Background: ‘Crafting the ePerfect eTextbook’ eProblematization
If you skip to the ‘Solutions’ — PLEASE: feel free to tell me what great tech solution I’ve missed. How would YOU try to solve these problems?
Such is the challenge presented to me this semester for my one university EFL class (with a primary focus on writing, secondary on reading). Such is also the challenge presented to participants in the TESOL EVO Session of the same name, hosted by a bunch of variously-well-versed members of the online TESOL community. They’ve even got a seemingly well-structured 5-week MOOC (massive open online course) laid out for us, with loads of scaffolded tasks and activities and a vibrant Google+ community…
And I’m already way behind because my head is still trying to get itself around what I want out of this tool that my students and I will probably use more than we use each other. In this video, I answered a similar question, ‘What does your ideal textbook look like?’ with, basically, the one that’s perfect for the context. And that’s the crux of the problem. No learning context repeats.
In principle, we are living in the age in which it is possible for every student to use an ideally individualized learning resource that evolves with the student in interaction with classmates and the social world, and is only used once. I’m avoiding the word ‘book’ here, because it really won’t be that, and for me, ‘book’ is too clearly associated with a set of fixed printed one-size-fits-all pages. Instead, I need to wholly reenvision this thing as simply educational technology, a cultural tool (a la constructivist/sociocultural theory). Synchronicitously (? ) and quite usefully, I’ve been monitoring the promo page of #Auselt’s next tweetchat, with guest Scott Thornbury on the perils of Digital Ed Technology. Scott pointed me to a resource distinguishing between uses of digital educational technology as tutor, tool, and medium (following Kern, 2006).
In the tutor role, technology can (arguably) substitute for, or augment, things that teachers traditionally do (teach and test, primarily). In the tool function, technology allows access to language in use (in the form of texts, youtube videos etc) and metalinguistic data (online dictionaries, corpora etc). As medium, technology facilitates communication through such means as texting, phoning, blogging, real-time chat etc etc.
The undergrad English courses at my University culminate in compulsory semi-authentic (which means inauthentic of course) communicative speaking and writing tests, and the 2 courses are designed for them: Discussion & Presentation, or Writing & Reading. They are very short, 12-week 3-hour classes. For this project, I’m working on the Writing & Reading ‘learning assistance tool’.
After finding the mandated sole print textbook for both courses to be error-filled and inappropriate for the proficiency levels of virtually all my students (not to mention really heavy and unappealing to them), for the past two years I’ve been making a conscious effort to focus my courses on technology that my students either use in their daily lives (in this, the most technologically advanced peninsula on the planet), or in my opinion could benefit from learning how to use. In other words, either they know the tech or I know that becoming proficient in a particular new tech will be a) useful in the long term and b) entail useful meaningful transferable task performance. I’ve written about some of those classes here here here here here and here. As can be seen from these posts, my focus has been on using the tech as medium, and I recall virtually no use of the tech as tutor, and only occasional, student-centered use of it as tool. In other words, due to the speaking and writing focus of the tests, which in turn I assume were created to address the common situation of unactivated interlanguages among Korean students as they enter university, I largely underserved content-delivery (input from external sources), focussing instead on activating whatever L2 students brought to the class.
Something interesting happened last year
After the midterm of the speaking class I turned the content choice over to the students. They asked quite specifically to talk about things they were interested in. Aha moment — who the heck am I to tell a bunch of 18-25 year-old women what to talk about? In the Reading and Writing class the previous semester I had left as many choices about output content up to the students, focusing my attention on the form of the output. This approach allowed me to pay much more attention than before on emergent language on an individual basis, and I also felt fairly good about achieving the goals of the courses in terms of activating fairly passive interlanguages, and achieving some test success. Student feedback (explicit), motivation, and interest was also much higher, and I knew I was onto something.
- To repeat, who the heck am I to choose content for 18-25 year-old female Korean graduates of the local public school system? And don’t ‘learning tools’/’textbooks’ pretty much mandate previously-chosen content for their substance?
- If I figure out how to let students determine the content, how can I be sure the reading and writing tasks students practice help them develop useful real world reading and writing strategies? That they are ready to succeed on the final test?
- Most students will have only their smartphones in class. I can require laptops/tablets be brought, but many will undoubtedly resist and make apologies. Better to just encourage this. There is one computer/projector in the classroom. What do we do with this ‘ebook’ in class – must be usable on smartphones, or on a tablet/laptop per pair/threesome.
- What about offline access? The tool must be usable when disconnected from the internet, even here where everyone is always connected, it seems. Some students will be limited via their data plans when not in their dorm rooms.
- How labor intensive is this going to be for ME? Whatever I come up with has to be sustainable for me, every semester, whereever I am.
- My gut tells me I need to provide a model for the content I want students to contribute. So whatever ‘Chapter 1’ looks like, I’ll probably assemble it as a ‘how-to’ for the rest of the book.
- I see groups of three students choosing a ‘topic’, finding two or three quality texts online (signed off on by me), designing guided reading processing tasks for their peers, adding text-based vocab-building tasks, and a final writing task which may or may not be communicative, depending on the forms they need to practice for the exam. These units would be built in the first month, and worked through in the last two months.
- I see each student with an online ‘notebook’ for new vocab and drafting.
- I wonder if a Wiki is the way to go, and I wonder what the most collaboration-friendly one might be? I spent a few hours playing around with wikispaces yesterday, and it seems to have everything we would need to organize course products. I like the messiness-to-mastery progression entailed in students learning to turn their ‘wikibook’ into something presentable by the end of the course. but 1. can content be downloaded and worked with offline, then reuploaded? 2. How mobile-friendly are wikis? Is there a wiki tool that is more mobile-friendly than others? I haven’t figured this out yet.
- I wonder if just a cloud-sharing solution is all we need? Copy or maybe even Dropbox would allow everyone to add content folders filled with documents linking to input they’ve chosen, processing tasks, and even output writing tasks. These can be downloaded to mobile devices. Worked with offline, resaved by individual students, and uploaded to the same (or a ‘homework’ subfolder when back on line.
- Or maybe just a Google+ community (for communicative writing tasks), with Google Drive as the cloud storage and device linked in the ‘About This Community’ box. This might even allow for google forms integration by students for some (ugh) more traditional assessment.
- Again — whatever the technology of the ‘ebook/learning assistance tool/’, I would need to set it up in template form, spend the first few weeks of the course on personal introductions and reading/writing tasks that inform the students of the ‘ebook-creation’ tasks as they do them.
Kern, R. (2006) Perspectives on technology in learning and teaching languages, TESOL Quarterly, 40/1.