All of a sudden we are 5 weeks into term. This week, also known as 5+1 (so not to get it mixed up with teaching week 6, which is next week) is Learning Conversations week (the closest we get to half term, and only in the September term!) so it seemed a good time to take stock and see how things are going with Google Communities, following my introductory post from many moons ago.
Firstly, it must be said that the situation has changed since I wrote that first post: Now, all teachers are required to use GC instead of my Group on MOLE (the university brand of Blackboard VLE) because we had trouble setting up groups on MOLE at the start of this term. Nevertheless, I am carrying on with my original plan of reflecting and evaluation on my use of GC with my students because I think it is a valuable thing to do!
In order to evaluate effectively, I wanted to have the students’ perspective as well as my own, I posted a few evaluative questions in the discussion category of each of my classes’ GC page.
So, no science involved, no Likert scales, no anonymity, just some basic questions. (The third question was because I thought I might as well get their views on how the lessons are going so far at the same time!) I’m well aware of the limitations of this approach BUT then again I’m not planning to make any great claims based on the feedback I get and I’m not after sending a write-up to the ELTJ or anything like that either (would need all manner of ethical approval to do that!). I did try to frame the questions positively e.g. “What do you think would improve the way we use GC?” rather than “What don’t you like about GC?” so that the students wouldn’t feel like responding to the question wasn’t a form of criticism and therefore feel inhibited. An added benefit is that it pushes them to be constructive regarding future use rather than just say how they feel about the current use of it.
Before I go into the responses I’ve had from students, however, it would make sense to summarise how I’ve been using the GCs with them. I recently wrote about GCs for the British Council TeachingEnglish page (soon to be published) and the way I came up with for describing them in that post was “a one-stop shop for everything to do with their [students] AES classes” and that is basically what it has become:
I would say the main use I have made of it is to share materials relating to lessons, mostly in advance of the lessons – TedTalks, newspaper articles etc – but also useful websites and tools, for individual use or class use – AWL highlighter, Quizlet, Vocab.com etc. Finally, it is great for sharing editable links to Google Docs, which we use quite often in class for various writing tasks. Other than these key uses, I have also used it to raise students’ awareness of mental health issues and the mental health services offered to students by the university, during Mental Health Week here (which coincided with World Mental Health Day) and to raise their awareness of the students union and what it offers to them.
In terms of student feedback, they think it’s “convenient”, “easy to use” and they “enjoy using” it. They also mention the ability to comment on posts (not present with My Group on MOLE) and communicate outside of the classroom as well as in it. In terms of suggestions for improvement, one student said students should use it to interact more frequently but that it should be clear which posts are class content and which are sharing/interaction. A couple of students also said they’d like the Powerpoints used in class to be uploaded there. However, those are available on MOLE. The trouble, of course, is that in using GC rather than My Group (which is on MOLE), students are a lot more tuned into GC (which we use all the time) than MOLE. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but I suspect that be it academically or personally, if you have to use multiple platforms you tend to gravitate towards one, or some, more than others rather than using them all equally, particularly if time is very limited, as it is for busy students! (I could be wrong – if you know of any relevant studies let me know!) Unfortunately GC cannot fully replace MOLE as students need to learn how to use it in preparation for going to university here and they need to submit coursework assignments to Turnitin via MOLE. Perhaps, then I need to come up with ways to encourage them to go from one to the other and back, so they don’t forget about ‘the other’…
In terms of future use, I have set up a little experiment in that as part the of Learning Conversations that are taking place this week, we have to decide on Smart Actions that the students are supposed to carry out. E.g.
Go to Useful Websites on MOLE and explore the ‘Learning Vocabulary’ websites available. Tell your teacher which websites you visited and what you learnt from them by the final AES lesson of Week 6.
Some of them, like the above, lend themselves to posting on GC. In this way, not only do they tell me what they have learnt but also they share that learning with the rest of their classmates. So, in their learning conversations, whenever the Smart Action(s) were amenable to this plan, I have been encouraging students to use GC to communicate the outcome to me and share the learning with the rest of the class. We will see how it goes, if they do post their findings etc. Be interesting to see what happens! Another idea I’ve had is to do something along the lines of “academic words of the week”, where I provide a few choice academic words along with definitions, collocations, examples of use and a little activity that gives them a bit of practice using them, and get them to also make a Quizlet vocabulary set collaboratively (I have a Quizlet class set up for each class). Then perhaps after every couple of weeks we could do an in-class vocabulary review activity to see what they can remember.
Finally, it seems to me that Monday, being the first day of the second half of the term, is a crucial opportunity to build on student feedback by getting them to discuss ways in which we could use the GC for more interactive activities and find out what they’d be interested in having me share other than class-related materials and the occasional forays into awareness-raising that I have attempted. The key thing that I want them to take away is that I want the GC to work for them and that I am very much open to ideas from them as to how that should be, so that it becomes a collaborative venture rather than a teacher-dominated one.
We shall see what the next five weeks hold… Do you have any other ideas for how I could use GCs more effectively? Would love to hear them if you do!