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 contact@osbornehouse.net

Innovation

With the Innovate ELT conference coming to a close, I’m (like many others I’m sure) excited at the prospect of some new ideas and talks being shared online. I’m always excited about innovation, but perusing Twitter feeds and blogs often leaves me with a feeling of frustration.

There are several innovation bandwagons rolling at the moment, namely Flipped Classrooms and edTech, as well as the classics such as more natural approaches to teaching. I fear that as these well-founded ideas gain traction, too many cheerleaders are hopping on and taking focus away from the practical implications of the proposed changes in the ELT world.

For example, here’s a short, paraphrased summary of a conversation I participated in today on Innovate ELT’s twitter:

Innovate ELT : What’s wrong with ELT course books? Attend Mr. X’s talk on to find out.

Mr. Pink : What’s wrong with them? Everything! When do we want change? Now!

Mr. Blue : Will your talk propose realistic alternatives for 100s of millions of YLs around the world using course books?

Mr. Red : Just because millions of people do something doesn’t mean it’s good

Mr. Blue : Very true. But reality of huge classes/unconfident teachers often with poor English, what’s the alternative?

Mr. Red : CHANGE!

I’ll stop there, as for me that was enough to see this phenomenon of the bandwagon unfolding. The rest of the conversation was similar – people calling for revolution, giving their vocal support for change, but not proposing one solitary hint of an idea for how that change might be brought about.

Russel Brand is famous for this phenomenon, as he caused a stir last year with eloquent rhetoric regarding the total overhaul of political and financial institutions. This populist argument, which I’m sure seemed sweeter when the royalties from his book began rolling on, dredged up a Twitter army of bandwagon-riders, ready to shout their support for change from the rooftops, despite not having the faintest idea how to bring it about,

Such phenomena by no way indicate a lack of credibility in the original argument, but they certainly undermine its potential for real tangible results. Voices of feckless cheerleaders drown out those with practical, actionable ideas which could potentially lead to the change sought in the first place. This unfortunate situation seems to have fallen upon many of the important drives for change in the education profession, including ELT.

I’m writing this post not just out of frustration, but in support of people in the world who have real ideas that could lead to positive changes in the education sector. Don’t let your voices be drowned out by the bandwagon. Keep innovating, and never let your efforts be undermined by the occasional onslaught of populist rhetoric.

My one-to-one student just wants to chat

Recipes for the EFL Classroom

So, after planning a lesson tailored to the needs of the individual student, all they seem to want to do is have a chat. You start to wonder if it is worth planning the lesson at all.   Then there’s an occasional pang of guilt when you think about how much the student is paying just for ‘a chat’.

This is, I’m sure, a familiar situation for many an EFL teacher. A one-to-one lesson naturally lends itself to a less structured approach. The teaching situation, in fact conforms very much to the three tenets of Dogme teaching (Lessons are Conversation Driven, Materials Light, and focus on Emerging Language).

But what about that nagging thought? What would the student say they learned in that lesson? Are they making progress? Are they aware of the progress they are making?

What this lesson would benefit from is a good amount of…

View original post 412 more words

Motivation

The mere mention of the word motivation can send shivers up the spine of the most seasoned pedagogues. What the heck does it even mean? Are my students motivated? How can I find out?

A recent talk I attended at the TESOL France colloquium by Stephen-Scott Brewer renewed my interest in the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but elaborated it into a spectrum. At one end lay pure amotivation, moving through extrinsic motivation to pure intrinsic motivation. It made me realise that accessing the potential of a student’s intrinsic motivation may be related to the idea of Krashen’s affective learning filter.

Understanding motivation, for me, lies in the distinction between the definition of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic means being motivated for reasons to do exclusively with the self. This could be a desire to succeed for pure self gratification, or even simpler — the desire to survive (food, shelter, etc.). These are the purest forms of motivation; they represent our most basic desires.

Extrinsic motivation comes from factors external to purely selfish needs, for example: making progress in a job; establishing or maintaining a relationship; satisfying a social convention; etc. One key factor here, where the spectrum comes into play, is that all effective extrinsic motivation contains elements of intrinsic motivation. Being promoted through good results at work gives us greater means to satisfy our monetary desires, as well as greater self esteem. Making friends brings us opportunities for the pleasure of socialising, or even help in problem resolution.

Once we reach the other end of the spectrum, where extrinsic motivation dwarfs any intrinsic motivation, for example: a child wishing to perform well in an subject they hate simply because of parental pressure, we close in on amotivation. The less selfish gain we can achieve in something, the less motivated we are to do it.

My previous point sounds terribly misanthropic. The argument that no one does anything without some personal gain is a sore point for people who profess the power of the human spirit to do good in the world, but it is an inescapable truth. Even the most selfless, heroic act leads to feelings of righteousness or heroism, so it is partially intrinsically motivated, whether it’s intended to be or not.

So far so good, but how does this relate to language teaching? Well, surely this provides the ultimate answer to classroom activities’ effectiveness: make them entirely selfish. Throw a student into a pit of snakes until they tell you about their weekend with perfectly conjugated verbs and by God you’ll have effective language acquisition!

Though in reality this isn’t the case. Imagine the student whose passion is vintage cars, so you ask him to prepare a presentation for the class on his favourite model. These students so often produce surprisingly uninspiring work, unable to express themselves and resentful of being asked to do so. Their intrinsic motivation cannot break through their, sometimes intense, psychological issues. Krashen (2003) states that certain negative emotions, such as anxiety, self-doubt, and even boredom interfere with the effectiveness of second language acquisition.

So to access a student’s motivation, we must not only deal with how well we’re satisfying their personal needs, but also how much they are affected in learning by negative emotions. This puts the teacher in an uncomfortable position. Not that we don’t care about our students’ problems, but dealing with psychological issues is a delicate process. Perhaps, with some basic training, we could take on the responsibility of something like a counsellor as well as a trainer — like a language coach — dealing with linguistic, as well as personal, problems. I’m still developing my own views on this, and I would love some input from the blogging community in the comments.

Krashen, S. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heinemann

EFL materials

I’m feeling desperate. Every year, new ESL materials are created to a serve the very unique and arguably biggest market for foreign language learning: adults and ESP. I’m trapped in a world where this decontextualised nonsense is something most of my peers see as perfectly normal, applauding the great advances in materials design as if it’s anything more than polishing an inappropriate, deceitful way to promise students improvement in their foreign language development.

The adult teaching context is, in my experience, complex compared to that of young learners. Though motivation in YLs is a key issue with no shortage of published material, they could be stereotypically described as language sponges — soaking up new language as it is presented to them. Adults, though they still in theory have the ability to soak up new language, more often have a crippling layer of difficulty in the form of inhibition. It seems to me that once YLs reach the age of their first life-defining exams (e.g. A-Levels, Baccalaureate, SATs, etc.) they’ve already been systematically brainwashed into thinking mistakes are shameful, leading to the development of perfectionist beliefs.

This, in my experience, creates a permanent layer of mistake anxiety that continues into adulthood, which affects our ability to freely and easily acquire language as YLs do. This ingrained fear manifests itself as defensiveness, frustration, depression, self-deprecation, the list goes on. These typical side-effects of perfectionist beliefs differ in severity depending on the student’s personal experiences. Error correction leads to shame. Using imagination is rejected for fear of uttering something embarrassing. The lesson becomes a dry, clinical attempt to avoid any meaningful language use. For anyone who’s studied Krashen, this is explained as the affective filter.

In a non-target-language country, this makes learning avoidance almost inevitable in a large part of the population who would otherwise like to acquire it for better job opportunities, holidays, or simply satisfying a passion. An excuse develops that learning is only affective when you spend time in the target language country. This is true, to an extent, as immersive learning helps overcome psychological hang-ups thanks to the basic need to survive and be accepted in one’s community. As most people’s time or budget constraints negate embarking on such an adventure, this becomes the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

So, with such a considerable, fundamental barrier to language learning existing in one of the main markets for the major textbook publishers, you’d imagine this would form a key part of their published content. There are several obvious reasons that this isn’t the case. For starters, each country has its own cultural profile, with its own unique reasons for learning avoidance, so producing country-specific books would be costly and unprofitable. Secondly, it’s much easier to cop out with the excuse that such psychological difficulties are outside the remit of poor, pedestrian, private sector language teachers. Finally, many students use existing learning materials to successfully improved their language competence, despite their neuroses. Classroom-based students often overcome such difficulties unconsciously as they engage in interesting group activities, becoming confident language users without explicit psychological intervention.

So what’s my problem, you may well ask? I’m not satisfied. It feels like if we dared to confront the issue of learning avoidance due to childhood / adult trauma regarding mistake making, there’d be a huge opportunity to extend effective, achievable language learning to those who’d otherwise avoid it, or worse — those who continue paying for frustrating courses or materials that end in an inexplicable lack of progress. I believe these two groups of potential learners can be reached; all they need is guidance and advice concerning coping techniques for the sometimes intense psychological stress of live language production and public performance.

Do I have the answer to this problem? Nope. But I’m tired of seeing the same old rehashed material in every new mainstream course-book, designed for a market of people lucky enough to learn English in an Anglophone environment or a supportive group scenario. With self-help books being all the rage these days, how can no one have written a book with such a focus on self-improvement as well as language improvement. If I’m wrong, and such books exist and have slipped through my net, please let me know in the comments. If not, let’s write one together; think of the adults!

I want to break free

The early morning train, kept afloat by cheery beats and the cool morning breeze. It wouldn’t take more than a lack of either of these to put the majority of us poor grimacing passengers to sleep.

So how do students do it? Learning a language is a mentally fatiguing undertaking, and most adult learners have the conventional time-consuming responsibilities: dropping kids at school; grocery shopping; family time; etc. I remember myself a few years back taking a piddly one and a half hours of German classes a week as a beginner, and even that had my head spinning at the end.

So how could a teacher really wake me up and motivate me, right here, right now, in this state? A break in the routine. But not just a ticket controller and the familiar “Bonjour… Merci” exchange, I’m talking something really out of the ordinary.

I remember one day on this very train, I had a funny little man sit in front of me and strike up an unsolicited conversation about my smartphone. Big deal, many of you would say. But in Paris, conversing with strangers is not the social norm. Although Parisians might like meeting new people or socialising, they prefer doing so on their terms. So this, for me, was a serious break in my everyday schema. In the subsequent French conversation, I paid very close attention to the words I was using – their conjugation, pronunciation, far more so than normal despite my fatigued state.

If only such a unique, yet ironically banal, situation occurred every day, I’m sure my French progress would be greatly accelerated. It was precisely this forceful push out of the schema, or the familiar, that prompted my heightened attention to form and quality. In language schools, activities like gap-fills or reading articles; the typical classroom schema, do not have this effect. As much as students may insist on such activities being included in a course plan, it will not take them out of this complacent comfort zone.

So what could break these classroom familiarities? Well, remove the classroom of course. Sitting in that room, it can be hard to really surprise a student. Take them out of that comfort zone and a world of new and exciting schema opens up right in front of you.

  • Go over to a tree and tell students they are to organise a project to have it uprooted and transplanted back to the forest, considering a limited budget and heavy environmentalist pressure. Form a project team and present the proposal to the teacher for rubber-stamping.
  • Go to the local chip shop and tell students to work out their business model using staff numbers and menu prices, interviewing the staff for more detail. Work in teams to create a change-proposal to improve profitability.
  • Tell students they’ll be planning a wedding. Go to the local hotel for room hire and accommodation quotes. Go to the local deli for food possibilities. Find an appropriate sound system in the local electronics shop. Give a report to the other groups, choose a winner. Write up invites for homework.

Even if the group is in their native country, if you ask students to speak English during the activity you will certainly break any existing schemata. I won’t deny the existence of advantages in the classroom model, but I question the weight of its importance in the language learning syllabus. Take your students outside, try doing something really different, take note of students’ reactions, and you might find the results surprising.

Practice makes perfect

We’re often tricked into thinking that language learning can be done in private, simply using the many books or software available to do so. Although this can help with vocabulary and grammar, can it really ever make you a better speaker?

I thought of another example today: Jokes… How would you teach someone how to tell a joke? Let’s explore the textbook route:

Wikipedia’s definition of a joke is “something spoken, written, or done with humorous intention.” So creating humour is our goal, how do we go about that?

German philosopher Immanuel Kant suggests laughter can result “if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.” Maltese author Edward de Bono states that the mind recognises familiar patterns in behaviour and stories, and that “when a familiar connection is disrupted… laughter occurs as the new connection is made.”

We’re beginning to understand the mechanics of what makes a joke funny, but it will never give us the natural ability to tell them ourselves. You know from experience, no matter how good the joke, some people are just not funny.

My point may be a little pretentious, but I hope you can see what I’m trying to say. Learning what something is is not the same as learning how to do something. If we want to be funny, we have to try and make jokes, no matter how bad. Through observing and learning from other people’s reactions, we can eventually develop this inherent ability.

Can we really say learning a language is any different? Studying grammar books and textbook activities may increase your language knowledge, thewhat of the equation, but as for the how – there is only one solution: get out there and practise.