The theme for the 39th ELT Blog Carnival is Blogging with Students and it is a timely theme for me: With adult courses coming to an end this week, my first experiment with using a blog in the language classroom has also reached its conclusion. This was done with my Advanced class, which took place twice a week, at 1hr20 a pop, for approximately four months. It was an interesting class in terms of demographic: There were 7 students in total, 3 of whom were middle-aged and 4 of whom were teenagers (but older teenagers, coming to the end of their school years).
My goal in using the blog with these learners was:
To give them additional opportunities for using English and to harness it as a tool to help in the development of learner autonomy.
I’ve learnt a lot from the experiment and am looking forward to trying again with another group of students, using what I’ve learnt this time around.
How I did it:
I created the blog on WordPress (I don’t know how to use any other blogging software currently!), naming it after the class, and introduced it several lessons in to the course (it got delayed by a lesson due to technical issues but I’d delayed it until that initial technical issues attempt for other reasons – see “What do I think…” below), giving learners the user name / password, demonstrating use and clarifying that they needed to put their name in brackets after their post title so that we could know whose was whose. I mostly used the blog for homework with them initially – with the idea of modelling potential uses of it. One thing that I found very interesting is that half way through the course, I gave the learners the opportunity to discuss the use of the blog and how they’d like to use it. They came up with some great ideas (which I am going to steal and try to implement with future classes! 😉 ) but mostly they did not implement them. They also wondered if having their own log-ins would be better but then agreed that it actually wouldn’t change anything in the great scheme of things. However, in conjunction with other learner autonomy development tools, some of the learners did use the blog autonomously as well as for the activities I set as homework. Given that 4/7 were swamped with school work and tests, while 3/7 had full-time jobs and family commitments, I can understand why the ideas were there but the action wasn’t, and particularly admire those who did make time to use the blog autonomously.
What did the students really think of the blog?
Well, I collected final feedback in two different ways: feedback questionnaires, which covered various activities/tools used with the group, and reflective pieces in which students were asked to look back on what they’d learnt from the course and evaluate it – NB the brief was very vague, I did not ask them specifically to write about the blog or the other “extra” activities used, but just to reflect on what they’ve learnt and what they found useful. (These were published on the blog! *still awaiting a few more of these to be submitted…). Here are a couple of soundbites:
From a reflective piece, looking back on the course:
What I appreciated most was that most of these activities were often intended to foster interaction among participants by different forms of technical communication, such as publishing texts on the school blog. By drawing upon constant web-based practice it succeeded in offering a fresh approach to language production.
From another reflective piece:
The use of the blog was also encouraging to use english outside class in many different ways.
From a feedback form in space provided beneath each question for further comment on the number circled:
It helped us to have feedback even when not in class and it was a great way to learn English in a new, less traditional way.
From another feedback form:
I liked the blog idea. […] The blog is a very useful tool and it could be exploited even more.
Due to the nature of the feedback forms, students were able to expand on what they wanted to, so some talked more about the other tools/activities used. However, the four extracts above are from four different students.
One piece of feedback which reflects my approach to using the various tools/activities, including the blog is this:
The teacher made the tools not compulsory, which was already the best way to use them.
It was in response to “How could the teacher make these tools/activities more useful for you?” More on this in my forthcoming webinar on learner autonomy.
What do I think of the blog/”blogging with students”?
I’m very pleased that it went down so well with the students, despite their time, or lack thereof, issues and I absolutely agree with the student who thinks it could be exploited even more. That is something I will be mulling over before kicking off with the next course. Now that I am more comfortable with the process (it can be ever so daunting introducing something new, that you haven’t used with students before – even if, like me, you are familiar with blogging for your own purposes! I was incredibly nervous when I introduced it, hence putting off a few lessons before I did so – I had to really push myself to do it but I’m very glad that I did!), I think it will be easier to refine it and maximise on the potential that lies in it, both in terms of opportunity for using English outside of class and in terms of learner autonomy development.
One thing that blogging with students does enable is more interesting, interactive homework. (This is also true of Edmodo, which I have used with my other classes, with very positive feedback) You can get them to do writing tasks with a real communicative purpose, which require them to read each others writing and respond to it meaningfully, and which are also good fun. (I will dedicate a future blog post to ideas for using a blog or Edmodo for interactive, communicative homework… )
Teachers may worry that having a class blog will create a lot of extra work for them. Maybe it does a bit: it’s important to respond to learners’ work. One problem I had with this was simply forgetting to open the blog and check for new work, because in my main browser, I’m logged into my own blog and so I used a different browser to be able to be logged into the class blog at the same time. However, it’s a lot easier to mark homework that is typed and that you can copy/paste and reformulate/refine than it is to decipher student handwriting and try to squeeze feedback into any available space. The student can then compare their work with the feedback in the comments, without being put off by all the pen marks (and possibly struggling to decipher the teacher’s handwriting! 😉 ) and the piece of work stays filed away on the blog, enabling easy comparison with future pieces of work. I also think the benefits do definitely outweigh what we, as teachers, need to put in for it to run smoothly.
One thing I did not tap sufficiently is the blog’s potential as a reflective tool – ironic, given the name of my blog and my penchant for reflection! Also, because I’ve been trialling various things, the trialling has occurred as and when the ideas arose in response to what has been happening in my classrooms. It’s all been super-interesting but definitely not very…smooth. Now that I have a stock of ideas and a clearer idea of how to approach using the tools, including the blog, I hope I will be able to tap its potential more effectively. Of course, I will still respond to what emerges in individual classes, so more ideas will be born and existing ones adapted, but having a core of existent ideas gives the project more of a backbone and frees me up to focus on tweaking and identifying new ways to exploit the blog further, both as a communicative tool and a learner autonomy development tool. Already the ideas are bubbling away in my mind… 😉
Another avenue of potential that I’d like to explore is that of converting the accumulation of learner work on the blog into a learner language corpus. This could then feed back into work done in the classroom, in a variety of ways. This would also be possible with Edmodo. One would copy the texts over from whichever platform and store them in plain text format, before analysing them with a corpus analysis tool. I can envisage also having a corpus for each level, so that over time, the more classes I use these tools with, the bigger each corpus would become. There would perhaps be potential for comparative work, where learners analyse their own class corpus in relation to a higher level and gain a clearer picture of where they are and what they are working towards. Or compare with a lower level, to gain a clearer idea of their own progress. Or compare with an established corpus, native- or non-native speaker-based, such as the BNC or VOICE.
I think technology, especially that which enables opportunities for genuine communication, has a lot to offer language learning, if it’s used in a pedagogically sound fashion, where there are clear aims and benefits inherent in the uses made of it. In my current context, it offers students a valuable means of communicating in English between classes, which is important as, being in Palermo, there is not a lot of opportunity for using English outside of class time. They clearly recognise this and I hope that with future classes, my use of the blog and its integration into the course will be smoother and more effective so that the benefits are maximised.
I’m really looking forward to reading the other blogposts in this carnival, and anticipate hopefully that they will form a lovely little resource for teachers looking to use a blog with one or more of their classes. To any teachers who have been thinking about trying it but been too nervous too: Just jump in and give it a go! It’s not actually that scary (I’ve discovered!), in fact, it’s a lot of fun and very rewarding – for teacher and students alike.