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Using Facebook and Smart Devices for Blended Learning

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Image courtesy of mkhmarketing on Flickr

Thomas Healy, is an English language instructor at the Pratt Institute, New York and at Kyung Hee Cyber University, Seoul. He presents regularly at conferences on how to use technology and social media in language learning. He is the co-author of Smart Choice Second Edition. In this article, he looks at ways of using social media and technology for blended learning.

A couple of years ago, I felt that my interaction with students was more suitable for kindergarteners, rather than my young adults.  My need to say ‘No!”, “Don’t do that”, and “Stop!” seemed to be ruining my rapport. Every one of my students had a smartphone, which they never wanted to put down or turn off. I didn’t even have a regular cellphone myself. Then I thought, “If I can’t beat them, I’ll join them.” I bought a smartphone, asked a student to show me how it worked, and embraced the digital age.

I soon learned that I could easily get lost and confused with the bewildering number of virtual tools, environments and applications. So rather than asking myself, “How can I use digital tools in class?” I asked, “What do I need?” I needed a place in the digital world

  • which my students and I could use from any classroom, technology-enabled or not, or even when we were on a field trip
  • where students could post videos of presentations and written assignments
  • where my students could find me and each other instantly and effortlessly.

Having analyzed the most popular social media platform, I chose Facebook as the hub of my blended learning environment. Facebook has most of the functionality of the Learning Management System provided by my school with the added advantages that it is much easier to use, and my students are connected to it all the time. I make a Facebook group for each of my classes. A Facebook group is a members-only, private space that is easy to create and access.

One of the most effective ways of helping students with their communication skills is through doing presentations. Through presenting themselves and watching others present, students become acutely aware of issues relating to vocabulary, pronunciation and eye contact, to name just a few. In the past, the presentations themselves and the feedback sessions ate up a lot of class time. Now, when students present in class they video themselves on their smartphones, and upload their recording to their class Facebook group. In class, we discuss how to evaluate the presentations but the actual critiquing takes place outside of the regular classroom. Students watch the videos and then give feedback using the comment feature.

We follow a similar procedure when peer reviewing writing assignments. One of the most important advantages is that students have a record of the feedback, which they can easily access.

21st Century learners are ‘prosumers’: producers + consumers. They are not content just to view something; they want to produce their own content in response. As much as possible, I use Facebook to make the projector in my class an interactive rather than passive experience.

I use Facebook as a presentation tool, and as a way to expand and personalize the contents of my lessons. I can upload my lesson visuals using Slideshare, or more frequently, by just uploading a series of screenshots to the Facebook group. Unlike with my Learning Management System, students can upload to the group too. We can personalize and expand a lesson by having them take photographs or scanning content and uploading it.

When appropriate, I have my students use the live chat function to answer, for example, grammar questions or other activities. By zooming in on student responses, the projector becomes an interactive rather than passive classroom tool.

The digital classroom can become too diffuse through the use of too many platforms and applications. Although I have added other tools over time, I try to maximize the functionality of Facebook. By focusing my students’ desire to share on language learning, it can be used as a powerful ‘academic network’.

To find out more about developing presentation skills in the classroom and ways smart devices and social media can be incorporated into the process, you can take part in Thomas Healy’s interactive webinar “Developing effective presentation skills” on either 8th November or 14th November. Register for your free webinar place now.


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A pre-JALT interview with Ken Wilson, author of Drama and Improvisation

Ken Wilson with teachersKen Wilson is a teacher trainer as well as the author of over 30 ELT materials including the course book Smart Choice and a compilation of drama activities entitled Drama and Improvisation. He has extensive experience with the English Teaching Theatre as a performer, writer, and artistic director and has written countless plays, radio, and TV programmes. Ken will be attending his fourth JALT national conference this October where he will be giving talks on improvisation and communication. He joined us for a short interview to talk about drama and improvisation in the ELT classroom as well as what he expects from this year’s conference.

1. What do you think is the greatest challenge ELT teachers face in the near future? How can they prepare to overcome that challenge?

For me, it all comes down to technology. I think the biggest challenge is the correct, sensible and useful employment of technology in the ELT classroom, and I think it’s a different thing for new teachers and for more experienced teachers.

When I was in Japan last time, I noted that – as in most countries – some teachers are a little bit uncertain about the use of technology. Some of them feel that the publishers are introducing the use of technology at quite a fast rate. What I would say to those teachers is that there are some terrific advantages to technology, but what you’ve been doing yourself successfully over the last five, ten, twenty years is equally valuable. And as an experienced teacher, you shouldn’t feel any pressure from anybody to use technology. Just remember that what you’ve been doing successfully up until now is still valuable – technology is just there to help you with it.

For new teachers who are being trained with technology, it might look like Christmas. All these techno toys look so fantastic, but you should remember that at the end of the day, the classroom is first and foremost about the relationship between you and the student. The technology is there to help your students, but you‘re the person there who is teaching. Don’t put the technology between you and your students. My worry about new teachers who get really excited about technology – who walk into a classroom, switch something on, ask people to use something on their tablets – is that they are losing an important aspect of their relationship with their students. Students still need to know that they’re relating to a person and the technology is there to help that relationship, not become a barrier to it.

2. One of your presentations for the JALT conference this year is titled “Can improvised activities work in Japanese classrooms?” Can you give us a teaser of what you will be talking about?

About three or four years ago, I wrote a book called Drama and Improvisation and the reason I finally got around to writing this book was that I had been doing activities in the classroom that were really, really simple and they involved very basic language, but they still involved improvisation activities. Drama must be used in a way that is accessible for low-level students, and that uses activities that work for all levels of students from elementary to advanced levels. When I wrote Drama and Improvisation, the series editor Alan Maley told me “All these activities are really simple! They’re all elementary.” I said, “I know, but the fact is I’ve done them with advanced students and they find the intellectual requirement quite interesting and quite a challenge even though the basic language is quite simple.”

Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve seen drama workshops at conferences, where I found myself thinking, that’s a sensational activity but it only works with somebody who speaks a lot of English already. A lot of people who give drama workshops will say that drama is essential because students need to take flight, use their imagination etc. etc. which is great if you have the language to do it, but most of the students can’t do this because they don’t have that framework.

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Three Question Interview – Ken Wilson

We have asked top ELT authors the following 3 questions:

1. What’s your favourite ELT book?
2. What or who has had the biggest impact on ELT in the last 25 years?
3. What do you wish you’d known when you started out in ELT?

Here, Ken Wilson answers these questions in a short interview:

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