Writing for a Purpose is a collaboration between the British Council and Coventry University aimed at improve the writing skills of English Language learners heading to an English-medium university, specifically those in the UK. The project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, focuses particularly on the different types of academic writing that students are expected to write while at university and the purposes of the different genre.
The product is part of the British Council Learn English website and consists of a large number of pages of explanation, audio, video and interactive exercises. Learners are taken through an introduction to the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus and how it informs the course itself, before getting more detail about the various purposes involved in academic writing and the genres that match these purposes. There is then detailed information and practice relating to the structures and vocabulary used in the different genre. All the interactive activity is done through the web app and scores are given to the learner based on their proficiency at each task.
The information is aimed at higher level learners, presumably B1+ and it is completely free to access and advertisement free. The website is not responsive to mobile.
The pros of this product are very definitely in the quality of the academic content and the thought that has gone into the needs of non-native English speakers heading to universities in the UK. The depth and breadth of the subject matter is impressive and has clearly been worked on by experts in the field of academic writing, specifically the kind expected of students at British universities; all informed by research and use of the BAWE corpus. There are detailed descriptions of the different features, structures and vocabulary used in the different genres and exercises that help draw learners’ attention to these aspects of writing through the exercises. In the vocabulary sections, there are links to concordance data from the BAWE, showing examples of the key phrases used that particular type of writing.
The fact that these materials are informed by a genuine corpus of student university writing and that they help learners with a whole range of different writing styles and purposes is impressive. The ability to distinguish between the different styles will go a long way to helping learners produce appropriate texts when at university.
It’s also really good to see a product that is preparing learners for a very specific need and one that many learners struggle with. By focusing very clearly on one specific problem, the product has potential to offer some real value to the user in that space and prepare them for their time at uni.
In terms of learner autonomy, the product requires learners to navigate around the exercises at their own pace and gives a lot of agency to the user. This may not be appropriate for all learners but it serves learners well for when they are in higher education and the site could act as a useful reference for learners throughout their time at university.
The fact that the information is completely free to access is also a big plus and makes the content accessible to a wider range of people.
As for the cons, they are mostly concentrated in the Instructional Design and User Experience sections of the review criteria. There is such a lot of information that it is often hard to know exactly what you are supposed to do or the order in which you should complete the activities. Hyperlinks take you out of the linear flow and to completely different places in the course so learner have to decide whether to carry on from there or go back to where they were. There are multiple pages, with multiple tabs and information on each, so learners need to take care with how they navigate around so as not to miss anything. The pages are busy with surrounding information that can often act as a distraction and take users away from the task.
Scores are provided for the exercises but this isn’t tracked and learners are unable to see where they have got to or what they have done within the programme. So when they return they have to decide where to start from and are unable to track their progress with the content.
There are also no prompts for the learners to actually write anything. Understanding of appropriate vocabulary and structure are tested indirectly, but there are no opportunities for output. Clearly it’s a challenge to automate the marking of learner writing, but it may have been good to give learners sample questions that they could try in their own time or even offline.
The product is aimed at high-level learners but some of the content does seem unnecessarily academic and maybe in more detail that the learners would need, especially if they were just starting out on their academic writing journey. This sometimes adds to the feeling of being bogged down in information and hard to know what is expected of you as a user.
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This seems to be an example of a great quality learning product packaged in a way that is unlikely to see many users go the distance and get as much out of it as they could. You can see that the early pages of the product are well commented on and have a lot of ratings, but this drops off drastically as you progress through the course, suggesting there is a very high drop off rate in terms of product use. The usability is so confusing it really is genuinely hard to know what is expected of you at different points, and in fact, some of the early comments from users are actually asking for some clarification about what to do and how to proceed.
There is some really interesting and detailed content and some great exercises; and the fact that the product is informed by a corpus of student university writing acts as a really solid foundation for the educational content in the product. Indeed the content would definitely make great lessons when administered by experienced teachers, with an idea of how to make sure that it was displayed in an engaging way. Unfortunately, the structure and the format of the content online is unlikely to engage learners in the same way.
There are some great indirect tests of learners’ understanding of the structures of texts and a lot of useful data about the words and phrases commonly used in the different genre. It seems a shame though not to encourage learners to actually write something, when the product has the goal of improving writing proficiency. A classroom setting for the same content would have likely resulted in more opportunities for output and personalisation than are possible here on the site.
It would be great if some more effort had been put into the usability and how to manage the cognitive load from an instructional design perspective, so that the product could have felt more like an actual product. At the moment it feels a lot like a collection of web pages; it’s clear that could really, really help, but I imagine that most learners wouldn’t stay around long enough to find out just how much.