Sunday, July 19, 2015

2015 July 18~19 | 1st APVEA Conference | Borderless Living in the Digital Age of Education

Thom delivers a keynote address
I was given the opportunity to speak at the 1st Asia-Pacific Virtual Exchange Association conference held at Muroran Institute of Technology in Muroran, Hokkaido. Not only was it a great chance to meet other like-minded teachers who are working with virtual exchange and tele-collaboration, but I also received the opportunity to be the keynote speaker for the second day of the conference. This is something I have never been asked to do before, so I was excited to try and give the participants some of my perspectives.
Although the conference theme focused on Virtual Exchange and Tele-Collaboration,  my first thought about virtual exchange focused on the borderless aspects of learning online. It was from that starting point that I began to develop my keynote address.
I began giving my background - how did I arrive at this point in my life? I graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Information Science in 1991 from University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Upon graduation, I worked in the IT industry for the next 10 years at various companies - medical billing software, fundraising software, roadside assistance and fulfillment software. In the last part of those 10 years, I was fortunate to have a chance to work for IBM as an HACMP QA engineer and software developer. I also spent a year working in Telecommunications research in Ireland before needing a break.

APVEA Certificate
That's when I decided to take a year off and teach English in Japan on the JET Programme. One thing led to another and 14+ years on I'm now working as a university lecturer teaching English and using technology to do it. I think I have been successful at blending two worlds into one. My main research areas include online learning and digital tools for self-access and self-learning. I work hard to enable and activate inner motivation in each student I encounter for the purposes of learning English as a second language.

In the keynote, I pointed out how I'm sort of an optimist and while many of the future visions for humanity deal with the end of the human race as we know it (either by apocalyptic destruction or mindless robots bent on the the annihilation of our world), I have always appreciated the one futuristic TV show which promotes a positive outlook for the world - Star Trek. In that show, the major sufferings of humanity (hunger, sickness, war, poverty) have all been eradicated through the use of technology. In that view of the future, education is available to any and all who want it and for no charge as well. I guess I'm a dreamer...

In a traditional classroom defined by four walls, a door, and (if you are lucky) some windows, the borders for this style of learning are visible. You have a teacher up at the front with the whiteboard talking about the content for the lesson and working in the group to help present the material. Students move along at the pace of the lesson. Once the lesson is finished, that day's learning is complete and unless there is outside of class material with which to follow up, nothing further is available. Testing on the material is done to prove absorption.

Focusing on the role of the teacher, I feel that in the traditional sense a teacher is in fact a major border to learning for students. They must navigate through lessons the way we teach and follow the plans according to how we have arranged that day's lesson. However, removing the borders to learning should be the ultimate goal of any good teacher. Students should be able to make access to materials and learning at their own pace and without anything outside of facilitation or guidance by the teacher. Perhaps the term "teacher" needs to evolve more in a borderless world.

My basic jobs include teaching English and helping my co-workers to get things done at the university. Unofficially, I teach students how to use technology to enable their learning. I'm also working on teaching global skills to students who are preparing to go abroad. By giving students the skills and the confidence to use these tools, I can further reduce the borders and get students excited about managing their own journey to learn English.

I reported working with many different kinds of students but over time I have naturally categorized them as one of two types; the willing (intrinsically motivated) and the unwilling (unmovable no matter what I do).

Willing types will naturally select an English course for the purposes of improving their English. They generally have goals and dreams which are connected with their desires to increase their abilities. Unwilling types will study English because they are required to by the curriculum, however they want to do the absolute minimum in order to meet the criteria for getting credit in the courses. I'll give you one guess which students contain extra borders inhibiting learning.

Motivation in students is a tricky business. It seems teachers are never viewed as increasing student motivation, yet the perception is that a bad teacher can most certainly be a border to motivation. Given those impossible constraints, it is our job to do anything we can to make sure that we don't throw up a border making things difficult for students. One negative comment could ruin months of build-up.

My own motivation is also connected directly to student motivation. When I am around a group of hard working motivated students, I get excited to challenge them and help them improve in any way I am able to do for them. I want to help remove as many obstacles to learning as possible in order to let the students continue to build up momentum. The way to do this is by giving those motivated students a constant flow of work and (more importantly) a constant flow of timely feedback.

Conversely, when faced with a room of stony-faced unmotivated students, I find myself just doing the best I can to survive the lesson and offer up any bits of learning that students are willing to digest. Having a pre-designed self-study curriculum with connecting lecture and class activities helps to make administration of this "medicine English" less of a struggle for both students and teachers.

A quick note about a student with zero motivation; these students want no part of studying anything and probably shouldn’t even be university students. However, there they are in your classroom creating an incredible border to fun and learning - and of course they are sitting in the front row. The contrasting styles of learning (eastern philosophy v. western philosophy) as well as individual educational experiences also contribute to borders between the teachers and students.

The courses we use at Nagasaki International University have been made possible by allowing our course curriculum to be completely designed and implemented by the teachers - three native speakers. We receive guidance about school policies and regulations from our supervisors, but the border of not having a say in curriculum design is now gone for me. We have tried our best to deliver good course content and results and in our first year have enjoyed a lot more success than we expected at first. Our team dynamic is very positive and supportive and that makes all the difference, in my opinion.

Here is an overview of the courses we give "willing" students at NIU:
  • gt presentation skills*
  • gt academic skills*
  • gt reading skills*
  • gt writing skills*
  • (speaking/listening exercises)+
  • (reading/writing exercises)+
*These classes are held twice per week for 90 minutes each class.
+These classes are held once per week for 90 minutes and are given to all students (willing and unwilling)

In each of the "Global Tourism" (gt) courses, a set of tools is taught and students are given regular weekly outside work using these tools to build good study habits. A lot of students arrive at university completely unprepared for using technology to complete lessons, so having these weekly assignments and activities forces them to adapt to the tools and by active use become proficient in them.

Despite the high perception of Japan as a technological giant in the world, many university students don't have a lot of exposure to actually using a computer during their primary and secondary school years. Smartphone use is the exception to this rule as it seems the use of these devices is ubiquitous.

It is important to note that the tools themselves can become borders to student learning. Many of our students are not prepared to be learning using computers and some of them are quite fearful of it. In addition, technical issues and problems can cause confusion and frustration when students must rely on these tools for activities and assignments given as requirements for completing a course.

Here is a list of tools we currently use in GT:
  • Manaba (primarily administrative use)
  • Moodle (course content and gradebook and general hub for all that happens in the courses)
  • Google (productivity tools)
  • EnglishCentral - listening, learning, speaking practice
  • Quizlet - self study vocabulary practice
  • Xreading - graded reading project
  • Typing Club - build writing skills and typing practice
  • PC / Tablets / Mobile devices - access platforms, no limitations
  • day planners - both digital and paper for organization
  • notebooks - both digital and paper for following along actively during lessons and keeping detailed feedback notes from the teacher for each assignment.
Here is a mapping of courses to tools (which tools are used where):
  • presentation skills --> Moodle, Google slides, YouTube, EnglishCentral
  • academic skills --> Moodle, Google mail, Google forms, Quizlet
  • reading skills --> Moodle, Moodle reader, Xreading, Google forms
  • writing skills --> Moodle, Typing Club, Google mail
  • (speaking/listening exercises) --> Moodle
  • (reading/writing exercises) --> Moodle, Xreading
All of the courses use the day planner and the notebook to support the organization, learning, and reflections based on feedback. The feedback cycle is critical to making all of these tools work together in harmony with the curriculum and the student development. Our feedback cycle consists of a loop with four points as follows:

assignment (t) --> submission (s) --> feedback (t) --> reflection (s) --> assignment (t)

(t) = teacher
(s) = student

In our course given the amount of outside study and weekly workload we have chosen to assign the students, a huge border could develop if we decided not to engage with this type of feedback loop. Students would lose sight of the reasons for the amount of work being assigned and the motivation for doing the work would drop significantly. Therefore we teachers have committed to returning feedback within one week of an assignment submission.

However, feedback without the final reflection on the part of the student is actually meaningless. If the students don't engage actively with the feedback, then the connection between what they need to work on to improve will be lost and a border can be created. Students need to be given the opportunity to make self determined conscious adjustments to their language in order to increase in ability.

Some examples of weekly assigned work in each course:
  • presentation skills --> Weekly 1~2 minute video journal (YouTube) using vocabulary words assigned in the current week - graded by the teacher with comments
  • academic skills --> 2 units vocabulary studies using Quizlet before a weekly online vocabulary test - activity in Quizlet graded by the teacher, quiz itself graded by the computer.
  • reading skills --> weekly time spent reading graded reader books then logged using Google forms with a target of reaching 150 minutes per week - graded by teacher.
  • writing skills --> weekly free writing journal using vocabulary words assigned for that week - graded by the teacher
All of these things connect the users with a goal of working hard to improve their abilities. Since much of the work is done outside the classroom, more time can be spent in classroom with each individual student helping them to process their feedback and grow for the next weeks activities. It helps to give the course a more personal feel for each student and caters to classes filled with students of varying levels.

An additional item of importance in this type of course design is the removal of actual English abilities as a form of assessment in the course. Student motivation and effort becomes the key to doing well in the course and the playing field is virtually levelled because of this shift. You can have students who are near fluency and students with only basic communicative abilities in English working towards the same goals and being evaluated in a way which focuses on the effort given. Each student then has the opportunity to improve their abilities as a result of their efforts and that is a byproduct of the activities assigned and assessed. It is also an empowering learning outcome for students once they make the connection between the effort made and the improvements achieved.

Here is a link to the certificate I received from the conference organizers.

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