Monday, 8 December 2014

Videos in EFL classes

I have been using various videos in EFL lessons for years. Not only are they great sources of current news and information, and captivating visual input to bring any topic alive for the students, but, of course, they also offer great opportunities for engaging students in language practise. For example, I make use of them to introduce a new theme in our textbook, or give students a novel point view of a topic, after studying a particular unit first. Sometimes it's just watching it in class, and then having a short discussion or highlighting certain vocabulary. Other times, I prepare questions, writing or group discussion prompts based on the contents of the videos. In short, there are dozens of ways of creatively using videos to help students learn English!

Recently, anticipating the new digital national final exams in Finnish high schools to start in only two years, I've been hunting for tools to digitalise some of these exercises, even to use them in my course exams. With no funding from my school for any tools, and not wanting to invest any of my own money in this, finding totally free tools has not been easy. Nevertheless, here are a few I have come across.


I was really happy to find this website a few weeks ago, and initially thought all my problems were solved at once. eduCanon seemed to have all the features I could have dreamed of in one neat package. You can crop the videos, and there seemed to be a good selection of different question formats you could use, not to mention facilities to track each individual student's progress and differentiating tasks based on students ability. Unfortunately, was too good to be true, as so often. Eagerly preparing my first video task, and wanting to use the various question formats, I realised, to my great disappointment, that only multiple choice was available in the free version. Too bad, it's good-bye to eduCanon for me.


With EDpuzzle, another free tool, I managed to make a video exercise in no time at all. It was quite nice to be able to add my little voice messages here and there, and in addition to multiple choice questions, I could also choose open-ended questions and answers. Cropping the video worked fine, and all in all, seems a good alternative. Yet, I started thinking whether, for my purposes, having the check-up questions interrupting the video at particular points chosen by the teacher was the best option, after all. Also, wouldn't it still be better for the students to see the questions or tasks first, to then focus their attention better during the listening? Hmm, I wonder.

3. Google forms 
We are currently using GAFE at school, so I went back to the free apps provided by my employer. A new feature in Google forms now allows teachers to add videos, too. Here students can be guided to watch the whole video first, to get the "big picture" so to speak, and enjoy the pictures, too. Only then should they check the exercises and watch and listen again for the detailed linguistic input.

Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 9.07.56 PM

Another advantage, for me, of using GAFE is that students already have their IDs and accounts through school, and no extra sign ups and sign ins are needed. That would have been a bother with the two previous options. The less hassle with teenagers, the better, I have realised.

The disadvantage with Google forms, is that it doesn't really embed the video but opens it in YouTube, in a new window, which will lead to switching screens and slightly irritating clicking. So, hey Google, why not fix this - or is it maybe a question of copyright?


You might think what the big thing about preparing digital video tasks for language classes is. Surely, you could just show the video via the projector for the whole class, and give students worksheets with the questions. Sure, you could do that, and how much easier it would be. But such a passive exercise! Many students wouldn't even bother to make a proper effort. What's more, their levels are so wide apart that a message that one student could easily work out with only one listening, would take another several attempts to understand. The pace in a teacher-centred approach would never be right for anyone in the end.

This is why, I much prefer a more personalised lesson, with several videos on offer, and students proceeding at their own pace, alone or possibly working it out in pairs. I like to encourage team work in my lessons even if many of my students are not very good at it. Some find it extremely hard to discuss the answers with another student to enhance both of their learning outcomes. This is possibly due to the still prevalent individual student assessment, which pushes them to do everything on their own. It's a real pity!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

To limit, or not to limit technology use in the classroom?


I used to be very pro-technology, and tried to incorporate up-to-date digital content into my English lessons. But, to my horror, more and more often I find myself wanting to follow media guru Clay Shirky's surprising decision to ask students to put their technology away in class.

First off, from my own experience, I have realised that multi-tasking really is a myth. If your job is to truly learn something, or accomplish a task, you will need to focus! Gadgets on the desk  are too tempting, and greatly distract students from focusing on the tasks at hand. Secondly, when we are trying to learn a foreign language, where communication and social interaction plays a huge role, why should we practise this with screen barriers between us while we are in the classroom together? Surely, it's more productive to talk face-to-face, maintaining eye contact and focused presence. And thirdly, students get enough "tech time" outside the classroom, so it's not healthy for them to spend their whole school days as well, glued to the screen. Having said this, I believe extending lessons with relevant online work for homework is often a good idea.


But, as always, there's the other side of the coin. Today's teens find it harder and harder to tolerate old-school "hard work" learning. They need ever-changing activities and flickering screens to get involved. This is where technology comes to our rescue. Pacing a 75-minute lesson with some online activities provides a welcome change in the working rhythm. A case in point is the recent hype about Kahoot, and no doubt it does instantly hypnotise a whole classroom into short snacky-type activities. Here is what I blogged about this energising effect of Kahoot in more detail earlier. Yet, you can only use it so much with any one group. The "seen it, done that" syndrome soon hits in, and we teachers are left hunting for the next temporary online remedy.

Maybe this is the future of education - teachers' job consisting more and more of curating different applications to keep their students on task? Unfortunately, for the time being, we are still missing attractive and engaging enough game-based programmes and applications, to facilitate, for example, individually adaptive grammar learning. Consequently, many teachers already burn out under this pressure, spending all their time fishing the net for the next great app. We should get language teachers and cutting-edge professional game designers together to develop these!  I do believe that we teachers are also entitled to a life outside school, irrespective of whether we see our job as a vocation or just a job.
There must be a golden half-way measure in all this frenzy until pedagogically sound and user-friendly online learning applications are widely available. At the moment, I balance my lessons with a hybrid approach - tasks where all gadgets are put safely out of sight and reach, and others where laptops, tablets and sometimes even smartphones are in active use.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Can an old dog learn new tricks?

Our friends' old boy would definitely opt for taking it easy!

When I was doing my teacher training (eons ago!), we used to have to write to-the-second lesson plans, in which we even had to anticipate possible students answers to our questions, and then write down reaction and intervention alternatives to them. Back in those days - in the last century - school seemed so much simpler than today. Every classroom had the neat, straight rows of desks, the teacher's word was the law (or close to it anyway), and mostly, the students didn't question this reality.

It's a different ballgame now. My 16-19-year-old students get restless after about 10-15 minutes if they need to focus on one learning task that long. They can't part with their smartphones, which sit on their desks, within easy reach - and they DO reach for them, the moment there is even a momentary lull in the lesson. For many of them, the phones, or alternatively tablets or laptops have become almost an extension of their bodies, and they feel rather lost if a nasty teacher asks them to put them out of sight for a while.

So, the question is, what should be done to avoid the inevitable friction between today's students and teachers trained in the 20th century? We had a mandatory in-service training day last Saturday, with a keynote speaker from Helsinki University, Professor of Educational Psychology, Ms Kirsti Lonka.

The title of the talk was 'Plunges into tomorrow's learning', where instead of ready-made, clear, structured answers and guidelines, Professor Lonka threw us possible ideas and scenarios what that future learning at schools might look like. Surely, it's up to all of us teachers to start redefining our role and renewing our classroom practices, or our students' spark for learning will soon be totally lost, and they will just waste their school days, mindlessly entertaining themselves on their gadgets. One thought that stuck with me was that although there is no doubt that teachers will still be very much needed in the future, they won't be needed to deliver information any more. If you define your role as a a teacher in 20th-century terms, aren't you perpetuating an old-world paradigm that will possibly fails to reach the kids of the digital age?

Serendipitously, today I came across Scott McLeod's blog where he says the following:
You want student learning to change but you don't want to change teaching or schooling. Good luck with that.
Good luck indeed! I am quite concerned about the apparent lack of many students' motivation for school work, so what could I, as the facilitator of student learning, do to help them? Traditional school practices are still the norm, and most of us will probably stay firmly put in our comfort zones, fully believing that that's for the benefit of student learning. What baffles me, though, is how long educators have been wondering about these issues, with the same problems and questions cropping up again and again, and still not much changes, other than maybe in individual schools or the classrooms of individual teachers!

One step forward would be to drastically change the arrangement and design of learning spaces. Here's a time-lapse video of an experimental, flexible and adaptable learning space at Helsinki University. A far cry from the desk rows in the old school, don't you think?

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Energizing the classroom

With Finnish high school students, too often the problem arises that the atmosphere in a classroom drops into apathetic lethargy, especially in morning or late afternoon lessons during the dark winter months. For a teacher, it's frustrating trying to activate such groups of dozing off teens. Asking questions, and ending up answering them yourself, or seeing some students totally preoccupied with their smartphone messages, or Facebook updates on their tablet,s is tantamount to soul-destroying. I know, look in the mirror! Give some serious thought to your last century methods!

Luckily, there are now some easily accessible and adaptable online tools to wake your students up from  such stupor. The latest one I've tried is called Kahoot.

It is defined as a "game-based blended learning & classroom response system". With Kahoot, a teacher can create quizzes, discussions or surveys, with multiple choice answers. You can even add pictures to your questions, and Kahoot is working on facilitating adding videos, too. The teacher also sets the time needed to answer each questions, e.g. 20 or 30 seconds. A completed quiz or survey is then projected onto the classroom screen, students sign in on their smartphones, tablets or laptops, using a key number given by their teacher and a nickname, and the game can start.

The teacher is in charge of moving on from question to question, students read the question and the alternative answers on the screen and click the answer on their touch screens. The programme even provides suspense-creating background music while the students are choosing their answers. Once the given time is up or once everybody has given an answer, the programme automatically shows the score - i.e. how many answers for each alternative. This is a good time for further explanations and clarifications if the teacher realises that many students didn't get the right answer. After this, an important part follows: the nicknames of the top 5 fastest students are revealed! Initially, I was a bit doubtful whether 16-19-year-olds would find this type of activity rather childish but the few times I've tried it so far, I have been positively surprised. The competitive urge seems to be very strong, especially among boys, I've noticed!

At the end of each game, the overall winner is revealed on the screen. What I find very good, is that nobody will have to feel afraid of failure as it's only the top 5 who get mentioned each time. Nobody knows how the rest did, or who scored the lowest.

What have I used Kahoot for then? I prepared one grammar quiz to check if the students had learned how to use the English genitive correctly. It went very well. The students seemed enthusiastic. Everybody was involved. And you should have seen the excited, smiling faces all round the classroom! The shift of energy levels was remarkable. I was also pleased with the chance to get instant feedback of what they had learned and what still needed to be re-explained. This group were 1st-graders in a Finnish high school, i.e. 16-year-olds.

Today I experimented with our seniors (18-19-year-olds). I was a little bit concerned that they would find it a waste of time, but quite the contrary. I was introducing a text dealing with BBC documentaries on indigenous tribes around the world, which we will study in our course book. We talked about indigenous peoples in general at first, and the students then watched a YouTube video from this BBC series, depicting the very tribe in Ethiopia that they would read about in their book. I asked them to listen carefully to all the information given about the tribe, and also watch carefully for all sorts of interesting details as they would be quizzed about their observational skills afterwards.

After the video viewing (some 9 minutes), I asked each pair of students to switch on either a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop. This year, our school has adopted the BYOD system and we have a well-functioning wi-fi system all through the school, so no problem here. The group were a little bit mystified at first as smartphones are not often used in class. They soon got into it, though and we played this Kahoot quiz, which just asked simple little trivia questions based on the video.

The language content of this activity wasn't very impressive but I feel it did the trick of introducing the topic in a fun and certainly engaging way. It happened to be the last lesson in the afternoon, and the whole group got wide awake and took part eagerly. Also these older boys showed their competitive spirit!

I am definitely going to use Kahoot in the future, too. The programme also includes a simple thumbs up / thumbs down evaluation feature at the end of each game, and so far the students' feedback has been very positive. What's more, for busy teachers there are thousands of public quizzes prepared by others available for anyone to use, so it's worth browsing whether something might suit your lessons. 

Luckily, in our school system, we get to teach totally different groups 5 times a year, so I don't think this will get boring very soon!