5 Ways to Blend Exam Courses Online

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In many countries around the world schools are operating with minimal resources. Books and multi-media resources from big publishers cost a lot. Some publishers have moved online to sell e-learning products which still cost a lot. The good news is that nowadays we can access a lot of content for free or for low-cost subscription rates online. Yet, certain problems still remain.

a)Teachers may be too busy to explore online resources and adapt content to their examination needs.

b) Teachers may not be supported by administrations who stick to traditional ways of learning.

c) It may seem too difficult to integrate online web tools with specific testing methodologies.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

When we lack the tools we need for our work, we often become more inventive. In Greece, for example, we are experiencing unprecedented shortages in resources. As traditional course books are both too expensive and outdated for the modern age, we must see this crisis as an opportunity to embrace 21st century learning and enjoy the kind of educational freedom that we all deserve. I will put forth some practical ideas here with exam classes in mind, as this kind of objective is the reality for most teachers.

Last week when I was writing about teaching exclusively online, I felt that it would be wrong to ignore the beauty of blended learning, which is what I truly want for my own children and for schools everywhere. Whilst online learning is perfect for the kinds of learners I mentioned in my previous article, children need the reality of a physical classroom environment combined with exposure to creative opportunities via technology.

TECHNOLOGY – TO BE OR NOT TO BE


I have noticed some situations in Greek schools that are probably the reality in many other countries around the world.

a) The school is not hooked up to the internet.
b) The school is hooked up but there aren’t enough computers.
c) The computers are very old or broken.
d) Internet speed is too slow and connection is poor.
e) The technology is there but is not being used.
f) Schools are teaching to the test using ONLY practice test books.

Despite the fact that schools may lack the resources, many students have new computer technology at home. Teenagers have smart phones and ipads. They are using this technology for recreation when it could be used for learning English.

Interesting diversion
As I was writing this I logged onto facebook for a brief interlude and found a quote by Dr. Nellie Deutsch on the newsfeed that perfectly exemplifies my train of thought here…

“I started using computers in my English classes in 1995. I stopped taking my students to the computer rooms on a regular basis in 2012. The students kept complaining about the slow connections and poor computers at school. They claimed to have better computers and Internet connection at home or on their cell phones. My students now bring their own mobile devices (cell phones, laptops, iPads). Those who do not have the tools or forget them, can use the school computers. However, my students have a lot to learn when it comes to using technology (computers and the Internet) for learning and that’s where I come in.”

When schools are poorly equipped but students’ homes are rich in resources we can also flip the classroom. Desperate times may seem to call for desperate measures, but, of course, flipping the classroom is an innovative new concept in education. As such, it should be our silver lining and inspiration.

Another problem could be that some kids in class have all the latest technology while some may not have a computer at home at all. Although this is becoming as rare as not having a TV, we must be prepared for all situations. In this case students could be paired up for collaborative‘homework projects’, where pairs can meet in one home for computer-based homework and in another home for something else that utilizes what that child may have to share. As Dr. Deutsch quoted above, ipads in class would be ideal, but until all students have this technology, we will have to persevere with alternatives.

1) Ideas for flipped classroom and exams training.

a) I have mentioned English Addicts many times. That’s because I supplement all of my exam courses with this resource. This interactive news site give our students the global understanding, vocabulary, listening and writing skills they need to face tough exams. Also English Addicts has speaking components for teachers to use in class. Students work at home preparing news topics and global issues that are part of the exam curricula, and then they can have informed discussions with their teacher in class. They can also have fun with asynchronous recording tools such as Voxopop, where students can hold conversations on topics by recording their voices in a discussion group and leave messages.

b) For advanced and proficiency students, I would recommend TED talks for homework. These sophisticated talks are rich in language and ideas that our students need to take on board. They also have tapescripts on the website for each talk. Ted talks are fantastic for teaching English at the higher levels. They also help our students to personalize their learning experiences are they filter information from real sources instead of the flat, culled texts of coursebooks.

c)Students should be trained to make proper use of the British Council websites, and BBC Learning English. These resources are fantastic. Teachers can assign multi-media tasks for practicing all aspects of the exam papers, and then use that material from the website as an inspiration for some simple lesson ideas in class. In this sense we can combine the flipped classroom model with the ‘Dogme 2.0’, or paperless approach.

d) Facebook is where it’s all happening. If your students are old enough to have accounts there and if their parents approve, it’s a good idea to exploit this popular social network for your ‘devious’ educational purposes. You can have a private group only for your students. You can also teach them the kinds of internet safety rules that they would probably not learn if they were left to just network without guidance. You can use group walls to share fantastic links, engage learners in discussions based on essay questions, grammar, video or You Tube. Students can record voices using fotobabble or audioboo, make their own videos and share them in the class group. As a teacher, you can make sure that what they do is an interactive alternative to boring grammar exercises etc. If you disapprove of facebook for students, you can use Edmodo or Schoology, but to be honest, the words ‘facebook’ and ‘You Tube’ are hot property. It’s much cooler to say that ‘I have a lesson with my teacher on facebook’. Speaking of You Tube, creative project work in class can be recorded and uploaded to You Tube, as this makes students very proud of their work and fully engaged in what they are doing. How nice it would be if students were so engaged in learning that the exams would be almost incidental, but not only that, a breeze to pass, as creative learning would raise general standards in language acquisition.

There is a lot you can do by taking the flipped approach, by tuning into your digital learners, and by adopting new, independent mindsets with regard to language learning and teaching.

2) VOIP and international exchange programmes.

Many schools are teaching to the test without having access to native speakers. In the past in Greece, most private schools would employ a native speaker to do fluency work with all classes throughout the school, and that is how I ended up in Greece in the first place. What I noticed from the start was that Greek teachers were very fluent in English but they wanted a native speaker to handle fluency while they went on with the grammar translation method. This collaboration worked well enough for mainstream learners, but, knowing what we do now, it is not the fastest or most natural way to learn.

Today many schools have given up on employing native speakers from abroad and ‘make do’ with what they have. However with today’s technology, VOIP and virtual classrooms, native/fluent speakers and language schools can continue this collaboration online. It’s happening everywhere, the revolution is in full swing but many are still not trying it out. Last week, I met a class of students from Malaysia online – a collaborative project organized by my colleague Anita Adnan, who is spear-heading changes in Malaysia by implementing VOIP and virtual meetings online. She is also using the social media materials of Jason West to do this. If teachers everywhere used courses like English Out There to build up online networks for their students to speak English, the results would be amazing.

Another thing I’d like to see is classroom teachers liaising with online teachers to give their students some interactive fun in the virtual classroom. I used to do this with Edupunk, but it was with groups of online learners already using the platform, or students from facebook. I have yet to work directly with offline schools. However, the group synergy when working with creativity, music, and story-telling was excellent, and I am now integrating creative methodologies with exam-based objectives. To get the feel for something already in flow I would advise teachers to get their classes onto the Fluency MC weekly workout programme. It’s an amazing experience and something that is economically viable for these tough times we live in

As Fluency MC says” What high school WEW (Weekly English Workout) students find most valuable is that they get the repetitive oral practice they need participate more confidently and more meaningfully in classroom activities.”

To speak explicitly about focused exam practice, WizIQ is perfectly set up to allow students to practice speaking for their exams, either individually or by doing pair-work in ‘break- out rooms’.

3) TOOLS

Here is a short list of what could be useful for exams training.

a) ClubEFL is an online learning tool built to facilitate quiz creation, multi-media work, and exam-based blogging for students. ClubEFL is based in Thessaloniki Greece, and is perfect for schools to get students set–up asynchronously. In fact If schools could use ClubEFL and WizIQ, English language Teaching would be transformed.

b) Interactive comics sites are perfect tools for practising everything to do with exams. To be imaginative enough to let this work for exams, you just need to focus on something the students have to learn, and then create a comic to show the language point and follow it up by getting students to create their own comics with the language point in question. Comic sites are the main resources I use for story-telling. Story-telling is what I use to help students remember and use grammar and vocabulary. One comic site that I am becoming very fond of is makebelief comix because it incorporates very special social/emotional learning lesson plans that are free to download. I use these resources for all kinds of lessons. Although it seems to be for children, everything can be adapted for teaching language to adults. Another favourite of mine is bitstrips. There are many comic sites but I choose the simplest ones for classroom dynamics.

c) Educational video-making tools and interactive poster tools such as Eduglogster are also favourites of mine. I create musical English lessons using the posters and You Tube. Students can easily use Eduglogster, which is why it’s one of my favourite tools.For work with film, pronunciation and speaking there is English Central which has courses such as Global Issues covering topics pertaining to all exams.

d) Quiz and vocabulary tools online can help teachers to use authentic content such as TED talks, National geographic articles, or even open university texts (for IELTS), and create exam–like activities for students. For example, with a cloze test, experienced teachers know that prepositions and collocations are explicitly tested. Focused exam practice could be customized in very powerful ways beyond any practice test book. If a teacher knows the exact recurring mistakes of her students, he/she can create quizzes that test those specific items. Better still, students can use the simple tools to create tests for their own classmates based on past mistakes they have shared and discussed. This is deep learning because students take on the role of examiner, test writer, collaborator and teacher while doing it. Obviously there are too many tools to mention here. I spent two years reading about tools online, mostly from two main websites that I highly recommend; Nik’s Quick Shout and Teacher Training videos.

Try using vocabulary building tools such as Vocabahead which is an amazing free video vocabulary builder suitable for upper-intermediate to proficiency level.

How about a cool cloze test maker that teaches how words are used together?

To learn more please visit my favourite sites for tools and inspiration:
Teacher Training Videos
Nik’s Daily English Activities
Free Technology for teachers

4) RESOURCES
a) The British Council has free IELTS tests and android apps for download. There are also reasonable subscriptions for online practical assessment test. Using British Council tests combined with authentic sources combines the best of both worlds – language acquisition and practical exam experience. As an online teacher specializing in exam-based training, I find that student benefit greatly when they do most of the productive and creative work with me (writing/speaking/ reading strategies/thinking skills etc.), and focused British Council exam practice via learning management systems or the British Council websites.

b) The British Council sites Learn English and Learn English kids have amazing resources as does BBC learning English.

c) Online general English courses from English Out There cover all levels pertinent to exams and are perfect for adaptation and blended learning with social networks or language exchange programmes.

d) English Central has academic courses with a premium + option incorporating Cambridge University Press.

e) EFL classroom 2.0 has many fantastic multi-media resources to help schools prepare for exams. It might take a few days to build a creative curriculum and gather up the right resources that would shadow a traditional curriculum for exams training. This would cost little or nothing and would be much more rewarding in the long run.

f) Tefltastic is full of news, interviews, ideas and lesson plans.

5) ENVIRONMENTS
As already mentioned, social networks such as facebook, Virtual classrooms such as WizIQ, and edutainment playgrounds such as ClubEFL are the perfect environments for innovative and inexpensive exams-training for students and teachers.

Also, in situations where schools and students don’t have computers, teachers can come up with the innovative ‘field-trip’ idea of booking sessions for classes at the local internet cafe – where students like to hang out anyway. Think Sugata Mitra and ‘holes in the wall’.

Schools can also get set up on moodle, the most popular learning management system around. I believe that Greek public schools now have teachers attending open university courses on how to use moodle, which is a great step forward for Greek education. Personally speaking, as a freelance teacher, I have got my own moodle set up on my hosted server, along with my website and blog. I learnt all of this by following our moodle expert on WizIQ, Dr. Nellie Deutsch. If you want to learn more, check out moodle MOOC on facebook.

I would stress here that it’s best to do things in stages. First get used to using online resources, then try out connect online via virtual classroom, and finally if all goes well, get classes onto a learning management system.

Nothing can stop teachers of the 21st century.

I would love some feedback from teachers who work with limited resources and who would like to blend their classes with technology. Please comment here below the article.

______________________________________________

I am an Irish woman living on a beautiful Greek island with my Greek husband and four children, including twins, aged between nine and four. I have been teaching ESL/English for fifteen years, with experience in primary , secondary schools, language, and literacy institutes in Ireland, though the majority of my experience has been in Greece. I studied English literature and History in University before going on to take the Higher Diploma in Education, which is the teaching qualification in Ireland. After moving abroad, circumstances led me into the ESL field, which has entailed continuous professional development and opened up new interests and opportunities. My other main interests are art, writing, poetry, and psychology, which which help me to create fun quality time with my children and add colour to my language lessons. When I’m not teaching online, I’m writing course books, blogging or running my English language Facebook groups.

2 Comments

  • Reply April 30, 2013

    Amira

    Even using mobile phone can be considered as a useful and simple tool in the traditional classroom. students can use it to record the spelling or the definition of different vocabulary items. Sending messages , in the target language, to the students can be used for giving instructions .

    • Reply May 14, 2013

      marja-riitta ritanoro

      Yes we use mobiles to send 10 new words everyday for second language learners. And apps about writing and reading. Mobiles are good in learning !

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