Non-Techies, Stop Freakin’ Out and Start Flippin’

by Shawn Severson and Sandra Luna

Does the thought of adding more tech to an already full teaching and/or managing plate make your stomach churn? As full-time teachers who run the educational technology systems and liaise with the director on educational management, we see the future has finally arrived and have some tips to help bring more exploration in the classroom while at the same time bringing more learning home.  Even if the school is not considering implementing an academic management platform any time soon, several pointers in this article will help teachers collaborate electronically with other colleagues and students.  As we appreciate online depositories of teaching materials, working with some of the principles listed below will also help you do your part.  Finally, implementing Moodle or other platforms can come with the reassurance of building up a bank of materials and practices that can be passed on and built upon.

Over the course of the last seven years, Moodle has progressed from a place to collect written work and provide feedback to a full-fledged system enhancing not only aspects of learner development but also administrative practice.  For one thing, the level of transparency made possible through Moodle opens doors for the potential of cross-marking, evaluation of students’ progress in writing and availability of “extras” for students.  Additionally, working in tandem with the course syllabus, Moodle allows teachers to build up a repertoire of materials that are much more replicable, adaptable and flexible than paper binders full of photocopies.

Controllin’ your fear and controllin’ your Moodle

At first glance and as a bare-bones tool, Moodle can be daunting and developing practices of integration is not as straightforward as many would imagine.  Firstly, Moodle works best when there is positive cooperation shared among academic managers, teachers and students—after all, that is why they call it a learner community.  Teenagers, being quick to change email addresses, slow to read their email at times and at first reluctant to share time they would normally spend on social media, need to be brought on board with platforms such as this.  In fact, we have seen this and have been able to even work with students as young as twelve doing exam preparation for Key for Schools.  Teachers naturally have their levels of technological skills, however, to be up-to-date in our field, we should universally have notions of how to login to a site, find something on YouTube, make a Word document and so on.  The rest is little more than that, if you take it step by step.  Managers, interestingly enough, may house the biggest fears of the medium as, once the computer person puts it on the server, it is literally a blank slate where classes have to be set up, profiles created and information sent on to students.  All these concerns, however, can be mitigated by doing the following:

ü  Start with exam classes, given their focus on the exam, providing them with extra opportunities to practice exam techniques.  This will be vital in terms of learning which sort of practices work best using this type of platform.

ü  Create Excel spreadsheets where teachers / students enter profile information.  When set up right, these spreadsheets can be uploaded onto Moodle, such that a class of users is created—even all of the profiles in the whole school—by a single click.

ü  Using this same spreadsheet, it is also possible to draft an email in a Word document where you explain that you are sending username and password and the purpose of Moodle.  This added reinforcement will ensure that students have their login information correct.  Once you have it drafted, you can use Word to perform a “mail merge” which will either create form letters which you can cut and paste in email or send the information instantly through Outlook.

ü  Provide a practice class site to all teachers, helping them with the Attendance module and with writing their summaries online, giving them tasks, such as setting a writing task, providing an online resource for students, creating a vocabulary notebook with the Glossary module, setting up a Forum to introduce the topic for your next lesson, creating questions and adding them to their personal question bank to be used whenever they need and maybe even share with colleagues… The possibilities are endless and once your teachers get it going you can easily see the results: motivated teachers with enthusiastic students.

Even small schools who have no technical support can implement Moodle if they want to, follow these practices and, thus, can enjoy the benefits.

Keepin’ track with Moodle

In a world where attendance registers could potentially get lost and where sometimes teachers forget to write their summaries or are split between teaching centres so they do not always have their summaries nearby, there is an alternative. By using the Attendance module on Moodle, teachers have the chance to write summaries from home, and students (as well as their parents) can keep an eye on attendance information. Having class summaries posted online can also help those students who missed a lesson, giving them a chance to catch up on some of the work they missed.

Moodle also allows the teacher to keep track of students’ grades with the Gradebook module. Every grade for every assignment given will be there, helping to track progress. Moodle can also be used to post important documents for staff and even to create a forum where teachers can exchange doubts, experiences and tips with each other. And of course, this transparency means that the DOS is able to access information on a class or a particular student, finding vital information available at just the click of a mouse. Summaries can be checked, a student’s grades consulted or the class average weighed, student attendance viewed, what the students have been doing for homework analysed, you name it. Visits to check the teacher’s folder can be greatly minimised.

Fab feedback on writing with self-calculating templates

Stemming from the days when using personal email to collect homework, we quickly learned that providing students with a template for submitting assignments was a practice to make our lives easier.  From the creative students, fancy fonts and dreamy colours shouted from the page and from the more serious ones, the starkest formatting, devoid of name, task and always entitled “Homework” made their writing melt in with the others’.  It became apparent that the task was envisioned as only for the teacher and thus failed to fit into the true genre requested in the writing task.  Providing a uniform template set in a common font, requesting name, course description as well as word count standardized homework submissions.

That, however, is only the first part of the potential of correcting electronically.  Using “track changes” in Word, feedback can be given through comments, and corrections are signalled when words are added, changed or deleted.  Additionally, using a correcting rubric relying on the Cambridge standards was crucial.  From these categories, set on a 5-point scale, it was possible to create a scoresheet in the same Word document that would calculate the actual percentage and score, using the Insert Object feature to embed a self-calculating Excel sheet.

Feedback is colourful and rich:  additions, deletions, comments appear through Track Changes. A score on Content, Accuracy, Range & register, Organisation and effect on the Target reader (CARrOT) appear in the scoresheet.  In the next months, with the new Cambridge criteria, new work will need to be done in order to adapt this rubric.  Not only are students given feedback on content, but they are also gaining awareness of strong and weak points of their writing, as well as what is looked at in the Cambridge examinations.  Last but not least, scoring and grading is achieved according to uniform standards.

Flippin’ teaching with flipped grammar lessons

In regards to grammar, whose presence in the classroom is debated time and again, practices from the flipped classroom can be of help.  As we often give feedback in writing in regards to the grammar point that flawed writing violates or we try to prompt students at times with a grammatically driven explanation, somehow grammar still holds a place in our teaching practices.  So why not “give in” and let students do grammar?

Universally, however, teachers acknowledge that grammar takes a long time and compared to communicatively rich content we chose in the classroom, it is not surprising that grammar is frowned upon.  Wonderful pages of grammar at the back of the book often go unseen and many times even when these are needed, such reference material does not integrate well into the classroom experience.  We have found that recording an explanation of the grammar using those materials, posting the videos on YouTube and sharing the link through Moodle is an effective way of giving extra grammar content without infringing upon valuable “airtime” dedicated to speaking and other skills.  We launched this initially as a teacher training tool to explain administrative tasks and later found that students could also benefit from this type of explanation.  While the content is not professional in the polished sense, it is nonetheless valuable and students can pause, rewind, fast forward or even put off the teacher’s explanation at will.

Freed up time = Fun in the classroom

In the end, being able to use Moodle and other tools such as YouTube channels to share original grammar tutorials or give a quiz on a topic for students to do at home can free up more time for doing other interesting things in class. For example, you can ask students to watch a video, or one of your tutorials on grammar and then have a warm-up game about it the next lesson. Another practice is using Moodle Quizzes which have immediate feedback you enter when creating the questions and answers.  This type of drill will naturally save you time correcting homework in the classroom. Students find out right away what was wrong with their answers, and, in turn, you can use their mistakes for a class activity. There are lots of ways in which you can be creative and build the bridge between what you give the students to do at home and what you bring back into the classroom. It’s a great way of building an on-going learning process by keeping the students engaged and motivated even when they are not having a lesson. Adults particularly enjoy this system as it gives them a sense of control over their performance in class.

Putting it all into perspective & sharing

By using online tools like IH Campus or Dropbox, which can all work together with your Moodle, you will also be encouraging your students to be environmentally conscious, as many exercises can be done by reading from the computer screen, or a tablet, and answers submitted electronically.  Hence, worksheets and other activities can be shared instead of printed and handed out. When homework is submitted online, you can use a text editor to give feedback, which is useful for them to revise and resubmit a perfected version, in the case of writing tasks.

We have mentioned how the courses can be copied and used by other teachers or for other courses. However, the key descriptor of Moodle is flexibility. Cut, add, modify; use Moodle interactively with Dropbox and YouTube, tailor your course to the needs of your group, make it appealing to them. Personalise it, add a class picture, share a recording of a spoken activity, make students realize you’ve made this for them, with their needs and interests in mind. And also be prepared for those who won’t like it. Not everyone enjoys reading from a screen, not all your students (or teachers) will feel comfortable with it, so it’s important to use it as a tool and balance what you give in class with what is done on Moodle. However, it provides lots of opportunities to consolidate aims and encourage learning outside the classroom.  This personal yet future-looking kind of collaborative work, for us, is flippin’ good!

Author’s Bio: 
Sandra Luna:
Sandra has been teaching ESL for over 15 years and now at IH Porto, teaching a wide range of levels and ages. She’s keen on using technology in the classroom and on how it facilitates teacher practice. Student-centred approaches that make lessons more engaging are also one of her main interests.
Shawn Severson:
Adept at materials development and online tools, Shawn has striven to be techologically innovative and share practices with other teachers. The past 10 years at IH Porto have centered on promoting student engagement in the classroom through technology and now outside, using flipped learning, the focus of his PhD thesis.