Apr 212015
Socratic learning

Socratic learningA conversation I need to practice is the one about interaction in online courses being key. I obviously have not yet got it right because I too often end up in the position where I appear to be downgrading the importance of content. How does this happen? I am not sure, but it seems that if I emphasise something other than content as being important then that seems to set off some binary process that says if content is not the most important factor of an online course then that means that content is not important at all. Which is not what I’m saying at all. Would it be better to couch it in scientific terms and say that good content is a necessary, but not sufficient factor in effective online learning?
Official IATEFL Blogger Manchester 2015
Therefore I was very glad to see Gavin Dudeney of The Consultants-E talking about the importance of interaction in this short interview he did at IATEFL last week. Towards the end he talks about content as the launchpad for interaction. Exactly! And you could go further and be more Socratic about the whole thing and conclude that good questions are the launchpad for interaction (and by implication learning).

Apr 192015

It is getting harder to find How To sessions devoted to specific digital tools at IATEFL compared to previous years. I guess that this is because digital tools are becoming more mainstream. So the mood is moving more towards implementation at an institutional level. The good people at The Consultants-E, Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly have been pioneers in exploring and training teachers in the use of mobile devices for learning especially with their recent book, Going Mobile: teaching with handheld devices, which came out last December. Nicky was at IATEFL talking about, not individual apps and activities, but about a framework for implementing the use of mobile devices within an institution.

Going mobile book cover

Of course in some contexts this is absolutely off the agenda. Nicky mentioned that in new York mobile devices have been banned from classrooms by law. But even during her research, using mobiles with a group of classes in Cambridge in 2013, Nicky noticed that the teacher next door had a routine of collecting all mobile devices at the beginning of her classes and only returning them to students at the end of the class, while in her own classroom Nicky was asking her students to use their mobile devices as an integrated part of the course. It was this contrast which prompted Nicky to think about the need for an institutional approach to the use of mobile devices for learning rather than on a class by class, teacher by teacher basis. See her talk about the session in this interview with Nik Peachey.


Nicky’s 10-step implementation plan was much photographed:

  1. Identify your reasons
  2. Assess your context
  3. Involve all the stakeholders (indluing parents in the case of YLs)
  4. Present your case
  5. Create learning plans
  6. Assign teacher champions
  7. Run a pilot phase
  8. Evaluate your pilot phase
  9. Extend the implementation plan
  10. Provide on-going teacher development

Some of the issues Nicky addressed included whether to adopt a BYOD (bring your own device), class sets or hybrid approach. Nicky’s experience is that learners buy in to the approach much more using their own devices. That in turn means that the teacher has to ensure that whatever activities are proposed work across all platforms such as iOS, Android and Blackberry. Another pre-requisite was good. reliable wi-fi connectivity so that learners are not using their data plans to complete activities. And finally there was a plea to include an element of assessment of the digital work in ordert to recognise the skills learners had demnstrated in completing the activities with them.

Take a look at Nicky’s slides here:

More resources on the implementation of m-learning can be found here.

IATEFL 2015 blogger

Full disclosure: I have been working with The Consultants-E developing and tutoring courses since 2009!

Jan 162015

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I just received this email from two new online tutors:

Could you please give us some best practice. We start today and maybe we should take care of something specially.

My response:

I am starting a second iteration of a well-established course on training online moderators in the role of tutor later this week so these sorts of issues are fresh in my mind as I get the course ready for my learners. I have a few general observations.

1. Learning should be a conversation (with yourself as you work through tasks, with your teacher, with your course peers or with other external experts/colleagues) rather than a display (through posting homework)

2. Online learning is not very different to offline learning. The same rules of politeness apply online as they do offline. eg when someone says something, acknowledge them

3. Tasks that are placed in forums should lead to some interaction (if they don’t you should consider moving them to another format in the next course iteration)

4. The first person to post in a forum should be congratulatedpour encourager les autres“.

5. Those who don’t post should be sent a personal private message offering help and support

6. Those who post but don’t meet expectations should be coached to make a correct response by posing an extending question in the forum. Corollary: Those who post outstanding contributions should be publicly acknowledged in the forum.

7. There should be a plan beforehand about which tasks will result in personalised feedback to every post. These will tend to be the longer, more reflective tasks.

8. A weekly message, as well as looking forward, should make reference to some good work that has been done in the past week by publicly calling out one or two exemplary contributions

If you just wait then very little will happen.

There are of course other factors to consider. If the task is a simple intro exercise to start the group thinking about the topic then maybe no responses are needed. Also, as you get further into the course and the group knows each other better and has trust in one another, then it helps for the facilitator to stand back and let the learners comment and support each other.

Hope that helps.

There is much more on carrying out online learning in my (for the moment) free book on online learning.

Illustration: Pixabay

Nov 132014

In the M-HOUSE project we are targeting home-based adults to explore the business skills they have from their experience of running a household over many years. In the same way that reframing the work of hotel attendants as exercise actually helped them to lose weight, we hope that reframing the often-undervalued work of running a household as entrepreneurial would boost confidence in personal development (which may or may not include starting a business in the end).

All organized learning must start with learning outcomes and in the M-HOUSE project, since we were essentially in a reframing exercise, we felt it was especially important to take everyday tasks and activities as our starting point which we called Key Learning Situations (KLS) on which to build learning activities. We chose 11 everyday tasks that we felt could map onto equivalent business skills such as making a major purchase, moving house, planning a major event, resolving conflict and coping with a sudden loss in income. We then asked a large group of external stakeholders to prioritise the 11 so that we could focus on a core group of 8 KLS or modules for our Business Skills Explorer online course which we plan to offer to home-based adults across the EU.

Uniform modules

In order to provide a degree of predictability for the learners, we decided early on to adopt the same structure for each module as follows:

  1. Intro activity: a short low risk activity that activates learners to think about the topic
  2. Background information: short theoretical background to the topic with perhaps a low risk knowledge checking activity (not needed if the theory is to be used in the next task).
  3. Application of knowledge: A practical task that can partly be completed offline.

We overlaid onto these modules an ongoing reflective task targeted at personal development.

The rest of this post will focus on the process we went through to design one of those KLS online modules.

Example: Major purchase

Learning Outcomes

The module aims at raising the learner’s awareness of the skills related to accomplish an effective purchase. The learners should be able to

  • define the purpose of the purchase
  • acquire and critically evaluate all relevant information on finance management needed for an effective purchase
  • analyse the market of products (via the internet or retailers)
  • reasonably use different types of payment

First draft

The initial idea for the tasks were as follows:


  • Invite learners to post 2 or 3 sentences about the worst item they have ever bought to a forum

Background knowledge:

  • Read an online article about the consumer buying process.
  • Answer 2 concept checking questions to a forum.

Practical application: Your washing machine has broken down

  1. Talk to a friend about how they bought their last washing machine. What do you need to consider when buying a new washing machine. This is the ‘go out’ part of the task. Make a mindmap to illustrate the factors and upload to the learning platform.
  2. Find out product information online and fill in a decision matrix to discover the best product for your needs
  3. Find out information about the best method of payment
  4. Put 1, 2, & 3 together in a Word document that you upload to the forum and comment on at least one of your peers’ document (similarities, differences etc)


The table below charts some of the major changes we made to the initial draft ideas for the unit and why.

Add relevance We changed the washing machine to a computer as this more accurately reflects a purchase that may be needed as part of a new business.
Set the tone We inserted a humorous 30 second Mac advert about buying decisions to reinforce the informal nature of the course.
Reframe positively Instead of asking about learners’ worst purchase (which might make them feel incompetent) we asked them about their best purchase.
Add modelling In the best purchase forum, the tutor adds a short account of their best purchase to model the amount of detail we are looking for and the type of purchase. Eg mundane is OK.
Promote added reflection Instead of simply describing a good purchase, a short quiz was added to find out what sort of buyer you are (eg impulsive, informed etc). Forum posts should only be used when a response to each post is expected. So in this case a quiz with automatic feedback was better than a forum response.
Add structure Clearly setting out and numbering the steps to be taken in each task. One of the greatest pitfalls in online learning is being unclear and uncertain. It can seem childish to break down the steps and ask for 5 key points, 3 sentences or 3 paragraphs, but if you don’t, some learners will do much less or much more than you bargained for.
Add presentation variety The article was changed to a 3-minute video covering the same concepts. The unit looks less text-heavy as a result.
Reduce burden on tutor Concept check questions were included in a self-checking quiz rather than an open forum which would have been very repetitive and which someone would have had to have checked.
Make use of peer input We added a wiki exercise in which small groups of learners were asked to bullet point the 5 stages of consumer decision-making as it applied to a specific purchase they had made. In this way peers could see 5 or 6 examples but only contribute one.
Add guidelines (length of response, deadlines, time allocation) In this case we included some technical advice and simplified the technical aspects of the task, especially the last task which mixed a mindmap, matrix and text.
Add collaboration-lite See peer input for an example of this
Add collaboration-heavy This is lacking in this module but there is also a question of balance and since the learners will be working together on planning an event in a concurrent module, then it would be too demanding to include a larger collaboration task also here.

This is by way of illustrating how an online module can develop from first ideas.

PS. Using Key Learning Situations as a starting point is just one way of approaching course design. There are many others.

Jul 142014

rscon5Thanks to RSCON5 for allowing me to present the outline of the new Erasmus+ program which allows teachers, trainers and others involved in education and training to be funded to attend residential courses in the EU. The recording of the 25 minute session is here. And my slides are below:


Jan 092014
Learning Tool Palette

by Janson Hew

When I started tutoring the online version of the Certificate for Teaching Languages with Technology for The Consultants-E in 2010, it was fairly simple in terms of tool choice. For each digital task there were two or three mainstream tools to choose from and they were PC-based.

Wiki/ Wikispaces, Pbwiki, WetPaint

Blog/ Blogger, WordPress, Edublogs

Podcast/ Podomatic, Posterous

Asynchronous audio forum/ Voxopop

But now we are at several tipping points and the choice has become much harder and much less obvious.

  1. From PC to tablet or Chromebook
  2. From local to cloud
  3. From few to many
  4. From specific to multi-purpose
  5. From complex to simple

PC to tablet
The iPad classroom is gaining traction mainly due to school and district-wide adoption. The main attraction of tablets in general and iPads in particular is that you get a simplified interface with additional capabilities related to touch and location. The simplification is also a weakness as it means that for technical tasks you still need your PC. So this two track approach doubles the number of tools you need to be familiar with. A compromise seems to be the Chromebook which is cheap, includes a keyboard and performs well technically. But both the Chromebook and tablet option require a constant and reliable Internet connection which is far from ubiquitous even within Europe where I am based but also globally since the CertICT attracts participants from all corners of the world.

Local to cloud
Working in the cloud is becoming very attractive mainly due to low cost and the convenience of being able to access your work from anywhere. Google Apps for Education is a prime example with a zero cost as against paying for Microsoft Office on every computer in the school. But there are privacy issues, especially relating to minors and it does mean that you have to be online almost constantly (see above).

Few to many
In the age of the rockstar start-up there are new apps and tools popping up every day. Especially in the area of virtual learning environments (VLE) I have noticed an explosion of tools vying for my attention. There are still market leaders in every field but they are having to improve continuously in order to maintain their dominance. And people are re-purposing existing tools in ways which were never imagined by their developers. A prime example of that is the touting of Facebook as a VLE. Conversely there have also been many casualties along the way with the demise of Posterous and certain beloved tools turning into legacy software such as Voxopop.

Specific to multi-purpose
Many digital tools are converging. So, whereas before the distinction between a blog, a wiki and a website was pretty clear-cut, the distinction is not so sharp any more. WordPress for example was built as a blog but is now used to function as a website with built-in blog function. It even has wiki qualities with the possibility to have several authors and to revert to previous versions. And website creators such as Google Sites and Weebly include a blog with no difficulty. Multi-function tools used to be pretty variable. For example the Moodle wiki has always caused problems and never been as good as a tailor-made wiki tool. We are now seeing convergence across the whole spectrum of tools so that it is difficult to define them. In theory this should cut down on the number of tools to be mastered.

I used the word mastery in the last paragraph but another marked trend has been the simplification of the tools so that there is a low cognitive cost to trying them out. Although I had a brief former life as a programmer and systems analyst I have only ever have had a rudimentary skill in building online spaces. A bit of basic html and the ability to embed goes a long way. But even that is becoming redundant as tools present you with big buttons to click, behind which all manner of clever stuff is going on. The upside of this simplification is that the focus can be where it should always have been, and that is on the pedagogy. And the flipside is that you get tempted to try out dozens more tools before making a decision simply because you can.

So the task of the CertICT tutor has become a more difficult one as the choice of recommended tools becomes much less obvious.

May 232013

TCE_10th_anniversary_225x225-75I just published a book on iBooks! The Little Book of Blogs is a compilation of blog posts collated from all the tutors at The Consultants-E where I have tutored the online Certificate in Teaching Languages with Technology for the last four years. The collection is a very wide-ranging one covering learning, teaching languages, tips on integrating technology in general and the use of mobile devices specifically as well as some hints and tips on keeping yourself current professionally. The experience of preparing the book on iBooks Author was relatively hassle-free but I was disappointed that I had to go to a third party application for something as basic as embedding videos. Thank you very much to Bookry for enabling this.

Not wanting anyone to feel left out I also produced a pdf version for which I added the contents page at the beginning though unfortunately internal links don’t work. This won’t be my last iBooks venture and I already have plans in June to produce a language learning book for the Danish market. This time it won’t be free!

Aug 152012

The Consultants-EThe Consultants-E is offering a scholarship to enable one person living and working in a developing country (as defined by the World Bank) to take their e-moderation skills course starting in October free of charge. What is e-moderation? It’s the skill of guiding students through online learning activity whether that forms part of a blended course with face to face contact or a purely online course.  Working online demands different skills as the signals that students send out about whether they understand, follow or are about to give up are quite different in an online environment than they are in the face to face situation. The course also looks at what types of activity work online and how to vary the task type. The course will be tutored by Lindsay Clandfield, lead author of MacMillan’s Global series of English books so you will be in good hands.

I have been collecting links about how technology can help learning even in low resource areas of the world with ScoopIt and it is quite clear that the ubiquity of mobile phone use is going to make the online option increasingly common in developing countries.

You need to apply for the scholarship by the end of August.

Full disclosure: I have been tutoring with The Consultants-E since 2009 but you don’t have to take my word for it. Go to the Consultants-E website and see some of the feedback which previous participants have left.

Jul 182011

If you were ever curious about how the Absolutely Intercultural podcast came about and how it works then you may be interested in this interview I did recently with Shelly Terrell.

The interview was done as I was about to start as facilitator on The Consultants-E podcasting course. Yes, I know, I need a new webcam!

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