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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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Using Facebook and Smart Devices for Blended Learning

Facebook icon with mortar board on top

Image courtesy of mkhmarketing on Flickr

Thomas Healy, is an English language instructor at the Pratt Institute, New York and at Kyung Hee Cyber University, Seoul. He presents regularly at conferences on how to use technology and social media in language learning. He is the co-author of Smart Choice Second Edition. In this article, he looks at ways of using social media and technology for blended learning.

A couple of years ago, I felt that my interaction with students was more suitable for kindergarteners, rather than my young adults.  My need to say ‘No!”, “Don’t do that”, and “Stop!” seemed to be ruining my rapport. Every one of my students had a smartphone, which they never wanted to put down or turn off. I didn’t even have a regular cellphone myself. Then I thought, “If I can’t beat them, I’ll join them.” I bought a smartphone, asked a student to show me how it worked, and embraced the digital age.

I soon learned that I could easily get lost and confused with the bewildering number of virtual tools, environments and applications. So rather than asking myself, “How can I use digital tools in class?” I asked, “What do I need?” I needed a place in the digital world

  • which my students and I could use from any classroom, technology-enabled or not, or even when we were on a field trip
  • where students could post videos of presentations and written assignments
  • where my students could find me and each other instantly and effortlessly.

Having analyzed the most popular social media platform, I chose Facebook as the hub of my blended learning environment. Facebook has most of the functionality of the Learning Management System provided by my school with the added advantages that it is much easier to use, and my students are connected to it all the time. I make a Facebook group for each of my classes. A Facebook group is a members-only, private space that is easy to create and access.

One of the most effective ways of helping students with their communication skills is through doing presentations. Through presenting themselves and watching others present, students become acutely aware of issues relating to vocabulary, pronunciation and eye contact, to name just a few. In the past, the presentations themselves and the feedback sessions ate up a lot of class time. Now, when students present in class they video themselves on their smartphones, and upload their recording to their class Facebook group. In class, we discuss how to evaluate the presentations but the actual critiquing takes place outside of the regular classroom. Students watch the videos and then give feedback using the comment feature.

We follow a similar procedure when peer reviewing writing assignments. One of the most important advantages is that students have a record of the feedback, which they can easily access.

21st Century learners are ‘prosumers’: producers + consumers. They are not content just to view something; they want to produce their own content in response. As much as possible, I use Facebook to make the projector in my class an interactive rather than passive experience.

I use Facebook as a presentation tool, and as a way to expand and personalize the contents of my lessons. I can upload my lesson visuals using Slideshare, or more frequently, by just uploading a series of screenshots to the Facebook group. Unlike with my Learning Management System, students can upload to the group too. We can personalize and expand a lesson by having them take photographs or scanning content and uploading it.

When appropriate, I have my students use the live chat function to answer, for example, grammar questions or other activities. By zooming in on student responses, the projector becomes an interactive rather than passive classroom tool.

The digital classroom can become too diffuse through the use of too many platforms and applications. Although I have added other tools over time, I try to maximize the functionality of Facebook. By focusing my students’ desire to share on language learning, it can be used as a powerful ‘academic network’.

To find out more about developing presentation skills in the classroom and ways smart devices and social media can be incorporated into the process, you can take part in Thomas Healy’s interactive webinar “Developing effective presentation skills” on either 8th November or 14th November. Register for your free webinar place now.


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The whys and hows of syllabus writing

Mature woman working at her deskKaren Capel, an Academic Coordinator and teacher trainer, returns with another post for Coordinators and Directors of Study, sharing her tips for writing an effective syllabus.

More often than not teachers receive syllabi which are kept unread. I remember receiving mine at the beginning of the academic year and just archiving them after marking which pages of the Student’s Book to omit. Why? Because they were more of an outline of what to cover than a syllabus. Why is this a problem? Because as coordinators we cannot be present in every class and certainly cannot see each and every lesson plan our teachers produce and implement. As a result, syllabi are valuable tools that allow us to guide and support teachers in various ways.

First and foremost, a syllabus should inform of the teaching points needing to be covered in order for students to reach the objectives set for the course and therefore pass tests and exams. Secondly, it should instruct teachers which methodology to use and the type of lessons you expect, as well as the balance of interaction patterns, time devoted to the different skills, amount of TTT (teacher talking time), etc. A good syllabus will, as a consequence, be a benchmark that enables teaching staff to be aware of what is expected from their lessons.

How can we write a syllabus which serves such a purpose? Here are 4 tips:

1. Keep the target audience in mind

It is crucial to know the teachers on your staff and write accordingly. Syllabi for newly qualified teachers should not be the same as those for experienced ones. It is therefore essential for you to know the type of teacher in every level so as to include the necessary information and cater for every teacher’s needs. Undoubtedly, less experienced teachers will need more thorough explanations and step-by-step indications of how to work with every task in the book, as well as ideas on the kind of warm-ups they can use, ways of eliciting information from students, extra activities they can incorporate in their lessons, etc.

2. Think of the syllabus as an extended lesson plan

Explain how you would work with each unit, including links between the different activities, appropriate warm-ups and follow-ups, whether you would propose activities as pair-work, group-work or individual tasks. Think of plausible questions which may be asked to enrich the lesson and useful tips regarding the development of skills and strategies. This will help teachers save time when planning, help them embed new techniques or methods, and seek help in those areas where they are less confident. It would be expected for new teachers to stick to these plans more strictly and for experienced teachers to take bits and pieces they find helpful and use these guidelines more flexibly.

3. Use syllabi to adapt coursebooks to the target students

No matter how good a text is, it is impossible for it to cater to all students, learning styles and needs. As coordinators, it is our responsibility to make sure students feel comfortable in their classes and that the materials used are appropriate to their ages, levels and interests. Sometimes it is necessary to replace activities or texts, which may be either too childish or too complex for students, with alternative or complementary ways of presenting certain points. It may also happen that topics which are either too culture-specific or just not interesting for a particular group of students appear. Should this be the case, those activities should be replaced with more appropriate and engaging topics your students will find more relatable and enjoyable. Make sure you cover all these noteworthy elements properly.

4. Remember the final recipients

The people who will be impacted most by what you plan are the students; a vast majority of whom are likely to be ‘digital natives’. Students expect technology to be used in class, as it represents an instrinsic aspect of their lives and they see it as a natural context for learning. It is therefore of paramount importance to incorporate technology into the syllabi we produce in order for teachers to understand its relevance and utilise it in their lessons as well. Try to include links to websites that both teachers and students may find of interest, be it to read a good contextual piece or study tips, or to do some practice through interactive exercises or games.

What other aspects do you consider when writing a syllabus?


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Connecting online and in class

Flipped classroomKristin Sherman, Network co-author, looks at how to take advantage of technology in the classroom. Kristin will be hosting a webinar “Help Your Students Get Connected” on 24th October and 1st November.

How can we use our classrooms and technology to the greatest effect? A recent study at the University of North Carolina indicated that a “flipped” classroom helps students perform better. Graduate students who used technology to watch mini-lectures at home and then engaged in active learning in the classroom showed significant gains in performance. The success of such a “flipped” classroom suggests ways we can effectively wed technology and language learning.

Technology serves as both a system of delivery and as content itself. We live in a digital world, one that places increasing importance on digital literacy. Our students need not only to be able to use technology to find and manage information, but also to connect and collaborate with others around the world.

Use technology to deliver traditional content

In a flipped classroom, content, in the form of videos and readings, is delivered to the student outside of class. Teachers can use photos as writing prompts, link to video lectures or articles, and post questions for online discussion. These are all activities that have traditionally been conducted in the standard classroom, but teachers can adapt them and move them online.

Use the tools of the traditional classroom to teach about technology

Our students need to be savvy and responsible users of technology. One way we can help them is to provide content instruction in social media and other digital tools.

Online content is visually rich and stimulating, but it encourages surface-level engagement rather than deep thinking and prolonged attention. Users move quickly from one link to another, often reading only parts of texts. Instructors can use the classroom to help students better understand difficult texts and to think critically about online sources. Engaging, collaborative activities in the classroom help learners practice new language skills and improves social skills.

Think creatively

Teachers come up with new ways to blend technology and language learning all the time. For example, you can teach students important skills of summarizing and paraphrasing by condensing a book to an essay to a paragraph to a tweet.

What are some other ways we can combine technology and language learning?

Sources

  1. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr
  2. The Post Lecture Classroom: How Students Will Fare, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/09/the-post-lecture-classroom-how-will-students-fare/279663/
  3. http://www.teachthought.com/social-media/20-interesting-ways-to-use-twitter-in-the-classroom/

To find out more about using technology to connect with your students, join Kristin for her webinar on 24th October and 1st November.


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Enhancing the PPP Model by adding an extra P for “Publish”

College student using computerSean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, looks at how to adapt the PPP model for task-based learning using digital tools.

Despite many objections from the proponents of task-based learning (TBL), the PPP model, present + practice + produce, is still commonly used in education. One of the main objections is that the PPP model is too teacher-centric; educators should be presenting less and more emphasis should be given to students to acquire the required knowledge independently. However, the reality is that for a lot of students, particularly those with weak English language skills or those in the early stages of the learning cycle, there is still a need for content to be selected and presented using traditional, focus-on-form, methods. So rather than throwing out the PPP model, I try to use technology to enhance the model by adding an extra P, i.e. Publish. Not only does publishing motivate students by giving them an audience, it also allows the produced content to become a valuable learning resource for other students. In addition, the publishing stage can be designed to use activities that are more task-based in nature.

SD_PPP and 4P models

Figure 1: PPP and 4P models

As an example, I will outline a lesson that I have used with a class of Emirati students studying in a university preparatory programme in the UAE. As the students in the class have weak English skills and the lesson is of the focus-on-form type, using the PPP model for the lesson is perhaps the most appropriate. All students in the programme have a computer (either laptop or iPad) so teachers are encouraged to use technology as part of the teaching process. My technological tool of choice is the blog. Not only do blogs allow me to present content that students can access anytime and anywhere, but the comment feature of blogs gives students an opportunity to contribute towards their learning. In the lesson outlined below (see figure 2, or click here for online version), the focus is on frequency adverbs.

Example of a lesson delivered via a blog

Figure 2: Lesson delivered via a blog

This lesson is broken into six parts: PRESENT 1, PRESENT 2, PRACTICE, PRODUCE, PUBLISH and follow up.

  1. PRESENT 1: The teacher engages the students by using the pictures and text in the course book to introduce the grammar point implicitly.
  2. PRESENT 2: A video is used to explicitly focus on the grammar point. Students can, and do, watch the video as many times as they like. (Note: I used screenr.com to record the short video, which was then uploaded to my channel on vimeo.com).
  3. PRACTICE: Students do a controlled writing activity in the course book, checking their answers when finished. I usually allow students to work in pairs at this stage – it adds variety and it also stops students from referring to the answer sheet too quickly.
  4. PRODUCE: Students do a free writing activity from the course book. I give help to individual students if necessary.
  5. PUBLISH: Students publish their free writing as a comment to the blog post (lesson). As all comments are moderated, I can help students make corrections before the comments are made public (this helps put students at ease by decreasing the risk of ridicule from their classmates).
  6. Follow up: This is done after the class is finished. If a comment contains substandard work, I will email students to resubmit. However, this is rare as I try to get all students to complete the work in class time so most mistakes have already been caught. I also let some key mistakes go through, as I can then correct these and use the corrections to raise all students’ awareness (see figure 2). I will then add a general comment highlighting some common mistakes and adding links for extra practice (see figure 3). In a later class, we read over the student submissions and my general comments, and do the extra activities, in or out of class, depending on time.
Example of correcting a student's mistake

Figure 3: Correcting a mistake

Examples of general mistakes

Figure 4: General mistakes and extra practice

There are a number of benefits to using a blog to deliver lessons in this way. First, students can proceed through the materials at their own pace; the teacher’s role becomes that of facilitator, able to spend more time personalizing the learning of both weaker and stronger students. This makes the lesson less teacher centred, a common complaint about the PPP model. Second, the comment feature of the blog enables students to become creators of learning content. As they know that their classmates will read their comments, they are thus motivated to produce better content. This content is also at the “just-right” level for their classmates, hence becoming a reinforcement of the language focus. Third, the students have anytime/anywhere access to the content, useful for review purposes or for students who are absent. Fourth, the format caters to the “flipped” classroom model. Students could watch the video and do the controlled writing before coming to class, thereby giving more time to work on freer writing activities in class. Finally, delivering lessons via a blog means that students have a record of class learning over a term or year. In addition, parents can also view what their children are learning and doing at school.

To finish off, it is important to note that lessons delivered via blogs don’t require students to have computers in the classroom. They could use smartphones to view the video and publish their work. Alternatively, as most students will have access to computers at home, flip the classroom and let them watch the video introduction at home before coming to class. During class time, students could work with the paper-based course book and other resources. The publishing of student work could also be done as homework.

Finally, publishing student work is not just restricted to PPP-style lessons; it could be used with all lesson types.

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