How to get the maximum from an online course


We have 5-week online teacher development courses starting April 13, although my own Technology for Language Learning course lasts a week longer.

I have fairly extensive experience as an online learner, as a tutor and as technical support and one of the questions that always seems to come up is how to copy and save everything that has been said on the forums.

While doing the spring cleaning, I've just come across my answer to that on the support forum on the previous edition of the technology course:

From experience as an online learner I'd suggest that:

  • Copying and pasting everything said on the forums is a waste of time. Inevitably, a lot of what gets said isn't going to be particularly valuable afterwards. By "valuable" I mean what you take away from the course — the things that you'll really use afterwards in your classes
  • What is worth doing is selecting and saving (only) the most interesting things somewhere (in a Word document, a Google Drive document or on a blog, which could be a private one). Sometimes they're only little things — ideas, questions, not whole messages or paragraphs; sometimes they're things the tutor has said, sometimes things your peers have said (and perhaps even things you said yourself 😉 !)
  • The important thing is that process of selection: not copying and pasting everything but copying and pasting and editing — because that's where you start to construct knowledge
  • Vital also is to participate fully on the forums: don't just lurk, participate! And don't expect the tutor to tell you everything: a good online course shouldn't just be a lecture, it should be a dialogue, an ongoing conversation
  • Apart from what is said on the forums, it's also a great idea to save the most interesting links somewhere (my personal favourite tool for that is Diigo)

To get the most out an online course you probably want to start doing all that from Day 1: do it during the course, not afterwards, when it will quite possibly have become a mammoth, impossible task.

The other thing I really recommend is writing a "learner diary" blog, which can be either totally private or else shared with classmates. I've never been convinced by them for language learners, but as learner diaries for language teachers they can be great.

Copy and paste the "important bits" there, and reflect on them. You don't need to write a lot!

How do you control what learners are up to?

Learners using mobiles

Learners using mobiles: or are they just WhatsApping their friends…?

Another question raised in the workshop I gave last Friday:

How do you control whether or not your learners are doing the task you set on their mobiles? How do you know they're not using them for something else the moment you turn your back?

It's probably an issue that arises more with young learners than it does with adults, but if you've ever used a computer room with teens you'll know that it's also a danger with desktops, not just with mobile phones.

My best advice would be this, which a teacher on a summer course with me once said when another teacher raised the same question:

If my students start going to Facebook instead of doing the task I've set them, I don't blame them; I blame myself — for not making my task interesting enough to them.

Set a really interesting, creative task, in other words, and the problem is less likely to arise. It's perhaps less a question of controlling than one of motivating.

To that, I'd add the following tips:

  • Set a strictly limited amount of time spent on phones/computers in class (a 5-minute alarm set on your phone, or with a browser countdown / the one on your IWB, works well, but remember to turn the volume up 😉 !
  • Set that time slightly under what you think they'll need
  • Always specify something else for your fast-finishers to get on with
  • Always do everything in pairs, with one computer/phone between each pair — there's more communication, more use of language (provided it's in English!), and less temptation, or possibility, of taking a sneak peek at Facebook

Any other ideas? Do add them in the comments…

Top tips for successful use of technology in classrooms

One I tweeted yesterday…

The link there is to a session I gave at the Macmillan Teachers' Day in Zaragoza in 2013 but I find myself repeating those ideas on a regular basis, when teachers ask "How do you make technology successful in a classroom?"

Well, that's my "recipe" — or rather my rules of hygiene, as I suggested then.

On Twitter As @Tom_IHBCN, I post one thing a day, max., always something I hope is of interest to language teachers.

See also Great Twitter feeds for images for your class

How do you correct work learners do with technology?

Correction or encouragement? Which would you rather have scrawled over your work?!

One of the issues teachers often raise on the technology courses I teach is how we should correct work learners have done on things like blogs (including comments they write there) and wikis.

These are things I do and this is the advice I would offer…

  • DO provide as much help as possible first, before the learners go online; that's sometimes easiest to do face-to-face in class, and what we particularly want to do is provide vocabulary, rather than "grammar". If you provide the language the task requires, you'll have far less to correct. "Correct" as much as possible before it ever gets posted, in other words.
  • DO have your learners work in pairs or small groups: that way it's collaborative and communicative and, if you have them post one thing per pair, rather than all posting individually, you reduce the amount you have to correct by 50% of more.
  • DON'T try to correct everything; it's impossible and maybe counter-productive (don't keep saying "Wrong!", "Wrong!", "Wrong!" when your learners are actually communicating something!).
  • DO draw attention to errors relating to things you are currently or have recently been doing in class.
  • DON'T correct things the learners could be correcting. Indicate the error but don't correct (for example) irregular verb forms.
  • NEVER correct blog comments, provided they're comprehensible (and if they're not, say "Do you mean…?", rather than "correcting" them). Correct posts, but not comments!
  • DON'T worry so much about "correcting" things — but let their errors influence what you re-teach, revise or otherwise draw attention to.
  • DO have the right attitude: your job as a teacher isn't primarily to correct what is wrong but to help your learners get things right, and to inspire them to do so. Provide help, encouragement and ideas, as well as language, and provide all of that before starting to tell them that they've got things wrong.

Drafts and finished products
I make an exception to the above for things we might consider a "finished product" or the "final version", where it is nice to see something that contains few if any errors.

Shared Google Docs are great for collaborating on draft versions and have great commenting tools (as well as real-time chat within the document that learners can use).

Alternatively, remember that you can draft and publish posts later on a blog, and that you can go back, edit ("correct") and repost what you've written.

Other things we should assess
There are other things we could also be assessing, rather than just marking right and wrong, such things as whether group members all did their fair share of the work, and whether or not they communicated with each other in English.

And, finally, do get your learners to help you "correct" (i.e. improve) your tasks: ask them what they think, ask them how the task could be improved (including how it could be made more enjoyable) and how you could do your job better.

For collecting feedback, Google Docs forms are a superb tool.

Related post
Ask your learners what they think

How to make learners authors on a shared class blog

Blogger: Adding authors, specifying readers | Click image to enlarge

Here are two things I can highly recommend: that you use as your blogging platform, and that you make all your learners authors on the same shared class blog.

How to make your learners authors
Being an "author" on a blog means that you can write new posts, not just write comments, and that's something learners should be doing: it's them, not you, that should be using the technology.

To make them authors, these are the easy steps:

  1. Have your learners set up Gmail accounts if they don't already have them
  2. Go to Settings > Basic ("A" in the image, above")
  3. Click "Add authors" (B) and write the Gmail addresses in the pop-up (C)
  4. Have your learners go to their Gmail accounts and "accept" the invitation

Now they are authors on the class blog, and can write new posts.

Greater privacy
For greater privacy (something you want, especially with young learners!), you can specify who can read your blog. Once everyone has become an author, you can specify that only the authors of your blog can read it: the rest of the world can't.

Related post
New Blogger videos added