Sunday, June 29, 2014

Engaging Learners Online

I had a lot of fun during my presentation yesterday for the Teachers Teaching Online (TTO) MOOC, with my session 'Engaging Online Learners', splitting the participants into teams and using a quiz format for the presentation.


I wondered beforehand whether it would work and how best to split the participants up into teams. The quiz was designed to get away from a linear presentation format. The idea was to ask the audience to select a category and a question (each had a different number of points) and then jump to that question. In the end, this didn't work in the webinar and I had to do the quiz in a different way (linear), but it seemed to work out well. I asked the participants to choose a colour (blue or red) and to change their text chat and then I asked the questions and the first member of team red or team blue to answer correctly won 10 points. 

If the comments on the session page are anything to go by, participants enjoyed it:

Amazing lesson showing how interactive and amusing one should be in order to engage online students. Million thanks to Graham!



Mary Ronemous
Yes, engaging and interactive. He modeled what he was teaching. Great presentation! Thank you, Graham.

It was interesting,although RED lost but even than we enjoyed the class.....

A really engaging presentation from Graham.

What a fun, yet really useful presentation. The time passed quickly as we were all so engaged

Really enjoyed the class! Very engaging and interactive!!!!!!

That was wonderful!! So glad I was able to be here live!! Thanks so much Graham and Jase!


















Judy's comments in particular were very encouraging. So many webinars I have attended (and some I have given!) have had so little interaction in them, you wonder if it's worth attending them live or if it might not be done better by recording a video. It seemed to me to be ironic to talk about engaging online learners without doing something a little more engaging than your usual talking head webinar, so I'm glad it turned out well.

The recording of the webinar is available here

Here are the slides (direct link to the MOOC page with comments):



And here's the text chat. The most interesting comments from this, for me were:

  • Valentina: freedom is important when learning under teacher's control
  • Chris Holsman:visual non verbal behaviour helps communication
  • Kerstin Hendriks: When you're teaching f2f, you are also "on stage"!
  • Elisabeth Horn: the audience normally focuses on the powerpoint presentation as well - so (webcam) not THAT important
  • Judy Wong:Be careful the kind of room you are in so you don't have echo
  • Frances Walker:Planning is good, but be prepared to be flexible
  • Judy Wong:You should be careful who you pair up together
  • Judy Wong:Or give them a type of pairwork that doesn't mean they are there at the exact same time
  • Irina Ostapchuk: it`s great when you have two students like a husband and a wife who want to learn together. or two friends
  • Jason R  Levine:Audio files are often more popular than video
  • Frances Walker:Listening practice - not always same voice (teacher's) all the time!
  • Chris Stanzer:they should hear different accents
  • Vance Stevens:...and audio can be made from YouTube video
  • Judy Wong:It is important to have the learners invested in the learning process
  • Nora Choperena:Objectives and deadlines go together.
  • Chris Stanzer:without deadlines I'd never do anything
  • Vance Stevens:there are soft deadlines and firm ones
  • Kerstin Hendriks:deadlines can help the teacher plan.
  • Vance Stevens:but if they are not meeting deadlines, make them feel welcome to complete the work
  • Nora Choperena:A matter of culture, also. Don't leave things for the very last minute. 
  • Vance Stevens:nothing focuses like a good deadline
  • Irma Ramos:yes, most of us are not very proactive so we need deadlines
  • Anna Lee Vinson:classes much like this one.Where the student is vested in the class.
  • Judy Wong:It doesn't matter if in a school or private. It is always important to make the student feel safe in your venue
  • Vera:when learners have the opportunity to participate using voice, they keep more confident
  • Irma Ramos:Graham I learn a lot and had a lot o fun at the same time. Thank you!!
  • Penny Mosavian:This was so helpful! I really enjoyed the class!!!

The Teachers Teaching Online MOOC runs until 12th July and there are lots of very interesting speakers. Consult the syllabus here. There are also 3577 people enrolled in the course, so it's a great opportunity to meet like-minded people.





Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ICT in the Primary Classroom MOOC

I've just joined the Coursera MOOC ICT in the Primary Classroom: Transforming children's learning across the curriculum and am going to use this blog to reflect on the content as I follow the course. 

The lead tutor on the course is Diana Laurillard, who I saw give an excellent plenary at the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow in 2012 on 'Supporting the Teacher as Innovative Learning Designer' (see video recording of her plenary below).



It's the first week of the course, and people are introducing themselves in the forum - already I've come across some familiar faces and have reconnected with some people from the past as well as making some interesting new connections. There's been a lot of criticism of MOOCs (e.g. here and here and here) by many people who point to the fact that few people who sign up for them actually finish the course and get the certificate. I think this is missing the point - I am not taking the course to necessarily complete it, and if I don't get to the end of it, then I won't consider this a failure of the MOOC or a failure on my behalf. I am the kind of person who enjoys dipping into these courses, although I suspect this is one MOOC I'll be trying to follow until the end as it is a subject that I am particularly interested in and will make time for, just as I did for the Gamification MOOC.

Language Learning with Technology: Skills Course (July 2014)

I've decided to run a free month-long course in July based on four of the units in the handbook for teachers, Language Learning with Technology. Here are the details:


Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening with technology.
Join me in July 2014 for the free pilot month-long course in Language Learning with Technology: Skills
During July, participants will be examining good practice when using technology to help students with the skills of reading, writing, listening & speaking. We'll be examining different ideas and approaches and then share our experience in the course forum. At the end of each week, participants will write an activity for the language classroom as an assignment.
Upon completing this course, participants will be able to be in a better position to know how best to implement technology in their classroom situation to help their students with skills work. Please note, we will be using the handbook for teachers 'Language Learning with Technology' (CUP, 2013) during the course, and so participants should have a copy available to refer to.
At the end of the course, all participants will receive an e-booklet of activities produced by the group and a course certificate.
The idea came after watching a discussion on EdTech Weekly this morning entitled 'Whats the best home base for your course online?' During this discussion, the platform Eliademy was mentioned, and as I started taking a look at this platform, which allows you to 'create your online course for free', I decided that I liked the look of it and that I wanted to investigate it further - the obvious way of doing this was to set up a course to do so. Within 30 minutes, I'd set it up and had advertised it on the Facebook page for the book. Now, it's evening and 36 people have signed up for it already, which I'm really pleased about - getting excited about the actual course now!

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Rise of SOLEs (part 2): At the Heart of a SOLE

This is part 2 of a three-part series about SOLEs. (see also Part 1 and Part 3)

One of the keystones of Sugata Mitra's controversial plenary at the IATEFL conference this year was his belief in the positive effects of getting children learning with the Internet, clustered in groups around computers, solving a 'big question' on their own. This he has named the SOLE.

What is a SOLE?
SOLE stands for 'Self-Organised Learning Environment' and it is an idea which developed out of Sugata Mitra's interest in further exploring Minimally Invasive Education (MIE) - something which he experimented with during the Hole-in-the -Wall project.  

MIE has been defined by Sugata Mitra as a "pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher."

Sugata believes that the beauty of MIE is that children are 'driven purely by their own interests', whereas conventional pedagogy 'focuses on the teacher's ability to disseminate information in a classroom setting.' He goes on to say that MIE 'thus complements the formal schooling system by providing a much needed balance for a child to learn on her own.'


Since Sugata Mitra's early experiments with the Hole-in-the-Wall, he has moved onto exploring 'The School in the Cloud' with the SOLEs forming the basis of this and taking MIE further.

The most comprehensive information about what a SOLE is and how you can 'bring it to your community' can be found in the SOLE toolkit.

SOLE fundamentals
  • SOLEs are aimed at children from 8-12 years old
  • In a SOLE "educators play an important role in both teaching kids how to think, and giving them room to feed their curiosity"
  • The children work in groups of 4 and they can work with whoever they like, moving around freely
  • The children choose their own questions to explore
  • The computers should be shared (1 between 3-4)
  • Children can change groups whenever they like, for whatever reason
  • Children can look at what the other groups are doing and discuss this with them
  • Choosing the right question to ask the children is vital - it must capture their imagination
  • The children are given the opportunity to share the information they find and tell their friends what they learned after the SOLE
SOLEs seem to have been set up in two different educational settings. The first of these is, similar to the situation of the hole-in-the-wall experiments: in places such as rural India where there is a shortage of teachers. Although no teacher is required, there does need to be the presence of an adult (a peer helper), principally to encourage the children in their learning and to be responsible for behaviour management.

As well as rural India, where it seems that SOLEs are being set up without the need for a teacher to be present, SOLEs are also being set up in the North-East of England. In this situation, it is clear that teachers are most certainly involved.

For example, recently, Carol Goodey shared the following video of Emma Crawley, a teacher at St Aidan's Primary School in Gateshead talking about 'Lessons from the SOLE'



In the video, Emma explains how she and her colleagues took Sugata's ideas and transformed it into learning in the classroom for 8-9 year-olds. Key takeaways for me from this video were:
  • Teacher-directed SOLE means that a curriculum can be followed, with the teacher's careful planning and guidance. 
  • Choosing the right question to ask the children is fundamental. The question must motivate the children into action and should not be able to be answered easily.
  • The teacher was worried what might happen as she was leaving the children to their own devices and did not intervene - she did not have high expectations of it at first.
  • At the end of the activity, what the children found out astonished her - it was much richer than she thought it would be. 
  • Looking at what the children learned, she decided that she could get rid of half the science lessons to follow.
  • She uses the phrase "we used it to start off history and geography..." - this indicates that SOLE was used to complement regular teaching activities she did.
  • The teachers seems to always use a 'pre-SOLE' activity, showing a video or images related to the question.
  • The children were looking at and understanding complicated information that the teacher would normally expect to be "way above their understanding".
  • The way she uses SOLEs needs a teacher to do follow-up activities in class based on the information the children find
  • The unstructured nature of this type of discovery learning leads to the children finding information that a teacher would not usually present to a class of this age group. The children are therefore led to push themselves at a level higher than they normally would be learning at. 
  • Instead of telling teachers to 'use it once a term', she recommends teachers should use SOLE when they think it appropriate and that "this seems to be the best fit for SOLE" - there is no suggestion here that SOLE should replace most or even a large proportion of regular classroom time - Emma seems to be suggesting that it works as an occasional activity.
From what is said in the video, SOLEs certainly change the focus of the learning experience, with the children looking out at the real world as opposed to only what goes on inside and at the front of the classroom.
The video also underlines the role of the teacher in the SOLE, which I think changes the nature of the SOLE entirely. In fact, the main reason why Sugata Mitra annoyed teachers at the IATEFL Harrogate conference this month was because of the implication that no teacher was required for the SOLE to work. On further investigation, it seems that what was meant (as I now understand it) was more that although no teacher is necessary (if no teacher is available), it is preferable if a teacher is involved. In fact, Sugata Mitra said as much on Facebook earlier this week: 

Actually, I am curious about when and where I said teachers are no longer required. SOLEs are being used by teachers all around the world. They seem to like the idea. In places where you can't get teachers, SOLEs without teachers are better than nothing. In places where the English teacher does not know English, the cloud grannies are a great help. Why is this so abhorrent, curiously, to EFL teachers in particular?

He seems to not have realised that some (myself included when listening carefully to what he actually said and taking notes) have been given the wrong message. I won't examine the  'better than nothing' aspect of the SOLE without a teacher, but will say that this aspect of it has been discussed in the comments of part 1 of this blog post

Responses in Facebook to the video (above) on SOLEs 

Jeremy Harmer, when he shared the video on Facebook posted the following: "Fabulous teacher, great activities and/but for me an example of why, perhaps, teachers might have got riled after the IATEFL plenary. Watch it and ask is this a 'self-organised' learning environment? Does this mean 'the end of schooling as we know it?', does it prove that the education system is 'outdated' and crucially does Emma show that teachers are or are not necessary?"

The responses from people were interesting:

Anne Fox said "Excellent, practice-based, voluntary (for the teachers), not at all like a WebQuest (where the sources are of info are given by the teacher), not a full-time way of learning and teacher engaged in loads of useful meta-learning skills to enhance what the children are doing."

Paul Driver chipped in with "It's an ECTELE Extremely Contrived Technology Enhanced Learning Environment). I don't think he would have upset anyone at IATEFL if he'd just said that inquiry-based learning and Google are powerful allies."

And Jill Hadfield said "It's Discovery Learning. Extremely well- organised ( by the teacher) and very structured. Nothing like the 'no need for teachers' stance suggested by Mitra. In fact it shows exactly why the teacher is needed!"


It's Anne Fox's comment that I find most interesting here as SOLE's have often been compared to webquests. For this reason, I decided to compare them with SOLEs in this (three-part) blog post. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Rise of SOLEs (Part 1): The Decline of the Webquest

This is part 1 of a three-part series about SOLEs. (see also Part 2 and Part 3)

A few days ago, I was chatting to Anne Fox about webquests and she commented that she felt the webquest was dying. The leading proponents of the model seem to have stopped writing/talking about it and fewer teachers were interested in doing them. So, if not exactly dying, webquests do seem to be fading in popularity, and why has the SOLE (Self-Organised Learning Environment), which some commentators feel is just a variation of the webquest, become more popular? 


What is a webquest?
The webquest was developed by Bernie Dodge and Tom March while they were teaching at San Diego State University in 1995. A webquest is "
is a scaffolded learning structure that uses links to essential resources on the World Wide Web and an authentic task to motivate students’ investigation of an open-ended question" (Tom March).

The webquest model is very structured, with a number of key features for webquest designers to keep in mind and templates for teachers to use. A dedicated site, Questgarden was launched to make it easier for teachers to prepare webquests using this model. 

What a webquest isn't
The term webquest has become much used and abused during the years. I have heard teachers say they are going to do a webquest with their students when it was clear they were simply going to the computer room to ask the students to look for some information about a particular subject. 

Another activity often called a webquest by teachers is the popular Internet treasure hunt (or scavenger hunt) activity, that was popular in ELT when the Internet was first used by teachers. Usually, this consisted of a series of questions that students had to find quickly. They were usually questions that students could find easily (e.g. What is the weather like in Barcelona today?)

Mini-Webquests
Teachers who didn't want the structure imposed by the webquest model have always done their own versions of "webquests". One way of describing these is to use the term used by Tom Walton, 'mini-webquest'. His suggestion involves the students using the Internet to research a topic together (perhaps having a discussion or debate about it beforehand) and then giving a presentation afterwards. This looser form, which uses learner-generated questions, is a move towards the SOLE model, except perhaps that it is aimed at adult learners rather than the younger learners Sugata Mitra has in mind. 

The decline of the webquest
When you go to "the most complete and current source of information about the WebQuest Model" it is telling that the section 'latest news' was last update in 2008. Why is this? Well, the webquest model was very much based on the Web as it was (Web 1.0), when the analogy was often made of the Web as a massive online library of static pages to be consulted, and not the Web as it is (Web 2.0 or the social web), which has seen far more interaction and content creation than was possible before. 

So, with webquests declining in popularity, what is occupying their place? 

Anne feels that webquests are being replaced by teachers conducting enquiry-based learning built around essential questions (very much like the SOLE model promoted by Sugata Mitra), with the teacher acting more as a facilitator/coach than in the standard webquest model. The post-webquest models are similar in some ways, but seem to be less structured and encourage more learner autonomy

ELT Webquests

Sunday, April 13, 2014

IATEFL Harrogate Online: Russell Mayne (Pseudo Science)

During the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, I noticed that Russell Mayne's presentation was mentioned a lot on various social media channels. Russell, who is behind the Evidence-based EFL Twitter handle and blog of the same name has now also written about the buzz his talk created in a lively blog post. As you will understand, the subject of his talk is disruptive (you could describe it as edupunk, if that term hadn't already been used to describe something else), and with rock n' roll analogy being a particular theme of the conference this year, I suspect this presentation will be looked on as the ELT equivalent to the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall. Fortunately, the presentation was recorded and his presentation is also available to download, so we can all make the claim 'I was there' while chatting at the bar in future conferences. 

The focus of Russell's talk, A guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching, was "on aspects of English language teaching which have little or no scientific credibility" and he examines practices such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), learning styles, multiples intelligences and brain gym

Russell started with an explanation of pseudo-science: "something that looks like science...but, lacks the crucial ingredient of science,which is evidence." Often called brain-based learning, critics refer to this as neuromyths (Anderson and Reed, 2012: Buch, 2014Geake, 2008; Swain, 2008) 

How much support for neuromyths is there in TEFL?
There is surprisingly a lot of support for neuromyths in our field. Russell gave as an example: the CELTA, which promotes different learner styles, and the British Council's TeachingEnglish website has a lot of articles on NLP. English Teaching Professional was set up by a neuro-linguistic programmer. Humanistic Language Teaching run courses teaching you how to teach using multiple intelligences and NLP, articles have appeared in the ELT J and IATEFL Voices. There are talks about NLP at the IATEFL 2014 conference and Mario Rinvolucri has written a book on using NLP in teaching and is an NLP master practitioner. Herbert Puchta has written a book on multiple intelligences. Marjorie Rosenberg, coordinator of BESIG, has recently written a book about learning styles and is interested in NLP. Jim Scrivener includes it in his book on classroom management, although Russell points out that "he does say that we should take them with a pinch of salt". Jeremy Harmer has been a fan and Brian Tomlinson suggests thinking about students' learning styles when materials are written. Richards and Rogers also include sections on multiple intelligences and NLP, although "they are somewhat critical".

Why are they so popular?
Russell believes because "they sound intuitive and plausible...learner-centric...and they seem personal, in the same way that horoscopes do." There are also few people who are critics in the TEFL world. Russell mentioned Philip Kerr and Scott Thornbury and Hugh Dellar as exceptions. People also believe what they want to believe. 

What's the harm?
It is a waste of time. Students could be pigeon-holed. Our professional credibility and standards can also be affected. Bad practice can also be spread. With all that in mind, Russell has created a 'baloney detection kit', a series of questions you can ask: 

Q: Does it sound too good to be true?
For example, Brain Gym "can help students to...learn anything faster and more easily" and "reach new levels of excellence" among other boasts. NLP's claims are even more impressive. In medical science, Russell says, this type of claim would be called "a panacea, or
cure-all...and something touted as a cure-all usually cures nothing."

Q: Does it make illogical or impossible claims?
As an example, Russell mentioned  the '5 senses' mentioned by NLP/learning styles enthusiasts (see slide left), although "in actual fact human beings have many other senses, such as the sense of pain, sense of temperature and a sense of time and sense of taste. 

Brain Gym also boasts that it helps us use more of our brains than we normally use, promoting the myth that human beings normally use only 10% of our brains, debunked by cognitive scientists, but still believed by many people. 

Q: Does it make claims that are vague or hard to test?
Pseudo-scientific claims are often deliberately vague and hard to measure (improve creativity, raise student self-esteem, etc). 


Q: Does it use a lot of confusing "sciency" sounding terms?
Learning styles and their instruments (convergers, divergers) is an example. The very name of Neuro-Linguistic Programming is "particularly interesting" as "it has nothing to do with neuro-science, nothing to do with linguistics and nothing to do with computer programming." It also uses a number of sciency-sounding terms. 

Q: Does it have little or no scientific credibility?
Russell illustrated this with a number of citations from academic researchers stating that learning styles had "no credible evidence", etc. NLP has also been continually attacked, and yet continues to be popular in some circles. Multiple Intelligences has been criticised by many people too. The most interesting of these is Howard Gardner (who invented the theory). He is not happy with how the theory has been adopted in teaching and has said:

"In one video after another I saw youngsters crawling across the floor, with the superimposed legend ‘Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence’. I said, ‘That is not bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, that is kids crawling across the floor. And I feel like crawling up the wall." (Gardner, 199:142)

Q: Is contrary evidence ignored by supporters?
An example Russell gives is from the ELT Journal (Hatami 2013:2), which basically stated "there is no evidence that these work, but we feel good when we use them, so let's use them anyway." Jeremy Harmer is also quoted saying that although there is no evidence that NLP or multiple intelligences work, "they both address self-evident truths"  so we should use them anyway (Harmer, 2007:93). 

But, Teaching is an art!
In response to this, Russell quoted Michael Swan, who in 2000 complained about an article encouraging teachers to use crystals in the classroom: 

"Assertions - in both science and art - always need justification: you don't make things true just by saying they are"


Further Reading