Friday, August 19, 2011

The Teacher Effect

As part of the research I'm doing on mentoring for the aPLaNet EU project, I've recently been reflecting on the effect that teachers have had on me, and the more I think about it, the more I realise just how much influence they have had upon the direction of my life. Because of this, and because it's something that all teachers should consider, I thought I'd blog about it here.

Primary school

I don't remember my primary school teachers very well, but I do remember all with vaguely positive memories. I remember lots of smiling, being encouraged to read, and rewarded with praise. I have more recollections of specific incidents, but here I want to focus on the effect that teachers have had, so I'll save those for another day.

Secondary school

I think my secondary school teachers have had the most influence on me and what I decided to do, without a doubt. When I started secondary school, I remember I found it a strange place with lots of rules I didn't understand. I was equally and excited and in awe of starting 'big school' and this article in the Guardian is an interesting read related to this move. Looking back on this period, I can see that some teachers had a profound effect on what I ended up doing in later life: my love of English came from a teacher who encouraged us to write and had us reading JRR Tolkien's the Hobbit in class; the Spanish teacher and Spanish language assistant caused me to fall in love with Spanish culture and eventually led to me going to live there; I reacted against the history teacher telling the careers advisor that he didn't recommend I take History at university, and decided that's what I was going to do!

Sixth form college

I took English, Economics, Spanish and History A'levels at college. Again, the teachers here had a strong effect. I dropped English mainly because I didn't get on with the teacher - there was no empathy. On the contrary, because of the Economics teacher (originally I decided to take an O'level in it), I continued studying it. And the history teacher brought the subject to life and convinced me that I wanted to study it at university.


So, I went on to study Modern History in London and I have to say that the worst teachers I've ever experienced were those at university. Rather than teaching, they were only interested in research. None of them seemed to take any interest in their students. Lectures consisted of a teacher talking to a large group of us. After the first six months, most students stopped attending most of them. There were a few lecturers who had a knack of making what they were talking about interesting, and they were the ones that usually ended up with the largest audience. The others were so deadly boring, reading papers out word by word that you started to wonder why they didn't just hand out their paper instead and let you stay at home.

One exception: I attended one class in my second year, given by a star lecturer, someone who was the leading expert in his field (the Spanish civil war), and who had written the most interesting books. For his class, a hundred of us or so clustered into a medium sized room. There weren't enough chairs, so if you didn't arrive early, you had to stand at the back. He would start to talk about a particular topic, but would always encourage questions and would be happy to go off on tangents to deal with any doubts that students had. He would always return to the topic though, and you always felt you left the room knowing more and with a number of interesting questions. I was encouraged to read more about the subject. This, I thought, was what all university History teachers should be like. Highly knowledgeable, able to provoke and engage students, willing to listen.

Unfortunately, I gained little out of the tutorials I took at my university. I remember the tutors being more interested in themselves and what they had discovered as researchers than in helping us. I also remember being forced to read out an essay I'd written in a tutorial and then have it brutally ripped apart in front of my peers. Something died in me that day that I don't think will ever see the light of day again.

What did I learn from the teachers at university? I learned that time spent in the library reading books was more valuable than attending their lectures and tutorials. It made me distrust university teachers.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Looking back on 2011...Dogme ELT & Interactive Whiteboards

As usual, time flies and blog posts that I'd intended to write don't get written. However, now that summer is upon us and I have more time...

So, looking back...

One of the most interesting dates for me was the IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG's PCE (Pre-Conference Event) , where a whole day was spent looking at IWBs from all angles. I have already written a post about the event on the iTILT website, but here I want to take a closer look at the discussion led by Luke Meddings on Dogme ELT and interactive whiteboards.

This post has also been prompted by, and is a response to Gavin Dudeney's recent blog post about "the increasingly blurry-edged DOGME which is mutating into something to please everyone". I've written a version of the following as a comment on Gavin's post, but want to expand upon it here...

Luke Meddings didn't run a workshop on IWBs  at the IATEFL LT SIG PCE. It was a discussion on 'Dogme ELT and IWBs' and I invited Luke to lead it. The reason why I did so? We'd invited Scott Thornbury to speak at the Unconference/PCE in Harrogate and this was a follow-up to this.

Scott's part in the PCE had gone down so well, it struck me that we could do something similar the year after, and so I tentatively proposed this to Luke at the 2010 IATEFL conference, and he said yes. I have to say, he had his reservations, and I did wonder if he'd feel the same way when I approached him months later to have his confirmation. I'm happy to say that he is a man of his word and he agreed to lead the discussion.

On the actual day, Luke took the pen of the SMARTBoard (for the first time in his life) and led the discussion. The notes he took on the board can be seen here.

I'd like to applaud his bravery for accepting my invitation. Aside from the discussion, I was also very impressed at his participation during the PCE. He attended the whole event, was an active participant in the other sessions and took part in the panel discussion at the end.

He was also true to himself and his approach to teaching. Like all fine educators, he approached the day with a very open mind, and although I don't think he left with the idea of teaching with an IWB, I think he was more able to see the ways that a teacher could use the tool to promote emergent language, and could see some of the benefits that using an IWB for this type of teaching (the ability to record everything on the board to look at later, for example).

I really think we need more of this. I for one have had enough of the 2 warring camps and the 'Tech vs Anti-tech' argument - I think we really have moved on. It's no longer a question of whether language teachers should use technology, but that teachers should use it judiciously and only when it advances the language learning in the classroom. There have been a number of posts (by myself, Nicky Hockly here and here, Sue Lyon-Jones) on this.

I also think that more teachers need to do what Luke did. Too much at conferences you see the same presenters talking to the same audience (preaching to the converted) about the same things. One of the reasons why the LT SIG got Scott and then Luke in to talk at the PCEs was to break this cycle - we should all be open to new ideas and to learning about what other 'special interest groups' can offer. This is also one reason why I went to the excellent Teaching Unplugged conference in Barcelona - I think the Dogme ELT approach has a lot to teach those of us who are interested in using technology in the language classroom, if we are open to listen to what is being said.

Update: Luke Meddings has also written a post about this.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

PLNs and PLEs - It's the 'Personal' bit that counts the most

I was writing a comment on an interesting blog post by Cecilia Lemos about what having a PLN has done for her, when I realised that this comment deserved to be expanded a blog post of its own, so here it is!

For some time now, I've been concerned about how some people are using this term, which stands for 'Personal Learning Network' and which developed out of the concept of PLE (Personal Learning Environment). 

Shelly Terrell has said she prefers the term 'Passionate Learning Network' and others refer to Professional Learning Networks, but for me, the whole point about the term is that it's 'personal'. 

The term PLN is bandied about so much these days it's starting to lose its meaning. Another thing I hear a lot now is people talking about 'the PLN' , which is fine when people are referring to 'their' PLN, but not if they have a big social club in mind that people are either part of or not. This is not a PLN. A PLN is something people have to build and which takes time to nurture and develop. It is also and involves active participation and hard work. It's not just about pressing a button and joining a Ning.

Where did the term PLN come from? You can find a great discussion about this on a blog post by Alec Couros, but I'll also share what I have come to understand about the differences here.   

First of all there was the idea of PLE (Personal Learning Environment), which was a reaction to the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) represented by platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle. The VLE is all very well, but the big problem with it is that it is usually institution owned. You join when you are a student or employee of an organisation or institution and then when you leave (because you change jobs or stop studying at a particular university, etc) then you will probably have to leave the VLE. This usually means losing all of the learning content you have contributed and becoming divorced from the people you have connected with. Not ideal as it means you have to start all over again somewhere else.

A PLE, on the other hand is owned by the teacher or student and is all about 'small pieces loosely joined' (i.e. a collection of tools that work for you. Soon after the popularisation of the PLE, people started to realise that it wasn't about the tools (i.e. the environment) it's about the people you choose to connect to to enable learning to occur (i.e. your network). So, the idea of a PLN was born, and by all accounts we have David Warlick to thank for this.

Perversely, I have subsequently seen organisations trying to hijack the popularity of the term PLN and use it for what really is a VLE - I went to one presentation at a conference where the presenter talked about how her university was building a 'PLN system' to help their students - what they were in fact doing was building another VLE (i.e. a learning environment that was owned by the university) - bizarre,and totally missing the point!

The benefits a teacher can gain by building a PLN and how best to do it are the reasons why a group of us have started the aPLaNet project - to raise awareness of what this can do for teachers who are reluctant or who don't know how to begin. If you think you can help us by becoming a mentor to new teachers, then please join us here:

Monday, May 02, 2011

Better 'the Five Ws' than 'Because it's there'

I commented on Scott Thornbury's recent blog post 'T for Technology' that I was "happy to see the ‘edutech/no edutech’ debate has at least moved on, shifting away from the ‘should we use it?’ to the ‘We should be careful when and for what reasons we use it."

During the debate in the comment section on Scott's blog, it was mentioned that many learning technology (LT) presentations at conferences and blog posts are of the type '20 ways of using Wordle', etc., dealing with the 'how to use tech' but not the 'why it should be used'. I heard this criticism while I was at the IATEFL conference in Brighton too, and have to admit that it's often overlooked by many of us who use LT in our excitement to tell people about a new tool we have found to be of use. Sometimes, it's not that there isn't a good reason for using the technology, just that the reason is not made explicit. And, then, it has to be said that there are other times when the only reason for using this technology that is offered by the person presenting it is similar to the well worn mountaineer's adage, 'because it is there'.

So, we ('we', as in language teachers who use technology) should make sure not to fall into this trap, and also to make it explicit when we present ideas for using technology that our reasons for suggesting it are sound.

Related to this, and as a challenge laid down by Diarmuid Fogarty, Sue Lyon-Jones has produced a very useful check-list for anyone thinking about teaching with technology (reproduced below).

I've also been thinking about this, and after using Sue's checklist, I would like to suggest the use of 'The Five Ws' that is commonly used in journalism, police investigations, and which are considered basic in information gathering.

I've now adapted this for any teacher looking to use language learning technology, (and for any presenter or blogger telling others about it) suggesting that the practitioner should ask the following questions:

  • Why use the technology? In other words, don't just use it because it is there. Are you trying to do something with the technology that can be better done in without? As mentioned in Sue's checklist, will the learning be enhanced by using the technology?
  • Who is the technology best for? If learners, then what age/level/discipline? If you are suggesting other teachers use the technology, then you should say how much teaching/tech experience/training is required to use it effectively?
  • What is the technology best used for?  It is worth considering if there is another technology that can be used instead that may better suit the learning objectives.
  • Where should it be used? Is it more suitable for the classroom / connected classroom (i.e. with one computer and the Internet) / computer room / at home? Think also about classroom management issues here. Where in the classroom is the tech to be used (i.e. if you are filming with a camera) and, if appropriate, what will the other learners be doing when one or some are using the technology (i.e. will they also be engaged?)
  • When should the technology be used? Not only when is the best moment during the class to use the technology (at the beginning/end/etc.), but also when in the term/syllabus (it is best if used to enhance and complement what you are already doing with the learners, rather than be used as an added extra).
  • How should the technology be used? This shouldn't just be about what to do, but also how best to incorporate the technology into your class.
It's interesting to note that the 'How' comes last in this information-gathering concept, and that makes sense. It is the last piece of information you need to know, as it deals with details of use.

Hope this makes sense and that you find it useful.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Teaching Large Classes - Can technology help?

One of the great things about attending international conferences like IATEFL is that you can come across educators with experience and views so far removed from your own experience that your own deeply held views can be called into question.

I didn't get to attend the session on Investigating Large Classes - Are we making progess?, but it was one of the first sessions I decided to watch thanks to the wonderful recordings provided by the British Council's IATEFL Online site. I've been interested in this ever subject since reading David Graddol's English Next (PDF), and have made it part of a talk I've done on Innovations in Language Learning Spaces, which I'm updating for the keynotes I've been invited to give in the Autumn, at the IATEFL Poland and IATEFL Hungary conferences.

I didn't get very far into the session before my curiosity was aroused. Nigussie Negash from Ethiopia mentioned 'plasma teaching' in his overview of the situation in Ethiopia. Plasma teaching? What was that?

Here is an extract from Nigussie's report:
In primary schools and secondary schools, we can have 55-100 in one class...on top of this we have lots of the country. One we have for example is plasma teaching, where you have secondary school students sitting and listening to plasma transmission of lessons recorded in South Africa. The only duty the teacher has is switching on and off this TV; maybe 5 minutes introduction before the lesson, and maybe 10 minutes at the end. It's just mind-boggling, what's happening there.
As Nigussie continued, it was obvious that the problems that education in Ethiopia faces are grave and difficult to solve:
Now we're talking about a new curriculum in Ethiopia...there is a big gap between pre-service teacher training and what actually happens in an everyday teacher's life...the curriculum seems to be led by theory first and application later...teachers say they are unprepared for teaching large classes. Some of them say they don't even know how to use the blackboard...the teachers themselves do not have enough English language proficiency to conduct lessons.
With so many basic issues (shortage of teachers, lack of teacher education, teachers' low level of English), I wondered at the thinking behind introducing plasma TVs into classrooms as a solution. What did the government hope to achieve by this? And surely, this was throwing money down the drain rather than investing it wisely into teacher training? I decided to try and find out more.

One of the first things I came across was a report into plasma teaching:

Although it deals with Mathematics rather than English, the report has some general information and conclusions that are relevant to Ethiopian education and to plasma teaching as a whole:

On the reasons for adoption of the programme:
The standard of education in Ethiopia has been declining both in terms of quality and quantity for some decades...the system is unable to produce competent educated human power due to impoverishment of facilities, shortage of instructional materials, shortage of teachers and qualified teachers...New technologies offer opportunities to innovate on course content and teaching methods and to widen access to learning.
The plasma teaching programme was introduced by the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia in government secondary schools with the following rationale:
on the assumption that the system of education must be changed to active learning by using modern technology which brings us close to advanced world bringing every corner of Ethiopia where high schools coming together at equivalent better standard.
In theory, the idea of adopting plasma teaching to fill the gap that cannot yet be addressed in Ethiopia does seem like a good idea for the short term, so long as there is also investment being made into teacher education as a long term solution.

The conclusions of the report, which surveyed students opinions of this new method were that
introducing TV lessons in high schools created several new implementation problems like lack of coordination with the teacher, fast to understand, inappropriate planning of the lessons, inefficient utilization of the technology, misunderstanding as if the plasma TV present the lessons independently by it self with out the involvement of the teacher and the like which need adjustment some how. 
Clearly, the idea of plasma teaching only works if the teacher does more than switch the TV on and off (as Nigussie Negash said was the case in many schools). If it is used as the basis of an active discussion, then both students and teacher can benefit.

Then on Facebook, a friend and ex-colleague of mine, Lucy Mardel wrote a little about her experience of visiting Ethiopia for a teacher training programme (that's one of her photos to the left, taken from English for Ethiopia, grade 2). Although I knew she was involved in the education of the blind, I saw she'd visited mainstream schools too, and so asked her if she'd seen any evidence of plasma training. This is what she said:
Graham, do you mean a programme of learning in High Schools via TV from South Africa? We were told about it on our last visit - but saw no evidence apart from some very knackered TVs locked in cupboards! There isn't a regular enough electricity supply where we were for this to be reliable.
I also found a survey on Facebook about the subject, where a teacher at Debremarkus high school asked the question:
What was your experience learning with plasma tv compared to learning face to face with your teacher? 

The responses were mixed, but it was obvious that it did work for some students:
We had two teachers for one subject, one actual teacher and one plasma's teacher. actual teacher revises today's lessen, and if the school support some equipment, we do labs with our hands. every plasma's teachers are the best because they are highly educated. the plasma's teachers also are the same all over Ethiopia (Merkebu Amrach).
I was always glad by the plasma teaching especially because there is no time wastage; whether the class teacher has come or not is not my business. I just attend my class.And most of the plasma teachers were good (Abera Chanie).
So, I guess my point here is that the idea of leap-frogging and trying to stay up-to-date is great in theory, and I think using technology in this way could work well, but only if there is necessary support, infrastructure and training for it to happen. Otherwise, thinking that just supplying the technology is enough (sadly the case in many countries, not just in developing ones such as Ethiopia) is probably the best way of wasting money in education that exists in the 21st century.

I'd love to hear other people's views on this, and would be particularly interested to hear from people who know more about the plasma teaching initiative in Ethiopia or any other similar schemes to use technology to make up for a shortfall in teacher education or linguistic competence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The IATEFL afterglow

There is only one IATEFL conference, and this year's event, held in Brighton was a highly enjoyable if exhausting experience. The best thing about the IATEFL conference experience, and one thing that makes it so special, though, has got to be that although it's now over, you can catch up on what you missed out on in so many different ways. This IATEFL afterglow seems to last so much longer than it does with other events. There are several reasons for this.

Petra Pointer , Nik Peachey & Andi White
One of the most important reasons is the amazing work done by the British Council with IATEFL Online - now in its fifth year, the team have streamlined the experience and have developed a formula that works wonderfully. Alongside the live channel, which pipes out the plenaries as they are being delivered, and a succession of interviews with some of the presenters (the photo shows Petra Pointer being interviewed by Nik Peachey and Andi White) and then there are the sessions that are recorded by the team and made available for viewing after the event. Not only does this mean it's possible to catch up on some of the sessions you missed if you were there, it means you can get a flavour of the event even if you aren't able to attend.

Then, there's Twitter - even though the last tweet from the conference was sent over a week ago now, there's still a buzz about the conference that can be experienced by searching the hashtag #iatefl - it's still one of the best places to go to keep track of what people are saying and to find links to presenter's sessions and accounts of their IATEFL experience. Twitter was definitely flavour of the month at the 2010 Harrogate IATEFL conference, and it was interesting to note that it hardly featured in any of the sessions this year. However, this doesn't mean its effect hasn't been noted. Apart from its role pre- and post- conference (Twitter is the great virtual ice-breaker for conference goers and allows you to come to a conference already knowing much about many of the participants), you can see the effect it has had on the dynamics of the conference when you visit the forums at IATEFL online. In previous years, this was a hotbed of debate and discussion, but now the real party is all happening on Twitter and in the edublogosphere.

Speaking of the edublogosphere, post-conference reports and reflections have now been written by many participants, and I'm sure many more will follow. You can read what some others have said about the IATEFL conference below:
Being more involved with the IATEFL LTSIG this year, I feel I missed out on some of the many social occasions in Brighton. It's been a lot of fun catching up with what people were up to through Facebook and Flickr though, which are other places the IATEFL afterglow can be felt. 

I plan to write a few posts about my IATEFL experience as I want to reflect on some of the thought-provoking sessions I saw, but this will do for starters. What about you? How was your experience? Are you now experiencing the IATEFL afterglow?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Mobile Apps & Language Learning #1 Foursquare

Inspired by the recent short course at SEETA on Mobile Learning (m-learning) for language educators run by Nicky Hockly, I've decided to start posting about some of the apps that I've come across that I think can be used by language educators or learners.

The first of these is Foursquare, which is a mobile social networking tool that is also a game. Basically, it allows you to tell the people you are connected to where you are and what you think of the place you are at. So you 'check in' to a place (it works well with restaurants, cafes, etc.) and you can leave tips or your opinions for other people. This is helpful for other people who are in an area they do not know and are looking for a place to eat, have coffee, etc. As Foursquare gets more popular, some places have started recognising the marketing potential of this app. and offer discounts or freebies to customers who 'check in' to their establishment.

Apart from this, the gaming element works in this way:

  • You can unlock achievement badges - this appeals to gamers who like to collect awards, etc. 
  • You compete to be the Foursquare mayor of a place - this is the competitive gaming aspect to Foursquare.

How can this be used for language learning? Apart from the incidental language practice that you can get by using Foursquare, there are ways that teachers can exploit Foursqare by creating specific venues and leaving questions at these venues. I'll leave this for a separate blog post, because it deserves to be illustrated with an example, and I haven't done this yet.

The video below is my first attempt at trying to explain a little about Foursquare, more of a trial to see if filming my mobile in this way works. I actually say very little about how Foursquare can be used for language learning. Once I've set up an activity for some of my learners and tried it out, I'm sure I'll try doing this again soon. Watch this space.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Merging of the Second Life Grids - Teen and Main

Last Friday, the Second Life Teen Grid (TG) merged with the Main Grid (MG) (you can see the area below in the bottom right of the map), putting a definitive end to a long-standing separation of teens in this virtual world, that caused more problems than it solved.

The original idea of separating the13-17 year-olds was to protect them from some of the more unsavoury aspects of (second) life, but the over-strict regulations that existed to keep non-teens out of the TG meant that a lot of teenagers simply lied about their age in order to get an account in Second Life.

The original decision taken by Linden Labs was to close the Teen Grid, but they reversed this decision and plumped for a merger because of pressure from educators.

Now, everyone aged 16+ can join Second Life, but those under 18 have restricted access to certain areas. Some of the other teens (aged 13-15) still have access to certain islands, which have been moved, but which are not open to the public. However, most of the Teen population under 16 has been left without access to this virtual world.

As far as the British Council Isle project is concerned, our MG island was a duplicate of one of our TG Isles (it was principally used as a show-case for the TG project) and so we will be closing this, and we have now opened our former Teen Grid to the public.

So come and visit us! You can reach us here:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How many online learners of English are there?

As part of my role as social media consultant for the British Council's English Innovation team, I've just been involved in an interesting discussion about how many learners of English it's possible for the British Council to reach online.

I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts about this with people here, as I'm be particularly interested in finding out from people if my thinking about this is completely off, or if I'm making a reasonable guestimate

So, here it is:

David Graddol estimated the figure of 1 billion 'learners' of English in English Next (2006), saying it would increase to 2 billion in 10-15 years.

The figure of 1,000,000,000 is interesting. The total population of the world is currently 6,894,200,000 (US Census Bureau). So that means an estimated 14.5% of the world is learning English.

When you look for estimated figures for 'speakers' of English, you find the following figures:
  • 371,000,000 people 'native speakers' of English
  • 760,000,000 people are 'speakers' (native or second language speakers), which is 11% world population (via Wolfram Alpha), so there are more people learning English than there are who speak it. 
As a side-note this makes me wonder...
  • When does a 'learner' of English become a 'speaker' of English? 
  • At what point do these learners of English stop? When they become a 'speaker' of English?

Then there is the question of how many of these learners of English use the Internet. There are 1,571,000,000 Internet users in the world (again via Wolfram Alpha), so that's 22.7% of the world's population.

How many of these speakers is it possible to reach online? Taking into account all of this, perhaps we can assume it's only possible to reach a maximum of 22.7% of the world's language learners, which means 220,000,000 people.

If we assume this, then the British Council currently reaches around 14,000,000 learners a year with its websites,  which is 6.4% of maximum possible audience. 

One of the ways that this guesstimate falls down, perhaps, is in the % calculation of language learners who use the Internet. My educated guess is that the % of learners who have access to the Internet is much lower than this- perhaps half the figure above (so, 110,000,000 people).

If this is so, then the websites reach an estimated 12.7% of  total possible online audience, which sounds like a more reasonable number.

As I'm no statistician, and Maths is one of my weak points, I'd love to hear if I'm completely off-track here . What do you think? Is this fuzzy thinking?