In my role as teacher of languages, I have sought to study and understand how the social aspect of Web 2.0 can be harnessed to strengthen the teaching and learning of MFL. Most interesting to me was the transformative potential of blogs, Web 2.0 applications and social networks, not only to enhance existing practice, but also to create new technology-based tasks which would have been previously inconceivable[1. PUENTEDURA, R R (2006) Transformation, Technology, and Education. (2006) Available from http://hippasus.com/resources/tte/ Accessed 11/08/2011], a process depicted below:
However, in order to assess whether learning socially online can truly have a transformative and positive impact on learning outcomes and curriculum delivery as accurately as possible, it is important to moderate any inherent positivity and open up the field of study to all viewpoints[2. SELWIN, N (2011) In praise of pessimism - the need for negativity in education technology. In British Journal of Educational Technology, Volume 42, Number 5, pp 713-718 Available from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01215.x/abstract Accessed 30/08/2011], discarding any preconceived notions that may bias the conclusions of this case study and taking care not to avoid any evidence that may be counter to those notions[3. COHEN, ., MANION, L. & MORRISON, K (2007) Research Methods in Education. London: Routledge-Falmer. Available from http://lib.leeds.ac.uk/record=b2879829 Accessed 18/04/2011].
A small case study was formulated for this purpose, taking great care to accurately reflect teacher and learner attitudes to the use of social media and, therefore, to ascertain whether the school wide implementation of this kind of technology, beyond the MFL Department, can become a viable prospect in the foreseeable future.
The case study describes the use of blogging together with Web 2.0 applications in the teaching and learning of languages in Years 8, 9 and 10. The blog was established by installing WordPress.org, which is a self-hosted, open-source based blogging platform and Content Management System (CMS). The two Web 2.0 applications used as the basis for this case study were Domo.goanimate.com – a tool that allows users to create their own short cartoon-style animations – and Storybird.com – an application that allows students to write stories which can be published in ebook format. Crucially, both applications provide embed codes that allow students’ work to be assembled, published and shared using the WordPress.org blog.
Although I started using web applications relatively early in my teaching career, their use initially played an relatively minor, teacher-centred, enhancing role, mainly supporting the introduction of new vocabulary or grammatical structures as part of classroom based, teacher-centred pedagogy.
However, after observing the positive reception granted by my students to the application of these tools, I started to encourage the student-centred use by setting tasks and project which would involve their use by the students in an augmentative role, that is to say, using these tools to provide a functional improvement to already existing practice.
It was later on, with the addition of the WordPress self-publishing platform, that the transformative potential brought about by the combination of these tools became apparent, for not only could we do what we already did better, but we could do other things we were not able to do before, harnessing the social aspect of our blog’s comment functionality to allow students to learn from one another and peer-assess.
As outlined in a previous post, the combined use of these tools is carefully planned in advance and exploited during a sequence of three lessons, generally following this structure:
- The first lesson focuses on introducing the appropriate vocabulary and grammatical structures using standard classroom resources, such as flashcards, video projections, sound recordings and the interactive whiteboard. At the end of the lesson, I set a homework writing task (as is policy in my school), designed to reinforce the new grammar or vocabulary. Students are made aware at this stage that their aim is to increase the range and complexity of their Spanish and that their work is ultimately going to be published on the WordPress departmental blog. The technology used as this stage is merely enhancing existing practice and it is not transformative.
- The second lesson in this sequence takes place in a classroom fitted with computers, such as ICT Laboratory or a Languages Laboratory, after the homework set in the first lesson has been handed in and after corrections have been added by the teacher and a temporary grade has been assigned. Students are then informed that a final grade will be assigned when their work is improved using the chosen web application so that each student’s work can the be published and shared. In my experience, students readily understand the benefits of sharing their work with one another in order to improve attainment in general. At this stage, I ensure that I give my students clear instructions as to what their task involves and that they realise that there is a tangible outcome.
In short, the teacher needs to explain clearly what the purpose of the activity is[4. McELWEE, J. and SWARBRICK, A. 2002. Planning your use of Information Communication Technology. In: A. SWARBRICK (ed.) Aspects of Teaching Secondary Modern Foreign Languages. London: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 182-199] and that, despite students’ own non-academic perceptions of the internet and Web 2.0, the task is indeed real work and not just a game[5. BARTON, A (2002) Learning styles: the gender effect. In: A. SWARBRICK (ed.) Teaching Modern Foreign Languages in Secondary Schools. London: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 272-285]. Students are then allowed to work on their own or in groups, using their computers to access any website or programme at their disposal. As this lesson becomes student-centred, the added advantage of being able to spend time individually with those students who need extra help or stretching is gained. Technology, used in this way, therefore allows the teacher to plan student-centred lessons, in which an environment is created that allows pupils to learn from one another[6. PAPERT, S (1996) Computers in the Classroom: Agents of Change. Available from http://www.papert.org/articles/ComputersInClassroom.html Accessed 1/01/2010].
- Finally, just before or during the third lesson, the teacher assembles and publishes the completed work on the blog, which is then displayed to all students using a projector or using computer suite. Alternatively, students could complete this last task at home or in their spare time if access to the internet is available to them). Now a process of peer review and assessment begins as people are asked to evaluate each other’s work in turn. Students are encouraged to share their findings with the other students verbally and to take notes. At this point, the lesson tends to become less formal and, as students start to give each other constructive feedback, they begin to learn from one another in an efficient and enjoyable manner, making the sort of contributions which are normally the reserve of the teacher.
What begins during this third lesson is the beginning of a peer review and assessment process that culminates with the exploiting of the blog’s comment functionality. The transformative potential of the this combination of Web 2.0 applications therefore becomes apparent as students, who might have lacked the courage to participate in class or to speak their minds, are encouraged to peer assess by leaving constructive comments for one another and to learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.
So, did the use of technology bestow in all students a wish to participate[7. JONES, B. 2002. Encouraging more talk in the Modern Languages classroom. In: A. SWARBRICK (ed.) Aspects of Teaching Secondary Modern Foreign Languages. London: RoutledgeFalmer, pp. 82-98]? Did the promise of a large audience on the world wide web become a motivating factor[8. WALKER R, DAVIES G and HEWER S (2008) Introduction to the Internet. Module 1.5 in Davies G. (ed.) Information and Communications Technology for Language Teachers (ICT4LT), Slough, Thames Valley University. Available from http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod1-5.htm Accessed 15/01/10]? And, what evidence is there that the use of these Web 2.0 applications has produced better learning outcomes than standard teaching practice[9. CHAPELLE, C (2001) Computer Applications in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University press]? In order to answer these questions, we need to study how students reacted to the tasks, what the quality of the work produced by the students was, and whether the peer assessment element impacted positively on learning outcomes.
This case study was completed with the help of my colleague, Mr. B, and his Year 8 German (24 students) and Year 9 French (18 students) classes, as well as my own Year 8 German (24 students) and two Year 10 (28 students) Spanish classes – a total of 5 groups comprising 94 students altogether. Both the Year 8 groups used the blog and Domo.goanimate.com for their tasks, whereas the Year 9 and 10 groups used the blog and Storybird.com.
Both Mr. B and I followed the scheme of work and sequence of lessons outlined above. We found that students did generally respond very well to the introduction of this kind of technology to spice up their lessons, however, we also noted that a small but vociferous minority of students, some of whom were very academically able and not the usual trouble makers, remained disengaged. I clearly remember one boy saying loudly: “not another website!” when the task was outlined to one of the Year 10 classes.
We therefore quickly discovered that not all our students were engaged by the use of Web 2.0 applications. The extent of this disengagement is illustrated by the fact that some students did not hand in the task at all, despite its compulsory nature. Although the table above shows clearly that the vast majority of students (86%) complied with the teachers’ instructions, it also demonstrates that not all pupils were engaged or enthused by the prospects of using Wen 2.0 applications (14%), a finding that is compounded by the fact that an unknown number of students may have completed the tasks simply because they were under compulsion to do so. However, the most interesting part of this exercise for me was to ascertain whether students could successfully peer-assess each other. The table below shows the numbers of comments left on each of the blog entries by individual students:
It becomes clear again that, despite the presence compulsion and threat of sanctions, a significant number of students (30%) did not assign the required level of significance to the task, although the majority (70%) did comment as instructed. In fact, compulsion may be emerge as decisive factor in this case study, although, unfortunately, we were not able to devise a reliable way to accurately measure its incidence. Whether the students wished to comply or whether they were forced to go along with the task remains, therefore, a matter of judgement.
However, if, rather than looking at the quantity of the peer-assessment comments left by the students, we look at their quality and divide them into categories, it is possible ascertain whether these comments played a significant role in the assessment of the tasks. The comments were divided into categories according to whether they were deemed to be good, satisfactory or unsatisfactory, as typified by the actual examples shown below:
Therefore, a good comment is that which provides detailed and specific feedback and many include examples and corrections. A satisfactory comment is that which provides specific detail, but may lack detail. An unsatisfactory comment is that which is not specific or detailed and does not inform the reader. When we look a the numbers of comments in each of these categories, as shown in the table below, we must bear in mind that all students were given specific instructions to provide good comments:
This table confirms that a pleasing 68% correctly formulated comments under the good category, with 94% of the comments left by students deemed either good or satisfactory and only 6% classed as unsatisfactory. In my view, this has considerable repercussions in the assessment of whether the learning outcomes were improved by this exercise because, despite the initial reluctance displayed by some of the students (ironically, the comment chosen to typify the good category was left by the student who shouted “not another website!”), the learning outcome, comprising the initial writing task and the subsequent peer assessment comments, was visibly improved by the employment of these Web 2.0 applications and by the students’ engagement in open epistemological discussions regarding the quality of the target language used. This fact was acknowledged in the school inspection report by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, which stated “excellent use of peer assessment was observed in Modern Foreign Languages, where pupils used technology to comment on each other’s oral and written work”[10. ISI (2011) Independent Schools Inspectorate, Nottingham High School, Standard Inspection. Available from http://www.isi.net/schools/6750/ Accessed 10/03/2011].
The effectiveness of the application of technology is heavily dependent on how it is put to use[11. WARSCHAUER, M. (1996) Computer Assisted Language Learning: an Introduction. In Fotos S. (ed.) Multimedia language teaching, Tokyo: Logos International: 3-20]. In this case study, the academic improvement delivered by this application of technology is beyond question in the teachers’ minds but also in the students’, who acknowledged when asked that they had a better grasp of the language and a clearer understanding of what was expected and required to attain highly. They were also able to demonstrate this in subsequent pieces of work.
This case study has shown that not all students are enthused or engaged by a more frequent use of Web 2.0 applications, but a vast majority are. However, the most important aspect it has thrown to light is that, regardless of students’ attitudes, whenever technology is used effectively, learning outcomes do improve.
The use of blogging in conjunction with selected Web 2.0 applications were unanimously deemed to have been a success by students, teachers and external school inspectors. The written tasks produced by students using Web 2.0 applications after a process of cooperative learning and peer assessment facilitated by the use of social media were found to be of higher quality than would have otherwise been the case. Furthermore, most students were clearly engaged in this process, which is an essential component of successful learning[12. VOSNIADOU, S. (2001) How Children Learn UNESCO. Available from http:// www.ibe.unesco.org/publications/EducationalPracticesSeriesPdf/prac07e.pdf Accessed 28/04/2009].
However, it would be disingenuous to assert that this engagement was provided solely by the technology. In my view, innovative pedagogy which was transformed by the use of technology was instead responsible. With the appropriate use of technology, learning can be made more active, social, and learner centred—but the uses of information technology are driven by pedagogy, not technology[13. OBLINGER, D and OBLINGER J (2005) Is It Age or IT: First Steps Toward Understanding the Net Generation. In OBLINGER, D and OBLINGER, J (Ed) Educating the net generation. Educause, sections 2.1-2.20. Available from http://www.educause.edu/ educatingthenetgen/ Accessed 11/12/2010].