Friday, September 30, 2005

More thoughts on Small Pieces, Loosely Joined

So, I spoke a lot about my personal and professional need to have a "joiner" for all the small pieces used in an online course. Now I've gotten to thinking about the pieces themselves. As a designer and instructor, what small pieces would I need to incorporate in any of my classes?

First, then, I need to answer the question of which class.

Interestingly, my boss was just called into a meeting about a potential client - a group of Chinese students who want online ESL classes. None of us knows any more than that, but I'm going to make a couple of assumptions. The students are definitely adults (that's all we teach), so they probably want ESL either for international business purposes or for overseas academic prep (say, attending grad school in the U.S.) purposes. Let's assume, then, that the desire is for academic prep: "We want our students to be able to arrive at their grad schools and be ready to take classes in their major subjects without having to "waste time" with ESL." (This "ESL as a waste of time" philosophy is quite common in our international students...until they realize that all the TOEFL prep they took back in their countries didn't at all prepare them for the reality of sitting in an American classroom with American students and American professors and functioning completely in English). Let's also assume that we would do what we normally do in the face-to-face setting and divide the skills into a reading/writing course and a listening/speaking course.

I'm mainly a reading/writing instructor. For a reading/writing course, the small pieces I would want are:

- a blog interface for students to keep an informal journal (Purpose: get them to write in English, with volume as the goal. Some of these students don't write anything in English except the assignments their teachers give them, and there's something to be said for "use it or lose it." The blog would be a space for them to write without worrying about being graded - kind of a space for writing without fear or intimidation, just to get comfortable with the habit of putting thoughts down on paper in English.)
- email (Purpose: communication. This could include teacher-student, student-teacher, student-student, admin-teacher-student, etc. This would allow private communication - as opposed to notices posted on forums or public message boards - as well as last-minute notifications...anything that needed to be sent and viewed asap. Students would be required to check their email accounts daily for messages. This would also allow students to submit their assignments to me in the absence of a Bb-style "digital drop box.")
- a space to host PowerPoint "lecture" materials (Purpose: give them writing/discourse guidelines, outlines, rubrics...all the stuff we would normally go over in class during f2f "lecture" sessions. I currently use these PowerPoint lectures as an adjunct to my f2f ESL writing classes, and I've gotten a very positive response from my students. Many of them feel it gives them something to hold onto - guidelines they can print out and refer back to when they're unsure of how to organize their writing or find the "real" meaning of what an English-speaking writer is saying in an essay.)
- a space to host links to readings and to post assignments, due dates, syllabus, etc. (Purpose: basic information exchange, basically one-way from teacher to student. I suppose all this could be transferred via email as well, so a separate interface wouldn't be necessary.)
- a threaded discussion space (Purpose: give them a space within which to collaborate on reading analysis/writing process assignments.)
- some sort of online, auto-grading quiz program (Purpose: grammar & editing review. Many of my students can take fill-in-the-blanks tests wonderfully, but ask them to apply the grammar rules they've memorized in order to correct simple sentence errors and they freeze. I want the students to polish their editing skills without getting caught in the "grammar bog" that some ESL writing classes can become. Auto-grading editing quizzes would provide a realistic scenario - here's some text with grammar errors, now edit it - for students to apply their theoretical knowledge to. Results would come back with feedback (and explanations for why a certain correction was necessary if a student got it wrong) and suggestions for independent study (see this book, this chapter) if a student found their skills lacking. Again, I do something similar through Bb with my f2f writing classes. Even though I see the quiz results and assign nominal grades, they're mostly for the students to see where their personal weaknesses are so they can study up.)
- and MAYBE some sort of real-time communication, either as text chat, VOIP or video conferencing (HERE's where I'm kind of unsure. Real-time communication with ESL students can be painful face-to-face. There are issues of comfort level, pronunciation, listening comp and much more. I can see VOIP being an absolute disaster if the students can't understand each other or me - and vice versa - without visual cues. However, video conferencing takes lots of bandwidth and might not be a realistic alternative at this stage. And I can see text chat collapsing under the weight of time and effort it would take for Chinese speakers to type out everything they wanted to say in real time in English. I would want a real-time communication option because the concepts I try to get across in a reading/writing class are really challenging ones. I'm not asking my students to memorize a list of vocabulary words or translate sentences...I'm asking them to re-order the way they think about the world. It's something most of them have never even considered in their own language, much less in a foreign one. So, I think being able to talk these concepts over and analyze how they appear in different texts is crucial, and I think real-time communication is vital for some students to really "get it." I just don't know how well it would work out with a learner group like this.)

So, there we have list of small pieces. Of course, I feel like all these choices are based on the system I know and currently use, which is an LMS. I'd love to hear anyone who has a "well, have you considered this...?" option to give me. What's out there that I haven't even considered using but might add a valuable dimension to what I'm trying to accomplish? Comments, please!


J Tzanis said...

Since I first heard about it, I've been intrigued me about the idea of using podcasting in language instruction ... I haven't really had the time to look into what's being done with this, but it seems a natural fit to me to have students aggregating one another's and/or instructors' audiocasts along with aggregating written journal posts.

Of course seems that juggling all that technology again is going to be hard...

ap said...

As I read your post, I was thinking about it from an ESL point of view (which is my case, so it's easy for me to find my ESL hat)... it sounds like you have a good approach planned out, something that will allow your users to review, practice and collaborate. I think I understand what you're talking about when you voice your concerns with the VoIP solution, what happens if you don't understand each other... unfortunatetly I don't have a good solution for that.