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Tan Bee Hoon

Bee Hoon (in yellow dress) and students checking out OWL applications at Massey University

Tan Bee Hoon

Massey University

Bee Hoon is a doctoral candidate in English and Media Studies at Massey University. She spent almost six weeks at the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) (in Serdang, Selangor) in July-August 2002. A Malay Studies Scholarship helped fund her visit to the UPM (the Malay Studies Scholarships are contributed by the Chair of Malay Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and are administered within the Asia 2000-NZASIA Research Awards Scheme).

Investigating the applicability of "on-line writing labs" (OWLs) in English as a Second Language (ESL) programmes for Asian students at Universiti Putra Malaysia

The purpose of my visit to Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) was to administer two survey questionnaires. The survey aimed to establish the writing needs of English language students and to discern the support for them provided at UPM. I extended my stay at the university beyond the planned four weeks in order to pilot the survey questionnaires in the setting in which they were to be administered.

I had previously received permission from the Head of the Department of English at UPM to undertake survey work among UPM teachers and students. Prior to my departure, I posted the draft questionnaires online, and invited the Wcenter list, an online discussion forum for writing centre practitioners, to comment on them. Upon my arrival in Serdang, I sent letters to all the deans requesting a name list of the lecturers who conduct their courses in English, and permission to administer the survey questionnaires in their faculties.

The survey among the undergraduates involved cluster sampling. Undergraduates who attended each of the three different levels of English proficiency courses were sampled. A timetable for the undergraduate questionnaire administration was worked out with English proficiency course instructors. The survey with the lecturers was more like a census because every lecturer in the name list provided by each faculty was sent a questionnaire. The questionnaires were meticulously improved by means of feedback from the pilot work, interviewing a few field experts, comments from peer reviews, and e-mail feedback from the distant supervisor. Eventually I was able to print out the final draft of the questionnaires, and they were administered to 350 lecturers and 418 undergraduates.

I was able, during the time available to me, to fine-tune, pilot, and administer the two questionnaires that are basic to my research. Through meetings and interviews with UPM field experts – people who are skilled at questionnaire design, writing pedagogy, and statistics – I was able to greatly improve the questionnaires. I also gained much invaluable insight and hands-on experience pertaining to questionnaire studies. Furthermore, by introducing myself as research student at a New Zealand university, and by acknowledging the fieldwork support given to me by the Malay Studies Scholarship, I was able to stimulate considerable interest among UPM lecturers and students about research expertise and opportunities in New Zealand’s tertiary institutions. I provided information about educational conferences that will soon be held in New Zealand and, in turn was requested to help promote a conference on languages, literatures and cultures organised by UPM.

I encountered some of the typical problems that researchers in the field experience. It was not until my second week at UPM that I had use of an office with a telephone and a networked computer. And it was a struggle to get lecturers to complete and return the questionnaires I sent out some 350 questionnaires to instructors. Only about 40 were returned after one week. After sending out personalised reminders, making e-mail requests, and doing a lot of door knocking, I was eventually able collect 118 completed questionnaires from lecturers.

On the whole, however, my fieldwork at UPM contributed significantly towards my overall doctoral research project. Without the grant from Asia 2000-NZASIA, I would probably have been restricted to surveying international students from Asia at Massey University. It is unlikely that the findings from a New Zealand-based sample would be directly or accurately applicable to Asian students in their homeland universities.

Based on an initial analysis of data collected during my time in Malaysia, it would seem that both lecturers and undergraduates at UPM perceive writing in English to be an important academic and professional skill. Only about 25 per cent of the undergraduates can write effectively in English. Both groups felt more supports are needed to improve undergraduates’ writing in English. They perceive various online writing facilities as very helpful in fostering writing in English. These findings tend to favour the application of OWL (online writing lab) theory and practice in Asian ESL settings.

Another important benefit from this fieldwork was the opportunity to gain research expertise from established ESL and writing practitioners outside New Zealand. My meetings with these people were enriching and had certainly enhanced my research repertoire.