Tuesday, 21 May 2013

ESOL and Digital Literacy in my college

I've been 'attending', if that's the right word, the Virtual Round Table Web Conference this weekend, although I couldn't participate as, such as I would have liked due to other commitments. If you haven't heard of it before, it's an annual conference on language learning and online technology, and how we can integrate the wonderful world of IT ever more deeply into the teaching and learning process. There were some excellent presentations and debates, but if you wanted to start off anywhere, I think I'd have to recommend Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockley's presentation on Digital Literacies, an area which is has far wider implications for education than just language learning.
Anyway, it got me thinking about how we use digital literacy and e-learning with our ESOL students, and where we'd like to take it in the future. I thought I'd give a snapshot of the situation in my workplace and what we've experienced/discovered.
We currently use Moodle as our VLE. in previous years, we had Blackboard, then migrated to Moodle a couple of year back. Unfortunately, it was a rather dodgy iteration of the software, and really quite glitchy - things wouldn't save, uploading materials took ages, and there was little attempt at encouraging learners to use it. Where it was used, it was frequently as a repository for word, excel and pdf documents - in other words, as nothing ore than a glorified filing cabinet gathering digital dust. Teachers didn't trust it, didn't understand it, and didn't use it. Combined with a server that was temperamental and a college wireless network that would throw hissy fits at unexpected intervals, and you can understand why it was all a bit unloved.
However, in summer 2012 we installed the latest iteration of Moodle, and I set about experimenting and installing course areas for ESOL. Rather than set up a separate course for each class, I decided to keep it relatively simple, and establish a learning area for each level, e.g. ESOL E1, E2 etc. This meant that the learners (and the teachers) could share materials quite easily and I felt it might foster greater group interaction.  We also had a regular 45-minute IT room slot in the teaching schedule for each group, along with an easier way to access Moodle from home, plus an increase in the number of available PCs around the college.
Here are some of the key things that we have found from this setup:

  • Probably the single most successful thing on Moodle is the use of forums and chats. Our Entry One  learners, for example, are producing work not only more prolifically, but more accurately. Learners' written output has increased by at least 100%, and they are happy to access the VLE from home. The use of fora does vary from class to class, but in many ways this is dependent on the teacher's attitude towards using it.
  •  The clearer the layout, the more likely the students are to use it. Just like a good coursebook, design is vital to engaging the learners' interest. I've been experimenting with various styles and layouts throughout the year, and the most useful way of getting higher usage rates is by using photos/pictures with hyperlinks to other areas and exercises. It also makes Moodle much easier to use if you're accessing it via tablets/mobiles.
  • Some teachers are still frightened that they are going to break the whole Internet by doing something wrong on Moodle. I'm helping to work on that one. Students pick up on teachers' attitudes, and we really have to ensure that the instructors are digitally literate.
  • students do want to engage with IT, but sometimes they lack either the equipment, the time, or the knowhow (and sometimes all three) to use it. having the 45-minute slot may seem minimal, but it acts as a vital gateway for our less digitally-literate learners - and some of the teachers, too.
  • as learners increase their language knowledge, they engage more with digital literacy. It's striking how the higher the class level, the more likely that students use their mobiles to support learning, for example. This is actually a bit odd - why should your language ability have any impact on how you use  IT?
  • students are very wary of creating non-written output, e.g. voice recordings or video. To be honest, this may be because the teachers themselves are wary, or worried that they may have to spend inordinate amounts of time helping the learners upload stuff. Something I hope to tackle in the future.
well, that's a few things I've noticed here. As to the future, I'm aiming to create much more of a blended learning experience using Moodle across the board, plus some specialised near-autonomous learning modules in Academic English, and, specifically for ESOL, a Citizenship course. The question remains about how to fully engage both instructors and learners into using IT more efficiently.

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