It isn’t what you read. It’s how you read.

The story goes something like this. Imagine a 9-year-old who remembers a little later than is strictly convenient that they need to read a book for class. Your first port of call is the local library, but all the copies have been checked out. You ask around if anyone has a copy and find out that there’s an ebook available. The child needs to read the book as soon as possible. What do you do?

This story, which I recently heard, made me think about my preferred mode of reading and those of the people around me. I’d always assumed our views were similar or at the very least would not generate controversy, but then a new thought popped into my head: I actually had no idea if this was true. I was especially interested in whether adults felt any differently about their preferred mode of reading and that which they recommended to (their) children, and why this might be the case.

I asked the questions below on Facebook and received several very interesting, detailed and thoughtful responses. As the post is private, I didn’t embed it here, nor am I going to discuss the responses, but I am curious to hear what you think and was hoping some thoughts would be shared in the comment section here as well.

In addition to the original questions, I wanted to add a few more:

  • What would you do in the story in the opening paragraph if you were the parent or if the 9-year-old was a family member or the child of a (close) friend? (I am interested in whether it might be easier to be supportive of format variety in principle as opposed to when you have a particular child in mind).
  • What do you think are country-specific differences, if any?
  • What impact, if any, do you believe parents’ preferences in terms of book format might have on their children at some point down the line?

I should add that when I asked the questions I didn’t have language learning in mind, but reading (for pleasure), but another question might be if you prefer a particular format for language learning and why.

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There’s something about H5P

Jessica Wilson: pick up a moo memory game! (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This is going to be a brief post on something I’m trying out for the first time in my online course. Back when I started designing it, I used to get so excited about all the different apps and activity types I was experimenting with but the novelty gradually wore off and now it’s been a couple of semesters (I think) since I’ve actually tried out something new. Partly this was because I’d figured out how a lot of the online tools I needed worked – for instance, if you’ve invested some time in getting the hang of a particular screencasting tool and you’re reasonably happy with it, you’re likely to stick with it. Or I am, anyway. The other reason was that the course had been pretty thoroughly thought through in terms of the weekly workload and what the purpose of each activity is, so there wasn’t really any pressing need to add to it. I did say last year that the course could use a facelift, but that refers primarily to the visuals.

A couple of months ago, I first heard that some of the people I was working with were very enthusiastic about something called H5P. It took me a while to work out what the name actually was, before I saw it written down (though this may have been due to the way it’s pronounced in Croatian). Their website says, among other things:

H5P makes it easy to create, share and reuse HTML5 content and applications… H5P enables existing CMSs and LMSs to create richer content. With H5P, authors may create and edit interactive videos, presentations, games, advertisements and more.

I had the opportunity to see an online course which made use of interactive videos and a neat little content type called memory game, which works like the children’s picture pairing activity. A definite advantage for those of us who use Moodle is that H5P is already offered as an activity type, so all you need to do is choose to add it, like you would a forum, say, and set it up.

Some months passed and I kept hearing good things about H5P, then a couple of weeks ago I needed to try it out at work and felt the kind of excitement – the “students are gonna love this” kind – familiar from when I was still working on putting the course together.

It was convenient that there’s a unit where I always felt a little like something was missing – an activity I do when covering this topic in class, but in the online version I’d relied on the students doing the necessary reading on their own, outside the course, which I wasn’t entirely happy with. It felt like a loose end. So I used the H5P drag & drop content type to recreate the in-class activity (the students need to match category titles to groups of linking words).

I first needed to create the background image, which I did in Canva. I chose different color backgrounds for the boxes representing each category – I picked three colors for nine boxes as the idea was simply to make the boxes easily distinguishable, not blind anyone – and added the groups of words to each box, making sure the font was sans serif and thus easier to read. I was worried initially that the whole thing might look too crowded, but it looked fine. I saved it offline.

Then I added it as the background image to the drag & drop activity. I wanted it to appear as a page in a book, so I chose the “available but not shown on course page” option in the settings. The reason I wanted it in the book was so the students would come across it in the order I wanted them to, and it might be confusing if it appeared in two places (as it would have if I hadn’t chosen the option in the previous sentence). I don’t know if this – I want them to do things in a certain order – makes me appear a bit of a control freak. I think maybe people have this idea that you can do things in any order you want online; maybe it’s because of MOOCs where everything is available all the time. I figure my course is no different than a face-to-face class, where I plan the lesson and the order in which we do things.

Finally, I defined the drop zones on the background image – the boxes in different colors – and added the text boxes (draggable elements) with the category titles. Because the background image already had quite a bit of text, I didn’t want there to be potential for confusion between the groups of linking words and the category titles, so after a bit of experimenting I settled on red letters for the titles (the rest of the text is black). It probably isn’t the most elegant of solutions, but graphic design is really not not really my thing.

And that was that. It’s a bit more fiddly if you have many drop zones but not complicated. This is in a unit that the students can’t access yet, so it’ll be a few days before they see it. I hope it proves helpful.

Have you used any of the H5P content types, especially for language learning? I’m planning to see if I can add some interactivity to the couple of videos I have in later units, but there are lots of other content types that seem worth looking into.

A class in the computer room

It’s as if it was yesterday that I arrived in the classroom with a toilet roll in my bag (amongst other things, happily) meant for a GTKY activity with a new group of students.* In reality, it was last year. Yet another academic year has rolled around and, to be honest, for a long time I wasn’t sure if I was going to carry on with my online writing skills course because my non-teaching job seems to have turned into a slightly less temporary arrangement. Eventually, I decided I would, for a couple of reasons, an important one being that I would otherwise probably not be teaching at all.

We spent the first two weeks having classroom sessions on campus (for those who weren’t readers of this blog four years ago, I wrote about these sessions here) and have just moved online. I wanted to write about the session we had in the computer room last week.

Photo taken from ELTpics by Kip Boahn, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

We can by no means count on securing the computer room (I don’t like the word lab; it sounds a bit pretentious for what are essentially four rows of desks with desktop computers). It’s been two years since I was able to book it at a time my class was scheduled, so I was a bit taken aback at this good fortune.

Practically all the students who had signed up for the course turned up. I felt reasonably confident because this is my sixth year teaching the course online and the computer room session is meant to walk the students through the basics. Prior to the session I’d checked everything I could think of: I’d opened a new course in Moodle and copied the content from last year, hidden everything the students shouldn’t be able to see straight away, checked the links and deleted some outdated resources. The system’s been upgraded again, as it is every September, and while this is exciting because everything looks somehow fresh and updated, it’s also annoying because you end up looking for things you know you used to be able to find far longer than you should. It’s like when they rearrange the shelves at the supermarket. In the e-portfolio system (we use Mahara) I created a new group and checked if creating a page still involved the same steps it did last year (not exactly, because of the upgrade, but close enough).

Unless you’re comfortable troubleshooting common (and less common) hardware and software issues, I would definitely recommend booking the computer room when the university’s IT person is in attendance. Our session took place when this person had already left for the day. Some of the exchange students couldn’t use a computer at all because they couldn’t log on. The login details they’d been given didn’t seem to work. I consoled myself thinking it didn’t matter as much because they could sit next to a Croatian student and there are always more Croatian students. Then one entire row of desks taken up by Croatian students reported their login details didn’t work either. My troubleshooting repertoire extends to “Have you tried a different browser?”, which obviously is slightly inadequate if you haven’t yet gotten as far as a browser. Luckily, a student suggested they use their mobile phones.

After this less-than-ideal start, the students found the right address, the majority logged into the system and I added them to the course manually. There are never more than 20 per group, so it doesn’t take long. We then went over what the course home page looks like and what resources are available. Most (Croatian) students are already familiar with Moodle because it’s used in many courses now, if only as a content repository – a stark contrast to just five years ago when most of the students wouldn’t have used a learning management system in their first year (or probably any other year for that matter, at least not at my institution).

We then moved on to Mahara. The idea there was to add the students to the group I’d created for the course and have them set up a page which they’ll be sharing with the group. The page will primarily be used to display their learning journals. This is apparently the trickiest part of the whole process and every semester, digital natives notwithstanding, there are a couple of students who I end up having to ask to go to the Moodle admin for assistance. This I usually do in desperation, halfway through the semester, when everything else has failed and my hair has begun thinning. This actually says as much about Mahara and its lack of intuitiveness as it does about supposed digital natives. Things proceeded relatively smoothly – I created a new page for myself as I do each semester, on the spot so the students could follow – until we got to the sharing step. I couldn’t find where the sharing settings were. They’d been moved since the upgrade. I’d been able to locate them the evening before, but that had probably been sheer luck. Another student came to the rescue after a suitable chunk of time had elapsed and I’d run out of options to click on (with all the attendant feelings of discomfort and embarrassment).

By this time we were into our last half hour, so I showed the students a page from a couple of years ago, to give them an idea of approximately what their page would look like by the end of the semester – I imagine they’ll find it useful to know roughly how much writing they will need to do.

We rounded the class off with – and this didn’t require everyone working on their own computer – an introduction on how to reflect on learning. I’ve actually found this to be quite useful not just for reflective writing. It seems to be difficult for students, at least when writing in English, to move beyond generalizing, so we did a brief awareness-raising activity to highlight the importance of being specific and providing examples for the reader. I might go into a bit more detail on this activity in another post, as this one is turning out to be rather longer than I planned.

Anyway, now that I read through what I’ve written I see that we managed to cover most of what I’d planned. This is not a feeling I had when I was leaving the campus that evening; possibly because of the initial trouble with the login details. I guess the reason I wanted to write about it was to share what can happen when you use tech in the classroom, even when you’ve been teaching online for a while and are supposedly prepared to deal with tech issues. Whether the students will think you’re entirely competent to be teaching online is another matter. 😛

Do you (have to) use the computer room/lab with students from time to time? What do you use it for and how do you deal with any problems that come up?

*For ideas of what else teachers carry in their bags please see this post by Zhenya Polosatova (and in the comment section there is a brief account of how the toilet roll activity worked in my class).