A short time ago, language schools were just beginning to harness the benefits of new technology for classroom use. Today, just five or six years on, a wide range of hardware and software is being deployed, thus transforming the way in which language skills are being acquired, both in and out of the classroom.
At the heart of this revolution, the Internet has opened up an extended array of possibilities, and e-learning is now widely incorporated into schools’ teaching strategies, as part of a ‘blended’ approach that is, one that incorporates elements of modern, technologically enhanced methods alongside traditional classroom teaching.
At the English Language Company (ELC) in Sydney, Australia, an online learning platform, ELC-online, was introduced last year. As Managing Director, David Scott, explains, this allows students to follow a personalised programme of grammar, vocabulary, listening and reading practice to support their classroom learning not only for the duration of their course, but either side of it as well. Teachers can also set assignments and additional tasks online for each student, so their programme is far more personalised. The move “has really increased the progress that students can make in a given time”, Scott relates.
EC English has also recently introduced its own e-learning platform, which, as Director of Studies, Richard Quarterman, explains, encourages students to do homework and further self-study. As such, he says, it has also become part of a wider school community. He adds, “This can be a huge bonus, and has made us able to demonstrate to our students even further the benefits of learner autonomy and independent study.” New technology has also been the focus of attention at UK-based English in Chester of late, where January 2010 saw the launch of e-Chester. This new online learning community has proved very popular with students, who have gained access to hundreds of hours of learning materials, which are available to them from the time of booking until six months after leaving the school, comments Principal, Nigel Paramor.
Similarly, Kaplan International Colleges’ new online preparation course, “Passport”, allows students to “hit the ground running, or even advance a level, before their arrival”, comments Learning Innovation Manager, Anna Stanton. It also allows them to communicate with the school ahead of time, making their induction process easier, she points out. This adds to the company’s successful supplementary online course component introduced three years ago and its stand-alone LiveOnline courses.
Once they arrive at the school, students are taught by means of a new blended curriculum, which, says Stanton, gives access to a large selection of online materials that complement and reinforce classroom study, and provides a personalised element, reflecting students’ particular needs. This approach allows teachers to spend more time in class focusing on communicative elements and student support, she highlights.
E-learning has also been introduced at ABCHumboldt in Spain, to complement face-to-face learning for corporate clients in English, German, French and from January 2012 Spanish. This self-directed study entails a high level of monitoring and proactive communication by virtual tutors, stresses spokesperson Diana Folch, and is a compulsory adjunct to face-to-face classroom training, she adds.
As may be seen, e-learning is used in different ways at different schools. At Navitas English, the philosophy is based on guiding teachers and students to find and use what is already out there. In order for this to happen, of course, schools need to have the right equipment in place. On the technical side, comments the group’s e-Learning Market Research Analyst, Lucy Blakemore, Navitas has been upgrading its computers and increasing bandwidth across campuses in order to cope in particular with its growing use of video-streaming. In common with the majority of schools today, all its campuses have free wi-fi for students to use with laptops and smartphones, and computer labs for class work and self-study. In addition, several have now embraced small devices, such as flip cams, that facilitate recording of students’ speaking tasks.
Research undertaken last year among Navitas students revealed that technology is most meaningful for them “when it connects students, and reflects what we already do in the classroom [ie,] group work, engaging communication and meaningful discussion”, Blakemore reveals. On the software side, the company is exploring the possibilities of social media, and, she says, some teachers are experimenting with Facebook, Twitter, wikis and blogs, as platforms to share ideas with each other and with students. Staff also make use of Ning a social network set up in 2010 for teachers to share ideas across campuses and time zones.
Having first adopted a blended-learning strategy about six years ago, Class Centre for Learning and Academic Skills Support in North Sydney, Australia, has considerable experience in its use. According to Director, Denver Craig, this teaching method has many different forms of technology at its heart. With Internet access in all rooms, Class employs learning management systems, such as Moodle, and takes full advantage of cloud computing. “We have incorporated blogging, Twitter, Facebook, AudioBoo, YouTube, Google docs, Evernote and wikis into our curricula,” Craig reports. “In fact, cloud computing allows us to use any new (free) educational software as soon as it becomes available.”
Moodle is an increasingly popular tool for language schools. At the Access Macquarie Centre for English, at Macquarie University in New South Wales, Australia, it represents the core technology behind the blended learning programme, according to Head of Marketing, Krista Borg, who explains, “Moodle is quite cost-effective, as it is infinitely scaleable. [It] is great for structuring content for self-paced study, [and it] allows us to create lessons quickly with interactive content, such as quizzes, forums, workshops and online journals. It helps learners reflect on their learning and get immediate and valuable feedback.”
At the English Language Centre of the Eastern Institute of Technology in Taradale, New Zealand, a few teachers use Moodle as the main vehicle of learning, with the aim of achieving an almost paperless classroom, notes Senior Tutor, Adrienne Dench. It is most effective, she comments, when the class has laptops, although it is also possible to use it without them. Another tool favoured by this school is the video camera. This is used in many of its speaking classes and, says Dench, is especially effective in classes that are preparing for Ielts exams.
As well as developing its e-Learning community, English in Chester has also introduced a new digital language laboratory. This is not only used for traditional language lab work, notes Paramor, but also for activities based on video, the Internet and collaborative tasks, such as writing. In addition, he reports that the school’s self-access centre has been re-equipped and reopened in Spring 2010, with 12 PCs offering a variety of software programmes and materials.
The type and amount of computer equipment available in the classroom naturally varies from school to school. At EF, Ewelina Kamieniarz, Director of Studies at the Cape Town centre in South Africa, proclaims, “We are proud to be the only language school to incorporate iPads into our curriculum.” Supplied to each student and teacher, these can bring “live examples of English video, text or sound into [student] discussions or presentations”, and students can also use them to record themselves speaking and create videos. Costing virtually the same as a standard laptop, “iPads …[offer] so much more in class than a computer does,” Kamieniarz reflects.
Another key piece of equipment for many schools is the interactive whiteboard (IWB). Anglo-Continental School of English in Bournemouth, UK, introduced these for classroom use in 2010. The system includes a projector and an extended control panel, as well as the whiteboard itself. As the school’s Emily Shaw explains, “The system helps…teachers to create a dynamic learning atmosphere, which captures and retains students’ attention, and allows teachers to access and utilise a wide range of educational aids and resources.”
An alternative to the IWB is the e-Beam, and the Cervantes Institute introduced these to its Malaga school in December 2010, reports Ana Menéndez, along with Netbooks and extra projectors, having previously made use of TV, DVD and the Internet.
Some schools also actively encourage students to use their own mobile technologies such as mobile phones and laptops in the classroom. One such school is Class in Sydney. As Craig explains, this can help contextualise learning. He adds, “English is no longer constrained by face-to-face teaching; we have freed the student and allowed them to learn at home, on the bus, or even in the workplace; in fact, we have infiltrated into all aspects of their lives.”
Witnessing this mass expansion of technological assistance in the classroom, it seems pertinent to ask whether all this really offers the student additional benefits or is it, in the end, little more than a gimmick?
Jenny Byatt, Director of Studies at West Coast International College of English in Bunbury, Western Australia is among the doubters. “When we opened the college six years ago, we were fairly forward-thinking in computer-based teaching and learning technology, but we haven’t found a need to go further and, in some cases, the preparations we initially made have gone unused.” For example, she says that students and teaching staff rejected a computer-based entrance test and laptop-based lessons in favour of reverting to paper-based versions.
On the other hand, it is easy to find numerous passionate advocates of the new technology. “We believe that these new technologies and the use of image in the classroom make it noticeably easier for students to assimilate new concepts without translating them into their own language, and [that] they facilitate learning in general,” asserts Menéndez. “They are also very attractive for teachers, as they offer a very wide range of new resources for their use in the classroom, and they help create a good participatory atmosphere among the class groups, which is also very helpful in the learning process.”
For Borg, the greatest benefit of these tools is that they reduce the amount of time taken up by teachers on routine activities, such as writing on boards, and thus permit more time to be spent on active teaching. Stanton additionally highlights the advantage that “the detailed reporting made possible by online resources allows for a much greater depth of analysis of individual needs and progress rates... This reporting also informs our development cycle,” she advises, “so, as we constantly review our materials and their effectiveness, we can make rapid changes where needed.”
For Paramor, meanwhile, “The new technologies are useful because they give learners the opportunity to do extra work on the areas that they are interested in, or need to work on further. They also bring into the classroom the online world, which is increasingly a key part of everyone’s lives.” However, he underlines, these benefits accrue only as long as the technology is used “to supplement, rather than replace, the traditional classroom”. He adds, “Technology for technology’s sake is pointless. While there may be an expectation on the part of learners, we are determined to make the investment on primarily pedagogic grounds.”
Stanton concurs, insisting, “We are careful never to adopt a technology for teaching and learning just because it exists; sometimes, traditional methods are the most effective for a particular objective.” Having said this, “Kaplan’s technology-driven solutions show greater results, when combined with traditional classroom methods, and our student surveys show that students prefer to study that way,” she underlines.
While new technologies may be beneficial to the teaching and learning process, some can be costly to acquire. “The school doesn’t generate extra income from them as they are included in course costs,” comments Paramor. “In that respect, they are additional cost, but we feel that we need to offer our students access to the best learning environment.” This said, some of these tools can be very cost-effective. According to Blakemore, a case in point is flip cams, of which she notes, “We find we need only one or two per campus, and they can be used in a wide variety of classroom tasks.” At the same time, as Craig at Class observes, with many study aids available free of charge over the Internet, “It just takes some dedicated, creative teachers to plan lessons that use this blended-learning approach.”
Another point to bear in mind is that, as Kaplan Managing Director for Europe, Erez Tocker, highlights, with learning materials more targeted to students’ needs, progress can be faster. Folch enlarges on this point: “Compared to traditional training, a 50 per cent reduction in the time required to reach a certain level is achieved. In absolute costs, this means a reduction of approximately 30 per cent in indirect costs and 50 per cent in direct costs. Two key issues for any company.”
While students themselves may not be aware of all the arguments in favour of technology-aided learning, it seems that most are, nonetheless, swayed by its use. According to agent Alec Bessey of UK-based Oxfordcrown, his mainly Russian clients are “very much into modern technology”, and, as such, anything less than this in the classroom would “be looked down on.” He adds, “Language learning has to be appropriately contextualised, and [tools such as interactive whiteboards, multi-media centres etc] are needed.” Speaking in relation to his company’s clients in Malta, Ireland and the UK, Alvaro Benevides of Ready for You agency, is of a similar opinion. For him, the use of high-tech study aids offers a persuasive marketing advantage that can be a clinching factor in the choice of school.
Language schools that are working with these tools are similarly convinced of the need to keep up-to-date with the latest developments. “It is essential to being competitive in a sector where there is a great deal of competition, and it requires constant investment,” advises Folch. For Menéndez, meanwhile, using new technology shows “that we are keen to provide the best possible learning experience for our students”.
“If learning methodologies, places and spaces do not keep up, learners will tune out,” underlines Borg, “and rightly so.”
Training teachers in new technology
While new technology can offer substantial benefits, it is important that language school staff are fully trained and competent in its use, if the best use is to be made of it.
“There is a huge amount of debate around the use of technology in teaching,” says Lucy Blakemore, e-Learning Market Research Analyst at Navitas English, “and as with any resource there are some who use it effectively, and others who still need training and guidance to integrate it into what they’re already doing in the classroom.” Training, she says, is important as it keeps teachers up-to-date, motivated and engaged in issues relating to technology and they can spread what they learn through sharing with other teachers, too, she points out. “Some of our teachers have also completed specialist information and communication technology courses for teachers, with companies, such as The Consultants-E, and have shared what they’ve learned with their fellow teachers,” she adds.
Acknowledging the importance of the right training, the English Language Centre at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Taradale, New Zealand offers regular sessions on how to use various new technologies and how to incorporate these into the classroom, notes Senior Tutor, Adrienne Dench.
This is one of the top three most popular courses offered at the centre, reports Kinsman, and the number of classes was doubled in summer 2011, to keep pace with interest. “The growing demand for this course speaks volumes about the proactive attitude of teachers worldwide, particularly towards developing their skills in an area [that] is constantly changing.”
Glossary of technology terms
AudioBoo A mobile & web platform that allows the recording and uploading of audio content.
Blended learning Learning that takes place in a mix of learning environments, often used in reference to a mix of traditional and high-tech learning.
Cloud computing A system whereby instead of building your own IT infrastructure to host databases or software, you obtain these services from a third party over the Internet.
e-Beam A system that allows any flat surface to be used as an interactive whiteboard.
e-Learning Learning that is electronically supported.
Evernote A system that connects all your computers and phones, allowing information captured in one place to be accessed from another.
Flip Cam A type of camcorder.
Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) A touch-sensitive board that can display images sent to it via a linked digital projector and computer.
iPad A form of tablet computer used primarily as a platform for audio-visual media.
Learning Management System (LMS) A software application for administering, documenting, tracking, and reporting on e-learning programmes.
Moodle A form of Learning Management System (see above).
Ning Online platform for creating social networks.
Smartphone A mobile phone that also offers the facilities of a handheld computer.
wiki A website that allows the creation and editing of inter-linked web pages.