Digital tools for learner-centered classrooms.

Technology is usually referred to as a tool. I looked up the meaning of tool in Merriam Webster online dictionary and I found that it is defined as  a handheld device that aids in accomplishing a task; something (such as an instrument or apparatus) used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or professionals a book is the tool of a scholar, or the pencil the tool of a drawer.

It is not an end in itself, but serves a purpose and we use it for something.

I feel that the best digital tools that can be used in the classroom are the ones you don’t really notice. We are just using them, just as we use pencils or the notebooks in order to carry out more significant tasks that require our full attention and engagement.

I just recently spoke at the TESOL-SPAIN National Convention and the title of my talk was Putting Learners in the Driving Seat. It was about reflecting on how we can increase student involvement in the different stages of the classroom. And I mentioned some online tools have been very helpful.

I have had some memorable classroom experiences using digital tools for making the classroom more inclusive and learner-centered and I shortlisted the ones that have been most effective for me.

apps-for-inclusive-classrooms

Making a Learning Tool out of Twitter

Second year in a row that I am using Twitter as a learning tool and, as the old adage says “You live and learn”. Despite the countless articles and posts I had read that inspired me to get started, it wasn’t -and still isn’t- that easy. And that’s why I decided to write this post. Partly, to share my own experience if it can be of any help to anyone, but also to learn from other teachers who have already integrated it into their classroom routine.

Really, there is no big deal in setting up the account, even less when you are a regular twitter user and you know a few things about how it works. But that is nothing but the beginning. While the youngest students might find it really cool to have a classroom account, and, in that sense, will build up a lot of initial motivation, transforming it into an meaningful learning opportinunity is something quite different, and that is where the challenge was for me.

Why set up a twitter account for class?

As a twitter user myself, I quickly realised how useful it could become for my students: they’d increase their exposure to language by engaging more in reading and writing. Besides, they would have the chance to connect and easily keep updated with what was going on in class.

But what really urged me to set it up was that learners had a chance to start building their own personal language learning networks; and given the right support and training, they could gain a immensely valuable tool for their journey as lifelong leaners. Yep. That was the key. Anyone who is serious about learning a language should know that there is a long way to go, with plenty ups and downs.  I’m always telling my students that the best thing they can do for themselves is to acquire a habit of learning. And, without a doubt, nowadays it has become relatively simple to do so and tailor-make their own language learning routine: there are so many resources and media they can learn from on their own. But they will need help, and more importantly, a strategy.

My strategy

Before I explain my experience with more detail, you might need to know how I feel nowadays concerning social media for learning. I still have many doubts about making it compulsory for students to have their own accounts. Even when the context may be fine for it and there is a social media policy, I’m not sure I would go for the big plan of everyone tweeting and interacting as an obligation. I have had a couple of experiences as a learner in training courses where one of the first requirements was to create a social media profile, and much as I understand the underlying reason (to make people familiar with the tool and gain confidence through practice?) I’m not sure anyone should be told to create a social media profile, unless they wished to. We all know it is fundamental that students become aware of their digital footprint, and so I think it is somewhat contradictory to make it compulsory. Anyone, young or old, should make a conscious decision to create whatever social media profile.

Having said this, my plan this year was to create the classroom account for it to become our social media “headquarters” and to model their own possible present or future experience. They were encouraged to check it out regularly and were informed about the benefits and the basics of using social media for learing purposes. They were also invited to follow and/or interact. But that is optional.

What outcomes you should expect

  • Facilitating the students’ access to the tremendous amount of resources and media that is posted on twitter for EFL learners. Besides, being the administrator of the account, you will be filtering and selecting content for tweeting and retweeting. In other words, adapting the tremendous amount of available posts or activities to the precise learning stage you are in.
  • As the class account administrator you are also indirectly modelling how to use twitter for learning purposes (what hashtags to follow, how to suscribe to a list, or even help them create one themselves…). In a way, it is like having our own classroom PLN. They can even see it working in real time by showing them the timeline and checking out who we’re following, or sifting through the tweets posted on a twitter list.
  • Sharing some of the media, activities and fun stuff done in class. Students can see it later and even engage, reply and continue the discussion. One of the activities I have been most successful with in the last year and a half were the twitter chats: I post an open question about the topic dealt with in class so students can reply and post links to interesting articles and media, or share their own views using 140 characters, which is a fabulous writing exercise for language learners.
  • Building a sense of community among peers, and expanding their leaning experiences in class beyond the classroom walls and practise English in a digital, but undoubtedly real and ever more present, context.

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What you have to be prepared for

My experience is far from perfect. I have had to face various challenges, many of which are directly related to the strategy I chose to use and the context I teach in.

  • Many adult learners are reluctant to engage and are strongly prejudiced against it. The ones who have little or no experience whatsoever with social networks hear the phrase “social network” and straightaway associate it with some social club you join to get addicted to and start cursing and posting selfies. Others are rather sceptical about the impact it will have in their learning. So, it is hard to get them on board and go beyond reading the tweets when they are displayed in class. However, I must say that those who have engaged and have become regular users have expressed on many occasions that it was definitely worth their time (sigh of relief!).
  • Time. Or better said, the lack of it. I often feel there is a ghost of a ticking clock casting its shadow over the class the very minute I step into the classroom the first day. It is a major issue for any teacher to use classroom time wisely and plan to provide enough practice and training in language learning. So, most times I can’t really afford to spend much time explaining the ins and outs of social media interaction, its benefits, etc.
  • Workload. I am one of those people who have a love-hate relationship with twitter. The jolly good things I have already mentioned in previous posts and, obviously, if I didn’t see the potential of it I wouldn’t have even started. But using twitter entails a lot of distraction, and if you don’t draw the line it can be quite exhausting, too. If I have ever felt this myself, why should I think my students won’t? I want learners to use it as an actual learning tool, but I wouldn’t like their workload to increase irrationally. In my class the twitter account is only our social media profile, but we work primarily with a textbook and an LMS, so it is my responsibility to tally up the activities and prioritize carefully to make sure they are not feeling more workload than they really need to learn the language successfully.

What I recommend

  • Create an account for the class. Your personal account may be fine for testing over a period of time, which is what I did last year with a group of highly motivated students. But, if you are serious about tweeting with the class, I think it is a far better option to set one up for the class.
  • Create a classroom hashtag. This is particularly helpful for threads of discussion or stories. But be careful with the hashtag you suggest and take your time to find out it is not being used already.
  • Spend the necessary time for learners to feel comfortable with the tool. As I mentioned above, you may not have much time to do so in class so, how about giving them some quick feedback when you notice their activity is lacking some training? Send them a DM or reply.
  • Outline the rules and inform learners about the basic rules of etiqutte and how to perform the basic actions on twitter (mentioning, tweeting, RT, using hashtags).
  • Be a confident social media user yourself and try to keep up to date with information concerning privacy issues, online safety and other threats. When it comes to this kind of information, the more, the better, as it will enable you to advise your students better.
  • Make students aware of what it means to have a social media profile. If they decided to set up an account or use one they already had I would make sure they are conscious of their activity and the choices they have(private or public) I usually encourage them to have an account for learning purposes alone.
  • Create a list and/or suscribe to lists created by other ELT teachers. It is extremely time-saving for you and them as you might come across some interesting content more easily for them to access, which is relevant for the language point they are learning.
  • In the context of my classroom it may not be a good idea to have a very intense tweeting activity in order to avoid increasing and insensible workload.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I would welcome comments and ideas from other teachers who have used twitter in the context of a foreign language classroom, because there are many aspects I am not totally comfortable with, and it would be great to have your insight. 🙂

 

 

 

Visuals for Speaking

Infographics, and visuals in general, have a very strong presence in my class. I find they are a remarkably effective tool to get students speaking, comparing information and checking their previous knowledge about a topic. But, for me, the most valuable quality is that I can introduce plenty reading exposure during classroom time without having to use narrative texts or articles, which are usually more time-consuming. Of course, I will do some reading in class using magazine articles, for instance, but I think it is very convienient to use this type of visuals in class due to the time constraints and the very nature of a language classroom, where all the potential lies in the cooperation of students and creating opportunities for speaking.

In a previous post I described some ways infographics could be used in a language learning environment. And now I’d like to share some of the tasks I carried out with them in class with the actual texts I used.

1) A jigsaw activity. Level B1+. Topic: families.

Students worked in pairs and were given one infographic each. They could read about facts and figures of average British families. They were asked to search some information on their own and prepare to share their findings with their partner. Then, they had to work out the differences and similarities and also reflect on how reliable the information was considering the source and the date they were published.

2) Fill in the gaps. Level B2. Topic: Digital Technologies.

Nowadays there are loads of visuals on digital technologies and social networking. When we dealt with this topic in class I thought it would be a good idea to revise some of the vocabulary with an infographic about multitasking. I removed some of the words for students to carry out a fill in the gaps task.

3) Practising discourse markers with conceptual graphs.

Conceptual maps and graphs are probably my favourite type of visual for using helping students use connectors. Mainly because it is a kind of text that doesn’t require much time and effort from the student to understand the meanings and connections between the ideas.

When talking about health and medicine in class, a mind map like the one below from Leaningfundamentals.com could be a good aid to revise the vocabulary of the topic and also practise linking the ideas.

health-map

4) Practising numbers. Intermediate and above

There are scores of infographics cramped full with figures expressing time, money, percentages and fractions. You can easily find one on the topic you are dealing with in class, and cover the numbers and carry out a guessing game. This activity could actually take many different forms and can be easily adapted to your own teaching context. The one below is from the dailyinfographic.com and is perfect choice for this time of the year.

holidays_infographic

4) Video infographics. Level: B2; Topic: Time

For this activity students worked in groups. I asked them to watch a section of the video without sound. They took notes and then tried to express what they had just seen. It proved a great way to discuss and use the language they had learnt. This video, which is an adaptation of a Ted Talk by Philip Zimbardo, gave place to a lot of debate in class, too.

Day 13 -Top Edtech Tools

My picks for today’s prompt “Name the top edtech tools that you use on a consistent basis in the classroom, and rank them in terms of their perceived effectiveness

TWITTER

It is an essential tool in my PD. Microblogging is an engaging way to create a sense of community. We used it for microblogging and shared ideas and documents about the topics we were dealing with in class. The students have the chance of even building their own personal learning network, which is something I am very interested in promoting in class.

WORDPRESS

Perfect for providing an authentic environment for developping writing skills and sharing ideas.

YOUTUBE/VIMEO

Essential for language learners. Millions of authentic listening opportunities available.

INTERACTIVE WHITEBOARD

Great classroom tool for proposing entertaining and challenging activities. It has the power of transforming the traditional physical characteristics of a classroom.

MOODLE

I must admit it may not by my favourite tool but I cannot deny it is the one that has problably had the greatest impact in my classroom. Learners feel comfortable accessing content on a closed institutional system where they know their data is protected. It caters for a great deal of relevant actions: from informing, creating quizzes, to assessing.

It is curious how this post summarises where I am in the edtech world right now. As I am about to change a few things, I wonder what this post will look like this time next year…

New Year, New Tech

Once I deteremined to integrate technology in my classroom I was quite aware of where my starting point was, but surely couldn’t imagine where it would lead me to.  At the beginning, I was really into blogging with my students, and I still am, but I am increasingly interested in the benefits of flipped learning and seeing how it impacts the daily life of the classroom.

So, I am finding it hard to identify one single piece of technology. It is really a combination of tools that I am really looking forward to using. That would be Screencast-o-matic, or Jing for creating videos and YouTube or Vimeo for publishing them. Also, Thinglink is a presentation tool which might fit well for delivering the online content.

I think the flipped classroom is the perfect setting for a language learning environment. I teach English and I’ve realised over the last years that much as I try to use time wisely in class, I end up spending -not wasting- potentially precious classroom moments in lecturing or going through content that, not only could be done online, but would probably have a more significant effect on the learners. I am very curious to see how the classroom atmosphere benefits from students preparing the class at their own pace, rewinding when necessary, going through the “getting started” activities as many times as necessary.

I hope learners welcome it with a positive outlook. I know that for many of them it might be a little struggling at first, because they do have to change the way they are used to learning. Somtimes they adopt a very passive role and might unintentionally simply rely only on what is taught in class.

Some articles and resources that I have found very useful lately are:

What’s the Difference Between a Flipped Classroom and Flipped Learning?

6 Tips for Flipping the Classroom

Technology for Flipping the Classroom

I was lucky to have seen this video by John R. Sowash yesterday, shared by a teacher of my PLN.

 

Some Fun with the Interactive Whiteboard

origin_75288585If I had to pick one of my favourite tools for the EFL class I would definitely choose the interactive whiteboard, and not only because I am feeling much better since there is no chalk around. No more sneezing my way to the end the class!

I confess I don’t always use it to its full potential, and most times I just end up using the software we have available, which is really practical as it is. It is of great help to focus on specific content and incredibly eye-catching for students. But whenever I have some time I really enjoy exploring the additional resources it has to create activities to get the students stand, play and use their senses to explore the language we don’t always have the chance to.

These two activities are thought for the whole class to do together as a group, but there may be other ways of managing the students to do the same.

#1  The Body Language Challenge

One or two students stand in front of the class with their backs to the IWB, which shows pictures of  people with a specific body posture or gesture. The students who can see the image have to interpret their body language and use English to express any of the following:

  • what the person might be thinking (a great excuse to practise modals of deduction and speculation).
  • describing how the person might be feeling.
  • report what the person is saying.

While the class are describing,  the “actors” represent with their own body language what their partners are trying to express. Not without an extra challenge. The actors can’t use any kind verbal communication, so the rest have to try hard to get their message through by decribing body parts, correcting, requesting or giving examples. Amazingly, it doesn’t take too long for them to come up with the exact body posture or gesture.

Although the most passive and shy students might be unwilling to stand in front of the class and start posing, but they eventually may want to give it a try after seeing how it works.

This body language challenge has usually turned out to be fun and a great activity for practising oral skills and learning or consolidating functional language or certin grammar structures.

Interactive drag and drop or matching activities could follow or precede the activity to consolidate the lexis or grammar.

#2   Optical Illusions: Open your Eyes and See?

Problem-solving activities and games always work incredibly well in class. Students concentrate on finding a solution, so it is not only a purely linguistic outcome what is expected. I know there is nothing new about using games in the EFL classroom, after all, they are one of the traditional activities of a communicative language teaching environment. But with the interactive whiteboard we can expand the way we traditionally “play” in class. And I like that.

I love optical illusions and mind tricks, so whenever I have the occasion I will inevitably bring them to the classroom.

There are many websites that display scores of optical illusions to use. I often choose a few and ask the groups to work out what is going on. They usually turn out to be  very engaging activities because students really need to struggle and challenge their senses to find out the answers.

I recently tried other alternatives to the traditional optical illusions. I bring to class examples of street art like the spectacular works by Jamie Harkins, or Pejac, who create 3D images on streets and walls and make the fine line between real life and fantasy really difficult to make out.

I show their works on the IWB and use tools for zooming or hiding certain areas of the artwork  to get the students predict what the “big picture” will be.

I recommend having a classroom pinterest account for pinning these artworks and optical illusions -the same account can be used for infographics, too.

Lots of fun and laughter guaranteed. The whiteboard offers many possibilities because it can easily break down the limits of space and promote trying alternative ways of playing and managing groups. If you ever try, please let me know how it worked.

 

photo credit: Tim Morgan via photopin cc