Monday, 11 March 2013

Learning English Through Technology

At the English Language Teaching Centre (ELTC) we recently started an interesting new credit-bearing course called Learning English Through Technology...actually it’s official title for technical reasons is EFL Language and Culture (Technology) but I prefer the unofficial title and that’s how it’s known to the class.

This is primarily an English language course but with a topic focus on technology. So, during the course students will look at different ways they can communicate using technology and online media such as blogging, microblogging, social networks and mobile platforms. Students will have the chance to analyse how language is used in these different genres and then have a chance to practise them, ideally in an authentic setting. So, for instance, they will look at the language of blogging and then write blog posts themselves to demonstrate how much they’ve understood.

Inspired by Gary Wood’s award winning idea to get students to create their own public-facing website, I decided that we would create our own site throughout the course and students would contribute articles, videos and presentations to it as a record of their learning.

Our course website

As a learning technologist, I was particularly excited to work on this course as it was the first time I could commit fully to using technology with my students and find out what it would mean to have a genuinely paperless classroom. On other courses I teach on I have to respect the course content and the students’ needs and wishes. Some courses don’t lend themselves well to tech integration and some students don’t always want to use technology in the classroom. But this was the first time where the course content obviously demanded the use of technology and the students were interested in the topic.

So, what does this mean in practice? In the classroom we use Chromebooks to access websites and material, these are really useful devices to have, they boot up in no time and give students instant access to their university accounts through Google. Throughout the lesson I often have to send them links and information to look up on the internet and for that purpose I set up a Google+ Community for the class.

Google+ Community

Early in the course I introduced students to Google Documents as a way for them to work collaboratively and remotely on the articles and presentations they would post on our website. Most of them were unfamiliar with Google Docs, but they really took to them quickly and I noticed a lot of them are using them now as a way to make notes generally during the lesson. I also wanted a place where we could add collect and share vocabulary we learnt on the course so we have a Google Doc they can edit and add to and that’s embedded in the website.

I also introduced them to Google+ Hangouts - an online video conferencing tool - as a way for them to discuss and collaborate on their projects outside the classroom and some of them have used this effectively.

A strong focus of the course is encouraging them to use technology to develop their English autonomously outside of the classroom. For that reason, I wanted to build up a list of useful websites they could access, share and recommend. I’ve been a user of the social bookmarking site Diigo for quite a while and found it a great way to quickly save and share websites I liked so on the course we’ve been using that to share and discuss sites to help them with their English.

Diigo social bookmarking site

What’s it like to teach on the course? As it’s a new course there’s a lot of preparation involved in coming up with the course content and searching for appropriate material on the internet. I’m also finding that I have to be really well prepared with the tasks I want them to to do in class. I use a Google Doc to jot down ideas for the lesson, but I also have a section on that document for portions of text and links that I need to quickly paste into the text box on our Google+ Community.

I’m also finding I need to be careful not to let them get too stuck behind the Chromebooks, they are great tools to work with, but any screen in front of them is likely to discourage communication between each other. l try to build in activities that don’t really require them to look at the screen - such as discussion questions - or encourage collaborative work by sharing one device between two of them.

It’s been great to see the students taking so quickly to the online tools and experimenting with Google Docs and Hangouts and the contributions they’ve made to the website have been really well researched and interesting.

And how have the students responded to the course? Well, I’ve yet to get any substantial feedback from them so far as we’re only four weeks into it. However, I was hoping to use this blog as a way of getting them to give me some formative feedback on the course and also to give them a chance to practise their blogging skills. Our topic at the moment is blogging and microblogging and their homework task will be to write about the course and also about how students use technology at the university. I’ll publish their blog posts here next week, I hope you’ll be able to read them and ask them some questions.

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