The Future is eLearning

It’s official – my eLearning platform is alive and online:

Osborne House

I had a vision of creating courses where excursions are the foundation stones as opposed to ‘extra-curricular’ treats. I wanted to liberate the learner (and trainer) completely from the artificial shackles of the four-walled classroom. I found my solution this past Christmas in Moodle, and have been learning and experimenting with it ever since. What you see on the platform now is the product of that work – a fully blended eLearning solution.

The reading, writing and listening practice is covered through fully online activities based solely on real articles and videos from the internet. The speaking practice occurs in video conference lessons and excursions, again where materials and objectives are strictly real. In paid courses, one excursion underpins the selection of materials and activities for the rest of the course. For example, the “Cooking in English” course is based on a live cooking class with an American chef. In that course, lesson themes are all around cuisine, recipes and cultural habits, with each part focussing on vocabulary or sub-skills that will be practised and consolidated in the penultimate task – the excursion itself.

The key to this whole experiment is the approach to the online method. Up to now most online ELT platforms are essentially static stores of information and activities – the digital equivalent of just giving the learner and textbook then leaving them in a room for an hour. I’ve learned two key things from my experience of the industry of successful online learning:

  • Instructor participation at every level dramatically increases attendance and motivation.
  • Gameification, that is, adding game elements to activities, taking cues from video and board games, also has a dramatic different on learners’ motivation to progress in a course

The first point makes it sound like the learner would be better off in a classroom. Surely online learning is there to allow more independence and autonomy, not to still have the teacher peering over their shoulder? It is true that online learning can offer the student immense freedom thanks to the vastness of the internet in terms of content, and there are many apps at their disposal to engage them with online content. The problem is that leaving a student to their own devices without live trainer feedback has been shown consistently to reduce motivation and attendance dramatically within the first stages of the course.

The key is to have some regular participation from a live trainer – as simple as a short private message on your platform saying “Hey, good job on lesson 2!” or “Hey, it’s been a while since lesson 3, is everything ok?” This kind of supportive nudge keeps learners conscious that their platform is not a static resource store, but a live community which is constantly monitored. It’s as close as we can get to compensating for the loss of face-to-face interaction.

In my courses, each self-study part has at least one production task associated with it, and that only becomes available to students after completion of the self-study tasks. This not only embeds trainer interaction into every activity, but adds a gaming element to completion of the isolated study part. I believe this will drive students’ motivation to complete otherwise impersonal activities with the reward of real interaction with a trainer.

Further gameification exists on the platform in the form of badges. This simple reward system is an integrated Moodle plugin that can programme specific, pictorial awards to be given upon meeting certain conditions, for example completing an activity or course. I want this system to reinforce students’ feelings of achievement after completing a speaking activity, for example, and to make a bigger deal about overcoming live communication anxiety.

The excursion courses are only available in France at the moment, but I’m constantly seeking out new partners to supply the excursion part of future international courses. If you feel that this approach speaks to you, please get in contact and give me your ideas and feedback at


7 GENIUS ways to help your English for FREE in your ENVIRONMENT

Love it, get some English in your life!

The FUTURE of Learning


(Photo credit:

Here are some great ideas to just add that extra something to your English learning. I thought they were genius!

  1. Label things in your house

This is such a good idea as every time you pass that label you will remember it, every time you turn on the light, you will remember the words ‘light switch’, every time you get hungry and go to the kitchen you will remember ‘fridge’ every time you put your clothes away you will remember ‘wardrobe’, and so on….

  1. Keep a notebook in every room

Every time you remember something in English or have a question, just go to the notebook and write it down. Then when you go off to school take the notebooks with you and ask your teacher or practice the words.  Don’t forget to put them back in your rooms when you get home.

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IATEFL 2015 Presentation

I gave this presentation on Sunday 12/04/2015 at IATEFL Manchester.


With only half an hour, I think I did a good job of providing a general framework to making excursion-based lessons. In this post, I’d like to give a bit more meat to each stage of lesson prep for those who were able to come, and also for those who couldn’t make it:

Pre-Excursion Lesson

This is an instructor-led stage, for example in a classroom, eLearning platform or blended approach. I personally use a mix of printed packs, eLearning and WebEx video conferences. This means my pre-excursion lesson is split into parts, with self-study, an assignment submission and feedback, as well as a video conference with the excursion group for relevant speaking practice.

These tasks have the overall aim of inspiring interest, pre-teaching vocabulary and speaking sub-skills, all with the requirements of the excursion tasks in mind. This symbiotic relationship means I need to think about pre-excursion and on-excursion tasks at the same time to be sure they nicely complement each other, and to maximise the chance of vocabulary consolidation.

On-excursion Lessons

This is a student-led stage, where the role of the teacher becomes overseer and director. I design tasks that require students to move around and interact with the excursion venue, using text, listening or simply visual resources available on site as the stimulus. The teacher explains one of these tasks, lets students loose to complete them individually or in groups, setting a regroup time to discuss and compare results. This can be repeated as long as you think students’ motivation will endure, though for me I find 2 hours enough before we need to take a coffee or lunch break.

Post-Excursion Lessons

This is an instructor-led or self-study phase where follow-up tasks are designed that consolidate the language practised in the pre- and on-excursion lessons. I use email as my preferred medium, setting the task of writing an email to their colleague or friend to describe the location they saw and what they learned. It could equally be collaborating on a shared wiki to write a newspaper article or tourist flyer on the location; the theme and activities should be adapted to the group’s learning objectives.

All three stages share an intimate connection, and should be designed in sync to ensure a coherence that will justify taking students outside on excursions. With proper pre- and post-excursion activity preparation, students will constantly feel a new level of motivation with traditional classroom or self-study activities, given that it connects to a high-pressure public display of the skills and language they’re practising.

I hope this helps. If you try this method, or are already using it, please absolutely let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear from you. Good luck out there!

The first of many

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Train Blogger is proud to present… the results from the first Locational Learning experiment!



To sum it up, too much planning, too little emergent activity. Taking students outside to a local public artwork was fun, and student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but trying to control students’ interaction with the environment limited the opportunities for language affordances and therefore emergent language. Dogme, and so LL, should be based on spontaneous, unprepared, emergent activities.

For the next excursion I’ll try conducting the experiment blind, then, post-lesson, retrospectively identify experiment objectives and evaluate them. This way I’ll resist the temptation to plan.

Lessons learned, bring on the next excursion!

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Last week, for the first time, my colleague and I ventured out into the wild outside our language centre (the concrete jungle of La Défense) to investigate first-hand the kinds of things we’d like to use for class excursions (see my earlier posts).

I marked a few points on the map where the municipal council had installed sculptures and other pieces of public art. We stood first in front of the sculpture below, a metal piece called “La Connaissance”, which means the acquaintance or the knowledge, among other possible definitions.

La Connaissance

We started discussing its form and placement, how it fitted into the different backgrounds of tall buildings, its colours and how the artist intended it to be perceived or considered in its environment, etc. This discussion went on for nearly an hour, until we had to stop ourselves for fear of missing lunch. Realising the potential for emergent language and class discussion, we had a long discussion about how to exploit this opportunity next week with our first guinea-pigs (a small pre-intermediate group of adult professionals).

We decided to start the 4 hour class with an open discussion on examples of street art – what they represent, what purpose they serve, and how to express oneself to describe them. We wanted to put the students at ease, fearing that some may feel incapable of artistic commentary. Once we’ve allayed their fears with useful vocabulary, as well as reinforcing the importance of personal interpretation, we’ll take them outside to put their learning into practice. The teacher’s role will be to fuel discussions, ensuring groups constantly have new perspectives and ideas to discuss, yet leaving the content of the discussion up to the students. Once finished, groups will present their thoughts and opinions to the whole class for further discussion.

Once done, it’ll be back to the classroom to reflect on any emergent vocabulary and communicative skills they practised in their learner journals. We understand that not all vocabulary will be recalled after the event, but I believe that words able to be recalled represent the most meaningful for that student. The teacher can consolidate by role-playing follow-up scenarios, such as imagining a public promotion to increase exposure, or writing a letter to the local council to give advice on long-term protection and conservation.

All of these ideas sprouted from simply getting to know the subject we intended to use in our lesson plan. Célestin Freinet (Nowak-Fabrykowsk 1992) encouraged teachers to find a personal link with the materials they taught, to develop their own interpretation, before imparting it onto students. In my experience with the sculpture, being personally connected to the subject and fostering my own opinion about it made me excited about the prospect of taking students there to expose them also. I’m confident that, even if some of them aren’t particularly interested, my own enthusiasm about it will be enough to create productive, meaningful language affordances and make the trip worthwhile.

This serves to further remind me how little interest I have these days in textbook materials and inauthentic listening activities. It’s very difficult to develop a personal link with fictional, out-of-context characters like the two-dimensional business partners Monique Bresson and James Turner (Taylor et al. 2010). I’ve found myself inventing a whole love story around their suggestive interactions to liven up the gapfills, which tickles my students endlessly.

I’m constantly aware of students’ expectations, especially when coming from institutionalised education to private courses. Grammar filled textbooks are often necessary to avoid discouraging potential customers from joining courses. That being said, with experiences like last week, I feel I’m cheating them by not providing the full, connected, meaningful experience of language use that’s available just outside the door (and up a flight of stairs).

In conclusion, I now seek to test the balance between my new way of developing students’ communicative capacities and their expectations of traditional, grammar-oriented course content. Next Thursday is the big day, and I’ll be excited to share my first observations and feedback here. Wish me luck.


Nowak-Fabrykowski, K. 1992. Freinet’s Concept of Teachers and Theory of Teaching. McGill Journal of Education, Vol. 27 No. 1

Taylor, L., Lane, A., Keith Harding, K., Adrian Wallwork, A. 2010. International Express: Pre-Intermediate Student’s Pack, Second Edition. OUP

Franglais and LL

To blog or not to blog thought I, whilst upon the beach I lay. In the end Moby Dick was more attractive.

Living in France, I often wonder if reading English literature is all that keeps me from succumbing to the world of so-called ‘Franglais’. One of the most notable culprits is the word normal. In French, the word normalement can be used in the sense of “supposed / expected to be,” e.g. “Normalement la réunion sera fini avant midi,” which when translated pragmatically means, “The meeting should / is expected to finish by midday.”

To say “Normally the meeting will finish by midday,” is unnatural, and an example of a ‘false friend’. The problem I, and many English expats, have is that we are exposed to these kinds of expressions every day. We often refrain from correcting our conversation partner for fear of offence. This leads to our eventual replication of such false friends in conversations with foreigners, sometimes even with other Anglophones.

Imagining the implications for language learning in general is fascinating. This means that the language centre of the brain, even in the oft considered ‘cemented’ bastion of the ‘mother-tongue’, is open to change, and is influenced by the users immediate environment and what structures or language they hear most frequently.

This reminds me of research presented on by Patricia Kuhl when she tested babies on how well they can recognise common phonemes in different languages. She found that between 6-8 months and 1 year old, a critical stage in sound recognition occurs, and American babies who before didn’t distinguish between English or Japanese phonemes, suddenly reacted more quickly to the former than the latter, and vice versa for the Japanese babies. She proposed that these babies were taking statistics of the sounds they heard in their immediate environment. If this is already happening at such a young age, what’s to say adults don’t continue this statistical analysis of their environmental language?

This would help explain, for example, why young children can very easily learn and internalise new words (e.g. The Wug Test) but are not so easy to trick into making mistakes. We can imagine us having a statistical record in our brain that creates a ‘feeling of correctness’ that most native speakers claim to have, that is, something is correct or incorrect simply because it feels right or wrong. It follows to my mind that even as adult native speakers, if we are exposed to daily language input in our immediate environment that is technically wrong, it will eventually influence this dichotomy.

If environmental input is so powerful, and seemingly uncontrollable, it makes yet another strong case for the natural approach to language learning. We cannot necessarily control what students learn, so why try to pre-define what we intend to teach them?

A more practical approach could be leaving what the student’s brain picks up from the environmental input to chance, then asking the student themselves to reflect after the class on what they feel they learned. This way, language input is not pre-defined, rather it is identified retrospectively.

I would like to experiment further with the idea of increasing and diversifying environmental input to maximise the chance of language learning. To do this, I’ll conduct some lessons outside the walls of the classroom and have the students make notes on their experience in journals. The principles of Dogme language teaching will be useful here, as its focus on natural learning fits perfectly to this idea of Locational Learning.