Innovating in English learning

BAAHE Conference
Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
1 December 2017

Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium

A snowy morning in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2017. May be reused under CC BY 4.0 licence.

It was great to have the opportunity to head to snowy Belgium at the start of December to open the annual BAAHE Conference, which this year focused on the theme of  ‘Let’s Inter-Act! Innovative Teaching Practices in English Studies’. A series of papers covered innovative approaches to language teaching, many of them referencing digital technologies.

In my opening plenary, Revisiting mobile learning: Seizing new opportunities for language learning and cultural exploration, I outlined innovative teaching and learning approaches in the form of mobile augmented reality language learning and literacy acquisition initiatives from Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Vietnam. I pointed out that although not all of these projects are solely focused on English, all have lessons to teach us about how to support our students in using their everyday mobile devices to approach the English language, English literacies, and English-speaking cultures.

In their presentation, Giving students’ writing skills a boost: Towards a self-learning platform for an optimized use of online resources, Gaëtanelle Gilquin and Samantha Laporte spoke about their research on students’ use of online tools for writing, captured via screencasts and logs of their writing processes, with the ELAN software being used for video annotation. In their preliminary results, they found that students spent around 12% of their time using writing tools, making 17 searches each on average. There was however no correlation between the number of searches and their final grades; it may be that proficient writers need less help. Bilingual dictionaries represented 47% of students’ searches, and bilingual concordancers 20%. There was thus an overwhelming use of bilingual tools, and in general there was a conspicuous absence of corpus and collocation tools. It was discovered that most students stuck to a limited number of tools when seeking help. In nearly 70% of cases, it was found that students’ searches were helpful in improving their texts; but in other cases, the searches led to incorrect or partly incorrect formulations, or had no effect. The presenters concluded that there is a need to raise students’ awareness of the range of tools available, when to use them, and what help they can provide.

In his presentation, Using a ‘flipped classroom’ teaching modality to help English Master’s students master text-editing skills, John Linnegar spoke about a 10-week course involving three in-class sessions complemented by autonomous, self-directed learning. The textbook took on an even more central role in this context, he suggested. There were downloadable weekly video or audio clips by experts, as well as exercises and assignments. In addition, there was a closed Facebook community of practice. Students were generally very positive about the approach, and felt that the work was evenly spread over the 10 weeks. They were also very positive about the three contact sessions, but this may be partly a product of the fact that they were already so used to face-to-face teaching approaches. Unexpected outcomes included the fact that some students expressed a preference for more structure in their learning; a number did not participate fully or at all in the Facebook group; and they rarely emailed the lecturer. Areas for improvement in future iterations of the course include: making better use of video and audio clips and perhaps webinars; encouraging greater involvement on Facebook; giving more regular feedback on assignments; and above all more tightly planning and structuring the course. He concluded that a flipped approach requires a much tighter structure than a traditional face-to-face approach.

In her presentation, Online training module for language professionals: Promoting the uptake of open educational NLP [natural language processing] resources in language learning and teaching, Fanny Meunier spoke about a Moodle course on new technologies created for teachers. Teachers showed a lot of interest in the teaching opportunities provided by the tools; they liked the easy, practical and free access to the tools selected; they also liked the NLP tools that helped them identify the level of the pedagogical materials; and they liked interactive tools that allowed them to collaborate with colleagues and share materials with students. They appreciated the fact that learners could increase their autonomy, engage in more personalised learning, and use the target language within an online community. Problems included school bans on smartphones; lack of easy learner access to technologies in the classroom and/or at home; lack of a good internet connection in some schools; the preference of some teachers and students not to use digital technologies; a lack of computer literacy; and some less user-friendly and more linguistically complex tools. She demonstrated the use of one of the tools covered with the teachers, namely Acapela Box, discussing its potential to support learner-centred, independent, differentiated learning. Lessons learned by the project organisers include: keeping only the best tools; identifying additional ways of presenting the tools; and offering in situ presentations and teacher support. In future the organisers will take a learning-by-design approach where they ask teachers to discuss how they might actually employ these tools within their own teaching contexts.

In the closing plenary workshop, Audience response systems (clickers): How to enhance interaction with and between students, Ingrid Bertrand demonstrated the use of three different polling apps, namely Kahoot!, Socrative and Wooclap. Clickers are not a magic bullet, she said, but they have many possible benefits: they make learning fun, involve students in more active learning, provide immediate feedback, indicate to teachers whether more explicit teaching is needed, and improve students’ communication skills. It was suggested that when a student vote produces between 35-70% correct answers to a multiple-choice question, students can be asked to engage in peer discussion to convince their classmates of the correct answers, and then to vote again. The percentage of correct answers is likely to increase if those students who originally had the correct answers have presented strong enough arguments to their peers. In the peer discussion process, students also need to hone their communication skills as they engage in conversations with classmates and seek to persuade them of the correctness of their views.

All in all, this intensive one-day event was an ideal chance to gain some insights into the tools currently being explored and implemented by those involved in English teaching in Belgian higher education, and for lecturers to share with colleagues what is working in their particular contexts, thereby facilitating the spread of the most effective, locally relevant technological practices.

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