May 31, 2006

Contracts with failing students

Fred the Fish at Are we doing anything today? has a post up about successfully working with a failing student, and the contract the teacher drew up for him. The comments are interesting, too. A key point of the contract was frequent lunch-time "check-ins", checking in on progress made. A reader comments: Yes, the lunch check-ins are very helpful. I'd normally given them a list of work they have to accomplish, printed from mygradebook.com, and then a due date. It never occured to me to have periodic check-ins.
Fred replies: I thought the check-ins were important for this kid, and really, anyone who's failing, because part of why they don't do the work is that they don't know how. The check-in forces them to come in and get that help. My kid and I sat at Starbucks for two hours working on his essay. He would not have written it otherwise.
And adds: I don't think all kids deserve a contract nor will they respond to it. Contracts take work. The trick is making it not be so much extra (my Starbucks meeting was the only long meeting) that they create more trouble than value.
Hmmmm, long meetings at Starbucks.... maybe it's time I introduced "Starbucks check-ins" with my students...

May 28, 2006

Reading resources for (EFL) teachers of reading

Here are a couple of links related to teaching reading. The first gives a readability reading for any text you input and tells you which words are in the first 1000 and then first 2000 of commonly used words. Web Vocabulary Profilers
The other one is called HYPERTEXT and provides help with building resource-linked texts for intensive reading.

Both look of potential use for teaching EFL reading.

May 27, 2006

Prior Knowledge and reading skills

I was fascinated by Doug's Borderland posting on schema theory and prior knowledge. He very kindly provided a list of links in the comments which, sucker that I am for this kind of stuff, I worked my way through when I should have been doing more important (but less interesting) work. It made me re-think a reading strategy I'd taught one class last Friday (19th May), and I decided to re-visit the topic and expand on it the next class (26th May).

I first told them about the different impressions that class members had had the previous week, and how not everyone had seen the "flames and smoke" in the picture. I wanted to point out that a mis-perception will inevitably lead to even larger errors of prediction, much as an error in a ship's navigation of 0.5 of a degree will mean the ship will completely miss its destination if that destination is 100 miles (or more) ahead. Unfortunately, I hadn't prepared that bit and couldn't come up with the necessary Japanese on the spur of the moment. This nugget of wisdom will have to wait for another day.

Instead, I spoke of how predicting and spending some time thinking about the possible content may help to improve one's chances of successful comprehension. Now, I've recently read Perry's Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years and Bob Leamson's Thinking about Teaching and Learning, both of which made me more aware of the possibility that my students may have completely different "takes" on what I'm saying, depending on where they are "at" in their intellectual development. I wonder if they may still be in the "every question has one, correct, answer" stage?  (I'm on the entrance exam committee this year, and at last week's first orientation, we were given a handout which stated clearly "make sure that every question has just one, correct, answer.") In which case, they might not appreciate my rather vague "this will increase your chances of success". They may think, Leamson suggests, that I am being deliberately vague, or that I am simply incompetent.

I pondered these things, but had no way of really checking or confirming.

Perhaps from reading the two aforementioned books, I've been thinking recently that the purpose of going to university is to become more intelligent (and get drunk and get laid, not necessarily in that order). And I was interested in Leamson's suggestion that a key way to become more intelligent (or to develop one's thinking ability) is to become more sophisticated in one's use of language, which requires practice. I was also interested in what I read in some of the schema theory pages that Doug referred me to, namely that it is useful and beneficial for students to make connections between what they read and what they know, other things that they have read, and their own life experiences.

As we have used reading and listening materials in this class so far, I would like to introduce video; authentic video in particular. Video has a high interest factor - many students want to watch movies, and some of those are even interested in English! Some even express this peculiar (to my mind) ambition of being able to watch English-language movies without (Japanese) subtitles and understand the movie. I have never for the life of me been able to understand this ambition, but so many people have expressed it to me that I am forced to respect it (or insult a major proportion of the Japanese population).

OK. So, next week, we watch a movie. But because this is an English class, I'm not just going to show a movie - I'm hoping (perhaps vainly in the majority of cases, but let it pass) that they will use this opportunity to learn some English.

Many English-language movies are based in an English-speaking country or in Europe, which immediately puts my Asian students at a cultural disadvantage; one that they could usefully be aware of and work to overcome.

For better or worse, I chose a movie I had recently seen. This is an example. In future, once they've learnt the strategies, I would prefer my students to make their own choices of movies. So, I set them an assignment: a KWL chart where they must list what they already know about a topic, what they need to know (I gave them the questions) and third column where they list the results of their research. I'm looking forward to reading what they write.

May 26, 2006

Intelligence is languaging

Something that's going thru my head these days is the idea that reading and writing are key tools to help develop intelligence. I think it was the authors of "Teaching as a Subversive Activity" who wrote that better thinking (or intelligence) is "languaging".
It suddenly seems to me important that as many of my students develop their intelligence as far as they can as quickly as they can. The world seriously needs more intelligent people, coz the dummies are smothering this beautiful planet and its incomparably beautiful citizens, to death.

And blogging and ICT tools seem an excellent way to do that because they encourage spontaneous and self-initiated reading and writing and reflection.

The end of my tether

I'm a nice guy. I genuinely enjoy sharing what I know and helping people. I like showing students how to add a blog to their bloglines account.

But I'm in a cleft stick that I've created for myself: my own desire to be helpful has created a work overload and sheer physical and mental exhaustion is preventing me from doing that.

Today for instance: I wanted to show students how to create a flickr account, as it would then be easy for them to blog flickr photos direct to their blogger blogs (and these postings would come with neat little credits which show who originally uploaded that photo).
But.
Three students are quite unable to see their blogs - just a blank page comes up - despite the fact that they can login and edit their blogs quite normally (to add to the mystery, they (and other students) can SOMEtimes see these ghost blogs....)

A half-dozen students could not remember if they had created bloglines accounts or not...so they wasted a lot of time trying to login with various guesses at passwords and email addresses they have...

The room is not set up for demonstrations: there is no teacher console or screen, and all the workstations are around the edge of the room, facing the walls.

It occurred to me today: why don't I just assign them the task of creating a flickr account, learning how to upload photos to it from their cell-phones, and how to blog photos to their blogs from within flickr. No explanations. Force them to collaborate.

One reason I have not used such an approach up to now is that many of my students are borderline: they are the low-motivated types with low self-esteem and low self-confidence, who will try (maybe), balk at the first obstacle or difficulty, then give up. And hope that I won't notice or call them to account. I have felt that this approach will reinforce their image of school as an unfeeling place where everything is "hard" and people frankly don't care if you can't hack it. Perhaps I've been wrong.

It's a tough call.

May 23, 2006

New Education Expo in Osaka, Japan

Those readers who will be in the Osaka (Kansai) area of Japan in the first week of June may be interested in this conference which I got a flyer for today: New Education Expo 2006 in Osaka, June 7-8. All the presentations are in Japanese. They include a talk on "ICT and raising academic levels". There are a number of presentations on e-learning, and a couple on English education. Looks interesting.

You need to register if you plan to attend, and the deadline for registering is June 1st.

Cool tool: ComicLife

Came across the name "ComicLife" again this weekend at a local "TechDay" on podcasting and related issues. I thought I'd blogged about it, but hadn't. Then I remembered that Ewan Macintosh had blogged about this, so was able to find the link.

The presenters had used ComicLife to add explanatory speech bubbles to their KeyNote/Powerpoint presentations. Cool. A neat way to create howto tutorials for students on, say, how to sign up for Moodle.

Small gripe: Ewan, could you put the search button in a more prominent position in your blog. Like, At the top. Where people can easily find it?

May 19, 2006

Plus points for Moodle

I'm enjoying some of the benefits of working with a structured LMS like Moodle. It is forcing me to create better tasks for my students, tasks that require students to think, and are clearly delimited and easy to understand.

Today, I created three tasks for my Moodle and blogging students: 1) Visit this site and pick out 3 things that one should perhaps not put on a public profile. Write those three things in the appropriate forum on the Moodle.

2) Visit some student blogs from past years and decide which ones are interesting and ones which are not so interesting, and why. Then write about what makes for an (un)interesting blog in the appropriate forum on the Moodle.

3) Read some of your classmates' comments for #2, then write a few reflections on today's class in the appropriate forum on the Moodle.

Most of them were hard pushed to finish this in 90 minutes. They worked hard, and I had nothing to do (except a little firefighting, of course): one student's blog disappeared! Going to the blog address just brought up a blank page. I could only suggest she contact blogger help. Any ideas, anyone?
Another student forgot his username for his blog: we figured out how to get blogger to give you a new one. I have asked these 2 students to post their experiences and suggestions in a new Help/FAQ forum I created on the Moodle.

Blogs and Moodle (3)

A while back I wrote a couple of posts about my experiences with using Moodle and blogs with EFL students. EFL Geek responded to my more recent post:
You state that I'm not going to stop using it just because I find it inconvenient. If this is true, I wouldn't use it. Moodle will continue to be something that is inconvenient to you and cramps your style. To me what you are saying is the same as saying I don't like this coursebook, but I'll use it anyway because someone else told me it was good.

No, because I don't use Moodle primarily for my own benefit, but for my students'. Where my students are at right now, they are more comfortable with a more structured environment that Moodle provides than a more free-form medium like a blog. Blogs are better for assignments like "find an interesting picture on Flickr (or the web) and blog about it." Moodle is better for things like "Answer the 10 questions in the textbook at page xxx and post the answers in the appropriate assignment on the Moodle: deadline this coming Friday, 6 pm."
EFL Geek points out,
There is no way around this because you are using multiple installs of moodle rather than one single install with multiple courses. With multiple courses you could then allow students to be guests in other courses.

Darn, I knew it! I did try to inform myself as best I could of the various consequences of going with a multiple install of Moodle, but in the end I had to just jump in and try it out for myself.

I like Moodle's "assignment" mode, where you can grade and write inline commments on students' writing. I wish there was a spell-checker tho.

Also, I get lost navigating Moodle sometimes. For instance, I can't seem to go directly to the Administration/Users section: I click on "participants" then on a name, then on "edit profile" and (without changing anything) click "Done" (or whatever), THEN I find myself in the Admin/Users area.

At other times (can't reproduce it now, forgot how I got there), I find myself in an area where there is no link out, except my profile, logout or "Jump to..." which only has 1 choice! The only way I got out was by clicking on my name and going to my profile, then navigating to the main course page from there. Kinda funky.

May 18, 2006

What makes an interesting blog?

MY low-level EFL students have created their own blogs, and have written an initial post. Tomorrow, I will ask them to visit some blogs created by students' last year and ask them to judge which posts were interesting and why, and which were not interesting and why.

Anyone got any suggestions for criteria? Or sample blogs they're willing to share?

What I came up with are these 3 criteria:
1) A blog/posting that provides some new and/or interesting information (what is new or interesting depending on the visitor of course)
2) A blog or posting that you enjoy reading
3) A blog or posting that invites you or makes you want to leave a comment

Remember, we're talking about low-level EFL students here.

May 16, 2006

Ethical and intellectual development in the college years

I'm thoroughly enjoying William G. Perry's Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years. It's not an easy read by any means, but fascinating, despite having been originally published in 1970.
Here's a taste:
In our daily counseling with students whose presenting concerns centered on their academic work, we had been impressed with the variety of the ways in which the students responded to the relativism which permeates the intellectual and social atmosphere of a pluralistic university. Among the students who consulted us, a few seemed to find the notion of multiple frames of reference wholly unintelligible. For example, in response to such an assignment as "compare the concepts of the tragic heroine exmplefied by Antigone and Cordelia," these students would fail to perceive the direct object of the verb "compare" and would write comparisons of Antigone and Cordelia, as persons, against the background of a single, implicit frame of reference. We came to feel that persistent misperception of the form of such intellectual tasks, even after repeated explanations of them, could not be ascribed to intellective factors alone. Others responded with violent shock to their confrontation in dormitory bull sessions, or in their academic work, or both. Other experienced a joyful sense of liberation.

May 15, 2006

Blogs or Moodle? (2)

A while back I posted about problems or issues I was having introducing my students to blogging and to Moodle. EFL Geek and others kindly posted some comments which were pretty helpful. (I like the idea of making tutorial videos, indeed it's been on my ToDo list, but haven't got around to learning Camtasia; I downloaded the trial version, tho. I also changed my language policy - I'd "forced" English as the language on my class Moodles - and made the language Japanese - UTF8.)

Today I came across EFL Geek's posting, and was surprised at my own post title - Blogs or Moodle?

Because I don't see them as alternatives. They do different things. The Moodle is more of a controlled environment, which I felt I wanted. If I'm going to set asignments which involve visiting the Moodle, I want to be able to track who's been doing what there (and who hasn't). However, I find Moodle rather limiting. Frankly, it cramps my personal style, but it may be good for some (many?) students and obviously I'm not going to stop using it just because I find it inconvenient.

1) I've got several different classes in several different schools. I installed Moodle in different folders on my website, so each school's students just see their schools courses. Fine. But I have resources that are common to all courses and all schools (Moodle folders). But there doesn't seem to be a way to upload files/resources to ONE place and have them available to courses and/or schools that I designate. So I've been uploading the same damn file to 3 or 4 different Moodle folders, which means I need to sign in and out of each one separately. Drag.

For instance, I have 4 classes at one university. Three are using the same textbook. So I created just two courses, one for each textbook. However, altho the students are different ages (the 3-class lot are sophomores, the other class are freshmen) and are using different textbooks, they have very similar difficulties with writing English. I thought it might be useful for all FOUR classes to read samples of each others' writing perhaps with my comments or corrections. Now, with Moodle set up as it is, how could I do that? I thought a blog might be a better place to put that kind of stuff, because a blog doesn't know who's coming to visit it, and can't shut certain people out (at least, it CAN, I know, but not the kind of blogs I want to use)>

2) I also created a quiz on Moodle which I wanted to use for all my schools, but couldn't find a way to save or copy a quiz across different folders or schools, so I had to abandon that.

3) Moodle makes a distinction between a "course" and a "group". I thought, aha! If, instead of separating my students into classes (courses), each with separate logins, etc., and if I just made ONE course and divided the different classes I have into groups within that one class, then the resource files for that class/course would be available to all the students.
Well, yes, but then I discovered disadvantages to that idea: even classes with the same course title or "level" progress at different speeds, and the internal dynamics of each class are different: the students pull out different things from me; we talk about different things. So, yes, dammit, I DO need separate courses. But then there's those common resource files...

4) A blog or blogs wouldn't necessarily solve this problem. In fact, I have a similar dilemma with blogs. Because I want to introduce students to blogging, which I consider much more free-form than a Moodle, and which is not like assignments but more collaborative, and completely public, I created a blog for each class. Then I lost my way. I realized that I had several purposes for a "class blog". Perhaps it was better to create two blogs for each class? I want a blog for class-related information, like a bulletin-board, and announcements and stuff I don't necessarily want each student to comment on. I also want to use the blog for, well, blogging (as well as announcements) and encouraging students to commment, to find similar items that interest them and they found on the Internet (e.g. on other blogs, or on Flickr), and to write about these either in comments or on their own blogs.

To stick to the example of the 4-class group at one university, I don't teach them in a computer lab, and I haven't found a way to get time with all of them in a computer lab, and I don't have my own office on that campus where they could come and get help with registering or signing up for accounts. Without the time in a computer lab, I've decided it would be foolish and waste of time and effort to ask them to create their own blogs for this course.

But I'm still trying to figure out in my own mind whether I need a separate blog for each class or not. I initially created separate blogs, but am now thinking that's going to create similar problems to the one I have with Moodle: I'll need to post the same damn things to 4 different blogs, altho blogs have this advantage over Moodle: I could just make one post and then make a link in the other blogs pointing to that one.

Then I felt that a blog for blogging has a different feel from a blog for class announcements and other "business" (e.g. examples of student's problems with English writing). A "business" or "teaching/announcements" blog doesn't invite collaboration (or rather it's harder to make it do so). Jamie Hall's posting on the THREE blogs he created for ONE class helped me develop my ideas on this topic. So now maybe I want two kinds of blogs...

The next issue will be to negotiate for a few 48-hour days so I can fit all this work in! TEFL Smiler reminded me of the joys (and vital importance if you're not to burn out) of delegating work and responsibility to students.

Some students are pretty tech-savvy, and could certainly help each other out, if the only knew that others want and need their expert help. At my full-time school, where I have my students in a computer lab once a week), I found one student who already knows about RSS, another who figured out how to make Bloglines appear in Japanese, and yet another who figured out a way to use a photo taken on his cell-phone as an icon on his Moodle profile (he emailed the photo to his university email address where he also has some server space and saved the photo there; then selected it in the "edit profile" section of Moodle). I could create a forum, for instance, where students could post tech-questions and answers.

Now I just need to decide, do I create that forum on Moodle, or on a blog?!?

May 14, 2006

to acquire a personal philosophy rather than a jumble of unexamined, hand-me-down notions

Harvard's English Department invites Rebecca Solnit to give the commencement address this year. Solnit begins her talk with a look at what kind of abilities are required in a rapidly changing world. Read the whole thing at TomDispatch:
What does it mean to be born in 1984, the ominous year that hung over humanity for 36 years after George Orwell made those four numbers a synonym for totalitarianism; what does it mean to be born atop the high wall at the end of the grim future of the imagination?

I thought of that as soon as I was invited to give this talk, thought about the enormous gap between when Orwell, on the beautiful isle of Jura in Scotland, wrote this bleakest of anti-utopian novels in 1948, and the actual 1984, as well as the no less profound chasm between 1984, real and imagined, and the present moment. To contemplate those chasms is to recognize, in the most literal sense, just how utterly unpredictable the future is. To recognize that is to realize that a rapidly changing world requires an ability to appreciate uncertainty, and what in books we call wild plot twists, at least as much as the wobbly gift of prophesy.

I thought of these things with the tools with which we English majors graduate into the world -- not the tools that enable you to splice genes, cantilever bridges, or make piles of money, but those that enable you to analyze, to see patterns, to acquire a personal philosophy rather than a jumble of unexamined, hand-me-down notions; those that enable you not to make a living but maybe to live. This least utilitarian of educations prepares you to make sense of the world and maybe to make meaning; for one way to describe the great struggle of our time is as the endeavor to become a producer of meanings rather than a consumer of them -- in an age when meaning as advertising and marketing, as others' definitions of pleasure and terror, is daily forced down our throats.

To make meaning, to change the world, or just to read it thoughtfully (which can itself be insurrectionary)… And never has our world been so overloaded, so rapidly changing, and so full of surprises that require us to change our minds, rethink possibilities, and then do so again; never has it required such careful reading. In my own case, the kind of critical reading I first learned to do with books, then with works of art, turned out to be transferable to national parks, atomic bombs, revolutions, marches, the act of walking -- a skill transferred not only to feed my writing but my larger path through the world.

Depriving students

Students are being systematically absolved of the need to participate in their own education,

So writes Doug on Borderland. Hm. That's given me something else to think about. Damn! That's what comes of loitering on Doug's site instead of working.

May 13, 2006

Mentorship?

Darren posts about the Mentorship Project where he invited some other teacher's students to mentor his own. The idea sounds interesting, but I couldn't immediately find an intro the idea on this blog, and I don't have time to follow up on it right now. But I want to learn more.

Tips for starting blogging with students

Thanks to an email from Bee, I've been re-reading a post by Aaron Campbell on Dekita, which list a few key points to bear in mind when starting students blogging. This is particularly helpful for me as I'm doing the same and this week felt somewhat I was getting bogged down in technical and administrative problem-solving and lost sight of the aim - of getting students to read blogs and write in their own blogs of what they read (or discover) elsewhere on the Internet.

On Thursday I had the students in the lab for an hour or so, adding their classmates's blogs to their own blog's sidebar.

Yesterday (Friday), the assignment was to read about RSS (I'd prepared links to some pages in Japanese), to create their own aggregator account, and add their classmates' blogs to their aggregator. This also proved problematic, as I am beginning to foresee. I spent the entire time fire-fighting. As I had just spent the previous hour doing exactly the same thing (I'm really surprised so many students are completely computer illiterate; yet a survey of freshmen students shows that just over 60% have a computer at home).

You really want to know what kind of problems I had? Really? OK, if you insist.

The previous week's assignment had been to create a blog and email me the blog address. About half did. I then put those blogs in my own blog sidebar.

"Sir? My blog's not listed on your blog! Why not?"
"Did you email me the blog URL?"
"Oh. No."

"Sir, my blog's not listed. And I sent you the address."
"Let me check my email again....No, I didn't receive yours."
"But here's the email I sent!"
"Let 's check exactly WHERE you sent it to... Aha... my email address is @gmail.com. You sent your message to @gmaLL.com...."

Several students spent the hour making a new blog simply because they had forgotten their password and were unable to persuade blogger.com to tell them what it was. So they now have two (some of them three!) blogs on the Internet...and they still need to catch up with the rest of the class on RSS and an aggregator.

A couple of students ignored or failed to heed my urging that they NOT use their complete real name or their student ID or their email address in anything other than their profile. As the blogs are all on Blogger, not on the university website, and as they are all adults in my British eyes, eventually it's their decision. I just want to be sure they appreciate what they are doing and why I suggest they don't do this.

I need to remember that this class is not primarily about blogging, or even about using the Internet: it's a speaking and listening class. I'm hoping the blogs will be places they can use to reflect on language-learning and on their intellectual life at college in general.

With a different group of students I'd spent the first hour on Friday helping them set up accounts at Flickr. I'd had an ambitious plan of 5 or 6 different tasks for this group, which, after recalling my experiences earlier in the week, I'd pared down to just 2: write about your Golden Week on the Moodle, and set up an account at Flickr (I'd hoped to have them take a photo with their cell-phone, post it to Flickr, then tell their classmates about it on the Moodle, but abandoned that). This class has 44 students registered and meets just once a week. The first time we met, 26 students attended, and attendance has never been that high since (this is a compulsory class). In the second week, I took all 18 who attended to the lab and got them registered on the class Moodle.

So Friday's class, I hadn't anticipated of course, that most of the students who attended that day would be students who were ABSENT in week 2 when we registered on Moodle, and would NOT be registered. So the first half-hour was spent dealing with that. The second half was spent helping them create their Flickr accounts. This has become more complicated since Flickr now ties everything to Yahoo. In other words, you must first create a Yahoo ID, and unfortunately a Yahoo! Japan ID isn't recognized. They have to put in all kinds of info, all in English, so I was running around explaining what a "zip code" is (for instance) and what they should put in there.

Instead, I should have had them explore Flickr and write about it, link to a photo they liked or something (many of them were wowed with the photos), instead of setting up an account first.

Key words: priorities, anticipation

May 11, 2006

A life well lived

The combination of title and photo in this Robert Paterson post evokes a lot in me. Can't put it into words yet, tho.

The future of education?

Robert Paterson blogs this remarkable video about Fairhaven school, somewhere in the US, I guess. Check it out.

Maybe it's a school for gifted kids, but I found the children in it remarkably eloquent and genuine. Beautiful human beings. What's your impression?




Blogs, wikis, podcasts

Am dipping randomly into Will Richardson's book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and finding lots of useful information, advice and ideas.

Something I've read about but not really understood or had time to experiment with yet is creating RSS feeds from Furl and del.icio.us folders and tags. This is something Will writes about in his book. His section on Wikis is also giving me ideas of how I might use this tool which I haven't played with at all yet.

I also liked Darren Kuropatwa's idea (which Will blogged) of having his students create Wiki manuals for other students on how to solve problems. I'm trying to incorporate blogs and Moodles into my classes, but there's a big disparity in tech-savviness amongst my students. Perhaps the quicker ones can help the others by creating a wiki manual on how to sign up for blogger.com or something like that.

Digital Doodling

Peter Ford has one of those simple but brilliant ideas that make me laugh out loud and cheer me up immediately (especially after this kind of class), and thank Heaven and the Internet for blogs: digital doodling, in this case meaning to pass out your digital camera to participants during your presentation and invite them to take a photo of anything they like then pass the camera along the row. When the camera gets back to you, you upload the photos to Flickr.

Think what you could do in a class, especially if you were online and could upload and show the photos on Flickr right then and there, before their very eyes! Cool...


A not so brilliant failure

This post (clarified here) echoed with me today, after I had a less than satisfying stint in the computer lab with my students and tried to get them closer to actually blogging. My intention is to give students the opportunity to experience the fun and excitement of blogging that I feel. However, the difficulty is to create activities and tasks that are clear and that require them to do the kinds of things they need to do in order to understand (some of) the potential value and benefit of blogging.

Due to entirely unforeseen circumstances, i.e. not preparing properly, I hit upon several stumbling blogs, erm, blocks.

1) I realized once I was in the lab that I did not have with me the passwords I needed to access my Bloglines account. I therefore could not demonstrate for them how to import an OPML file into an (as yet uncreated) Bloglines account.

2) I decided to show them how to tinker with the blogger template to add a link to another blog. I demonstrated this first on a screen they could all see (tho actually they couldn't all see because the size of the screen was pretty small, and the quality of the picture varied from screen to screen so some students had to squint pretty hard). It was then I realized this was going to be harder than I had thought because none of them know anything about HTML or templates or ...

3) Before we even got to that stumbling block, we hit another one: many couldn't access their blogger blogs because they'd a) forgotten their username ("did you send it to me by email right after last class as I told you to? If so, the URL is in your email which is in your "Sent" folder. If not, I can't help you.")
 or b) had forgotten their password. A couple of boys spent almost the entire hour trying to persuade Blogger.com to tell them what their password was, without success (perhaps because they were giving an email address that was different from the one they used to register with Blogger... )

4)  Most students had (by chance) selected a blogger template that includes a "Links" section in the sidebar, but not all of them had. "Sir, where's the "Links"? One bright spark proposed a solution: to switch templates. However, I decided it would be quicker for me to simply add the code for a "Links" heading in their original template.

5) A handful of students had not successfully created their blog last week (ran out of time or were absent) so they had to be guided through that process.

Eventually, though, more than half the students had successfully added a link to one other blog in their sidebar by the end of the class. I lavished praise on the ones that succeeded.

On reflection, I should have had them all start with just writing in their blogs and reading others. Oh well, tomorrow is another day.

May 10, 2006

Moodle or blogs?

I've been using Moodle as a support site for my various classes since the beginning of April. For various reasons, I haven't been able to make this obligatory, so not all students have signed up. In addition, I'm not in a computer room for most of these classes, and cannot request at least one session in a computer lab for all of them either. I'm hoping that the students that can and do access their class's Moodle will be interested and enthused enough to persuade others of their classmates to do likewise.

Here're some reflections on using Moodle and blogs that occur to me now:
1) students have unexpected difficulties signing up for Moodle - they mis-type their email address when signing up, then complain to me that they haven't received the confirmation email. As long as enough information about them for me to identify them is in the Moodle system, I can manually register them.

2) Most students use their real names when registering, tho many of them use a nickname for their username. I hadn't realized that this would be something I should tell them about, until today when I got a message from Moodle saying someone who tried to sign up left an email address that was either wrong or somehow blocks messages from Moodle. It looks like a cell-phone address. That figures. 90% of Japanese students live by their cell-phones. If it's not accessible by cell-phone, it's suspect, it means "work" and they may never get around to it... This person used a pseudonym to sign up with, and I can't guess their real identity from the pseudonym. What should I do? One option is to tell all my classes that "someone using the pseudonym of xxxx tried to register at the class Moodle but failed, and I can't help unless I know who it is. If it's you, please contact me after class."
Another is to delete that participant, and tell everyone in class the same message, but insisting they all use their real names and NOT a cell-phone email address when registering.

3) Another potential problem is that students use the same username and password to register for the Moodle as for their university login. Many I suspect don't realize that the two are completely unrelated and they not only don't HAVE to use the same, but they SHOULD NOT use the same logins.

4) A further unanticipated difficulty has been the language issue. Many students quickly realize they can set their own language preferences in Moodle, and many do, setting it to their own language. This means that when I log in in English, I see goggledygook where their names and profiles should be.
To avoid this, I've decided to make the Moodle an English-only environment.

5) A more advanced "problem" or question I'm facing now, is whether or not to use blogs and / or an email list as a further adjunct to the course. My reasoning is this: I want students to reflect on their learning, but because they are EFL learners and most of them have a very low level of English, I want them to at least start reflecting in their native language. They can't do this on the Moodle, for the above reason, so the alternative is an email list. The advantage of an email list over Moodle is that students can, if they want, choose to be anonymous or at least to hide their identities from their fellow classmates and reveal themselves as and when they choose. They can also write in their native language or English, whichever they prefer.

They could also do the same on a blog, and a blog is cooler, and of greater potential benefit to them. Many (most?) of them seem to be equally ignorant of blogs and mailing list/discussion boards, so using either one would have educational benefits for them. Which to use? A discussion board (e.g. Yahoo! Groups) would be easier to explain and less problematic; their own blog would be more difficult, especially with those classes where I'm not in a computer lab and can't use one, but potentially more beneficial in the long run, I feel.

6) To get them into the habit of reflecting on their learning experience, I made them write their comments and a record of what they did each class and send it to me by email, at least until they got accustomed to either Moodle or blogging. I thought it would be easy to track them all using gmail labels. What I hadn't anticipated is that some of them would use different email addresses from which to send in their homework each time!

Here's a typical pattern: first email from the university system; 2nd email from their home computer (and using Mum's or Dad's email software and ID) because they suddenly realize the deadline is like, in 3 minutes and they're at home; 3rd email from their cell-phone, as it's too much hassle to go to the uni computer centre, or ask Mum or Dad (again) to borrow the computer, and how do you login again? 4th email from their own private email address (e.g. hotmail or Yahoo) as they now realize that if they use Mum or Dad's email address, their email gets mixed up with Mum's or Dad's and that's yucky....

I've been creating filters in Gmail, but by the 4th new email address I'm, howjasay, losing enthusiasm. It's time for them to get on an email list and manage this stuff themselves.

I'll need to do a little orientation on the benefits of not only WRITING their own commments but also READING the comments of OTHERS. This will be necessary to urge them NOT to use their cell-phones for posting comments. (Posting is ok from a cell-phone, but I can't imagine them READING 25+ comments on Yahoo via their cell-phone on a regular basis).

The bright side is I guess they're becoming more ICT literate...

Audio comments - cool

Darren Kuropatwa comes up with lots of bright ideas, and here's another one: audio comments for a blog. It looks well worth while exploring.

Some social benefits of blogging

Not about language-learning. Entrepreneur David St Lawrence has finally finished building his new house and has a house-warming party.

He blames his decision to move to this area on a fellow blogger Fred.
Fred's book looks highly inviting.

May 08, 2006

Culture gap between university students and teachers

Daniel asks
could you give us a little more about what the nature of that culture gap is? do you think that it applies to your japanese students or is it something that applies primarily or only to US students?


I called it a culture gap; that is not what author Bob Leamson calls it. Simply put, Leamson suggests that professors and instructors at college level have spent enough time with their discipline and field(s) of knowledge that they are much more familiar with them and with their related ways of thinking, than their students are. Well, duh, I hear you say (only you're too polite to say it aloud). Wait, there's more: not only are they more familiar with the concepts and the ways of thinking required in their field, but they have forgotten the processes by which they got there. They can all too often fall into the trap of expecting students to "catch on" quickly, without realizing or forgetting the major differences between "high school thinking" and "college thinking". College teachers are much more concerned with developing students' thinking abilities. Indeed, this is such a given it barely would seem to require mentioning. But Leamson asks, do students know this? Why should we expect them to? He does a good job of identifying freshmen students' values and ways of thinking without being either condescending or coddling, without either blaming or excusing, but with sympathy and understanding. He points out that, given their high school experience, it is unrealistic to expect students to suddenly be interested in developing their thinking skills, or to be able to distinguish between procedural and declarative knowledge, or even if they knew the difference, to realize that their teachers are expecting them to USE the knowledge that is being offered; to use it to change their behaviour. It is probably safer to assume, Leamson suggests, that students assume that whatever a teacher says is "teacher talk": not to be paid attention to unless it's "going to be on the test". And then THAT is the only reason to pay attention to it.

He gives an example of a student of his, who, nearly at the end of the semester was clearly at risk of failing, and came in for extra coaching. During one session, a light went off in his head: "you mean all that stuff you were making us read, we were supposed to actually DO it??"

I've read several books about learning and education, many of them written by Brits or Americans or Australians who were writing about the systems and students in those countries, and I lost interest after a while as so little of what was written was relevant to my situation here in Japan. This book I found it to be highly relevant to me in my situation.

This isn't the most concise precis of Leamson's book and you'd probably be better off reading the reviews on amazon. As this is a blog, let me point you to the path I took in getting to Leamson's book: first, visit the index page of Ed Nuhfer's Nutshell Notes then starting with Vol 7 (1999) issue #7 read (in order) the ones about William Perry,

then to Leamson.

May 07, 2006

How to make boring classes

Brit ed-tech guru Terry Freedman has a neat guide to how to make (edtech) lessons boring. I don't teach edtech yet I found his suggestions of practical benefit. I just can't wait till Monday morning when I can now go in and bore my students to death- heeehaaaarr!

Tip of the hat to the attentive Bud the Teacher for the link.