How to get the maximum from an online course

E-learning

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!

You want comments, not likes

750 shares but only 2 comments

Nearly 750 "shares" and "likes", but only 2 comments…

Here's one that comes from a great blog I follow, Creative Bloq. It's not related to ELT, but the problem you can see them having above is one the vast majority of blogs have nowadays (including this one!): they're getting very few comments.

In language teaching, if you're using a class blog, or something else (an Edmodo group, or Facebook, or whatever), you want lots of comments, as well as the posts. Both should be produced by the learners as often as by the teacher and  you want the comments particularly (a) because it suggests the learners are finding the content interesting and (b) because comments provide meaningful opportunities for more interaction and use of the language.

To get such comments, you really have to add a "comments" stage to your task design, and require it of your learners. It's not enough just to "like"!

Apart from what you're doing with your classes, if you're reading blogs (etc.) for the purposes of professional development, you want to write comments. You want to do so because "liking" and then immediately forgetting and moving on to the next thing to "like" really isn't engaging the brain in any meaningful way whatsoever. Actually having to write some sort of response does, as does entering into dialogue. To develop as a teacher — or as anything else — you need to brain to be engaged. "Liking" isn't enough!

If you think you just don't have time to "comment", my advice would be to stop "following" so many people or use something organised like The Old Reader to follow blogs via RSS, rather than wasting your time "liking" stuff on Facebook (etc).

Rant over. Am I starting to sound like a grumpy old man…?

Pictures of graffiti for fun and language

Here's one I tweeted yesterday, which worked well in class, the picture being one Kim took of graffiti here in the Barrio Gótico in Barcelona.

There just happened to be a class of adults next door to Kim's teens and, the adults' teacher arriving late (!), Kim sent half of her teens next door to ask them what they thought the correct answer was and then report back, while the other half of Kim's class discussed it together.

Fun — and productive, too!

Here's another one, also spotted in the street, which also worked well (also with teens), who had to incorporate the phrases "sad eyes" and "warm hands" into a story:

Having no technology available — no computer in the room, no wifi and no smartphones (!!!) — they used pen and paper, and what's wrong with that?

Classroom presentations with Google Drive

Every day, I spend a few minutes skimming the headlines on sites like The Guardian and the BBC, Mashable and BuzzFeed, on the lookout for great material for class.

I'm looking for things like this, on topics I think will appeal to learners:

Sometimes I find articles for learners to read, sometimes it's great videos for class, but things like that Guardian article lend themselves to "brainstorming and presenting" activities.

Because it's a real-life task that faces lots of adults today — even if it's only an informal 30-second "presentation" to your boss, with not a PowerPoint slide in sight — having your learners make presentations to the class makes a great activity. If you make creating and giving the presentation collaborative — with learners creating and giving the presentation in pairs or small groups, in other words — it's also a great language learning task.

With the video game guide, above, I'd recommend not going anywhere near the article, at least initially, and having the learners (1) brainstorm the sort of questions it would cover (i.e. what games to begin with…); (2) agree on the content; (3) order it; (4) assign roles (including who is going to talk and who is going to create the digital presentation); and (5) have a first rehearsal of the presentation — and all of that in class, without necessarily going anywhere near a computer.

I like to suggest a choice of tools to learners (see below), rather than imposing one on them, but Google Drive presentations (now known as Google Slides) are so easy to share and collaborate on — not to mention the possibility of real-time chat inside the document.

Depending on the technology available, and the time, the actual creation of the presentation can be done outside classroom time — which will also depend on your learners' access to technology and their willingness to do homework ;-) !

Here's another "brainstorm and present" activity which I described at our ELT Conference last month:

See this previous post for full details.

Alternatives to Google Drive
Your learners could use PowerPoint — but they don't get the amazing sharing options; and they'll love Prezi, especially if they've never seen it before — but I think time tends to get wasted on the zooming about, when it should really have been spent on using language.

See also: Tips for class presentations given by learners

Help Get started with Google Slides | Video tutorials

Tips for great class presentations given by learners

I suggested the tips shown in the slide above in my workshop on February 20.

Given by learners in class to their peers, collaborative presentations make a great language learning activity, both for adults and young learners at just about any level that is B1 or above.

To expand slightly on the points listed above:

  • Your job is to provide as much help with language as possible; having your learners brainstorm and present, and spending lots of class time on the former and on rehearsal, rather than on picking PowerPoint animations, is the best way to ensure this
  • VITAL Keep the presentations short: I suggest 90 seconds to 3 minutes maximum, with a maximum of 3-5 slides. Otherwise, presentations drag on and everyone gets so bored with them
  • Stop anyone going beyond the time limit set: don't give them a second longer, stop them, thank them, but don't fail them for not finishing within the time limit
  • VITAL Have your learners rehearse in their groups — and devote class time to that, with the groups giving their presentations simultaneously, perhaps to another group rather than the whole class. Provide language help there. Perhaps best for use outside class, there are tools like present.me (which will require a webcam) and the Spreaker app (audio only) which are great for this and WhatsApp voicemails are great too. Such rehearsals don't necessarily need to be shared with you (or corrected by you!)
  • Encourage your learners not to read from a script. It's not necessary if the presentation is (a) short and (b) properly rehearsed — and this is a speaking, not a reading activity
  • No stolen images, nor even ones borrowed from creative commons. I suspect that very few teachers agree with me on this one, but if you want a truly creative classroom, you want your learners to create the artwork and/or produce the images. Think quick doodles and photos taken on mobile phones…
  • VITAL Presentations are best given in pairs or small groups, even if that means not everyone gets to speak. If you teach classes of 15 or 25 people, there's just no way you can do 15 to 25 individual presentations in class — and there's so much more language practice to be had in the pair/groupwork required
  • Give the audience (the rest of the class) a reason for listening to the presentation: the presenters themselves can build that in by including a question to be answered at the end; or you can have peer assessment, including commenting…)
  • Have a question-and-answer (Q+A) slot afterwards and, if anything, allow longer for that than the actual presentation itself
  • Help your learners to perform, by explaining how to give a good presentation; how to steady nerves; how to enjoy the experience; how to create a good PowerPoint presentation; what to avoid; or how to create a good Prezi, if that's the tool they are going to be using
  • VITAL Share and comment afterwards: to get the most language out of just about whatever learners are doing with technology, you want a "comments" stage. Google Drive presentations are brilliant for this, for the comments tools, for the ease of sharing, and ease of embedding elsewhere, on things like a class blog or wiki. An Edmodo group or a G+ Community are also excellent tools to enable "comments" or if you want something amazingly easy and with an app, try Tackk. Comments are also great for the teacher to get feedback on the tasks given.

See this post for further notes on what tools to pick: my preference is for the learners themselves to choose.

NOTE As I pointed out during the workshop, good presentations never cram a dozen bullet-points into the same slide as the image above does ;-) !