expressed their preferences on the countries of
origin of various websites. More than half of the interviewees indicated that they would like
to access US- or UK-based websites.
We can acquire updated information, cultural knowledge as well as related language
knowledge from the US or UK news/magazine websites, such as VOA, BBC, CNN,
New York Times. (Gao, Li & Wang)
Only four interviewees indicated that they would choose to use the websites of Englishspeaking countries other than the US and the UK, for example, Australia and Canada.
I choose to use Australia-based websites because I often visited these websites when
I studied in Australia. (Yu)
The interviewees also discussed the possibility of the application of overseas websites to
English language teaching and learning in China. Edgar indicated:
The focus of the overseas news/magazine websites goes far away from Chinese English
language teaching and learning. The websites do not provide any testing materials.

English learning websites and digital resources

13

At the same time, Ying was concerned that:


The English language, especially the vocabulary and genres of texts, used in these
websites go beyond the knowledge of Chinese English users. The content is westernized and hard to apply to the Chinese English language teaching and learning
context.
It has been observed that Chinese teachers see it as crucial to effectively incorporate
Chinese characteristics (for example, website focus, target audience, content coverage and
materials and tasks) into the design of a popular ELL website to satisfy users needs. A
better alignment between the web designer and the user appears to be even more important,
taking into account the largest English language learning and using population in the world.
This will be further discussed when we examine Chinese academics ideas of a popular ELL
website among Chinese English language users.
4.3. A popular ELL website in China
Literature on the evaluation of ELL websites indicates that a popular ELL website
needs to consider the target audience, learners needs, learning resources, language
choices, and website format, feasibility and operation in its design (Bradin, 1999;
Chapelle, 1998; Comer & Geissler, 1998; Furner & Daigle, 2004; Hubbard, 1988;
Kettle et al., 2012). All academics involved in the interviews agreed that a popular ELL
website had to satisfy a wide range of learners needs, with specic content and relevant
topics if learners of various levels, from beginners to advanced learners and ESP learners, were to choose to use the website. David suggested that Chinese ELL websites
should also include a variety of tests/examinations, for example, CET Band Four and
Band Six, IELTS, TOFEL, GRE, GMAT and TOEIC. Considering Chinese learners
actual English levels, the website should provide a substantial amount of teaching and
learning materials covering every aspect of language areas and skills that users could
select from.
The design of Chinese ELL websites needs to consider the users preferences. The
webpage design should employ the Chinese pattern, with all functions easy to access.
It is better to use the Chinese language as informatives and directives. (Ming)
The content of the website should be authentic materials focusing on both western and
eastern countries. Various learning activities and tasks, especially examinationoriented materials and practices, should be included. All content should be updated
timely. (Wilson)
The network system of the website should involve language experts in interactive
communication. Setting up a self-learning evaluation system in the website is sure to
add importance to an ELL website. (Raymond)
It appears that a popular ELL website needs to effectively contextualize Chinese elements in
its website design in order to cater for learners needs. This poses a challenge for website
design and content writers, particularly for those who work in a transnational context.
The ndings of this study, as well as implications, are further discussed below.

14

H. Shen, Y. Yuan and R. Ewing


5. Discussion

In contrast to traditional materials used in English language teaching and learning in


China, ELL websites are emerging as important learning environments supported by high
technology (Yang & Chan, 2008). Our analysis highlights that incorporating digital
materials into English teaching and learning has become a tendency in China in part due to
the Curriculum Requirements (2007) as well as language learners and practitioners requests
to acquire additional authentic information about the target language and culture. The
interviewees (for example, Jiang, Ken & Shane) indicated that current English language
teaching and learning in China was shifting from a teacher-centered model to a learnercentered model, particularly through integrating high technology into the EFL classroom.
However, English teaching and learning materials, classroom pedagogies as well as evaluation systems were not always in keeping with the new shift. Often, they represented an
obstacle to this change due to deeply-entrenched traditional teaching and learning styles and
perceptions of language users (Lim & Shen, 2006), as Chinese education, even at the tertiary
level, still adopts a meritocratic system that remains highly competitive and only a limited
number of high achievers will have a chance to get into a prestigious university (there are
only 88 key universities among 2138 universities/institutions in China).
China has the largest population of English learners and users in the world. This has
provided opportunities and challenges for web designers and classroom practitioners as they
need to consider the unique characteristics and needs of this target population to cater for
their learning needs and learning styles. More importantly, the materials and tasks to be
included in the learning websites may also expose them to information that would facilitate
cross-cultural interaction and best pedagogy for teaching and learning informed by research
in different contexts (Shen & Yuan, 2013; Yu & Shen, 2012).
Though almost all existing published teaching and learning materials for Chinese university English learning have online support courses, they are not always able to provide
adequate authentic materials for learners to obtain language knowledge and, to a lesser
degree, for learners to study cultural authenticity (Feng & Byram, 2002). A lot of Chinese
ELL websites have been used by Chinese English academics to simply source related
teaching materials for reading and listening (see Section 4.1). This is consistent with
the ndings reported in a recent study on popular ELL websites identied by using a
technical method3. In this study, it was found that the high ranking websites, such as Hu
Jiang English (Level 7), New Oriental Online (Level 7), 51 IETLS (Level 6), and Big Ear
English (Level 6), were among the common websites that the interviewees had utilized to
access various teaching materials (see Table 3).
Kettle, et al. (2012) believed that these websites suited Chinese pedagogical needs as they
were highly examination-oriented, with ample materials and tasks for users to practise both
discrete language items and related examination skills. Learners of different levels can nd a
variety of learning materials to satisfy their individual learning needs and examination
preparation (see Section 4.2). This implies that a test-orientated language learning website
will remain popular among Chinese EFL users (teachers and students) for as long as a
meritocratic education system continues to exist.
3

PageRank analysis: Google Internet search engine used to analyze the popularity of diverse websites (Kettle, et al., 2012).

English learning websites and digital resources

15

As participants of this study were highly procient English language users and learners,
they also chose to use more information-focused websites, including news/magazine websites, to acquire updated news, cultural knowledge, as well as native English language
knowledge (see Tables 3 and 4). However, it might be difcult for beginners or intermediate
learners to recognize the language used in news reports and cultural introductions due to
their lower language prociencies. This group of language users comprises the vast majority
of users in China (Shen & Yuan, 2013), and they commonly do not choose to visit these
websites. It could be inferred that not everyone is interested in using sites containing general
information/news to acquire their language knowledge. Learner preferences could inuence
the choice of different websites for acquiring English language knowledge (Sykes & Cohen,
2008). This could also explain why ELL websites are more popular than information/news
websites in China, as these ELL websites strongly emphasise learner preferences (Karoulis
et al., 2006; Pituch & Lee, 2006) and are designed to be more effective in assisting learners
to achieve their learning goals.
It was observed that the presence of content relevant for examinations considerably inuences
users preferences for ELL websites (see Section 4.2). As various tests/examinations are still
used as benchmarks to assess users language levels in China, users of different language
prociency levels would like to acquire testing materials as well as related learning information,
such as texts, tasks, skills and strategies, from websites. A popular Chinese ELL website would
provide materials closely related to a range of examinations and related information, which
features more frequently in Hu Jiang English, as discussed.
Additionally, it was found that Chinese English language practitioners hope to include
more topics or materials relating to Eastern/non-Anglophone countries in order to add
diversity in the English learning materials (see Section 4.2). This nding recalls Zhong and
Shens (2002) work around designing cross-cultural websites for learning. However, most
learners preferred to use the US- or UK-based websites and neglected the websites of other
English-speaking countries (see Figure 1). This situation could arise from the fact that
traditional Chinese teaching expects learners to learn American or British English only
(Shen & Yuan, 2013). There is perhaps a need to add diversity to the English language
content of websites as English is regarded and used as a lingua franca in global communication (Canagarajah, 2006; House, 2010; Jenkins, 2006). Including varieties of English,
for example, Australian English and Canadian English, might effectively enable learners to
enhance their language competence in communication.
Meanwhile, audio-visual materials are welcomed, as one respondent (Wilson) indicated
in the interview that audio-visual materials could reduce the level of boredom when language learning and better facilitate learners to achieve optimal learning outcomes (media
reports reveal a general discontent among Chinese EFL teachers with existing language
teaching materials). Overseas websites are information-focused though users are able to
gain cultural insights through such authentic materials. Yet the unfamiliarity of text genres,
cultural nuances and sophisticated vocabulary might lead to Chinese language users misunderstanding the materials. Meanwhile, if there are no examinations and related learning
materials, users may not opt for these websites (see Section 4.2). It could be concluded that
language learning materials and language areas and skills (Hubbard, 2006; Liu et al., 2011)
provided by ELL websites are certain to inuence the popularity of the choice of websites.
It was also highlighted in the interviews (for example, Edgar, Ming & Nelson) that the use of
the Chinese language as informatives and directives in ELL websites was preferred. As Chinese

16

H. Shen, Y. Yuan and R. Ewing


Pedagogically-oriented

Tailored for users of varied language proficiencies

With current & examination-oriented learning materials/tasks


A popular ELL
website in China
With (non) Anglophone countries topics & content

With easy to follow website informative & directive language

Easy website accessibilty & navigation

Fig. 2. Key features of a popular ELL website in China.

is their rst language (L1), Chinese English language users are then able to obtain and retrieve
information easily from the websites. Nelson, one interviewee, added that using the Chinese
language with the English translation or vice versa was also acceptable. This nding resonates
with what was reported in a recent study (Kettle, et al., 2012), that the informative and directive
language used by ELL websites, affects learners choice of websites to some degree. This is
contrary to a common perception that EFL learners prefer the use of the target language as the
language of instruction or navigation (Liu et al., 2011).
One nding of the current study afrms Preeces (1995) point that website usability has
an impact on the choice of ELL websites (see Section 4.3). It was recorded in the interviews
that Chinese users preferred the webpages of ELL websites that displayed all accessible
information (Cindy), and it was inconvenient and time-consuming to search for the information
from westernized scattered and interactive webpages (Benson). Although exhibiting all the
accessible information may make webpages appear to be dense, it is convenient and time-saving
for language users. This could be inferred as one of the reasons why overseas news/magazine
websites are not as popular among Chinese English language users.
It was suggested that interactive functions such as BBS, forums and blogs, be included in
ELL websites as they could provide opportunities for users to interact and communicate
with each other via the target language (for example, Cindy & Raymond). Data also show
that it is helpful to consider the technical logistics of website usability when designing ELL
websites to provide better services for users. Specic variables such as the speed of updating
language materials, free access and downloading of the materials, and technical connections
to websites (see Section 4.3), may also inuence the popularity of ELL websites among
Chinese English language users. All these are possible factors that may need to be taken into
consideration when designing an ELL website in order to satisfy Chinese EFL users needs.
6. Conclusion
By investigating Chinese EFL practitioners perceptions of the various components of
major language areas and skills in ELL websites, website materials, language users preferences, and website usability, this study captures systematically the key features of a
popular ELL website in China (see Figure 2).

English learning websites and digital resources

17

A popular ELL website in China, as Figure 2 shows, is obviously pedagogically-oriented,


targeting audiences with varying language prociencies. Language learning materials, activities,
tasks and texts provided by the website are constantly updated and examination-oriented.
In addition to western topics, there is a balanced inclusion of content from Eastern/nonAnglophone countries as well as an acceptance of different varieties of English. The webpage
informative and directive language was also carefully selected and integrated into the design of
these ELL websites. In addition, ease of website usability remains a key design feature.
The major ndings derived from the empirical evidence collected in this study may help
provide a broad framework to allow ELL website designers and content writers to consider the
specic needs of a particular user population. A well-designed ELL website informed by sound
pedagogy and best practice may also have a positive impact on the Chinese EFL curriculum
that is gradually moving away from an examination-oriented approach. In a broader sense, the
ndings of this study may contribute to further understanding of online English language
learning, such as telecollaboration, e-tandem learning, and participating in established
e-communities. Obviously, these web-based learning platforms were not discussed in this paper,
which is a limitation of this study. It will be interesting to examine how Chinese English teachers
perceive teaching and learning in these alternative web-based environments and compare the
ndings with what is reported in this current study. Such comparative studies may provide
insights into English instruction in Chinese universities assisted by these technological tools, and
help build an empirical base for Chinese EFL curriculum innovation at university level.
Acknowledgement
This is to acknowledge the support from Australian Research Council, Foreign Language
Teaching and Research Press, Fudan University Press, The University of Sydney and
Queensland University of Technology in conducting this study. Thanks also go to the
anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.
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Appendix 1
Online Survey
Section I Demographic information
1. What courses do you teach?
Course name 1 ______________________
Course name 2 ______________________
2. How many years have you taught English?
A. Less than 6 years. B. 6-10 years.
C. More than 10 years.
3. Do you have over three-month overseas English learning experience?
A. Yes. Which country? a. UK. b. US. c. Canada. d. Australia. e. Others.
B. No.
4. Does the course you taught use the online teaching and learning pattern?
A. Yes.
B. No.
5. Do you often visit English language learning (ELL) websites or English news/magazine websites?
A. No. B. Yes.
- If your choice is B, please choose which country the websites belong to (you can
choose more than one answer):
a. China. b. UK. c. USA. d. Canada. e. Australia
f. Other countries. Please list: __________________________________________

20

H. Shen, Y. Yuan and R. Ewing

Section II Your views on English teaching and learning (Please circle the number that
represents how you feel about the current English teaching and learning in China.)
Scale: Strongly Disagree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Strongly Agree
Statements
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17

18
19
20
21
22
23

It is necessary to conduct teacher-centered classroom teaching


and learning.
Classroom teaching and learning should focus on grammar and
language points.
Classroom teaching and learning should focus on developing
students communicative competence.
Communicative tasks, such as group discussions, role-play and
debating, can improve students communicative competence.
Students can improve both linguistic competence and pragmatic
competence in the current classroom practice.
Language knowledge instruction can effectively improve
students language competence.
The current English textbooks can provide adequate language
knowledge as well as communicative knowledge.
Curriculum online learning materials efciently provide support
to the classroom teaching and learning.
English language teachers play a core role in the classroom
teaching and learning.
Chinese ELL websites satisfy users needs in learning English.
Chinese ELL websites provide cultural knowledge of Englishspeaking countries.
Chinese ELL websites provide English pragmatic knowledge to
improve learners pragmatic competence.
Chinese ELL websites provide support and supplement to the
classroom teaching and learning.
Chinese ELL websites provide sufcient materials for a variety
of examinations.
Chinese English news/magazine websites satisfy users needs in
learning English.
Chinese English news/magazine websites provide cultural
knowledge of English-speaking countries.
Chinese English news/magazine websites provide English
pragmatic knowledge to improve learners pragmatic
competence.
Chinese English news/magazine websites provide support and
supplement to the classroom teaching and learning.
Chinese English news/magazine websites provide materials
for a variety of examinations.
Overseas ELL websites satisfy users needs in learning English.
Overseas ELL websites provide cultural knowledge of Englishspeaking countries.
Overseas ELL websites provide English pragmatic knowledge to
improve learners pragmatic competence.
Overseas ELL websites provide support and supplement to the
classroom teaching and learning.

Scale
1

1
1

2
2

3
3

4
4

5
5

6
6

7
7

1
1

2
2

3
3

4
4

5
5

6
6

7
7

English learning websites and digital resources

21

Continued

Statements
24
25
26
27
28

29
30

Scale

Overseas ELL websites provide materials to pass TOFEL,


IELTS, etc.
Overseas ELL websites seldom consider Chinese English language
users and learners language prociencies and needs.
Overseas English news/magazine websites satisfy users needs in
learning English.
Overseas English news/magazine websites provide cultural
knowledge of English-speaking countries.
Overseas English news/magazine websites provide English
pragmatic knowledge to improve learners pragmatic
competence.
Overseas English news/magazine websites provide support and
supplement to the classroom teaching and learning.
Overseas English news/magazine websites provide materials to pass
TOFEL, IELTS, etc.

Appendix 2
Interview questions
1. Supporting online courses to the classroom teaching and learning
1)
2)
3)
4)
5)
6)

Does the teaching material you are using have a corresponding online learning course?
Is the online learning course used in the classroom teaching and learning?
Is the online learning course used in students self-study?
What are the major content areas of the online learning course?
Is the online learning course helpful to your classroom teaching and learning? Explain.
What other teaching resources and self-study materials are needed apart from those
provided by the online learning course?
7) Will you search for other online information/resources for your teaching?

2. English language learning or English news/magazine websites


1) Do you often visit English learning websites or English news/magazine websites? Why?
2) Do you like Chinese or overseas websites? Why?
3) What are the differences between Chinese websites and overseas websites in terms
of design, content areas, content and resources?
4) What is your opinion of the examination materials provided by Chinese English
language learning websites?
5) Are there any overseas websites that provide various examination materials to
facilitate website users to pass different examinations?
6) Are there any overseas English language learning websites or English news/magazine
websites designed to satisfy Chinese English users and learners needs? Explain.
7) What aspects have to be considered when designing an English language learning
website for Chinese English language learners and users?