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Collaborative Learning Online And In The Socially Distanced Classroom

Cut-out paper-chain of children holding handsWhat is collaborative language learning?

One of the most satisfying experiences that I have as an instructor is when I have my class make pairs or groups and then, after a few moments, I hear lively chatter. Moving around the classroom, I hear students using the vocabulary and structures that we studied in class. Yet they are doing more than just reciting what they learned in this lesson; they are combining the learning goals of the lesson with the language that they already know in a personalized and creative manner. A casual observer might think that this was break-time or an opportunity for the class to relax. But while I hope they are having fun, I know that they are actually hard at work. This is the culminating activity that we have worked towards together as a class. It is collaborative learning in action.

The key principles of collaborative learning

Having students work in pairs and groups of three or four are key strategies in the collaborative learning approach. Together, they practice the target language and to establish meaning, in a carefully sequenced set of achievable, unintimidating, activities. From our own experience, we know the value of learning by doing. This is even more critical in language learning, where the production of new sounds, new words and new structures is so vital. To be a successful language user, it is not enough to know; students have to adapt their knowledge to create meaning and communicate with someone else. Increasing our students’ opportunities to do something meaningful in class is one of the main aims of collaborative learning.

So, what is the role of the teacher in all of this?

At the start of a sequence of activities, for example, when presenting the target language of the lesson, the method of instruction can look quite traditional; often the teacher speaks and the students listen. After the presentation phase, however, the class transitions in a way that makes the learners, and not the teacher, the focus of the class. The first step often focuses on accuracy. In pairs or groups, the students manipulate the language mechanically. They learn from each other. Crucially, the teacher moves from group to group, evaluating the progress, and correcting the learners as necessary. The subsequent activities in the sequence encourage the learners step-by-step to use the target language in more creative and open-ended ways, with activities that encourage students to combine what they have just learned with the language that they already know.

The collaborative approach is highly motivating because it allows students to communicate about things that matter to them, to be more active, and indeed, more successful learners.

Collaborative learning in the COVID-19 era

Only a few short months ago, the notion that teleconferencing technology would become an essential tool in our professional lives would have been unimaginable. Along with my colleagues, I have struggled to adjust to this new reality. What, now, are the most effective classroom management techniques? Does the collaborative language learning approach even make any sense?

When we went into lockdown in New York City, where I teach, my classroom practice probably resembled a traditional, lecture approach. Eventually, however, I was able to adapt what I typically did in a physical classroom to the virtual classroom.

4 key ways to conduct collaborative language learning in cyberspace:

  1. At the start of the lesson, I present the goals of the class and the target language. I could share my screen, where I could have a PowerPoint presentation, but instead I send my presentation materials to the students earlier. Since unconscious lip reading is such an important part of listening comprehension, I want my students to be able to see my face full size. Instead of sending a file of slides, I use the screen capture feature of QuickTime to record my computer screen and voice at the same time. (I am a low-tech person, but I have found it easy to use). Students, therefore, get a video of my presentation, which they can watch before or after class, multiple times.
  2. Most teleconferencing tools allow the host to make breakout groups. I set these up before class. It is a simple thing to conduct pair work and group work using this feature, and as in a physical classroom, I can monitor them as they work. One added advantage is that my students can video their work, (using any screen capture tool) which we can use later for student self-analysis or peer-reviewing.
  3. Many of the activities that my students do in the physical classroom involve completing charts, matching, and checking items, together. Now, I have students take a photo of their work using their smartphone, and then share it with me and their classmates using email, social media, or our school Learning Management System (LMS). We do collaborative writing activities in a similar way.
  4. In a physical classroom, I can’t imagine teaching in a room without a whiteboard. Almost all teleconferencing tools have a whiteboard feature. I find this feature cumbersome. It takes me a lot of time to write and then erase the digital whiteboard. When teaching online, I find it much more effective to use the chat function when I want my students to see something in writing. For more extended notes or hand-drawn charts, I much prefer to use a small, handheld physical whiteboard, which I hold up to my laptop screen. Some students take photos of this with their smartphone, just like they do in my regular classroom, while others take screenshots.

The Hybrid Classroom

What will happen when we move to a hybrid classroom model, where we combine socially distanced in-class learning and distance learning? Can we have collaborative learning when students must be apart from each other?

Before the pandemic, I frequently had students take photos of their work with their phones, which they posted on a social media platform, and I then projected to the class. Now, I will have them share with each other, in socially distanced pairs and groups.

What activities to do online or in the socially distanced classroom will be an important decision. Right now, I am planning to present new language (vocabulary and grammar) online, in the manner that I described earlier. Writing activities, including collaborative ones, can be successfully conducted online, as can listening activities – my students can access the content on their mobile devices. But since speaking is by its very nature performative, I will prioritize the physical class time for open-ended pair work, group discussions, and role-playing. But at a distance.

 

For more practical tips, and two free activities for running pair work and group work with adult learners, visit our collaborative learning page!

Get Expert Advice On Collaborative Learning


Thomas Healy is one of the authors of Smart Choice as well as an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. He has given several webinars for Oxford University Press on how to use smart devices and social media to encourage collaborative learning including The potential of smart devices, How to use mobile technology in class and How learners can use mobile technology outside of classFind these recordings in our webinar library.


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Building Reading Skills For The Selfie Generation

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The “Selfie Generation” interacts with reading materials in profoundly different ways compared to previous generations. Learners are now challenged by both print and interactive, digital text.

How can we build their traditional reading skills while improving their digital literacy?

  1. Learn how to make your materials and classroom activities more interactive with easy-to-use affordable computer applications
  2. Even non technologically minded instructors will come away with ideas that are easy to implement

In this free-to-attend webinar, you can expect to –

  • Learn how to harness technology in a productive way to support literacy and language learning for students with dyslexia at all levels
  • Gain ideas for formative assessment using appropriate apps to monitor progress
  • Embrace learning technology in simple, easy ways – no matter your budget

To watch a recording of one of the sessions, simply register at the link below!

Watch the recording

Thomas Healy is an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. A full-time instructor, he presents regularly on how to adapt traditional classroom materials to meet the needs of the Selfie Generation, and how to use widely available and easy-to-use digital tools in language learning.


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Classroom Management and Using Smart Devices

Can Smart Devices really be used for learning? Thomas Healy, co-author of Smart Choice Second Edition, shares his ideas ahead of his webinar on 9 and 11 December on the subject. 

I’ve always been intrigued by the lines in the David Bowie song, Cat People (Putting out Fire), where he sings that he’s “been putting out fire. With gasoline.” In a sense, this is what I attempted to do when I first started using smart devices and social media extensively in class, as a response to my frustration with students’ attempts to text and play with their phones in class.  Rather than banning them and reprimanding students, I decided to use the devices whenever it made sense. Since all of my students had them, I used smart technology to turn every classroom into a T.E.C. (Technology Enhanced Classroom).

In order to evaluate the effect of the devices on teaching and learning, I used the following graphic organizer.

Figure 1. Evaluation Graphic Organized

Figure 1. Evaluation Graphic Organized

  1. Dealing with distraction.

First of all, I considered my own role and behavior in class.  I used to be extremely frustrated when students started texting class. Now, for the most part, I ignore this behavior.  I don’t let it distract me. Also, I know from my own texting behavior during meetings and conferences, that it is quite possible (especially for this generation) to do more than two things at the same time. I intervene when the behavior clearly inhibits the student’s individual learning or when an individual student tries to distract other students in the class with something that they are doing with their smart device (like looking at pictures of puppies).

Students also know that at any time I can ask them to take a photo of their work and to upload it to Learning Management System (see fig. 2). We use Facebook groups for this. I can ask them to message the image to me privately or to post to the group for peer review. I have found that this is a very effective way of keeping students on task.

Figure 2. A paraphrasing activity which a student posted to Facebook for peer review.

Figure 2. A paraphrasing activity which a student posted to Facebook for peer review.

  1. Time management

One of my priorities is helping learners develop their presenting skills. This is a very time-consuming process, as in addition to the presentations themselves, we have to give each student feedback. Rather than fiddling with cameras, I have every student record their own presentation with their phone. We improvise camera stands (see fig. 3).

Figure 3. Improvised camera stand.

Figure 3. Improvised camera stand.

 

We also save time by having students upload their presentation slides to the Facebook group before class, rather than fussing with USB drives and the class computer. A great timesaver is doing the feedback outside of class entirely. Students upload their presentations to the Facebook group. We discuss the evaluation criteria in class but use the comments feature of Facebook for the actual feedback, which is done outside of regular class time (see fig. 4)

 

Figure 4. Posting a recording of a presentation and using the comments function for feedback.

Figure 4. Posting a recording of a presentation and using the comments function for feedback.

  1. Classroom procedure: keeping a record.

Pop up grammar refers to grammar points which arise in class and but are not part of the lesson plan (see fig 5.). I used to be quite frustrated that students would sit and listen to me explain a grammar point, but not take any notes.

Figure 5. A pop-up grammar lesson written on the board.

Figure 5. A pop-up grammar lesson written on the board.

 

Now, I ask a student (and as a course progresses, I don’t even have to ask) to take a photo of what I learned on the board and upload it to our Facebook group (see fig. 6).

Figure 6. The pop-up grammar lesson posted by a student to our class Facebook group.

Figure 6. The pop-up grammar lesson posted by a student to our class Facebook group.

  1. Action plan

Using the graphic organizer above (figure 1), I have tried to measure the impact of using smart devices and social media on how I teach. While the potential for students to get distracted (by Candy Crush or any other of the infinite things they can do) definitely exists, I have found that by using the extensive features of social media platforms and the smart devices themselves, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. The key is to make the technology a central part of the process, rather than just a fun, occasional thing to do from time to time. Doing so reinforces the notion that the technology is a powerful learning tool, rather than a plaything.

Take part in Thomas Healy’s live webinar – “Classroom Management and Smart Devices” – to discuss how technology can become a powerful learning tool in your classroom. Register today!


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Using Social Media and Smart Devices Effectively in the Classroom

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Image courtesy of Jason Howie

How can you use digital technology to bring course material to life in the classroom? Thomas Healy, co-author of Smart Choice Second Edition, shares his ideas ahead of his webinar on 23 & 25 September on the subject.

It’s an old joke that although the Internet is one of the most important inventions since the wheel, most people just use it to look at pictures of puppies. Certainly, I believed that people, especially younger people, wasted a lot of time on the Internet and on their smart devices. Then I observed an eighteen-year-old student in my class trying to enlarge an illustration in her textbook by pinching it, like an image on a touch screen. This was a wake up call for me. Having grown up with the technology, this student actually expected content to be digital. As someone who prided himself on providing interesting, motivating as well as enriching materials, I looked at my photocopied supplemental activities and wondered how she, and indeed the entire class, must be experiencing them. Her smart device, along with everyone else’s, was in a pile collected at the start of the class, next to a computer that I rarely used.

When I considered using smart devices and social media networks with my students, I wanted to devise activities that the class would immediately recognize as being central to the goals of the lesson. If the activities were just games or ‘fillers’, then I imagined that students would naturally gravitate to games such as Candy Crush that they already had on their devices. I also wanted to harness what most of my students seemed to be doing on their smart phones when not playing games: writing messages and taking photos and videos, which they shared with their peers.

Using Social Media as a Learning Management System

21st Century learners live in a world where they are constantly producing, sharing and commenting on content. In order to have a place where we can share messages, images, videos and word files, I create a Facebook group for each class. I use this platform because all of my students are already active members. Within Facebook, a group is a private, members-only space. Students can join a group without becoming my friend.

Facebook groups

When creating activities for Facebook, I started by looking at the supplemental materials I already used in class. Many of these activities practiced, expanded, or personalized the contents of the textbook. Could these be enhanced or transformed by being completed in the digital world?

Using Smartphones with Facebook

A smartphone is like a portable recording studio. Students can readily practice and personalize the target language of the textbook by using the video function. In one activity I use, after teaching a unit about clothing and colors, students go to their favorite store and describe the clothes and colors that they see while videoing the manikins. I ask students to post the videos to the Facebook group, and comment on others’ videos.

iPhone video

This ability to make and narrate videos can bring important but potentially ‘dry’ units to life: those that deal with rooms and furniture, directions, or food. Sharing the videos online provides a lot of additional, fun interaction between students, as well opportunities for language, accuracy and pronunciation analysis.

Making a Digital Projector Interactive

Since 21st Century learners are engaged by content that they can interact with, I have tried to make the digital projector an active rather than passive experience for my students.  Together with the projector, I use an audience response app, Socrative, which students download for free.  For example, as we work through grammar activities in the textbook, Socrative enables me to project additional practice items on the screen, which students complete on their smart phones. The app automatically checks answers and provides feedback to the class in real-time. Used in this way, digital technology is not merely engaging but plays a central part in achieving the goals of the lesson.

Socrative app logo

Making Digital Technology an essential rather than peripheral tool

My students sometimes forget their textbooks, but they never forget their phones. Therefore, every classroom we use is a technology-enhanced space. Smart phones, social media platforms and apps have allowed me to bring my materials to life. I can create colorful, interactive activities and I can encourage students to bring the real world into the class by using the video and photo functions of their classrooms. Instead of having students put their devices on a table by the door, I now ask them to make sure their phones are fully charged when they come to class. They understand that we are not using digital technology and social media for ‘fun’, or when we need to take a breather. Together, we have made digital technology a key part of their learning experience.

Take part in Thomas Healy’s live webinar to further explore and discuss how the digital technology your students love to use can become a key part of their learning experience. Register today!


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Using Facebook and Smart Devices for Blended Learning

Facebook icon with mortar board on top

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.