Saturday, 25 April 2015

Baring one's soul, online: can it be good for trainee teachers?

As a language teacher whose interests encompass both teacher training and language teaching involving the use of ICT, I am naturally interested in exploring areas of possible synergy!

Thus, I was more than happy last year (2014) to discover that an opportunity existed for me to engage in some action research in support of the short courses unit within the Centre of Applied Linguistics at Warwick University, with a view to writing up my findings in my MA dissertation. 

A group of Japanese teachers from the university of Hiroshima were due to engage in teaching practice at a Coventry secondary school during the middle six weeks of a 15-week course based more or less on CELTA/TKT. Each week, I posed structured questions on Edmodo, and invited trainees to reflect openly (from the group's point of view) there on their teaching practice experiences.

I'm pleased to say this obtained a distinction grade - but needless to say, a dissertation is a lengthy piece of work. However, at a conference at Corvinus University yesterday I had the opportunity to condense the key ideas into a 15-minute presentation: the slides are now published below.

What happened online was one thing (for which see my slides), but the focus group findings at the end were remarkable: almost all participants strongly approved of using Edmodo for reflection! Many participants took to the approach immediately: their feedback on the merits of "sharing", the virtues of asynchronicity, and the disappearance of "face" issues are especially noteworthy. One participant even went so far as to indicate that any sense of "shame" that might be felt when admitting a mistake in front of another person disappeared entirely in this new environment. It felt altogether safer.

Hand on heart, it might have been possible to design an even better study, involving smarter structured questioning and a tighter integration of the online and face-to-face training. Nevertheless, I think the case for further research is strong! Blended learning has a lot going for it, wouldn't you say? I'd love to hear back from you.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

From tools to pedagogy: extending language learning with the Internet

In my previous two posts, I shared slides from a 90-minute Business English workshop given at Katedra Nyelviskola in Budapest on 24 January, 2015: "From Needs Analysis to Pecha Kucha".

Today, however, I'd like to share slides from a 60-minute talk I gave that same afternoon, dealing with the Internet and practical ways in which teachers can take advantage of its affordances for language learning. The slides are attached below:

Overall, the audience for the two sessions was less than for the two Business English workshops but was no less committed. There are certainly plenty of teachers out there who want to know more about this subject and would welcome practical tips.

In essence, I have advocated using Edmodo as a virtual classroom alongside the physical one. The tool has a definite role to play as a content management and course administration system, but if it is also used interactively it can resemble a "micro-blogging service" with teachers and learners alike sharing content and opinions. Facebook it may not be, but the interface is quite similar and can be conducive to sharing if the teacher takes the lead.

It is also possible to use Edmodo as a repository for "speaking homework" podcasts. Learners can record themselves using free tools such as Vocaroo or MyBrainshark, thereby extending communicative practice and feedback thereon significantly. This may work especially well if a speaking exam or formal presentation is in prospect - the learners' motivation to succeed and to take heed of feedback is obvious. Based on my teaching experiences so far, I have also added a list of "do's and don'ts" for speaking homework towards the end of the presentation, which I hope will be beneficial for readers.

Participants appeared to enjoy the session, but did raise one concern: that some adult learners might initially feel uneasy about recording themselves speaking in a foreign language. In my view, this is a potential problem for language educators to remain cognisant of, but we can still help learners visualise the benefits ("a future vision of themselves as an L2 speaker", as Dörnyei might put it) and introduce them to the technology in a series of "baby steps" if need be.

Overall, I think the benefits of using technology to promote online sharing and interaction can be many:

1) Communicative practice is extended;
2) Learners may be motivated to share for sharing's sake;
3) Interaction may be both meaningful and authentic;
4) Speaking homework can be set - valuably extending practice for learners;
5) Feedback can be personalised - quite possibly, more than before.

Anyhow, that's what I said on Saturday. How about you? Are you using ICT with your students, or would you like to do more than you're doing already? If so, I'd be pleased to hear from you.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Pecha Kucha - the Holy Grail of Presentation Skills training?

In my last post, I discussed practical ways in which Business English trainers can make their lessons more relevant to their learners' day-to-day workplace needs - the first (and main) part of a Business English workshop I delivered at Katedra Nyelviskola in Budapest last Saturday.

Today, however, I plan to cover the final part of the workshop: an introduction to Pecha Kucha (and variants thereof). It's an easy and engaging way to get your English Language learners focusing on the essentials of good communication, as hopefully you will see from the attached slides:

Both of my audiences (the session was delivered twice) thoroughly enjoyed the "Running Pecha Kucha" presentation - an invitation to Budapest - towards the very end of the talk. The audience was largely well informed about Hungary's capital city and had plenty of good things to say. It was great to see people actively experiencing the concept for themselves.

So how might this fit into a language teacher's job? I can suggest at least two ways:

1) If results are needed in a short timeframe, consider opting for Pecha Kucha. The end product ought to be acceptable and very little time needs to be expended on complex input. The beauty of the concept is its simplicity. It's a game with a few simple rules - all of which are conducive towards naturalness in communication.

2) If you are teaching students for a longer period (e.g. an entire university term), consider starting with Pecha Kucha before migrating to the more technical aspects of presentation giving. The students will experience success early in the course this way (as well as peer approval, hopefully) and will have something to reflect on before one goes into greater detail. It can build strong foundations.

Another obvious benefit of Pecha Kucha is the time management aspect - there is a time limit that students have to respect! This resolves another potential headache for busy teachers at a stroke.

So how about you? Would you like to give Pecha Kucha a try? Or are you already using it? I'd love to hear your views.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Needs Analysis For The Real World - revisited!

After something of an absence, I am blogging again! It's quite a nice feeling.

Last Saturday I gave two workshops (each delivered twice) at Katedra Nyelviskola in Budapest. I'm pleased to report that the audiences in both cases seemed really engaged and I learnt quite a bit from them, too. So over the course of my next three posts, I plan to share the slides from the workshops and summarize what appeared to be the lessons learned from the participants.

My first workshop was a 90-minute session titled "From Needs Analysis to Pecha: two useful frameworks for language teachers". As these two frameworks were quite distinct from each other, I plan to address each in a separate post. So here are the slides from my Needs Analysis workshop.

The key messages I sought to convey here were:

1) Customization of training (a purposeful deviation from course books) is possible to the extent that the customer has paid for it. However, it is generally up to us Business English trainers to elicit a statement of training needs from our learners that specifies where they most need help in their day-to-day duties.

2) If learners have a burning need, they will tell you anyway. For everything else, we need to ask the right questions.

3) In business terms, this is not a question of linguistic knowledge so much as performance challenges faced by our learners while at work. Trainers need to think much more like a solution provider here: they need a problem definition to work with. In Charles Rei's terminology, we need to "target the performance gap".

4) Charles Rei's "Communicative Event" questionnaire - which is referred to on slide 23, subject to minor alterations - is a good way to elicit a definition of the learners' areas of current difficulty.

5) By adding a "Communicative Event" strand to the course description, we can show how we intend to address these needs.

6) If the needs analysis is reviewed regularly - by means of 360 degree feedback, if need be - the training plan can be refined and continuously improved.

7) Business English learners ought to be motivated by relevant training and relevant homework. Trainers should use the workplace as the starting point wherever possible, and set homework that helps learners with their jobs, too.

If trainers are flexible and open with their learners, this "ESP" approach can deliver superior training outcomes and mitigate a number of known classroom management problems. It may not be the right choice every time, but I have suggested "rules of thumb" for when and when not to use it in my slides.

The reception this talk received seemed very positive. Some of the points I learnt from the event participants were as follows:

1) Often, language school trainers are asked to perform high-level (i.e. not especially specific) needs analysis when they meet a client for the first time.

2) However, a course description may already have been produced which implies the course needs to be taught "by the book".

3) Often, nothing much may be standing in the way of customisation - but trainers need to feel confident doing it. The "communicative event" description is easy to understand and easy to implement - the participants appeared to agree that it can help them right away.

4) It was felt that a review of needs analysis shouldn't occupy too much class time - perhaps no more than 10 minutes. If a learner wants to complete a fresh "Communicative Event" description in the light of changing responsibilities or lessons learned, this can be set as homework.

Overall, I found the session very encouraging and I am very grateful to those trainers (Alex Case, Evan Frendo, Charles Rei, Mercedes Deambrosis Viola) who influenced me en route to my giving the presentation. If you like the slides or have any questions to ask, do let me know.