Tag Archives: Online learning

Using blogs with language learners

Blogs have long been used by educators as a means of promoting reading and writing and English language teachers have also been using them not only as a way of helping learners develop such skills but also as tools to improve their language awareness.

There are different ways in which blogs can be used and different online platforms available which give bloggers a variety of options and a wide online readership. However, there are also blog applications on Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) which restrict the audience to students and instructors enrolled in particular courses on the VLE. In this post, I discuss the way in which I have been using blogs with my EAP students and I hope this will give you some ideas about how to explore such tool in your own teaching practice.

Blogs in VLEs, such as Blackboard, can in principle have two disadvantages in relation to web2 blog platforms: they do look definitely plain and unattractive compared with the visual resources and tools open access online blogs offer, and they do restrict the readership to the ones enrolled in the system. However, when explored for specific purposes and in particular contexts, VLE blogs may, in fact, offer a couple of advantages. First of all, the limited editing functions may make them less daunting to users who are not particularly well-acquainted with web page construction and design and for whom having to learn how to build a site would actually require another whole set of tech skills. Because they do not have to look pretty, blogs in VLEs may free students to focus more on the content of their posts instead of worrying too much about adding aesthetic elements to them. Secondly, although posters’ ideas will be shared with fewer readers, some bloggers, particularly if they are language learners, may actually feel more confident to write knowing that if they make a mistake or do not express themselves as they would like to, this will only be seen by their tutor and other language learners like themselves. It can be less intimidating posting to a restricted, familiar readership than knowing that your writing will be open to scrutiny and criticism on the whole internet.

I have been using blogs on Blackboard with my language and literature students for about two years now and the results have been quite positive. Although their blog entries are usually short, I have observed that some of them really enjoying posting and value this as an opportunity for a bit of extra writing practice without the burden of been assessed for it. In this particular case, the blog entries are not part of their module assessment but are assigned to them as pieces of homework. Making blogging part of their homework is a very important aspect of it and typically I assign blog posting to:

  • flip a lesson, i.e. students have to search information on a particular aspect related to a literary work that we will be studying in the following sessions;
  • build collaborative learning, i.e. no student is asked to blog about exactly the same thing so each one of them has to contribute with something to the group learning and also acquire some knowledge from what their classmates post;
  • practise paraphrasing. Since this is a notorious difficult skill for learners of academic English, reading articles in literary criticism and posting their summaries and paraphrasing of some paragraphs can help students practise their writing at the same time they get to grips with the concepts and ideas in the articles and with the genre conventions in literary criticism.

An important aspect of using blogs with such learners is to give them some space to make decisions about what to post and how to post it. Although I do assign them a very specific task – for example, ‘find a description of a character in the novel, copy and paste the passage, and comment on it’- they still have the autonomy to decide which character they will choose, which passage to copy and analyse, and also decide whether they want to add pictures or video links to illustrate their analysis. A certain degree of autonomy is important to give students a sense of ownership over the task and make it less as a piece of homework and more like an intellectual exploration of the aspect discussed.

Another significant aspect is feedback. More often than I would wish so, I do not have time to comment on each individual post, but I do write my own blog entry with general comments on what they produced as a way to wrap up the activity. I also make sure I show their blogs on the screen in class and verbally comment on them.

Using blogs with my students has considerably increased their amount of writing and reading practice, with groups of 20 students producing per term around 120 posts of about 150-200 words each. It has also increased their engagement with and understanding of the literary texts and provided invaluable practice towards the essay writing assignment.

Below are some suggestions for further reading on using blogs in education.

  • Amir, Z., Ismail, K. and Hussin, S., 2011. Blogs in Language Learning: Maximizing Students’ Collaborative Writing. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 18, pp.537–543.
  • Blau, I., Mor, N. and Neuthal, T., 2009. Open the windows of communication: promoting interpersonal and group interactions using blogs in higher education. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 5(1), pp.233–246.
  • Churchill, D., 2009. Educational applications of Web 2.0: using blogs to support teaching and learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(1), pp.179–183.
  • Hourigan, T. and Murray, L., 2010. Using blogs to help language students to develop reflective learning strategies: Towards a pedagogical framework. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 26(2).
  • Kajder, S., Bull, G. and Van Noy, E., 2004. A Space for ‘Writing without Writing’ Blogs In The Language Arts Classroom. Mining the Internet. Learning & Leading with Technology, 31(6), pp.32–35.
  • Kim, H.N., 2008. The phenomenon of blogs and theoretical model of blog use in educational contexts. Computers & Education, 51(3), pp.1342–1352.
  • Trajtemberg, C. and Yiakoumetti, A., 2011. Weblogs: a tool for EFL interaction, expression, and self-evaluation. ELT Journal, 65(4), pp.437–445.
  • Williams, J.B. and Jacobs, J., 2004. Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, [online] 20(2).

Novel Week

We have just finished the Novel Week at the IATEFL Literature, Media and Cultural Studies Discussion List. It was the first time we had an online event without a fielder and, in my point of view, it was an interesting experience.

Certainly, having someone with some in-depth knowledge in some field and a reputation in ELT is very important to the discussion list because it brings us greater understanding, new points of view and challenges. However, the concept of online learning is very much based on the idea of horizontal knowledge building. Knowledge is shared and constructed with contributions given by each group member and, even though there is always a certain hierarchy in any group, in principle all contributions are equally valid and important. The idea of the Novel Week was very much based on these principles and approach to teaching/learning initiatives and which guide most of ELT forums and online courses.

For a whole week all group members were invited to post on their favourite novels. Since it was announced we got 26 new members and we had 130 new messages and probably lots of people lurking. I do hope the posts there have contributed somehow to make more people curious about the books mentioned and willing to read and/or re-read some. 🙂

Posters & lurkers

I have been involved in a number of online projects and certainly lurking is always an issue. Reading about the different kinds of lurkers as part of my online course assigment I realised that people usually tend to see lurking from a negative point of view. However, I truely believe that it all depends… 🙂

I think that it all depends on the sort of online environment and the sort of interaction we are talking about and I’d like to focus on two different kinds of online interaction which I have some experience with.

Online courses – in online courses where participants have a very specific objective and will be awarded a certificate for their participation and performance, I think lurking as a freeloader or a sponge is something totally unacceptable. It may sound a bit strict and I understand that people may feel a bit shy and can hesitate to contribute because they feel insecure; however, each participant knew beforehand what he/she was getting into and I think you have to bring up your own resorces and contribute to the group and the discussion instead of just expecting others to feed you up.

Open forums and discussion lists – in this situation I think hesitation and a sense of insecurity is really understandable, because you never know who is going to read your message and how these unknown people will react to it. Fear of criticism is higly justifiable in such a situation. Besides that, our objective in such online environments is to make as many people as possible, read and reflect about an issue. It’s alright if people lurk for a time, because they are learning and getting acquainted with the subject. We know that in open forums and discussion lists only about 5% of the members actually post, but it does not mean that we are not reaching the other 95%. Eventually, most of them will make a contribution saying how much they have learnt from the discussion.

I’m not sure how many people lurk here but whether they want to comment or not, they are always welcome 🙂

Time and time again

I have always had problems to understand time. Every time I watch one of those films about time travel my mind spins off, but perhaps things are even more complex than in science fiction. People say time flies. So, why is it that sometimes it drags?? It is all a matter of perception, isn’t it? Perhaps, there is no time, simply our notions of it. Shakespeare already knew about this…

Theseus:

Now fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour

Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in

Another moon – but O, methinks how slow

This old moon wanes!

 

Hippolyta:

Fours days will quickly steep themselves in night,

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

 

When I am extremely busy and on the verge of getting into panic because I’ll have no time to do something, I consciously stop…I stop and let time pass, I take a deep breath, make a cup of tea and then restart everything… just to realise that those 15 minutes spent cooling down actually helped me to focus and do my things more efficiently and faster.

Why this reflections on time now? Because time has been perhaps the hottest issue in our e-tutor online course. Some people were getting into panic because of tight deadlines, some people are missing them *consistently* and some people have even dropped out, almost certainly because of time issues. I’ve said in the forums there that this is just a matter of organisation and setting priorities. Perhaps it is easy for me to say that, because I don’t have a partner and my son is 18 and I can say that I have quite good time in my hands; however, I have quite a lot of work too. I juggle a lot of balls and when I have some deadlines approaching I sometimes do not sleep more than 3-4 hours at night. Not very healthy at all, but it’s just a matter of priority and committment.

Even having been said in a complety different context, I think Gandalf’s words to Frodo also apply here,

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.