Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Project 'Write' for General English Intermediate

The role of writing in our life has changed over the centuries and the digital era has seen an increase in writing thanks to the popularity of e-mails, web forums, social networks and so on. However, these texts tend to be really short, and long, formal writing seems to be less necessary in this era. But still, a number of reasons push us to promote writing in the classroom:

  • First, many students have the need to develop their writing skills because of their work or because they need to write academic documents, or simply because their area require lots of writing.
  • Second, the mental process when we write involves more time to think, giving time for the student to reflect on the language, to rehearse it, to make mistakes and find alternatives and solutions to any problem they might face during the process.

Most learners nowadays live in a world of electronic text, spending most of their time reading and writing on computers, thus, Wikis are valuable tools for teachers to promote collaborative learning in a stress-free, learner-centred environment, where teachers-learners, as well as learners-learners can keep constant communication. Also, this is the proper space for the students to store their written work, since they can keep track of their work, revise and edit as many times as they please, allowing self-reflection.

According to the needs analyses that have been applied to many courses of General English at The British Council Venezuela, most of those who have steady jobs would like to improve their English either to get a promotion, to be able to speak fluently with their English-native peers or to get a position in another country. Most students who take these courses are looking forward to improving their English either to study abroad or to take the IELTS exam. Also, it’s more common that they express interest in improving their productive skills, in other words, writing and speaking skills.

To sum up, I have these punctual objectives:

  1. Provide the students of general English courses with a learner-centred environment to develop their writing skills.
  2. Foster collaborative learning, as well as the development of my learners’ digital competences.
  3. Raise learners’ awareness of the importance of storing, keeping track and revising their written work.
  4. Collect information about how practical the tool is for the students and whether they consider that it can help them to improve their writing skills.
  5. Gather the students’ opinion regarding collaborative writing, teacher/peer feedback and teacher/peer assessment.

I’m going to work with an intermediate level catalogued as 5B in the British Council’s system, in which we are supposed to cover modules 4-6 of the New Cutting Edge Intermediate students’ book, which cover these three topics: life events, success (the world of work) and in the media.

The participant learners will have to follow the steps below:
  • Access the weekly pages and complete the tasks.
  • Learners have to give peer feedback to their classmates’ writings and comments and encourage more writing.
  • Peer correction guided by the teacher is mandatory and preferibly on time. Consider that, if this is not done, your partner will not be aware of things to improve.
  • Deadlines will be given for weekly tasks. This will be considered in the evaluation.
  • The learners will work on an essay as their final project, strictly following the steps recommended by the instructor
  • At the end of the course, the learners will complete a survey regarding their experience using Wikis and all its implications (e.g.collaborative writing, peer feedback)

The weekly tasks can be seen in detail by visiting the correspondent Wiki here:


Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Web-based Lessons, E-portfolios and Assessment

Picture taken from www.webanywhere.us
As we have seen so far, educators today can take advantage of new information technologies in many different ways, for instance, blogging, podcasting, even twitting. There are many tools we can use either to increase and share our knowledge, to foster our students' digital literacy while they develop different skills through online work, or even simply to make our classes a bit more dynamic. This leads us to changes in traditional concepts such as e-learning (a few entries ago) and even lesson planning, with the rise of the concept of web-based lessons.
But what is a web-based lesson? it is simply a lesson that incorporates one or more websites, and it can be conducted either entirely online or mayb in a traditional classroom setting with an online component. These websites can be used for different purposes: research, reading, writing, publishing, and even simple communication and collaboration with teachers and learners. 
There are many reasons why a web-based lesson is considered beneficial, but I will limit myself to these basics:

Such variety of resources and information on the web can inspire very original activities, as well as they can facilitate the creation of lessons related to any topic a teacher can imagine.
This variety of media (texts, videos, audios, others) found online is, apart from exciting, really positive and conductive for different learning styles.

Of course, it has to be said that planning a web-based lesson is way different to planning a traditional, one/two-hour classroom lessons. Consider that asynchronous learning involves that the student works on his/her own rythm, but yet, your lesson needs to structure your students' time on the web properly. Also, your lesson needs to point the students in the correct direction and towards a specific aim within the internet environment, otherwise, you will have your students aimlessly surfing the web. In other words, setting the time spent in each activity, clear giving clear instructions and guide them through specific web-pages is crucial when planning this type of lessons.
Another important thing to consider is the outcome of the lesson, what the students have to produce and what to do with this product. Information technologies have brought the possibility for the students to have what are called e-portfolios (or electronic portfolios). These are a valuable collection of learners' work which enables them to keep track of their own learning through self-evaluation and self-reflection and, of course, different from traditional protfolios, these are published on the web: web-folios, blog-folios, facebook-based e-portfolios and wiki-based e-portfolios are some of the most commonly used. 
Students' interest in social media and virtual worlds have led educators to adopt them, but there are other reasons why they seem to be beneicial and useful:

They are believed to facilitate teacher-student collaboration, active learning, self-reflection and self-assessment as well as responsibility of learning.
They allow easy storage of learners' work.
Traditional portfolios are characterized with limited access to a smaller audience, while e-portfolios provide access to a wider range of consumers.
It is available at any time and anywhere to provide feedback and to check learners' ongoing progress.
They contribute to learning in a stress-free, collaborative and learner-centred environment.
Receiving feedback from teachers and peers through e-portfolios develops a more interactive context in web-enhanced language learning modes.

Another issue that may be of interest when it comes to web-learning and teaching is the assessment. As students take control of their own learning, teachers' ways to assess students changed as well. The web provides educators with a wide range of tools to improve assessment strategies and make it more adaptative to the students' learning requirements, as well as we can provide more effective forms of feedback via video, audio or computer.
This can also be done through item banks within digital platforms such as Easy Test Maker. where questions can be assessed and indexed so that learners are given tests that match their abilities, or these questions could be randomized and all students shall receive questions with similar difficulty levels. This also allows students to sit at different times without invalidating the test. Overall, according to several practitioners' recent research, assessment can be done through:

Recording and uploading students' work to support reflections.
Giving instant feedback through auto-scoring computer quizzes or online teacher feedback.
Using the distance of the online environment to more comfortably give feedback to peers.
Providing learners with data to review targets and identify focus areas.
Enabling teachers and learners to exchange messages using commentary boxes and audio notes.

It has been found that through web-assessment students were more likely to complete tasks and produce quality work when they were peer assessed using blogs or student response systems were part of the process, specially because collaboration and peer review through blogging, discussion boards and other resources has proven to encourage better performance. As for the benefits this brings to us teachers, we can assess different skills using the same digital tool, as well as monitoring students' results online makes assessment more instantaneous and timely, which leads to more opportunities for remedial action.

If you are interested in reading further on this topic, I recommend you to check out this article written by Matthew Prineas and Marie Cini, Assessing Learning in Online Education, The Role of Technology in Improving Student Outcomes: http://www.learningoutcomeassessment.org/documents/onlineed.pdf

Also, preparing a web-based lesson my not be easy task for novices, so you may find this guide quite useful: http://crescentok.com/staff/jaskew/WebBased/assignments2.htm

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Learning Networks and Communities of Practice

Picture taken from www.socialserviceinstitute.sg

If we go back a few entries, we shall remember that part of the digital competencies expected from teachers of the new era include collaborative learning and sharing of knowledge. Teachers are expected to be learners and producers of knowledge, constantly engaged with educational experimentation and innovation. This, of course, shall be achieved by working collaboratively with their colleagues and outside experts. Hence, this leads to the fact that teachers must be literate in the use of a variety of digital resources, networked devices to create and support a community of knowledge and collaborative learning.

This social learning system includes what are called Communities of Practice (CoPs). These are groups of people who share an interest or a passion about a particular topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise by regularly interacting. Of course, more than just sharing an interest, communities of practice are focused on a domain of knowledge and, more than just sharing interests, their goal is to develop their shared practice by dealing in community with problems, solutions, and building a common store of knowledge.

For developing professionally, educators nowadays can build their own Personal or Professional Learning Network (PLN), a system of interpersonal connections that foster and support informal learning. Two types of systems can be used as PLNs:

  • ·         Information aggregation systems: used to collect and organize information regarding a topic from various resources. It helps users to stay up-to-date on theories, practices and news in the field. Among this type of systems we have the RSS reader and Social Bookmarking tools such as Diigo. The first collects information from various websites and allows educators to skim through hundreds of pages, web sites, wikis and articles in order to find the most relevant information. The second, allows users to highlight, tag and organize relevant web pages, and by joining a group you receive shared bookmarks from all members in the group regularly.

  • ·         Social media connections: provide users with a space to connect with a global audience. Apart from popular social media tools such as Facebook or Twitter, there are also interest-based groups, such as GoogleGroups or Ning. In other words, these can be any online place where you can connect with other individuals: websites, discussion forums, social networking sites and so on.

In general, literature highlights many reasons why educators should use PLNs, and some of them are the following:

·         They help people learn from each other in a communal way. Educator can use them to ask for help, feedback and ideas.

·         They’re more flexible and personalized than conventional place-based conventional education.

·         They can be accessed any time and anywhere.

·         Instead of waiting for scheduled workshops, educators can ask for help through their PLNs and get immediate responses.

But not only educators find PLNs advantageous, but they’ve also proven to be useful for learners in many areas of expertise:

·         Many students are part of PLNs to learn skills that they’re not taught in their schools, such as photography, graphic design, even foreign languages.

·         They learn by participating in discussion forums, sharing their work and receiving feedback as part of collective knowledge building group.

If you have further interest in the concept of Communities of Practice, I recommend you to read this article written by Etienne Wenger, the author who is believed to have coined this concept: Communities  of  Practice  and  Social  Learning  Systems:  the  Career  of  a  Concept. http://wenger-trayner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/09-10-27-CoPs-and-systems-v2.0.pdf

I also recommend you this article if you’re interested in helping your students to create a PLN: Helping Students Develop a Personal Learning Network, written by Katie Becker, gives some tips to help your students, particularly young learners, to create and maintain a PLN. http://www.pearsonschoolsystems.com/blog/?p=2050#sthash.AaCaiHkL.dpbs

Monday, 9 June 2014

Video-making with ELT purposes

picture taken from imacify.com
In previous entries, I have reflected on the use of technology in ELT, from the different types of technology-enhanced learning, through the web itself, to specific applications and programs. All this focused on how these technologies help us improve the quality of our teaching and make our students’ learning more dynamic. Every day, new tools to deliver information are created and it is part of our development as teachers to learn how to use them or at least be aware of their potential for future projects where our learners are exposed to a larger amount of real material and also to more opportunities of interaction.

I mentioned recently how broadcasting technologies are a boom in ELT research. Every day, more and more tools are developed to record and store audio and video on the web, and more and more research is being carried out on how we can take the best out of these technologies to improve our students learning and give them, and us, more ways to use our knowledge and put into practice everything we learn. One of the less explored, but at the same time one that seems really promising, is the use of videos, screencasts and slideshares in the classroom. 

Teachers can use a variety of video editing programs such as Movie Maker to create educational videos either to use in class or to provide students with some extra practice outside the classroom. These videos can be uploaded to a host page such as YouTube, where our students would be able to access them anytime and anywhere. Nowadays, we have many programs that facilitate video-making, not only to install in our computers, but also web-based platforms. And with these programs we can create videos out of pictures and voice recording, but we can also record whatever we do in our computer!

Before I go any further, it is convenient to define this last type of video-recording: screencasting. It is basically the digital recording of whatever we do in our computer screen, which can and is usually accompanied by voiceover narration. We can screencast by using a Screen Capture Software (SCS), such as Screen-o-matic, Jing, Screenr, CamStudio, Tildee, all of which are free, and also paid software like Camtasia. This type of video has been used in a variety of fields so far, but pedagogically it seems to be more commonly used to create tutorials or to extend classroom lectures. Its use has been reported to be really successful when it comes to providing students with information and additional access to teaching and materials. The possibilities opened by this asynchronous access to learning materials, not only help us teachers whenever we need to make up for missed classes, but also to review materials given in class. 

Apart form this, screencasting has also proven to be useful to respond and give feedback to our students assignments, specifically those submitted in an electronic format such as a Word document, a Power Point presentation, a Web site or even a video. According to research, screencasting is a better vehicle for in depth explanatory feedback than traditional written comments: as you check your students work in your computer, you can record while you highlight and give on the spot comments or corrections to what your students have done; this material is later accessible to the students and can be watched over and over again if necessary and generate deeper reflections on the students’ own mistakes.

Overall, we could list a few of many uses for screencasting:

- To teach how to use a web tool by making a short tutorial. Here you’ll find an example of a tutorial I made on how to open a Wikispaces classroom, using Camtasia. 

- To give feedback to our students’ work.
- As video lecture.
- To make presentations.

Another useful tool is VoiceThread, a web platform where you can create your own slideshows, upload pictures, video and images; you can also add comments on these by adding your own voice.  These and many other tools I could count, but I prefer to focus on how these technologies are useful not only to make our classes more dynamic, give extra material or create a deeper connection with our students; our students can also use these tools on their own to carry out several types of activities, such as doing oral presentations, preparing projects such as making a short movie or tutorial, practise their use of the L2 and so on. 

If you’re interested in the use of screencasting in the ESL classroom I strongly recommend you to read this article by Riki Thompson and Meredith J. Lee, ‘Talking with Students Through Screencasting: Experimentation with Video Feedback to Improve Student Learning”. In this article, the authors reflect on how important it is to give constructive feedback to our students, particularly written work, and how screencasting is a potential tool to respond to assignments submitted in an electronic format.

I recommend you to have a look at this post by Deniz Atesok as well, ‘VoiceThread & Ways of Using it in EFL/ESL classes’. Here you may find some very good ideas and activities that can benefit from the use of a tool such as VoiceThread. http://denizatesok.edublogs.org/2011/03/31/voicethread-ways-of-using-it-in-eflesl-classes/

Deniz Atesok also gives us some tips and ideas on how to use YouTube videos in the post ‘Using YouTube to Teach Productive Skills’. Apart from learning how to make a video for our classroom, it is part of our development as teachers to learn how to use existent material, specially realia, that is available on the web for us to take as much advantage as we can of ICTs: http://denizatesok.edublogs.org/2011/05/21/using-youtube-to-teach-productive-skills/
Finally, I found this video on YouTube about an ESL course whose project was to make a video. It is a sample of how students can practice their language through task-based learning, in a collaborative environment and using information and communication technologies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39o0bh42C_c

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Podcasting for ESL-EFL purposes

picture taken from www.webanywhere.co.uk

As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, we’re living in a mobile society. We’re never in one place, and we can have Internet access almost everywhere we go. And apart from the creation of resources such as apps specially made for mobile devices such as iPhones, there’s something else that has become a simpler task nowadays: distribution of audio and video files. And this is when the term Podcasting starts rolling.

Podcasting, a combination of the words iPod and Broadcasting, implies the delivery and distribution of audio and video files over the internet in ordered to be listened on mobile devices and personal computers, this through the use of RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Here lies the real novelty of podcasting, the fact that this audio/video content can be downloaded automatically. In fact, with a ‘podcast receiver’ device (such as iTunes) you can simply upload tons of audio material or podcasts in your mp3 or mobile with high speed internet connection.

Anyhow, what we care about is, how can teachers take advantage of this technology? To begin with, the students can listen to these materials (radio programs, recorded conversations and so on) while they’re travelling, in a waiting room or even when simply commuting. This allows them constant exposure to the language they are learning, since they have the possibility to listen to a variety of material in the target language and about many different topics of their interest.

Appart from being exposed to real and authentic extracts of the target language, this material can supplement the listening we find in textbooks and provide extra listening possibilities, not only inside but also outside the classroom. I myself have used podcasts related to a specific topic in the curriculum in order to complement my classes and provide my students with further listening practice than the textbook materials can allow. Furthermore, the students can be exposed to different varieties of the language and feel optimistic to discuss about what they just heard.

I have even used podcasts the same way I use online videos, adding simple listening tasks which can be as simple as note-taking, answering questions, guessing the topic, doing true/false and/or multiple-choice exercises to mention a few. The use of podcasts in the ESL/EFL classroom is so widely accepted that we can find banks of material which teachers can access to in order to include them in their lessons, supported by exercises and transcripts.

ESL/EFL teachers can use podcasts further. As part of a class project, or for them to practice their speaking and pronunciation, the students can be encouraged to create their own podcasts and publish them for a real audience (e.g. classroom discussions, interviews, reports, speech work, etc.). This not only provides students with practice on a particular skill, but also promotes students’ engagement with the language they’re producing aimed to a wider, real, audience.

Podcasting is still a very recent but promising tool for English language teaching. Moreover, less explored but also promising is the use of webcasting, similar to podcasting, but which implies live transmission. In other words, we could have our students communicating in real time, not only with their peers, but also with EFL students in different parts of the world, involving them in really exiting cultural exchanges. This is already possible through sites such as EFL Bridges, for example, where students can call and chat to students from all around the world. Also, even though it’s a bit more demanding and harder to set up and produce, having our students produce video podcasting is another promising way to engage our learners, with programs and sites that allow the recording of video as well, such as Podomatic.

To finish, I invite you to listen to a sample of an interview-structured podcast made for my course on ICT in ELT. The conversation took place through Skype, recorded with MP3 Skype Recorder, edited in an audio editing program named Audacity and finally uploaded to Podbean.com


Recommended readings:

Chris Evans in his article ‘The Effectiveness of m-learning in the form of podcast revision lectures in higher education’ describes how effective has been podcasting as a tool in m-learning, specifically to teaching undergraduate students in higher education.  http://www.cblt.soton.ac.uk/multimedia/PDFsMM09/Effect%20of%20mobile%20learning%20in%20the%20form%20of%20podcast%20revision%20lectures%20in%20higher%20education.pdf

Also, if you’re interested in developSkype Recordering your proficiency on how to produce and publish podcasts and how to implement them in the language classroom, we recommend you to take a look at this blog, ‘Podcasting for the ESL-EFL classroom’. http://podcasting2013evo.blogspot.com/

Finally, this is an interesting material on an experience using student-generated video podcasts in a Japanese EFL classroom, written by Ami Christensen, that may give you some ideas on how to use this resource in any future projects. http://minds.wisconsin.edu/handle/1793/65612