IATEFL 2012: Encouraging students to use online resources

Sandy Millin started her talk by plugging Twitter and other online communities for professional development! ūüôā

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(Sorry for lousy pic quality, Sandy!)

Here’s how the rest went…

Edmodo –¬†A closed-group means of communicating with students, continuing learning in and out of class. ¬†Works especially well in her current school with continuous enrolment – she sees a lot of her students, but Edmodo is a good back-up for homework, absent students, etc.

She did a survey involving 74 students from 16 different countries. ¬†Most were 20-29 years old, with B1+ level of English, and found the survey on Twitter or through teachers on Twitter – so the data are admittedly somewhat biased, but it was her first piece of action research, so… ūüôā

4 characteristics of students who did her survey:

1. They’re very motivated! They want to improve so they go out and find the means. ¬†Often this means technology.

2. They’re competitive! ¬†They want to be better than other students and their past selves.

3. They’re already connected. ¬†They have smart phones, tablets, etc. ¬†Technology is already a big part of their life – maybe we could harness this for English… hmm.

4. They know the sites where they can practise, either from their teachers or their own experience of stumbling on things.

This last point is important – how can we add usefully to their existing knowledge?

Students who did the survey were already using the internet to find things, to email friends, for work… but none of them mentioned English for studying! ¬†Occasionally they mentioned using it for social things (e.g. Facebook) but otherwise they didn’t appear to use English online. ¬†Maybe we could adapt/change this…

She also asked students if they actually wanted to use technology to help them improve their English. ¬†Most of them said yes. ¬†So what’s stopping them from doing it?

Some problems highlighted by the research:

1. Facebook!  It can be a good thing, but can be a distraction.

2. Students don’t want to create usernames. ¬†Maybe they don’t want to expose their Facebook profile, or don’t want to make private lives more public, or have “username fatigue” – they’re fed up of constantly creating new usernames!!

3. Students often want exam practice and think online tools won’t help them with this.

4. “I don’t like studying on my computer.” ¬†I already spend 8 hours a day on the computer at work – why should I do more for my English study?

5. “I need translations.” Some students might feel they need more support – many websites for English learning are only in English.

Some possible solutions (and tips for tech tools!) – corresponding to the problems listed above:

1. Quizlet – interesting enough (perhaps) to pull students (temporarily) away from Facebook! ¬†It’s an online flashcard tool with games, a spelling test mode, etc. ¬†For students who don’t actually like tech, they can print the words! ¬†So non-techy students still have access to the same vocab as the more tech-savvy ones. ¬†Technophobes aren’t left out by technophiles. ¬†They can also check their progress by tracking the records saved by the program (e.g. how many words they got right in one game versus the last time they played). ¬†More advantages: they can test themselves; it’s personalised; it’s competitive; it’s social (can be linked to Facebook!); it’s mobile (available online or as apps). ¬†See http://independentenglish.wordpress.com/quizlet for a step-by-step guide to using this tool. ¬†It’s aimed at students – so they can work through it easily.

2. Many websites don’t require log-ins –¬†Quizlet, Lyrics Training, etc. (though note: if they don’t log in, they can’t save and track their progress). ¬†Lyrics Training in particular is relevant to students – many students want to understand the music they listen to in English. ¬†This website makes listening to music a bit more study-like, rather than just blindly watching zillions of YouTube videos. ¬†English Central is another good website like this. ¬†You can watch videos with subtitles, check you’ve understood what you’ve heard, record yourself saying the same words as a new soundtrack, compare this with the original pronunciation, etc.

Aside (from my experience): it sometimes accepts very weird and wacky recordings as “correct”, and other times rejects perfectly acceptable pron (such as Sandy’s) because it’s not American! ¬†Hmm.

3. Some tools allow you to record yourself, play it back, analyse it, etc. e.g. Vocaroo. ¬†It’s therefore exam-style, it’s mobile (students can use the handheld devices they’re so attached to ordinarily), it’s great for self-reflection due to the nature of recording yourself, listening back, etc. ¬†Sandy notes that even if only one or two students try this at first (because it might be a bit scary!), it can encourage other students to do the same – the “me too!” effect.

4. Use tech tools in class.  Flo-joe is a good example for exam classes.  They publish word banks every week with useful vocab.  Sandy used this by starting every lesson (daily) with the words, writing out the words and meaning on the whiteboard and getting further examples of use from the students.  They built up their vocab notebooks bit by bit every day.  20 minutes a day really helped them to get the idea of what their exam tasks would involve.  (Multiple instances of the same lexis.)  Flo-joe also has many other weekly-published exercises, e.g. for writing.

There are also non-computer tech tools students can use, such as voice recorders on mobile devices (e.g. iPhone), podcasts (e.g. on MP3 players).  Teachers might just need to prompt them as to how to use these, where to find them, etc.  A lot of students already listen to MP3 players Рwhy not spend 20 mins a week listening to an English podcast?

5. We can point students to the tools they need to access other tools/resources. e.g. Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary. ¬†In this case, students can click and listen to pronunciation, see examples in context, see common collocations, different forms of the same word, usage notes, etc. ¬†If they don’t understand one of the words in a definition, they can double-click on it and the dictionary will automatically take them to a definition of this word. ¬†It’s a lot, lot richer than using a translator. ¬†Students translate. ¬†It’s not necessarily a bad thing. ¬†Forcing students to only use monolingual resources isn’t always best for them – it may demotivate them. ¬†If you want to encourage them to use this, they need to be pointed towards good resources. ¬†This might mean using them in class, raising learners’ awareness of the tools and getting them used to consulting them. ¬†(Note: the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary also has a FREE mobile app version – but I can’t find a link. ¬†Please comment below if you’ve got one!)

One other tip – don’t just share these tools with your students. ¬†Tell other teachers. ¬†Students may well have several teachers, and they can learn about great tech tools from various sources throughout their course.

BUT – don’t overdo it! ¬†Introduce a restricted a range of tools and do it slowly. One thing at a time, waiting for students to get comfortable with one tool before throwing the next one at them.

Also, once is never enough. ¬†You need to repeat things, reiterate them. ¬†That doesn’t mean showing students the same thing 20 times if the students didn’t seem interested at time #10. ¬†They’re probably just not that bothered. ¬†But equally, don’t just show them something once and never revisit it. ¬†They might need a bit of time to get familiar enough with it to like it and benefit from it.

My verdict Рgreat talk!  Clearly explained, well-justified tech suggestions, with plenty of examples and practical ideas.

Update: A better, more faithful version of Sandy’s talk is her own write-up here.

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

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