Saturday, 16 August 2014

Part III: Experiences with Tabletkoulu

Part III: Some highlights from the previous school year
Last year my colleague from another school and I decided to take a challenge. We started creating an online EFL course with a Finnish start-up company called Tabletkoulu. The pedagogy and underlying guidelines behind this company are inspiring to say the least. The courses are based on methods such as flipped learning, phenomenon-based learning, game-based learning, project-based learning, co-operative learning and self-directed learning. I have always been excited about the possibilities that educational technology has brought to language learning, so it seemed like a natural step to be involved in creating learning material that would benefit from these developments.

What fascinates me are the opportunities to make language alive through authentic learning material and learning experiences, the almost overwhelming world of interacting and sharing, and learning from others. In addition to this, I can see the potential that educational technology has in truly embracing all kinds of language learners with so many individually tailored ways to study.

In the spring term 2014 our course ENA3 Study and work was still under construction but I wanted to test some parts of it with my students. To cut a very long story short, here are some random observations on using the material:

  •  The students worked either on computers or iPads. They worked either on their own, in pairs, in small groups and at times I was instructing them.
  • This is what the table of contents of the course looks like:
    Table of contents
  • Because of the time restrictions we only had time to study sections two and three. In addition to this, we studied grammar whenever it felt natural. For example, the course material has several interviews with direct questions. They were easily converted into indirect questions, and we observed what it did to the word order. Similarly, when writing a CV or a covering letter, you naturally use adjectives. This is when we also studied how to use comparison and quantifiers.
  • Not all my students enjoy speaking in English, thus writing their comments on discussion forum encouraged them to use the language without being too stressed about the pronunciation, for example. 
  • The material has many exercises that encourage students to co-operate and get out of the classroom, for example, to make interviews, record them and use the target language. Each exercise has also a discussion forum. This turned out to be really handy because it made the conversation visible if needed. 
  •  I was surprised to see how engaging the exercises were. As the students were doing them, they were able to gain points after finishing each exercise. This motivated them to collect more points. Encouraged by this, we then decided that the exercise points would be added to their course exam points (course exam consisted of a listening comprehension test and four short theme-related essays). Thus, the actual work done during the course became a visible factor in the student evaluation. 
  • While some students were really quick in moving from one exercise to another, others struggled with them. I found myself being more aware of the difficulties the students had as I could follow their progress in their portfolios. As many students carried on doing the exercises independently, I had more time to help those who had difficulties. 
  • The platform allowed teachers to add their own material in it. This was a great feature! For example, when studying school related vocabulary, I thought it was important for my students to be able to speak about their own school in English. So I was able to add material that was specific for my students. The students themselves also participated in searching the material, for example, finding relevant vocabulary on our school English website.
  • The material also includes exercises which introduce the students to the use of, for example Twitter, LinkedIn and Khan Academy.
  • The platform also enables collaboration between the teachers who are using the same course material. You can start a conversation not only with your own group of students but also nationwide with all the users. I had no chance to try this out. It would be interesting, though and I very much like the idea of teachers sharing their ideas and experiences. 
  •  The theme-related vocabulary on study and work for the course can be found on Quizlet. Click here to see the vocabulary sets.
  • My students are big fans of Quizlet (well, most of them are :) At some point there was a huge race of the gold medal in Scatter and Space Race. The students got so into practising the vocabulary that it was their wish to have more vocabulary testing. For this purpose I used, for example, Socrative or pair work with word definitions.
  •  All in all, I enjoyed using the course material and the feedback from the students was mainly positive. However, some students told me after the course that they would prefer to have “something concrete to hold in their hands” after the course. Some of them printed the vocabularies on Quizlet to ease this anxiety.
To see how some parts of the course material look like, take a look at these photos.

The topic of today?
Surveying bullying

2.2 Schools abroad

What is studying like in ... ?

We can work it out!

The right kind of applicant

Professional working proficiency test
4.2. Learner profiles

Extrovert, introvert - does it matter?

By myself

Speaker's corner

Project: Education news

I love learning new words

Practice makes perfect

If you want to learn more about Tabetkoulu, check out their website here. The link is in Finnish but all the team members speak English.

Part II: More steps towards going paperless - Using Fronter

Part II: Some highlights from the previous school year

I mentioned Fronter in my previous posting. It is the platform our school uses. In fact, as far as I know, it is the platform all schools in Helsinki use. So there :) I have a course room for each course that I am teaching. (yes, the courses are called rooms and school subjects are called corridors). Fronter has many handy tools, especially the test tools are being developed all the time, and the students enjoy practising some key elements with them. I also like the conversation forums and the possibility to embed videos. The tool for shared documents is also handy (until some student accidentally deletes the document, this happened luckily only once last year).

Last term I wanted to see what would happen if the students took the course exam on Fronter. That was a pretty exciting experience. This was the first time ever I conducted an online course exam, so in the beginning I was full of questions. However, it all turned out to be fine. I allowed my students to use all online dictionaries and help they could possibly get. Some of them found this confusing: “Really? Are you sure?” “Yes, I am sure :) The actual planning and creating the exam took some time, but it was well worth it. The test tools automatically corrected the structured vocabulary and reading comprehension tests and I was left with evaluating the essays, which I like doing anyway. 

I know there are many teachers in Finland who use online testing regularly. I wish I’ll have time to learn more from their experiences in the coming school year. Whichever platform we are using for creating online exams, it would be so great to join our forces and share the tests. 

One more note about our persistent friend Fronter. I have also taught many online and distance learning courses using the platform. If you want to see one example in more detail, click here to see what I wrote about it last December.

This is how the home page of my online English introductory course looks like.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Part I: One step towards going paperless - Studying a course without the traditional course book

Part I: Some highlights from the previous school year

I wanted to try something different with my students. So I asked them how they’d feel about the idea of studying the course without a course book, and their response was positive. I’d taught this course several times before, therefore I was pretty familiar with the contents and objectives outlined in the curriculum and felt quite confident in saying goodbye to the course book for a while. Our course was called ENA7 Nature and Sustainable Development.

We had access to computers as well as iPads so I wanted to make use of them. The project for the students was to create their own website on a course-related topic. They needed to do some background studying, learn new vocabulary, find suitable photos and videos or create them by themselves. To make their sites more reader-friendly, they also created a glossary on essential vocabulary and added some questions for their peers to comment on.

As we know, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some photos of their work (they kindly gave me the permission to publish them here).

This is the home page with the students' topics on the left-hand margin.

An example of one site (a part of it)

Some students used word clouds to create illustration for the site.

An example of a glossary

Some questions for the fellow-students

I was really pleased to see the intensity of their studying. The students seemed to read more and with more enthusiasm than what they normally did with the course book (which, by the way, is awesome, too!).

Summa summarum, these were the benefits in my view:
  • Apart from a few texts I chose for all the students to study, they chose the majority of their own reading. This gave them an opportunity to critically evaluate the information offered. 
  • Being able to choose the topic for their project gave them a sense of ownership for their own learning. It was great to watch them work with their topics with such motivation.Everybody didn’t have to do exactly the same thing. I really liked the fact that the students could find the topics (within the course theme) that they found interesting. The learning process started from their own interests, and it was not something that the teacher decided for them.
  • They were in total control of their own websites and they could make them look as they wanted to. Again: ownership for their own learning.
  • Some of them wanted me to take a look at their texts before publishing them, this was easily done by sharing their work with me on Google Docs.
  • Later they studied the other students’ projects and gave feedback on them. I think it was important for them to get feedback from their peers. Since this was already their seventh course, they had had plenty of practice with this.
  • In case any of my Finnish colleagues are interested in knowing how the evaluation worked, this is how we did it: the project (100 points), the listening comprehension test (a previous year’s national exam 90 p.), vocabulary and grammar exercises and additional reading (110p.). So the students could gain max. 300 points of the whole course and those points were then turned into a school grade as usual.
Some other observations:
  • Young students seem to be using their smartphones and iPads a lot for entertaining purposes. However, I think many still need guidance and advice on how to use their devices for learning. There are some many possibilities for that!
  • I can’t put enough emphasis on copyright issues. As mentioned before, this was already our seventh course together, and I had started to talk about copyrights already from course one. For some reason, this theme needs to be covered again and again.
  • Sometimes it can get frustrating when the machines are not working. For example, the iPads seemed to have a mind of their own. Sometimes the reception was good and they worked well, but sometimes they didn't.

The technological side of things: 
  • We created the website with Google Sites. This worked out fine since my students have Google accounts from our school.  Google Sites also allowed students to comment on their projects. 
  • Some students used an iPad app called Tag Cloud to create word clouds for the website.
  •  Some students tried using an iPad app called Morfo for creating a video with audio (this was so much fun!).
  • To ensure theme-related vocabulary practice I created some Quizlet vocabularies which were a compulsory part of the course.  My students are pretty familiar with Quizlet and most of them create their own sets. How great is that!

  • Our school uses online platform called Fronter where I had prepared some grammar and vocabulary tests for my students. I created a course room on Fronter (this is how they are called) with the link to our website and to all other exercises. So this was the place where all the course information and assignments were gathered.

Some background information about me

I am a language teacher from Finland with an MEd and MA. I’ve been teaching English as a Foreign Language for a long time, for various levels, for pupils and students aged anything between 5 to 75. I’ve done most part of my EFL work in upper secondary schools. Some years ago I fulfilled my long-time dream of becoming a Finnish as a Second Language teacher, which is what I do presently. I'm also a qualified primary school teacher. I can truly say that I love teaching and learning.

For about two years, along with teaching EFL, I taught illiterate immigrant stay-at-home mothers with small children. The main focus was to teach the students to read and write, and of course, to improve their conversational skills. In autumn 2014 our school started a new programme which goes under the name of  instruction for preparing for basic education (aikuisten perusopetukseen valmistava opetus). It is a programme aimed at young immigrants aged between 17 to 25 who have arrived in Finland without a school leaving certificate from their home countries, and need to improve their Finnish skills as well as understanding of Finnish society. Presently I am working as their tutor and language teacher. This work is a dream come true since it allows me to combine my educational background on pedagogy, language studies, psychology and communication as well my work history with learners of all ages and backgrounds.

In addition to this, I’ve been quite active in developing our school’s online and distance learning courses and figuring out how to equip our students with the 21st century learning skills. I am thrilled by the opportunities the technology has brought and keeps bringing to learning and particularly to language learning. My goal is to encourage my students to become lifelong learners through authentic and meaningful learning experiences. Needless to say, I'm a lifelong learner myself!