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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.
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