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 :-)

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