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The value of Virtual Learning Environments for Business English

Business person using computerPete Sharma explores some of the different Virtual Learning Environments suitable for Business English teachers.

A colleague recently asked me: “Which VLE should I use with my Business English students?” This started me thinking that there are, in fact, many ways to support the work that teachers do in the classroom. In this post, I’ll take a look at some of these exciting options.

At one end of the spectrum is using a full-scale Virtual Learning Environment. This is a password-protected area on the internet which is used to store and deliver digital materials such as texts, interactive activities, audio, video and links to websites. A VLE is often called an LMS (Learning Management System) or CMS (Content Management System), and contains communication tools. For example, a teacher can post a message to a forum for students to answer in their own time (asynchronous communication), or use instant messaging (synchronous communication).

Two well-known VLEs used by universities are Moodle and Blackboard. Such platforms have a large number of features, such as ‘quiz-makers’. Creative teachers can make their own digital materials with authoring software such as Hot Potatoes, and upload these to the platform.

On my last course, I used the website Edmodo, which is free and easy to join. It is easy to use and allows you to communicate with your students between classes, and post links to websites and other teaching materials you wish them to look at. This was perfectly adequate for this particular course and group of students.

It is important to remember that a VLE is empty until you add material. Let’s look at a different option. Many course books have an access code at the back, allowing access to publisher-produced materials on a web-based platform. Students can download audio files, or do online interactive exercises. Tracking tools allow teachers (and training managers!) to see which exercises students have worked on, and how much time they have spent on each one.

There are other options. Some of my colleagues use Dropbox to share materials. Teachers running writing courses sometimes start a class wiki. A wiki is a website containing editable pages, so students can collaborate on a piece of writing.

There is a lot of choice, and it is important to support your course with something which works for you.  Maybe you want to offer your students 24/7 access to their digital materials, or perhaps you want to create material yourself. Whatever you decide, it is impossible for me to imagine a course which is simply ‘done in the classroom’, without being able to provide autonomous learning opportunities outside class, too. And busy Business English students, who often travel, will appreciate this course enrichment more than most.


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Webinar: Apps, e-books and digital resources for Business English

Pete Sharma shares some thoughts on mobile learning in Business English from his webinar on 28th February entitled “Apps, e-books and digital resources for Business English”. You can watch a recording here.

I’m teaching two groups of students this month. They are mostly young adults, from China. As I gaze round the classroom looking at my students, I’m struck by how many of them have a smartphone. Some have tablets. They seem to have these devices in their hands all the time – sometimes checking new words, sometimes using the Internet to look something up. Sometimes, they are ‘on-task’, but more often than not, they are multi-tasking, updating their Facebook page or text-chatting with a friend – and certainly not in English!

Mobile phones have been described as a ‘disruptive technology’. If a phone rings in the classroom, the lesson is disrupted. One teacher in Brazil told me recently that mobile phones were banned by law from being used his school, in his state. Last year, I visited a college in India where the following sign is displayed in each classroom: “No mobiles!” Yet it is clear that such devices have benefits, and certainly for Business English students who often travel a lot, usually with a smartphone, tablet or laptop… or even all three!

What then are the benefits of mobile learning for Business English students? What are the drawbacks?

In my webinar, I’ll first focus on apps. There are apps for just about everything, and we’ll look at some that are especially helpful for Business English students. These include apps which are good for vocabulary development, as well as apps for developing language skills such as speaking, listening and reading.

Then, we’ll look at how using e-books can add new dimensions to language learning. I’ll be demonstrating this with a popular title from the Express Series, English for Presentations.

Finally, I’ll be focussing on some of the many technologies and digital resources which can be used by Business English teachers, including VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments).

I’ll argue that, providing we start from the ‘pedagogy’, there’s plenty that technology can offer to enhance our teaching. I hope you can join me.

Watch a recording of Pete’s webinar here.


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So you want to teach online?

Middle Eastern woman on laptopShaun Wilden, a freelance teacher trainer and expert in online tutoring, shares some thoughts on his upcoming series of webinars on teaching students online.

Over the last few years, language teachers have had to come to terms with a technological shift in the way they teach. Though VLEs (Virtual Learing Environments) have been used in education for many years, it is only over the last few that they have become part and parcel of teachers’ working lives as either they, their school, or the material they use have found their way online. Be it setting homework via edmodo, using Facebook to extend the classroom or using online workbooks to complement courses, language teaching is more blended than ever before.

Being thrust into this asynchronous world of teaching can be quite daunting for those of us that were trained for the face-to-face classroom. We are used to standing in front of a group of learners, setting tasks that get our learners to communicate while we monitor, react, guide and prod. We are skilled in the art of classroom management, noticing when a student is off track, reading body language to gauge if a student is struggling and knowing when a task is finished and how to wrap it up. We are comfortable working face to face, knowing our training and experience has given us the skills to handle most things that school life throws at us.

While the popularity of social networking has implicitly helped us come to terms with asynchronous communication, a tweeted conversation or discussion of the latest cat photo on Facebook hardly counts as adequate training for dealing with students online. Is it a given that a skilled classroom teacher will automatically make the transition to the online environment?

As with many of the technological changes that come to schools, blended learning is often introduced at the behest of the stakeholders, sometimes with little thought given to how the change is going to affect teachers and impact on their working routine. Likewise, they often presume this is what the students want and assume that students will jump into asynchronous learnin,g embracing in-task discussions with the same gay abandon they show when updating a social network status. However, in reality an online forum is, for many, a far more stressful entity than the physical classroom. If you have ever joined Twitter, think about how long it took you to craft your first tweet and the angst of getting it right. Will anyone read it? What does it say about me? Is my language correct? Do I have anything to say? These are all questions that tend to go through your mind. There is something about the written word that increases the stress – perhaps the permanency compared to the ephemeral nature of something said.

Having trained teachers to work online for the last eight or so years, I’m all too familiar with all these issues and the nervousness teachers feel when venturing into the online teaching environment. Even the most confident teacher can feel trepidation when taking their teaching into the asynchronous world. How do I set my class up? How do we communicate? How do I motivate them? How do I stop certain students dominating? When do I need to give feedback? Are questions I regularly get asked.

Now, you may be forgiven for thinking that starting to blend your teaching is a bit of a minefield. It isn’t. Getting started is easy; being effective is more of a challenge. So to help you get acquainted with the asynchronous world, we’re running a series of workshops over February and March. If you want to learn about the skills and being an effective teacher, join me over three webinars when we’ll discuss everything from netiquette to making sure students join in and not lurk.

To find out more about tutoring online, join Shaun’s forthcoming webinars:

Online tutoring part 1: what does it offer teachers and students?
Watch the recording of the webinar.

Online tutoring part 2: the challenges and benefits
Watch the recording of the webinar.

Online tutoring part 3: getting the most out of your students
26th March 2014


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A cocktail of ideas: blended learning and student autonomy

Young man using computer at desk, wearing headphonesAhead of her talk at BESIG this month, Rachel Appleby, a teacher and teacher trainer specialising in Business English, considers how to select appropriate technology when teaching a range of different learners.

When planning lessons these days, where do you start? With a piece of fantastic technology you’ve just heard about? A great YouTube clip, or podcast you’ve enjoyed? A new function or widget you want to share? I know I do this – often; it’s this which gets me using a wider variety of materials and, if I’m motivated, I know some of that will rub off on my students. I’m sure I’m not alone in doing this!

However, the more I try out new features, the more wary I have to be of what my students will want. What will make them ‘bite the bullet’ and join in or have a go? Increasingly, I’m finding I need to think of each individual – what they need, what they have time for, and what’s going to spark an interest to encourage them to experiment and ‘do something online in English’.

Getting students to be committed, engaged, and to ‘learn’ or use English, just doesn’t work if they’re not interested or they don’t see the point. We have to start with the learner and, with an ever-increasing range of materials to draw on, it isn’t getting any easier.

In my talk at BESIG on Saturday 20th November, I’d like to find out what others are experiencing. I’ll elaborate on some of the above issues, and describe what I’ve been doing over the past few months to work with a range of learners in different contexts – part-distance training, face-to-face classes, and of course trying to keep tabs on those learners who can’t make it regularly to class. Within all contexts, some are young adults with unreliable internet access, while others are more experienced in their learning and very computer savvy. There’s someone different on each point of the continuum.

My own experiments have included setting up collaborative group websites, exploiting a VLE (virtual learning environment – Moodle) with course planning, documentation and discussion forum options, and a range of other attempts to inspire my students to participate in a way which best suits them.

Ultimately our aim should be to help guide learners towards their own preferred resource types, and part of that process is showing them what is available, but also helping them manage their learning systematically. This may simply be highlighting the wealth of goodies contained within the course book package and thereby promoting traditional approaches through contemporary methods; for many, this is more than enough.

Blended learning may be all things to all people, but primarily we need to keep up-to-date in terms of resources and learning contexts, and ensure students are able to maximize their learning opportunities and achieve the required results within the framework within which they are operating.

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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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