Nov 012020
 

I’m very interested in using virtual reality environments for teaching ESP (English for Specific Purposes) or ESAP (English for Specific Academic Purposes). However, the problem is that it would take a lot of time, effort and cost to develop such course in a virtual world from scratch. This is one of the reasons, I believe, why even after so many years, there are still only a handful of language educators in virtual worlds.

My approach in the past, therefore, was to use existing places (in Second Life) to teach English, rather than buying land, learning to built and script, etc. This wasn’t and isn’t feasible for most teachers.

So, when I came across this video from Arizona State University on Linkedin a couple of weeks ago, I was really excited, not because of Hollywood, but because I think some of us educators might be able to piggyback on this kind of thing. For example, they want to use the world shown in the video to teach biology. Instead of reinventing the wheel, the language department could use the same world to teach EAP or ESAP. I assume that language departments around the world don’t have the budget to build immersive virtual environments such as this one just to teach an English for Biology, or Architecture, Medicine or History course. However, if a university can built virtual reality environments for certain subjects, we language teachers could use the same material or course content and create a language course and activities for that subject area. This would not only save money, time and effort, but it would help integrate the language learning with the international students’ subject courses and support them better.

As I also like project-based learning, I could imagine another type of collaboration between different departments and subject areas. Many universities now offer degrees in Virtual and Augmented Reality, and often students have to work on projects developing VR environments or apps as part of their portfolio for assessment. Some projects could be on building environments or apps for the language department. Or an interdisciplinary collaboration could bring VR development students together with EdTech and TESOL students (like I was) and have them work together on VR for language education projects – a win-win-win situation for the students from the two disciplines and the university.

(For more details about the ASU project, go here.)

Oct 302020
 
Bestias11

Cave paintings – One of the first means of visual storytelling?

Storytelling is probably as old as humans existence.* All good storytellers try to immerse their audience in their realistic or fantastic stories, bring their characters to life and generate emotions in their listeners by all kinds of means: simply using their voice, describing a scene, making accompanying sounds with any kinds of instruments available, dressing up, playing suitable tunes, showing images or films, and using all the other tricks of the storyteller’s trade.

Can we then agree that VR technology is simply a continuum of what has existed for a long time and just allows us to use another technique (or trick) to help us feel present – immersed – in a world that is not our current physical world? Perhaps there is one important difference, though: in an interactive VR environment or virtual world, we are not just told an immersive story, we can actively take part in it, which can contribute to the feeling of really experiencing something – even more, creating an experience – rather than just being a ‘consumer’ of a story. Imagine just watching a film versus being able to jump into a scene and interact with everything in it and thereby impacting on and changing the story!

If storytelling has such an important place in human existence and experience, and VR can help us make stories more immersive, experiential and participatory, we need to keep this in mind when using VR in education and planning lessons or immersive experiences that we hope will lead to better learning. If we could manage to convey our learning content as stories, that would be a great success. This is not a new idea, of course, but one that is particularly important when using VR technology, for which immersion is cited as one of the main raisons d’être. 

When we take our learners to a location in an immersive VR app or virtual world so they feel more immersed, for example to a café to practise ordering food, and we tell our students, ’Today we will practise ordering food in a café’, we’d be taking away from the immersive experience. It’s the same as telling students in a physical classroom, ‘Today, we’re going to practise using modals for politeness’. How engaging is that? How much positive emotional engagement will this create?

Instead, we can in many cases pack the grammar point or functional language into a kind of story. So, for example, before the café lesson, tell a simple story: ‘Today is my birthday, so I’d like to take you all to a café […] Let’s go!’ You can make your story as short or as elaborate as you want. Depending on your context, the length of time available and how your course and lessons are set up, you could really go into it with more preparation before the VR session to raise expectations, increase motivation, and spark your learner’s imagination right from the start. You could show them a picture of the place you want to take them too. Tell them it’s one of your favourite places and why. Perhaps tell them what kind of foods and drinks they offer in that place, when it opened, what makes it special. Elicit from them what kind of foods and drinks they like, where they usually like to go to celebrate, etc.

Another example: Let’s say the lesson is about learning/reviewing the names of colours. How can you introduce this lesson better than saying, ’In this lesson, you will learn/review the names of colours’?

How about saying, ‘I’m planning a party. I want to decorate my room. Look, here are balloons. Which  colour do you like best?’ Or ‘Give me the red ballon’, or ‘Where is the blue ballon?’, etc., depending on what language your learners already understand or can use. At the end, you can say, ‘Thank you for helping me decorate my room’ and ‘You’re all invited to my party’.

So, as you can see, making a lesson into a story does not need to be difficult or time-consuming. You don’t even have to change your lesson plan, just introduce it slightly differently and embed it in a simple story.

Of course, there is a lot more to storytelling. The best stories are those that are created and told by learners themselves. For some ideas for this, have a look at my blog post ‘Photography and storytelling lessons in virtual reality‘. 

*If you want to learn more about the development of storytelling from cave paintings to VR technology, you might want to check out this free online course by the University of Lancaster, which has a unit on the history of VR.

Oct 272020
 

As a (former) photographer, I love using images in language classes, so I really like the snapshot function in Second Life. You can download snapshots, or send them directly as email. This is like when you travel and send emails with updates to family and friends. Being able to do this while you’re still in the virtual world makes the experience feel more immerse than saving the snapshot and writing the email after leaving the virtual world. It is also a more authentic activity for many people now who like to take a snapshot with their smartphone when they are out and about and immediately share it via a messenger app or social media.

I used this functionality of SL a lot when teaching there. It gives learners the opportunity to share something they have experienced with their family and friends  – just like they would if they were on a trip or holiday. Also, it gives them a real reason and motivates them to use the language as they do want to share what they have experienced – there is an emotional connection.

Even if the virtual world you use does not have a camera/snapshot function, learners can always take a screenshot (just beware of permissions and copyright issues, particularly if the images are to be shared publicly (I blogged about this in the past, but I’m not sure whether anything has changed in the meantime). I have to find out whether it is possible to take snapshots or screenshots in VRs when using a headset!

Using these snapshots in a story is another possibility. Learners can be asked to create and write stories. They can enhance their stories with snapshots they have taken. This could be made into a project-based activity by having groups of learners co-create and write a story and publish it as a blog post or even a simple ebook, which they can then share with others.

Another possibility for a project-based activity using VR snapshots is creating comics or cartoon stories, using one of the many comic creation tools that are available online. This was made with Canva.

(Images taken in the Village of Ahiru http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Ahiru/95/103/29)

Oct 112020
 
Stereoscope (AM 605697-1)

A stereoscope from World War I times

Did you always want to know what Virtual Reality exactly is? Or you are not sure what the difference between AR, VR, MR and XR is? How old is VR do you think? Would you like to know about the history of it? Do you know in which industries VR is used and how it might develop in the future? What are the benefits of using VR? Can using VR be dangerous? What ethical implications could creating VR environments or apps have?

If you are interested in the answers to these question and more, and have a few spare hours, there are some good (free) short online courses you can take. Here are two to get you started:

1. The University of Lancaster Institute of Coding offers a two-week course on FutureLearn called Introduction to Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality. The course is very accessible and there is just enough information if you only have a couple of hours and want a brief introduction. But there are lots of extra links to articles, websites and even development tools if you want to dig a bit deeper. You can also take your time to reflect about the information and questions, and add comments to interact with other course participants. Some comments are really insightful or help you to look at things from a different perspective. You get a free digital upgrade too, and can download and share your certificate on Linkedin and elsewhere. The topics that are covered are:

  • The fundamentals of XR (VR, AR and MR)
  • The ethics surrounding the creation of XR applications
  • Careers/pathways in and skills in XR
  • The technologies and tools in creating XR projects

2. If you have access to Linkedin Learning (You need to have a Premium account or your institution subscribes to it, or you can sign up for a 30-day trial), you can take the course Virtual Reality Foundations by Craig Barr. The learning objectives are:

  • What is virtual reality?
  • Types of virtual reality
  • Using virtual reality in business, filmmaking, AEC, and more
  • Developing VR content
  • The future of VR

The topics covered are similar to the one above, but it’s worth going through both courses as they look at things from different angles or provide different examples. From what I have seen, in the FutureLearn courses comments are generally more elaborate because you are frequently asked reflective questions. If you start on a specific start date, you also feel part of a learning community and not like just watching a series of video lecturers on your own as it often is with Linkedin Learning courses. Of course there is nothing to stop you from forming a community with like-minded people and working your way through a Linkedin course together and discussing the content as you go. Linkedin Learning allows you to download and share your certificate on your Linkedin profile and feed too.

So, what interests you in VR? What do you think of its potential? How would you like to use it?

Oct 092020
 

It’s been eight years since I left the 3D virtual word of Second Life after a few years of experimenting with teaching English, co-creating the SLExperiments groups for teachers interested in language education in SL, and conducting teacher training!

Daffodil in her house in the virtual world of Second Life

Daffodil in her seaside house, November 8, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, I decided it was time to go back. Daffodil was a bit cross with me for abandoning her, but we made up and are friends again. She still dresses much better than I, that hasn’t changed. But her movements have become a bit clumsy now and it takes her longer to do things, such as adjusting her camera view, rezzing an object, finding stuff in her inventory, etc. She lost her beautiful house at the seaside, too. Well actually, she’s still got the house and furniture in her inventory she said, but nowhere to set it up and settle. So, she was basically just sitting in a corner of a forest, where I had left her (OK, I do feel a bit guilty now…). She told me she kept all our teaching tools and objects, lesson notes, landmarks of interesting places…however, many of the locations don’t exist any longer. How sad is that? Well, she said when you live in a virtual world, you kinda get used to things appearing, being changed or moved, and then disappearing. That’s virtual life for you, she said… Well, it’s not much different in my world either I told her…at which point she took me to a place where she had the right to rez objects, and rolled out our favourite carpet with comfortable cushions, tea glasses and some (to my dismay virtual) food, and we sat down and told each other about our lives in the past eight years in our respective worlds…

When everyone was ‘Zooming’ in the past couple month since this ‘p’ thing has happened to the real world and schools, universities, businesses, and socialising moved online, my mind kept going back to my Second Life times. As a blended and online learning professional, I know you can have great teaching and learning experiences online, whether in synchronous sessions using video conferencing tools or asynchronously. However, when most of our lives move online, learners and teachers might benefit from a more immersed experience when working, learning or socialising. There are many more good reasons, but those are for other posts.

Daffodil wearing a VR headset

I told Daffodil that I was going to start exploring virtual reality for language learning and teaching purposes again, but that this time it wouldn’t just be in Second Life but also other worlds, and that I was planning to use VR headsets too. At which point she jumped up from her cushion and got all excited. ‘I have one, I have one’ she said, and started fiddling in her inventory. I was puzzled. ‘What do you mean you have one?’ – ‘I have a VR headset, wait…’, and there she took it out of her inventory and put it on. I didn’t know what to say. How could I explain to her that this didn’t make sense? ‘Look, you’re an avatar, you are already in a virtual word, you don’t need a VR headset to feel immersed in it.’ – ‘How do you know how I feel?’ she said, visibly hurt. Oh dear…I offended my avatar, and she was right too! Nobody had prepared me for this kind of situation, so I decided I’d best change the subject.

‘So, as I said, I’ll be visiting other worlds. You know, I found out there’re loads of them’ – “Great! I was getting bored here, I’ll come with you and we’ll explore them together, just as we did here back then! So when are we starting? What do you think shall I wear…comfortable clothes and shoes I guess? Right? Why aren’t you saying anything?’ – ‘Eh, I don’t think that’ll be possible. Unfortunately, avatar’s can’t just travel from one virtual world to another. I’d really love to take you with me. You know in some of the worlds they don’t even allow you to customise your avatar; you have to choose one they offer and you’re stuck with that look. Can you imagine? It’ll really be difficult for me to feel immersed in a world when I look like a robot or animal, and even worse, like a human but completely different from what I look like or would like to look like. I know there’re people who don’t mind this at all, but I do…So, really, I wish I could take you with me…Perhaps one day, one day it will be possible…’

There she was looking upset again…’Look, wherever I go, I’ll take notes and pictures and I’ll come back and report to you. How’s that? I might even try to rent a plot of land here where you can set up your lovely house again, hm, hm?’–  ‘Now, that’s an offer! Then, I’d allow you to stay and use the house too sometimes… and sometimes we could go on field trips again and attend conferences together, like in the old times!’ – ‘Yes! Absolutely. That’s how we’ll do it!’

And so both of us were happy and excited about phase two of our virtual reality for language education explorations!

Bring it on!

Sep 272020
 

Every year, teachers on EAP pre-sessional courses are observed. As teaching took place online this summer, we were given two options:

  • being observed live
  • recording our session.

I decided to record my session.

Good reasons for recording

Time

The pre-sessional courses are very intensive and the online format being new, I wasn’t sure I’d have time to choose a lesson, write the lesson plan and send it to the observer in advance, which was a requirement for live observed lessons. Whereas, if we chose recording, it was possible to send the lesson plan together with the recording.

Possibility of tech failure

There’s always the possibility that the technology might fail. The internet connection might get interrupted, the platform might cause problems, the observer might have issues joining at their end…In the worst case, this would mean preparing another detailed lesson plan and spending another couple days worrying about it (see my next point).

Nerves 

This was my tenth year  of teaching a pre-sessional course, but although after each of my observed lessons I was told in the feedback that I looked calm and under control, I still feel nervous even after so many years. I’m a very confident teacher, but it simply feels unnatural to have another teacher sitting in the back of the classroom (or just being present in the live online session), observing and taking notes – no matter how nice they are.

Disruptiveness of observation

There’s a kind of intimacy and trust relationship between the students and the teacher. I’m very good at establishing trust and rapport in the classroom. However, when a third person – an outsider – comes in, the dynamics can change. If that person was participating in the lesson, it would be less awkward, and I do try to involve them just a little bit, but generally they’ll just be there in silence and focusing on their observation. In a live online session, they can be less intrusive by keeping their camera and microphone switched off. However, if they join the breakout rooms with just two to four students in each, it is even more disruptive than in the physical class.

Drawback of recorded sessions

If breakout rooms are used, the observer can move between the rooms in a live observed lesson. However, if the lesson is recorded, there isn’t much to watch/observe for the observer because only the main room is recorded and for most of the lesson, when everyone would be working in the breakout rooms, they would only see a black screen and hear nothing, at least this is how it was in MS Teams.

As I was using MS Teams and  breakout rooms  for the first time, I wanted to have feedback on how effectively I managed the class and the technology, including monitoring the groups, opening the shared Word docs each group was going to work on, etc… I had found a way that I thought was good, but I didn’t know how everyone else was doing it and whether there was a more effective or efficient way of managing the class, so feedback was important.

My solution

The tech team told me there was no way to record all the activity within MS Teams. So, I decided to record the main room as usual, and I asked students to record their breakout sessions (which one group did). This was just a backup solution. At the same time, to capture everything I was doing, I recorded my screen with Quicktime and send this to the observer.

The result

Recording the session in this way worked very well. I was much less worried and nervous before and during the ‘observed’ lesson because if anything had gone wrong with the technology or the lesson itself, I could have recorded another session; it also wasn’t disruptive because no third person joined our session. And most of all, the observer was able to see everything I did, and I received good feedback.

Jul 012016
 

This is my main classroom this year. The seating arrangement has changed into a horse shoe at the front for whole class activities. The seats at the back are used for break-out sessions / group work. On the teacher’s desk, there is a computer and screen with camera, a visualiser, a podcast recording device (the round microphone behind the keyboard, and the small screen with which everything is controlled. In the room, there are 6(!) whiteboards, a projector and large screen. There’s also wifi (throughout the campus) so that students (and teachers) can use their own devices.

All students in my classes have smartphones and laptops, only one or two have a tablet. This hasn’t changed over the six years that I’ve been teaching on these pre-sessional courses.

IMG_2681 IMG_2680 IMG_2679 IMG_2678 IMG_2677

May 122016
 

One of the most-used functions on my Mac for work is taking a screenshot (using the shortcut Shift-Command+4). Particularly when I do editorial or writing work and have to communicate to others what part of a webpage I have a question about or what needs to be changed on a website or an activity, etc., usually the most efficient way is to take a screenshot, annotate it and send it to together with the question or feedback.

What’s been bugging me though is that on Mac OSX, the default location where screenshots are saved is the desktop. With the number of screenshots I take, my desktop always looked cluttered. I understand there is a good reason behind having the desktop as the save location: the screenshots can be located very quickly, for example if I want to send them as email attachment.

So, I was looking for a solution that allowed me to keep my desktop clutter-free but also allowed quick access to the screenshots. I thought easy enough, I’ll create a screenshot folder on my desktop and there surely must be a system setting where I can change the default save location… … … No? No! I actually had to search on the Internet how to do this and it turned out I needed to do it with a Terminal command, nicely explained here.

Eh voilà!

Screenshot of screenshot folder

May 082015
 

There’s is a very nice role-play activity which our coordinator shared with me in my first year teaching a pre-sessional summer EAP course and which I like to use with my students in the last speaking lesson of the course (unfortunately, I don’t remember the book it comes from).  It’s fun, but also very useful as the role-play situations are authentic: student and librarian, student and accommodation officer, student and head of department, etc. There are no scripts. For each role, there is a role description, which they have to read carefully. Then, the pairs can sit together and prepare their role-play deciding who says what.

However, I didn’t like how students wrote down the complete dialog and tried to memorise and act it out. The dialogues were hilarious and we all had a great time, students did use the language well and it was speaking practise. But it didn’t feel authentic and it didn’t really show how good students where when they had to reply spontaneously. So, I changed the preparation part a bit the following year: I didn’t tell the students who their partners would be! This way, they could prepare for their role, but they would have to listen carefully to what the other person was saying and they would have to react spontaneously. Ingenious! Or so I thought.

When I had given each student their role-play card making sure pairs were not sitting next to each other, I started monitoring and helping where necessary. But I noticed that something was going on; the students had all started using their smartphones. First, I thought they were looking up words in their dictionaries, but that wasn’t it. When I asked them what they were doing, they said they had found their partners and where preparing their role-plays! I felt like a fool! We all laughed about my failed attempt to set up the role-play with surprise partners 🙂 I asked them to switch off their phones, so a bit of the surprise element was there in the role-plays. It was a lot of fun, as usual, but they could also show their real speaking skills. So, I had saved the situation, but learned a lesson too.

This happened a couple of years ago. Although, I was aware of social media apps and was using some tools myself, and although I knew that students were sometimes messaging during class, it didn’t occur to me that they would use it as they did for this role-play task. For them, it was the most natural thing to do, though.

Why I wanted to share this story

– We often discuss which tools we use in class and which we don’t, or even whether we use technology in class at all or not, but there is also the students and the technology THEY use. We need to be at least aware of how they use their tools they bring to class, whether it’s their electronic dictionaries, or their smartphones and tablets.

– Even teachers who like to use technology and who train other teachers in using technology can make mistakes. But it’s hardly ever a disaster as long as one has good rapport with the students and talks about these things in class.

What I learned from this

Since then, I’ve always shown more interest in what kind of apps my students have on their phones and we talk about this at the beginning of the course. Since then, I also try to manage the use of smartphones in class better by, for example, telling them at different stages to put away their smartphones (even if they insists they need the dictionary!). Am I always successful? No! But I’ve come to terms with this. If I see how teachers or other professionals “multitask” or chat with others during conferences webinars, or meetings (including myself) and “claim” this helps them focus, I don’t think I need to manage my students’ use of technology one hundred percent.

 

Do you have a story to share about a “failed” attempt to manage your class due to technology? What happened? How did you react? How did your students react? What did you get out of it?

May 072015
 
Another pre-sessional EAP summer is approaching. Once the intensive course starts, there is hardly any time to reflect on what I’m doing in the classroom. So, I want to look back a bit, in a couple of blog posts, at how and for what purpose I have integrated technology in the course in the previous years. But before doing that, I want to list what kind of technology or tools are available where I work and try to come up with criteria for using technology in pre-sessional EAP courses. Finally, I hope that these reflections will help me to look ahead and think about any area where I could or should do things differently this summer and decide whether technology can help with this.

Unpredictable availability of technology

What makes it sometimes a bit difficult to prepare to integrate certain technology  in pre-sessional courses is that we are not in the school or environment that we are familiar with. Even those of us who have taught at the same university for several years are assigned different buildings and classrooms, and they can all have a very different set of technology that is available. There can be classrooms with just a blackboard (yes, black, with a small “b”!). In many science buildings/classrooms, for example, they prefer the blackboard for certain things. If you are lucky, there will be both black and whiteboards, but no other technology, no access to wi-fi due to the location of the classroom.
Then, there are what I call the “standard” classrooms with a large whiteboard, a computer connected to the internet, a projector and screen, integrated CD-player and loudspeakers, and broadband wi-fi for everyone.
At the highest end, you will have a large classroom with several whiteboards, possibly even blackboards, a computer connected to the internet, a projector and screen, and broadband wi-fi for everyone, and a visualiser, plus thick curtains that you can shut automatically when showing something on the screen.
However, all students (and teachers) have access to quite a lot of technology outside the classroom: broadband wi-fi on campus, lots of computer clusters, scanners, printers, … and, of course, the technology they bring with them: smartphones, tablets, netbooks, and laptops.
Here’s a simple list of some of the technology I’ve used in the pre-sessional courses:

HARDWARE

  • whiteboard
  • blackboard
  • IWB
  • computer
  • CD-player (mostly integrated in the computer)
  • projector + screen
  • loudspeakers
  • Wi-Fi
  • visualiser
  • computer clusters
  • smartphones (the students’)
  • iPad / tablet (mine or the students’)

SOFTWARE

  • MS Word (or other word processors)
  • presentation tools (PPT, prezi, keynote)
  • PDF viewer
  • internet
  • GoogleDocs
  • email
  • Blackboard
  • Turnitin
  • video and audio player on the computer
  • Youtube or other video sites
  • screencasting software (e.g. Jing)
  • electronic or online dictionaries
  • apps for the iPad (to view document, take notes, record audio)
  • apps or tools that my students use
As you see, nothing extraordinary really. So, this is not about the latest “toys” that you can wow your students withs. In fact, if there is one thing I would like teachers who might read this to take away is that this is not about wowing students at all. I would even say that the less they are aware of the technology the better. I don’t want to draw attention to the technology, I want them to be interested in the content, the language, the ideas, etc. If I can accomplish this by using technology fine, but if this can be accomplished in a different, non-tech way, that’s fine too. A simple example: After a couple of weeks, certain tasks become repetitive, or students simply get tired, which is absolutely understandable in a relatively long, intensive course. Sometimes, a simple change of setting helps them to focus again or to make the same task more interesting. For example, I tell them they can do a discussion or group work task outside if they want to, on a warm, dry day. Sometimes, we go to the library for tutorials, so when I talk with one student, the others can do research or continue writing their essay, or can give each other feedback on their writing.
At the same time, we use technology to do certain tasks: During the tutorial, we might look at a student’s writing on my iPad and talk through it. Students might be using the library computers to find books or articles for their essay. Other students might be using their laptops to write their essay. The technology is just there to do certain tasks, nothing extraordinary. So, this would be on criteria for me. I’ll list this and others in no particular order below.

Criteria for technology use in pre-sessional summer courses

  1. needs to me “normal” or normalised (aim is not to wow students but to help do something better or easier, not to distract them with the tech)
  2. no training needed (there is no time for training other than for a brief explanation; this is also connected to the first point)
  3. no sign up required (other than maybe for tools which I think they might continue using, but I really try to avoid this. There might also be a policy at some schools where teachers can’t simply ask students to create accounts or sign up to a website or tool without the school’s consent).
  4. used in a way or for tasks that are authentic (for example, they will use a Word processor and it’s comment or track changes function after the course when continuing with their studies,so it’s good for them to get used to this in the pre-sessional course as the objective of the course is not only to help them improve their academic English, but also ease them into the academic life at a UK university).
  5. help make a task easier (sending drafts by email and for me commenting in word processor is easier and more efficient than asking students to print out each draft and hand it to me, etc. However, I know teachers who prefer printed drafts, so this is my personal choice.
  6. accessible to all students
  7. available for all computer systems (which the students use)
  8. free (no fees for the students!)
  9. available on the university computers or accessible online, or my students have their own (if I want to use them in class)
What are your criteria? Why?