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Blended learning: what is it and when should you use it?

What 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 on running a blended learning course? Read my series of articles to help you prepare, set-up and run blended learning:

 

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


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21st Century Skills in ELT Part 2: the question-centred approach

classroom_students_teenagersShaun Crowley has worked as an EFL teacher and a marketing manager for an international ELT publisher. He is the founder of www.linguavote.com, an e-learning platform for learners of English that features social learning and gamification. Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shauncrowleyIn Part 1 of this series, Shaun Crowley considered the importance of 21st Century Skills in ELT, concluding that the group of competencies that define this term are indeed important to English language learning. In the next four posts, Shaun continues by offering ideas to help you integrate some of these skills into your classes.

Critical thinking skills are some of the key “21st Century” competencies, so it’s no surprise that we’re starting to see publishers position their course books with this benefit up-front, from primary to tertiary level.

Here is an idea to help you maximize opportunities for critical thinking, so that your students are better prepared for the rigours of university education and the professional workplace.

Adopt a “question-centred” approach to your classes

Since the recent curriculum reforms in the US, a question-centred approach to teaching has been gaining popularity in schools. Teachers start a module with a big question. Students consider this question critically, and over the course of the module they synthesize information to form a conclusion in the form of a final homework assignment.

This approach first made its way into ELT with the publication of Q Skills for Success. But whatever course you are using, so long as you have enough time to step out of the materials, it should be possible to customize your lessons to feature an “essential question”.

For example, Headway Elementary Unit 4 is called “Take it easy” and follows the topic of leisure activities. Before you start this unit, you could write this question on the board:

“What makes the perfect leisure activity?”

Perhaps search for a YouTube video that offers a nice way-in to thinking about the question… here’s one I found following a quick search:

Pre-teach some of the main vocabulary items that fit into the question theme. Then spend a few minutes discussing the question and gauging students’ opinions before you open the book.

As you go through the unit, use the various listening and reading texts as opportunities to return to the big question, encouraging students to synthesize and evaluate the different input.  For example, in the “Take it easy” unit, there’s a text called “My favourite season.” Here you could ask:

Is the perfect leisure activity one that you can do in any season?

Return to the big question any time you see a link to the course material you are using. Then at the end of the unit, have students write an answer to the question for homework. If students are not in the routine of doing homework, round off the question with a class discussion.

Have you adopted a similar approach to your classes? If you have, we’d love to hear how you apply the question-centred method.


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21st Century Skills in ELT Part 1: The rise of 21st Century Skills

Blended and cooperative learning in EAP

Shaun Crowley has worked as an EFL teacher and a marketing manager for an international ELT publisher. He is the founder of Lingua Vote, an e-learning platform for learners of English that features social learning and gamification. Follow Shaun on Twitter: @shauncrowley

In ELT we often regard our profession to be independent of teaching subjects like maths and science. That said, many of the approaches and materials we use are influenced by wider trends in education – from constructivist thinking in the 80’s that influenced the publication of Headway, to the recent “flipped learning” approach that’s inspiring some EFL teachers to rethink blended learning.

In American mainstream education there is an increasing emphasis on a concept referred to as “21st Century Skills” – a collection of various competencies that are regarded as being important for success in life, such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, digital literacy, creativity, problem solving, environmental awareness and self-expression.

Now let’s be honest – it’s a bit of a buzzword, with a meaning that’s open to interpretation. But the essential concept is pertinent: the ability to combine the subject you’re learning, with the skills and awareness that you need to apply your knowledge of the subject successfully.

In ELT terms, I would interpret 21st Century Skills as:

  • Analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating materials written in English
  • Developing a “voice” on a topic and expressing it in English
  • Researching materials and solving problems that are presented in English
  • Being creative in English and taking communicative risks in pursuit of fluency
  • Collaborating in diverse international teams, communicating in English
  • Respecting international cultures and sensitivities
  • Presenting yourself professionally in English
  • Being able to use software to express yourself in English
  • Being able to navigate software and digital content that’s presented in English
  • Having the self-discipline to study English independently, and “learning how to learn”.

This probably isn’t an exhaustive list but already it is clear how relevant 21st Century Skills are to ELT, particularly in today’s interconnected world where English is the lingua-franca.

And when we look specifically at the expected outcomes of English classes in schools and universities, it is even more evident that 21st Century Skills have increasing importance.

21st Century skills and the changing ELT landscape

When I first started promoting ELT materials 10 years ago, there was a sizable market of end-users we playfully referred to as “EFNAR” (English for no apparent reason).

These days, English is considered in most places as a foundation subject, a universal requirement for success in later life. Students are aware that English is a necessity for their CVs, particularly if they harbour ambitions to work for an international company.

In many countries, English has become a preparatory subject in universities, partly because of the rise of English medium instruction on undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

These trends have implications on the type of English students must learn, but they also have implications on the interpersonal, cognitive and technical skills that students need to apply to function effectively in English.

Meanwhile, our students’ online worlds are bringing 21st Century skills to the surface even when they are at home… in gaming (collaborating as part of an international team on the Xbox), social networking (sharing thoughts with an international audience), and internet browsing (being able to quickly evaluate the validity of English websites found on Google).

So if we ask how ELT will be influenced by future trends in mainstream education, I would suggest that 21st Century Skills will become a lot more integrated into the language learning process.

What might that look like?  In my next posts I will offer four ideas for integrating some of these competencies in class and as part of a blended learning curriculum.