Apr 282015

Cyanistes caeruleus 3 Luc Viatour

I’ve been writing materials for my students for many years now, including digital material for blended and online courses. One of the benefits of writing for one’s own students is that we have a lot of information about them. We know their needs, we know their skills, we know their interests,  we know how they like to learn, what motivates them, what is culturally appropriate, how much time they have to learn, their work and (often also) their personal circumstances.

Another benefit is that we get immediate and direct and indirect feedback from our students when we use the material we have written for them, whether in the classroom or online. With direct feedback I mean what they tell us about the lesson or activities we have planned or the handouts we have produced. Some students, especially if it is an ESP course, will tell us whether the material were useful or appropriate, whether they think they will be able to apply what they learned in their job, or whether they found the activities interesting and engaging. Some students might even make concrete suggestions for improvements.
With indirect feedback I mean what I can observe: Are students engaged? Do they seem to like the text, the listening piece, or the activities that go with them? Do they make any remarks about the content? I find this kind of immediate feedback very insightful and rewarding.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work for english360.com and write lessons plans and material for project-based lessons for a group of vocational colleges in the Middle East. The material was delivered as PDF (teacher’s notes, worksheets) and had an online component for the students. It was the first time that I had to write lessons for students I didn’t know personally and lesson plans for other teachers, who I didn’t know, who were at an institution I didn’t work at. For the first time, I thought about coursebook authors who always find themselves in this situation. How difficult, I thought, not to receive any direct feedback! Of course, their materials are piloted and feedback is collected from teachers and students, but it just isn’t the same as walking into the classroom with one’s material and plan and trying them out. How would I know whether my material engaged the students, whether the teacher’s notes were clear, whether the timing was good, and the objectives were achieved? Without the immediate student (or teacher feedback), an important element was missing for me.

Then, I saw the colleges’ monthly newsletters and I was extremely happy to see pictures of students displaying what they had created in the project-based lessons that I had written! How nice it was to be able to see what students and teachers had actually done with the material! Sometimes, they had taken it further than I had planned for them. For example, I sometimes suggested that they work together with other classes or that they hold an exhibition to display their work to make it all more real and motivating, but I wasn’t sure whether they would be able or were allowed to do this. However, in one lesson based on health, where their task was to interview each other and create health posters, they had involved the whole school, interviewed teachers on their eating habits and gave every interviewee a health snack as a little present. Another lesson was about writing up their favourite recipes. What they made out if it was to actually bake and prepare other types of food and have a garden party with teachers and students where they shared the food.

How often does it happen that material or course book writers get to see this kind of thing? It made me feel very happy.

Another reason why I liked  this particular project was that the teachers were encouraged to provide feedback and could do so in the “staffroom” on the platform. I received feedback and questions from the teachers who were using my lesson plans and I could react to these by explaining the rational behind a lesson plan, helping them with some aspects, or, even better, by immediately making changes they asked for. One teacher, for example, suggested that one activity was not possible in their city, so I changed the lesson plan quickly slightly to make it work for them. This was easily possible because the lesson plans and materials were distributed digitally. It wasn’t a print coursebook.

Of course, it can also be challenging to receive such feedback if it comes across as criticism. One has to be open to this and ready to make changes where appropriate and possible. But for me, so far, it’s been a very rewarding experience.

Sep 142013

Ebook between paper books (Source: Maximilian Schönherr, 2011, Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been spending the last couple of days in the university library collecting information on various topics, but have only looked at one physical book. I’ve been downloading articles, chapters from ebooks, and occasionally even complete books.

The University of Manchester library spends 85% of its budget on digital content.


For distance students, like I was when studying for my MA, this is good news because more and more material is available digitally, online. Also, in fields where there is a lot change and where new research and information is important, as in my field (Educational Technology), it is good to have access to the latest books in electronic format. Another advantage is that digital books and articles can easily be searched for keywords. And finally, for someone like me, who travels between and lives in different places, it is extremely practical to have all resources in digital format accessible anytime from all my devices.

That the University spends such a surprisingly high proportion of its budget on electronic resources might also reflect the fact that students increasingly use their computers to do research rather than the physical library and some “don’t know how to search a library  without a computer” (ECAR Research Study 6, 2005, p. 35).

(As an aside: the University of Manchester Library switched from the old card catalog system to a computer search system around 1991.)

Manchester Central Library, St. Peter’s Square before the renovation (Source: Ricardo, 2010, Wikipedia Commons)

But possibly there is also a more mundane reason, which is that universities are trying to save money. Although licences for ebooks can sometimes cost more than a physical book, libraries will not have to expand shelf space.


There are, of course, also downsides of this development. Whereas complete articles can be easily located and downloaded in PDF format, with ebooks things are more complicated. Firstly, because of copyright issues, there are restrictions on how many chapters or pages can be printed out or saved as PDF, although one can view the entire book online.

This leads to other problems. While one is also not allowed to photocopy an entire book, it is easy to browse through a physical book and photocopy individual pages. Browsing or reading ebooks can be more challenging. The University library uses different ebook service providers (which is possibly decided by the book publishers rather than the university?). Each has their own layout and functions. If they offer note-taking or bookmarking functions, one has to create an account for each separately. Highlighting or copying text is not possible.

And even within the same service provider’s website, access can differ depending on the licence agreement with the publisher. Sometimes, up to 20 or 60 pages can be printed out; at other times, only one chapter. Sometimes, all chapters can be download but there is a warning that one is allowed to download only one. Some books can be downloaded but only viewed with Acrobat Reader and only for a period of time, after which Acrobat will not open the file. And, finally, there are those that allow an entire book to download and keep access forever.

I hope that access and other services related to ebooks will be unified in the future and, thus, make the experience more user-friendly. But even then, I would not want a “bookless library”.