Texas TESOL: more student interest in online software

November 11, 2008

Hello everyone. Well, it looks like live blogging from conferences is not likely in the cards for me. By the time evening rolls around and it’s time to comment on the day’s sessions, I’ve got so many other events going on that I don’t get back to my computer until late. For international TESOL, I’m working with some of my colleagues here to put together a daily brief of the best sessions. This would be a service mostly for teachers who can’t attend TESOL–kind of like reading the highlights of a sporting event you miss.

Texas TESOL’s attendance was down a little this year. They usually average 1000 attendees, but this year saw around 800 or so, according to conference organizers. Based on conversations with teachers at the conference, a big contributor to the lower attendance was school districts cutting back on funding for substitutes etc.

A big trend at TexTESOL that I noticed was the continued interest of students in accessing ESL software online. (See an earlier post on this)

The stories generally went like this: Teachers told me that they had bought software for their language labs a few years ago. Everyone is happy with the content and thinks that it is making a difference in the students’ learning. Lately, though, students have been asking about using the software at home.

Since the schools sank significant funds into the network version of the software, many of them are hesitant to make the jump into online versions. It seems, though, that ESL students are beginning to expect that software should be accessible from any computer.

Some of the big publishers (Pearson Longman included) have been moving in this direction and are offering significant options for online software. Others appear to believe that students will not want to pay the extra cost of online subscriptions and are only developing CD-ROM based software. I think it will be very clear sooner rather than later who is right on this point.
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Trends from Ohio TESOL: Technology and Speaking/Writing

November 7, 2008

Ohio TESOL had around 700 attendees this year, making it one of the most well attended state TESOL conferences nationwide. This is especially impressive at a time when a lot of districts are cutting back on funding for teachers to attend conferences. The conference was a great opportunity for me to talk to a lot of ESL teachers about the current state of ESL methodology. A few recurring themes emerged: the use of technology and teaching productive skills (speaking and writing).

Technology and Software for ESL Students
Many teachers reported that they are exploring what technology can do for them and for their students. They described experiments with Moodle and social networking sites. I also heard a lot of interest in commercial ESL software. By far the biggest buzz was on what’s available online rather than on CD-ROM. Some teachers have been trying out different projects and assignments online for a while now, but the majority were just starting to explore their options. As student access to the internet broadens and teacher familiarity with available software increases, I predict significantly higher use of technology in ESL.

Productive Skills
Whenever we talked about Reading/Writing or Listening/Speaking classes, teachers shared with me a renewed emphasis on speaking and writing–especially in academic contexts. As one teacher put it, “We don’t want to have listening courses with a little bit of speaking at the end. We’re focusing on developing students’ speaking skills at the same time as their listening skills.” I heard the same about Reading/Writing courses–a real move toward full integration of writing into reading. While I didn’t get enough confirmation to say this strongly, I believe that much of this comes from the realities in mainstream courses. Students need to be prepared to participate orally in class and are increasingly being asked to do more short writing assignments (often in online discussion boards). My prediction here is that more ESL teachers will begin to reexamine their curricula and pump up the writing and speaking components.

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Ohio TESOL: Fostering the “Community” Part of Online Community

November 3, 2008

Sorry to have been away for a full week. I was out travelling in Texas and Ohio, and I got behind in my blogging. I even missed a few days over at ESOL World News. It was an interesting experiment for me, and I think I can ensure that there is no interruption this week when I go to TexTESOL.

At Ohio TESOL, the trend was definitely the growing emphasis on technology in langauge learning. Many people presented on using various free resources in langauge classrooms, but the most interesting sessions for me were the ones that described the possibilities for online learning.

Dawn Bikowski easily had the most interesting session of the conference. She described parameters for helping students to move from just posting messages toward developing an actual online community.

One of the issues Bikowski brought up was that, for many people, text-based communication can be impersonal. What makes social networks and blogs work so well in creating a sense of community is that they make the communication personal again. People can upload photos and play games with each other. They can take personality quizes, post the results, and share them with friends.

Bikowski recommends that online communities should foster opportunities for students to express themselves as individuals. Participants should share information about themselves and what they do outside of class. Informal langauge should be encouraged in any situation that does not otherwise require formal langauge. When possible, sharing photos or other personal media will also be helpful.

All of these strategies will make the online community feel less like another set of assignments and more like an engaging space. This will result in learners being more motivated to participate and complete all of the activities that are set.
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ESL students driving demand for online software

October 14, 2008

I just got back from a trip to Texas where several instructors mentioned that their students have been asking about ESL software they can use at home. This isn’t the first time that ESL teachers have told me their students want online langauge learning software–I’ve been hearing this off and on for about a year now. This trip, though, really solidified this trend in my mind, because so many different instructors brought it up.

These reports usually follow the same structure. The ESL program has some ESL software in the computer lab. The students like the software, but they don’t like being required to go to the lab to use it. They really want something they can log in to from any computer any time.

Sometimes the instructors are a little nervous about venturing into online software. Sometimes they only just recently invested in expensive network licenses for the computer lab. Usually, though, the students want the freedom and flexibility of online software. Since most good online options for ESL programs are relatively inexpensive (and are paid for by the students–just like textbooks), administrators and teachers are starting to examine adding an online component to their curriculum.

Check back later for more updates!

Technology and the ESL/EFL teacher

September 30, 2008

Just yesterday I had a conversation with an ESL instructor about online software and she made the following objection.

Teacher: All the cool things that ESL software can do for my students are really amazing, but it seems like you’re trying to ESL teachers obsolete.

While I certainly appreciate her concern in an already tight job market, I would like to try to put this worry to bed once and for all. There are plenty of schools in the U.S. and other countries whose success in implementing ESL software I have seen firsthand. These schools appreciate the differences between face-to-face interactions and online language learning and maximize the former by taking advantage of the latter.

Face-to-face ESL classrooms will always be the very best environments for learning a language because it allows for the closest approximation of the situations learners will most likely find themselves in. Furthermore, a trained ESL instructor is best at changing lessons in mid-stream and diagnosing unexpected problems and addressing them immediately.

ESOL software can help improve what goes on in the face-to-face classroom by giving language learners more personalized support outside of the classroom. A teacher is limited in the number of times s/he can go over a grammatical concept. There are only so many times you can listen to one student repeat one word. But with software, the students can review the grammar and practice speaking as many times as they need to. They can gain confidence in their abilities and come to class much better prepared.

Rather than trying to eliminate teachers, ESL software (especially online software) is designed to makes teachers’ lives easier. Better prepared students are able to take advantage of classroom interactions more actively and they are more in tune with their own strengths and weaknesses. In short, taking advantage of technology in ESL outside the classroom helps improve everything that happens inside the classroom.