September/October 2003 // Case Studies
Engaging Learners through Textbook Choice in Online Linguistics
by Pamela L. Anderson-Mejías
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Pamela L. Anderson-Mejías "Engaging Learners through Textbook Choice in Online Linguistics" The Technology Source, September/October 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

A key goal for instructors of online courses is to create learning environments that promote "engaged learning." This term, "engaged learning," indicates that the environment created by the course designers encourages learners to be responsible for their own learning, to collaborate with other learners as a means of acquiring knowledge, to remain energized by their learning, and actively to develop strategies for thinking about the materials (Jones et al., 1995). This case study will discuss one means for faculty to elicit engagement with the materials: namely, requiring students to use different textbooks covering the key components of a single discipline. In this instance, the discipline was descriptive linguistics, and the course was a required class (Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics for Teachers) for students seeking an MA degree within the ESL program at the University of Texas Pan-American.

Descriptive linguistics (DL) is a discipline in which the principles of linguistics, or the scientific study of language, are presented through description of one language. Within this field of study, a major factor that supports the use of multiple textbooks is that nearly all descriptive linguistics textbooks reference the same, basic elements in fairly similar manners. The depth of discussion and the specific examples that illustrate key principles may vary, but most textbooks in this field remain highly compatible with one another in their approach.

Admittedly, this relative uniformity in subject matter does not characterize all disciplines; the individual instructor would therefore need to consider carefully the possibility of using the technique. However, this approach to online course design may serve as a model for other instructors to revise or modify within the context of their own respective fields of study.

Preliminary Planning

The rationale for using multiple textbooks came from previous end-of-course evaluations in which online students commented that they did not use the textbook much since online materials were sufficient. Although that may have been the student's perspective, most teachers would disagree. By providing students with a greater range of details and reference points for further investigation, the textbook should ideally serve to complement the online component of the course. The course aims to illustrate fundamental linguistic structures by exposing students to a diverse array of illustrations; for this reason, it was necessary to explore how the print and online media could be more fully integrated with one another.

To consider how increased engagement with the textbook could be fostered, I conducted an action research (Nunan, 1990) by reviewing various online courses in descriptive linguistics, as well as surveying students from previous offerings of the course at our institution. Nearly every course I examined had a required text, whereas only 40% of students at our institution indicated that they had used the text.

I continued exploring learner engagement through the International Forum of Educational Technology & Society (IFETS) during the latter part of 2001. This group discussed a variety of pedagogical practices which reminded me of "gapping" exercises used in language classrooms—whereby one group member has information others may need but to which they do not have easy access. It seemed to me that selective communication gaps, particularly in an online learning environment, would promote greater interaction among participants when the information is needed to solve a problem or complete an assignment.

In designing the introductory DL course, I therefore decided to incorporate such gaps through the use of different textbooks, and through assignments that would require individual and comparative evaluation of these resources. I hoped that this would provide a real need for students to interact with the print materials, as well as with one another, within the online framework of the course.

Student Population and Course Design

In the test course, there were ten graduate students enrolled?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthree from various locations in Mexico, two from outside the immediate vicinity, and five who were local (Exhibit 1). Thus half of the group were remote students and half could have attended a traditional class. All students were minimally familiar with using the Internet to gather information and four had used WebCT to augment previous courses.

Students were guided to several possible choices of textbooks from those currently used in the field as introductory texts. They could choose any one and buy it from any source. Among the ten students, six different textbooks were selected. Three students selected the same textbook, and one student used two different texts and reported on each. Those who selected the same textbook were permitted to work as a team, but none chose to do so. While the course had several other types of assessment (Exhibit 2), the textbook assignments served as the primary measure of student learning.

Klemm (1998) enumerates several ways to engage students in online conferences—namely to require participation, form learning teams, structure the activities, require a hand-in assignment, and so forth. These recommendations were applied to the various textbook assignments of the course, which may be outlined as follows:

  • Introduction: In the first online "meeting" via WebCT discussion board, students were advised of a number of textbooks acceptable for the course. Each could select one.
  • Online Information: Modules presented by the instructor and links submitted by instructor and other students were to be reviewed as a starting point for assignments, including textbook presentations (Exhibit 3).
  • Homepage: The first assignment was to create a short homepage describing the individual, contact information, and the chosen textbook.
  • Presentations: Each student was to summarize how his or her chosen textbook presented and discussed information regarding the six basic divisions of the course (language theory, phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics). These were posted to the presentation section of the WebCT (Exhibit 4, Exhibit 5). Each student made six presentations based on each of the course divisions.
  • Reading: In addition to reading the posted materials in the course content, students were required to read one another's presentations and optionally respond using the discussion area.
  • Synthesis Paper: To ensure that students did interact with the course material from the varying textbooks, each student was required to review each major section and how that information was presented by the various textbooks, as reported by their peers, for a final synthesis paper. Although students could collaborate by e-mail about different textbooks, the paper was to be an individual effort (Exhibit 6).
  • Criteria for constructing the paper: Students compared how each of the different textbooks addressed the key DL areas in terms of how well the information met the goals, objectives, and information presented via WebCT.
  • Recommendation: Each student then recommended, with rationale, one text to select for a future version of the same course.
  • Evaluation: Grades for this assignment were based upon the student's understanding of the course content as demonstrated in this paper.

The goal?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùto achieve student engagement with content from the textbook?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwas accomplished by the above outlined steps. Students individually reviewed the general online information, and then read their own textbook on the same topics. After summarizing the textbook and uploading this information for their peers, they read their peers' presentations on these topics. For questions or comments about the topics, students used the e-mail function and discussion board. This encouraged the group to build their understanding of the content materials. Finally, each had to synthesize the information from all peer presentations for the paper.


In twenty-five years of teaching an introductory linguistics course, and two years of doing so partially online, I have never had a group of graduate students who understood the concepts of DL as well as this group, as evidenced by their work on the papers. The key concepts of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics were not only understood in depth, but minor distinctions were grasped which would never have been covered in any detail within a traditional course with 48 hours of face to face contact. Course learning goals were clearly achieved in the area of depth of coverage.

Students' papers averaged 11 typed, double-spaced pages. Each student covered the six areas for all six different textbooks by referring to their peers' online presentations. In cases where more than one peer had reviewed a particular textbook, mention was often made of the three different peers' works, since these did not necessarily cover the same information in exactly the same manner. Thus the action research question addressed by this case study showed that requiring several different textbooks, rather than the traditional single textbook for the whole class, did generate engagement of the learners with the materials (Exhibit 7).

While the results were positive, they may have been significantly influenced by other possible factors. First, this was clearly not a controlled experimental treatment. The group was self-selected based on the students who enrolled in a particular semester for a particular course. The students therefore could have been exceptional in learning style, academic ability, or another factor that might have influenced the outcome. Nor was there any attempt to capture the qualities of these particular individuals and compare them to any type of control. Further, the students were not divided into groups to learn the same material in different formats; if so, comparative pre- and post-testing for the groups could have indicated differences in learning based on method. Nevertheless, having taught graduate groups of similar composition both in the United States and abroad—both in a traditional classroom setting and in an online-enhanced setting—I have not seen learning accomplished as it was during this course. Of the nine students who completed the assignment by the deadline (one was ill), six mentioned areas of phonetics that I have never taught in an introductory graduate course on linguistics. In addition, the major concepts were also clearly understood as demonstrated in the papers, and in student performance on other assignments.

In the traditional classroom, I have allowed students to use varying textbooks if they had purchased one previously that was different from the "required" textbook. Occasionally, students did so, but most of the time they preferred to use the same textbook as their peers. Also, since everyone was in class and the book was being referenced during workshops and presentations, the interaction from one student to another about how the different books presented the materials was never developed. It is possible that this multiple textbook approach would work in a traditional class, but the online format enhanced the experience since students needed to communicate regarding differences.


There are numerous methods to encourage students to engage with course material. Constructivist and cognitive perspectives on learning all recommend generating learning from interaction among participants as well as multiple resources, such as the textbook and online module information. Through such methods, students can actively construct a larger body of knowledge by sharing information and making meaningful connections.

From this experience, I recommend the use of information gap strategies and varied, distributed course materials in order to enhance interaction with the subject matter, as well as to foster greater collaboration among students. When the subject matter lends itself to such a strategy, I also recommend the use of different textbooks as a means for engaging learners in construction of their own learning environment. It would seem that any discipline in which general principles can be illustrated from different points of view could benefit from adopting or modifying such an approach. The online learning experience by these students warrants dissemination of this technique and perhaps formalized study of its advantages and disadvantages for online course instruction.

[Editor's note: This paper is modified from a presentation at the 2002 Information Technology and Distance Education (ITDE) conference in Edinburg, TX.]


Jones, B. F., Valdez, G., Nowakowski, J., & Rasmussen, C. (1995). Plugging in: Choosing and using educational technology. Washington, DC: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved May, 2002, from

Klemm, W. (1998). Eight ways to get students more engaged in online conferences. T.H.E. Journal, 26(1). August. Retrieved May, 2002 from

Nunan, D. (1990). Action research in the language classroom. In Richards, J. and D. Nunan (Eds.), Second language teacher education (pp. 62-81). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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