On my Trinity DiplTESOL course we write essays, and they’re helpful to think things through. Here’s a long one I wrote about using technology in class. It’s based on my experience and is related to a talk I gave last November at BESIG, which in turn grew out of the ELTAS TechToolsDay. Louise Kennedy has suggested me for a workshop at the school she teaches at in Hamburg, which is super, and I’m looking forward to trying things out and exploring/exchanging ideas with the teachers there. But that’s way off, in November. So just to put this in a safe place… All the references in the text are at the bottom, with links. — If you have any suggestions, or if you can confirm my experience or have experience that differs, I’d love to hear from you!
1. Advances in technology are facilitating learning globally
Back in 2000, John Seely Brown, former CSO of Xerox Corporation, wrote:
“with the Web, we suddenly have a medium that honors multiple forms of intelligence – abstract, textual, visual, musical, social, and kinesthetic. As educators, we now have a chance to construct a medium that enables all young people to become engaged in their ideal way of learning.”
He identified aspects of the ongoing shift, highlighting what he called “multiprocessing”, “navigation”, “discovery-learning” and “social learning”, and foresaw that communities of practice would emerge, engaging in the social construction of knowledge in their areas. Later he would call the way social networks draw their members out of traditional roles and institutions and into these new learning communities “The Power of Pull” (Hagel/Brown/Davison 2010).
That power is clearly at work in our profession. The Internet has given us access to a huge knowledge base, while social networking has provided personal connections that allow us to share information with an extended circle of “colleagues” and “friends”. Cloud computing simplifies organizing and sharing data from multiple sources, while mobile devices let us access it nearly anywhere. “Connected learning” has become a way of life, and more and more apps are being produced for autonomous learners. In short, both we and our students have a new world of tools and materials at our disposal.
So what does that mean for us teachers? How people learn language through social media and self-study is not yet fully understood. Our profession is currently going through a steep learning curve in how to incorporate these new learning channels in our teaching, both in regular classes (Dudeney/ Hockly 2007) and in distance courses (Hockly/Clandfield 2010). In this essay I would therefore like to concentrate on my own experience, thinking over how I’ve used new media in face-to-face lessons, and what has and hasn’t worked well. I hope to clarify through reflection what implications this has for my further development as a teacher of English.
2. Implications for teaching
Adult learners in my classes today appear to be far more autonomous than they were ten years ago. Today, they rarely express interest in using a course book. Instead, they are most interested in content that is up-to-date, authentic, and retrieved at short notice. Video, audio and online practise are expected, and they want tips on apps to use on their own. They may be happy to do some extended reading with a graded reader or other material outside class, as long as they don’t tie themselves down long-term. For example, Fiction In Action: Whodunit (Gray/ Benevides 2010) was a hit with one of my classes, but after only one of the stories, they were ready to move on.
In my one-to-one classes, students want something else entirely. They generally have a clear agenda, and require progress coaching, with immediate feedback on their recorded output. Like the group learners, the one-to-ones are modular learners and take a discriminating “iTunes approach” to the media and materials they purchase.
While there have been materials available online for years (BBC Learning English and IT’s Teachers since 1996, Macmillan’s One Stop English and Spotlight since 2000 with Business Spotlight following soon after, Sean Banville’s self-published Breaking News English since 2005), only very recently have publishers begun providing online textbooks in small modules (English 360), geared to online and blended learning. However, we still need to tailor offline materials to student needs. Like most teachers, I go online to find pertinent material, adding content from dictionaries, thesauruses, corpora, encyclopedias like Wikipedia, and editing them into worksheets for class. Other media, from podcasts to downloaded videos and online scripts, complete the lesson.
Some online tools simplify making supplementary exercises. The sophisticated Lesson Writer (thanks, Louise!) lets you input a reading text, then generates options for grammar, vocabulary, word roots and phonemic exercises, and gives Bloom’s prompts for the teacher to write comprehension questions. Other lesson writing tools, including puzzle makers, have not quite caught up with best practice in teaching. While there are many crossword creator apps (e.g. Puzzle Maker), none of them allows you to create communicative crosswords that allow students A and B to collaborate (thanks, Jo!). The set of online tools we have for materials design is a result of disjointed Internet growth before social networking started informing and driving the development of more effective apps.
2.2 Using apps with more autonomous learners
Asynchronous social game apps like Scrabble for the iPhone (Words with Friends) are showing how “connected learning” could become more entertaining in the future as the market develops. But “ELT has yet to get a grip on smartphones”, as Moore and Sweeny point out. There is still an “over-reliance on multiple choice and true/false questions.” (Moore 2011).
Actually, however, there are already plenty of available apps that teachers and students can use in class to enable collaborative, constructivist learning, using content that students can enter. Some of them can be used in tried and tested ways, while others suggest we need to develop new teaching methods. Here is a selection of apps I have tried out with learners.
a. Apps for reading
In reading-related apps, the most popular tool so far has been Wordle, a word cloud tool that collects words by automatically extracting the most frequent ones from a text or website. Word clouds can be used to summarize a subject, predict or reconstruct or revise a text, compare two texts, memorize the spelling of words, start storytelling, etc. A tool similar to Wordle is Tagxedo, which turns each word to a tag linking to an online word search. This invites further online exploration of words in context. Another excellent explorative tool is the VocabGrabber, part of the Visual Thesaurus, which analyzes text and highlights useful vocabulary, outputting word lists. Of these three tools, Wordle is perhaps most suited for classroom use, because it is intuitive, self-explanatory, produces a finite outcome rather than being an open-ended tool, and therefore focuses learners’ attention and communication on the in-class task. The other two apps are perhaps more engaging for self-study, as they are more complex and allow even more “multiprocessing”, “navigation” and “discovery-learning”.
b. Apps for writing
The many tools available to teach writing include blogs (Posterous), wikis (Wikispaces, PBWiki) as well as forums and chats, which can be a part of integrated platforms like Ning or Moodle. Preliminary studies suggest that language learners make most progress when they keep reflective diaries, guided by tasks (and “blog challenges”) that are read and evaluated by both the teacher and their peers. However, it is not clear whether online diaries in blogs are substantially more effective than offline ones in notebooks or files, though online writing has been linked to slighter higher results (Lund 2009). Forums and wikis (and taking part in blog discussions) offer an opportunity for communicative writing, a life skill that connects back to the learners’ real, professional environment. Finally, chat is being used experimentally to teach English in class. However, a recent preliminary study (Douglas 2010) suggests that chat is slower than normal conversation, giving students fewer opportunities for turn-taking and hence “noticing” language, making it less effective than conversation for in-class learning. Slow typing, the study says, may contribute to lower student engagement levels and concentration.
A sensitive issue I’ve had trouble with is correction. Feedback procedures need to be clarified, especially when drafts and feedback are visible online to all participants. I’ve discovered that writing online comes in many guises, and we need to distinguish between ad hoc blogging, which is process-oriented, and the more formal task of essay writing, which aims to produce a deliverable product, at least down the line. For essays, I use Word documents or GoogleDocs (thanks, Karenne!), as they let both me and the peer reviewers use highlighting and mark-up for feedback. By contrast, students write in blogs without getting a list of errors in my comments. I did consider the option of editing texts before they were posted in blogs and forums, but that destroys the idea that students should be engaging in meaningful communication before they begin to worry about errors. So instead, we concentrate on the conversation, and I may recast/ paraphrase some aspect, or select an error, sandwiching a form-related comment between the meaning-related ones.
There are many more tools that can be used to get students writing, such as making a comic strip (Bitstrips, MakeBeliefsComix), penning a minimal story (Twitter), adding captions and subtitles to a video (YouTube) or creating quizzes for other students (ProProfs) (thanks Barbara!). Anything students produce can be embedded in a class wiki. A class that enjoys technology can find such tasks very engaging, but these apps do take time to learn, which needs to be factored in. They are nice add-ons and motivators for techy students to take home and work on and then share.
c. Apps for speaking
Recording students has a long pedigree in teaching. The didactics are solid: The act of performing live before an audience, taking center stage, stimulates performance through peer pressure.
Many voice recording apps promote speaking. Ian James has presented a wide variety of useful and accessible ones in his blog (see James 2011a and 2011b) (thanks Ian!). As he shows, a semi-scripted voice recording task promotes concentration and performance. Another teacher (Picardo 2011) has reported using Voki, an app that allows students to create an imaginative avatar before they actually record themselves, to evaluate his students. The playfulness of this virtual performance seems to me to be one of the reasons why particularly the shy students do well. Using a recording tool to comment on a picture (e.g. Fotobabble) may work in a slightly different way. As it focuses attention away from the speaker, and to the picture, it may make the speaker a little less self-conscious. Students could theoretically also make their own podcasts (PodOmatic), but mine so far have not found creating a broadcast for a wider audience an interesting task, preferring their recordings to be listened to in class, only.
Students use laptop webcams to record themselves, and phones and my Flip Mino to film each other. These recordings can be saved and studied (Vimeo, where videos can be made private, and are not found by search engines) (thanks, John!).
Other new apps are emerging that are expanding the way we can teach, suggesting new methods that need to be tested before we know what our students will get out of them. For teaching speaking, for example, a student could use a dictation app (spoken word to text) like Dragon Dictation for iPhone. But what exactly would the outcome be? The learner would have turned a spoken text into a written one. Could that serve as an awareness raising exercise in differentiating between spoken and written registers? Trinity Course participant Andy Wilson had the great idea that Dragon Dictation could be used by students to consider the consequences of poor pronunciation. He said:
“I teach monolingual classes and recently did a class on pronunciation where they had to dictate sentences with the wrong pronunciation to each other. They were amazed at how difficult they found it to understand the sentences and how it must feel for perhaps a native speaker trying to make sense of what they were saying. May be this app could be used in a similar way?”
I have also experimented with two quite new online technologies more loosely related to speaking, namely text to voice technology (e.g. iSpeech, Voki and Xtranormal), and text chat with a chatbot (ESLRobots). Tasks involving these tools can be entertaining and educating for students, though they are paradox, because the machines are clearly not “up to” human speech. In the case of the text to speech voices, the phonetics and connected speech don’t sound human. One class I taught experimented by placing commas strategically, to change the phrasing, but ultimately decided that is was better to record real voices. Another class enjoyed a funny chat with a chatbot and then took the chatlog apart, asking “Where does this sound human” and “where does this sound like a robot”? Their reflections on “what was wrong” raised analytical awareness with regard to pragmatics in English. (I later used that lesson to make an online exercise at Spotlight here. Thanks, Morphosys/Chicago!)
d. Apps for listening
Obviously, any speaking activity that is recorded can lead into a listening activity, but this deals with external recordings. Apps can include podcasts, easily accessed though a mobile device, or dipping into the vast listening archives now available online, for example to The Speech Accent Archive. Learning sites pair online listening with interactive comprehension questions and quizzes, often dedicated a certain area (e.g. Lyrics Training). Other options include using dictation practice sites (Listen and Write) or, for gist listening and writing practice, subtitling videos (YouTube), to name just a few.
Overall, using apps in class should be fun and motivating for learners. If they feel like a “task” in the negative sense of the word, something is going wrong. Didn’t Brown say that young people should become engaged in their ideal way of learning? So apps can and should encourage a playful, more holistic, yet still outcome-oriented approach to learning that may, at least for a short time, eclipse the main purpose of practicing the language. I think that how learners relate to learning in the long run matters more. Note to self: A bit of fun and games cannot hurt.
Secondly, there will hopefully be a great deal of research on the effectiveness of connected learning. It’s on my agenda to see whether new methods I find myself using are based solely on my own learning preferences, or whether there is actually evidence that backs them up or contradicts them.
Finally, the burden of expertise and investment is increasingly being placed on teachers, as the language lab with its institutional constraints, support system and investment is being replaced by wifi and mobile technologies. At the moment, the old and the new technology cultures are in competition, at least at the universities. The challenge is to handle changing technical and social issues as they arise. Which channels we use for support and advice may change, but with the Web, we will continue to have a tool that can assure “connected learning”.
- Brown, John S., (2002). Growing Up Digital: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn. United States Distance Learning Association. Vol. 16, No. 2 (Originally published in Change, March/April 2000, pp 10-20.) Retrieved on December 10, 2004, from http://www.usdla.org/html/journal/FEB02_Issue/article01.html
- Hagel, John/ Brown, John S./ Davison, Lang (2010). The Power of Pull. How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion. Basic Books.
- Dudeney, Gavin/ Hockly, Nicky (2007): How to Teach English with Technology. Peason/Longman.
- Hockly, Nicky/ Clandfield, Lindsay (2010): Teaching Online. Tools and Techniques, Options and Opportunities. Peason/Longman.
- Lunt, Tom (2009): Student performance and the Electronic Portfolio in WEBLEARN: an analysis of students use of online reflective diaries. Investigations in university teaching and learning vol. 5 (2) Spring 2009 ISSN 1740-5106. Accessed March 2011.
- Hamano-Bunce, Douglas (2010): Talk or chat? Chatroom and spoken interaction in a language classroom. ELT Journal Advance Access published December 21, 2010. Downloaded from http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2010/12/20/elt.ccq084.full.pdf on March 3, 2011.
- James, Ian (2011a): TeflTeacher. Tasks, Videos and Opinions for Tefl Teachers. TESOL Spain Regional Event 18/02/2011, http://tefltecher.wordpress.com/2011/02/18/tesol-spain-thingy/. Direct link to Slideshare: Online Speaking.
- James, Ian (2011b): Online Speaking. http://onlinespeaking.tumblr.com, Accessed February 2011.
- Jose Jose Picardo (2011): Voki in the Language Classroom. http://blog.voki.com/2011/03/03/voki-in-the-languages-classroom/ In: Voki for Education Blog, 3 Macrh 2011. (His students’ Vokis here.)
- Moore, Caroline (2011): ELT needs to get a grip on smartphones. The potential offered by app technology and mobile learning is not being exploited by mainstream publishers. Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 8 March 2011 Accessed 8 May 2011
- BBC World Service – Learning English: “Comprehensive materials for intermediate to advanced ESL learners from the BBC World Service.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/
- It’s teachers: “online magazine for English Language Teachers” http://www.its-teachers.com/default.asp
- Onestopenglish/ Macmillan: “Free materials to download plus lesson ideas, games and competitions and professional support.” http://www.onestopenglish.com/
- Spotlight Online: “”Englisch online lernen und üben, mit unterhaltsamen Übungen und Tests zu Grammatik und Vokabular, sowie Audio und Video.” http://www.spotlight-online.de/
- Business Spotlight Online: “Business-Englisch lernen und üben mit Business Spotlight Online, außerdem Tipps zur interkulturellen Kommunikation und zum beruflichen Erfolg.” http://www.business-spotlight.de/
- Sean Banville: Breaking News English: “ESL Plans Teaching Current Events. English lesson plans: Free EFL/ESL lessons and online activities, handouts and podcast for teaching current events, speaking, listening…” http://www.breakingnewsenglish.com/
- English 360: “Teaching Business English and ESP online.” “English360 is the fast and easy way of delivering blended learning programmes for your clients.” http://www.english360.com/
- Gray, Adam & Benevides, Marcos (2010): Fiction In Action: Whodunit (Creative Commons Edition) http://www.abax.net/catalogue/fiction-in-action-whodunit-creative-commons-edition.html
- Wordle: “Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.” http://www.wordle.net/
- Tagxedo: “Tagxedo turns words… into a visually stunning tag cloud, words individually sized appropriately to highlight the frequencies of occurrence within the body of text.” http://www.tagxedo.com/
- VocabGrabber: “VocabGrabber analyzes any text you’re interested in, generating lists of the most useful vocabulary words and showing you how those words are used in context.” http://www.visualthesaurus.com/vocabgrabber/
- Lesson Writer: “Create lessons & lessons plans in minutes.” http://www.lessonwriter.com/
- Puzzle Maker: “Free Puzzle Maker: Choose your puzzle type”. http://www.puzzle-maker.com/
- Fotobabble: – Talking Photos. “Add your voice to any photo.” http://www.fotobabble.com/
- Voki: “Voki is a free service that allows you to create personalized speaking avatars and use them on your blog, profile, and in email messages.” http://www.voki.com/
- ESLRobots: http://www.eslfast.com/robot/shop.htm
- George Mason University: The speech accent archive. “The speech accent archive uniformly presents a large set of speech samples from a variety of language backgrounds.” http://accent.gmu.edu/
- Lyrics Training: “Lyrics Training is an easy and fun method to learn and improve your foreign languages skills like English, through the music videos and typing the lyrics of the songs.” http://www.lyricstraining.com/
- Bitstrips: “Bitstrips is your online funny pages. Turn yourself & your friends into cartoon characters, and create & share your own awesome comic strips!” http://www.bitstrips.com/
- MakeBeliefsComix: “Create, print, email and post to Facebook your original comic strips” http://www.makebeliefscomix.com/
- ProProfs Quiz Maker: “Easiest Way To Create Online Tests & Quizzes” http://www.proprofs.com/quiz-school/
- Listen and Write: “Improve your listening skills and hear about the news.” http://www.listen-and-write.com/audio