After the lunch break, we reconvened with Heather and Julie’s talk on Writing Skills for Effective 21st Century writing.
Julie started by giving us a bit of background into their research over the last few years, explaining that the work informing today’s session continues to build on what they have talked about at past conferences e.g. IATEFL last year.
Materials development should be at the interface of theory and practice but actually it isn’t: it takes a long time before theoretical recommendations can become pedagogically recognised. Findings from conversation analysis could help us to write more natural sounding dialogues, research into pragmatics could help us teach politeness, so there is lots of potential but…
“ELT is not a matter of bridging the gap between theory and practice, but closing it” (Widdowoson, ELTons June 2016).
“With Web 2.0 came technologies that afforded online interaction and user created materials and these altered the authorship paradigm, as well as blurring the line between materials and the tools that produce them. (Mishan and Timmis, 2015, p.79) – We put lots of things online, we see possibility for communicative interaction between students, but what are we going to do with all of that?
When doing this research, for ‘digital materials’ they took a very broad definition – any materials that use technology in some way. Their methodology involved use of focus groups and individual interviews and spoke to 8 writers and 11 editors/publishers.
These were used as a springboard for discussion with their participants rather than something rigid to be stuck to. The discussions were very interesting and yielded lots of rich data. We discussed some of the statements drawn out of the data:
The findings fit into 5 main categories:
- Technical differences
- Management of process
- Possibilities of digital (this category had more positive things)
- Commercial considerations (business issues, marketing issues)
First of all, a lot of people talked about working within parameters. Writing to a particular template/brief. There are a limited number of activity types within digital – these tend to be closed activities: drag and drop, gap-fill, matching, YES/NO… This is also because they tend to be self-study materials so need to be accessible to a student not mediated by a teacher. People also talked about mobile/tablet use and repurposing materials. You might not have long texts but three shorter texts, for example, in order to avoid too much scrolling on the smaller screen.
Mobile items can be quite bare and limited:
Secondly, often print material is being converted to digital materials, rather than people writing directly for digital. Materials can look the same in the course book as on the screen. However, activities designed for use in the classroom need to be changed to work in a digital format. The issue of feedback provision: What will you say when they provide the right answer? “Yay! You got it right!” vs. “Correct.” and what about when it’s wrong? Are you going to tell them why? If yes, it’s going to be very expensive because all the possible answers and reasons together with feedback would need to be input. So feedback needs to be cost effective. Having a variety of different acceptable answers is great but very expensive. To get around these issues, more sophisticated authoring tools are needed and therefore a lot of investment. The level of the product is low, very basic stuff BECAUSE of the limitation to the closed style questions, for the reasons of cost effectiveness already discussed.
Thirdly, you need to think in great detail about how the student or teacher will use it, what will be there on the screen? What will they need to do? What will be on the screen at the same time? You need to be able to visualise it (which requires experience of using it?). Scrolling issues add to the difficulty of reading comprehension and text length.
Lots of scrolling:
Finally, you need to think about layout issues. E.g. on a tablet when you tap for the keyboard and it takes up half the screen, will important things be obscured? When you offer the choice of answers, will the answer choices hide the question?!
Layout can be tricky:
Rubrics also need to be extra clear so that students can access them alone. Fonts need to be sans serif Sego to make it informal in ESOL materials. Colour is also important. Standardisation between publishers in template use would be nice!
Again, we discussed selected statements from the data:
Before hearing about the findings:
People were debating the usefulness of digital and what value it adds. Is it just about practice? Receptive skills? But how rich is the input to learners from these materials? Obviously it depends on the particular material but these were some general concerns. It could be useful for lower levels to be able to click on a video and hear instructions again, or hear a recording in shorter chunks as scaffolding. Are the the tasks types and questions too repetitive or do learners like that?
Lesson flow was another issue. Two pages of a coursebook can demonstrate some flow and some understanding of where you are going but if it is divided into 20 screens what happens to that? Feedback is an issue if something is marked wrong but is actually right because there is a stray full-stop, for example. Productive skills can also be problematic, because it is difficult to enable practice speaking or writing through digital materials. Students can record themselves but what do they do with that? What happens to the social aspect of the activity? People learning together and collaborating? Will the cost be increased? There are possibilities such as forums, chat rooms, blogs but the question surrounding all of these activities is that they are quite open activities – is that a problem? Would the learner see it as developmental or be disappointed as not getting a score after spending half an hour in front of their screen? The context of use and how that impacts on pedagogy is important here.
Cognitive load can, it was perceived, make certain listening tasks more difficult. E.g. listen and match/type/tap a box. All the tapping and typing as well focusing on the actual language. Therefore it is important to make the activity cognitively engaging but not the technical aspect of doing the activity!
Tablets and classroom management also came up. If you haven’t taught in a classroom where tablets are being used, then it is difficult to visualise the issues around it. Classroom management is affected – you need to control when the tablets are used and when focus is on teacher. If everyone has a tablet, activities could be differentiated quite easily, according to level or learning style. With listening, will you play it from the front or have students listening individually with headphones. That makes a big difference in how the activity is going to work. There are lots of possibilities to consider – how are they being used but also how COULD they be used?
Student engagement/user experience is important to consider as with some digital materials, there is no teacher to draw students in and engage them. Students might need more changes of focus than in the classroom, where interaction with other students and the teacher helps.
Adaptive learning was also something that came up in the discussions. It needs more thought for it to work properly. Adaptive learning also loses the “flow” mentioned earlier with course-book pages.
Is there too much material? It could be overwhelming but it could be a good thing, differing opinions – also depends on how it is exploited and the quality of the materials. Converting print to digital expands material as you have to build in extra scaffolding. It means that you end up with a huge body of material that can become quite unwieldy to produce and manage. You also have to consider the teacher training element – teachers are not trained to use all tools effectively because they don’t exist everywhere so it can’t be a standard element of ITT.
Finally, how are students actually learning from these products? What are they learning? Is it the most effective way to learn? This needs to considered, both for digital and for print. Why don’t we know? Access to classrooms is difficult for researchers, teachers don’t have time to look at it in detail themselves. End user experience is as important as the content itself. But it also requires longitudinal studies, which have their issues of expense and time and resources.
Some of the criticisms are equally applicable to print materials, if we consider print self-study materials as well. So it’s not just about print vs. digital.
Management of Process
Time started getting short at this point so we launched directly into hearing about the data:
Delivery – keep it simple, stick to the brief and be aware of the functionality of the software from the outset, as well as the style guidelines. (E.g. 24/7 in print but 24-7 in html). The template developer role is important. In an ideal world, the author would receive a sample unit of examples of activity types so that you could know exactly what you were aiming for and how it would work. It would also help if discussion was possible so you could check if things would work.
The scale of projects is ever more massive. The number of people and volume of material involved is greater than print which was already huge. Yet, schedules are tighter for digital as the student book is produced first but the digital package needs to launch with it on completion (!)
People expect digital to be quicker to produce but it is not so as there is more content required (videos, adaptive learning, assessment criteria). And, of course, the “editorial eye” is just as necessary, even if writers are writing directly into a template. Mistakes can happen and you need someone with an overview to pick up on those, which makes a huge number of screens to check.
In terms of self-publishing, you need to be thinking along the lines of detail required by a publisher’s book proposal form.
Possibilities of Digital
There are lots of opportunities:
- Plan Ceibal in Uruguay: Every student has a laptop, and there is the classroom teacher but also a remote teacher. This kind of thing impacts the materials developer role as you need materials for the remote teacher, support for the local teacher, materials that will go on the screens…
- British Council Nexus Project: Getting lower level learners online. Helping them developing digital literacy, self-confidence and motivation.
- Gamification – making things into games. Games in the classroom, apps outside the classroom, on laptops… Badges? Levels? Can be motivating.
- Augmented reality – second life type things, but also writing stories, producing scripts for animation on students’ screens in class (half the class see one thing, half the other).
- More writing opportunities for freelancers but… the downside is that some of the work is not particularly interesting or challenging, can be quite mechanical and set fees are becoming more common than royalties. Working just for a fee may impact motivation – what is your incentive to go off promoting the product in your time?
- It can be career enhancing to create online resources. Putting your own things online for people to use can get your name known and lead to other things…
<Missed that picture! Going full steam now!>
When publishers talk to customers and do market research, the customer can’t tell them what they want in terms of digital because they don’t really know what’s possible, which makes it difficult for them to articulate what they want and so for publishers to provide. Then there is the issue of predicting the market when technology is always changing, it is difficult to ‘future proof’ digital products. And what if a new game-changer comes out, so your new product suddenly looks dated as it launches? The issues of payment also arose in this category – should authors get royalties? Should the author role be promoted? The community of practice adds value to project, e.g. through the author promoting the product etc.
There is a lot of scope for materials (print and digital) to be more research informed. More research needs to be done into user experience of materials (funnily enough I was reading about this issue a few days ago in the intro to a mats dev book I borrowed from the ELTC library…edit: English Language Teaching Textbooks – Content, Consumption, Production edited by Nigel Harwood and published by Palgrave Macmillan)
A better quality of materials in digital would be good to see, going beyond the ‘workbook feel’, something more satisfying. Perhaps by incorporating different kinds of technology, making use of new possibilities.
Teachers need to be encouraged to research their own classrooms in this area. Training is also needed for how to integrate digital and print in the classroom. It’s really difficult for busy teachers to explore all the digital stuff and work out what would work well together in the classroom in terms of blending the digital and the non-digital.
Heather and Julie recommended How to write for digital media and How to write ESOL materials, both published by ELT Teacher2Writer and finished by showing us their reference list for this talk:
Another very interesting session with lots of discussion to get our teeth into! During this session I was sitting next to Antonia Clare, so it was really interesting, in the discussion elements, to hear about things from a long-time published author’s perspective.