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:

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

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" ( 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.