It seems that discussion about the design of blended and online materials for language courses is becoming more mainstream, and for me it was an important part of IATEFL this year.
Although for many business and higher education courses a blended element is often essential and has been for some time, my teaching background is very much in the world of private language academies and of younger learners. This area of ELT is not really at the vanguard of educational technology integration, which is not a criticism, merely an observation. (1)
What is it?
Blended learning is a challenge to define, as some people wish to include things that others don’t. Sometimes it is referred to as ‘hybrid learning’. It can be argued that a blend of teaching methodology, learning experiences and student interaction is what good courses have been using for a long time, before the technology existed to blend courses in the way most people wish to these days. The most common understanding of blended learning, seems to be a mix of face to face, classroom-based interaction, with online materials provision and interaction. The ‘Sloan Consortium’ (now Online Learning Consortium) use the following definition.
Blended or hybrid courses are those which:
“integrate online with traditional face-to-face class activities in a planned, pedagogically valuable manner.” TeachThought, 2013.
I am aware that many schools have been working on integrating technology for a while, moving into an area which might come under the description of ‘Blended Learning’. Many have started or are starting to use platforms such as Moodle on which they develop their own content, as well as using materials provided via online platforms by publishers, like the Cambridge LMS (Learning Management System), for which I helped develop a lot of activities while I worked at Cambridge University Press.
There appear to be a number of issues holding back development in this area, such as a lack of knowledge among school managers and owners; a lack of teacher, student or parent ‘buy in’ and common problems such as time and money.
The thing is, it does feel to me as if we are approaching a tipping point, after which there will be an increasing expectation even among the ‘average’ learners and parents (as opposed to the more technology orientated ones) that a course with added online materials or interaction is, or could be, more desirable to them. They will start favouring a course featuring online elements over those in which the interaction and ‘delivery’ of content takes place only face to face in a classroom. This is not to say that the ‘blended’ courses would be better, just that expectations are likely to change.
In an interview at IATEFL 2016, Nicky Hockly stated that:
“A lot of people think that Blended Learning has nothing to do with them, it’s of minority interest and not particularly relevant … it may not be at the moment but it will be. Blended Learning is growing and it’s here to stay and I think in the future that most, if not all, teachers will be involved in Blended Learning in some way.”
From USP to normalisation
One of the main selling points of language academies up until the present (in fact, a USP – Unique Selling Point, for many) has been the employment of native speaker teachers. I believe that this outdated preference is disappearing, should be, and hopefully will be quickly. So, in terms of marketing, it would be logical to replace this ‘USP’ with courses featuring online material and interaction, wouldn’t it? However, perhaps it won’t be long until most schools follow the same path and blended courses become normalised, at which point blended learning will blend in and just become a normal part of learning.
It is certainly true that all publishers are augmenting new courses and releasing new editions of others by including online materials, so the addition of digital materials to coursebooks has certainly become the norm. However, the amount of use these resources get is unclear to me (and to many of those people actually working for the publishers, believe me), and the quality of the materials being produced is not always particularly good. The very basic online workbooks, for example, which repeat online the closed grammar activities of a traditional workbook are not exactly adding a great deal to the lives of teachers and their students.
Best of both worlds
Remember that I am focusing on a particular sector of the ELT ‘market’, but I believe that in this sector and in most others a course led by a teacher is likely to be more desirable and effective for the majority of students. I feel that most students, whether young learners, teenagers or adults, benefit greatly from having their learning organised for them; from being guided and motivated – coached – by a teacher with whom they have developed a good relationship; and from receiving good quality, personalised feedback within an inclusive, supportive group environment.
However, by adding an online element to courses, it may be possible to transform the current language academy paradigm into something even more effective.
Making a start
As a result, I am strongly in favour of teachers using the possibilities offered by technology to create a blend in their learning environment. Exactly how best to make such a blend work is very particular to each school and learning context, but there are areas of good practice already in use which can be used to construct forms of blended learning for each age and level of ability. One of the often cited problems, that some students don’t have access to technology, is much less likely to be a factor than it was a few years ago.Here are three simple ideas to consider as starting points towards developing a programme of blended learning:
Start simple: evolution, not revolution.
A) Create a class or school blog and add some relevant content – such as links to interesting articles, videos from YouTube or images. Then direct students to a particular post and ask them to read, watch or listen, and comment in answer to a question you have posed. Encourage them to reply to their classmates and start a discussion. Follow up on these topics in the classroom and make it clear that this interaction is expected as part of the course; consider adding ‘blog interaction’ as part of course assessment. If this is successful, students could then be encouraged to start their own blog on which they could submit work for mini-projects, or reflect on their progress in a short text. (2)
B) Create a group in WhatsApp and regularly set tasks that can be completed outside the classroom. For example, each student uploads an obscure photo taken in the local area so the others have to guess where it is. Or using the audio facility, teachers can record a question to which students have to record a short response. A group such as this can also be used for teachers and students to communicate about homework, exams or other organisational issues. (3)
C) With younger learners, it would only require one mobile device in a classroom to start integrating the excellent app Seesaw as part of the course interaction. Seesaw is a mobile app designed for the creation of ‘Student driven digital portfolios’. I think this is a fantastic app which could initially be integrated merely by taking photos of print work, uploading them and then adding a short audio recording. There is also an associated parent app that allows mums and dads to view and comment on their children’s work. The audience factor could be highly motivating for the kids.
(1) Also, much of my recent teaching experience comes from being in Andalucía in Spain, which often feels like a region slightly behind many others when it comes to mobile and online technology. However, it is clear that most teenagers and young adults are not behind, despite the fact their parents might be.
(2) Check on the capacity of your students to be involved in this, in terms of their online access, just in case.
(3) This would clearly be more suitable for older teenagers and adults and would require the students to have a smartphone and download WhatsApp. You could also used Facebook or other social media apps. In terms of teachers fearing a bombardment of messages they feel the need to respond to, consider identifying ‘office hours’, i.e. days or particular times when an answer will be forthcoming, so that messages can be ignored at other times.