Thursday, 1 May 2014

iFad: The Tyranny of Technology (Pt. 1)

“Iʼm beginning to realize that just putting students on WWW (internet) isnʼt enough. They need focused tasks to help them best utilise the web. Thus, teachers must create interactive activities which involve
WWW.” (Frizler, 1995)

Throughout the course of education, various methodologies and novelties have quickly come and gone. Though, at present, technology is a trend which is here and is showing no signs of abating. This post is not really an attack on technology inasmuch as it is a rethink on the whole thing. I am a teacher/researcher and I have read and analysed a number of journals on eLearning / Blended learning which do not really say conclusively that this huge shift to technology is a good thing. But there is something which seems to be left out or forgotten about in this iFad that we are are going through. 

It looks pretty - let's use it!
At first, I was a huge proponent for the use of technology in the classroom and I made every effort to build it into my lessons. Nevertheless, the more I integrated it into the class, the more I started to realise that things were not quite as they seemed. 

My suspicions of technology started when I investigated the effectiveness of a website that promoted the notion that they could help to improve pronunciation. Now, as a teacher I thought this was a breakthrough in learning and I couldn't wait to test it out. I set up an experiment and tracked the progress of a friend over the course of two months. During this time, I investigated the website more, where I eventually found out something that changed my view on technology. 

The website involved a person listening to a video - usually YouTube - then repeating what was said. This would then be recorded and compared to the original - awesome, right? - or so I thought. My friend - who was using the site - noted that, even though he repeated exactly what was being said, the feedback noted that it was not accurate. So, I looked into the site further and what I found really caused me to rethink technology. 

It turned out that if you were repeating what was spoken by Obama, Justin Bieber or the Queen, you voice was being compared to a single model. This means that whoever you were trying to sound like was irrelevant, as you would never be compared to them. It was at this point I thought about how many other tech-tools were also reporting unsubstantiated claims. 

Soon after this, I started researching the issue more and found a few journals on eLearning that stated that many of the eLearning tools - that are and have been developed - have not followed or used any kind of pedagogical framework. There are now a lot of tools available for teachers, however, who created them and why? Did a teacher do it? Is it a company? The next question to ask is, what purpose does it serve? 

Out with the old and in with the... old.
The website in question could have been created by someone with limited or no experience with phonology. The website looked at single sounds only, and paid no attention to the rhythm of language. Secondly, what is being achieved by the tool? If I ask my students to use a grammar game that is basically a multiple choice question (MCQ) test, what is being achieved by this? MCQs are a 100 years old this year, so what is exactly modern or groundbreaking about these tech tools. Furthermore, why are many schools investing heavily in tech tools that just ask students to choose between A, B, or C? Finally, the website in question asked a participant to listen and repeat, does that sound familiar to anyone?

The point is that many of these so-called new tech tools are packaging 19th century teaching patterns in a pretty little website with colourful pictures and graphics and calling it eLearning, or blended learning. Many of use would frown at a listen and repeat approach these days, but when it's online or in a app it seems to be perfectly acceptable. I hear 'student-centred learning' thrown around a lot, but student-centred learning it is not - that's another post. 

Isn't technology supposed to do more than this?
The point I'm trying to make with this post is that technology is not the panacea that will come to create better classrooms, or smarter students. I think we are missing the point with technology. It doesn't matter if you put an iPad in every stunt's hands, and a 100 inch touch screen TV on every wall, because, at the end of the day, people don't learn from technology - they learn from people. A class of students can be invigorated with a piece of paper just as easily with an iPad: the only thing you need is a good teacher.

Technology is a tool, plain and simple and it will continue to be that as long as we programme it to teach like it's the 19th century. Information transfer, memorisation, MCQs are all common themes that are found in apps and websites. So, how are we going to change this? We do it with you, the teacher. 

"A great teacher with a piece of paper is infinitely more powerful that a moderate teacher will all the apps, laptops and iPads in the world." 

For one week, consider throwing away all the apps, laptops and websites and go into the classroom with a new frame of mind: post-tech. Tech is a tool and I'll say that again - tech is a tool. It does not make the classroom more fun or engaging, YOU the teacher do that. I guarantee that with a good task or project in hand, your kids will have an awesome time and not even think about the fact there is no tech, because... people learn from people. 

I titled this post 'iFad: the tyranny of technology' on purpose, as I wanted it to be divisive. I wanted to draw the attention back to the teachers and the importance of their role. In recent years tech has been the buzzword for ministries of education, and governments. They say that we have to spend exuberant amounts of money on putting computers in the classroom, and pay astronomical fees to licence software from companies with little to no experience with classrooms. 

Tech will not simply go away and nor should it. We do, though, need to realise that it is a tool, just like a piece of paper. And, just as paper hasn't significantly altered the way we learn, nor will a computer, app, or website.

Tech has been heralded as an important aspect to learning and I have seen many people - including myself - jumping on the band wagon to try and integrate it into the classroom. However, as I enter my post-tech stage, I'm seeing that technology is not what makes a good class: the most important thing is how you teach it. In sum, I will continue to use tech, but I will use it for the purpose it was intended for and that is to support learning and not for learning. Because, at the end of the day, the only thing that is going to get our kids engaged, motivated and excited about learning is me, the teacher. 

Thanks for reading.

I would welcome any comments or thoughts to further the conversation.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Creating Tasks With Real World Outcomes

Enhancing Learner motivation and engagement through real world tasks. 

Real World
Recently, I have become really interested in getting students excited about learning and studying. I've done all the eLearning tricks, which I do agree, help learners to be motivated and engaged in study. That said, I still felt that there is something missing from the whole learning experience.

So, I remembered my days in college and university. I studied media in college and then theatre in university. Both courses were incredibly hands on, and required the students to produce a show, which would be seen by the public. Having that real world outcome really motivated all of us to give it our best. We'd start at 8am, go home at 10pm, Monday to Saturday. I was completely immersed in the project with my main thought being that an audience would see the product we would eventually produce.

I have carried out a bunch of projects in my classes, but only recently did I start giving them a real world outcome. The main one would be the refugee book project (Click here), and film festival (Click here). I really saw a change in the students' behavior and attitude towards learning and completing a shared goal. The students were more motivated and engaged in the project, they stayed after class, held meetings, and did way more than I could have ever expected.

Projects which have a real world outcome can really bring out the best in our students as it isn't simply for a grade, but has a meaningful outcome. I'm now trying to build as many real world projects into my class as possible. Some of these include:

- T-shirt design: The students design a t-shirt for the school and the winner will actually be made.

- Promotion Video: We'd like to promote our course overseas, so the students will create a promo video for our centre.

- Researchers: As with the refugee book project, the students will be part of many other research projects and become assistants. 

- Content creators: It takes a long time to make new content, so I am planning to get my students to be part of the process and become content developers. 

These are just some of the ideas, which I think could work, and be set up relatively easily. I was wondering if any other teachers out there have created any projects with real world outcomes. If you have please share your experiences.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Write Advice: More About Commas

Here is another post which is closely linked to the previous one on comma splices and run-on sentences - Click here.

This next worksheet covers commas in more detail. It looks at 8 areas in total such as:

- using commas to separate a list of ideas.
- using commas to separate day month a year.
- placing a comma before a conjunction (but, or, so)
- Separating an dependent and independent clause
and much more. 

In the last section of the worksheet, I try to link commas with spoken speech. Pausing, or spoken commas, can help an English learner become more comprehensible to a listener.

I hope you find the information useful. Feel free to use and adapt it, and if you have any feedback, let me know.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Write Advice: Comma Splice & Run on Sentences Work Sheets

I hope that you'll find the work sheet below useful. Writing is a very important skill for our learners as this is usually how teachers assess if they have understood what they have learned. 

Whether our learners are writing Facebook posts, text messages, essays or examinations, it is important for them to be able to explain their ideas clearly, so the reader is able to understand them.

Below is a work sheet on Comma Splices and Run on Sentences. Feel free to download it, adapt it and use it in your classrooms. 

I'll be uploading more worksheets on cohesive devices, fragmented sentences, parallel structures and creating cohesion in writing very soon.  

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Refugee Book Project

I love doing projects with my students. I really see how engaged and invested they are when they have something they can get their teeth into. That said, no matter how hard I tried, it always seemed to be an anti climax at the end and for some of the students it felt like they were doing because they had to.

This was the fun part! I gathered all the students from two classes, there were 28 in total. I told them that this term would be very special, because we had a very important project to work on. "We would publish a book," I told them. I had their attention. "And, your names will be in the book." iPhones were put down and all eyes were on me - got them! 
I wanted the students to do the project, not because I told them to, or because they would get a grade, but because they were fully invested in it. It took me a while to come up with a project that would achieve that aim, but I eventually did.

In a passing conversation with a co-worker, we talked about projects we were both working on. I had just finished a book project, where my students created a book for refugee and orphan kids, and he was volunteering at a school for refugee kids and kids who come from low income families. As we discussed the projects more and my need for my students to have something more tangible to work on, we decided to combine resources. 

We eventually came up with a project, which I believed would get my students engaged and motivated. We planned to collect stories from refugee children and then publish them into a book. Copies of the book would be given to the school to help expand their library and any money made from sales would go back to the school. Also, my students would be acknowledged as researchers or collaborators, meaning their names would be in the book.

The project had a number of stages to it, so I'll explain them a little below.

Stage 1 - Competition 

To get the stories for the book, we asked the teachers in the refugee school to run a competition. Their students would record and give the teachers' their stories. Then, my team plus the teachers would choose the winners, which would be published in the book.

To my surprise and joy, after 2 weeks we had over 30 stories. I must give all the credit to the teachers at the refugee school. Working with them meant we got really authentic stories as the kids there trusted them with what they had to say. 

Stage 2 - Briefing 

I proceeded to tell them the plan. We would go to a school which educates refugee kids. You will take a tour of the school and meet all the students from 3 years old to 19. Next, the students at the school will take you for lunch. After lunch you will become assistant teachers, where you will teach a reading class to them. At this point I knew I had their attention and saw the excitement and dread on some of their faces. 

After teaching reading you will meet 15 students who will tell you their story. You will need to record this, then ask some follow up questions. After that, you will need to transcribe the whole thing and do some research on the country where they come from, plus the refugee situation. All this information will be stored on a Wiki. 

Stage 3 - Preparation 

We did a number of activities before the school visit in order to expose our students to the refugee cause. Many of them, to my surprise, didn't even know where Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Myanmar were. They were also under the impression that refugees were only found in some war torn countries. We proceeded to help them understand that refugees can be found everywhere. We prepared reading, speaking, writing, and small projects to help students to get an understanding before going to the school.

Stage 4 - School visit

For the students and I, this was the fun part and the part we had all been working so hard for. From the very start of the project, I told the students to document what they would do by taking pictures and video. Needless to say, on the big day everyone was camera ready. 

Firstly, the students sat through a short presentation about the school and the truly amazing work that they do there. With only 30 teachers they educate and care for over 800 students. Then, the students toured the school and were able to meet many of the students who go there. 

Teaching reading
Admittedly, I was a little worried about this part. I mean, the students were well prepared. They went online to find reading material and activities to use. That said, as any teacher out there will know, nothing ever goes to plan. I held my breath and wished everyone good luck as they went in groups to various classrooms. After 30 mins, I decided to check up on all my students. 

I arrived at the first classroom with images of kids running around screaming and my students shocked not knowing what to do. Much to my relief, there was no need for my concern. In the first class I saw my students teaching reading. They were 100% focused on the task and had the students hanging on their every word. To say I was proud would be an understatement. But, was that a one off I thought. I visited the other classrooms and found all my students doing an equally amazing job. 

After teaching reading, my students were ushered to a room, where they would interview the story winners. I felt more confident now that my students would do a great job, and they did exactly that. I saw all my students mesmerised and completely engrossed by the story they were listening to. 

They asked great follow up questions in the Q&A afterwards and recorded it all on their smartphones - job done!

Stage 5 - The work begins
With a nights rest it was time for my students to really get to work. I set up a Wiki and created pages for each story. On the page, the students would upload the recorded story, interview and transcribe them. Then, they had to go online to find out more information about the story tellers country and refugee situation there. After about a week this was all complete and to a very good standard. I didn't have to chase anyone up to finish it. In fact they all did much more than I thought they would.

Stage 6 - Film Festival
As the students had been recording the whole experience, I thought it would be great if they compiled it all into documentaries and then reflected about the whole experience. From this, the student organized 'A Peace of Hope Film Festival' was born. You can read more about this in a separate post, just follow the link below.

Stage 7 - Making the book
My students did a great job. Because of all their hard work, all the information is now there to take the project to the next stage.

The stories are currently being adapted by local writers in Malaysia. Illustrations will get going soon by students from the graphic design school. 

So far over 50 people have worked on this book with the vast majority being students. We hope to have the illustrations and stories finished by the end of August. Then we'll spend September putting the book together. Finally, I hope the book will be ready in October.

We are planning to release the book in print to be sold, in book stores, at my university. We are also going to make a eBook version for sale on Amazon and iTunes. Also, there will be a text book for use in schools, which will be made with iBook author and available on iTunes. For the non-Mac users an interactive PDF will be released. 

The project has grown so much since the first idea and I am so happy with the progress we have made. I really believe that my students valued this experience so much. It was something that truly engaged them in learning like I have never seen before. In the following term I had students asking if they could do the project again, or what the next project would be. When students are actively engaged in something I really believe that they learn best. The students stayed after class, came in early and put 110% into the project, because they knew that it had a meaningful outcome. 

Follow us
I have set up a Facebook page for the project, where anyone will be able to find updates and get access to stories when they come available. You will also be able to see art work when it starts to come in. Also, most importantly, you will be able to find out how to get the book. We welcome all your support and ideas and would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Creating assessments WITH your students. Pt. 3

Creating assessment together
In this final post about assessment, for now, I'll talk about how I create assessments with my students and not for them. I have used this a lot in my teaching now, so I thought I'd share why I think it is useful and how you can go about doing it. 

Making assessment more accessible
I was worried that my assessment methods were too subjective. By this I mean my students and I had different ideas as to what was being assessed. This happened for two reasons. One, I didn't explain the assessment system to them clearly, two, my students didn't understand it, or interpreted it differently. With this in mind, I wanted to make my assessments and rubrics, clearer and less vague.

I started by changing the language in my rubrics. A lot of rubrics I have seen are written in an overly complex way, so I wrote all my rubrics in a way that my students could easily understand and without needing to use any decryption software. Next, I wanted all my students to be able to access it at any time, so I created a page on my Wiki just for assessments, which means at anytime or anyplace they can check out what is expected of them for a particular task.

Even with the rubrics written in plain English and posted in a place, where it could be easily accessed, I still felt that I needed to do more to make the assessment process less of a mystery. 

Why create assessment with your students
While doing my MA I had a conversation with a co-worker on how to make assessment less subjective and more accessible. He and McConnell (2002) suggests creating the assessment with the students. It sounded so simple at first, that I couldn't believe I had never done it before.

Take a look at the two rubrics below. The first one I created by myself and the second was created with my students input.

Rubrics created by the teacher
Rubrics created with students
I used the first rubrics in a project. Even though the project asked students to write, it also asked them to create a Wiki page for the writing. I was only concerned with assessing the writing whereas in the second rubric, my students voiced that the design element of the project should also be taken into account.

The two rubrics helped me to see that sometimes, the teacher's and students' interpretations of what exactly is being assessed can be different. Therefore, when a teacher and his/her students create assessment together, both know what is to be expected. Then, there is no argument as to why certain criteria were not fulfilled. 

How to do it
This is quite straight forward to do. With your students, ask them what would make a good, or bad project. If it is the first time doing it you may want to give them some ideas. However, the more you use it, the more your students will be able to identify what can be classified as good. It is a learning process for both you and your students, so take it slow and see how it goes. 

Before getting into assessment, I thought it was an unnecessary burden on students. Now I have looked into it more and experimented with it, I have completed changed my view of it. A lot of students, and teachers for that matter, may be weary of assessment as we don't talk about it that much. It is often seen as something that the teacher controls and comes at the end of a task or activity. 

I realise now that assessment is an integral part of the learning process, especially when it is in a situation where a final grade is required. If not, assessment can help students to keep track of their progress. If I have learned anything, it is to keep the students involved in the whole learning process. I like my students to be active learners, as well as content creators and assessors. By doing this, I hope they can get a lot more out of the classroom experience. 

McConnell, D. (2002). Collaborative assessment as a learning process in e-learning. Conference on Computer Support for Collaborative Learning: Foundations for a
CSCL Community.

Monday, 15 July 2013

You mean I have to grade my friend? Pt. 2

This is the second post which will look at alternative assessment for use in the classroom. Peer-assessment (PA) is another method which can be used to get your students involved in the assessment process. 

What is peer-assessment?

“When it comes to measuring individuals relative contribution to group work, the only people who reallyknow what the relative contributions are, are the students themselves.” (Race 2001)

Peer-assessment can be used by students to assess each other's work. For example, if your class write an essay or do a presentation, your students can give their classmate's a grade. There are two kinds of PA, which are formative (as you go) and summative (at the end) (Falchikov 1995), I will talk about this in more detail later on. 

Why use it?
Peer-assessment can really change the learning environment of your classroom. Instead of the teacher controlling everything, the students feel like they have a say in how their work is graded. This can turn students from passive on-lookers to active participants (Harris 1997; Gardner 2000). 

An issue of trust
As with self-assessment trust is always going to be a question that both teacher and even students will ask. Unlike self-assessment, where students take responsibility for themselves, peer-assessment asks students to take responsibility for others. This can cause anxiety on the part of the student and stress at the thought of having to take on the role of the teacher (Gardner 2000; Kennedy 2006). 

Another issue, which concerns reliability and validity, is over- and underrating (Boud and Falchikov 1989; Wilmot and Crawford 2005). Studies report that weaker students tend to overrate themselves whereas stronger students tend to underrate themselves. Of course this adds to the argument that peer-, or self-assessment may not be trustworthy, however, more studies report that used in the correct way, reliability and validity can be greatly increased. 

In the end, it is up to you, the teacher, to decide how best to assess your students. Peer-assessment just gives the students a great say in how the assessment process goes. 

The next section will provide some examples of rubrics, which can be used for peer-, or self-assessment. 

How can it be used?

Formative - PA can be used to assess the on-going progress made by the students. This is a good way for students to get some immediate feed-back on the progress they are making. PA is especially useful if you have a large class as much of the feedback can be done by them. As it is on-going, 

Summative - PA can be used to assess the final product created by the students. Much like self-assessment, students can be responsible for a percentage of their classmate's grade. 

Examples of Peer-assessment Rubrics

Product Rubrics
The rubric below was used to assess a Wiki project. I wrote the rubric using easy English, so the students would easily be able to understand it. 

Project Self-/Peer-assessment Rubrics
I have use this rubric, or a version of it, for self-, peer-, as well as a teacher-based assessment. 

Soft skills rubric
The next rubrics could be used to assess soft skills such as team work, collaboration, sharing, contribution, or any other soft skill which you think is important for the process of the task. 

Peer-/self-assessment rubric to assess soft skills

I like assessing soft skills, because I do a lot of group work. The process is usually just as beneficial as the final product, so I believe that assessing soft skills can help create a better final product. 

Peer Evaluation Form
If you are still a little skeptical of peer-assessment or self-assessment for that matter, you can create a peer-evaluation form. It can be used as confirmation of scores made by individuals, or of other group members. I keep it pretty simple and ask basic questions such as: Who did the most work in your group? Who needs to work harder next time? You will find that students will be very honest and accurate about this. On many occasions, students have stated that they themselves need to work harder next time as they were the weak link in the activity. Finally, I included a pie chart, where students could quantify how much work each person contributed. 

Williams, S (2013) Peer-evaluation Form
I have used various assessment methods in my class and it really depends on what kind of activity you are assessing. When my students do collaborative group tasks, I use self- and peer-assessment, because it is so complex and the demands on the students are great. When it comes to singular work, I use self-, or peer-assessmet to bring the students into the assessment process.

I have learned that assessing work with the students helps them to better understand what is expected of them. They know what I want them to achieve and they know how to do it. I really feel that it helps to take away some of the vagueness out of the assessment process. 

Giving away some power to the students was strange at first, but now I trust them with it. Due to this trust, I feel that my classroom is a better place for my students and I. Admittedly, it is a trial and error process and whatever I have mentioned here may not be suitable for your particular situation. That said, I hope it gives some food for thought when it comes to your classroom. 

In the next post on assessment I'll go over how I create the rubrics with my students and not for them.


Falchikov, N. (1995). "Peer feedback marking: Developing Peer Assessment." Innovations
in Education and Training International 63: 15-28.

Gardner, D. (2000). "Self-assessment for autonomous language learners." Links & Letters

Harris, M. (1997). Self-assessment of language learning in formal settings. Oxford, Oxford
University Press.

Kennedy, G. J. (2006). Peer assessment in group projects: Is it worth it? Australian
Computing Education Conference. Australia

Boud, D. and N. Falchikov (1989). "The role of self-assessment in student grading."
Assessment and evaluation in Higher Education 15(1): 101-111.

Wilmot, P. and A. Crawford (2005). Validating the assessment of individuals within
undergraduate teams. International conference on Engineering Educations, Gliwice.