What? A Speaking Task on an LMS?

Speaking on an LMS

An LMS opens itself up more easily to Reading/Writing activities.  An instructor can direct learners to a website, or upload a reading onto the LMS, and then link the task with a writing assignment.  Listening activities are also quite simple to do…  But a speaking activity?

MOODLE uses the “nanogong” tool – which I have used, with some degree of success in the classroom.  Nanogong is a voice recording tool, similar to Vocaroo or other such devices.  I like that it connects with the LMS, for tracking and whatnot.

How Learners Use it:

The Instructor needs to create a nanogong activity first, which the learners can then access simply by clicking on the activity.

Nanogong in Action

The learners in my SLT class (Retail) were researching interview techniques, specifically the STAR interview process.  Learners had ample time in the classroom with this procedure, and had written STAR answers in their journal prior to this activity.

Learners were then posed a common behavioural job interview question, such as:

  • Tell me about  a time when you had to work with a difficult person.  How did you resolve your differences?
  • Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond the call of duty at work.

I encouraged the learners to think about their answers, and to maybe jot notes, but not to write out their entire responses.  To illustrate this, I had a teacher demonstrate by reading some text, and then by naturally answering it.  Learners discussed the differences in the two responses.

When they were ready, the learner would access the program and record his or her answer.  They could stop, rewind, delete, and try as many times as they wanted until they were satisfied.  Then they could listen to their responses.

The instructor can give feedback right in the activity, and provide links to help with fluency, or provide feedback face to face.

Challenges

The learners were all together, in one CALL Lab, working on the LMS.  They were also working on other assignments, and would not all necessarily be on the speaking assignment at the same time.  Students would feel self-conscious in an otherwise quiet lab, suddenly giving an answer to the interview question.  Or, if a few were on the same topic at the same time, the recording would pick up the background noise.

Solution:  The lab was big enough that we could dedicate a recording corner, which might afford some privacy and keep the background noise to a minimum.

TECHNOLOGY

The Nanogong tool works best in the Firefox browser, but it still comes up with a security alert message.  Learners have to be directed to select the right response, or the application will not work.

Other Speaking Tasks:

  1. Leaving voicemail messages:  Students are given a scenario where they have to return the phone call of a job interviewer, and give details regarding availability, etc.
  2. Customer Service Scenarios:  Return phone calls –voice mail message; students role play customer service associates returning a customer call with specific information
  3. Customer Service – Inquiries: Role play learners as customers asking about a specific service or product
  4. Work Role Play – Calling in Sick – students are given information or told to make up their own and role play a phone call voicemail message to their supervisors
  5. Customer Service – Product Knowledge – students use the nanogong to record their response to a customer’s question about a specific product (warrantee, features, benefits, etc)

LIMITATIONS:  The nanogong is hard to do interactively, but it can be done if you have the right equipment in the lab.  Our lab is currently set up with a headset/microphone, so only one person can record at a time.  With a hand-held microphone, however, you can do more interactive role-plays and other scenarios that would be useful training tools.

Resisting the Urge to Hurl Virtual Sheep

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Having spent a great deal of time in the computer lab between September and November of this past term, I was hoping that I would have been able to hammer out the basic functions of the LMS with the learners.  We spent hours going over quizzes, polls, uploading assignments, responding to discussions, responding in blogs, etc.

The learners went on to their employment counselling downtown.  I no longer had them in my classroom, but they were instructed to continue to log on  and complete weekly assignments.  I was able to get the learners back for two days last week, and again, no apparent issues.  I even had two learners from the Spring session return to complete the co-op part of the program.  They were both impressed with the LMS, and took some time in the computer lab reviewing WHMIS in preparation for the WHMIS test at the co-op partner (Home Depot).

Time Off – Use it Or Lose it

It seems that the amount of time off  they’ve had has been detrimental to their LMS retention rates.  The two snow days didn’t help.  Week 1 assignments were, for the most part, incomplete.  Only one learner completed both parts (read an article in Workopolis and respond, and the go to the discussion group and discuss the training they had at the co-op).

It can’t be a time issue.  They are only in the co-op between 10am and 2pm.  There is even a computer lab at the co-op that they can use to access the site and to do the work if they are there before or after their assigned hours.

Unrealistic Expectations?

It got me thinking.  Am I expecting too much?  Then I think about high-school credit co-op programs, and no, I’m not asking too much.  If they were taking this course in high-school, they would have major assignments on top of weekly assignments that would receive late penalties if not in by the due date.

If they were taking courses at a community college, they would be required to log in and complete assignments weekly as well.

So, Solve the Problem…

Problem = Learners don’t have the time or inclination to do the online tasks.

  • Possible Solution = Potentially offer one “make up lab day” every two weeks in the lab.  I would need to arrange this with the employment agency
  • Possible Solution = Make up screen shots of each task that definitively outlines how to do a particular task
  • Possible Solution = Visit the learners and solicit their feedback.

The problem is that I don’t know for sure what the problem is.  Are learners completely unable to shut out family life and complete a task at home?  Do learners not have access to internet/computers at home? (No one has before mentioned this as an issue).  Are the tasks too difficult?  Have the learners consulted past classes, who might have told them they had no further ESL assignments once on co-op, so they may feel this is unfair?

Maybe they think that they still have plenty of time to complete the assignments and aren’t worried about it.  At this point, I think that I will send out reminder emails to each of them, with their Week 1 grades attached.    If this doesn’t prompt some action, not sure what else I can do. 

I would toss the virtual sheep at them, but I threw my shoulder out in a virtual squash game.

To Flip or not to Flip?

flippedThere is an article in USA Today that rains on the parade of the Flipped Classroom enthusiasts.  The article, written by Emily Atteberry, examines the premature delirium of the “flipped classroom” model by its proponents.

Harvard university professors are testing the claims that a flipped model increases learning retention and improves the overall learning experience; their findings are that, so far, there is no noticeable difference between the traditional classroom and the flipped model.  (cue the applause and told-you-so’s from the anti-techies out there…) (who then jump on their dinosaurs and ride off into the sunset…).

I have tried the flipped classroom model in ESL; in fact, this was the whole impetus behind starting my blog.  You know, the one you’re reading right now.  In case you don’t know exactly what is meant by “flipping”, here it is, essentially:

The idea is that the teacher will have created a Learning Management System.  The instructor would prepare lectures on either a PowerPoint or video, and the learners would view this material at home or on their devices somewhere other than the classroom.  Learners then, having done the work, come to class prepared to demonstrate and practice the skills, with the instructor there to guide them as they produce evidence of learning.

Flipped Classroom – Positive Outcomes

Sounds good in theory, yes?  In practice, having a flipped classroom was not ideal.  However, there were some definite positive outcomes:

1.  The flipped classroom experiment opened up the possibilities of using an LMS in an ESL environment for me.

2.  The learners recognized the importance of this type of communication, and even though many of them struggled with the demands of a flipped classroom, they learned a great deal, and not just about the subject matter.  They improved their WPMs, their website navigation skills, mouse manipulation, and general knowledge of computers.  For adult ESL learners, this is no small feat.

So the flipped classroom is flawed.  I could have told you that.  Is a flipped classroom right for all kinds of classes and all kinds of learners?  Who in their right mind would make that generalization?  Of course not.  There is no one-stop shopping for ESL learning.  There is no one model that is going to solve everyone’s problems.  There can’t be.  We don’t work that way.

What Can We Learn from the Flipped Experiment?

What the flipped classroom model did was introduce the concept of a Virtual Learning Environment and the possibilities that lie within this technology.  Atteberry isn’t suggesting that the flipped model is just another trend that will die out.  The Harvard professors who have so far found that it makes no difference, well, they don’t have to use the model.  I wonder about instructor bias in this particular study.  Relax – I said I wonder about a bias, I didn’t say they had one.

From the Flip to the LMS

As for me, I doubt that I would use a flipped model in an ESL setting again – not unless we are talking about a program that is seeking to be inclusive of rural communities and the “flipping” is more a necessity than something fun to try.

I will, however, continue to build on and use an LMS in whatever course or program that I am teaching.  There is a place for technology in the ESL classroom, even for literacy learners, as this quote from Bow Valley College demonstrates:

“Best practices in the ESL literacy classroom include encouraging learner motivation,maximizing progress, preparing learners for the real world, and bridging learners into life-long learning. The incorporation of technology into the classroom allows a multipronged approach to achieve all of these goals”
– Bow Valley College, 2009

Flipping a classroom may not work for my learners, but that’s okay.  The “traditional classroom” doesn’t work, either.

What works is a well planned, inclusive, interesting, and safe LMS that provides learners with the chance to experiment and explore language learning opportunities using technology coupled with classroom activities that engage students with experiential learning.  I could wax on about the social constructionist benefits of Moodle, but I’ll save that for another rant.

To flip or not to flip – you decide.  There is more to heaven and earth than the “traditional classroom” – whatever that means…

lecture with audience

Should you want to look further into the flipped classroom model, there are plenty of websites on this subject.  A good overview can be found at the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University.

Also – a good article critically examining the flipped concept by Ian Bogost in the Atlantic can be found here.

A lively discussion on flipped classrooms can be found here.

Great article from an educator who tried the flipped classroom and found that it didn’t work for her.  A must read written by Shelley Wright.

Thoughts on the First Group – My Test Pilots

The learners I had in this MOODLE have now finished their classroom component of their program; they still have 10 weeks of co-op placement to complete.  For the first time ever, the learners in this Retail SLT program will need to continue to keep up their skills by completing weekly online tasks.  I’ll tell you why I think this is awesome.

Why I Think This Is Awesome:

In the past, when the learners left me, that was it.  When they left my classroom to spend 2 weeks at a local employment agency and then their 6 or 8 weeks at the retail partner, my role was completely finished.  They would only see me at the very end when they returned to the employment agency for their performance evaluations and their certificates of completion.

Learners would not need to do any review, reading, writing, etc because it was assumed that since they were at the retailer’s, they would be getting plenty of listening and speaking practice.  In addition, there is also a considerable measure of reading and CBT (computer-based training).  What we found was that learner’s spoken prowess increased significantly over the weeks of customer service and workplace interaction.  We also found that reading and writing skills either stayed the same, or, more often, weakened somewhat.

Thus, for my pilot group of retail ESL learners, I proposed to the Big Guy (aka my boss) that we keep the learners engaged in a self-study program aimed at improving reading and writing skills through weekly tasks and assignments, with a workplace/CLB focus.  Then we can offer the learners the opportunity to write their Reading and Writing outcomes at the end of their placements knowing that they have been exercising these skills throughout their co-op placements.  We have only been offering the Listening/Speaking outcomes up until now.

So,  the following list is why I think this MOODLE is awesome for my particular situation:

  1. learners get the chance to strengthen their reading and writing skills through weekly tasks and activities
  2. learners get to maintain the classroom relationships that they have developed (learners get split up into three different locations)
  3. learners get the chance to discuss in a safe and private place what their workplace experiences are like, and can get feedback from their instructor and peers
  4. learners can share their expertise with their peers in “spotlight” group forums – i.e. if learners are working in “Paint” and have learned a new skill or something particular important about a product or service, they can share it with others who are in the same department but at a different location
  5. learners can share their thoughts and ideas about customer service in Canada, and how best to serve the diverse population in which they live
  6. learners will get feedback from their instructor with regards to their writing and reading assignments (oh man, learnIT2Teach crew, if you can find *ANY* way to allow feedback to blogs, I would love you like a brotha from another motha…)

Now, my pilot group has just flown the coup – they have been at the employment agency for this week only.  I have checked to see whether or not they are looking in to the group, and only one member has checked and done his assignment this week.  They still have time – they can get caught up at the end of next week.  I have put these instructions in big, BOLD, letters in the news, so I am certain that they all know what is expected.

Also, this group has an advantage in the timing of the program.  I am presently on a non-teaching assignment, so my time is more flexible and I can maintain the site and produce and grade assignments.  Now if I had been given a regular CLB class, I am not sure how this part of the program could be maintained.  It is something that we need to look at, especially if the learners take advantage of it and use the program.

P.S.   As an editing teacher, I *really* like that we can track participants in MOODLE because this is going to be a deciding factor at the end of the program when we determine whether or not learners can do the Reading and Writing outcomes.  No logins, no activity, no chance to advance a level.