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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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Teaching with Web 2.0 Tools (Part 2)

DeathtoStock_Medium5Magali Trapero Turrent is an ELT Editor at Oxford University Press, Mexico. She is the co-author of several books published by OUP as well as a teacher and former OUP Educational Services teacher trainer. In her posts, she shares her ideas for using Web 2.0 tools to develop learner’s language skills.

Listening is a difficult skill to develop for ELLs or any other foreign language learner. And yet, it is critical for language acquisition. In the past, we mostly used the audio materials included in textbooks to help our learners develop listening skills. However, with the advent of new technologies and the Internet, we have been able to add richness to our lessons by using podcasts, short videos or live radio programs from stations in other countries. Despite this, there are times when we want to create specific audio materials to suit our learners’ needs without having to record our voices. Fortunately, using Web 2.0 tools can give us the opportunity to create our own engaging and fun listening materials without having to record our voice or, better yet, we can engage our students in the process of creation. Text-to-Speech (TTS) technology is extremely helpful because we can select the speech rate, the gender and the accent of the voice that will be created from our text. iSpeech and Voki are examples of tools that employ TTS technology.

iSpeech can be used with computers or with tablets and smart phones through the mobile apps. Voki allows you, or your students, to generate fun listening activities through the creation of avatars to represent you, a fictitious character, or your students. You can use TTS, upload audio files or use your smart phone to record. You can place your listening activity (avatar) in your social network site or blog, or even email it for homework.

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Figure 1: Sample Voki development page—Text extract from the OUP series Discover Science Level 3 Student’s Book

In designing a lesson, we can apply the pre-listening, while-listening and post-listening framework. Once the topic of the lesson is decided and after the instructional goal of the activity is established—top-down or bottom-up skill development (Rost, 2011)—we can begin developing our listening materials.

During the pre-listening stage, learners can begin work on top-down processing skills. Top-down processing takes place, for example, when learners use their previous knowledge on a topic to interpret a message. If they do not have any knowledge on the topic, regardless of how fluent they are, it will render a listening activity quite challenging. This principle applies even to native speakers. Imagine having to listen to a conversation about astrophysics—if you are not an astrophysicist, having to answer comprehension questions based on that conversation can be an overwhelming challenge. Therefore, establishing a context, pre-teaching vocabulary or sociocultural elements and activating previous knowledge are needed for comprehension of aural input (Ur, 1999).

In preparing a science lesson, I can use Google Earth to engage my learners and activate their previous knowledge on ecosystems and biomes during the pre-listening stage. As they engage in their virtual exploration of the Earth, I can begin eliciting content-specific vocabulary and teaching any lexis they will need to successfully complete their listening task.

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Figure 2: Image courtesy of Google Earth

Moving on to the next stage of the lesson, besides top-down processing skills, more skills will need to be developed that are just as necessary—namely, bottom-up processing skills. The while-listening stage provides a great opportunity to develop decoding or bottom-up processing skills. In bottom-up processing, some degree of phonological, grammatical and lexical competence is needed. This is because when learners engage in bottom-up processing, they attempt to make sense of the message based on chunks of input, such as sounds, words, clauses or sentences—to name a few. Top-down and bottom-up processes do not happen in isolation—they interact (Vandergrift, 1999).

Continuing with the example of a science lesson, for the while-listening activity, I can use Woices to develop a guide to different biomes and the services they provide. I can embed the guide in a blog or a social network page, or use it directly from the site. Woices can be used with computers or with tablets and smart phones through the mobile apps. In a while-listening activity like this, depending on the instructional goal, I can have my learners complete a mind map in Mind42 with information from the aural input or follow the information on Google Earth as they capture images mentioned in the Woices guide for the post-listening activity.

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Figure 3: Image courtesy of Woices

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Figure 4: Images courtesy of Mind42 and Tiffany @Making the World Cuter

In fact, Woices, iSpeech and Voki can be used for the post-listening stage. You may decide, for example, to have your learners create their own Voki as a response. The advantage of using TTS technology is that if students have memorized words with the wrong pronunciation, once their text is converted to speech, they will notice the difference. After all, research shows that learners have consistently reported that memorizing words with the wrong pronunciation greatly interferes with their listening comprehension performance (Goh, 2008). The downside of TTS is that it may not provide the desired intonation if that is one of the instructional goals of a lesson.

In the next article in this series, we will explore the use of Web 2.0 tools for writing activities.

 

References and Further Reading

Goh, C. (2008). Metacognitive Instruction for Second Language Listening Development: Theory, Practice and Research Implications. RELC Journal: A Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 39(2), 188–213.

Rost, M. (2011). Teaching and Researching Listening (2nd ed., pp. 132-133). New York, NY: Pearson Education Limited.

Ur, P. (1999). Module 8 – Teaching listening. A Course in Language Teaching (pp. 41–47). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vandergrift, L. (1999). Facilitating Second Language Listening Comprehension: Acquiring Successful Strategies. ELT Journal, 53 (3), 168–176.


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The Potential of E-books

Dr Priyamvada Agarwal works for Oxford University Press India as a Deputy Product Manager. Here she talks about using e-books for digital natives.

What are you most in need of to teach effectively in the digital age? Everybody would agree that interactive content which can engage students and hold their attention motivates students and enhances learning.

Teaching language skills through the coursebook to students who are digital natives and not digital immigrants can be both boring and time-consuming. Given that, what if the same coursebook could be used in such a manner that the printed exercises could become interactive and thus make existing material more lively, interesting and meaningful? What if something could help the teacher to bring challenge and purpose to the way the coursebook exercises are explored? What if the teacher didn’t have to invest money to make photocopies or to procure resources?

E-books, the digital version of the students’ coursebook, enables the teacher to play with the material in the coursebook, to develop interactive exercises, to add a personalized touch to make the lessons more context-oriented, and to add resources to help students connect instantly with things which aren’t often brought into the classroom. Incredibly easy to use, students’ coursebooks have beautiful illustrations and graphic stories which can be used to prompt discussions, develop predicting skills, etc. Simple features like zoom, hide and reveal, spotlight, etc. can do wonders to make interactive exercises and engage students in their language learning lessons.

Learners (and especially young ones) are able to retain information more easily if pictures, audio and videos are integrated into the lesson. Integrating videos into lessons creates enticing visuals and an interactive envi­ronment in the EFL/ESL classroom. Teaching English through videos also allows teachers to be creative when designing language lessons. As Cundell (2008, 17) notes, “One of the most powerful ways that video can be inte­grated into courses is for the visual represen­tation they provide for learners on otherwise abstract concepts.”

It’s not often you use the Internet at the same time as reading a book. With e-book technology this is commonplace. The teacher can’t get much more interactive and visual than using the audio-video clips in the e-book. Adding hyperlinks enhances the pedagogical value of the coursebook, and finding appropriate teaching materials online is not difficult.

An effective lesson does not nec­essarily require expensive and high-tech materi­als – relevant and contextual audio and videos available on the Internet linked with the lesson enable the student to easily relate to what’s being taught. At the click of a button, the web links direct you to the video to be shown. Moreover, it is a one-time exercise for the teacher because the web link can be easily annotated and saved on a sticky note.

When teaching about places like the Arctic/Antarctic oceans, the moon, or if teaching about some abstract concepts or about wild animals, which may be difficult for some to visualise and imagine, showing a video on the subject adds an additional layer of context and comprehension.

The multitude of enhancements that can be made to the digital version of a coursebook is a compelling reason to explore the potential of e-books in classroom instruction even at the primary and middle level.

If you are using e-books in the classroom, share your experiences and some of the interesting activities that engage students in the comments below.

Cundell, A. 2008. The integration of effective technologies for language learning and teaching. In Educational technology in the Arabian Gulf: Theory, research and pedagogy, ed. P. Davidson, J. Shewell, and W. J. Moore, 13–23. Dubai: TESOL Arabia.

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Connectivism: A Theory of Learning for a Digital Age

Collectivism word cloudIn this guest post, Thomas Baker, a teacher and teacher trainer in Chile, and President of TESOL Chile, introduces the concept of digital connectivism and the impact it has on teachers and students of the English language.

[Image courtesy of wlonline, via Flickr]

Connectivism has been called, “A Learning Theory for the Digital Age” (Siemens, 2005).  I aim to share what I have learned about connectivism,  and what it means for English Language Teaching.

What I share comes from a Massive Open On-line Course (MOOC) called, Connectivism and Connected Knowledge 2011 (CCK11).  The course facilitators are George Siemens and Stephen Downes.  Siemens first wrote about connectivism in 2005.  Since then, he and Downes have worked together to develop the theory and practice of connectivism.  The CCK11 course is where I enter the picture, as a learner and EFL teacher.

In this post, I will do three things:

  1. Define connectivism.
  2. State the principles of connectivism.
  3. Relate connectivism to EFL teaching.

Before I begin, I add that I am sharing what I have understood in CCK11. Therefore, I alone am responsible for any errors, omissions, or inaccuracies in this post, and not George Siemens or Stephen Downes.

1.  Connectivism is defined as, “a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized.

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Creative Ideas for Language Learning with Moodle

Written by Phil Bird.

Moodle logoMuch has been written about the uses of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) in education; here I want to look at specifics – how can Moodle be used to support language learning?

I would like to present here some of the tools and techniques that I have used with my learners.

Interaction with Web Content

Don’t just add a link to a website. If you add it to a forum, you can get some fantastic language production. For learners working at a lower level I have used simple travel information websites to get students to ask for and give travel directions (many cities have public transport journey planners available online). I have also asked students to use online shopping sites to find presents for people in the class, having given them an imaginary £50 to spend.

Forums appear to be best for fluency practice, but as they leave a written record, they work very well for identifying individual students’ error patterns. While accuracy corrections online in a public forum are probably inappropriate, there is nothing to stop you printing off the forum page for each student and marking their corrections on it. For learners who have a low-level of confidence or accuracy in the target language, you can use the forum to get them to plan out a conversation, which they can then try out without that scaffold. For learners working at higher levels you can greater exploit forums for fluency practise. For example, add a few links for travel and tourist information, suggest places to go and the best way to get there (justifying their choices, in the target language, naturally). I have also had students find courses they want to study and job vacancies and explain what they find interesting, or why they think that they are suitable. This could be a great way to get learners to continue practising outside lesson time. Ask learners to debate a topic on the forum and use posts as stimuli for discursive writing.

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