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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.

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