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Mimosa’s report card – strengthening the school-home connection

Family gathered round computerKenna Bourke, Oxford Discover co-author, shares some creative ideas for using technology to help parents support their children’s learning.

Four times a year, I get an email that contains a mysterious thing called a report card. This is a school report on the progress of a six-year-old (name changed for privacy!) who’s not my child, but who’s very important to me. It goes on for several pages, and looks like this:

Sample report card

Great! But I don’t know what Mimosa is reading or how I can help turn her into a full-time genius! What stories is she reading? Does she like them? What’s she learning in science? I’d really like to know!

Do you want one simple way to help parents support your classroom teaching in the home?

Use technology.

Like teachers, parents are busy people. They might only look at a school website a few times a year, but many of them have social media accounts, which they look at daily. How about creating a closed page for your class on Facebook, or whichever social network is popular in your country?

Here are a few ideas for using this as a tool to help parents feel more involved and excited about what’s happening in your class:

1. Try sharing a short biography of an author that the child and family can research

For example, Who is Michael Rosen? What’s he written? When was he born? What’s his daughter’s name? What do you think about the poem ‘A Dangerous Raisin?’

2. Advertise your projects

Explain what you’re going to do so your students can prepare. Or post the results of the projects once they’re done so the parents can see them.

For example, How many subtraction problems can you think of at home? In what contexts do we use subtraction every day? What’s a funny subtraction problem you can ask your friends?

3. Share the week’s lesson theme so it can be discussed at home

For example, Oxford Discover begins each new unit with a Big Question: How do we have fun? What makes birds special? How do numbers help us? Great dinnertime conversation ideas!

4. Preview a reading text so children can discuss their prior knowledge of the subject with their family

You could do this by sharing a simple three-line synopsis of what you’ll be reading in class. Provide some questions for parents to discuss with their children.

For example, What do you know about symmetry? What symmetrical objects can you find at home? What’s the most beautiful example of symmetry you can think of?

5. Follow up on reading texts or topics that have captured the students’ imaginations by posting links to sites that contain further information

For example, in Oxford Discover, you’ll find a fiction reading about a whistling language. That language also really exists! There are schools on the island of La Gomera that have made this ancient language — silbo gomero — a compulsory school subject.

6. Post a picture that relates to your lesson to stimulate discussion

This is really fun! Provide some sample questions, too.

For example, What’s going on with these cars? Why can’t you see through their windows? Where do you think the picture was taken? Who invented wheels? What would life be like if we didn’t have cars?

Completely white cars

Photo © Kenna Bourke

7. Include links to free parent support sites

Oxford Parents gives parents simple, effective advice on supporting their children’s classroom language learning at home.

Would you like practical tips on developing a strong school-home link and developing 21st Century skills in your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.


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Using blogs to create web-based English courses

Blogging on a laptop

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Sean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, looks at whether blogs can be used to deliver web-based English language courses, using an example from his own experience.

In my previous posts, I discussed how blogs could be used to deliver a lesson and showcase student work. These posts were examples of how blog owners can post information to the Web on a regular basis and how blog readers can add comments.

However, over the last decade or so, blogs have become a lot more sophisticated; now extra pages can be added for additional information and widgets (tools) can be added to sidebars that add a lot of functionality and personalization (see figure 1 below). These extra features have changed the traditional blog into an interactive website which can be used in a variety of ways, one of which is to deliver English-language courses. Furthermore, blogs are easy to set up, modify and manage, so with just a little practice, even the most technophobic educator can become a competent online course builder.

web2english course home page

Figure 1: web2english course home page

The first choice is to decide on which blogging platform to use. This may seem a difficult decision to make as there are so many free blogging platforms available. Three of the most popular are blogger, tumblr and Moveable Type, and all are great platforms. But my favourite is WordPress. I have used WordPress for designing and delivering a wide range of blogs, from my own portfolio, to educational technology and English teaching sites. One such site, web2english, will be featured in this post.

web2english was an experimental English course set up to see if a fully-online course could be designed, delivered and managed using web-based tools (a DIYLMS, a do-it-yourself learning management system as opposed to using large-scale, enterprise-level learning management systems such as Blackboard and Moodle). Only six students were enrolled in the course, but I have run similar courses with up to twenty students enrolled. The course consisted of eleven modules: an introductory module conducted face-to-face to familiarize students with the web-based tools, and ten study modules done fully online (see table 1 below), but with a weekly face-to-face “study” morning for students only. End of course feedback from all students was very positive.

Course Schedule

Table 1: Course Schedule

 

Using Posts on the Blog

Posts were used to deliver to students modules of learning activities, with the current learning module always on top (click here to see posts). Within the posts, hyperlinks were used to direct students to the learning materials (e.g. reading and listening texts on different websites or links to documents directly uploaded to the blog). Students could use the comment feature of the posts to interact with the teacher and peers; however, as each post contained a wide range of learning activities, I split up the module into individual learning activities and posted these on another web-based tool, edmodo, thereby giving students more opportunities to interact.

Using Pages on the Blog

While posts were used for the weekly learning modules, which were dynamic in nature, Pages were used to display information that wouldn’t change. In web2english, pages have been used for the course outline, schedule and assessment rubrics. There was also a page which was used to aggregate all student work (see figure 2 below). This enabled students to quickly view and comment on other students’ blogs and podcasts and to access their collaborative presentations.

Page that aggregates student work

Figure 2: Page that aggregates student work

The number of pages that can be added to a WordPress blog is unlimited; however, the width of the blog restricts the number of pages that can be displayed in the menu bar along the top. Fortunately, depending on the theme, pages can be organized into sub-menus. Figure 3 shows an example of this in another blog.

Menus and sub-menus of pages

Figure 3: Menus and sub-menus of pages

 

Using Widgets on the Blog

While blogs are great for displaying information and getting feedback in the form of comments, other tools need to be used to make teaching and learning more effective. To do this, blog “widgets” can be used (see figure 1 above). Widgets are simply objects that allow tools to be embedded into blogs. For example, on the course home page, I used the twitter feed widget in web2english to display the latest tweets by students (they were expected to post a minimum of ten tweets per module). Text widgets were also used to add linked images on the home page. These widgets allowed students to quickly access tools for taking quizzes, doing surveys, making their own blogs and podcasts, and accessing aggregated pages of student work on Netvibes and Dipity.

While using blog posts, pages and widgets is an easy, cost-effective way to build a DIYLMS powerful enough host an online English course, be it fully online or as part of a blended-learning environment, there are some important issues that need addressing. Blogs are great for exposing learning materials and student work to a wider audience; however, this brings up the question of privacy. Fortunately, blog posts and pages can be password protected. Student assessment is also an issue as blogs have no built in assessment tools. In web2english, I used a web-based tool called ClassMarker which, for a yearly fee of $25, allowed me to quickly create assessments and provide a student grade book. I could have also used the free test tool within edmodo. One other problem with free blogs is advertising. But these can be blocked, for a fee of course ($30 dollars a year for WordPress).


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Webinar: Changing with the Times: The 21st Century Classroom

Ahead of his webinar on 30th January on the same topic, Gareth Davies asks: How can we as teachers adapt to the changing needs of learners in the 21st Century?

Next time you are on public transport have a look at the range of technology on show. People will be playing computer games, reading from e-books, checking the internet, messaging their friends, listening to music, watching video, or if we are lucky, actually doing some English homework. The world has changed; our students have become digital.

How does this digitalisation of life affect our students when they come into our classrooms? Have their expectations changed or their behaviour patterns? Should we be looking to adapt our methodology to meet the modern challenges of 21st Century teaching?

I am not suggesting that we should completely revolutionise our teaching, it is not realistic to go completely digital; there is not the equipment available for a start. But what I am suggesting is that we can observe our students’ behaviour patterns to see how we can tinker with our methodology to allow the students to get the most out of our teaching.

Let’s take Social Media / texting as an example. Teachers who claim their students don’t even read or write in their own language are wrong. Students might not read long novels or write descriptive prose but they communicate frequently through this medium, making reading and writing an essential part of our syllabus. But students are used to dealing with messages of around 140 characters, so we need to adapt what we do in class so the reading and writing texts don’t seem too daunting for them.

In my webinar I will be looking at this and other examples of students’ digital behaviour to see what we can learn as teachers and how we can harness their new learning styles to bring success to their English learning. Remember: changing with the times does not mean throwing the baby out with the bath water and completely changing our teaching, it just means learning from our students and responding to them to help prepare them for the 21st Century.

To find out more about adapting your teaching to suit 21st Century learners’ needs, register for Gareth’s webinar on 30th January.


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How to choose an Android tablet for teaching English

Android

Image courtesy of lynnwallenstein via Flickr

Matt Steele, a specialist digital publishing consultant, looks at the use of Android tablets in the classroom and gives his tips on what to look for when purchasing devices.

There are now Android apps available that add real value to any ELT classroom, from pronunciation apps (English File) to dictionaries (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary), game-based vocabulary apps (Headway Phrase-a-Day), Graded Readers (Bookworms), and last but not least, complete coursebooks and Readers as e-books via the Oxord Learner’s Bookshelf app. See all of Oxford’s ELT apps and e-books here.

Many of these offer a distinct edge over paper-based options by virtue of their interactivity, and in particular their use of video and audio.

But which device do you buy? This post concerns itself with Android devices – what to look out for, and what to avoid.

Introduction: What it means to use tablets in the classroom

I’m going to make some assumptions about you based on the fact that you are reading this post:

  • You’re prepared at least to entertain the idea of using a tablet device in your classroom
  • You’ve done a bit of research into methodology and some of the apps available to you
  • You’re aware that the tablet software market is divided roughly into three main competitors: Android, Apple’s iOS, and Microsoft Windows
  • You’re thinking of buying an Android tablet

What you may still be in two minds about is who will use the tablet device in the classroom. Will it be you, the teacher, presenting content on the tablet, using the tablet as a lookup device, finding pictures, videos, or collocations to illustrate certain parts of the lesson?

A lot of the discussion around tablet usage in an educational setting assumes the possibility of the teacher and the teacher alone using the device. But why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you simply use a computer connected to a projector and/or an interactive whiteboard?

So, if we can assume that when we are talking about using tablets in the classroom we are talking about everybody in the classroom using tablet devices, then we are forced to the conclusion that, unless we work for a particularly wealthy school or college that can afford to purchase at least one classroom’s worth of devices, then the only realistic scenario for using tablet devices is BYOD, or Bring Your Own Device.

The idea behind BYOD is, broadly speaking, that the student brings their device along to the lecture and uses it to take notes, to view material, online or offline, that the lecturer provides. They might even do interactive exercises or tests that the lecturer might assess via his/her own device during or after the class. This means that a student might turn up with their Android / Windows / Apple smartphone, tablet, or even ‘phablet’ (a phone that is almost tablet sized). What should your policy be in that case? Should you allow, and support, any mobile device at all, with any operating system?

In my view, unless you will be relying solely on Apple technologies for classroom management and monitoring purposes, then you should be all-inclusive in your approach. The only thing that you might insist on would be that your students bring along a device that is practical for reading and writing with, which for me would mean a screen no smaller than 7 inches in width, with a resolution of at least 1024 x 768 pixels.

Overview of the Android tablet market

Android is the single most popular Operating System for smartphones and tablets. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, Android has the backing of almost every hardware manufacturer in the world other than Apple, most notably Samsung; and secondly, it’s owned by Google.

In that sense the Android tablet market is like cable TV: lots of choice but also lots of things to avoid.

The Samsung connection is an important one for educational customers. The Samsung hub is an ever increasing set of educational content and services that is set to rival Apple’s iTunesU.

While Android is owned by Google, it is still open source, so the code is constantly added to by developers not necessarily in Google’s employ. The upshot of this is that any given piece of hardware can run its own version of Android, and its own set of software applications. This means that there is a lot of variety available – some better than others.

Things to think about when thinking about buying an Android device

Android tablet checklist

Here are a few things you should bear in mind when selecting which Android tablet to choose:

Android tablet checklist infographicHow much should you expect to spend?

Android is a free operating system, so the money you spend on an Android tablet is determined by its build quality (especially its screen), the quality of its components (especially its processor), its size (7”, 9”, 10”), and any additional software that the manufacturer includes. For me, the screen size is only of importance with regard to its resolution and how it affects the price of the tablet: bigger screen size means higher price. Because you are either connecting it directly to a projector or mirroring it through the laptop that is itself connected to the projector, the size of the screen is of little importance. The resolution of the screen is important, however, for two reasons:

  • A higher screen resolution means more detail and a more attractive interface. Many reasonably priced tablets now come with full HD displays.
  • Many websites now check what your screen resolution is when you land on them. Often anything below 1024 x 768 will mean that the website will be shown as a ‘mobile’ site compatible with smartphones, rather than the ‘desktop’ version with more information. For me, this alone was the reason I dropped my Nexus 7 for a tablet with a higher resolution.

An important point to bear in mind is whether or not Google Play is available on the model you want to buy. Many of the cheaper tablets won’t give you access to Google’s app store, because Google require that they pay them for its distribution, which will condemn you to buy apps from no-name app stores with no guarantee of quality.

For a school setting it seems to make sense to focus on the build quality first and foremost. Prices vary enormously, from around £70 for a ‘white box’ tablet (manufactured in huge numbers in China), to the superlative Asus Transformer Pad Infinity currently retailing at £600. For our purposes, however, expect to pay anything from around £120 to £370.

Can you test one out?

If you buy in store, yes. Obviously this would mean you couldn’t purchase online, which is where you will find cheaper examples of the same high street product. Like so many things it’s a trade-off between cost and peace of mind.

Do you want to restrict what students can do / download on the tablet device?

How can you know that your students are doing what they are supposed to be doing when they are bent over their tablet devices? Well, there are ways. It means installing software on students’ machines called Mobile Device Management (MDM). There are a number of MDM software vendors about. Most, if not all, support Android. There is a good comparison site here.

Device Support

This is very important. A lot of the very cheap models will provide you with no resource to upgrade the Android operating system. This will seriously inhibit your tablet’s shelf life, which in turn will mean you have to spend money on new hardware sooner.

Some models worth thinking about:

For around £100

Asus Memo Pad HD 7

This 7” pad has an HD resolution of 1280 x 800 px, which isn’t bad. It has a micro SD slot, and a very useful standard USB port. For around £100 it’s a decent budget tablet.

Lenovo IdeaTab A2107A-H

Again, this is a 7” model. Lenovo is the Russian hardware manufacturer who bought the licence to build IBM’s ThinkPad laptop. The build quality of the IdeaTab is every bit as solid. It has two cameras, which is unusual for a tablet costing just over £100.

For around £200

Google Nexus 7 (2)

This is the second generation Nexus 7. It’s a 7” tablet that compares favourably to the iPad mini. It has a huge screen resolution at 1920 x 1200 px. It also sports an extra camera. Drawbacks, though, are its lack of an HDMI port and an SD card slot, so memory can’t be expanded.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1

This has a 10.1” screen and is the descendant of the hugely popular Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.

For around £300

Acer Iconia Tab A200

This is a 10.1” tablet, with 12.5 GB of internal memory, and a micro SD card slot should you want more.


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Making the most of e-books for academic skills

Woman with e-book readerSean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, talks about his experience of introducing tablets into the classroom. Sean will be hosting a webinar on the topic of making the most of e-books for academic skills on 14th and 19th November.

Over the last five years, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in the United Arab Emirates have systematically introduced laptops into the teaching and learning environment. Now, all students are expected to have a laptop in class. In addition, last year, the use of iPads was introduced in the university preparatory programme. With all students having some form of computing device, it made sense to change from using paper-based books to e-books. So after trialing e-books last semester, this semester saw a full implementation of e-books across the system. All 19,000 students are using only e-books. In total, almost 150,000 e-books have been bought this semester.

I believe that this has been the biggest rollout of e-books anywhere in the world. As an educational technology coordinator at HCT, I have been responsible for making this e-book initiative go as smoothly as possible. With the e-books being delivered over eight different vendor platforms, and with so many titles involved, this has been quite a struggle at times.

So why put up with the struggle? What are the real benefits of using e-books?

Moving to a paperless learning environment is certainly one. And seeing my eleven-year-old daughter heaving an overloaded bag to school every day, it would definitely make sense to have all textbooks in digital format stored on lightweight, portable computing devices. After all, most students now need to use some form of computing device for their schoolwork. But, somewhat surprisingly, we have had a large number of students complain about their e-books. Surely this tech-savvy generation of students would prefer e-books; but, no, they want it on paper! I think the reason for this lies behind the quality of current e-books. They are difficult to read and even harder to annotate, particularly on less mobile computing devices.

However, there are some e-book platforms that are very exciting and interactive. Without doubt, the Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf is one of these and is at the cutting edge of e-book technology; feedback from both instructors and students has been very positive. This video shows some of the great features:

Having been using and evaluating e-books for almost a year now, Oxford University Press have asked me to run two webinars on making the most of e-books for academic skills. In the webinar, I will start with a general discussion on e-books, outlining the reasons for using them and how they can enhance students’ learning. As part of this lead-in discussion, Puentedura’s (2006) SAMR model [Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition] will be introduced to show how technology in general, and e-books in particular, can be introduced into the teaching and learning environment to enhance students’ learning. Then, based on the SAMR model, you will be shown specific examples of how to use academic skills coursebooks from the Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf with your students, including Q: Skills for Success, Effective Academic Writing and Inside Reading.

However, despite these e-books providing students and instructors with an exciting learning experience, there is still room to do more, especially at the modification and redefinition stages of the SAMR model. In the final part of the webinar, I will make suggestions of how to not only improve the actual learning activities in the e-books, but also look at ways in which the content can be used as a springboard into more constructivist, collaborative activities.

Please join me for the webinars on either 14th or 19th November.

References

Puentedura, R. (2006). Transformatiom, Technology, and Education. Presentation given August 18, 2006 as part of the Strengthening Your District Through Technology workshops, Maine, US.
Puentedura, R. (2011): Thinking About Change in Learning and Technology. Presentation given September 25, 2012 at the 1st Global Mobile Learning Conference, Al Ain, UAE.

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