“Exploring the Feasibility of E-Learning…”


Contact magazine just released its spring edition, and one article caught my attention right away: Exploring the Feasibility of E-Learning in Ontario ESL Programs by Geoff Lawrence et al.

Because I have been doing my own feasibility exploration, Lawrence’s report resonated with me.  One thing that I did notice, that I now seem to notice whenever I do any research on e-learning and LMS’s – is the use of the term “robust”.  It appears to be the adjective of the day to describe how engaging and attractive a computer program is.  The term always reminds me of coffee.


Yes.  I can see the red squiggly line under the above title.  The word, however, has been adapted into the Urban Dictionary to mean “the power to perform with great vigor, if not overkill.”

Why the anthropomorphism of a Learning Management System?  Well, it makes perfect sense to inject some element of life into it.  Computers and programs often do take on their own personalities.  An LMS that inspires conversation and engages the participants is considered robust and lively.  One that lacks this je ne sais quois eventually dies out due to disinterest.

computer is alive

So, how about the FEASIBILITY?

Incorporating e-learning into mainstream adult ESL programs is going to take some time.  Also, stop signs are red.

Unsurprisingly, there is sometimes a disconnect between what administrators want and what instructors envision.  As I have noted here, there is not going to be widespread buy-in of e-learning from the teachers, especially if e-learning initiatives are dumped on them en masse, with little training and outdated computer labs.

Admin has got to put their money where their collective mouths are.  Do you really want to make your site e-learning friendly?  Then you have got to invest in the infrastructure firstly.  Next, you have to hunt down a dedicated posse of instructors who have the requisite KSA*s  to use e-learning.  Then you have to ensure that this group can develop these skills (read: paid and continuous professional development).    This tech-savvy group needs to:

  1. develop their own skills – get caught up on what is available
  2. explore different e-learning opportunities and decide which one would best suit both the learners at that particular site and the instructors who would be using
  3. present findings to colleagues in a PD-sharing moment
  4. address concerns by colleagues in said moment
  5. begin to roll out the e-learning themselves
  6. continue to develop and learn about e-learning by attending conferences and reading stuff
  7. have dedicated time (outside of teaching time) to the maintenance and honing of their e-learning skills (use it or lose it applies here big time – I have not logged onto my teacher website in two months and have now forgotten how to get onto the site…I need to dig out my notes because I  have not kept this skill active)
  8. act as peer support for colleagues who will be expected to develop some e-learning platforms

Once all of these factors are nailed down, then you start rolling out your e-learning initiatives.

One thing that needs to be figured out fairly early on is how the e-learning platform is going to work?  Is it:

  • a tool that is to be used in a CALL environment with no at-home expectations?
  • part of a blended learning curriculum that has a significant amount of face-to-face (say 80% f2f and 20% at home)?
  • part of a flipped classroom with the significant e-learning to be done independently with some dedicated check-in with an instructor (20% F2F and 80% at home)?
  • completely done online, with maybe only the final outcomes done in the presence of an instructor?
  • both a CALL tool and a homework tool?

Lawrence et al encourage the e-learning to have a significant amount of face-to-face time to assuage the isolation that learners can feel when they are not a part of a classroom.  Also, from the “Flipping the MOOC” article I referred to in an earlier blog, the instructor noted that flipping the classroom resulted in far more learner alienation, and a loss of some of the joys of teaching that instructors often feel when delivering a well prepared and engaging lecture.  As a learner in Lawrence’s report said:

“We need to keep the human feel in the class… the teacher is very important in motivating me and helping me to learn.”  (Lawrence, 2014)

E-learning is coming… no doubt about that.    Now, excuse me.  I’ve got to get back to my LMS – she’s been very fussy lately…

*Knowledge, Skills, Abilities


Last week, I asked two of my Retail students who are presently on a co-op placement, to come back the classroom to make a Podcast about their experience with using the Learning Management System.  Both immediately agreed to come in, and were excited to do so.  That was a relief; I was a little worried that this would be like pulling teeth.skills-podcasting

I arranged this myself.  I called their HR managers to let them know what was going on.  I think I made the mistake of explaining the project in too much detail to her.  She appeared to have been multitasking at the same time, but pleasantly agreed to let the two learners off for the day.  When I contacted them, I asked if the manager had told them what we were going to do.

Claudia said yes.  And that she was excited to do a radio interview for the CBC.

I knew I should have comprehension-checked the HR manager!  Regardless, I cleared it up with Claudia and Diego (who seemed more relaxed to know that it was not a live radio interview with CBC).

The Podcast Procedure

When I fired off an email to the media centre explaining my project, I was actually just wanting a microphone.  Our lab has headsets with a mic attached, but only one person can record at a time.

So, I ended up with a monstrous mixer board which came with an encyclopedia of instructions, over 75 feet of cable, two standup microphones, and two other microphones whose purpose I could never entirely figure out.  I used the program “Audacity” to do the recordings. The recordings could easily be converted into an MP3 file.

What Claudia & Diego Had To Say

I chose one learner who I knew already had some technological competence, and one who didn’t.  Diego, the one who didn’t, was an interior designer and I was interested in his opinion on the layout of the program.

They both talked about the program’s user friendliness.  Doing a task was fairly straight-forward.  Diego wished he had known about all the units we never had time to do.  He always did the front matter and didn’t know to scroll down to see what else was there.  Looking through the LMS prior to the interview, Diego was surprised to encounter the other LINC tasks on the site – that was my fault.  I should have made sure the class knew that there were many other activities on the site that they had access to that would help with their LINC 5-7 Reading/Writing/Listening skills.

Both are currently using technology in the workplace.  Claudia is using several different computer programs; one is very cool.  It’s the retailer’s colour-match program that involves taking a colour sample, scanning it, then working through the system to create the exact colour that the customer wants.  I actually got to see her do this at the co-op a few days after the Podcast.  She was beaming as she took me through the stages.

Diego took me through a product-search program on his workspace computer. He showed me how to enter the product code, and how to maneuver through the system to find out if the product is in the store.  He did this with ease.  This is the guy who sat at the computer on the first day of class with a deer-caught-in-headlights look in his face.

Lessons Learned

Diego and Claudia  were under no obligation to approve or disapprove of the LMS.  I had to press them to get them to talk about anything that they thought could be improved.  Their overall impressions were that gaining confidence using technology was very important.  Technology is used in the workplace, and the employer expects some understanding of basic computer functions.  Using the LMS helped in this regard.

Also, making podcasts is relatively simple.  I may be doing more of them in the future – sans 75 feet of cable and the 40 pound mixer.

Stage 4 – Ready to go…

It Must’ve Been The Game

The downloading issues, and extreme slowness at school on Friday, I figure it must have been because every staff member and credit student was tuned into the Olympics hockey game.   I was thinking that maybe this speed is just how it is, that I’m going to have to get used to it.  Then I went home.

canadian_olympics.jpg.size.xxlarge.promoI don’t always take my work home, but when I get started on something, I usually want to finish it.  Especially if it’s cool.  So I loaded up the home PC and tried again to get through the material in Unit 3 of Stage 4.  It was lightning fast.  Point, click, video…  So I downloaded Hot Potatoes, WebSequitur, and WebRhubarb.  And the downloads did not take 1.5 hours.  Done in minutes.

Plan for My Course

The next thing I have to do is to start laying out the course and then create some Web 2.0 material for the group.  I am a visual person, so I need to see the course.  I’m going to need to set up a calendar, because I don’t want any time-related surprises.  Often I think of the course in 12 evenly distributed 1-week chunks.  I forget stuff like PD days, minor holidays, field trip days.  I’ve already got at least 5 field trip days planned, so already, 5 days gone.

From what I’ve learned already in Stage 4 (which, by the way, never ever google “stage 4” thinking you’re going to find a clever graphic), I know that I am going to look more into developing a WebQuest for the group.  I like that idea quite a bit, and think that it will work well with a Retail theme.

My Short List

  • make up a calendar for the next retail class
  • field trip plan: Fabricland, Bridal/Tuxedo shops (for fitting language), The Bay, Fanshawe College (Costume Design), WIL
  • enter the outlines into the course
  • find out how to add the students to the course (in Stage 3, I was given a number of logins)
  • start creating material using Hot Potatoes
  • talk with Jim about what I’m supposed to be doing (maybe this should be first…)

I knew I was always going to do Stage 4, and now I wish I had budgeted my time better back in January so I could have started it sooner.  There is a lot to get to know.  And the Unit/Topic #3 stuff?  I def. will be watching the videos more than once, especially once I start putting the material together.

I wish that there was a larger Stage 4 community so we could bounce ideas off of each other.  As it is, if you look at the forum, there hasn’t been action there in a year in some cases.  I feel like I’m the only person on the planet doing Stage 4.  And I know that one of my colleagues is as well.  We had once been logged on at the same time, and I excitedly sent her a message from the site, but never heard back.  You have to know to check your messages or they all just sit there in the virtual mailbox forever.

How Important Are the Tools…

Patience is a Virtue…

I know that waiting for something is not one of my strong suits.  Waiting for programs to load, waiting for a video to queue, waiting for a doc to be downloaded…  I am, at this moment, waiting for something from Hot Potatoes to load onto my work computer.  I have been waiting since lunch, which is now about an hour and a half ago.

Occasionally at work, things slooooowwww down to a crawl.  The computers aren’t all that old; it just seems that there are definite peak times when every credit student with a smart-phone is logged onto their student account doing highly useful educational things.  If I seem irked, how perceptive of you to notice.  The irksomeness stems partly from this bandwidth issue, and from the no-ESL-students allowed policy at my school.  Credit students can straddle our bandwidth and ride it all they like; ESL students are not given accounts.  We’ve asked.  They’ve said no.

Hey Hey, Got Some Action Finally…

Somewhere in the middle of the last paragraph, my Hot Potatoes install finally clicked on.  When I checked download status in Chrome, it said “estimated time – 1 day.”  Now, I know that isn’t true. Chrome tends to exaggerate the size of its fish, but come on – almost 1.5 hours?

Today seems to be particularly hard on our poor bandwidth.  YouTube videos struggle, and then give up about a third of the way through.  Stuff from the LIT2Teach site also takes excessive amounts of time.  I want to point, click, count to three, and then see the fruits of my labour.  Is that too much to ask?  Is it really necessary to have a book to read while pages load?

Lightning speed PCs with huge bandwidth… mmmm… I can see it now.

The “flip” is a flop?

Wondering what MOOC stood for, I did a quick Google search about an hour ago and came across this article by Steve Blank.  (MOOC, by the way, stands for Massive Open Online Course.)

Blank, who apparently teaches to scientists at Stanford, tried to flip his classroom, and noted that there were a number of benefits, but ultimately, he needed to modify the flip and make it a sort of a hybrid.  The true flipped classroom offers the lectures via video and then the in-class component is to be more of a hands-on, demonstrate learning type of thing.

Blank likes the technology, and since he’s teaching a group of scientists, wanted to find a way to make this style work.  He is still using an online component, but has chosen to continue to present and lecture in person.  Doing so by video or webinar seemed to distance him from the learners.  His hybrid model looks like this:


I think this is where online learning is going – the true “flip” won’t work for every group of learners.  The online learning component works best when it is used as one tool, used in the CALL lab, and not as a substitute for lectures and teacher presentations.

Anyhow, that’s my thought for this morning.


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.


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.


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.

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.