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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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Using Blogs to Add Value to the Writing Process

Asian woman with laptopSean Dowling, an Educational Technology Coordinator, looks at how teachers can add value to the student writing process by using blog posts in writing tasks.

There is no doubt that writing to a wider audience motivates the writer and results in work of higher quality being produced. However, it is rare that student writing goes beyond the teacher. It may be opened up for peer review, but this usually involves no more than one or two of the writer’s classmates.

One way to create a wider audience is to post student work on blogs. In a previous post, I discussed how the comment area of a class blog post or page could be used by students to post their work. In this post, I will discuss how students can use their individual blogs to publish their work, thereby making it available to a wider audience.

However, it’s important to realize that students shouldn’t just publish to blogs without their work going through traditional drafting/feedback processes; students may be reluctant to post work on blogs without feedback from their teachers and poorly crafted work may also lead to students being ridiculed by their peers. In addition, when grading online texts such as blog posts, it’s important to design grading rubrics that take into account the multimedia features that traditional texts don’t allow.

To illustrate the process, let’s look at an online lesson I used with my students (see Figure 1). [Note: While the lesson below describes a fully online course, I also use a similar methodology with face-to-face classes.]

Figure 1: Overview of online lesson

Figure 1: Overview of online lesson

The topic, protecting the environment, was presented in the form of web-based reading and listening activities, with both practice and graded quizzes (activities 1-4). In activity 5, students were required to write about protecting the environment, personalizing it by giving their opinions. Before starting the writing, students were given some tips about the language in focus (see Figure 2). Students were also given some more writing tips with the instructions for the first draft (see Figure 3).

Figure 2: Tips about language in focus

Figure 2: Tips about language in focus

Figure 3: First draft with writing tips

Figure 3: First draft with writing tips

Figure 4: Second draft

Figure 4: Second draft

It’s important to note that despite the lesson being done in fully online mode, it followed a traditional process writing methodology. The rubrics for the task reflect this:

Figure 5: Rubrics for writing task

Figure 5: Rubrics for writing task

Following this process ensured two things: first, both student and teacher could focus on the actual text, thereby ensuring that it was both grammatically and thematically correct; second, and perhaps as a consequence of the first stage, the resultant text was something that the student could be proud of and want to show to a wider audience. The next stage, students posting the text to their individual blogs, was where value is added to the writing process. The rubrics for this task are as follows:

Figure 6: Rubrics for blog task

Figure 6: Rubrics for blog task

In this task, two major components were graded: the first was the aesthetics of the blog, i.e. did it contain graphics and was it formatted correctly; the second was the social interaction side of using blogs. It was not just sufficient to post. Students must also comment on at least two of their classmates’ blog posts. To ensure that they have actually read the posts, the quality of their comments is also graded. Figures 7 and 8 below show an example of a blog post and comments. While two of the comments were just short acknowledgments, the other two do show that the readers did more than just superficially interact with the text.

Figure 7: A blog post

Figure 7: A blog post

Figure 8: Comments on the post

Figure 8: Comments on the post

Not only has the above process ensured that students have been able to correctly use the language focus in the text, the second stage of the process also ensures that students learn how to publish and interact with online texts, a key 21st Century skill.

In addition, by adding a social interaction component to the writing task, student texts are now becoming a valuable learning resource for the class. Rather than having to search for paper- or web-based texts, which may be at an inappropriate level for EFL students, these student-generated texts are pitched at the “just-right” level for their peers.


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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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Receptive Skills: Resources for Independent Learning

Young woman wearing headphones and writingHelen Stepanova is an English language teacher, teacher trainer and author, currently working as a Business English teacher in Latvia. In this guest post, she looks at some of the resources available for improving students’ receptive language skills.

Nowadays the Internet provides numerous possibilities for students to improve, polish and master their English language skills. In my lessons I introduce these options, explaining how my students can use them and inspiring them with my own personal experience.

I have divided these resources into two main groups:

  1. for receptive skills, with 2 subgroups: reading and listening
  2. for productive skills, with 2 subgroups: writing and speaking

In each group there are several useful resources. Choose the most appropriate ones for your class.

Receptive Skills

Productive Skills

Reading

Listening

Writing

Speaking

1.Fiction literature 1.Radio 1. Social networks 1. Social networks
2.Professional literature 2.Audio books 2. Language learning communities 2. Language learning communities
3.Bilingual parallel texts 3. Films  3. Writing Clubs 3. British Council
4.Newspapers, magazines, online news 4.Podcasts  4. Private journal 4. Speaking Clubs
5. Blogs 5. Conversations 5. Couchsurfing
6. Scripts 6.Music 6. International learning and volunteer programs

In this post, I’ll be looking at Receptive Skills. I’ll cover Productive Skills in my next post.

Reading

  1. Fiction literature

This is the best option for those who love reading. The choice of books is enormous, from historical adventures to mainstream and children books. It’s possible to relax and learn new vocabulary and grammar constructions simultaneously. Project Gutenberg is a free online library.

  1. Professional literature

If your students are learning English for a specific purpose (e.g. Engineering), reading professional literature is a great way of improving students’ knowledge in that professional area, and in English at the same time. You could also try reading the lectures of world-renowned academics, which are now uploaded to the websites of many leading universities. MIT’s Open Courseware and Coursera are two examples.

  1. Bilingual parallel texts

On one side you’re given English text, on the other there is a translation in your native language. This option is convenient for those who like to read original texts of any complexity, without having to stop to look up unknown words. This resource is very helpful, as the structure and ability to look at the translation immediately allow students become more confident in reading and lessen their fear of long texts.

  1. Newspapers, magazines, online news

Nowadays there are plenty of news websites and online resources for reading, e.g. BBC News, Daily Telegraph, Reuters, and CNN. By reading online news, students kill two birds with one stone – they read articles that are interesting and relevant to them, and learn a lot of new words that are common in press reporting. Reading these daily and writing down any unknown words will help students develop their vocabulary.

  1. Blogs

There are thousands of blogs on the Internet dedicated to different themes – travelling, fashion, gardening, children, phychology, etc. Use a service like Technorati to find relevant blogs. Several times per week bloggers update their pages with new stories. Like with online news sites, students will be interested in keeping up with new posts and will learn at the same time.

  1. Scripts

This is one of the most amazing resources for improving reading skills. We all have our favourite films, and reading the script can be a great way of entertaining students and showing the use of English in more natural, informal settings. The same will apply to plays. Sites like AwesomeFilm, The Daily Script and SimplyScripts have loads of movie scripts available as PDFs.

Listening

  1. Radio

There is possibly no better source for listening practice than radio. There are hundreds of different radio stations where you can listen online, so try listening to a station from a different country to your own. It also helps to listen to different dialects and accents, e.g. British English – BBC Radio, American English – Voice of America, Canadian English – CBC Radio, Australian English – ABC Radio Australia.

  1. Audio books

There are advantages and disadvantages to listening to audio books. The lexis can be learned quite easily, however not everybody likes listening to books. It is a matter of preference. Audio books can be downloaded for free from, for example, the University of South Florida’s Lit2Go program, New Fiction, and LibriVox. Or they can be purchased from sites such as Audible and AudioGo.

  1. Films

This is an ideal way to master listening skills, as all three VAK styles are used: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. If something is unclear, it is easy to rewind back and re-watch that section of the film until it becomes clear. Reading the script before watching, or watching the film in students’ native language first, will also help. Repeat words and phrases, imitating the actors’ intonation, will help to get students’ kinaesthetic memory working.

  1. Podcasts

Short audio lessons or stories recorded by native speakers are what will really help students. Choosing podcasts at the right language level for your students, and with themes that are interesting and relevant to them, is crucial to maintaining students’ interest and motivation. You can even subscribe to podcasts to be sent the most recent episodes automatically. Try a service like ESL Podcast.

  1. Conversations

Encourage students to find a friend – either a native speaker or someone with a good level of English – and to talk with them in English. Thanks to social networks such as Facebook, Skype, Google+ and Lang-8, it’s very easy now for students to connect with native speakers and improve their English effectively.

  1. Music

Listening to music is a great way to develop English skills. When you are listening and singing your kinaesthetic memory is working. Even if it is difficult to understand the lyrics, music is poetry and is often very idiomatic. Students will pick up key phrases and words to add to their vocabulary.


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Top 10 @OUPELTGlobal blog posts of 2012

Welcome, everyone, to 2013!

2012 was a great year for our blog, so we just wanted to share with you our top ten posts for the year. This isn’t a list of our favourites; this is a list of your favourites, by the number of views for each post.

So here they are:

10. 10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #9 Create a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom by Tim Ward.

9. Teaching ‘screenagers’ – how the digital world is changing learners by Tim Falla.

8. Fun with flashcards by Weronika Salandyk.

7. Introducing the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary App by OUP.

6. How ESL and EFL classrooms differ by Kate Bell.

5. Six steps to writing transactional letters in the FCE Exam – Part 1 by Michael Duckworth.

4. Why do people follow fashion trends? by Rebecca Arnold.

3. 20 most commonly misspelt words in English by Kieron McGovern.

2. 10 Commandments for Motivating Language Learners by Tim Ward.

1. Introduction to project work – what is a project? by Tom Hutchinson.

Interestingly, four of our top ten most viewed posts were published in 2010. We like to attribute this to our continued commitment to bringing you the highest quality articles from some of the ELT industry’s finest educators.

And we intend to continue this trend in 2013.

Happy New Year, dear readers!

Oxford University Press ELT Global Blog Team