Saturday, 22 February 2014

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?

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