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Getting stuck in to Web 2.0 with language learners
Or Moodle, blogs, blood, sweat and tears
Ethos Consultancy NZ http://www.ethosconsultancynz.com/ Please cite as: Owen (2009, April). Getting stuck in to Web 2.0 with language learners: Or Moodle, blogs, blood, sweat and tears. Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages: Aotearoa New Zealand. 18(1), pp. 4-7. The way we communicate is changing. Mobile technologies have made the sight of someone sitting in a cafe with wireless laptop, or surfing the Internet on the move using 3G mobile phones, common. Web 2.0, creative commons, and open source are all indicative of a real desire for people to create their own content and have others comment, build and use it. Communities arise around common interests to the point that you meet a person you have met online but never seen before, like a long-lost friend. In fact, I was at an ePortfolio conference in Brisbane in February, and duly took my laptop to ‘Twitter’ (http://twitter.com) the proceedings. (Twitter is a tool that enables you to microblog, which is to make short, frequent, 140 word postings, and to see the postings of people you are ‘following’). As a result of the Twitter forum, I ‘met’ other conference participants online before catching up with them face-to-face. The great thing is, rather than that wonderful energy that is encountered during a conference immediately dissipating, I now have a genuine way of keeping in touch and keeping the collaboration going. Twitter is one of the myriad Web 2.0 tools available to education practitioners and language learners; but what is Web 2.0 and why should ESL teachers be embracing it?
To really understand Web 2.0, it is useful to compare it with Web 1.0. The dynamic of Web 1.0 was where business or Web master would have a central locus of control and they decided on design and content. As such, people could access the information, but could not interact with it – like a river, the flow was all one way. Similarly, language-learning software was available either to download or order on CD, but learners had no control over the content, worked individually, and interactivity was often limited. Improvements in technology and connectivity have progressed hand-in-hand with a change in ethos around the use of the Internet, which was dubbed Web 2.0 by Dale Dougherty in 2004 (O’Reilly, 2005). Creativity, collaboration and sharing became key underpinning foci. Companies, rather than supplying the content, started to supply the platform for users to publish their own content, which is often in rich, multimedia formats. In turn, people around the world have the ability to comment and communicate with the original creator, sometimes resulting in the formation of communities with a common interest. Copyright is shifting alongside these developments, with creative commons licenses giving a wide continuum of usage rights. Collaboration is also possible using tools that are editable by a small or large number of users. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org) is probably the most well-known example of this type of collaboration, but there are countless other projects underway. Software applications can be downloaded (or used online) for free, and open source software allows developers access to the source code, thereby encouraging innovations and improvements; one of the more popular examples of this is the Learning Management System,
Moodle (http://moodle.org). So what are the benefits of Web 2.0 to language learners and teachers? Gross and Wolff (2001) argue that the use of ICT enhanced learning and teaching (ICTELT), when developed on a base of cognitive and constructivist learning psychology, can encourage second language (L2) learner autonomy and creativity. Research tends to support this assertion. For example, the results of metaanalyses conducted by Goldberg, Russell, and Cook (2003) suggest that “on average students who use computers when learning to write, produce written work that is about .4 standard deviations better than students who develop writing skills on paper” (p. 20). The reason for the difference was attributed to learner motivation, increased independence, and a greater level of engagement. Web 2.0 therefore has the potential to engage L2 learners in the creative production and publication of written, audio, and visual artifacts in the target language for an authentic audience. Current events can be shared and discussed, as can useful resources, learning strategies and experiences. The learning is in the process, whereby students have opportunities to practice using English in informal contexts with low risk exchanges that can encourage improvements in confidence and participation with even the shyest learners. In turn, the empowering, collaborative nature of Web 2.0 can also lead to the cultivation of a community of learning, personalised learning networks, the improvement of ICT and Web literacy skills, and a greater sense of freedom and independence as a learner. The picture is not completely rosy however, and there are some potential drawbacks. Activities that utilise ICTELT have to be carefully designed around clear learning outcomes to be effective, which can be time-consuming. Both the teacher and the learners need to have (or be willing to develop) a certain level of digital literacy, and have sufficient access to devices that are Web-enabled. Concerns around privacy, access to inappropriate content, and addiction are very much warranted, and dialogue within an institution and with learners around these issues, is essential. For further effective ideas of activities that might be useful for ESL learners there are a variety of blogs that make regular updates; for instance, “Web 2.0 tools for EFL teaching” http://fedup2.edublogs.org.
Web 2.0 in use with learners
What happens when it is all put into practice? The next section will briefly describe what happened when two tour groups from Kumamoto University, Japan came to study English at Unitec NZ for five weeks in July and August, 2008. Prior to the visit, Yvonne Hynson, the teacher assigned to the groups, came to see me to discuss how she could engage the students in a creative, fun way, especially as they were visiting New Zealand to see the country as well as study English. We decided to use videos that Yvonne had already produced, along with blogs (http://www.vox.com) where students could journal their experiences and observations and Flickr (http://www.flickr.com) to facilitate the sharing of images. Teachers would use an aggregator (in this case Google reader, http://reader.google.com) to keep track of all the students’ blogs and the ongoing postings. We thought that students would probably need a lot of initial scaffolding (for example ‘how to…’ videos to set up blog accounts) and decided that a ‘one stop shop’ in the form of a Moodle course would enable students to contact the teachers easily, and access all the resources, instructions, and multimedia when they needed to. Yvonne had little experience in the area of ICTELT design, but we worked together, and I (in my role as academic advisor in learning technologies) was able to provide advice, one-to-one training and ‘just in time’ support. Once the students had arrived, I team-taught with Yvonne for the first few sessions to help encourage them to become engaged in the process and use of Moodle, blogs, Flickr and videos, and to support Yvonne when technical
issues arose. We learned a lot; some positive and some negative. The students expectations of the role of themselves as learners meant that they had to be guided through the use of ‘how to…’ videos, and would also wait for a teacher to help solve problems. There was, however, a gradual increase in the amount of peer support, so that when one student had been helped with an issue, they would then share with their classmates. One group of students was very keen to make the most of the opportunity to blog about what they were seeing and experiencing, and gave overwhelmingly positive feedback to teachers and counsellors. The other groups, however, after the first few sessions, requested that they not make postings to blogs any more, because they already kept blogs in Japan and really only wanted conversation and pronunciation practise. We also discovered that a lot of the homestay accommodation does not provide easy access to the Internet, so the main places students were able to access Moodle were at the college or in Internet cafes. Most of the students had Web-enabled portable devices but had either not set them up to work in New Zealand, or had not brought them along as they had not expected to need them during their visit. After reflecting long and hard about what we had encountered and gathering feedback, we felt that the positives outweighed the negatives and that we would continue to use ICTELT with the 2009 students. After discussion with the teacher that was accompanying the groups we arranged that before the 2009 visit he would discuss the benefits of using ICTELT while visiting New Zealand, such as practising their written English while sharing their experiences with friends and family at home. This preparatory dialogue was identified as essential as there was no formal course requirement for students to keep journals during their visit. In addition, students would be helped to set up Vox blogs and Flickr accounts before they arrived in New Zealand, and to make a posting introducing themselves to the Unitec teacher assigned to them. Expectations would therefore be set prior to the visit, and students would also be encouraged to bring their own mobile devices.
Given the amount of time and effort that was invested in the design and development of resources and the setting up the highly scaffolded course, during our reflections we wondered if it had been worth it. As a learning opportunity, definitely. I, for example, had underestimated the impact of role expectations, and the need to learn to use some of the scaffolding tools such as the ‘how to….’ videos. The importance of finding out about the needs and expectations of the learners was reinforced for me, as was the fact that, the Web 2.0 tools by themselves did not motivate students to learn and practice English. On the other hand, the functional language that students used while they were describing what they wanted to do, and the sense of community that quickly formed as help was freely given, suggested that it was an approach worth pursuing. Thoughtfully designed activities using sound pedagogical principles around key learning outcomes are essential though, as is support and collaboration with colleagues. Web 2.0 is already heading toward Web 3.0 with the growing popularity of virtual worlds and identities. The question is not really should we be tapping into the potential of ICTELT, but rather what it the most effective approach.
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