Dec 112009
 

I have justfinished a blended learning business English course which was an experiment to find out whether people would like to learn 50% in the classroom and 50% online.These were definitely in the pre-intermediate category.

I had an extremely mixed group including cable fitters, fish processors, yeast factories, tourist office and ferry companies. I decided that the best way to cope was to try and personalise as much as possible. This meant that in class we worked on building up a personal vocabulary list which could then be worked on during the online part. I used the English versions of their organisation websites to generate some exercises and encouraged them to bring in authentic material which we could work on as well. One woman sent me an email she had sent to a Polish contact. Both her own email and the reply she got were almost incomprehensible to me (but these things mean more when you know the context!). So we spent part of one class working on that email and in the end I suggested that the person who brought it should be working on building up a bank of template emails for frequently occurring situations. She also gave me some invoices which we could have used in class but in the end I didn’t through lack of time rather than through lack of relevance.

For the online part I wanted them to have a mix of drill type/language exercises, partly to give them something familiar, as well as some more open-ended activities. I devised a structure which included the following:
1. A relevant exercise from Mike Marzio’s Real English (eg present continuous, past tense, giving directions)
2. Some drill exercises on Smart FM (which turns them into games). Smart FM is built on word lists, so I could use the words and phrases which they themselves had come up with or which I had noticed during class (using Karenne Sylvester’s Conversation Control sheets translated into Danish). Unfortunately Smart FM had an ‘upgrade too far’ during the course and became extremely buggy. But I am sure they will sort themselves out. Learners did not need to sign up to use it but could get themselves a more personalised experience if they did.
3. Listening exercise on Voxopop
4. Interactive exercise on Voxopop. Here it was essential for learners to sign up.
5. Internet search exercise which developed into a webquest to be presented during the next face to face meeting.
6. Conversation with real people over Skype or similar.

It was number 6 which my group found most daunting and I can quite understand why. The idea was that they should be contacting people via Skype as advocated by Jason West of Languages out There. I wanted them to record their conversations but Vista gives all sorts of problems in sound recording and even a trustworthy program such as Pamela does not work properly. However, my secret weapon was Teresa d’eca Almeida who posted a lovely friendly welcoming message on Voxopop and by week 2 I had one volunteer who was so enthusiastic that by week 3 she had gathered 2 or 3 more volunteers and when we were doing the evaluation of the course, I heard that this group of 3 or 4 intended to continue talking with Teresa through Skype.

I have a recurring problem that people psychologically seem to discount the online part of a course with only the face to face counting as real learning so it took a while for this group to get into their stride, online wise. They needed courage to record on Voxopop. Once they did, I made transcripts of some of the recordings and turned them into C-tests at Lucy Georges’ website, something which the learners can do themselves also. It was also interesting to see one woman yesterday recognising that the essence of her message had been lost when she read her transcript so we had a short discussion about how she could have made her Voicemail message better so that it conveyed exactly what she had meant. Since I had not realised the intent behind her message when I heard it, it was only she who was in a position to recognise that things had not gone according to plan there.

This was a lot of work for me but that is the nature of project trials. The idea was that if I pump-primed with some transcripts for example, the group would then see the value of seeing their own recordings as dictation exercises and as a way of identifying vocab to add to their Smart FM lists and so on so that in the long term I would not be the one making transcripts. But I feel the course was too short to get that sort of momentum going.

So this long post is also a public thank you to Tere and a way of setting her contribution in the context of the whole course.If I were to repeat this I would need to find a more sustainable way of encouraging my learners to make those contacts. I would very much like to share Jason West’s enthusiasm for this approach but cannot yet say that it works for me.