Teaching with Social Networks

Whether you find yourself addicted or at a loss when it comes to things like Facebook and twitter, more and more people are using social networks for personal and professional reasons. For example, LinkedIn has active discussions about language teaching and various professional groups of teachers and applied linguists. Many schools and institutions have Facebook pages which they use as an extension of the school’s social programme, and thousands of people stay up-to-date using information from twitter. These sites all have valuable applications for language teaching, not just in the ways described above, but as part of actual lessons as well. In this article I am going to discuss the reasons social networks can provide such rich and authentic language practise for students and explain ways to keep your own private life separate from your professional use of social media in class. I will also discuss some simple practical ideas which you could easily use in your own classroom.

Many teachers who use social networks in their personal lives may not know how they could be used for language teaching. If that is the case, what about those teachers who are not even comfortable using social networks in their personal lives, let alone in a professional context? In my work I have encountered many people who admitted they could see the value of social networks for connecting to other learners and speakers of the English. This is especially true for teachers in an EFL context where the students do not get many opportunities to interact with people outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, there are two major problems with social networks for language teaching. Firstly, many teachers may not wish to mix up their own personal lives with their professional lives (such as adding students as friends on Facebook) and secondly, teachers might feel uncomfortable about advocating for their students to make contact with strangers through a social network, especially if you teach younger age groups. A third complication could be that some teachers are unfamiliar with social networks even for personal use, and as such feel that they could not possibly recommend them to students.

Privacy

These are all valid concerns. In order to avoid these problems it is important to start off with security in mind. The way social networks function is 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. If users are not careful then it is possible to gain phone numbers, addresses, birth dates and even find out where people are going to be at a particular time. It is often possible to get all this data simply by looking at the information that comes up when you view someone’s profile. For this reason, I recommend you take one of the many quick privacy reports before even attempting to use social networks with your class. You can also view recommendations about how to improve your privacy settings there and improve your privacy rating. Once you are comfortable about your own online privacy you can turn to your students to ensure they do the same.

If you are planning to add your students as friends it is highly recommended that you make your profile as private as possible because your students and your friends will get mixed together and that could lead to issues. A possible solution is to have two accounts, or if you are uncomfortable having your students as ‘friends’ on Facebook then simply don’t accept their requests. You can still utilise social networks in your class without adding your students as friends.

Here are a few tips for teachers to remember when using social networks with your students.

  • Don’t get caught with your pants down. If you do have deeply personal content in your profile or on a site, request that it be removed or remove it yourself – this is good general practice. Alternatively, you could avoid getting into these situations in the first place, whichever is easier…
  • Test the sites are accessible from the students’ machines. If you plan a lesson involving the use of a site such as Facebook, always check that you can access the pages you intend to visit from the students’ machines, preferably using a student login otherwise your entire lesson could be ruined.
  • Keep the class together. You can create a group or page which is especially 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. This is also how many institutions manage their students on social networks.

Each of these may require a little bit of work in terms of learning your way around whichever particular site or social network you have chosen to use, but the knowledge will help you maintain your professional image online.

Netiquette

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, netiquette is etiquette for the internet. Your students will hopefully have a good idea of what it means, but it never hurts to go through the list with them for good measure.

Don’t

  • make contact with people you don’t know or have never had previous contact with unless there is a good reason.
  • accept connections with people who you don’t know or have never had previous contact with unless there is a good reason.
  • post offensive materials or comments which may offend other users or result in you being banned from the site

Do

  • reply to other people’s public posts about topics which are of interest, even if you 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.
  • check back on the site in your free time and see if someone has responded to your post.

The above rules of netiquette are by no means extensive, but if you go through them as a brainstorming activity with your students before attempting any of the following practical ideas I am sure you will compile a comprehensive list.

Some Practical Ideas

Below are a few lesson plan ideas which you may wish to use. They use a variety of different sites but hopefully the general ideas could be exploited in other ways for more variations.

Agony Aunt / Problem Page Lesson

This lesson works well if you have been learning about ’giving advice’ in class and you would like to give your students some authentic, meaningful interaction with other English speakers. Although you may need to screen the pages you use carefully, you could take your students to a site which allows people to write in with problems or ask 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 do not 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. A lot of rich, real language also comes out of these lessons, which students can ask about and share in class later. This project can span several classes and provide a great deal of rich authentic language interaction.

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. The Facebook page is also a great way to run services such as word of the day and to promote school excursions, or to run study-buddy pairing.

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 commentary of the scores going on over the course of the week and the final lesson where the winners are announced should be quite exciting. Twitter is also a great media for the consequences game, where students contribute blindly to a story and read the final result at the end.

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 (perhaps in a language you are learning yourself) and then get the students to have a go.

Despite the precautions needed to ensure privacy for yourself and your class, there really is a lot of scope for using social networks as part of a class. In addition, the benefits for students in terms of meeting other people to practise with and retain contact after the course is finished make using social networks a very powerful tool at the language teacher’s disposal.

 originally published in  Modern English teacher, 20(3), 37-39. 2011.

VLE or LMS?

Many people ask me about the difference between an LMS and VLE, and also CMS and LCMS. Although you might find articles and posts that state otherwise, I believe that there is an important distinction between LMS and VLE, and I would also use the term CMS to mean something different. Let’s start with a definition of each.

LMS stands for Learning Management System. For me these are primarily for training, rather than education. They are often connected to mandatory CPD (continual professional development) and generally tend to be used internally rather than being client-facing or used in education. Having said this, JoomlaLMS is clearly calling itself an LMS and in my view it would fit in more with the description of a VLE. So, as you see the two terms are used interchangeably. I would like to create a distinction here for clarity, nonetheless.

VLE stands for Virtual Learning Environment. These would often be characterised by constructivist pedagogical principles and are often used as a place to collaborate and extend discussions rather than merely hosting trackable learning objects. Many VLEs and LMSs have the same features, but the emphasis and also way they are being used would distinguish them. It is possible to use a Moodle, for example, for purely behaviourist mechanical drills and compliancy training and thus it becomes an LMS through the way it is used.

The reason I am making this distinction is that I still see a lot of ambiguity about the terminology in eLearning, perhaps due to its relative infancy as a discipline. I have seen institutions make the wrong choice when considering commercial LMSs and VLEs and I blame the lack of precise definition for this. In language teaching as well, we are often in the rearguard when it comes to implementing new technology, and thus many institutions fall into the trap of simply buying or creating a load of online grammar and vocabulary drills which have been authored as eLearning and then making this available to their students as the final and finished component of their eLearning implementation.

Now, I am not saying this is bad or that we shouldn’t provide such resources for our students. What I am saying though is that this is not much different from a glorified practise book. While the online format means greater access and the possibility for flash animations and embedded video/audio, at the end of the day these are still drills which are useful primarily for test preparation, but not for helping students to acquire communicative competence. No matter how good such activities look, they still fall under the category mostly of Behaviouristic CALL. With small adjustments, it is possible to expand the eLearning platform into the realms of communicative and collaborative CALL. For example, one of the tasks for students on the VLE should be to introduce themselves on the forum. Moodle supports collaborative wikis which are ideal as group projects, and can be given as assignments or class work. There are also blogs, which can be created for free and allow comments and following. These are great ways to get the class working together on projects and have the advantage of showing students ways to continue learning and practising in authentic ways after their course has finished. Another idea would be to have a high scores table or similar, which gives students the option of posting their best scores on a game and challenging other students. This should of course be optional, but works very well for more competitive students, smart.fm is a brilliant example of this.

VLEs do not have to contain all the content within them either, they should provide links to outside content and encourage students to source their own materials. On our VLE we have a side block which shows the latest RSS feeds from the BBC learning English site, which also keeps your site contemporary.

I would love to hear what you are doing at your school and if you have any questions or ideas please share below and keep the discussion going!

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.

Using VLEs

How many of us are now using VLEs to provide students with access to supplementary resources, lecture notes, additional or useful information and links to other repositories?

Many university level lecturing jobs and teaching posts are asking for experience with eLearning. This page aims to provide a forum for discussions about how best to use these resources for Language Teaching.

VLEs
VLEs