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.