Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Global education requires swift moves

Time never stands still when you are grabbing online opportunities for more authentic and meaningful student learning.

I can remember back in 2010 when my online colleagues, Tania Sheko from Australia and Marie Coleman from Florida US, set up the collaborative photo sharing project Through Global Lenses for our students. The idea was born, developed and implemented within a few weeks. Pure innovation and bold pioneer spirit!

I feel similar skills are needed in more and more jobs these days. Long gone are the days of static, routine work in many careers. As a teenager, and all through my university years, I used to always work in a post office during the summer holidays. Especially July used to be quite a quiet month with so many offices and factories closed for the workers' summer holidays. Consequently, I was often able to spend long working hours secretly reading a novel under my counter as hardly any customers came in. Today, there are hardly any post offices left! At least in Finland, they have been merged into kiosks, and grocery stores, making these places far busier for the workers as a result.

Yet, schools are still trying to hold on to the old industrial model of restricted curriculum, and yearly repeated lessons of going through static textbooks. How is this preparing our students for the world outside school? I can see the difficulty, though. If I was following a textbook with my EXE English group, I couldn't possibly spare my valuable few lessons to jump at the chance of international collaboration as I'm doing now.  What a pity it would be to lose such unique opportunities of real-life learning!

Since last Friday, the new blogging interaction initiative between my school in Finland, and Melbourne High School in Australia, has proceeded in leaps and bounds. Several tweets have been exchanged between us teachers, for one thing to tackle both our comment settings. Students are using either Posterous, Blogger or Wordpress as their blog services, and all of them require different specific sign-in procedures, making it difficult or even impossible for students to write comments. We have now opted for open commenting to make things easier. Of course, it is advisable to monitor comments closely in the blogosphere, especially when it comes to under-age students. At the same time, though, closed platforms are rather restrictive for any international collaboration. Naturally, we teachers will still keep an eye over the comments, and take necessary moderating measures if things get out of hand with spammers or inappropriate anonymous commenting.

Another new development over the weekend, too. The international "lady trio" has joined forces again, and Marie from Florida will have her blogging 'Introduction to Technology for Education' students visit our school blogs to get a first-hand glimpse into what is done in some schools today. 

Learning has suddenly become so much more vibrant and relevant for all of us again!

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Connecting classrooms through blogging

Last spring, there was an attempt to get my blogging students into some meaningful exchange with my online colleague Tania Sheko's blogging classes in Australia. Unfortunately, due to several reasons, it never really got going. Firstly, it was our last few weeks before the long summer break, and a lot of other activities going on at school. Secondly, we noticed that the Posterous blogs used in Melbourne high school, were sometimes set to require a Twitter sign-in for the comments. As my students didn't have Twitter accounts, they were unable to leave comments. And there were other complications and delays, as usual in a school setting. To cut a long story short - it all fell flat in the rush of our last few weeks of the school year.

Come this new school year, and I decided to start looking for blogging partners much earlier. Having the experience of a whole year of blogging with students, I felt much more confident about it, and guiding the students was easier and quicker right from the start. I kept last year's concept of a class blog with links to student blogs in the sidebar, as it worked so well that I didn't feel any need to change it.

The beauty of having a small online PLN is that serendipity often plays a part in international collaboration! I had barely got my students to set up their individual blogs for this year, and had had no time yet to get any partner searches started, when I received this message on Facebook:

This was only two days ago, and already Tania has managed to get English teacher Nick Fairlie onboard, and some of their year 9 boys have also commented on my students' first ever blog posts. What a wonderful surprise for my newbie bloggers! Nick and Tania have also set a writing task for this coming Wednesday. It will be a good challenge for their students to apply their intercultural communication skills when writing to an authentic audience on the other side of the world. And afterwards, of course, a perfect chance for my students to get used to REAL commenting.I couldn't wish for a better start to expose my EFL students to using English in a real-life context!

Blogging is truly doing what Tania wrote about in her professional blog - 'Connecting our students to themselves, each other and the world'. It really is worthwhile looking at Tania and Nick's slides about their blogging process so far!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Something new for back to school

One week into the new school year already. And I am still fumbling to find the online tools that I want to use with my EFL groups this year!

I like blogs, and will use one for my "own" English group again. The structure of one joint class blog, with links to students' individual blogs and our course schedule in the sidebar, worked really well last year, and I want to repeat that. But for the rest of my groups, I will have changing groups and courses every 6-7 weeks, and 14 of them during the whole school year. Setting up 14 separate blogs for such a short duration really seems too much handle, and a bit of a waste to me.

I need something with easy access for students, where I can post/upload/link material outside the textbook and where students can easily interact with each other to put their English into real use. Possibly also for publishing some student work. I thought of a wiki but even that seems too heavy a solution for my needs at the moment. I'm more and more leaning towards a Facebook group or page. I should ask my students how they would feel about it. I have this suspicion that they might feel that school is invading their free time network by suddenly posting homework assignments and other school-related info on Facebook. But it would be so easy! No need to spend class time explaining how a new tool works, no separate sign up procedures and new passwords, no hassle! (I assume all my students are on Facebook - I may be wrong!)

Why do I want to have an online "place" for all my courses then? My main urge is to move beyond the restrictive textbook, and the numbing busy work of gap fills in them. Topical, up-to-date online material is so much more interesting and relevant! Just this week I read quite a provocative guest post by a high school senior in Scott McLeod's blog. This student's criticism on teachers and textbooks is rather hash:
...the more and more they use textbooks, which is the easy way to do things, the worse they will become at teaching and inspiring their students to actually want to learn. That is why textbooks have become the crutch of high school teachers. They are so incredibly easy to lean on, but if they were taken away many teachers would be absolutely lost because they have not challenged themselves to create more of a 21st Century learning environment in their classrooms.
But I must say, I agree! Interestingly, a young Finn also wrote about language teaching/learning in high school in our local paper last weekend. According to her, she never learned to really express herself in a foreign language with the help of the eternal worksheets and translation exercises that she was bombarded with in every language class. When she was faced with a real foreigner who asked her something, she simply couldn't say anything because she didn't have the cues or ready-made alternatives to choose from given to her on a piece of paper!

I wish to activate my students to REALLY use the foreign language for interaction and communication. That's what I need a social networking tool for.

Photo: Tesco by thinkretail on Flickr

Saturday, 19 May 2012

An EFL project - Scoop.it and blogging

My blogging students are finishing their third and last EFL course this year. The curriculum topics for this course are 'schools, education, learning' and 'employment and job applications'. I wanted to try some project work to introduce my students to the wealth of publicity our Finnish education system has been receiving for a few years now. By going through some of this media material, the goal was to write their responses to what they found out in their own blogs. I was hoping that this process would result in some higher order thinking.

I had collected an impressive list of links to online articles, blog posts and videos that I wanted to share with them as their background research material. I wanted them to learn relevant vocabulary by reading a bulk of articles and watching many videos where the same vocabulary would be repeated again and again. Ideally, we would have searched for the online material together but unfortunately, we didn't have the time within the busy 6-week course of 3 lessons a week. But how to make this list inviting to the students? I could just about imagine their long faces if I presented a dull list of written hyperlinks in the course blog! Then I came up with the marvellous idea of creating a Scoop.it magazine out of the links. Straight away the articles and videos looked much more attractive. My students were at least mildly interested when I introduced the project with the accompanying materials titled FINNISH EDUCATION IN SPOTLIGHT. I think their scepticism came from the apprehension of how much work all this would involve and how demanding it would be!

I posted the initial project guidelines in the course blog, also introducing the idea of Bloom's taxonomy to inspire them to dig deeper. This was also discussed in class. After this, the students were off to do their background research, mostly at home but we also spent some class time on it. Firstly, I wanted to touch base with each of them to see where they were at. Without supervision, many of them tend to procrastine too much. In class I was able to offer some tips on what to focus on, and how to start planning their eventual blog post early enough. Secondly, I wanted to give them a chance to ask their peers or me if they encountered any problems. We also discussed their findings together so they could get some more insights. And as Scoop.it kept suggesting more and more links, the pages of the magazine kept increasing. Students didn't complain, though!

For these classes, we often used the new, modern learning space of our school, where the students could make themselves comfortable on the couches. I expected them to have lots of questions but they seemed to be very self-directed and assured me that they were proceeding well. Some had their notes on their laptops, others preferred a handwritten notebook. I had to fight hard to stay in the background, available if needed but not interfering and "orchestrating" all the time. These are the sort of classes that I would like to do more often!

As the deadline for their projects was approaching, I decided that we would spend one whole 75-minute class on finalising the blog posts. This would give them the chance to still ask for any last-minute advice. The day before this class, it was a public holiday, so I posted final advice on the course blog as I knew many of them would be frantically working on their project at home (last minute panic is very common amongst them - but then again, I'm the same!). In my advice post, I also tried to model the kind of writing I expected from them, with hyperlinks to the Scoop.it materials. I'm so happy now that we had the last class finishing the work together! It was then that I noticed that, after all the preparation and explanations, some of them hadn't grasped the idea of a hyperlinked blog post at all, or how they were expected to refer to the material they had studied. I was quite surprised and disappointed at first. I thought I had given them such thorough and clear instructions! On second thoughts, I realized that they had probably never done such source-based writing before, or if they had, it had been in the traditional paper format, with a list of sources listed at the end. Luckily, I was able to go through the idea of hyperlinked online writing once more, and most of them finally seemed to get the point as it's was relevant to their work at hand!

What was learned?
  • Students got their work done in the end - all at their own level. This type of work allowed personal approaches, and some did manage to demonstrate deeper and more analytical thinking. I'm really proud of them!
  • Scoop.it is brilliant as a repository of study links! (In addition to being a nice way to curate a topic for your PLN.)
  • Next time, do more process writing - students benefit from ongoing hands-on guidance.
  • Maybe try something like this in pairs - collaboration might prove fruitful.

Why not check some of their work through the links to individual student blogs in the sidebar of our course blog! COMMENTS ARE MORE THAN WELCOME!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Connecting my blogging students

We have now gone through two English courses without a textbook. We have used a lot of online materials (texts, blogs, pictures and videos) as material. The class blog has been the "online hub" to provide the links, give instructions, and motivate students. And the individual student blogs (also linked to the "hub") have been the platform for writing practise and conversations through comments.

As all this was totally new for me as well as for the students, I thought it was necessary to practise in our own little community first. Especially commenting is something that doesn't come naturally to most students. It takes a lot of guidance for students to realize what it really means to take a genuine interest in what other people have written, and to initiate conversations through their comments. In addition, writing to an unknown online audience is very different from only writing composition for your own teacher to read and assess! How do you catch readers' attention with your blog post? What culturally bound concepts will you have to explain to non-Finnish readers? What can you write in a public forum? How about privacy and online safety issues? All these, and many more, questions have come up in the course of our blogging journey so far.

If anyone is interested in more details, here are the links to my previous reflections on the first stages of student blogging:

Blogging with students 1 (why + setting the online "hub")
Blogging with students 2 (starting individual students blogs)
Blogging with students 3 (students' first blog posts)
Blogging with students 4 (commenting)
Blogging with students 5 (lots of positive progress in our 2nd course)

But now I feel it's time to start looking for student partners outside our own school, to make the blogging experience more real and authentic for my students. I am confident that they are now ready for it, and will be even more motivated, knowing that there are real people somewhere to connect with.

Through my years of doing international school projects, I have always believed that authenticity, in one form or another, is essential in foreign language learning. And now we have the chance to easily connect with schools around the world, thanks to wonderful ICT tools! The international projects I used to do before, where done as optional credit courses for interested students. Now I'm moving towards making such project work part of each and every English course I teach, with the goal of exposing all my students to real language use during their school years.

But where to find the partners? Internet serendipity again! I noticed that my online colleague from Australia, Tania Sheko, had just started blogging with the Yr 9 boys in her school. Of course, I was curious to see what they were up to, and was so amazed to read the mature responses of only 14-15-year-old boys to a demanding topic "You are what you know" that I just had to start writing comments. One thing led to another, and I have now promised to have my students do some commenting on these boys' blogs, too.

It's really worth reading Tania's reflections on her students' blogging. I share her views whole-heartedly, e.g. the following:
So much learning takes place without much effort though – writing not just for your teacher and a mark, but for a peer audience and a potentially global readership, will open up the scope for authentic discussions and social learning.
I can't wait for our next course to begin on April 10th, to get the interaction going! I welcome others to read and leave comments, too. It would really open up the classrooms to the world,  for both the Australian and our Finnish students.

Photo: connect by katypang on Flickr

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

We should teach copyright to students

I was really pleased to read the following in one of my students' blogs recently:
P.S. Sorry about the lack of photos. You can’t believe how hard it is to find a picture that is legally usable in a blog. It’s like you’re looking for a needle in a haystack.
Yes, my banging on about the use of photos seems to have sunk in! With this blogging group of 15 students, it took me a couple of months of constant reminders until the students took to heart all the copyright advice I gave them, both online and orally in class. And now it's great to see how concientiously they look for photos with Creative Commons licences, and credit them in their blog posts.

As the world-wide web is such a treasure trove of material, I can understood why so many of us take it for granted that it is all there free for anyone to grab and do what they wish with. Even some popular recent services cause confusion amongst users. Here in Finland, the apparent copyright infringements in the use of Pinterest have caused a lot discussion recently. Especially women seem to find it irresistible to compile and share beautiful pinboards of their favourite pictures - usually totally ignoring any copyright issues. It's worth reading, for example, this article on the many concerns with Pinterest.

Another popular service among teachers is Glogster Edu. I am planning an in-service session for language teachers in my area, in which I intend to introduce some useful and fun net resources. I was going to include Glogster in it but decided not to, as I simply won't have the time to get into Copyright issues in any depth. Glogster certainly motivates students to create their own, colourful, multi-media posters but it inherently leads students to copy material online - mostly illegally unless their teachers are strict about it. Naturally, like Pinterest, also Glogster has clear instructions on 'Uploading of Intellectual Property' in their Terms of Use. It's another question, of course, how many teachers follow these instructions.

I wonder how many schools have a joint policy about copyright that all teachers know about and consistently adhere to - both in their own PowerPoint presentations, and in their requirements for students' work. I feel that it is every educator's duty to model the right use of online sources and materials.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Blogging with students 5

I have just finished my 2nd English course with my blogging group. What a pleasure it was to start work with them as their blogs were waiting, and they were already familiar with this type of work. I, too, had learned many valuable lessons during course 1, and was consequently better prepared and comfortable with the new concept. Thanks to all these advantages, and the ground work done in course 1, we were able to focus more on reading new texts, watching videos, class discussions and writing 3 separate blog posts with the accompanying comments.

As before, I based the course on the national EFL curriculum topics, and published the course plan online. This time, however, I gave the students more freedom to choose their blog topics. Following the 3 course themes, they chose what and how to write themselves. This seemed to work quite well, and some of the students also mentioned this as a positive aspect in their course feedback.

Unlearning repeating linguistic errors is quite a challenge. Students wrote drafts first, I gave them tips and feedback, and then they rewrote and edited their post, before publishing it. Despite all this effort, the same errors mostly recurred in their next drafts! What would help them actively tackle these ingrained errors? Or am I being a pedantic language teacher again, or maybe too impatient?

Commenting developed in leaps and bounds among some students, whereas those who struggled with their motivation and generally applying themselves in course 1, degenerated even further this time. In our last course, later this spring, I will work hard to get some collaboration going with foreign partners, to make the blogging and commenting an even more realistic experience for the students. Another thing I will try in the next course, is more regular, shorter blog posts, with even more student freedom to choose the topics. After all, this is what blogging inherently is about, rather than writing given assignments, and even some students specifically hoped for this type of change in their feedback.

All in all, I enjoyed the classes without coursebooks more and more. There are so many more opportunities for student involvement and engagement than with the pre-set, rather mechanical gap-fill exercises that coursebooks are filled with. Every class was filled with English chatting, questions being asked, vocabulary use negotiated, ideas thrown in, and students actively participating. In December, we hosted a student exchange visit from a partner school in Singapore. The Singaporean guests visited our class, and students carried out interviews to find out about young people's lives on the other side of the world. The information they collected could then be used for their blog posts, which many of them did. I wish I had videoed the non-stop, enthusiastic talk that went on in that class!

For anyone interested, the students blogs can be found in the right-hand sidebar of our course blog.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The hurdles of 1:1, LMS and school change

It has been a very interesting and hectic school year so far. In September, all 130 first-graders got their brand-new minilaptops. School administration proudly named this the beginning of the BIG LEAP. At the same time, our school acquired a LMS to help teachers take the leap in practice. Having been actively involved in social media, and various online platforms for some time, I was asked to guide teachers in the use of the new platform, together with our ICT teacher, who would be the technical expert. After a lot of initial doubts concerning my personal leap outside the language teacher's "box", I decided to jump at the chance of new challenges.

In my role as a teacher tutor, I soon realized that my colleagues could roughly be divided into three groups: 1) those who already had some experience in integrating technology in their classes, and thus had specific expectations of what a LMS should offer 2) those who were ready to start experimenting with new technologies but had now clear idea of what it might be 3) the ostriches who had their heads safely hidden in the sand, and maintained that as long as students learned the facts listed in the curriculum in the old way, no technology would be needed in their classrooms. They also added that as no computers would be used in the national final exams, for the foreseeable future anyway, using them in class would be a waste of time and effort.

Unfortunately, the adopted LMS turned out to be a disappointing flop. It didn't meet the expectations of group 1, among other things because it wasn't customisable in any way. Group 2 found it too intimidating to use, and needed frequent step-by-step instructions, which in the end were too frustratingly time-consuming. As for group 3, I think they consider technology too much as a tool for TEACHING, and fail to see its potential as a powerful LEARNING tool for the students.

Personally, I may have already been biased at the start, with my experience of user-friendly and colourful social media tools. All I can say, I wasn't impressed at all by what the platform had to offer. However, I do believe that to make things move forward on the school level, a LMS of some sort might be beneficial as a starting point, in particular for teachers who, as ICT users, are inexperienced but willing to learn. But this platform needs to be user-friendly enough to help things develop with ease. If this is not the case, too much time is wasted in learning the complicated operating system, or teachers will simply give up even trying. Another problem with many LMSs is that they often guide teachers too much to just repeat the traditional methods in a digital format - ie. uploading files online instead of giving them on paper. True, it will save paper, but this is hardly the main point! Lisa Lane aptly calls this "the LMS pedagogy trap".
An instructor seeking an easy way to post word documents, assignments through a digital "dropbox", and run a traditional threaded discussion board will tend to show great satisfaction in using a LMS.
The LMS also needs to be flexible enough to allow innovative teachers to customise it and add other applications to it, when needed. These teachers are typically already quite far in their own pedagogical change into a more student-centred, 21st-century approach, and then start finding suitable technological tools to support and enhance this change.

I look forward to more colleagues finding the courage and enthusiasm to experiment with some ICT tools, and getting interested in learning more. This would hopefully give them insights into what pedagogical changes this might entail in their old classroom practices. I don't think any singular platform will be perfect and ideal for all different users. We need to learn to live with the multitude of choices, as well as with the fast pace of change when it comes to digital tools. I've heard and read countless times that "good teaching is good teaching, whether you use technology or not". I tend to disagree. I would say IT IS to do with technology in that schools cannot keep pretending that we can carry on as before, oblivious to what is happening all around. If we idly wait for the final exam procedures to get digitalised before adopting technology in our classrooms, we will be failing several generations of young people, who will enter work markets ill-prepared for what is expected of them there. There is a lot of good in our country's largely de-centralised school system, with its wide teacher autonomy. One of its great obstacles, however, is the difficulty to accomplish any fundamental, large-scale change.