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Blended Learning: A Q&A with Pete Sharma

This Q&A follows Pete’s Blended Learning webinar. Here’s an introduction to the topic, and here’s a recording of the webinar

blended learningSome of the many teachers who attended the webinars on Blended Learning (BL) were already in enforced lockdown, having had their face-to-face classes cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. This made the topic of BL especially relevant, in particular the concept of ‘face-to-face online’ classes. The webinars were given at a time when thousands in the UK were just starting to work from home which caused a huge spike in online use. Here are some of the questions that were raised.

Q1 Which platform would you recommend for us who must start now untrained?

There is no single answer to this question. Everything depends on your teaching context and what you wish to do. As mentioned in the webinar, there are thousands of platforms. Making informed choices is important. Here are some typical contexts:

If you use a coursebook like English File, start with the digital materials on the learner platform; students are already familiar with the methodology.

A freelance teacher could investigate Google Classroom. It is free and relatively easy to use. Other options here are easyclass and Classmill.

In order to teach synchronous classes online, many teachers are now using Zoom. It makes sense to start out using a platform you are familiar with, such as Skype.

If you wish to set up a virtual classroom, expert Nik Peachey has suggested iTeach.world. There is plenty of online help and support available, whichever platform you choose.

Q2 How can we make the online as interesting as the F2F?

This question implies that classroom practice is dynamic and exciting. Many classroom teachers new to online teaching start off trying replicate these practices in an online environment. Teaching online can be every bit as exciting, but it is different.

Before starting, first make a list of the similarities between classroom and online. Many conventional classroom skills and practices transfer easily to teaching online, such as the teacher’s role in motivating and encouraging participants; using the participants’ own professional materials or using a coursebook and setting up classroom tasks. Then make a list of what is different online. Communication involves facial expressions and gestures; in an online lesson, these can be hard to pick up on when viewing your students in the video window. Learners can physically move around in the classroom; in online teaching, they are static, communicating through the screen and keyboard.

Some skills are transferable but need to be done differently. Pair and small group work can be done online using ‘breakout rooms’. One key tip for teaching on-line classes is to make tasks interactive. Participants can enter text in the chatbox, for instance. Another is to move quite briskly from task to task: preparation is key.

Q3 How much per cent face to face is appropriate?

There is no single, recommended percentage. Imagining a ‘hybrid’ course, 50-50 classroom and online, is a good starting point. However, thinking in terms of percentages can sometimes be counter-productive, as it encourages the equation of classroom work and online study. Rather, think of the online element as ‘elastic’, with students proceeding at their own pace. The Webinar explored this concept of ‘differentiation’ as being a feature of BL.

Q4 Isn’t the real distinction between synchronous and asynchronous, not classroom vs online?

When considering BL, the classroom – online distinction is important. When it comes to online learning, the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous is vital (Clandfield and Hadfield). So, both distinctions are helpful. One model which I find very helpful is the well-known consideration of the dimensions of ‘time’ and ‘place’, as follows:

Same time, same place: teaching in the classroom.

Same time, different place: teaching an online class using Zoom, Skype; communicating through WhatsApp.

Different time, different place: emails: posting a message on a forum and replying.

We need not be too concerned about the final part of this model – Different time, same place.

Q5 What about those platforms in which you just click the correct answer with very little production or interaction?

Interactive exercises such as the ones you describe divide opinion. They provide 24/7 guided practice and include tracking tools which show how many attempts students have had at a particular exercise. They have also been criticised for skewing language by ensuring each example fits clear ‘yes/no’ answers which are easy to code. What I love about BL is that such exercises can be incorporated into a course. They serve a specific purpose, provide some useful repetitive practice and are appreciated by many analytical learners. The teacher can ensure language production, free discussion, communication and interaction occur in other parts of the blend.

Q6 Do materials need to be specially designed or adapted for the blended learning environment?

Again, context is all. Some publisher-produced digital materials may already be absolutely perfect for your situation. They are written by experienced authors and built by a professional team. In business English, you may be using client-specific material and so choose to create and design your own content.

Changing the approach to how materials are used is part of a BL approach. An activity may start in the classroom, continue online and then students receive feedback once again in the classroom. Here, the material remains the same but how the material is used is different.

While the webinar looked at BL, many participants were under huge pressure, considering how to suddenly switch to teaching online. One memorable comment in the chat was:

“Let’s think positive; the closed schools and empty classrooms will help us start online learning as we have no other option”.

This comment, like the webinar, is a perfect lead-in to other webinars specifically about teaching online. I cannot help wondering what will happen when schools and campuses re-open. Will classroom teaching and BL once more be options, or will the face of education be changed forever?


Pete Sharma is a Director of Pete Sharma Associates Ltd, a consultancy and training organisation: www.psa.eu.com  He works as a pre-sessional lecturer in EAP (English for Academic purposes) at Warwick University, UK. Pete has co-written many books on educational technology in ELT www.petesharma.com


Reference

Interaction Online (2017) Lindsay Clandfield and Jill Hadfield Cambridge University Press


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Blended Learning: From Theory to Practice

blended learning

I have long been interested in ‘Blended Learning’ (BL). It remains a ‘buzz’ term in language teaching, although it means different things to different people. This blog post explores some key aspects of BL.

A good place to start unpacking the various definitions of BL is the ELTJ article ‘Key concepts in ELT: Blended Learning’ (2010). Common definitions include:

  • combining traditional teaching with e-learning
  • combining different methodologies
  • combining different technologies

Despite the range of definitions, it is generally understood that the term refers to a course which combines face-to-face (f2f) classroom teaching with web-based learning. This is the definition I will use in my webinar: Blended Learning: from theory to practice.

Flexibility

BL is fascinating because the concept is based on being responsive to individual contexts. There is no single ‘solution’, but rather many ways to blend classroom teaching and online learning.

Flux

The term is constantly changing. The term ‘virtual blend’ has recently been applied to 100% online courses which use ‘face-to-face online’ teaching in ‘live’ webinars. New, somewhat exotic incarnations of BL have evolved, such as f2f + Virtual Reality (VR). Students away from the class use a headset to do further language practice which complements their lessons.

Why blend?

There are many reasons for transitioning to BL. One common reason is to combine the well-known positives of classroom teaching with the advantages of online learning, considered to be studying at your own pace, at a place of your choice; and ‘differentiation’ – using the online platform as a way of delivering personalized, individual learning.

‘Time’ is another frequently cited reason. There is simply not enough time for language learners to cover everything within the constraints of the class timetable. Indeed, some language areas are best suited to self-study, such as extensive reading and practising difficult phonemes.

Can BL save money? There is huge disagreement on this point. Many commercial organizations cite ‘cost-saving’ as a major argument for blending; however, schools who have moved part of the curriculum online often report additional and unexpected costs including remuneration for online moderation.

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges in setting up a BL course is that the course fails to satisfy anyone’s learning preference. The students who enjoy the class may not contribute to the knowledge building occurring in the online environment, while those who enjoy working online may dislike the time restrictions imposed by the timetable. Learners may not see the link between their lessons and online work. They sometimes perceive the online components to be of lesser value and fail to do the online work. Technical problems can prove de-motivating.

Which LMS?

In recent workshops, I have asked the question: “Which platform do you use?” The range of answers shows the immense diversity of what happens in classrooms around the world. Common is an ‘open-source’ platform like Moodle which is essentially empty unless you create and upload your own materials. Some private language schools have created their own LMS. If you use a coursebook, a sound entry point is the publisher platform, such as Oxford Online.

Comparing LMSs rarely compares ‘like for like’. The platform you know and love may well be disliked or unknown to a colleague. Much depends on your own preferences, familiarity and of course, your school.

The power of data

This summer, I taught with a publisher-produced platform linked to a coursebook. It included tracking tools which allowed me to see data on student performance, such as their scores for each exercise. It was quite a revelation for me, a classroom teacher, to see just what students do on the platform. I’m keen to share my insights in the webinar.

Success with BL

There are four critical factors in working towards a successful BL course appropriacy, complementarity, attitude and training:

  • Appropriacy

Successful BL teachers plan activities which are appropriate to each mode: classroom and online.

Imagine working on a controversial topic. It is appropriate to develop oral fluency in the classroom, through real-time discussion. It is appropriate to work on ‘critical thinking’ through an online forum, giving students more time to reflect, draft and re-compose their written arguments.

  • Complementarity

This refers to the genuine integration of the ‘in-class’ and ‘online’ elements. Sending students individual messages via the platform is a great way to personalise a printed activity in the student coursebook.

  • Attitude

“Apparently, we now have to use this learning platform, so here is your password!”

 This overheard comment evinces a disconnect between a teachers’ beliefs and their practice. The success of a BL course may well ultimately depend on both teachers and students holding positive beliefs about BL itself.

  • Teacher training

Both teachers and students need time to become familiar with online materials and procedures. Teacher training represents an investment in time and money, yet it is an essential factor in making BL work.

Do you run BL courses? If so, which platform do you use? What is your experience? 

The concept of BL is rich and multi-layered. As technology changes, so does BL. Nevertheless, no matter how fast the technology changes, it is principled pedagogy which lies at the heart of a good language course and underlies BL. I’m very much looking forward to exploring this fascinating, key concept in ELT and sharing ideas with teachers around the world.

Missed Pete’s Blended Learning webinar? Here’s a recording.

Please note – this article was written prior to the more widespread impact of the Coronavirus on schools and is therefore focused on blending online and classroom teaching.

Please visit our Learn at Home page to find online resources and activities to help teachers, parents and students get the most out of learning at home.


Pete Sharma is a Director of Pete Sharma Associates Ltd, a consultancy and training organisation: www.psa.eu.com  He works as a pre-sessional lecturer in EAP (English for Academic purposes) at Warwick University, UK. Pete has co-written many books on educational technology in ELT. Click here to visit Pete’s blog.


References

Sharma, P. (2010). Key Concepts in ELT: Blended learning. ELTJ, 64(4), 456-458

Sharma, P. and Barrett, B. (2018) Best Practices for Blended Learning (2018) Hove: Pavilion Publishing and Media Ltd

Whittaker, C., and Tomlinson, B. (Eds.). (2013). Blended learning in English language teaching: Course Design and Implementation London, UK: British Council.


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The Complete Guide to Running a Blended Learning Course

Blended learning - students working together on laptopsWhat is blended learning?

Blended learning is both flexible and dynamic. By ‘flexible’, I mean it is not just one thing (a fixed combination of X and Y) but rather, it can be many things depending on your teaching context. By ‘dynamic’, I mean that the components which make up blended learning are constantly changing. A recent incarnation of blended learning, for example, involves students donning headsets and practising a talk in VR (Virtual Reality) in preparation for giving a presentation in real life.

The classic definition of blended learning combines teaching in a ‘bricks and mortar’ classroom with web-based learning. The latter is usually ‘online’ but could be ‘offline’ and might not even involve the Internet at all, such as doing exercises on a CD-ROM or using a ‘native’ app – an app which ‘lives’ in your mobile phone and does not require a Wi-Fi connection to function.

Another approach to blended learning involves blending the use of print and digital resources, effectively combining the traditional and the new, analogue and digital.

 

When should teachers use blended learning?

In a very narrow definition of blended learning (such as face-to-face plus online) the answer to this question is: when studying online is a realistic, feasible option. In a broader definition of blended learning, such as that described by Sharma and Barrett ‘face-to-face plus an appropriate use of technology’ (Pete Sharma & Barney Barrett, Blended Learning, Macmillan, 2007), the answer is: ‘All the time!’ In other words, teaching in this new digital age should use the technologies which students meet in their everyday lives, such as the Internet, laptop, smartphone and tablet.

 

Why blend?

There are many reasons why teachers decide to run a blended learning course, as opposed to (say) a 100% classroom course like those I ran when I first started teaching, or a 100% online course.

One is time. There’s simply not enough time in a course to cover everything. Moreover, some language areas are really suited to be studied outside the classroom. Extensive reading and practising difficult phonemes, for instance.

Combining the best of the classroom (live interaction with the teacher and classmates) and the best of technology (anytime, anywhere guided practice) in a principled way can produce a ‘better’ course for students. In other words, the best of both worlds.

 

What is the value of blended learning?

Flexibility is one advantage. Students taking a blended learning course are frequently offered choices. We all know a class of 12 comprises 12 individuals, displaying different learning preferences. Students can match their path through the material to suit their own learning style and approach.
Similarly, from the teacher’s point of view, blended learning enables the implementation of ‘differentiation’.

We are all familiar with the restrictions imposed by the teaching timetable. The English language lesson is at 16.00 on Thursday. Yet this is the age of u-learning, ubiquitous learning. The distant part of a blended learning course can be done anywhere, anytime – in a coffee shop with Wi-Fi, at the airport, in a hotel … , this ‘best of both worlds’ (the classroom and online) is a key feature and benefit of blended learning.

 

Different approaches to blended learning

The approaches taken to blended learning are as many and varied as the different types of teaching: YL (young learners), business English, CLIL (content and language integrated learning). One common approach would be to issue the students with a printed coursebook and have them use the code on the inside to access their online digital materials. I focus particularly on this approach in my series of articles on running a blended learning course.

 

Different types of digital activities

Here’s a snapshot of the vast range of tools available for blended learning:

 

  • a vocabulary memory game on an app to review new language
  • a podcast; students can listen as many times as they wish, using the pause and the slider to listen intensively to selected parts
  • a video, with on-demand sub-titles or a transcript
  • a discussion forum; students answer a question before their in-class lesson. The additional time helps develop critical thinking skills and contrasts the real-time pressure to reply in the classroom

 

How to run a blended learning course

Looking for some practical advice and tips? Read my complete guide to help you prepare, set-up and run a blended learning course:

 

Download the guide

 

References

Blended Learning, Pete Sharma & Barney Barrett (Macmillan, 2007)

 


 

Pete Sharma is a teacher trainer, consultant and ELT author. He works as a pre-sessional lecturer in EAP (English for Academic purposes) at Warwick University, UK. Pete worked for many years in business English as a teacher trainer and materials writer. He is a regular conference presenter at IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) and BESIG (Business English Special Interest Group) conferences and has given plenary talks and keynote speeches at conferences around the world. Pete is the co-author of several books on technology including Blended Learning (2007), 400 Ideas for Interactive Whiteboards (2011) in the Macmillan ‘Books for Teachers’ series, and How to Write for Digital Media (2014), and most recently Best Practices for Blended Learning. Pete was the Newsletter Editor of the IATEFL CALL Review (2008-2009) and has a Masters in Educational Technology and ELT from Manchester University.


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How can I use print course books in blended learning classes?

shutterstock_274481441Ken Wilson is the author of Smart Choice and in all has written more than 30 ELT titles. His first ELT publication was a collection of songs called Mister Monday, which was released when he was 23, making him at the time the youngest-ever published ELT author.

We asked teachers from around the world who have been using Smart Choice what one question they would like to ask Ken. He will answer three of these questions in a series of video blogs this month.

Today, Ken discusses the best ways to use a course book like Smart Choice in blended learning classes. Blended learning is a term increasingly used to describe traditional classroom tuition mixed with self-guided online learning. How can teachers integrate blended learning in to the classroom using a course book like Smart Choice? Ken suggests practical techniques – such as lesson flipping – and shares examples to demonstrate blended learning in practice.

What are the best ways to use Smart Choice in blended learning classes?


References:

Harrison, Laurie (2013). The Flipped Classroom in ELT.

Oxford University Press (2016). Smart Choice Third Edition.


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Blending learning effectively – a balancing act

College students taking notes in lecture hall. Image shot 2010. Exact date unknown.

Russell Stannard is the founder of www.teachertrainingvideos.com. He is also an associate trainer at NILE where he runs courses in the Flipped Classroom and tutors on the MA programme. Today, he joins us ahead of his webinar ‘How can we blend our learning effectively? Tools and Principles’ to preview the topic.

The reality is we all blend our learning these days. Nearly all learning is a  combination of  face to face delivery and the use of some technology, whether used in the class or outside.

Common problems in ELT blends

The tendency in ELT has been for these blended learning courses to develop out of traditional face to face courses. This can often lead to several problems.

  • There is a lack of planning between the F2F component and the digital content.
  • Courses often become very big with more content than most students will ever be able to work through.
  • The links, videos, audio and other digital content tends to be very disorganized.
  • A lot of the digital content tends to be very individually based.

These are perhaps the four biggest problems I have come across, though there are many more. I must admit that in the past, I have definitely made some of these mistakes myself!

Being organised

When you blend your courses, you have to be organised. One way to do this is by choosing a platform that allows you to save and organise your content in one place so that students can easily access it.  Moodle, Blackboard and Schoology are just some examples. I think Edmodo is  a very good tool and the Facebook layout makes it very easy to use. It is also free and really easy to set up.

Edmodo allows you to organise folders with all your links and files in one place. You can create discussions, set up quizzes, set assignments etc all from one site. What is more you can track all your students work and it even keeps a database of all their marks. The security features are also excellent. Each group you create has a passcode and so you can control access and even lock a class once all the students are logged in, so that now lurkers or outside students can join. It even allows you to moderate your student’s posts before they go live

The amount of content

It is a really good idea to distinguish between what is core learning content and what is extra. Blended courses tend to end up with long lists of ‘useful’ links and content but that can overwhelm the students. I suggest firstly being very selective with what content you share with your students and secondly link it to your lessons.  For example, if you come across a useful site for studying vocabulary, like Quizlet, then introduce it in the class and even link it into your lessons. This way students are more likely to make use of the technology.  Blended courses are meant to link together and the total impact should be bigger than the sum of the parts, so the key is how you combine and work the F2F and digital.

Group work

It is getting easier and easier to set up collaborative work outside the class. In fact Edmodo can really facilitate this and you can even put your students into groups.  As I have pointed out, a lot of the digital content that teachers share, tends to lead to students working on their own so look for opportunities to set up collaborative work.

Russell will be covering Edmodo and looking at the issues around blended learning in his up and coming webinar on April 26th and 27th. If you’re interested in joining this free session, click the link to register below.

register-for-webinar