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Friday, March 4, 2016

BlendKit 2016 Week 2 Reading Response

  • Is there value in student-to-student and student-to-instructor interaction in all courses regardless of discipline?
  • As you consider designing a blended learning course, what kinds of interactions can you envision occurring face-to-face, and how might you use the online environment for interactions? What opportunities are there for you to explore different instructional strategies in the blended course than you have in the past?
These are the two questions I am going to focus on, as they are relevant to my context.
The text refers to university courses, and suggests that blended learning is ideal for this age group, but this is different to my own teaching scenario. I teach young learners (primary and secondary) and as I mentioned in yesterday's post, I will be referring to individual learners or small groups of adult learners for the purposes of this course. The type of learner who usually wants one-to-one lessons are usually in their 30s or older, and therefore have different interests and preferences to 18-22 year olds. They often have little time to spend on English outside of face-to-face lessons, but I want to encourage a blended learning approach, even if online time is limited, in order to help them reach their goals.
The first question is difficult for me to answer, as someone who studied and teaches languages. Of course, interaction is an essential part of language learning, whether this is student-to-student or student-to-instructor. However, I can't really offer an educated opinion for other disciplines. Using my own experience of online courses, I would say that some interaction is necessary. I have taken part in an online course for professional development (a paid course) as well as acting as a moderator for free online short courses for the Electronic Village Online. In both of these, interaction with tutors and other participants have always been an essential part of the course, even though this may not have influenced graded assignments. I once started a course (as a participant) in app design which had no interaction apart from a forum where questions could be asked and answered. Partly because of the level of the course (it was advertised as "no previous knowledge required" but this wasn't true) and partly because interaction with the tutor was very difficult, I dropped out.

Let me use my experiences with online learning to dicuss how far tutor guidance should go. With our EVO courses, we set up a series of daily and weekly tasks for participants to complete. Participants did not need to complete all the tasks in order to get a certfiicate, although most of them did try to do most of the tasks. Motivation is key in how much guidance is needed. But motivation is influenced by other constraints such as time. People who are short of time may not complete tasks that are not guided by a tutor or part of an evaluation. 

As for learner directed learning, the quote “how will the learners know what they need to know?” is a common one. I think this depends on the approach of the course. If, as tutors, we take more of a coaching role (see Daniel Barber and Duncan Foord's book From English Teacher to Learner Coach) we can help learners discover what their needs are, as well as providing them with a set of sources from which to find relevant information for these, e.g. a list of websites and tools.

The article mentions two things that I think are particiularly relevant to adult language learners.  
1) Encouraging learners to discuss the syllabus and possibly create a negotiated syllabus
2) Having an online space for students to get to know each other, socialise and reflect on their learning and the course.
Both of these have been important in the courses I have participated in and moderated.
A key word from this section of the article, for me, is community. Just as you often get in a face-to-face class, a sense of community almong learners is a key aspect of an online course. In a blended course you get both of these - students get to talk to each other and socialise in the F2F sessions, but this can also be continued in the asynchronous chats, forums, blogs and so on which may make up the online part of the course.

As all my teaching experience has been face-to-face, and most of my recent professional development has been online, it might be hard for me to combine the two for teaching. Of course, if I am planning a programme for individual learners, there won't be much online interaction, except with the tutor (me). However, blended learning may help my job as a learner coach rather than an English teacher, and I think the best approach would be to include aspects of the four models outlined in the article: Atelier learning, network administratror, concierge and curator. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

BlendKit 2016 Week 1 Course Blueprint

I've decided to focus the practical aspects of the blended learning course on some ficticious learners, as the learners I'm actually teaching currently are young learners. I think a blended learning course is more suitable for adult learners, since young learners do not have much free time to spend on English, in my context.

The learners I'm using as a basis for this course are adults at a low level, who have not used or learned English since they were at school. These adults typically have a reasonable level of vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension, but their level of spoken English and their listening skills are much weaker.

The course blueprint below is quite vague - this is because ideally I would use individual learners' own needs as the basis for the course. I would like learners to have some input in the design of the course, so as to meet their individual needs and preferences. These learners of mine don't actually exist right now, so it's quite difficult to go any further than what I've added here!

The other part of this assignment is to decide what aspects of the course will occur during face-to-face interaction and online. The diagram below is a general outline of what I imagine I would do.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

BlendKit 2016 Week 1

Reading Reaction

The first task of the week was to read a chapter called Understanding Blended Learning. I was interested to see whether the concept of blended learning had changed at all since the first time I started hearing about it several years ago. I have a copy of Blended Learning (Pete Sharma & Barney Barret, Macmillan, 2007) which I have to admit I haven't looked at much since I received it (as a prize for winning Macmillan's Onestopenglish lesson share competition). I was fairly sure that a book like this one would quickly become obsolete due to the fast-moving world of technology, and that it might not be relevant nine years after it was first published. I have yet to read the book properly, but just reading the first introductory paragraph supported my view - it talks about the Internet, CD-ROMs and interactive whiteboards as recent technologies. It mentions VLEs, blogs and wikis. Now I was a fairly prolific blogger a few years ago, when everybody had a blog, I also set up wikis for my students. But now they seem to be a little outdated, I stopped reading blogs two or three years ago and the last time I used a wiki with learners was when my now eleven year old learners were about six!

Of course, the book in question was written when a lot of teachers were unfamiliar with technology, at least in a classroom setting. I think that the way we use technology in our lives has changed, as well as the number of people that use it. Even my (retired) mum has Facebook and a smartphone now. Most classrooms in Europe are now equipped with projectors or IWBs (although in my teaching situation this is not the case). However, I'm not convinced that the use of these devices in the classroom is actually that beneficial in the way they are currently being used. In any case, this course is about blended learning, not tech in the classroom. It is about providing a part of the learning experience online, away from the classroom. And for me, this means making the most of the time in the classroom on personal connections and communication. A group of people in a room together, talking and doing things together.

100% online courses need to include this aspect of communication and community in online spaces. They will typically use forums and possibly chats or video conferences and webinars to provide this. I would go on to say (although I don't have any statistics to back up my claim!) that the likelihood of a student completing an online course is often dependent on the amount of communication that goes on with the tutor and other participants. So really, a good blended course can be perfect in that respect - there is the face-to-face component where learners get to work together and discuss anything they need to, and the online component where most of the content work goes on. And let's not forget the social aspect of a course - doing a course completely on your own in isolation is not very motivating!

Going back to the original text we were asked to read in Week 1, some things to think about are:

The percentage of face-to-face versus online instruction (I don't actually like the word instruction, at least not for an ELT setting). This really depends on your teaching context - what are you teaching? Who are your learners? What devices do your students have? How much time can they spend out of class? If you are designing a course with a specific group of learners in mind it can be better tailored to their needs and expectations.

The components of the course - what will be online and what will be done in the classroom? For ELT it seems fairly obvious that class time would be spent on speaking skills, and also discussing problematic language areas. Reading texts, watching videos and writing can all be easily done online, as can grammar and vocabulary activities. But of course this all depends on the percentages of time alloted for both aspects of the course. And we should remember:

Blended learning is not simply adding an online component to a face-to-face course. Technology in a course should be used wisely – to facilitate student learning. Technology should not be used just to show off technology. Excellent opportunities exist for teachers to make learning interactive, dynamic, and fun when used properly. The technology aspect of a lesson should be like a good baseball umpire – it (like the umpire) is good if it (he) goes unnoticed.

What does this mean when designing a blended learning course? Well, for my context I think it means not just copying a bunch of gap-fill exercises and putting them online. This is one of the problems I have noticed with digital materials in general - the digital aspect does not enhance the activities themselves, it just makes them slightly more fun than using a pencil on the page by being able to drag and drop with your finger or click with your mouse. This is something we definitely need to think about when designing digital activities.

Another quote from the text which is important for me is:

Blended learning courses are dynamic by their very nature. Revisions will need to be made to adapt to the learning needs of its students.

A blended or online course should be constantly revised and updated. I think this is something that publishers need to bear in mind when they decide to add digital components to their courses. When they just included a CD-ROM with their coursebook, this was much more limited. If it is online it can be added to constantly. This is the beauty of the internet! 

This blog post is becoming quite long, so I'm going to leave my reflections there for now. The next post will be about how I can design a blended option for one of the groups of students I teach.

Thanks for reading!

BlendKit 2016 MOOC

Having more or less abandoned this blog, I will be using it over the next few weeks to record my reflections during the MOOC BlendKit on Blended Learning.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Digital Literacy and Responsibility

One of the most difficult things to deal with when using technology to create a project is the idea of using the internet responsibly. Our society and the way we consume media has changed so much and so quickly over the past few years and has resulted in little regard for other people's work. The idea of intellectual property has changed and we now scorn any government that tries to restrict our consumption of art and entertainment. We live in a society where it is perfectly acceptable to download music, TV series, films and books illegally. It is so common that almost everybody will have downloaded a song or a film at some point. It has become the norm. It is important to bear this in mind when we think about using online information and resources for and with our students.

The first thing we should be aware of is that our students will have been brought up in this society. They or their parents will almost certainly be used to sharing content they find online. Unless they have been taught about digital literacy at school, they will probably not credit the creator, or even know where it came from originally. Many secondary school students are asked to do projects where they will include photos found on a search engine without naming the source. They probably won't have a clear idea of what ownership or copyright is. This is true for many adults too. This is where we come in.

The first thing is to set a good example. In any slideshow that you create and share with students, include the correct attribution for every single image. Most people do this in the smallest legible font, but I would advise making it as big as you can without ruining the effect of the slide, especially the first few times. Make it noticeable. Encourage the students to ask what it is and why you have added this information.

 Something you can do to encourage your students to provide correct attribution on their projects is to refuse to mark their work unless it is in place. Alternatively, you could mark students down for not giving credit where it is due. They will not be happy, but they will learn for next time!

 Another thing you can do is get students to experience the feeling of having their work or property taken (stolen?) and shared by other people. Ask one of your students to send you a photo from their phone. Then tell them that you are going to share it with all your friends on Facebook without their permission. How would they feel about that? Take a piece of work they have done, say a piece of art or an essay they have written. Erase their name and replace it with your own. What do they have to say? It may be a bit dramatic, but it might just help the message sink in!

Show your students the different Creative Commons licenses and explain each one in simple terms. Ask them which one they would choose for a) a piece of art they are proud of b) a video they have uploaded to Youtube c) a presentation they spent hours working on.

At first it takes time and effort to credit other people's work, however small, but students need to realise how important it is to use information responsibly.

Of course with our ebooks, we need to be the first to follow the rules. If your ebook will be interactive and require students to add content of their own, they need to be shown how to do so responsibly. Involving students in the discussion of the hows, whys and wherefore can only be a step in the right direction.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Imagination's what you need - ACEIA 2013

On Saturday I gave a workshop at the ACEIA conference in Seville. As always, it was a well-organised and very well-attended event, and I had lots of fun in the sessions I chose to go to.

My session, timetabled at the end of the day, was "Imagination's what you need - multi-sensory guided imagery for all ages" and I hope those who attended weren't too tired to take something useful away from the session! I enjoyed myself and I hope you did too!

Here is the slideshow:

Here is a summary of the workshop:

1) Relaxation - play relaxing classical music (I used Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in A major, Adagio)

     and lower the tone of your voice. Speak slowly, pausing often. Initiate a whole body relaxation e.g.

Make yourself as comfortable as you can in your chair
Put your feet on the floor if that helps
Stretch your arms straight out in front of you
Clench your fists, then relax your fists and drop your arms
Bring your shoulders up to your ears and drop them (twice)
Let your head go forward very slowly and gently
Feel your neck relaxing
Feel your shoulders relaxing
Feel your back relaxing
Feel your chest relaxing
Feel your stomach relaxing
Feel that relaxation going all through your legs to your toes
Feel the muscles of your face relaxing
Feel your eyebrows relaxing and your lips relaxing and your jaw relaxing
And now hold your head still and listen

2) Start your visualisation by asking your students to imagine they are in a specific place. Guide them by giving instructions and asking questions, allowing a few seconds for them to think. I took you to a school corridor and a classroom, and while some of you imagined your actual classroom, others remembered their classroom as a child. The best thing is that it doesn't matter - you can guide your students towards one or the other by giving them more information (this is your old school) if you want to use the technique as a way of helping students to remember details from the past, or making the visualisation freer, giving fewer commands and asking more questions.

3) Benefits - it can inspire students for creative work. Asking learners to write a story without any preparation can be a stressful task, and often come up with stories that are predictable and less-than-interesting. Doing a guided visualisation is a great way of providing a starting point for a story. Guide students through what would be the beginning of the story, asking them to think of the setting and the scene. For example, if you want students to write a scary story for Halloween, try to make your guidance mysterious and frightening. Take them to a dark, empty street where strange noises appear from nowhere. Use your voice wisely to create the right effect.
Another benefit is that it can help create a positive learning environment. It means that all students have something to say and are keen to listen to other people to see if what they imagined is similar or different. Students feel relaxed and comfortable and ready to learn. It is also a good way of changing the dynamics of a lesson. If your students are rowdy, do the relaxation techniques and do a guided visualisation. With their eyes closed, they will listen more carefully and clam down. One tip - don't force your students to close their eyes - you want them to feel comfortable and only they can decide what makes them comfortable. If someone feels better keeping their eyes open, let them. 

4) Pre-reading task - use this technique as a way of introducing the topic of a text. Give your students a reason to read by getting them to imagine and then compare with the text. Pre-teach some of the vocabulary by sneaking in one or two new words from the text, defining them or making the meaning obvious from the context (definition: a clearing, a large open space with fewer trees; context: cut back the trees with your machete).

5) Time machine. Take your students into the past, present or future with time travel. Take them into the time machine, describe it, have them choose an era and press the button. The machine can vibrate and shake, or move smoothly through time like a lift. The years can fly by on a screen. When the machine stops moving, the date on the screen tells you what year you are now in. Open the door and walk outside. Allow your students to wander the streets, looking at buildings and their surroundings. Ask them to go into a house and have a look around. Are there any people? What do they look like? Have them talk to people in their visualisation. If you like, your machine can move in time and space e.g. you are in 1920s New York. 
After the visualisation, ask students to draw and/or write about what they imagined and tell their partner. If you want to teach or have them practise a specific grammar point, put examples on the board and ask students to try to use it. Some common grammatical structures are: past simple/past continuous/past perfect, future simple (predictions), used to/would, conditionals. It is also useful for expressions of contrast, e.g. while/whereas and time expressions.

50 years ago not many people had a Tv, whereas now most people have more than one.
In 50 years' time, all cars will be electric.

6) Taking your learners on an imaginary trip - visualisation for kids.
    Rather than having them sitting down with their eyes closed, I like to get primary learners up and moving about. I do this by taking them on an imaginary school trip.
The idea behind the guided trip was to take the children on a school trip without leaving the classroom. The activity begins with us all sitting on a coach which takes us to the zoo, to the jungle, to the park, or anywhere else we want to go.
Set up the activity by telling the children that we are going on a trip and asking them where they think they are going to go. The destination could be related to your current theme.
You need to set up the chairs so they look like a bus before the activity. When you have done this once, and made sure the children know it is a bus, in subsequent lessons they will already know that they are going on a trip because the bus has arrived.
The children can then get on the bus and one of them can be the driver. Sing a song or chant on the bus. The song I use is one I made up to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell” and the words are:
We’re going to the (name of place e.g. park)
We’re going to the (name of place)
We’re going to have lots of fun
We’re going to the (name of place)
We then get off the bus and I lead the children round the classroom pointing out the sights. Learners have already been introduced to the main vocabulary used. I often put pictures or flashcards of the vocabulary items on the walls around the classroom as a way of scaffolding the activity and reinforcing the meaning behind the words. It is extremely important to use your voice wisely during these guided trips. You need to be very enthusiastic and imagine that you are actually seeing the things you mention. If you don’t sound like you believe it, the children won’t either.
I also try to include other senses – for this reason I am not sure the term “visualisation” is the right one. I like to include imaginary smells, tastes, and sounds as well as the sense of touch.
7) Sound effects. There are lots of different apps for mobiles/tablets. Use these instead of describing through a text. Play a series of sounds, and then get your students to draw/speak/write about what they imagined. It can be a good way of introducing a topic.

8) Using images - put yourself in the picture. Find pictures from #eltpics on flickr, which you can freely use in class. Ask students to imagine that they are in the picture. They could be an actual person in the photo, or choose a spot (like spot the ball!) where they could be standing. Otherwise, the could be the person taking the photo. Images can be very powerful and are perhaps better suited to low levels than an oral visualisation.
9) Using video - imagine you are there. I showed you a video of the fans before an FA Cup final at Wembley. Imagine that you are there, that this is your team, the first time in such an important final, how do you feel? You can use any kind of video, even the "candid camera" type videos where tricks are played on people. This could be a good one to try, if your students haven't already seen it (it's been doing the rounds on Facebook recently) You can play it when the trick begins so that the students don't see the preparation and know it is a set-up. Other good videos are those filmed with a Go Pro camera - the camera is strapped to the protagonist so it seems like you are watching the video in first person.
10) Multi-sensory experience - try to add sounds, smells and touch to your visualisations, and even taste! Remember, we are just imagining, not really experiencing. However, you could bring in objects for students to actually touch, taste, hear and smell with their eyes closed. Fill a mister with water and a couple of drops of lavendar oil and spray it above your students' heads to create a flowery atmosphere.
Try out some of these ideas, adapt them to suit your students' needs. You can have great fun and will be surprised by the results. Always stress to students that there is no right or wrong answer - whatever they imagine is good. They should allow there imaginations to run freely. Provide the language they need afterwards, go round monitoring and helping students express what they want to say.
Remember, the next time you hear a student say "Teacher, I can't think of anything, I haven't got any imagination, I don't know what to write" try a guided visualisation and get truly imaginative results!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Musings on Conference Performance and a Taster of RSCON!

All too often, creativity is left out of the school curriculum. As children grow up, the opportunities for freer creative play and construction quickly diminish. Subjects such as art and music are often reduced to just technique and theory, which is not much fun! I am an English teacher, so I am concerned with how my students learn the language, but my aim is to get them using the language. And the best way of doing this is by allowing them to create.

This, is the introduction to my talk Creativity with Kids: Using Online Tools for the upcoming Reform Symposium Conference. Or at least that's how I plan to introduce the topic. Usually, when I write out what I plan to say in a conference talk, it all sounds good on paper (or on the screen) but when I'm actually live "on air" or in front of a live audience, this kind of prepared paragraph just sounds stilted and memorised. If I had theatre training, or just a bit of talent, perhaps I would be able to pull it off, but the fact is I don't. So, however much I read through what I've written, it will never sound natural and in the end I find myself using my own words (as in those that leave my tongue spontaneously rather than those I had previously prepared).

This is, surely, a good thing! How often do we ask our learners to use their own words instead of reading out what is on the page or what they have written? When we want our learners to improve their speaking skills, we try to encourage them to just speak, without planning what they want to say beforehand. This is the ideal and comes after lots and lots of practice. This very week I did a lesson on How to improve your speaking with a group of intermediate level teenagers. We started off by answering questions in full written form, then converting this to notes, using these notes to answer the questions orally in pairs and finally, recording the answers on Audioboo, just looking at the notes to help. This step by step approach helps learners feel more secure, planning your ideas before you speak helps reduce nerves and anxiety.

This is the exact same reason why I write out what I want to say in a conference session. I usually then transform this into notes which I print out onto index cards. These cards make me feel secure. They are like a safety net, there in case I get lost. However, when it comes to the crunch, I rarely use them and I almost never use the words I had originally planned. Perhaps this too is a good thing? Most of the audience members are not native speakers of English, and if my own words are simple, this will at least make me understood. However I often wish I could express myself naturally, using a variety of sophisticated language features, as Keynote speakers often do!

As for Creativity with Kids: Using Online Tools, I will be demonstrating the tools by using them to provide the content of my talk. The ideas on how to use the tools will be embedded into the tools themselves. After the session I will share those creations on this blog, and you will all be able to see my (lack of) creative ability! Come to the session to hear more about how people feel about sharing their creativity. And if you just want some ideas on how to use some tried and tested web tools with your young learners, pop into RSCON4 Online Conference on Friday 11th October at 8pm CEST (7pm BST, 6pm GMT)! Here is the link to the room! Creativity with Kids by Michelle Worgan

Hope to see you there :)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Come to RSCON4 - a fab and free online conference for educators!

If I still have any visitors left on this blog (apart from spammers!) you may have noticed a new little badge in the top right corner. This is a link to The Reform Symposium Conference, shortly to be held and at which I have the honour of presenting for the first time :) Here is a little bit of information about the conference:

In a few days, thousands of educators from various different countries are expected to attend a free 3 day virtual conference, The Reform Symposium, #RSCON4.  RSCON will be held October 11th to 13th in conjunction with Connected Educator Month. The entire conference will be held online using the Blackboard Collaborate webinar platform. Participants can attend this online conference from the comfort of their homes or anywhere that has Internet access. This amazing conference provides educators new or currently active on social networks the opportunity to connect with educators and professionals in the field of education worldwide.
Useful links (click on any item for more information):
Opening plenary- Sugata Mitra, 2013 Ted prize winner and instigator of the Hole-in-the-Wall experiment, will speak about The Future of Learning. 
Musical guest- Steve Bingham, the internationally renowned electric violinist, will conduct a live performance. 
10+ international keynotes4 panel discussions featuring distinguished experts100+ presentations by educators around the world 
5 EdInspire Award Recipients- nominate an inspiring educator here 
Get your RSCON I'm Attending blog badge here 

We would like to thank the incredible organizers- Shelly Sanchez Terrell, Steve Hargadon, Clive Elsmore, Chiew Pang, Kelly Tenkely, Chris Rogers, Paula White, Bruno Andrade, Cecilia Lemos, Greta Sandler, Peggy George, Marcia Lima, Jo Hart, Phil Hart, Dinah Hunt, Marisa Constantinides, Nancy Blair, Mark Barnes and Sara Hunter
We hope you can join us for this incredible professional development experience!
As you can see, it's going to be a huge event filled with exciting talks. I am already looking forward to attending some of the other sessions, as well as giving my own!

 Tomorrow I will give you a sneak preview into my session, Creativity with Kids - using online tools :)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

MOOCs and COMAs (read to the end)!

This post stems from a recent discussion being held over at ELT Jam on whether MOOCs are suitable for ELT.
I recommend you read the original post written by Nick Robinson, as it makes for very interesting reading, but as with many blog posts, where the topic really comes alive is in the discussion that follows in the Comments section. Both viewpoints (for and against) are expressed in these comments, and really get you thinking about if and how Massive Open Online Courses could be an alternative to face-to-face or blended courses in the realm of English Language Teaching.

In this post I will go into more detail on thoughts I have had since reading the post and comments on ELT Jam.

Thanks to G Forsythe

For the past two years I have co-moderated along with some fantastic people, a Digital Storytelling course with EVO (Electronic Village Online). EVO is free online teacher training provided by volunteer moderators and runs for 5 weeks each year. It is not really a full MOOC as there tends to be 200-300 participants on our course, which is why we decided to call it a SMOOC (Small Massive Open Online Course), even if that sounds like an oxymoron! EVO itself has been successfully running for many more years.

When we started, Shelly Terrell, as the creator of the course proposal, had already planned the outline of the course and each of the moderators took responsibility for developing the content of one of the five weeks. We have a wiki with all the syllabus information, a place for discussion and another to post tasks. Ideally, a MOOC would have all these spaces integrated so that it is clear for students where to post comments, projects etc. We added tasks that participants had to complete during the week, including reading articles and blogs and then commenting in the discussion forum, trying out tools and posting the results, and as always, commenting on each other's work.

As I mentioned in my comment on ELT Jam, I think a similar course could be run for English Language Learners. I joined a French MOOC last year, which was based on video. You would watch the video and answer comprehension and language questions. There were no tutors on the course, but you could check your answers as you completed exercises. I personally used another tool called Memrise to help me learn the new vocabulary.
Personally, I think a healthy mix of different types of media would enhance the course, including texts (these could be authentic - articles from online newspapers, blogs etc), games to practice language and some kind of space where learners could connect to each other to practice their productive skills. 

As for the syllabus of the course, I suggest dividing it into several modules or units (as in traditional language education) that are progressive in terms of the language and skills required. However, instead of following a traditional syllabus, organised by grammar or vocabulary, I think a task-based approach would be more suited to a MOOC, or any other online course. Why? Firstly, a task-based approach easily allows learners to progress at their own pace. It also allows for more interaction than simple question and answer type exercises which tend to abound on the internet, as learners would be able to discuss the tasks in a forum, or even work together to complete a task. There could be some language work for learners to do either before, during or after the task is completed. This language could also be discussed in the forum among the students, and the moderator could help direct this discussion. This way, emergent language could be focused on, or at the very least, several language areas that would typically stem from each task could be suggested. Students would have more control over the language they are using and learning.

I think a task-based course needs to be carefully structured so that it gradually increases in level. One of the most important things is, in my opinion, to make the first few tasks fairly simple, in order to introduce learners to the format of the tasks. Another important aspect is having learners get to know each other before the course starts. At EVO, we always begin with participants trying out one of the tools we present in the first week to introduce themselves. We encourage them to welcome each other and comment on each other's intros. This creates a nice group atmosphere and allows participants to feel confident enough to comment and discuss their ideas with each other.

One of the main problems I see is the fact that many MOOCs are free. Of course, this is great for the students, but I'm not sure where the money would come from to actually set up and run the course. With EVO, it is just 5 weeks and can survive on volunteers, but this would not be sustainable for a long-term course. As I said before, a quality course would need a lot of planning, requiring many hours from the content creators, tutors and moderators. These people would need paying! People looking for online courses tend to go for the free ones... and I can understand why. There is no guarantee that the course would live up to your expectations. It is common for learners to lose motivation and drop out, unless they are working towards some kind of certification. Perhaps such a course could be done on a modular basis, where students buy modules in turn, like ELT Teacher 2 Writer is doing?

Another issue is the O for Open. If a course is freely open to everyone, there will not be any control over who enrols. I suffered this personally after enrolling on a course in Android App development. Having no programming knowledge whatsoever, I joined a course advertised as one in which "no programming knowledge is required". Of course, after trying really hard to get to grips with Java, reading "Beginner's Java for Dummies" and asking for help from the tutor, I ended up dropping out. In ELT this would mean people joining the wrong level, as they join a B1 or B2 level course in the quest for certification. A new part of my job this year is convincing people of their real level and that they need more than just a few months of lessons in order to pass the exam they need. In a MOOC, there would be nobody to do this, unless some kind of entrance level test were required.

Do you think a MOOC is suitable for language learning? How would you address the problems outlined above?
Is a task-based approach appropriate? I'd love to hear more ideas about this, either here or on the ELT Jam blog.

Ending on a more humourous note, in Spain MOOCs have been unfortunately translated as COMA (Curso Online Masivo Abierto)! Just imagine saying that you are "on a MOOC" bearing in mind that the preposition "on" and "in" are often both "en" in Spanish! 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Collaborating with Kids! My VRT presentation

Last weekend I took part in the 6th Virtual Round Table Web Conference. I had attended the conference before, but this was my first shot at a webinar at such a large event. The audience that chose to see my talk were a small group with some familiar friendly faces, which helped me relax and forget about how nerve-racking a webinar can be!

I had my misgivings after I had sent in my proposal - how on earth was I going to manage to say what I wanted to, look at the slides (and move from one slide to the other), and read messages in the chat box all at once? Then there was the technical aspect - I have seen many technical problems in this kind of event, and experienced one myself recently when the Adobe room decided it wasn't letting anyone's slideshows appear on the screen! Luckily, everything went smoothly and I didn't get time to test the screensharing feature, something I was little worried about.

I enjoyed the session, although I would have liked to have shown everyone my project, and I hope participants got something useful out of it.

Here you can find a write-up of my presentation and the link to the slideshow.

1. What is a collaborative online project?
The two main features of a colaborative online project are 1) that students work together to complete something and 2) that the content of the project will be hosted online.
As with any collaborative activity, a collaborative project is something that is created by more than one student. These students could be from the same class, contributing to the project individually, from different classes in the same school or from different schools. However, the beauty of an online project is that it allows us to collaborate with other students anywhere in the world. For this reason, personally, I believe that the best use of the internet would be to set up a collaborative online project with the objective of working together with learners from other countries.

The internet allows us to connect with people from the other side of the globe in real time. Of course, time zones are an issue, so you may wish to create an online space where other classes can connect to your learners and share their work.

The actual content of the online project will depend on your learning objectives. One idea is to create an online space where students' work can be added as it is done. This online space can be shared with other classes, or even shared publicly.
You could create a series of activities or tasks that all students have to complete, or give them the option to choose. This gives a lot more freedom for other teachers to fit the project into their curriculum.
As with any project, online or not, the focus could be on some kind of end product - a story, a presentation, a portfolio or other collection of student work, or it could be on the process, the actual collaboration and completion of activities forming the project.

Why set up a collaborative project?
There are many benefits of collaboration with young learners. In the slideshow you can see a word cloud with some of the main benefits. Aside from these, I think that such collaboration is extremely motivating for children. I believe that children need to know that they are learning English in order to be able to talk to people from other parts of the world. If we give them the opportunity to do this, children can gain the great feeling of satisfaction. A collaborative project allow learners to connect to other learners of English and really communicate with the, whether this is by talking to each other, writing to each other or just by seeing each others' work on a similar theme.

2. Where do I start?
I would suggest following the steps you can see here on the slide, although you may wish to do them in a different order.

Think about your reasons for starting a project. This may be related to something you have been studying in class such as a theme or a research topic. If you have been looking at the Egyptians, perhaps it could be nice to start a project about different aspects of Egyptian life. In my case we were looking at the topic of Food and Healthy Eating and I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to find out what children in other parts of the world usually eat.

Once you have your topic or main idea, then you can think of the tasks that you would like participants to do.
Decide whether you want them to speak or write, and start investigating tools that will help you do so.

Another thing you should decide is whether the students will be able to work on the project in class or out of class. This will depend on your facilities. If you have a computer room you can do most of the work in class. However, many of us do not have such luxuries! It will also depend on the age of your learners. One of the easiest ways is to set up the tasks in class, students work on the project in class and you can then later upload everything to your platform.

Finally, you need to decide if you want all students, including those from other classes and schools to take part in the project at the same time or if you want to have it as a long term, ongoing project. Think of the timescale you have - how long do you want the project to run for? Is it something that students can keep going after they leave your class?

When you have thought about all these aspects, you are ready to think about the technical part.

3. Choose a platform
You may have a school Virtual Learning Environment which will allow you to set aside a section for the project.
This has the added benefit of permitting parents to see how the project is progressing and to see their children's work. However, another great alternative is a wiki. A wiki is basically an empty webpage that enables you to post whatever content you like, as well as designing the layout of the page. Two options that I have used are Wikispaces and PBWorks. Wikispaces has educator accounts that allow private pages - something very important when dealing with young learners, depending on what you plan to add to the page.

Pbworks also has the option to make the page private. If a wiki is private, in order to access the page you need a username and password. As administrator you will have to give permission for students, teachers and parents to enter. However, if other teachers decide to join your project, you can give them administrator privileges.

Blogs are a simple alternative to wikis. You won't have as much control over the layout of the page and sometimes it can be more difficult to find what you are looking for, as blog entries are posts usually ordered chronologically. They are easier for students to use however, if you want them to be able to add their own content. And they can add posts without being able to touch the layout of the page!

Kidblog is specifically for primary children. It is very simple to use, and each student has their own page. It is not  ideal for a large project, as the only way students can "collaborate" is by sending each other comments.

Wordpress has a new Classroom site. I haven't tried it out yet but it is an option to think about.

Finally, Edmodo is a kind of VLE, similar to Facebook. For teenager it could make a nice addition to a blog or wiki, where students can connect with each other. This could be to discuss ideas for the project or as a kind of social common room.

Am alternative to having your own online space is to use Skype. Skype has a website called Skype in the Classroom, which allows you to post your lesson or project idea, which we will look at later. Skype in itself is also a useful tool however, as it allow classrooms to connect in real time, through video chat. It can be a great companion to an online space such as a wiki or blog. Students can ask each other questions  through Skype and then write up the results to the wiki. 

4. What content should I add?
This is related to the tasks you chose when planning your project. The good thing about wikis and blogs is that you can embed all types of media including, photos, videos and html. Most online tools, if not directly embeddable, will allow you to copy and paste the HTML code and in that way embed it into your website. If this is impossible, you can always add the link. Here you can see some example of the type of media you can add.
Using different media such as these allows for a richer, more spectacular project. And of course it is much more motivating for young learners than just writing!

One thing I particularly enjoy doing with the little ones is to get them to draw pictures in class, take photos of them and add their voices later, using a tool such as VoiceThread or Fotobabble.

If you want to post a video or your students talking about something, you can record them with a mobile phone/tablet/webcam/camera/videocamera, which you can later edit and convert using free tools (check out Softonic for different video and audio editing tools) so that it can be uploaded to Youtube and then posted on your platform. 

5. Connecting with teachers
In order to collaborate with classes outside your own school, you will need a way of connecting.
Many of you are already users of Twitter and Facebook, and these are great ways to find and connect to teachers from other countries. You could set up a Facebook group, or join an existing teachers' group. Linked In also has groups you can join. These groups are full of teachers like you, and you never know, some may be interested in joining your project.

If you have a blog, write posts about your project - what you hope to achieve and what kind of class you are looking for. Hopefully, readers will share your blogposts on Google+ or Twitter and that way you will reach a wider audience.

Skype In the Classroom is a website that allows teachers to add a lesson or project. You provide an outline of your project, including the age-group it is aimed at, the countries you are interested in working with, the language you are using etc. Skype will list your project along in a category such as "Cultural Exchange" where teachers who are searching for a project to take part in can find your idea. They can then leave a message on your page and you can add them to your Skype contacts list. Skype doesn't seem to send you notifications if someone leaves a comment, so make sure you check the site regularly. One aspect that I am not entirely happy about is the fact that there doesn't seem to be any kind of control or filtering of people, checking that they are teachers. Anybody who likes can show an interest in your project, and so I would ask those interested to provide some information about themselves and their students before giving them access to the project. 

Epals is an alternative to Skype in the Classroom. Epals actually has to approve your profile and projects, so it seems a bit safer. With epals, your students can get their own safe emails. It is similar to Edmodo, in thatyou can create accounts for your students and they can connect to you and each other, in a totally safe virtual environment. Again, you create your lesson or project idea and it goes into a directory where other teachers can find it, by category, age-group, language etc.

So we have seen some ways of connecting to teachers, but not everything is going to run smoothly. We are now going to look at some of the problems that may crop up.

6. Problems
When we were looking at the different options for where to host your project, I mentioned that wikis could be made private. What this means is that in order to access the page, all participants will need a username and password, and need to have been approved by you. This includes all students (if they are going to add their own content), teachers and possibly parents, if you want them to see what their kids have been doing.
What this really entails, from my own experience, is - people not remembering their username or password, or having other access problems. If your students have their own accounts (e.g. for high school), I suggest you keep a record of each student's username and password. You may need to provide written instructions in L1 on how to access the page, including screen shots, or even create a video tutorial. This is especially important if you want the students to contribute at home. Many parents are less than confident at such tasks!

You could opt for a public page, but then anybody can write on it. I would not recommend this option for Young Learners.

Another issue is that of maintenance. As I mentioned before, you may have to help people technically with how to navigate the site. Wikis and blogs don't usually require any technical maintenance, but you will need to make the page easily navigable, creating menus, adding tags so that people can find what they are looking for. If you have a VLE, there should be technical support in your school, but make sure you are aware of how far the technicians are prepared to help you with your section. You don't want to set it all up only for nobody to help you when things go wrong!

In state schools especially, permission to do anything slightly different can be difficult to get. Posting student's work on a website may be one of these things that require extra permission. It usually depends on what you are going to be posting. Obviously, photos and videos of the children should only be posted on a private site, and even then you will need to check your school's policy on this. You may have to send a permission form for parents to sign to say they allow you to post pictures and videos. 

If in doubt, always check!

Finally,  comes one of the most difficult aspects of setting up a collaborative project - getting people to join! I have not been entirely successful at this myself, and I certainly intend to take my own advice for the next project I set up.

7. Being persistent
My main piece of advice is - BE PERSISTENT!
All projects start off enthusiastically by teacher and students. However it is easy to lose faith and let the project trail off especially when there is a lack of participation. Add weekly or monthly tasks for your students. Sometimes all others need is a slight push into participating. Once other teachers see your project and the different activities it includes they will be more motivated to join in. Start by inviting colleagues and teachers you know locally. This way your project will soon start growing. Ask these teachers to share it with their colleagues and so on. Blog about it, tweet about it regularly, post it on Facebook, in your Facebook groups and so on. Directly contact teachers you know that teach a similar age group and are interested in technology - some people find it hard to decide to take part in an activity, but when invited will gladly accept.

You can also post it on the VRT website. You can write blogposts on there and also create a discussion in the forum for collaboration. The VRT website is a place to continue the conversation with other people that are attending this and other sessions. 

8. Food around the World
Finally, I'd like to show you an example of an online project. This is an online space that I've set up in order to keep students' work, share it with parents but the main reason I set it up was to find collaborative partners for my learners to work with and communicate with. As I mentioned before, I have not been as successful in getting others to join as I had hoped. However, this is a long term project that I plan to carry on next year if I have the same students. I have already used the website in order to review language with my learners and they have seen and compared their own ideas with those of another class. In the future I would love to get reactions from students in other countries, and if possible organise live meetings between classes.

Here you can find a link to the wiki. You will need to request access in order to view the site. Please do so, adding a comment with your name and that you are a VRT participant. That way I can give you access immediately.
The page is a wiki, created with PB works. As you can see, I have created a start page, where the project is introduced. I added a note in Spanish which is my learners' native language, so that parents would be able to find their childrens' work. 

The tasks page outlines the different tasks that learners can do. My students are only 6 and 7, and we do the actual tasks in class, which I then record or take photos of and upload to the wiki myself. With older learners you could make them writers and choose which task they wish to complete, allowing them to edit the wiki themselves and upload their own materials. I wanted to give teachers choice - it is easier to set up a simple project with one task, perhaps it would be easier to find participants that way, but I felt that with more choice there would be more opportunities for teachers to incorporate one of the tasks into their syllabus. It also means that the children will be able to keep the project going, finding out different aspects of their co-participants lives, related to the topic, in this case, food.

This page acts a a kind of menu so that participants don't need to search around the wiki to find the sidebar menu. From here you can click on the links that take you to the different tasks. In Breakfast around the World, the idea was to find out if what children have for breakfast was different in different countries. I used fotobabble, taking photos of the drawings, uploading them and then recording the children's voices.
Another activity we did in class was to learn and perfom a rap based on a story we had read. I added the video to I like/I don't like as the children were singing about this from the character's point of view. Another tool I have embedded is VoiceThread where we took it in turns to name things the character in the story doesn't like.
Posters are another thing you can embed, such as this one created on a mobile device. There are a wide range of options - virtually any tool you find can be embedded, allowing for a website rich in multimedia. 

9. Task
Now I'm going to ask you to think about what we have discussed today and the project I have just shown you.
Can you think of any other tasks suitable for this topic and age-group? What about older learners. How could you adapt this project to work with older primary or early secondary students? Type your ideas in the chat box or put up your hand to speak.
What other topics could you choose as a suitable collaborative project?
How can you make the project attractive to other teachers so they will want to participate?
Finally, I would like to encourage you to try setting up your own collaborative online project with your learners. Your learners will find it very motivating and rewarding. If you are interested in taking part in my project, don't hesitate to get in touch.

All links are available in the slideshow.

Using Edmodo as a Virtual Learning Environment

This year I have been using Edmodo with some of my groups to encourage them to do further practice out of class. I have been fairly successful with adult learners but not so with my teenage groups, who shy away from any type of homework whatsoever. This is understandable, as many have busy lives with constant exams at school, and some are not even allowed to use the computer during the week.

In this post I am going to focus on how I have used Edmodo as a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) with my FCE adult class.

Reasons for using a VLE

Most of the students on the FCE course were not at FCE level. This is a very common phenomenon here in Spain. Most of the members of this particular group had passed the PET exam and wanted to continue, with the objective of sitting the FCE exam at the end of the year. Of course, with 3 hours´class time a week it is impossible to go from B1 to B2 in nine months, unless students are going to be putting in a lot of work outside class. In fact, most students are not sitting the exam this summer, but have decided to move the goalposts back towards the December exam (after lots of discussion of how realistic their expectations were). In any case, whether they are intending to sit the exam in July or December, all students really need to be practising English at home - reviewing vocabulary and grammar, improving their listening skills and doing exam practice.

I provide students with homework at least once a week. This typically consists of an exercise we haven't had time to do in class, some extra grammar practice, and FCE writing tasks. However, I think students need to be pointed in the right direction and encouraged to do more. Given a list of resources and choice, English homework can be more motivating and interesting because students can focus on areas they personally have difficulty with, and there are many more options such as videos and games that students enjoy more than traditional homework.

The VLE allows me to share resources, including links to websites, documents, videos etc with my learners which, because it is optional, encourages these adults to take more responsibility for their own learning.

Why Edmodo?

I had previously tried using a blog with adult groups, where I would set homework (usually a written response to a task) but this never really kicked off. Some students would comment and leave a response, but it would typically be the same students every time. Others never even bothered visiting the blog. I had hoped they would take the initiative and write posts of their own, but unfortunately this never happened.

I had also tried using Tuenti with teenage learners and Gmail, hoping students would chat and email each other.

Last year my adults often used email to send me their homework, but they weren't doing anything else online.
Edmodo seemed the ideal solution to this as it allows students to send in assignments but also has a library where the teacher can add links and resources for students to access.

Edmodo allows the teacher to set up different classes, where each student needs a code or invitation in order to join. You can send messages, notifications and alerts. Private messages and alerts mean the student receives an email notifying them of the action. This is especially useful at the beginning, when students are not in the habit of going into Edmodo and checking what is new.

The other nice thing about Edmodo is that it is visually similar to Facebook. Students should be familar with the idea of a "wall" where public posts and links can be shared, making using Edmodo easier.

How we use Edmodo

Firstly, I started adding resources to the library. The library is a directory where you can keep everything in nice neat folders, which you can share with specific groups of learners. You can also link to the library in posts, so if you want to share a specific resource, you can add the link to the library entry in a message or post.

I added links to useful websites for exam training and practice, vocabulary practice, listening sites and so on. I keep adding things as a discover them, and when I do so, I post it on the wall as well as adding it to the relevant folder in the library.

I also added some documents like pdfs I have on my computer such as a copy of resources we have looked at in class, reference materials and listening exercises along with the mp3 files.

When a student wants to practice a skill or language point, they can go to the library and look for something to do.

I often give students FCE writing tasks to do. These are sometimes those that come up in our course book and sometimes past papers. I add the task as an assignment on Edmodo, with the instructions. Students can write their piece in a Word document and upload to Edmodo using the TURN IN button next to the assignment in question. I can then open the document directly in Edmodo, make comments and corrections using the annotation feature, and give the piece a mark. This mark goes on the student's records in Edmodo, so I and the student can see the different marks they have received during the course. I then download the annotated version in pdf format and send back to the student.

Future aspirations

I am thinking of gearing towards a flipped or semi-flipped classroom in the future. This will only work with adult learners, and even then will depend on the circumstances. However, many of my students at the moment are out of work, have plenty of free time, and need to improve their level in a short period of time.
This is especially true for university students, teachers and anyone preparing to sit state exams in Spain, as a B1 or B2 certified level is required. People are in a rush to get a certificate, but once they realise that many hours of study and practice are required, I think a flipped approach could work. Students would be required to do certain tasks at home before the lesson, and then in class we would be able to focus on problematic areas, exam techniques and so on, taking more of a Demand High approach.


Edmodo has worked reasonably well for me this year, although it hasn't been without its problems. I have had students joining the class throughout the year, and every time a new student appeared, I would have to show them how to use Edmodo again. I plan on making video tutorials next year to help avoid this problem, however many people prefer a face-to-face explanation.

I also hope that in the future students will become more active and take advantage of the platform to share things - videos, articles etc, making Edmodo not only a place to study but also somewhere to socialise in English.
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