Tuesday, 5 August 2014

e-tivities: scaffolding learning online

Quite recently I had the real privilege of participating in a WiZiQ-hosted MOOC titled "Teachers Teaching Online". The whole experience was exciting - given I've never previously taught English online - and at times something of an eye-opener. Jason Levine and all the teachers who helped make the course such a success deserve huge thanks for doing way more than simply demystify the concept.

However, it also became apparent to me in one or two webinars given by experienced teachers that online teaching is NOT simply a case of transferring what we know about pedagogy in the face-to-face classroom to an online environment. The online world is qualitatively different: at times more exciting, at times more challenging. Online, we may wish to keep our principles but adapt our tactics.

As knowledgeable MOOC presenters made explicit reference to Gilly Salmon's "e-tivities" framework, I decided to follow up and read the primary sources for myself. The embedded presentation summarizes what I believe I've learnt:

As a language teacher, I'm quite impressed by Salmon's work, which is borne of many years of experience in online education as well as research incorporating feedback from practitioners around the world. An early pioneer in this domain, she is a veritable "thought leader" frequently cited by scholars and other researchers. Her 5-stage model for courses based on "e-tivities" is a viable, principled and practical approach that teachers and academics anywhere can adopt and implement for themselves.

What I find particularly good about Salmon's framework - at any rate, prior to trying it out myself - is that it takes learner engagement and group cohesion so seriously. It appears to take the best of what we teachers already know about about group dynamics and make it work online. An initial emphasis on getting preliminary "Access & Motivation" and "Online Socialization" stages right at the beginning ought surely to pay significant dividends once the more serious business of "Information Exchange" and "Knowledge Construction" gets underway.

However, there's also more. The fifth and final stage ("Development") prioritizes learner metacognition and (hopefully good-humoured) critical self-reflection. Learners' attention is focused on what they will do next in future contexts. Learners are encouraged to examine how they think and approach situations: something teachers could consider doing regardless of medium!

Will I teach online any time soon? I can't yet say for sure, but I'm certainly open to it and feel I have received a lot of valuable input this summer. Perhaps you will see me e-moderating in the not-too-distant future! I hope you've found this post and presentation helpful, anyhow. Maybe you'll have a go, too, if you haven't taken the plunge already.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

"Make it stick" with regular quizzes

Advocates of constructivism in education - or, for that matter, communicative language teaching - attach strong importance to learners constructing or negotiating meanings for themselves. The aim of pedagogy, we are sometimes told, is not so much the rote learning of knowledge as the practical application of knowledge and the development of higher-order thinking skills; the role of language teaching is not so much to ensure formal accuracy as the development of communicative competence.

As a teacher I'm all for these things, but I would like to suggest a note of caution is in order. If all language learners do in class is express themselves, is their level of language acquisition actually advancing? This implies at the very least a role for regular, albeit low-stakes and minimally invasive, classroom testing. With thoughts such as these in mind, I was pleased this summer both to be able to read Brown, Roediger & McDaniel's book "Make It Stick" (Harvard University Press, 2014) and take a look at some tools that support this form of classroom testing.

In the rest of this post I'll therefore explain what I believe "Make It Stick" has to say about the importance of incorporating regular, low-stakes quizzes in our teaching, then move on to review ICT tools that appear to support such an approach especially well. 

Making it stick: why quizzes are such a great idea!
Empirical research has indicated that practising information retrieval "makes learning stick" far better than re-exposure to original material. This is known as the testing effect, or retrieval-practice effect (Roediger & Karpicke 2006, cited by Brown et al. 2014:28). To be maximally effective, retrieval must be practiced repeatedly and at spaced intervals, so that the act of recall requires some cognitive effort. Repeated recall appears to help the human memory "consolidate into a cohesive representation in the brain and to multiply the neural routes by which the knowledge can later be retrieved". In recent decades, studies have confirmed that repeated retrieval so embeds knowledge and skills that they become reflexive: "the brain acts before the mind has time to think" (Brown et al. 2014:28-29).

Recent action research studies make this point forcefully. Students from a 6th grade social studies class at Columbia Middle School in 2006 scored a full grade higher on material that had been quizzed than material which had not been quizzed, or simply revisited in the form of statements of fact. Even better results were obtained when this approach was extended to 8th grade science classes the following year, and the testing effect persisted eight months later at end-of-year exams (Roediger et al. 2011; McDaniel et al. 2011; Agarwal, Bain & Chamberlain 2012: all cited by Brown et al. 2014:33-35).

Other points in favour of quizzes might include:
  • Briefly delayed feedback may sometimes produce better long-term learning than immediate feedback (Butler & Roediger 2008: cited by Brown et al. 2014:39-40);
  • Regular, low-stakes classroom testing can improve student attendance, increase studying before class and attentiveness during class, and enable students better to evaluate what they know and what they must improve on. It also lowers anxiety. These benefits accrue whether instruction is delivered face-to-face, or online (Roediger, Smith & Putnam 2012: cited by Brown et al. 2014:42-43).
  • Spaced practice allows time for mental rehearsal and other processes of consolidation - the increased effort required to retrieve the learning after "a little forgetting" has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory (Bjork & Bjork 2009; Schiller et al. 2010; Finn & Roediger 2011: all cited by Brown et al. 2014: 49).
All told, this is quite a strong case for making quizzes part of your classroom routine. It has also made me think about how best to teach "revision" lessons - perhaps quizzes should be integrated with review of content on such occasions, with review taking place after quizzes (and therefore directed at revealed areas of difficulty).

So what ICT applications support this?
I'd say four stand out, and two manifestly support a BYOD classroom:
  • Hot Potatoes - this is still quite a good one. It's free to use, and allows teachers to create interactive multiple choice, short-answer, jumbled-sentence, matching/ordering and gap-fill exercises. The only downside: there is no longer any technical support for it!
  • Quizlet - plenty of teachers swear by this, and you can create self-grading tests and worksheets here without paying. However, more advanced features involve gamification: learners can quickly get hooked on this, but you have to pay a licence fee.
  • mQlicker - a nice-looking app which I've reviewed in an earlier post. You can set a number of types of questions, students can respond using devices they've brought to class, and you can visualize who understands what very quickly. And it's free to use!
  • Socrative - also a very attractive app that elicits real-time responses from classes or audiences. As it offers more alternative modes of quiz implementation, it may just have the edge on mQlicker for the time being. It is also free to use.
All told, I think quizzes should be part of my routine as a language teacher. Besides keeping students on their toes, it helps them remember. I'd like to give Socrative a go this coming autumn when I return to the classroom.

So how about you: have you tried any of these tools previously? Or would you be willing to give them a try? I'd be interested to know what you think.

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.

A better form of assessment - with a little help from ICT

In an earlier post, I outlined how podcasting tools can be used to extend student speaking practice opportunities beyond the confines of the physical classroom. Much the same can also be said of MyBrainshark and Present.Me.

However, earlier this year I was still a bit concerned about the potential overhead of teachers having continuously to respond to content posted online by eager students. However, as I'm a bit better informed now I realize there's a way round this that not only promotes regular formative assessment (a good thing) but also involves students in the assessment process, thereby promoting learner autonomy.

As Russell Stannard has several good things to say on this subject, I'll be referencing his work a number of times in this post.

Assessment: views past and present
As Stannard (2014) points out, the assessment process of yesteryear was somewhat narrow in its conceptualization, and designed with a relatively narrow range of stakeholders (school, the learner, employers) in mind. Tests might focus on discrete language items and principally reading and writing skills. Other than taking the tests, learners would have no input.

Nowadays, however, we might be said to have a much broader notion of what language learning is (one centring on communicative competence), and likewise a much broader conceptualization of who the stakeholders are. Learner autonomy is now deemed desirable - and assessment is increasingly viewed as something that can profitably occur before, during and after teaching and learning (Stoynoff 2012, cited by Stannard 2014:8).

The implications for assessment
The assessments we create - both formal and informal - should reflect what we now believe we know about language learning, Stannard argues. We need to be aware of the wider implications of any assessments we set - such as the wash back effect (Podromou 1995, cited by Stannard 2014:8) - and may even want to involve students in the process of assessment, thereby supporting learner autonomy and motivation.

So how can teachers implement this?
It is with this in mind that Stannard recommends an e-Portfolio approach towards assessment, with learners regularly creating content and posting it on a VLE platform and/or blog. In the case of speaking assignments, this means regularly recording podcasts (or presentations) both individually and in collaboration with classmates as a form of homework.

This does not mean that teachers need be inundated with marking, however: if learners are given task assessment criteria they can evaluate both their own performance and that of peers. Besides being asked to record themselves performing a task previously introduced during class, the participants can also be required to reflect on their performance and, equipped with a rubric, post evaluative comments to accompany the recordings.

Teachers can intervene at intervals (checkpoints, perhaps) and invite students to submit a selection of their favourite contributions for assessment at the end of the course. Stannard is also quick to point out that similar things might be done with online writing using blogs, should the occasion suggest it.

What are the benefits of doing things this way?
The benefits to learners are potentially significant. Learners get to evaluate their own work and that of peers with the support of clear criteria: a critically aware learner is likely to improve their performance. Plus learners become much more autonomous, taking responsibility for their own learning.

And the benefits of this to teachers are clear. If learners become more autonomous and self-directed, and if assessment of speaking need no longer occur in class time, significant class time has been saved and no learners' time is wasted! This is mightily important.

What about the platform? Does it depend on what one's institution provides?
Some VLEs or e-Portfolio tools licensed to institutions may already support this approach; however, if not Google Classroom is a free, cloud-based solution that both supports an e-Portfolio implementation. So nothing is standing in teachers' way!

All in all, I think Stannard is onto something important here. As educators we are likely to want learners to become more autonomous and develop a sense of agency in relation to their language learning; as language teachers we are also likely to have a keen interest in reducing the impact of speaking tests on class time. By inviting learners themselves to take responsibility, we can achieve two aims at once. I am certain interested in giving this approach a go when I return to teaching this coming September.

Stannard, R. & Basiel, A. (2013). A practice-based exploration of technology-enhanced assessment for English language teaching. In: Motteram, G. (2013). Innovations in learning technologies for English language teaching. Chapter 6, pp. 145-174.

Stannard, R. (2014). From blogs to e-portfolios: new ways of assessing students. Presentation given at Exeter College, Oxford on 28 July 2014. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/235518958/My-presentation-on-assessment-with-ICT-at-Oxford-University.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Audio-visual feedback: a "win-win" solution for teachers and learners?

Feedback matters hugely, learners on academic courses and study programmes tell us (Debuse et al. 2007; Pepper & Pathak 2008: both cited by Matthisen 2012). Their expectations towards feedback are high, but teachers are regularly pressed for time. The sad reality is that often, facing larger classes or increased workloads, many teachers have in recent years responded by reducing the frequency of assignments - not good news.

Clearly the time factor is a big deal when it comes to feedback. But must we assume all is lost? What if it were possible to deliver personalized, specific feedback to students in far less time than would be the case with a standard, written response - using the latest ICT tools? What if the learners could hear their teacher's voice, too? Wouldn't that be motivating for them as well as faster for the teacher to deliver?

Relevance and Rationale
This is where audio-visual feedback comes in. It's particularly good in the case of language teaching as students get additional authentic listening practice into the bargain, but the benefits can be felt by students everywhere. In the following video, Russell Stannard explains how he first began using JING, a freely available screen capture tool, to deliver feedback to students:

http://www.teachertrainingvideos.com/Jing/ is also a great introduction to the tool! It's actually quite easy to use once you've got the basic idea.

Propensity to foster language learning
Audio-visual feedback has a number of obvious advantages. It's faster to deliver, students get authentic listening practice, and hearing their teacher's voice makes the feedback feel more personal: many report feeling closer to their teacher as a result. Plus, such techniques can be used for group as well as for individual feedback!

A recent study into students' and teachers' impressions of screen capture feedback in Norway (Matthisen 2012) has also confirmed the following:
  • Students regard feedback as more precise, more nuanced, and more inspiring.
  • "Learning dividends" increase in other ways - over and above the benefits of "dual coding" (reading and listening at the same time), the student-teacher relationship improves.
  • Teachers also rated it highly: they found the feedback to be more efficient, precise and of higher quality.

Limitations - and a possible alternative
JING is a fantastic tool in many ways, but the amount of feedback you give orally can easily be excessive. In a meta-analysis of a large number of second language acquisition studies, Kim (2013) points out that by no means all corrective feedback is understood - so Stannard is right to advise in another follow-up video that feedback should have a particular focus to it (e.g. consistent sources of error) rather than aim to correct everything in an extended piece of work.

Looking at matters from a different perspective, there may also be issues with JING's five-minute limit for recordings from time to time. However, more flexible solutions are available nowadays, so teachers shouldn't get frustrated. For example, Kaizena is a new tool which integrates seamlessly with Google Docs - and allows short recordings (without any time limit) to be attached to colour-coded blocks of text, or paragraphs, as you can see in the following IELTS essay feedback demonstration: https://kaizena.com/doc/dw3zku2.

All in all, I think the future of feedback is looking brighter - and the arrival of Kaizena on the scene means teachers now have significant options. Faster, better feedback and a better relationship with your learners: what more could you want? If you're tempted, why not give it a go yourself.

Kim, J.H. (2013). “Learner Understanding of Written Corrective Feedback and its Relationship with Immediate Uptake and Retention in EFL Classrooms”. English Teaching, Vol. 68, No. 3, Autumn 2013.

Matthisen, P. (2012). Video Feedback in Higher Education - A Contribution to Improving the Quality of Written Feedback”. In: Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy (2012): Nr 02.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

WebQuests - the best way to foster critical thinking, social skills and problem-solving?

In an earlier post, I examined (amongst other things) Johnson & Johnson's 1974 version of "Cooperative Learning Theory" and considered its applicability as a theoretical basis for group and project work in modern language teaching. It certainly seems that a good case can be made for teaching social and collaborative skills as well as language knowledge in today's classes!

I was therefore most interested when the topic of "WebQuests" was introduced to us here at Warwick slightly under a month ago. Having enjoyed some success through adopting a fairly constructivist approach towards ESP teaching at business school earlier in my career, I was eager to know more about an approach that similarly emphasizes the practical application of information rather than simply its retrieval and/or rote learning.

Relevance and Rationale
Dr Bernie Dodge - arguably the "father" of WebQuests - explains the concept well in the following video:

Essentially, then, a WebQuest:
  • Is a constructivist lesson format;
  • Is "wrapped around a doable or interesting task that's a scaled-down version of something adults do";
  • Derives most (though not necessarily all) of its source material from the web;
  • Utilizes information pre-selected by the teacher;
  • Often involves students assuming roles;
  • Critically, involves higher order thinking skills (HOTS).
Higher order thinking skills represent the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy, as shown in this diagram:

In a follow-on video, Dr Dodge goes on to explain this in rather more everyday, "action verb" terms:
  • Know, Tell, Remember - these verbs are largely reserved for the classroom, he suggests. 
  • Apply, Analyze, Explain - this could happen in the classroom or be taken outside. 
  • Decide, Design, Create, Predict, Judge - these are "life" verbs, corresponding to higher value-added functions in today's knowledge economy.
In other words, a Web Quest is far more than simply a Web Search. The defining features of a WebQuest - according to educators across the US, longitudinal studies (e.g. Zheng, Perez, Williamson & Flygare, 2008) suggest - are as follows:

1) Constructivist problem solving (critical thinking, leading to knowledge application);
2) Social interaction (leading to the development of positive interdependence, individual accountability and interpersonal skills, much as Johnson and Johnson (1974) would suggest);
3) Scaffolded learning (very much in the social constructivist tradition of Vygostsky and Bruner).

It is certainly exciting to see all of these potentially happening at the same time! A WebQuest can be designed to have four distinct stages:
  • Introduction; 
  • Task; 
  • Process; 
  • Evaluation
 Or possibly six:
  • Introduction; 
  • Task; 
  • Process; 
  • Resources; 
  • Evaluation; 
  • Conclusion
This has a number of parallels with task-based language teaching, if one includes a "focus on form" stage where feedback becomes appropriate. It can also be used to foster skills development, e.g. presentation skills.

Naturally, though, it is also extremely important for task success criteria to be explicit! 

http://webquest.sdsu.edu/templates/lesson-template1.htm#Evaluation offers a good illustration of how one can do this, using a template.

Propensity to foster language learning
Dr Dodge is a keen advocate of constructivism in education, and I'm quite keen as well. However, when applied to a language learning context the situation can be a little more complicated.

For instance, he suggests that it's best to start early in life with this approach, possibly as early as the 3rd grade in the US. This may work well with native speakers of a language or children raised bilingually if the initial steps to be taken into the learners'  zone of proximal development are relatively small across the class as a whole. However, in the case of second language acquisition I suspect this is all a little too soon, and we must also acknowledge that some societies do more than others to emphasize individual autonomy, regardless of children's age.

Also, in the case of adult learners one must always acknowledge the possibility that they may actually be rather good at higher order thinking skills in their native tongue - what's missing in the L2 is simply the means of expressing their ideas, or the communication skills to participate fully in teamwork. As a teacher, one must take such factors into consideration.

In addition, placing an over-emphasis on higher-order thinking may cause other less glamorous (but still vitally important) learning tasks such as the memorization of key topic vocabulary to be devalued in the eyes of your learners. One can argue that a balance has to be struck between instructionism and (social) constructivism here: too much of one and you start to lose the benefits of the other.

Nevertheless, there are strong reasons to rate well-designed WebQuests - i.e. those which genuinely foster collaboration and involve critical thinking and problem-solving - very highly indeed. Their affordances extend well beyond mere language acquisition and cross over into the acquisition of life skills. In short, they can help learners mature as people.

Furthermore, WebQuests allow for differentiation between (groups of) learners in mixed ability or multi-level settings: you can simply give different groups of learners different tasks to perform. They may therefore offer an ingenious (if not necessarily total) solution to one of the most difficult classroom management problems affecting teachers today.

The Consultants-e maintain a good repository of WebQuests at http://www.theconsultants-e.com/resources/webquests/repository.aspx.

You'll need the authors' permission to use the materials posted there, but they may instead offer a good example to follow if you wish to create your own.

Despite loving the main thrust of this idea, I would like to suggest there remain some caveats (and even Dr Dodge in the second of his two videos acknowledges traps exist for the unwary, if the right choices of topic, content, and task aren't made). 

Above all, it is crucial to understand your learners. For instance:
  • If you're teaching an ESP class, an authentic task to them means something that relates to their current or future work. To them, authenticity means specificity.
  • The input (information students get told to work with) should be of an appropriate length (e.g. 550 words maximum for a text at B2-level) and graded (i.e. simplified, or else have unfamiliar words explained) to the level of the learners. 
This may necessitate a teacher intervention - but could represent an opportunity for anyone wishing to follow in Sean Banville's footsteps!
Also, coming at WebQuests from a quality assurance perspective, a strong case can be made for the use of templates and standardized assessment criteria/rubric if you're in a management position and want to introduce the concept department-wide, just as you would with project-based learning.

However, when all is said and done I think WebQuests are a great idea, and it has never been easier for a teacher to put together a collection of them using free website creation (e.g. www.wix.com) or blogging (Blogger; WordPress) tools. If you get to re-use them, you won't be sorry you put the effort in upfront. 

So that's what I think about WebQuests, anyhow. What about you?

Saturday, 1 March 2014

"Breaking News English" - a great resource for EFL teachers!

Earlier posts on this blog have focussed on the language learning affordances of ICT tools (often free) or modes of teaching utilizing ICT (e.g. e-learning, blended learning).

There's still much to be said about these things, of course, but today I'd like to take a different approach and examine the Internet in terms of its potential as a resource for language teachers and materials developers to share lesson ideas with each other as part of a supportive online community of practice.

This post will therefore examine a truly remarkable resource that is both a potential treasure trove for busy teachers in search of relatively authentic, yet graded material for reading/listening plus related activities for English language learners. And it's continuously being updated: the site in question is Sean Banville's "Breaking News English".

Relevance and Rationale
Many teachers will argue that learners need more than a textbook to engage them, or help them engage with the real world in English. There's certainly some truth to this. Textbooks have to serve a global market, meaning that content has to be selected extremely carefully in order to be globally acceptable. The cost to teachers and learners of publishers going out of their way to avoid giving offence to anyone may be content that is artificial, bordering on the anodyne at times, and insufficiently relevant to learners' lives.

Basing lessons on authentic sources (as this blogger has done many times) can be a much more exciting experience for learners, but can entail a lot of preparatory work upfront. Unfamiliar vocabulary - idioms especially - may need to be explained, and possibly the cultural background, too; texts may need to be shortened, which raises a number of issues; and in the meantime, lead-in and follow-on activities must also be worked out. The payoff for a class of learners may be significant if all of this done well, but the chances are that a teacher will only really be happy to "go the extra mile" in terms of materials development if the materials are going to be reused. Making such an effort may well be judged too much work for a single teacher delivering a single lesson to a single class.

There is therefore a need for graded "semi-authentic" materials that are ready for teachers to use, and Sean Banville fills this niche magnificently. His site features relevant and up-to-date lesson plans - a new one is published every two days, it seems - plus a library of earlier content that's still well worth exploring.  The text materials are graded well, it seems, according to seven ability levels. He also provides a number of excellent MP3 audio materials for listening practice (these can be listened to at five possible speeds, as well as graded for language). Whether text- or audio-based, a typical set of teaching materials features a wealth of possible activities, plus mini-lesson or homework suggestions from which teachers and learners can choose the most appropriate for their particular learning situation.

Propensity to foster language learning
There are many reasons to rate "Breaking News English" highly. They materials have clearly been put together by an experienced teacher/teacher trainer who understands an awful lot about how to grade input and make it comprehensible for learners. There are also several activities on offer within text-based lesson plans that really force learners to focus on form, and that's good if used in moderation.

Of course, being able to follow the latest "hot" news stories is certainly an attraction, but actually the existence of a substantial "library" of curated materials on the site is a huge benefit in terms of learner autonomy. Young and older adults can be asked to select materials for study that interest them, and if they take up the offer, that's a clear sign of their taking responsibility for their own learning.

"Breaking News English" is such a great resource, it seems a pity to criticize it. I feel I have only mild things to say!

Possibly, one might say that the ability "levels" featured on Breaking News English seem internally consistent, but don't appear to map directly to IELTS bands or the Common European Framework. Teachers (and self-directed learners) should, it seems, investigate texts themselves to gauge what level is right for them, but I don't myself think this should seriously inhibit uptake of the materials.

As for what type of learner would best be served by such materials, I think there's a clear case for using them with younger and older adults, but it might be hard to engage whole classes of teenagers this way. Their interests are just too likely to diverge.

One other possible limitation is that learners with more specialized interests would prefer to see more specialist content. Sean is doing a fantastic job with "general" news, but business news is perhaps a niche that needs more content. Maybe that's an area I should consider exploring…

Overall, though, I'd certainly rate "Breaking News English" highly. If you need graded, semi-authentic and up-to-date content for intelligent adult learners (and fast), look no further. It's a great resource.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

mQlicker: a great way to make teaching more interactive?

As Nik Peachey points out in a recent post, university lecturers have faced some criticism lately for not taking on board developments in our understanding of pedagogy by simply continuing to deliver direct instruction rather than anything more interactive in the lecture theatre.

Speaking as a current MA student, I believe traditional instruction can still work if complementary handouts are provided, and students are attentive listeners and good note-takers. Nevertheless, a wholly instructor-centred approach towards content delivery may run the risk of tiring one's audience, not to mention the fact that it forces all students to conform to a single "approved" learning style. In the interests of sustaining engagement, a more interactive style may suit a wider range of students.

With this in mind, I plan today to follow in Nik's footsteps and review mQlicker, a relatively new and seemingly quite powerful Audience/Classroom Response System - the purpose of which is to enable audiences/classes to provide instant responses via mobile devices by means of activities such as mobile polling and mobile surveys.

Relevance and Rationale
Applications such as Triptico can be used to promote face-to-face classroom interaction, as I indicated in an earlier review. However, admirable though such apps are, there is a limit to their scaleability and they certainly cannot elicit feedback from all corners of a classroom at once. And this is possible nowadays with so many students carrying smartphones and other web-enabled devices: questions, quizzes and the like can quickly elicit a lot of feedback via a backchannel given the right choice of app.

Here at Warwick on both our ICT/Multimedia and Professional Practice modules we've used Today's Meet for backchannelling purposes, and insofar as it can obtain quick feedback in response to spontaneously-posed questions it's not a bad app by any means. However, now that I've looked into the matter it does seems as though mQlicker is much more versatile and offers teachers a wide range of appealing options. So I'll briefly run through what I believe to be its most valuable differentiating features.

Question presentation can be supported by rich formatting that allows you to base questions around images (touch devices can "pinch-to-zoom" to look at these more close-up), or embedded YouTube videos and other forms of multimedia. Questions can meanwhile be grouped into pages or displayed in a predetermined or random order.

Meanwhile, the audience (wherever it is situated: this can work in online settings, too) can be given a range of different types of question to answer (i.e. multiple choice with single or multiple selections; or alternatively, respond with a number or WhatsApp message).

Here is a question I created earlier - the prompt was: "Which of these methods do you use to improve your English outside of class?"

And here are the possible answers:

Students can use their mobiles, iPads, or laptops to submit responses provided they have first joined the session by means of the session key provided by their teacher.

Once received, audience responses can be aggregated and presented live using a projector, integrated with PowerPoint or even exported as a spreadsheet for analysis. Here are the results obtained from an audience of two "students":

mQlicker is highly useable. It offers WYSIWYG ("What You See Is What You Get") editing, in most instances allows you to drag and drop content, and provides a number of powerful search features that can help you put together great content quickly. You can save questions to a Question Bank, perform previews while still editing your work, and you can organize your data by means of a user-defined folder structure. It's really quite flexible.

There is no limit to the audience size with this app, nor to the number of open sessions one may run concurrently. It can be accessed from any web- or HTML-enabled device and Android, iPhone, iPad and Blackberry devices additionally receive enhanced support. It's easy to participate given a session key or permalink, and permalinks can easily be distributed by means of QR codes. The SSL (secure sockets layer) also offers a high degree of security and ought more or less to guarantee respondent confidentiality.

For a product demonstration, you may also follow this link to mQlicker's  website: https://www.mqlicker.com/demo.html.

Propensity to foster language learning
Posing questions via mQlicker may be a faster way of eliciting audience feedback than simply asking your listeners to swap opinions with a neighbour, for example. The fact that it allows for anonymised feedback also means that you have every chance of eliciting feedback from practically the whole class - it is a very democratic tool. It's also a big plus that video/multimedia can be integrated here.

What's more, it can provide useful input to course planning. At the outset of a course, it could be a very effective way of finding out about your students as part of initial needs analysis.

Meanwhile, results displayed in real-time via professional-looking charts will impress students and certainly appeal to the visually-oriented. Promised future features such as automatic marking and individual point-weighting of questions may offer opportunities to further "gamify" the question-and-answer process and make lectures/presentations more entertaining.

All in all, mQlicker seems to offer opportunities for speedy interaction and looks like being a great way to improve teacher-student interactions in class. The main thing seems to be that students should be made aware that they should have their devices ready when they come to class!

The speed with which mQlicker can elicit feedback from an audience and class is certainly impressive. Nevertheless, an IRF (Instruction-Response-Feedback) is only one mode of interaction in the grander scheme of things. There will surely be times when e.g. pair work without added technology is preferable for language lessons: no tool can be a substitute for quality student-student interaction.

Also, as with any concept predicated on BYOD (bring your own device) or MALL (mobile assisted language learning), the key to mQlicker working well is having students who possess the devices required to make the concept work.

If you have that, though, the tool has so many affordances it seems well worth adding to the armoury of any teacher seriously intent on making teacher-fronted stages of their classes more interactive and engaging. It also appears that the app's creators are not resting on their laurels and are continuously trying to improve their product in response to user feedback. It really does look like a tool to try out in 2014.

Vocaroo and MailVu: a simpler way to promote speaking practice outside the classroom?

In an earlier post, I argued that MyBrainshark has a claim to being the best of all ICT tools in terms of its getting students to practise speaking and presenting outside of the classroom, and it provoked quite an interesting discussion afterwards!

Slightly further on in my reflective journey as an MA student, I guess I still regard MyBrainshark as a fantastic tool to have in one's armoury, but I'd suggest other, possibly simpler tools may be preferable for more day-to-day purposes. So with this in mind, I propose to review two free podcasting/vodcasting tools, Vocaroo and MailVu in today's post.

Relevance and Rationale
In an earlier post from 2010, Russell Stannard argues that in EFL contexts teachers are often confronted with a situation where students have little or no opportunity to practise speaking English outside of class. One might also add that exposure to spoken English is greatly lessened in countries where TV and films are routinely dubbed. 

Anything ICT can do to ameliorate the situation is thus clearly to be welcomed, and here Russell suggests podcasting/vodcasting can do much to help: for homework, learners can be asked to record themselves repeating speaking activities rehearsed, or else prepared for, in class earlier. The podcasts or videos can afterwards be e-mailed to the teacher for feedback on accuracy of language use, pronunciation etc. 

Meanwhile, the sheer ease with which the tools can be used should mean even the relatively technophobic can make use of them! Russell Stannard provides a brief and very accessible introduction to Vocaroo and MailVu at http://teachertrainingvideos.com/speaking/index.html.

Propensity to foster language learning
Russell's "Connected Classroom" approach certainly seems to have the potential to motivate learners. A classroom conversation may be quite ephemeral, but setting speaking as homework arguably usefully rebalances homework away from what may otherwise be an enormous "homework bias" (in skills development terms) towards reading and writing. 

Furthermore, many students will want to impress their teachers and so will try harder second time around. This "press" on the students' linguistic resources may "push" output from the learners and lead to enhanced language acquisition, rather as Merrill Swain's "output hypothesis" would suggest.

I wouldn't mind consulting SLA studies in this area, but would be prepared to hypothesize that this is a good approach in the hands of a teacher the students like and want to impress. Above all, exam candidates might consider this a particularly good way to practise for high-stakes speaking tests.

Key to this approach succeeding is surely laying the right foundations during the classroom lesson preceding the homework. Introducing language, providing opportunities for personalized pair work, and responding to students in class should give students a structure to work from when it's their turn to either repeat an activity or do something new to build upon what happened in class.

Given the right preparatory work, the students should only stand to gain! However, teachers may find giving feedback to numerous students all doing an identical activity may impose a significant feedback overhead and not be as interesting as if students have chosen to do quite different things from each other. If time is a significant constraint, peer evaluation may not always be a good enough alternative.

Nevertheless, as I see it, both tools are easy to use and potentially quite powerful. And they're both free! I'd happily use them. How about you?

Padlet: how can a blank "wall" facilitate language acquisition?

My previous post examined some of the issues raised surrounding student co-operation and collaboration both inside and outside the classroom, and entertained the idea that recording project meetings might enhance both accountability and transparency in assessed task situations.

However, in an everyday classroom context teachers will probably tell you the main way to ensure teams commit to working together is to require them to produce a specified deliverable at the end of their work. A class presentation or report might be one such requirement: but the downside of such a prescriptive approach towards pedagogic task design is that it doesn't necessarily afford learners too much autonomy or opportunities for creativity.

Today, then, I'll be looking at Padlet, a free online tool that offers students (and teachers) wide creative possibilities and which can invite collaboration both amongst small groups and across an entire class if the situation demands it. I will outline how the tool works, suggest things language teachers might do with it, and then attempt to evaluate its ability to promote student-centred learning.

Relevance and rationale
Padlet (formerly known as "Wallwisher") is a free online "wall" which allows users to post links, files and even webcam photos on a canvas using a simple, one-click interface. It is very easy to use! 

It is hosted on the "cloud", and offers extensive customization possibilities (e.g. set a photo as background) as well as a good range of privacy settings - as such, it is superior to Titanpad, which can unfortunately be "gatecrashed" by unwelcome intruders. 

Content created here may be embedded in blogs/webpages, shared on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media platforms, or exported to PDF/Microsoft Word with a view to other modes of distribution. The fact that it permits collaboration means that it is highly suitable for pair/group work as well as situations where teachers wish to elicit information or feedback from the whole class via a "backchannel".

Richard Byrne provides a very accessible introduction to the tool in the following YouTube video:

Propensity to foster language learning
In terms of its ability to foster classroom (or out-of-classroom) collaboration, there are good reasons to rate Padlet highly, if we assume students have access to devices (certainly iPad, possibly smartphone) that permit such interactions. 

To begin with, it can elicit feedback from the whole class. Using the tool as a backchannel, teachers can get classes to brainstorm for ideas at the start of lessons, to ask questions to clarify understanding ("exit slip/ticket") at the end, or to perform a recap next time they meet. This is arguably more inclusive than asking questions orally, as every student contribution is valued: more introverted students have the opportunity to contribute to discussion on a more equal footing, and the response will also be more instantaneous than asking people to discuss ideas in pairs before reporting back.

Language work can also take place on the wall - vocabulary can be defined, sentences extended and so forth - so a focus on form is possible here, just as it is with an interactive whiteboard.

However, the affordances in terms of collaborative work are arguably the most impressive. Students can go looking for texts and pictures/infographics that complement each other (in true WebQuest fashion: this will be the subject of a future post) and start writing creatively: a short presentation about their own life, or reviews of books, films, videos or songs can all be placed here. This has the potential to be both creative and engaging for students.

Finally, resources can be shared on a wall - it can facilitate group research by either students working towards a project, or teachers helping each other develop course materials.

Padlet is such a flexible tool, an enthusiastic teacher might well wish to get going with it straight away! However, one or two caveats are in order.

To begin with, in larger classes the wall may get a bit messy/crowded. If that's fine, teachers can go right ahead, but if greater "cleanliness" is preferred, it may be better to work with an environment that more clearly separates individual student contributions (e.g. an Edmodo group).

Also, the tool only permits the inclusion of one multimedia element per wall. One might argue that this actually enforces a good graphic design principle (high signal versus noise ratio), in the spirit of "less is more". Nevertheless, it is a constraint.

Finally, access to the most appropriate technology may also be an issue. Not every student has an iPad to bring to class, and while the situation with smartphones these days may be a lot better, the size of their screens may be too small for some activities to be viable. Logistically speaking, are non-US classrooms all that ready for Padlet? If not, its use may be restricted to blended learning or e-learning environments.

Overall, though, I think Padlet has a lot going for it and can see myself using it in class given the right environment. There may be times it may find itself in direct competition with an interactive whiteboard, but on occasions where its creative/collaborative/scaleability affordances are superior I'd be happy to  opt for it. What do you think?

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Cooperation, collaboration and accountability: can technology help foster all three?

In recent classes here at Warwick we have taken a look at tools with significant potential for online collaboration, e.g. Google Drive/Google Docs, Titanpad, Padlet.

All are great tools, offering many opportunities for learners (or teachers) to work together on the same product - but today I'd like to take something of a step back and look instead at what we mean by effective group work, the reasons for our promoting it as educators, and the ways in which we can foster it, sometimes with technology's help.

Group Dynamics
Within the confines of the classroom, group work is socially situated: for example, the teacher and the students have certain roles and expectations of each other. Both teacher-student and student-student relationships have to be mediated. The extent to which students feel at ease in the teacher's and each other's company may well depend on "ground rules" being established at the beginning of their journey together, and the teacher's success in establishing a genuine rapport with his/her students.

Many would therefore argue that a jointly constructed and highly visible "learning contract" established at the outset is essential to effective classroom management! However, Dörnyei and Murphey ("Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom", Cambridge University Press 2003) go somewhat further, arguing that there are four distinct stages in a  group's life:
  • Group formation - during which norms are discussed and established: the teacher should show a genuine positive regard for their students, but students should commit to helping each other learn, too;
  • "The rugged transition" - the greater openness of which may lead to conflict, but may yet lead to greater mutual respect if negotiated well;
  • "Performing" - at which point trust is sufficient for decisions to be taken about the division of labour;
  • "Dissolution" - a managed close-down, which allows for retrospective reflection and saying goodbye.
The key idea here seems a powerful one: classroom management problems can be minimized or avoided if teachers take great care to ensure that stages in this process are not missed out or ended prematurely. Without trust, group work is unlikely to be fruitful. I think the whole of this book is well worth reading and plan to buy a copy!

Fostering cooperation
Can a collaborative orientation or teamwork skills be taught? There's no question that employers value these things, and it's an interesting question to consider, since what we are talking about is "pro-social" attitudes and behaviours society deems desirable in our students, rather than factual knowledge. Since no man is an island, the way we behave has roots deep in social psychology, and is often norm-referenced.

Teachers may not be psychologists, but they are very much in the business of dealing with people. Thus David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson ("Learning Together & Alone: Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Learning", Prentice-Hall 1975: something of a classic text!) argue teachers can and should do much to foster cooperative learning, something they claim is proven to achieve superior learning outcomes. Their book is a fascinating read, but for the purposes of this post I'd like to focus on what they specifically say about task design.

To begin with, tasks can be designed in such a way that students' goal attainments are positively correlated, i.e. when one student succeeds, everyone succeeds (Deutsch, 1949). A criteria-referenced evaluation system, it is argued, should be used within cooperative learning situations. A typical pedagogical task that works well this way in the language classroom would be a "jigsaw" activity, where each team member possesses certain information that the others need for the group to succeed.

However, student roles within the group may also be assigned to ensure interdependence. Johnson & Johnson  (1975:51) suggest "summarizer-checker", "researcher-runner", "recorder", "encourager", and "observer" as possible generic roles that can be applied to collaborative tasks. Dörnyei & Murphey (2003: 114) suggest something similar, distinguishing between a large number of "task" and "group maintenance" roles as they do so. In the context of team problem-solving, other models such as Edward de Bono's "Six Thinking Hats" (http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php) may also usefully be suggested to students.

Ensuring accountability
I have only limited experience of teaching languages at secondary school level, but would definitely - with the benefit of hindsight - endorse Dörnyei and Murphey's approach in such contexts. Trust needs to be built before effective group work can occur. This may call for patience, but fortunately some teachers are good at this and are able to manage classes of teenagers well.

In higher education learners are adults, so immaturity is not something I would expect to see in class. However, here too it's important to get things going on the right foot, and I'll take on board Dörnyei and Murphey's advice about particularly taking into account the affective side to learning in the early days of a group's existence. I also like  Johnson & Johnson's idea of building interdependence into pedagogical tasks and project work.

And yet - accountability can still be an issue. Maybe not in class, but certainly in summative assessment situations where students are expected to support each other outside of lessons. Some students may be poor at time management or have jobs over and above their studies which may lead to the same outcome. For them to admit to their peers that they are in trouble is face-threatening, and confronting someone who is not "pulling their weight" likewise. This can place the integrity of the assessment process in jeopardy.

Given the obvious risks here, I would like to suggest two possible ways forward, as I believe the benefits of group or project work can be significant!

Idea one: you assess the product, learners assess the process
If teachers find themselves placed in the position of having to assess a team presentation, they face an obvious issue. The quality of the end-product can be assessed, but the individual contributions to the team performance are invisible. Did all team members fulfill their obligations to each other? Did anyone go above and beyond the call of duty? These things are not visible to the teacher: and simply awarding a mark in recognition of the end product attaches value only to results, not to co-operation.

Possible solutions to this dilemma have been suggested. For example, in a recent post, US teachers Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters recommend not only having students assess each other's team contributions, but also allow those who do extra work on behalf of someone else to earn their points in recognition of the fact.

As a possible refinement of this idea, I would like to suggest that groups working collaboratively on projects outside of class should do two extra things to earn their grades: record the initial division of labour, and upon receiving a team mark in respect of the end product, record a meeting in which the marks are divided according to individual contributions. Marks can be awarded upon receipt of the recordings and a summary e-mail from the group leader (with other group members copied in). 10 minutes for either meeting should hopefully suffice - if there are disagreements, it demonstrates a lack of cooperation and the teacher can respond accordingly.

Since smartphones are becoming increasingly commonplace in countries such as those I've worked in, it's likely every team should have access to a recording device, and a good virtual learning environment should permit students to submit recordings as a pre-condition to receiving individual marks. It's not a bad idea, surely? I wouldn't mind talking to experts on testing and assessment about this idea in greater depth - but I think it has potential and would also get students talking in English more.

However, I also think Dörnyei and Murphey's advice about trust-building has to be taken on board: no student should be forced to work on a high-stakes project with another student they do not trust. I think rushing straight to the division of labour without forming cohesive groups first is a big mistake which unfortunately gets made all too often (and not only in language classes) as teachers feel they simply lack time.

If the issue is one of social isolation or awkwardness more than anything else, teachers can address this through a series of steps that may include: ensuring constructive group mates, arranging resources and assigning roles that guarantee interdependence, and - above all - pre-training in collaborative skills (Johnson & Johnson, 1975:169). Teachers have to model social behaviour as well as ask for it: besides being good pedagogy, it can reduce inequalities between students.

Idea two: you're only as strong as your weakest link
But what about the "lazy" student, who lets others do all the work but shares in the benefits? Many teachers may be concerned about such characters!

Within the classroom, Johnson and Johnson (1975:168) suggest there shouldn't be a problem: cooperation by its very nature demands commitment and involvement. I suspect that's fine so far as the majority of students are concerned, but not all. Students with special needs or behavioural problems can't be dealt with according to a "one size fits all philosophy".

However, if a student is simply being awkward, a "zero tolerance" approach maybe isn't the best way to go about dealing with them as it may escalate, rather than defuse the situation. Johnson and Johnson have a number of useful suggestions:

1) Ask the group to discuss the issue with the student: perhaps they can find a way to facilitate increased contributions from him/her.

2) Take the student aside and ask about the situation: find out their perceptions, then seek to address them.

3) Relax and let the group deal with the student in its own way and in its own time: it can pay not to intervene too soon if the group appears able to handle it! Plus they'll learn valuable life skills in the process.

4) Present a skills lesson on problem solving such a situation - to make sure that the students have the skills they need to deal with such people constructively.

I rather like the last of these suggestions: there is a place for teaching life skills in ELT! However, where assessment is concerned, Johnson & Johnson (1975:168) have an interesting suggestion: average the scores of the lowest member(s) of the group! If all students are doing exactly the same thing, this can work…it will motivate the group members to tutor the weaker students, and thereby resolve any problems with commitment and involvement in the learning tasks.

Collaborative tasks can bring many benefits: in educational terms, the focus shifts from the "end product" to the "process" of collaboration - meaning that students pay much greater attention to the cooperative strategies and soft skills they need to employ when working as part of a team, any time, anywhere. As the quote at the top of this post says, if you want to go fast, work alone; but if you want to go far, go together.

However, team work can only happen where trust, commitment and accountability are present. Whether in class or working collaboratively outside the classroom, learners need to see that "hitch-hiking" is dangerous. I hope some of the ideas outlined here may be useful to other teachers out there interested in this fascinating topic.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

E-Learning: how can we motivate and engage students online?

In my previous post, I looked at Virtual Learning Environments in terms of their pedagogical affordances - but this was chiefly through the eyes of a teacher who already meets face-to-face regularly with their students.

Today, however, I'd like to look at E-Learning and E-Moderation in virtual learning environments. I'll do so initially in general terms, but later consider what this means specifically for language teachers thinking of teaching in online environments.

As Russell Stannard has pointed out in an earlier post, e-moderators have a vital role to play in establishing a sense of community in online environments. In many ways, the key thing for teachers to get right here is to establish a sense of "teacher presence" right from the course outset. I feel the following excellent video from Learning To Teach Online explains this very well!

To judge from this, there are plenty of teachers who feel that they're doing something especially worthwhile in teaching online! I'm also quite tempted…but speaking as someone who is currently thoroughly enjoying their first MOOC but has yet to teach online himself I'd like to give a quick analysis of what I think may be the pros and cons specifically for language teachers.

Relevance and Rationale
The reach of e-learning is potentially global, as the current growth of MOOCs demonstrates. Big names in this space like Coursera have attracted a lot of interest/comment (not all of it positive), but speaking as a teacher I think it's terrific that courses like "Developing Business English Teachers" (a course I'm taking now with EVO2014) enable the likes of me to learn from and interact with dedicated professionals all around the world. If it works so well for me, why not language learners?

The fact that students can work at their own pace and interact asynchronously with course tutors or watch recordings of webinars they couldn't attend at the time is also another plus. It's a flexible format and many busy adult learners need that.

Playing devil's advocate, one may also question whether "communicative" classrooms really are the most equitable learning environments. Of course, teachers may mean well, but it is not always be easy to draw introverts out, even if they are fully engaged with what's going on. A number of tutors in the LTTO video above clearly feel that the online environment - if moderated well - is a more "democratic" space, in which shyer students can feel encouraged to express their opinions.

Propensity to foster language learning
The points made above all clearly count in e-learning's favour. The fact that there's a written record of what's been said, or that videos placed online by a tutor can be replayed can also foster language acquisition as it makes revision of learning points much easier.

However, the lack of face-to-face interaction is potentially quite a minus. Nuances in communication may be missed if one cannot read another person's body language. Plus there is certainly the potential for people to go off-topic and demonstrate less-than-perfect "netiquette" towards each other in ways that can be harder to resolve online than face-to-face. E-Moderators clearly have to be good at communicating "ground rules" at the start, model civility, and be ready to intervene. Life can become awkward if something goes wrong and gets out of hand while you yourself aren't online!

Also, naturally enough, speaking in groups doesn't really seem to be possible here. Monologue podcasting may be an option for some learners, but it's not so likely that balanced skills development can take place in an online environment, and advances in communicative competence will chiefly be written, rather than oral. To me, this implies blended learning is a superior model.

Overall, I'd say I'm intrigued by E-Learning/E-Moderation and would be willing to give it a go. Demand for it is certainly healthy. However, objectively my preference would be for Blended Learning, even if there's not so much of it about yet. What do you think?

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Virtual Learning Environments: how can we make the most of their potential?

A virtual learning environment (or VLE) is a web-based platform, designed to support teachers in the management of educational courses. It can serve to support online, blended or even primarily classroom-based instruction. Some, like Blackboard, cost money to use or lease, whereas others  (e.g. Moodle or Edmodo) are open-source and so free at the point of use (although there remains a charge to host a Moodle site). You often find them being used in higher education.

In this post, I'll be looking principally at two widely-used open-source solutions: Moodle - which is used extensively here at Warwick University - and Edmodo, which today hosts much of the activity on EVO2014's excellent "Business English Trainers" online course that I'm currently participating in.

Relevance and Rationale
VLEs serve to bring several synchronous and asynchronous communication tools "under one roof". Such platforms can help educators pull together blogs, wikis, forums, chats and even sites hosting content in an efficient, easy-to-use and visually appealing manner. 

Of course, it is up to the institution or teacher to create material to populate the VLE, which starts off as an empty vessel. Teachers may upload Word documents and PowerPoint/Prezi presentations to the site, create online quizzes, provide links to relevant websites, or import streaming video or audio files. Alternatively, in some situations, an institution may instead buy publisher-created digital content which a teacher may be free to customize to the requirements of a specific course.

At its simplest, a VLE is a delivery system for documents and other information, which may reduce learners' reliance on print-outs and make it much easier for students to pick up material, deliver exercises and find out information about the course electronically. However, one may actually go considerably further than this and use a VLE to develop quite sophisticated courses. As Pete Sharma and Barney Barrett point out in their excellent book Blended Learning: using technology in and beyond the language classroom (Macmillan Education, 2007), it is quite possible to mark placement tests automatically, group projects using synchronous and asynchronous communication, and introduce web quests and many other teaching approaches applicable to a blended-learning environment without needing any programming knowledge.

From a learner's perspective, the fact that a VLE permits them to access (or re-access) material at a time to suit them is a clear benefit, and there is evidence to suggest that this positively affects student performance. To give but one example, sample essays can greatly aid students on EAP courses or working towards an IELTS examination.

The potential for course content to be re-used is a big plus for teachers, who may for example later combine it with other content for different learning purposes. If teachers design content with re-use in mind, a VLE can help teachers increase their flexibility and productivity.

The enhanced security offered by a VLE is another attractive feature, which will go quite some way towards reassuring parents of minors and companies concerned about the use of internal material during corporate courses.

Propensity to foster language learning
Moodle is used extensively by Warwick University, and it certainly seems to help students get themselves organized. Course information is readily accessible there from the start of term, a certain amount of recommended scanned reading is also posted, and some lecturers additionally make use of wikis to encourage discussion outside of class. Work is handed in and returned using Tabula, a different system, but the two tools complement each other quite well. I'd say Moodle helps makes the learning process at Warwick more efficient.

Meanwhile, an Edmodo classroom has been used by the IATEFL BESIG online team as its VLE for its EVO2014 online course involving c. 200 students from around the world. It has been instructive to see the 5-week course unfold: besides being offered two Adobe Connect webinars a week, the tasks for the week are posted on a wiki, and participants are asked to post their responses in the appropriate place on Edmodo. It's a large class, but the BESIG team is very organized and the moderators generally respond within a day to everyone. Participants are free to read and/or comment on each other's contributions, and this has led to some very interesting exchanges of ideas and sometimes more!

In my previous job, I did make intermittent use of the institution's VLE (a tool called Coospace) in ways that went beyond simply sharing texts and setting/marking work. I made class announcements on noticeboards, posted videos and other content that supported what we were doing in class, and even on one occasion got one class to use a private "blog" feature instead of writing an essay for my eyes only.

Overall, I'd say VLEs can extend possibilities for interaction considerably. International collaboration becomes easier, and even within the confines of a single institution, one can extend students' opportunities to communicate in their L2 or provide flipped instruction by posting videos online and thereby create space for more communicative practice in class.

Moreover, the possibilities extend beyond simply students posting homework online, as Lizzie Pinard suggests in a  recent post. Used in the right way, tools such as Edmodo can be used in ways which encourage students to take ownership of their own learning and become more autonomous of their teacher.

In one sense, it is hard to imagine a "blank canvas" of a VLE as limiting teachers or learners! There are so many ways it can be put to good use. But I nevertheless feel one caveat is in order, in situations where face-to-face instruction is presumed to be the basic mode of instruction.

First and foremost, students in such classes need to regard the VLE and content posted there as an integral part of the course they are studying for. If they see it as somehow separate from classroom instruction or inessential, problems will occur. Indicating from the start that you mean to integrate the online space with your teaching can certainly help, but if this is not the norm where you work, there may still be issues.

Therefore, I'd say the institutional culture needs to support, or better still, champion VLE use. Management needs to show it is interested in how VLEs are being used to improve student learning outcomes, else less-than-intrinsically motivated teachers and learners will be reluctant to make much use of them. Fortunately, Moodle is treated with considerable seriousness here at Warwick, and the existence of a Technology Enhanced Learning Forum is a very encouraging sign.

To sum up: VLE adoption doesn't just happen, it needs to be nurtured. I'm very grateful to be studying now at an institution where this is clearly the case.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Word clouds: a great way to focus on form?

Podcasting, as illustrated by MyBrainshark, the topic of my last post, clearly has a lot of pedagogic potential and I'm pretty enthusiastic about it just now.

In today's post, though, I'd like to look at the idea of "Word clouds" and their potential to help language teachers focus learner attention on vocabulary and language forms. The first tool I'd like to review is Wordle, a free Internet-based application which allows you to input texts and then generate "word clouds" based on them. 

So here is one I prepared earlier, based on the transcript from the podcast I gave last time:

I've chosen to display words horizontally, but several display options exist (e.g. vertically, 50/50, "any which way"). I've also reduced the number of words shown from the 150 most common within the overall text to the top 30. This gives the key words from the test the greatest visual prominence; the most frequently occurring words are the largest of all. A significant variety of fonts, layouts and colour schemes for background and text is also available.

Relevance and rationale
Reading activities in ELT textbooks are often preceded by a short introduction focusing learner attention on the topic, topic vocabulary, or both. Wordle makes it easy for teachers to do the same with authentic texts in a way that is visually appealing.

Compared with a number of other tools, an advantage worth noting is that the images generated by Wordle are essentially yours: you don't need to sign up for an account or provide an e-mail address in order to use to the tool.

Propensity to promote language learning
In its basic form, Wordle is easy to use, and that's a definite plus for teachers who can experiment until they find designs that best suit their purposes. It's visually appealing, too: much better, you might argue, than a mere word list for teaching vocabulary! In a separate post which also looks at other "word cloud" tools, Shelly Terrell suggests ways in which phrases may be grouped together for such a purpose, or even overlaid on an image.

Wordle can also support reading lessons, as Russell Stannard points out. Word clouds can be used for the purposes of predicting what a text will be about. You can also elicit from students what they think key words mean. At higher ability levels, you can also use the tool to help students look for dominant motifs in "serious" discourse (see Teachers First for this, and other more challenging suggestions).

Russell is also right to point out that Wordle can also be used to support peer review of students' writing. It may help raise awareness of how the use of synonyms and a greater variety of language can improve one's style.

There are a few limitations, unfortunately. Once a "wordle" has been created, you cannot really modify the words; "randomizing" the design also does not allow you to go back to what you had earlier.

In addition, you cannot specify the canvas size or shape using the tool. Posters (e.g. Glogster) or web pages such as this blog may require more flexibility. I did find a way round this problem using a combination of Jing and Screencast to get the image shown here the size I wanted it, but I had to teach myself how to use another tool to achieve the end result.

Overall, though, Wordle looks like a good tool and worth using in a number of ways to focus learner attention on key words in texts you're showing them or in their own compositions. It doesn't have the "thesaurus" capability of Wordsift (another good tool), but it's a colourful way to do something akin to concordance analysis and looks nice: used well, I believe it can engage learners. I'd like to give it a try next time I have the opportunity.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

MyBrainshark: the incredible value of voice-over

This week at Warwick we had the unique privilege of being taught by Russell Stannard, who probably needs no introduction!

In the first of two sessions we were introduced to a number of important tools, several of which have considerable potential in terms of podcasting/vodcasting. They all have their uses and it was great to be shown!

Today, however, I'd like to focus on one in particular - MyBrainshark - as I believe it has huge potential: not just in terms of getting students to practise speaking (Russell is certainly right about that), but also in terms of facilitating constructivist learning in blended or "flipped classroom" contexts.

To illustrate what I mean, here is a short presentation I prepared earlier on the subject of "Learning Styles", a topic that aroused a great deal of interest during this week's EVO2014 Business English Teachers course (something I've been participating in online in parallel to my MA studies). In so doing, I'd like to thank the webinar presenter, Marjorie Rosenberg for getting me so interested in the topic.

I've used the tool in conjunction with PowerPoint in this instance, but MyBrainshark in fact works equally well with Word documents, PDF files and even pictures/videos…it compresses all the information and makes it available on the web. And in its basic form, it's free!

[Russell Stannard provides an excellent, step-by-step guide to the tool at http://www.teachertrainingvideos.com/brain/index.html.]

Relevance and rationale
As such, it permits the easy distribution of mini-lectures like the one I've embedded above. These can be viewed by learners ahead of class, meaning they turn up briefed on the subject that's to be studied. 

As pioneers of the "flipped classroom" idea have previously pointed out, this saves a huge amount of classroom time and paves the way for students to concentrate on applying, rather than simply receiving ideas in class. Meanwhile, the teacher is better able to position himself/herself as a facilitator of learning during contact hours, and can better differentiate between individual learner needs as they have more time to spend with the students.

This "flipped classroom" approach will work provided that teachers from the outset get students to see  that the online and physical learning environments are connected, as Pete Sharma wisely points out in another post.

Propensity to foster language learning
Meanwhile, as Russell Stannard has pointed out, this tool can also offer students the opportunity digitally to reflect on their learning and practise their speaking without necessarily feeling under pressure of assessment. In business school contexts - where formal presentation skills are often highly emphasized and repeatedly assessed, but actual introductory training may be lacking - I'd suggest this offers two good ways forward.

First, teachers can demonstrate good presentation technique simply by showing a presentation they've prepared earlier and asking students to analyze it. In my experience, demonstrating communication skills (e.g. introducing the talk; signposting language) beats simply telling students to do things they're unfamiliar with any day!

But secondly, Russell's right when it comes to giving students more confidence to speak up. By allowing students a "dry run" (even if it's rehearsed) with their presentations - and giving personalized feedback - teachers can encourage students and help them feel a lot less stressed when they have to present to the class under test conditions.

Alternatively - within a different set-up, perhaps - students can be invited to create a number of reflective podcasts and submit those they're happiest with for assessment. MyBrainshark may not be the only tool worth using for this purpose, but it's certainly a good option for many students.

Potential limitations
Admittedly, Present.me (another great tool) offers one thing MyBrainshark does not - it permits viewers to watch both presentation slides and a presenter simultaneously, in a manner not unlike a webinar (minus the backchannel element).

However, one can argue that a) this isn't always necessary for a presentation to be considered successful, and b) some learners would rather opt for audio only if offered the choice over how to create content. So if it were up to me, I'd ask learners to decide for themselves which tool to go for.

All in all, I think MyBrainshark is a superb tool and well worth using for instructional purposes in E-learning/blended learning contexts. It can also be very motivating for students to use it and receive personalized feedback from their teacher online. I would recommend it to fellow teachers without hesitation.