These days, companies see information and communication technology as an essential element of their staff training programmes. When looking for external providers, whether it be for technical, management or language training, companies are increasingly coming to expect some kind of technology-mediated component in the courses provided. Many learners are now accustomed to using digital technologies and social media in both their working and private lives and may find the absence of these technologies in the training they receive increasingly anomalous. There are, in short, a number of pressures on teachers to adopt technology in one form or another in the training they offer.
It would, however, be wrong to bow to these pressures without weighing up the gains of doing so – both pedagogically and commercially. Our decisions about course delivery still need to be informed by an understanding of learners’ language and situational needs. But in these digital times, fitting in with the busy, digital lifestyles of our learners means that meeting these needs often entails the provision of a technology-based component that complements and extends (but not replaces!) traditional classroom teaching. This ‘blended’ approach can open up exciting possibilities, but also raises concerns for many.
Teachers are using a wide range of applications to meet their and their learners’ needs. They’re taking advantage of social media tools such as blogs (Blogger, WordPress), wikis (PBworks), social networks (Facebook, Linkedin), cloud storage and synchronization tools (Dropbox, Google Drive), microblogging sites (Twitter), VoIP or Web-conferencing tools (Skype, Google+ Hangouts, Blackboard Collaborate) and learning management systems (Blackboard, Moodle) to enhance their teaching and provide their learners with virtual learning spaces of differing degrees of permanence and complexity. But given this plethora of web-based applications, where exactly should we start?
A good starting point is to focus not on the relative merits or limitations of specific web tools, but rather on the factors that impact on the choices we need to make when designing and delivering virtual training. So, before, we take a look at tools we can use (see list below), let’s quickly consider some of the questions raised by these factors.
Question 1: Online or face-to-face?
First up, is deciding on the configuration the training should take. There’s a wide range of permutations to choose from between the extremes of 100% face-to-face and 100% online. So, for example, depending on the learners’ needs and your own technology skills-set you may decide on any one of the following:
- mostly face-to-face with a smaller online component (say 80% f2f / 20% online)
- 50% face-to-face / 50% online
- mostly online with a smaller face-to-face component (say 80% online / 20% f2f)
- completely online (e.g. with a mix of real-time sessions (synchronous) and a blend of self-access and moderated asynchronous activities).
Next up would be to consider which activities learners would profit from most if they took place in the classroom or online. You may, for example, decide that learners could benefit from having reading and grammar tasks delivered online to free up more time for speaking activities in the classroom.
Question 2: Synchronous or asynchronous?
In a blended approach, real-time interaction between learners and their trainer usually takes place in the face-to-face setting of the brick and mortar classroom. But in a 100% online course, of the kind that is gaining increasing traction in Latin America with providers such as Open English and in Asia with EF’s English Town, the synchronous component is delivered online using VoIP applications such as Skype or web-conferencing tools such as GoToMeeting.
Whether online or face-to-face, real-time activity is usually integrated with asynchronous training that allows learners to work online at any time that is convenient for them. It’s this flexibility and the time it also allows for reflection that make asynchronous training such an attractive proposition for learners and trainers alike. Asynchronous activity can take many forms. Typically, it can, for instance, comprise of gap-fill or drag and drop activities where the learner receives instant feedback after submitting answers. These are essentially self-access activities. But there are other asynchronous activities. Learners can interact with each other or with the trainer, and in so doing produce language in a much more communicative fashion. A forum discussion on a topic set up by the trainer is a typical example of this kind of activity.
Question 3: Self-access or moderated?
The mix of asynchronous activities you decide to provide depends to some degree on the level of moderation and type of feedback you think your learners should receive. With moderated activities, that is, where the trainer responds rather than the software, learners can establish motivating relationships with the trainer and other course participants because they are actively communicating. They receive individualized feedback on language use, but also on the content itself. It’s important to note, however, that this does significantly increase the trainer’s workload and needs to be taken into account when costing the training.
Which configuration of virtual training you might want to provide depends on many factors (e.g. learner needs, cost, time available – yours and the learners’, etc.) and the choice is also closely linked to the kind of blend you choose ( see question 1 above). For instance, it could be argued that the larger the online component in your blend, the greater the need for moderated activity will probably be. Clearly, a balance of some kind needs to be struck. Here are some of the possibilities:
- completely self-access: learners work on their own interactive exercises with instant pre-programmed feedback and no trainer moderation at all
- mostly self-access activities with limited trainer moderated activity: learners receive a limited amount of individual feedback from the trainer on the language they produce – e.g. an uploaded piece of writing
- a 50-50 blend of self-access and moderated activities: there is some meaningful interaction between learners and they receive some trainer feedback on the language produced
- mostly moderated: learners interact or collaborate and receive a significant amount of feedback from the trainer and possibly each other).
Question 4: What exactly do I want learners to do online?
The Web 2.0 revolution of the early 2000s enabled web users to become producers as well as consumers of Internet content. The result, as we’ve seen, is a dizzying array of social media and web-tools characterized by their user-friendliness. These make it possible for learners to study and use language in all manner of interesting ways. Here are some of the things that are now possible and that you might want to enable your learners to do
- download materials
- use hyperlinks to online resources
- upload written work and receive feedback
- access audio-visual materials
- upload and share their own audio and video recordings
- access a range of self-access type exercises with instant feedback
- interact asynchronously in discussions (forums)
- take part in text chat, audio chat or video chat (synchronous)
Which tool, or combination of tools, you use to build your virtual learning environment (VLE) will to a large extent depend on whether or not they can handle the particular set of above functions you need.
As a rule of thumb, the longer the course in question, and the greater the range of interactions and functions you want to provide, the more sophisticated the tools you use will need to be. So, for example, if all you need to do is deliver materials then a simple cloud-based file storage/sharing tool such as Dropbox will do the trick. If, however, at the other end of the scale, you would like to carefully track progress as your learners work online, then you’ll probably be looking at a full-blown learning management system (LMS) such as commercial tools like Blackboard or FirstClass or open-source (free) tools such as Sakai or Moodle. Then there are hosted tools such as Schoology or Edmodo that have been designed specifically for educational purposes. And let’s not forget the range of social media tools such as blogs and wikis which can be augmented with third-party tools to create effective, media-rich virtual learning environments for both individual and group work.
Your choice of online tool(s) depends in the first instance, as with most things, on your learners’ needs, but other considerations include cost and the level of technical know-how needed to deploy them successfully (something like Moodle, for instance, requires some level of training if it’s to be used effectively).
Question 5: Am I ready?
There can be a tendency among ICT for teaching enthusiasts towards ‘technology fetishism’ – I know because I’ve been guilty of it myself! Interest and enthusiasm for the new technology itself can easily deflect from the important issue of whether it can actually add value when used as part of a well-considered virtual training programme that has been informed by careful consideration of fundamental questions such as those discussed above. But there is one final important consideration that concerns our own readiness. Before making a commitment to offering virtual training we need to think a little about our own skills-set for such an undertaking. Here is a checklist of some of the questions we can ask ourselves:
- Can I use with confidence the tools (software) selected to create a learning environment?
- Do I have the basic technical know-how to provide some limited support if learners have problems (hardware)?
- Are my e-moderation skills up to the task of promoting language use, encouraging learners to make progress and providing effective feedback in an online setting?
A negative answer to any of these doesn’t mean we should drop the project, but it does mean we either need time to experiment more ourselves or we need training from experienced practitioners to help us develop the necessary skills. If you’re new to providing virtual training, you could consider taking part in an online course yourself as a learner. The experience should provide valuable insights from a learner’s perspective that can feed into your own course design. Start small and scale up by first experimenting with a one-to-one learner rather than with a group, or by using a tool like Pen.io to create a simple web page with content of your choice to share with your learners. From there you can scale up and experiment with a free hosted wiki service such as PBworks. And so on.