Services Update

Engnet-education was previously based in London, England and served clients in both London, Oxford and Cambridge as well as online clients and providing online resources. Now, engnet-education’s main operations will be based in Japan. I have moved back to Tokyo in order to accept a teaching position at Sophia University, and as such I will not be able to personally attend schools in the UK on a regular basis, although I still intend to attend annual conferences such as IATEFL and EUROCALL, as well as the bi-annual Antwerp CALL conference. However, engnet-education will still be able to continue its UK operations thanks to several well trained and experienced colleagues who are also well suited to offer training days and consultations. Also, VOIP (Video Over Internet Protocol) consultations can easily be arranged if one of our UK agents is not available or you are not based in Japan or the UK. Basically, we are expanding!

This is very exciting for me, as the founder of engnet-education, for many reasons. First, I’ve been astounded by the success of the company and am very grateful to all my clients for the positive responses, feedback and of course for their valued custom in the first place! Most of the clients who have used our services came to see our IATEFL presentation in 2010: Setting up Self-Access for students through eLearning. For those who did not attend, the full presentation is available to watch on Vimeo and there is a write up in the IATEFL 2010 Conference Selections book, as well as a forthcoming expansion article in English Teaching Professional. Sadly, neither I nor any engnet-education representatives will be present at IATEFL this year, but we will certainly be back for 2012.

Another reason why the move to Japan is exciting is that it offers the chance for new challenges, new connections and new working relationships in what is certainly an amazing country for language teaching, most notably English Language which is what I specialise in. Although the Eikaiwa (Private Language School) industry is a little rocky, there are still lots of schools out there, not to mention the state and private Junior and High-School sections. It is also a great joy for me to be working at Sophia University, a leading Foreign Language Education institute and one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. It has long been an ambition of mine to teach Academic English in Japan and this year that dream will be realised.

Japan is a country with an interesting relationship with English. This is a theme which I shall be exploring in a more dedicated section of the site all about eLearning and Language Learning in general here in Japan. There are many Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL) specialists here, such as Glenn Stockwell and Lawrence Anthony, creator of AntConc the free concordancing software. Not to mention Thomas Robb and of course the well-established Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT) CALL Special Interest Group, with its own peer reviewed journal, conference and chapter events. Very much looking forward to participating there after having been a member for so long.

Despite the current economic climate, both globally and in Japan specifically, English Language Education is still of high importance in Japan, and so at engnet-education we are pleased to be able to offer our services to an industry which very much needs to stay on top of innovations in learning and teaching. We are also officially launching a new arm of the company, engnet-academy, which will provide both online and blended learning solutions to coroporate clients for their English Language Learning needs. We are also branching out further into materials development, producing a range of interactions for my former employee Kaplan International.

So, as you can see, 2011 certainly looks set to be a busy year for engnet-education. If you would like to learn more about what we are doing, or would like to get involved please send us an email, we would love to hear from you.

Adapting Authentic Materials from the Web

This post is all about resources which are invaluable to language teachers – authentic materials. There are so many authentic resources which can be adapted for use in the classroom that it may seem daunting to know where to start, or what the best way to go about altering the materials is to get them class-room ready. In this post I will introduce a few examples and tools which make this job easy, and some general ideas about how to reduce the work on the teacher without decreasing the personalisation factor of adapting materials for the classroom.

Structure

If you look at any good coursebook or set of learning materials, you will notice that they have a strong structure with clearly labelled sections which the students and teachers can both identify straight away. Although the content in these sections changes from unit to unit, the section are laid out in the same way and offer a similar range of tasks and activities. This has obvious benefits, especially when you are designing teaching materials which you will use in the future for other classes or even for other teachers to use. This principle of having a strong and clear structure should also help you to speed up the adapting process. A good example of adapted authentic materials are the ones provided by onestopenglish.com based on articles from the British newspaper The Guardian. Below is an example:

Link to the original page

Straight away you can see that there are clear sections and each one contains a specific task. Also note that from week to week these activities vary only in content, for the most part the type of tasks change very little. This makes the writing process a lot easier, it means you know already what will go in your worksheet and the same is true for your students. Of course, variation of task types is a good thing, but this can be achieved with different worksheets and lessons, if you are writing a series of such materials it is best to have a strong structure, but also don’t be too rigid about it as this will make the worksheets become stale.

Elaboration Theory

Research such as that into the Involvement Load Hypothesis or Cognitive Load Theory have suggested that by increasing the difficulty and required ‘brain power’ used by a task helps with remembering the content and can lead to longer-term retention of the target language. Elaboration Theory utilises this by making tasks in a learning interaction or worksheet become gradually more complicated, thus increasing the chances that the learner will acquire the target language. These theories are easy to incorporate into your worksheets.

Source Material

No matter how good your tasks and activities, they are only ever as good as the source material. When choosing the source material which you are going to adapt, there are a few things you might want to consider before making the final selection. These are authenticity, relevance, curriculum fit and potential for further learning. Peacock (1997) found that authentic materials were more motivating for students, even lower level students, than unauthentic materials. However, there have been a lot of debates over what constitutes as authentic and what doesn’t. Henry Widdowson (1990) makes the distinction between ‘authentic’ materials and ‘genuine’ materials. Here, authentic materials are originally written for non-learners of the language (proficient speakers or L1) and used in the same way in the class with the learners. Genuine materials have been adapted from authentic materials in order to emphasise linguistic components for learning. Both of these are good things, but obviously when choosing the source material we must also consider the difficulty it may pose to our learners. There are a number of ways of doing this, but one quick and easy way is to use the Flesch–Kincaid readability test, which is built into Microsoft Word and can be used on any text you have in there. A score will be produced which you can use to roughly guess how hard the text will be, based on a number of criteria derived from corpus linguistics, such as word frequency, length, etc.

I will expand on this idea further in a later article, but please feel free to contact or use the comments below to discuss.

For me, the main thing I look for when choosing materials to adapt for class is whether they interest me or not. If they do, I am more likely to be able to get my class interested. At the end of the day, you may have to use a number of objective criteria to fine tune your choices, but the main decision will be subjective based on your own teaching preferences and this is a good thing. Teaching and adapting materials for you class are highly personal, and if they are not the lessons you do will fail because of this.

Further Reading

Widdowson, H. (1990),  Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Peacock, M. (1997)  The Effect of Authentic Materials on the Motivation of EFL Learners in English Language Teaching Journal 51

Social Networking for language acquisition

Blogs, Wikis, micro-blogs, virtual worlds and social networks seem to dominate much of our time these days, especially with new technologies on mobile applications allowing us access from anywhere at almost any time. People are checking facebook from their smartphones and updating followers on Twitter while attending conferences and meetings, or during the commute. Many of the posts that appear on this site are composed on my Blackberry and published via 3G. Social networks take up a lot of people’s time these days, and love them or hate them they are a rich source of language input. When I was conducting research for my dissertation one of the questionnaire participants commented that they felt social networks would be very useful for the students in terms of meeting and communicating with people in the target language, especially because they taught in a Foreign Language context (meaning that the students all live in a country where the first language is not the language being studied) but because this teacher felt inexperienced about using social networks in their own personal life they were not comfortable recommending it to their students.

This seems perfectly reasonable. If you are not comfortable with something it is almost imposible to stand up and teach someone it, even if you can appreciate the value. For this reason I thought this post would be useful in providing a few ideas about how to incorporate social networks into your language teaching while avoiding the pitfalls.

To make this more digestible, I have composed a list of bullet points to illustrate what I think are the dos and don’ts, followed by a list of ideas and links to try out.

Let’s start with the warnings first.

All social networks work by having users enter personal information about themselves, which is then searchable by other users. All this personal information is stored in a database and much of the information provided is available for anyone to see and search. I’ve had experiences where I’ve clicked on a friend’s facebook profile, been able to learn who they are in a relationship, view pictures of their partner, gain phone numbers and addresses, birth dates and even find out where people are going to be at a particular time. Creepy though this sounds, this is all by simply looking at the information that comes up when you view someone’s profile. This is very dangerous, and I recommend you take this quick privacy report test before reading any further. The test is available at www.reclaimprivacy.org. You can also view recommendations there about how to improve your privacy settings. Once you are happy with this, you can also recommend it to your students. If you are planning to use social networks with your students it is highly recommended that you make your profile as private as possible as your students and your friends will get mixed together and that can lead to issues. A way around this is to have two accounts, or if you are uncomfortable having your students as ‘friends’ on facebook then I suggest you simply don’t allow them. You can still utilise social networks in your class without adding your students as friends.

Don’ts

  • recommend your students to make contact with people they don’t know or have never had previous contact with.
  • allow your students to post offensive materials or comments which may offend other users or result in them being banned from the site
  • add students as friends if your own personal profile has deeply private content on it (such as photos of you drunk, which your friends have posted up).
  • if you do have private or embarrassing content of yourself on the site, request that it be removed or remove it yourself – this is good general pracice. Alternatively, you could avoid getting into these situations in the first place, whichever is easier…
  • plan a lesson involving the use of a site such as facebook, only to find on the day of class that it has been blocked from the student machines. Always check out sites you intend to visit from the students’ machines and preferably using a student login

Dos

  • create a group or page which is specially for your class, so you can keep members organised and together. If you create a group, you can also connect with students without having to add them as friends, thus ensuring privacy for you and for them.
  • go over the rules of Netiquette, that is polite conventions and rules which students should abide by when posting on public online forums and sites. This should include being wary of anyone they don’t know adding them as a friend or requesting details.
  • encourage students to reply to other people’s public posts about topics which are of interest to them, even if they don’t know the person this is ok. For example, if you are fans of a celebrity who has a public fan page, or members of a particular group online, it is fine to chat and respond to people’s posts on these public areas because the nature of the discussion is open. This is not the same as sending a friend request to someone you don’t know.
  • encourage students to check back on the site in their free time and see if someone has responded to their post

There are many more of these and I will be compiling a more comprehensive list and adding it to a permanent page soon. Below are a few lesson plan ideas which you may wish to use.

Agony Aunt / Problem Page Lesson

You have been learning about giving advice in class and you would like to give your students some authentic, meaningful interaction with real speakers. Although you may need to screen the sites you use carefully, you could take your students to a site which allows people to write in with probelms or asking for advice. First your students could create their own posts asking for advice (make sure they only write about something they are comfortable sharing with the class, such as the feeling that they are not learning fast enough or have no one to practice with. If they can’t think of anything they could write it on behalf of an imaginary friend). After that they should follow the thread and also try to reply to some other people who are having a problem which they think they can help with. Although it may sound risky, I have done this lesson a few times with mature classes and students always get a lot out of it. If you explain that the class will be sharing the posts then people generally don’t post up anything too personal or that they are uncomfortable sharing, and my students are always respectful of other people. The real advantage of this lesson is that it goes beyond authenticity and is actual real world use of the target language. This really gives such a class the edge over any contrived language practice lessons from grammar books. A lot of rich, real language also comes out of these lessons, which students can ask about and share in class later.

Facebook Group

There are lots of groups on facebook and other social networks which are specifically for language learning. For example, the BBC has a learning English facebook page which allows wall comments and photos. This is a great place to get your students commenting on things and replying to posts. They could ask questions about something specific on the wall or post a link to something they found useful. Although this might not take a whole lesson, it could be treated as a homework or used as a study suggestion. Alternatively, you could have students go and post something on the wall and search other posts for something interesting to share with the class.

Twitter Contest

If your class enjoys a bit of competition, why not ask students to create a new twitter account and to see who has the most followers after a week, who can manage the highest number of tweets in a week, and who can manage to get a famous person to follow them. There could be a running narration going on over the course of the week and the final lesson where the winners are announced should be quite exciting.

These are just a few ideas but as you can see, there is no need for privacy to be invaded or personal space encroached on just because you are using social networks with students. The key is to try a few of these things out yourself (preferably in a language you are learning yourself) and then get the students to have a go. If students don’t wish to create profiles with their real names they can always create a generic or anonymous profile, as long as it is not used to offend or insult people.

If you have any further ideas or comments, please add them below.

Feedback

Sending out student feedback is essential. Good materials design needs to incorporate student feedback. Also, after assessments and tests, it is vital that students receive personalised feedback in a supportive way.

Below is a training video which I made to help teachers automate student assessment feedback through MS Word’s built in Mail Merge features.

Moodle 2.0

The moodle.org site is now using Moodle 2.0. Interestingly, it looks and functions in much the same way. This is a good sign as it shows that the new platform will be able to slide neatly over any current production sites using Moodle 1.9. There was a very interesting review in the Wired section of The Language Teacher (JALT newsletter), Ted O’Neill wrote an article entitled “What’s new for instructors in Moodle 2.0?” all about the benefits of Moolde 2.0. The release notes provide a useful summary, but I will summarise some of the core new features and their benefits for institutions.

Moodle 2.0 will install directly over an existing Moodle 1.9 installation and maintain course and category structure. It should also be able to allow course restore from backed up courses that come out of Moodle 1.9. This is not currently available with the current release candidate, but it is planned for the stable version of Moodle 2.1.

Moodle 1.9 had a severe limitation for administrators as it did not support site-level groups. This made it extremely difficult for institutions, such as my employer, who had multiple schools but with students enrolled on the same course. Moodle 2.0 supports ‘cohorts’ which will provide a solution to this issue.

Activity locking was a popular plugin for Moodle 1.8 but it wasn’t supported in later builds. This feature has been incorporated into the Moodle 2.0 main code and allows you to add conditions or pre-requistites to your courses, thus preventing students from doing activities in an arbitrary order. This will have a huge effect on the way eLearning courses are designed and delivered in Moodle, as the new conditional activities allow you to set tests and revisions or final assessments which build on previous activities and ensure students have done all the preparation work first.

Along with these developments Moodle 2.0 will also offer better SCORM compliancy, although it does not completely support SCORM 2004, this functionality is available as a commercial plugin called SCORM Cloud, which allows fully integrated SCORM compatibility. The new build will also feature an improved theme management system, which will allow users to put RSS themes and blocks on their profile page and support server-side caching making it more efficient for CSS 3, HTML 5 and Java Script. The way Moodle 2.0 is navigated is different as well, with a navigation bar which can either be expanded or collapsed much like in Blackboard Vista.

There will still be a range of 3rd party open source and commercial plugins, one of particular interest being the Adobe Connect integration.

You can read the full Moodle 2.0 release notes here, and download the release candidate here.

All in all, these developments should only help strengthen Moodle’s position in the global VLE market and bring it into the new decade of what promises to be an exciting time for the education sector as a whole and language learning and teaching in particular, as instructional technologies become more adept at providing socio-collaborative learning environments.

Teachers’ Attitudes to and Motivations for Using CALL

This presentation was given at both Antwerp CALL 2010 and EUROCALL 2010, Bordeaux. There is also a podcast of the EUROCALL conference and a recording of the EUROCALL presentation.

This presentation is based on research conducted as part of my master’s dissertation in Applied Linguistics and ELT at King’s College, London (supervised by Dr. Nick Andon). The slides from the presentation are available to view here or download in PDF.

You can also watch the video here

Teachers’ attitudes and motivations for using CALL in and around the language classroom from Richard Pinner on Vimeo.