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How tablet devices can help with mixed ability classes

Indian woman a tablet PCShaun Wilden, a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer for OUP, considers how tablets and apps can help you encourage the less confident students in your class.

As a teacher trainer, I’ve often been asked how to deal with mixed ability classes. The asking teacher is generally of the opinion that mixed ability is something unusual. To me, it’s always seemed the norm, perhaps best summed up by this near twenty-year old quote.

We do not teach a group but (up to) thirty separate people. Because of this the problem of mixed abilities in the same room seems absolutely natural, and the idea of teaching a unitary lesson – that seems odd.”
Rinvolucri 1986, quoted in Podromou: Mixed Ability Classes

Mixed ability classes bring with them a whole manner of challenges for teachers to overcome. Students who perceive themselves as weak are often the ones that go unnoticed, the ones that are too shy to ask, the ones that don’t ask for the listening exercise to be played again and the ones who feel the pace of the lesson is too fast for them. Of course, should a teacher try and slow it down then those who are more confident complain the pace is too slow. Teachers have always been creative in finding ways to overcome the mixed ability issue. Be it through adjustment of course materials by subtle adaptations and grading or imaginative regroupings during exercises.

If, like me, you spend a large amount of your time reading about and using tablets in education, you’re bound to have run across the idea that tablets are the saviour to all things mixed ability. This, of course, is not true. However, perhaps tablets do offer some genuine alternatives for a teacher and their class. While we’re still a long way from most schools having class sets of devices, over the last couple of years we have seen a slow move towards tablet-based course materials. While some view this negatively, there are immediate advantages for the mixed ability class. Take for example, a listening lesson. Typically, such a lesson is more akin to a listening test.

The teacher establishes context, does a variety of pre-listening exercises and then presses play. Playing a few times but generally working with the class as a whole. Here’s where the mixed ability student falls behind: not getting all the answers and not asking for it to be played again. A tablet-based coursebook and set of headphones are a step towards overcoming this. Since every student has a copy of the listening, control can be handed over to them and they can listen as much as they like (and no one will know how much they needed to listen).

In this example from English File Pre-Intermediate you can see how the student is able to control the listening themselves

In this example from English File Pre-Intermediate you can see how the student is able to control the listening themselves.

Staying on the topic of listening, adding audio to reading texts is another way to help some students. In a class you’ll have students who enjoy reading, some who enjoy listening and some who have difficulty with one or both. A tablet-based coursebook gives them the chance to do both, giving the students a choice they wouldn’t necessarily have. Having the choice makes such a task more amenable to a mixed ability class.

In this example from Solutions Pre-Intermediate, you can see how a student is able to listen and read.

In this example from Solutions Pre-Intermediate, you can see how a student is able to listen and read at the same time.

A tablet-based coursebook also gives every student a voice. Not literally, of course, but a voice when it comes to working with, for example, pronunciation. As a digital book can do more than simply have the printed word, the students at appropriate times can record themselves and listen to their own pronunciation when compared to a model. In a large class, it is difficult for a teacher to be able to hear and react to everyone. Recording also builds the student’s confidence as it acts as rehearsal time, so if they are then asked to say something in front of the class they feel more able to speak.

As you can see in this example, from English File pre-Intermediate, a student is able to record and play back their pronunciation.

As you can see in this example from English File Pre-Intermediate, a student is able to record and play back their pronunciation.

All these tools allow for self-pacing. The ability to work at one’s own pace is a key element of differentiated learning. However to be able to measure and then tailor learning, the teacher needs to be able to get feedback on how a student is doing. A tablet combined with cloud storage can add a digital equivalent to material adaptation; for example, a teacher can use a word processor to create individualised questions for a reading comprehension. Saving a copy of the questions for each student to access them, do the text and re-save via a cloud link on their tablet.

There are a number of apps that can be used on a tablet to achieve this. For example, Socrative, a student response system, is an app that allows a teacher to create exercises, quizzes and games that they can then get each student to do on their device. As they do it, Socrative gives feedback on each student and how they are doing. It provides the digital equivalent of ‘Do you understand?’. However, unlike when asking the question to the whole class, feedback is telling you exactly how each student is doing. Or to put it another way, the shy struggling student is not put on the spot in front of everyone. In a similar vein, an app such as Nearpod allows a teacher to create presentations that cater for a mixed ability classroom, creating lessons that include listening, video and presentations. The presentation is sent to the students’ device and while they are working the teacher can get instant feedback on how the student is doing.

Once a teacher has this feedback, they know who needs what help and where. They perhaps then can use a tablet’s screen recording ability to produce personalised instruction.

By this point you might be thinking that using the tablet in this way is turning the classroom from a place of communication into one where the students sit silently staring at tablet screens. However, that is assuming I am advocating these things are done for the whole lesson, which is not the case. In the listening, the individualised listening is a small portion of a larger lesson. With perhaps the pre- and post-listening tasks taking place as they usually would. Using the student response app is only done selectively, perhaps taking up only a few minutes of lesson time. Furthermore, such assumptions overlook a third way tablets can help address mixed ability: project work.

Project-based learning (PBL) is coming back into fashion as a result of what a tablet and its apps can do.

In most books on the subject of projects you’ll find reference to mixed ability:

…they allow learners with different levels of competence to co-operate on an equal basis in the completion of the tasks the project requires. This goes some way to solving the problems of mixed-ability classes.”
Projects with young learners: Phillips, Burwood and Dunford, p7.

Project work leads to personalisation – another factor known to help confidence in mixed ability classes. All tablets can record sound, take pictures, and record video, giving the students tools that were previously difficult to get either in or out of the classroom. Collaborative projects involving things such as podcasting, film making, and digital stories need more than language skills to be successful. They involve good direction, a steady hand with the camera and an eye for design, so those that lack confidence in language can gain it by bringing those skills to the project.

An article in the Times educational supplement lists three categories of differentiation to help deal with mixed ability:

  • differentiation by task, which involves setting different tasks for pupils of different abilities
  • differentiation by support, which means giving more help to certain pupils within the group
  • differentiation by outcome, which involves setting open-ended tasks and allowing pupil response at different levels.

While teachers have been finding ways to do these things in the language classroom for years, using tablets can perhaps do this to levels previously never considered. Used effectively, and at the right moments in a lesson, they can help overcome what many teachers see as the difficulty of teaching mixed ability students.


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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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Oxford ELT shortlisted for two ESU Awards

ESU President's Award 2013 ShortlistedWe’re delighted to have been shortlisted for two English Speaking Union (ESU) Awards.

The Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf app for our enhanced e-books has been shortlisted for the prestigious ESU President’s Award, which celebrates the use of technology in the teaching and learning of English worldwide.

The app offers enhanced e-books of many of our most popular courses for use on iPad and tablets for Android™. Courses include English File, Solutions, Incredible English, Q: Skills for Success, and many others. The e-books turn the traditional Student’s Book and Workbook into a highly interactive and personal learning experience making the most of what tablet technology has to offer. Features that support language learning include integrated split-screen video, record and compare pronunciation practice, the ability to slow down audio for improved listening practice, automatic marking, written or spoken note-taking, and more.

The ESU judges were impressed with the range of accessible material and commented:

The design and quality of the software is strong and the interactive capabilities within the ebooks are beneficial to the learner.”

English for Football and Oxford EAP: A Course in English for Academic Purposes (B1+) have been shortlisted for the HRH The Duke of Edinburgh ESU English Language Book Awards, which recognise innovation and good practice in the field of English Language and English Language teaching. The judges assessed submissions based on their originality, practicality and presentation.

English for Football, written by Alan Redmond and Sean Warren, and described by the judges as “a handy, simple and effective guide”, is written for students who want to communicate better in English in the world of football. Part of the Express Series of short, specialist courses, English for Football features international players’ experiences of learning English, key topics such as narrowing the angles and cutting inside, and a forward by Sir Alex Ferguson. Each book comes with an interactive MultiROM, containing realistic listening extracts and interactive exercises for self-study.

Oxford EAP B1+, written by Edward de Chazal and Louis Rogers, is part of Oxford EAP, a three-level course which develops the essential skills and academic language for students preparing to study in English at university, whatever their chosen subject. Praised by the judges for being “clear and professional in design”, the course integrates the four main skills and academic language, and features authentic texts from Oxford textbooks, as well as videos of lecture extracts.

We look forward to the announcement of the winners, which will be on 2nd December 2013.

iPad is a trademark of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries.
Android is a trademark of Google Inc.


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Apple, Android or Windows? What’s best in ELT?

TabletsHas the time arrived for you to take a step into mobile learning to see what it offers you and your students? Matt Steele takes a look.

Whether you want to embark on creating, running, or teaching a wholly tablet based course, with no hard copy books in the classroom or at home, or you are simply interested in experimenting with a single tablet device in the classroom as a teaching aid, it will pay you to take a look at the technologies available.

New tablets are coming onto the market on an almost daily basis, and any recommendation for a particular device for a particular purpose can very soon become out of date.

However the Operating System (OS) battle has now largely been decided. Apple’s iOS (its tablet and phone OS) and Google’s Android OS enjoy by far the largest share of the market between them, with Microsoft, Blackberry and the rest taking the remainder.

So, while there is an enormous range of tablets to choose from, the choice of OS is limited to an absolute maximum of three (or four, depending on whether you consider Windows 8 and Windows RT as a single candidate). But which one to go with?

According to data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker, and reported on bgr.com, while growth of tablet shipments slowed overall in the second quarter of 2013, Android and iOS based tablet market share has effectively flipped compared to their positions only a year ago, with Apple’s iPad experiencing a 14% drop in sales to 17 million units, and Android enjoying a huge surge in sales from 10.7 million to 28.2 million, an increase of around 163%.

This reflects Samsung’s (whose tablets use Android) position as second only to Apple in tablet hardware sales. Amazon (whose Kindle Fire uses Amazon’s own version of Android), Lenovo and Acer make up the rest of that list, along with the myriad other tablet makers, who also use Android.

In the same way that the popularity of the Windows PC OS in the nineties caused Intel to become the largest chip manufacturer in the world, so Samsung and Amazon’s Kindle Fire have reaped the benefit of the success of Android.

The choice of OS, however, is bound up with a number of other issues – how do the respective app stores rate? To what extent can you make use of your school’s existing technologies (email, interoperability with a school LAN etc)? What other software is available to help you with the management of classroom based tablet devices?

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