Introduction

This post focuses on the Sausage or Learner Management Systems (LMS) – or should it be Learner Socialisation Systems (LSS) – part of my ESL technology framework: Meat and Three Vege.

Technology in ESL is often sidelined on the one hand through inconsistent use across an institute, and on the other through the flooding of colleges with experimental products and web sites that distract rather than help.

My framework tries to address these problems through a back-to-basics approach – with real guidance from leaders – at a college wide-level.

Theory & Research

As in the past where animal connective tissue was boiled down to make glue, the meat (in three vege) is the adhesive that holds the other three parts together: Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), Low Demand Technology and Coaching.  If we look at language from an ecological perspective (putting language learning in a linguistic ecosystem), then how you use your LSS becomes essential. Thornbury explains a linguistic system below:

Just as organisms adapt to their environments, and in so doing shape their environments, so to do speakers use language both to integrate into, and to influence, their discourse communities. Through this reciprocal process of interaction and mutual adaptation, the linguistic system (both the individual’s and the community’s) evolves.

In the online world you have different ecosystems or discourse communities; these communities (Facebook, Edmodo, Blackboard…) provide affordances for language learning opportunities, and a place to work hands on with emerging language. But the question remains: How do you reduce the artificialness of LMSs and create a thriving, linguistic ecosystem or LSS?

Some clues, on how to achieve this, can be found in British Council’s efforts to create a successful online course. Cavey and McClaren shared the lessons they learned through various iterations of BC’s online forays. Their journey took them from multiple-choice questions to a whole suite of community building tools. The success came in these courses when they started to ‘humanise’ the process and focus on community building: synchronous Facebook (FB) language clinics, commenting, and Web 2.0 tools such as Vocaroo and Padlet.

Other successful attempts can be found in the burgeoning sector of online tutoring. I’ve been noticing a trend lately with online teachers who are trying to ‘humanise’ their online communities. For example, Speak English with Vannessa, has standard video lessons and learning materials, but these are supported by a community-driven FB page. She promotes social cohesiveness through the FB page each week by having a live question and answer session talking about the topic of the week; matching students up to conversation partners who then meet up on Skype; and once a month, one member will be chosen to talk with her on Skype and make a conversation video to be published on her FB page.

The community-building techniques exhibited by the two examples above agree with Brown’s (2001) observation that an important role of the teacher’ is to create a sense of community, which has been shown to correlate with student achievement.’

Your LSS also offers the opportunity to increase the amount of exposure your student has to their target language. In the chapters focusing on technology, from Pedagogy and Practice in Second Language Teaching, Levy (2012) states:  

Out-of-class work via informed technology use allows for an extension of class contact time into out-of-class time, and thereby provides extra time on task beyond what is possible in a limited number of classroom contact hours – especially in extra practice at macro-skills, and extra contact with appropriate material for exploring linguistic and cultural content.

While Reinders (2012 p.287), in his piece on blended instruction, adds that ‘blended and online instruction offer potential for a greater focus on the learner, and a change in the role of the teacher to one of a facilitator of learning both inside and outside the classroom.’ Cavey saw his role follow that exact path where after the third iteration of BC's online course, they considered themselves not as teachers, but rather facilitators – curating, connecting, encouraging and inspiring learners.

In my own research ‘Formative Assessment in a Web 2.0 environment: Impact on motivation and outcomes’ (Herlihy & Pottage 2013), we investigated the use of a Web 2.0 tool as a means of formative speaking assessment. The particular tool we chose was, VoiceThread, an online space where students can listen to audio and video posts and respond via voice or text.

Through this research we found that additional comprehensible input was supplied through VoiceThread as students listened to teachers and peers. Output was also increased as students needed to record their voices, often multiple times, and then were challenged to upgrade their responses through feedback via VoiceThread. Furthermore, students could interact with each other through this platform which motivated them to use it and improve their spoken language.

Putting the ‘de’ back into fragmentation

In class recently, a student told me ‘You defragment my English.’ It took me a while to get my head around what he meant by this; and then I had to double check the dictionary just to make sure – which means by the way, to carry out an operation on a computer that puts all the files together and all the free space together, so that the computer operates faster (Macmillan Dictionary Online).

When I thought about it more, the student in question made a pretty good analogy: teaching is a form of defragmentation, helping them make connections and automatize processes in English – though this is sounding more cognitive than ecological! Maybe Robinson Crusoe running through a tropical environment, looking for affordance, with an I-Pad attached to his head.

Also, LMSs often need to be de-fragged before you can get the most out of them. Under a lot of different teaching contexts LMSs are the dead body left between the walls when you start at a new school:  at one stage there was a champion for the LMS, with a vision, but that person left– or got put into the foundations – and the whole project fragmented without their drive. The LMS is then used sporadically between classes and levels with no real buy-in from students, teachers or management. At the water cooler, you might hear a few whispers about the entombed teacher – remember Gary he was really good with tech; whatever happened to him anyway? HE’S IN THE WALL!!!

For Levy (2012 p.283) one key issue emerges in relation to technology: integrating the elements into an effective, fully functioning whole, including assessment. So, the first step in healing is to find an old horse (your fragmented LMS), boil it down to glue (decide on new LSS or revamp the old one), and start sticking your technology framework back together again (defragmentation).

Deciding on your platform is an important decision. You need something that will help you create a thriving, linguistic system without selling your students’ data down the river.  Meat and Three Vege’s final part will look at Poisoned TEFLon and Wasabi-Infused Ice-cream which will help you in making these decisions.

The usual suspects – or the ones I’m aware of – include Facebook groups, Edmodo and Blackboard; for younger kids you have Classdojo and Classcraft. Once you make an educated decision on your LSS – which might or might not be constrained by your working context – it’s time to put the guiding principles of an ecological linguistic system to the test.

So, let’s revisit each aspect of the Meat & Three Vege framework and see how these different parts might fit into a LSS (FB hypothetically speaking):

  1. Coaching (Potatoes): is about setting goals, motivating students and encouraging practice out of the class. Your LSS is the perfect place to do this and help your students move closer to massive exposure in their target language. Students can post up their goals on the LSS (students can help support each other in reaching their goals); make video responses to tasks done in class via tools like Voicethread or  Flipgrid and give feedback on speaking; pair students up to meet online, and post up a transcript of their discussion and other students or teacher provide feedback on the transcription; have a live Facebook feed; hold polls to decide on the topic or focus of the LSS. The options are endless……. but always keep it social. 
  2. Low Demand Technology (Carrots): Help teachers work hands on with emergent language in the classroom and demand high from their students. At home students can be encouraged to use the same tools the teachers uses in classes such as the online dictionary, phonemic chart, listening tool, and corpus. Tasks that require these tools to be used will have a positive washback on self-study, and maximise the value those tools are having in the classroom. For example, students follow-up a listening activity from class and practice decoding skills, pronunciation, and language analysis with tools from the low-demand tool box in the LSS.
  3. Personal Learning Network (Peas): Students can share resources and ideas through the LSS (useful pages to follow and websites for practice). Teachers can build on these links, and have their own teaching-centred PLN through the same platform.

If you see language as a complex system – dynamic and non-linear, adaptive and feedback sensitive, self-organising, and emergent – then materials based in a LSS should:

1) provide exemplars and make them salient

2) push the learner towards a tipping point by encouraging risk-taking in secure conditions

3) increase the volume of exposure and practice opportunities

(Thornbury 2011; 2001)

This is supported by McCarthy (2011 63) who claims that in order to support students’ aspirations, blended learning technology needs to provide ‘good feedback, interesting stimuli and individual attention.’

Have a look at my lesson plan to see how this might all play out in an LSS using the principles we’ve discussed above. The format is based on a template presented in Thornbury’s (2005) text on discourse analysis. I’ve tried to adapt these ideas and put them into the context of a LSS.

Currently, at my school I’ve set up a FB group to trial the ideas above – this will also be a test run for an online course I will be releasing in 2017. The page is an attempt to link my one-to-one students up who were missing the interaction found in group classes. I’ll give some updates over the coming year, and look below for steps on how to get an LSS up and running at your school.

Management Steps

  • Defragmentation
  • Decide on LSS
  • Community
  • Syllabus Integration
  • Full Investment
  • Teacher Training

References

Brown, R (2001) The process of community-building in distance learning classes, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5:18-35 

Cavey, C & McLaren N (2016) Beyond the numbers: building the massive online community, IATEFL, Available online: http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2016/session/forum-moocs

Herlihy, D & Pottage, Z (2013) Formative assessment in a Web 2.0 environment: Impact on motivation and outcomes, Cambridge English: Reasearch Notes, 53: 9-17. Available online: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/images/142798-research-notes-53-document...

Levy, M (2014) Technology in the Classroom, The Cambridge Guide to Pedagogy and Practice in Second Language Learning, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

McCarthy, M (2011) Ten questions for Michael McCarthy, English Australia Journal 27 (2), 62–64

Reinders, H (2014) Onilne and Blended Instruction, The Cambridge Guide to Pedagogy and Practice in Second Language Learning, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

Thornbury, S (2001) Uncovering Grammar, Macmillan Education: Oxford

Thornbury, S (2005) Beyond the Sentence: Introducing Discourse Analysis, Macmillan Education: Oxford

Thornbury, S (2010) E is for Ecology, An A-Z of ELT, Available online: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/02/14/e-is-for-ecology/

Thornbuy, S (2011) F is for Focus on Form, An A-Z of ELT, Available online: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/f-is-for-focus-on-form/

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