Sunday, April 12, 2020

Teacher training in the time of COVID-19: From modeling blended workshops in Thailand to TALIN, Teaching and Learning in IsolatioN

Overview in a Nutshell

In my last post I was reflecting (when I wasn't dreaming) on my experience one week into the eLearning component of my English Language Specialist assignment through RELO Bangkok. I had been asked to prepare a set of blended workshops (partially online, partially face-to-face) on “Using multiliteracies and 21st century skills and tools in your own professional development” and on “Writing in tech-enhanced multiliterate classrooms” for delivery to university teachers of English and second and third year education students at various university language centers and institutes around Thailand. The workshops were prepared for delivery through a blended learning platform, based at, which I created using free tools available online, with intent to model for participants how they could implement flipped and blended learning in their own classrooms and with their own students as I had been doing in my own classes throughout the latter part of my teaching career.

This was followed by a plenary at Thai TESOL on flipped learning, and then by the 3-week online learning course on Learning how to create and use a blended learning classroom which I had created in Schoology, also a free tool, and which at the time of my last post, I was one week into facilitating.

The online course was intended to allow the participants in the workshops to engage in consultation with me, the EL Specialist, on the concepts introduced in the workshops. As the timing of this eLearning course coincided with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic during which many teachers participating in the online course were being thrust into totally online environments with little preparation, my work took on special relevance as it became apparent that those who had already been practicing blended learning techniques were best equipped to adapt to the new circumstances. In hopes of modeling for others how they might move from blended to completely online environments, the materials for the workshops, eLearning, and ongoing community space have been left online where anyone can explore them (at and from there to reach the links embedded in some of the text above).

A Broader Overview

As one who specializes in teaching languages through technology, and having been invited to come to Thailand and give two intensive weeks of workshops as an English Language Specialist, I had to first propose a menu of workshops that teachers and students at university language centers in Thailand might be interested in. To my relief only two of my topics were chosen, and then I had free reign to design materials to fit those topics. I like to work online, and when face to face teaching is involved, this is often what is meant by 'blended'.

I had also agreed to give a plenary on flipped learning at Thai TESOL, so my idea was to place materials online in advance for both the workshops and the plenary which participants could access beforehand, then present the materials to the live audience and participants, and finally leave all the materials online for participants to explore later, and in the case of the workshops link to artifacts left online by the many participants in those workshops.

You almost replay and reconstruct the plenary from my Learning2gether blog post here

The eLearning component was due to take place for three weeks after the two weeks of workshops and the Thai TESOL conference. My purview as I understood it was not to re-teach what I had taught in the workshops, but to act as a consultant for participants to explore the tools more deeply and apply them to their context. So I set up an interactive environment in Schoology that linked back to what I had presented before, and set projects, one for each week, meant to get participants to use the tools in “Creating and Using Blended Learning Classrooms”, the title of the online course.

When I went to Thailand at the end of January, COVID-19 was just becoming a concern. By the time I wrapped up the online course on March 11 schools were starting to shut down worldwide and it was becoming apparent that what I had been doing the previous six weeks, modeling how to teach f2f in a blended learning environment and then transitioning that to online in my eLearning course, had some potential as a model for others to follow suit in their new circumstances. Participants we spoke to during the course who were having the least difficulty taking their teaching online were ones who were already working in blended learning environments. In that case all that was needed was a synchronous classroom space, such as Zoom. But the first challenge to making that transition is to understand and become familiar with the basic components of a blended learning classroom.

There was a common thread uniting all of these activities. All modeled the flipped learning approach, whereby materials were put online in advance of the workshops and plenary. The participants could have seen them before each event, but while participating, I explicitly encouraged them to access to the materials, and in every case the complete set of materials was left online for follow up and further exploration by the participants or anyone else who might come along afterwards.

Here's what I left online and where to find it. It’s all available for use under creative common license, attribution / share alike.

The blended workshop course materials which I introduced face-to-face at several locations in Thailand are here:
These records were made of my plenary and workshop at Thai TESOL
The eLearning course portal through which I facilitated use of the materials from the workshops is here:

The Workshops

The workshops aimed to create a model of a teacher who him- or herself models effective ways of learning to his or her students. I hoped to be that role model for the participants in my workshops by giving them a variety of things to do through an interface that any one of them could themselves create in their own classes (not using any tools that would need to be purchased). Blended learning implies that there are various modalities to that learning, one usually being face-to-face, as in a classroom. So it encourages teachers to have a web portal through which they can work in a transparent way where everyone can find course materials in a predictable location, not handed out to be stored in binders that students may or not have with them on a given day in class, or for other reasons not be able to get access to in the disorder of their binders.

Online access has its drawbacks as well, but is in the long run a more stable and more efficient platform in contexts where the technology supports it. So my workshops were aimed at modeling how to set up blended learning environments that the participants could bring up on their devices, explore and interact with during the workshop, and take home with them at the end of it along with some ideas on creating their own.

The eLearning Component

This brought us into the final phase of the project, the eLearning. Timed to begin about three weeks after the end of the on-site blended component, I understood that I was to set up consultations for any participants in the workshops who would like to explore blended learning in greater depth one-on-one with the English Language Specialist. Accordingly I set up a Schoology portal for it with interactive forums which linked for content to the workshop materials I had put online for the face-to-face workshops. I structured the 3-weeks of the course to encourage further exploration of the tools for blended learning, and assigned participants a project at the end of each week. The first was to use digital tools to create a digital poster of some kind, the second was to craft a digital story, and the third was to create a lesson or a portal that might mount online something the participants would want to teach. For each project I created my own model examples, and highlighted the work of participants who completed theirs.

Few participants carried out any of these assignments, but the course coincided with increasing concern over the COVID-19 pandemic. By the second week of the course, schools in Thailand and elsewhere were starting to close, and there was a sudden need for teachers to learn quickly how to move into purely online environments. It turned out from our webinars that teachers who had best succeeded at doing that quickly had already been using blended learning in their face-to-face classes, and as one teacher from Korea told us, if you were working from an existing blended portal, to go online, “just add Zoom”. It’s probably not that simple, but this was in fact what my online course was modeling, going from the blended learning format that I had modeled at my face-to-face workshops in Thailand, to a completely online one now that I had returned home and was working to carry on these consultancies in a totally online space.

Of the 42 people who signed up for the eLearning, only a few were from Thailand, but I had opened the course up to my wider network in an effort to bring in multiple voices and perspectives, and increase the volume of interaction. It is common for people to register in online courses and then not participate (i.e. lurk) but by the end of the three weeks there were 23 unique participants who had joined us at some point. This is not a huge number, but our 10 webinars remained consistently attended, and from the recordings you can see where the ones in March became increasingly focused on the need for teachers to come to grips with technology that would help them to engage their students in meaningful learning in their increasingly isolated situations.


It is not easy to predict how a project will evolve over the course of its delivery considering what is learned day to day in meeting participants where they normally work and study and learning more about their contexts each day, and altering one’s product as a result of each encounter. One great advantage to working in an online space is that changes can be made daily if necessary (and often were) to reflect what was learned one day and thereby improve the next encounter. Thus many parts of my workshops were changed, even the emphasis and order of presentation of materials, from the first week to the next. And also, what participants can see now online for their workshops is likely improved slightly over what they actually did in those workshops, especially if I met them in the first week.

The eLearning course was even more susceptible to subtle and not so subtle feedback from participants on a day to day basis. Because so few of the expected participants (from Thailand) signed up for the eLearning, I had to discern the interest of those who did pretty much on the fly and tweak the course accordingly. In other eLearning courses I have conducted where there is no extrinsic reason for participants to be there (no certificates or fulfilment of prerequisites for a larger goals), the course has to respond to their interests and curiosity, and I have found that participants might not have much motivation to perform the exercises envisaged for them by the facilitator, whereas they might more wholeheartedly engage in interactions more meaningful to them. As Jay Cross once put it, people love to learn but they hate to be taught, so my most successful online ventures have been ones where the community drives the curriculum, and I have sustained communities of practice for as long as 20 years now on the strength of the mutual interests of their participants.

What happened with this eLearning course was that it became especially relevant to that group of participants who were both active in the course and who were also having to suddenly meet their students online. In addition it was becoming apparent, especially after our March 1 webinar, that blended learning was a critical precursor to moving courses online, and also that this is exactly what was being modeled in this course. So we began focusing on this aspect, especially in the last webinars in week three, where we started attracting teachers from around the world to share with us how they were coping with the abrupt shift in expectations of how they would be teaching their students in the near future.

The Aftermath in time of COVID-19

The course ended on March 11 but not the interest in this topic, which was starting to impact students, their teachers, and trainers of those teachers all over the world. In my case, I don’t teach students per se, but I interact with colleagues from all over the world in numerous online spaces as well as as face-to-face conferences, such as the TESOL conference in Denver, which were then on the verge of being canceled. TESOL and the CALL Interest section, to name just two professional associations, were scrambling to identify resources for their members, and the topic was not going away.

So I took steps to perpetuate the blended learning course community by creating a MOOC / Community, a space for open ended interaction, which I left up as a permanent announcement on the Schoology course, and as a link from the sidebar of the Blended Learning Workshops wiki here:

In that document I outlined how the community could move itself forward in pursuit of its exploration of resources for dealing with COVID-19.  Under the heading of What can you do here? there are two suggestions. One is that community members could help us crowd-source resources for people having to transition suddenly from face-to-face to online. For that purpose I set up a crowd-sourced Google Doc on which anyone with the link could write, here

I began to move community suggestions into a page I had set up in the last week of the course

I had also set up a listserv for the MOOC / Community space at  However this list only attracted 3 course participants besides myself. Meanwhile though, other communities I was in were starting to jell around the issue; in particular

TALIN, Teaching and Learning in IsolatioN

Webheads in Action is a community that I had started 20 years ago. It had been experiencing a gradual revival slowly on its own but this accelerated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This prompted me to take yet another initiative which I called TALIN, Teaching and Learning in IsolatioN. The idea for TALIN was prompted by suggestions in what I called “numerous cross-fertilizing communities of practice that there was needed a space where members of these CoPs could meet online and talk informally to one another about how they are dealing with changes in their personal and professional contexts and what they are doing to help others in this trying time of pandemic.”

I set up TALIN in another crowd-sourced Google Doc at TinyURL:, but this one requires users to request edit access and provide credentials. I even created a Facebook page for it at Since that group’s creation around the first of April, the Facebook group has attracted 24 members, and the group has held or is planning a webinar every two days through the first three weeks in April. I expect this to be sustained for as long as schools are closed for the pandemic, but the group is under my umbrella, and its activities should extend the number of podcasts produced since 2010 to well over 450.

So, as regards sustainability, successful efforts appear to be strongly community-based. As Clay Shirkey so well explained in his book Cognitive Surplus, such movements are motivated by some collective desire to achieve outcomes mutually beneficial to a group, and they work only as long as they are free, inclusive, and driven bottom-up. Many well-meaning initiatives are driven top-down, and these are the ones that are hardest to sustain. But as we see from this example, the movement might be sustained but be in danger of losing its connection with its original impetus.

Find more about TALIN here from a presentation I gave on May 9, 2020 at the Virtual Round Table Web Conference organized by Heike Philp:


My experience in Thailand was highly positive. The work was challenging but the Thai participants were gracious and appreciative, and receptive to learning and experimenting with new tools. At the end of each workshop, one participant was tasked with standing before the group and delivering some words of thanks for the time we had just spent together, and then everyone would put their palms together and nod respectfully and in unison in my direction. I was particularly pleased with the way I was encouraged to create the materials I used in whatever way I saw fit, and with the hospitality and logistical support of the RELO office in Bangkok.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

When I wasn't dreaming

Last night, when I wasn't dreaming, I was thinking. Now I'm a week into the eLearning course which I managed to get set up for a kickoff webinar that was delayed to February 20. You  can find the description of the course here,, and here's the recording of the first webinar:

I had been given reassurance that the course would go ahead as planned when the RELO team in Bangkok informed me on February 8 that they were about to start promoting it. I was at CamTESOL in Phnom Penh at the time with a workshop to give the following day, and the day after that my beautiful assistant Bobbi and I flew to Thailand on a well-deserved break, having pre-paid for diving for three days. I downloaded Schoology manuals on my cell phone and took them on the boat with me, but didn't have much time or energy to focus on the eLearning course from the 8th until the day we spent transiting airports February 14, and I woke up in Penang on the 15th with only two days before the planned start of the course.

The first snag had been that I really didn't know much about Schoology, the platform I had selected on the basis of having experienced courses which others had developed, and been a collaborator on one that someone else had set up. Had I finally over-extended myself this time? I had come to the realization that there was a lot about Schoology that was not intuitive and that others had done for me in the past. So I had to set a full day aside to start googling my questions about Schoology and then systematically read the hits on the manuals that Schoology had thoughtfully placed on line to help users get started with the tool. Through this effort I was soon in position to get the course set up.

By then RELO Bangkok and I had decided to start with the first webinar on Feb 20, but the next problem was getting the course populated. There were not many respondents from Thailand to the announcements about the course from the week before and the original start date of Feb 17 came and went with only a 4 participants signed up besides another handful who were in other ways associated with managing the course. But RELO Bankok was amenable to my reaching out to my other networks, and once I had posted an invitation to my Facebook groups and on three TESOL Communities lists, we had 30 people registered before day of the first webinar on Feb 20.

Because the course had been planned as follow-up consultancies for participants whom it was assumed would have mostly been familar the my workshops at, I had not built in any tutorial materials into the mix, and I had no idea who the new participants were, so I set up discussion forums asking who they were and why there were there. And on Feb 20, a few of them appeared at the opening webinar and I began to get an understanding of what direction the course should take. When we should meet was the first issue, but I was able to set up a kind of calendar once I discovered the participants responding were in South America (EST time zone), the Middle East, Thailand of course, and the rest of Asia (but not Japan, which would have been one time zone too far). From this we were able to fix a time for most of our events, 1400 UTC, waking hours morning and night for our complete range of participants.

So now we're working on the content for the course. I had loosely planned it on having participants learn by doing. Accordingly, there were three tasks, one for each week of the course.

Week 1 - create a digital poster or infographic

The first task for the week that ends three days from now is to create a "digital poster." This could be anything a participant wanted to project, as long as it had a link. I suggested it should have some mulitimedia element, or be an all-media presentation (a screen cast using Screencast-o-matic, for example). The the purpose of the assignment was to get participants to surface their existing digital literacies and to add to that tools I had referenced from my workshops, or that they might have learned about from others in the course. It's a community-as-curriculum approach, where participants drive what gets learned around their interests and what they need to know, and an active hands-on approach, where they learn by doing, making mistakes and correcting them, and from meaningful problem solving.

The problem with that approach is in getting participants to DO it with minimal guidance, though I have been tryng to steer them to my workshop materials, where the guidance is, expecially on the three tools I find most useful for creating blended learning environments and classrooms. Here are the links to those tools in my workshops:

I would like to add to Week 1's mix one more element, Yo! Teach.

Yo!Teach! is a backchannel chat tool that was developed to replace Today's Meet, which died at some point last year, despite having become quite popular for passing messages to and from classes and other gatherings. I learned about Yo!Teach via an article in the TESOL CALL-IS Newsletter:

Yo!Teach is also listed as one possible replacement for Today's Meet at this website

When meeting blended learning classes online, it can be useful to set up a back channel. Then if anyone is having a problem, that person can post a message in Yo!Teach and stand a chance of there being someone at the other end who can help.  If there is no one there you can at least leave your message and someone should see it and reply, or if you leave a name or contact, get back to you at some point.

Yo! Teach was designed as a back channel to be used concurrently with live events. So I can monitor it during office hours, for the benefit of anyone who wanted to ask a question asynchronously (or synchronously) and know that they would be able to get it answered in live chat during office hours.

Week 2 - Create a digital story

The follow-on task for the second week is to advance from exploration and budding skills with the recommeded tools into something that can illustrate a narative, or digital story. This came up in the first week at the first office hour of the course, when Magali from Ecuador appeared and told us about a platform being developed at her university which featured a means for students to create digital stories using the primitive tools built into the platform. I suggested that she could use tools available online that she would have more control over, and link from the school's platform to the online artifacts that she and her students created in the wild using pre-existing Web 2.0 tools. That conversation was recorded, and you can see it here.

Digital storytelling is a concept that transcends multiple purposes. As with the simpler "digital poster", it would be an excercise that pushes participants to carry their skills forward from a simple infographic the first week to a narrative using digital tools which they would bring to bear on the project according to their abilities. And the benefit of that would be that everyone would see what everyone else's abilities were and scaffold one another when those abilities were a rung or two up the scaffold. Everyone would learn from one another.

So now that I'm getting some interaction from participants in the course, three days into its emergence, I have clearer ideas about how to proceed. Now I'm ready to move forward with materials for the second week that would focus us on tools that, through the ruse of finding and using them to create a digital story, would get people thinking about and working with the tools that would be most useful in creating and using blended (and flipped) learning classrooms.

Week 3 - Create some aspect of a blended learning classroom

The third week asks participants to start some aspect of a blended learning classroom. Again there is no instruction apart from what the instructor / English Language Specialist is modeling. When put in the position of having to appear in Thailand with a platform that would encompass my workshops, I fell back on PBworks. I tried both Wix and Weebly but found those frustrating. PBworks allows me most flexible control over my portals. I can embed images and other graphics and even videos. It's HTML-based and I can get at the code. It's quick to work with so I can alter it one day to the next. I have a system of setting up archives and using the sidebar for easy navigation around the site. The sidebar and table of contents widgit create bookmarks throughout the site which can each be linked to, so pointing participants to exactly where you want them to look is quick and easy. I haven't found anything better than or that even comes close to PBworks for power, simplicity of implemetation, and speed and alterability, except perhaps Google Docs, which could do almost the same thing but without the sidebar.

For the eLearning I added the Schoology layer because PBworks lacks a way for users to interact with one another. Schoology can host forums and announce events. It's also quick and easy to work with, moreso than Moodle. Although the complexity of Moodle makes it more robust, Moodle has to be hosted through someone who maintains the server, and this creates problem both in the permissions you have to control your own course and the stability of that server. If you want to host with someone whose business it is to host other people's Moodles, that usually comes with a fee. Schoology at the moment offers reliable hosting with no fee for the basic functions. So it's a good starter platform for creating an LMS.

The foregoing two paragraphs in this post are my content for Week 3, but I'm not explicit in teaching that in my coursel My intent is to model to participants how to create blending learning classrooms by getting them into one and letting them see how it looks and feels, and do the same in their own contexts if the wish, or apply the look and feel to other tools if they have access to others. So that gets us through week 3 and to the end of the course.

After the course, once I've stopped dreaming

But life goes on, and this is what I was thinking about last night as I lay awake at dawn, the realities I'm recording here encroaching on my dreams. In April I am scheduled to give a presentation at the TESOL conference in Denver as a member of a panel on "Creating Materials in a Digital World," which has been included in the TESOL 2020 convention program in Denver, April 1st, 2020, 1:00 PM - 2:45 PM in room 402 at The Colorado Convention Center.

This came about when the Materials Writers Interest Section, in conjunction with Career Paths Professional Learning Network, issued a call last August for panelists "who have experience adapting, creating, and using digital materials to teach English and train English teachers. ... Such experience may include, but is not limited to, blended and hybrid learning, online learning, gamification, differentiated learning, building online learning communities and teacher education." The abstract for the panel is:
As the world becomes more dependent on technology ELT professionals find ways to adapt. This presentation shows participants in all stages of their career paths various ways they can adapt, create, and develop materials for digital learning in a variety of contexts for language teaching and teacher training.
Although I had neither conceived nor imagined this English Language Specialist project when I applied to be on the panel, it is definitely what I'll be focusing on.

This brings me to one last part of the jigsaw puzzle. Every three months I have to produce an article, preferably an edited one, for the On the Internet column of TESL-EJ,  I wrote the last one and it is perhaps bad form for an editor to write two in a row for his own column, but I may have little choice, as my calls for papers go unanswered. A write-up of my TESOL presentation might make a worthy article for the next issue of OTI if no one else comes forward.

In this post, I may have got started on that article :-)

Saturday, February 15, 2020

And now, after a month of workshops and conferences, the back side of the flip

Bobbi and I just returned home after midnight last night from the most amazing month. I guess I'll be piecing it together over the coming month, picking up the pieces off the internet and putting them together in an even better picture of what took place, but here is where the pieces have kind of come together.

I was invited to do an English Language Specialist gig in Thailand involving giving workshops from January 20-29, a plenary and another workshop at the ThaiTESOL conference in Bangkok, followed by three weeks of eLearning to be delivered from my home in Penang. So, we flew to Thailand on Jan 18 and were put up in the Conrad Hotel, nearby the US Embassy and in the most congested part of Bangkok, Sukhumvit Road. We were on the executive floor which had breakfast in a special lounge, full buffet without crowds, and came with an evening happy hour with enough of a buffet to fill us for dinner. Lunch was usually provided by the RELO's office or the places where I gave workshops while we were there,  but if not, we never felt the need for it. 

After dinner I usually had to focus on my next day's workshops anyway, which I constantly fine-tuned according to what I'd learned the previous day (i.e. how to improve them) and made changes to accomodate the next day's audience, whether I would be presenting to undergraduate students or practicing EFL teachers, Thai or native speakers, number of participants (anywhere between 14 and 40), and length of the next day's workshops, which could be anywhere between 2 and 4 hours. All this was manipulated and archive through the wiki portal I'd set up as a home page for the workshops, here: .

The workshops were on flipped and blended learning and I was modeling how to create a blended learning environment and flipping that to optimize meaningful and self-directed learning. The wiki was the core to that but I also had a Google Slides presentation,, the better to walk participants through the parts of my wiki that I would cover on a given day. 

The wiki included polls, Padlet, and places where teachers could create wiki backchannels for communicating with students asynchronously or on the fly, in the classroom. I always encouraged participants to aggregate what we did in any workshop around a Twitter tag, unique for each day. This vacuumed up a lot of what the participants produced each day which I dumped onto a wiki archive for each set of workshops, here:

To complicate things Bobbi and I were flown or driven between four different cities in Thailand -- in and out of Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani, Bangsaen, and our favorite, Chiang Rai, which ironically we'd just passed through the year before on our two-day boat trip up the Mekong from Luang Prabang, on our way down to Chiang Mai. Normally we'd leave our hotel before breakfast and fly (or in the case of Bangsaen, drive) to the next destination, give a workshop there, overnight in a hotel, and give more workshops in the morning before returning to Bangkok to rest at the Conrad before workshops in Bangkok the following morning, rinse and repeat for two weeks, with time off on Saturday and Sunday.

This went on until my last workshop in Bangkok Wed Jan 29, and then the next day the annual ThaiTESOL conference started, and I was the plenary speaker on the first day right after lunch. The talk was on Flipped Learning so I got Jeff Magoto, a colleague in Oregon who was conducting an EVO session on that topic, to allow me to simulcast it to his participants. He recorded it in Zoom for me, and I blogged it, with the video recording and all the slides and ancillary artifacts flipped onto the Internet here: 

I also gave a workshop the following day at the ThaiTESOL conference, on teaching EFL through coding, coasted through the last day of the conference, and then Bobbi and I flew back the following day to Penang, where we repacked and flew just a few days later to Phnom Penh, where I gave the same workshop at the CamTESOL conference.

I recorded this one myself, with a larger audience, better delivery on my part, and livelier dynamics with the participants, here:

While at CamTESOL, I found that the Regional English Language Officer, RELO Bangkok, was preparing to announce the 3-week follow-up to my workshops to be held online from Feb 17 to March 7. This had been in the overall plan but details had been left way up in the air until the RELO got back from a retreat in Bali Feb 8. Meanwhile we had arranged to fly the day after CamTESOL to Phuket in Thailand and then get a taxi an hour north to Khao Lak where there was reputed to be good diving. We executed this plan, dived for three days, and then flew back from Phuket to Penang via KL. 

Now I've got to come up with a store full of goodies for the eLearning that starts in just two days. I've got a storefront up here, 
but at the Schoology link, I've yet to stock the shelves. I need to get that done today and tomorrow.

I'll complete this post with pictures and videos when I get a moment, and create a new post on the eLearning in March. Meanwhile, you can follow a lot of this at my more often updated blog,