Blended Learning In ELT - Roger Palmer Interview

Blended learning is a mixture of face to face learning and e-learning. It's not just about using technology in the classroom. In fact, many of these classes may appear very similar to ordinary face to face lessons. What happens outside of the classroom is equally, if not more, important.

Roger Palmer was a speaker I was keen to hear at the recent ELT conference in Taiwan (2011 ETA-ROC Conference). I was interested to hear his ideas on blended learning because this is an aspect of ELT that I've been trying to understand and use more in my own classroom over the past few few years.

Roger works at Konan University in Japan, has recently co-authored i-zone and promotes the use of blended learning in English language teaching in different parts of the world.

In the talk, he discussed his ideas on blended learning, and on how to use it in the English class.

Most of my efforts so far at using technology in teaching have involved using the internet as a resource in the classroom, so I was especially interested to learn more on blended learning.

I'm glad that Roger agreed to an interview which I hope will lead more teachers to explore the use of blended learning. The interview is below.

Interview with Roger Palmer on Blended Learning

How much time do your students spend online during a typical blended learning class? How much time do they spend online outside of class time?

In class, the face-to-face time is really valuable for my learners as that's when they make sense of the online study that they have accomplished outside.

So for presentation of material, checking online progress, and using the videos, I'd say a maximum of 20% of the class time, and often no time.

We use the book in class with iZone, and so there is certainly no requirement to be online during class. However, thinking about their interest and motivation, students do ask to do Webquests and they like the interactive language games in iZone, and I like to let them have agency. They like to present English listening material to their partners that they source online.

Outside class, they are expected to use the Online Labs, and for iZone they do Online Prepare before coming to class, and the extra activities such as writing tasks after class, as well as taking the online test after every unit. They need to be online to check their progress in real-time in the Gradebook, too.

So they can theoretically spend 100% of their outside class study time online. Interestingly, in the online world time on task and progress is tracked, and you find that they spend a lot more time in English than they would in a comparable course which did not have an integrated online component.

Schools and universities (although not private language schools) seem willing to spend lots of money buying expensive equipment, but very little on training teachers in the use of the technology or with ideas on how to use it creatively in the classroom. I've seen technology that isn't used or is underused. Do you see any solution to this problem?

That's a very good question. One solution to equipment is to take it out of the classroom. Our approach has been to design materials for an online lab (the digital) which fully support and integrate with the textbook (the print). That means the teacher has a textbook in class and there is no need for any expensive equipment.

I have been to Indonesia and discussed this with teachers using iZone in schools far from major towns. So my first answer would be to use face-to-face time to its utmost and take advantage of teachers as a resource, with print materials. The only technology is the online connection after class, and for that an Internet cafe is more than enough.

The second solution is to automate the online labs, so that student work is checked as they go, and that the students and teachers can track and check work anytime, anywhere. It means for the instructor that there is no extra burden of marking work done outside class.

The third solution I can offer is to consider how technology fits in with teaching and learning goals, and not how to use technology for its own sake. The tasks that are best accomplished in class with teachers and in contact groups should be done there; many other tasks, such as taking a role-play character and engaging in a model dialogue with a character, recording your voice and analyzing it, being instructed by avatars on learning strategies, checking language and grammar immediately via pop-up boxes, instantly translating rubrics, being able to watch video segments as many times as you need, studying at your own pace at a time and in a place of your choosing, getting immediate feedback, playing online language games, all these are best done online. So that's how we use online labs.

One additional point here does involve teacher training. I have a recently-published CELTA guide on my bookshelf by a major publisher, written by a best-selling author. There is nothing in there in teaching with technology at all. I think it flies in the face of best teaching practices and research on the kinds of learners we meet in out teaching contexts. Blended contexts vary enormously, too!

How can teachers use Twitter in ELT?

I recommend seeing how other teachers have used Twitter in the classroom. Check out this website

I can add more examples, but there are plenty there for those who are new to it.

What's your opinion of becoming a 'friend' to students on Facebook? This will alter the student - teacher relationship. Do you think this could be a problem?

Again, contexts vary, expectations of teacher-student relationships vary, and ages and backgrounds and beliefs of students vary. In my teaching situation in Japan, where all my students are adults, it is quite common to set up user groups for particular classes. Facebook is just one part of it.

I think we should be careful not to be too judgmental on this: what is the role of the teacher and student in the digital age? We have student-student in class, student-teacher in class, student-student online, student-teacher online, as well as students outside class interacting with online labs. That's without even mentioning connectivity that has nothing to do with my class, such as social networking.So the situations we face are in flux, and language education is changing with it whether we like it or not.

We have probably never had to deal with these kinds of challenges and opportunities before. Jeremy Rifkin describes our interconnected lives on the internet as distributive, as opposed to centralized knowledge and power. We used to depend on fossil fuels, processed in a central location; now, we are moving towards renewables such as solar and wind, connected around the world on a grid, just like the Web. I don't think trying to stamp out or control Facebook or Twitter can possibly work. Yes, our relationships are indeed changing, but I think they are potentially richer. Look at the growth in Personal Learning Environments (PLEs).

How do you see e-readers (such as kindle or nook) being used in TESOL?

In line with what I mentioned above, when the technology allows for a richer experience using an eBook, then we will be using them more and more - it's already happening, of course.

Interestingly, many commentators have stressed that with any digital content, the consumer and creator roles are blurred. Somebody writes a book, I cut it and paste it, change the ending, and use it in class.

I am both consumer and creator. So yes, I can see this and a myriad other uses for e-readers.

How is your new blended learning course (iZone) different from conventional coursebooks?

Imagine a conventional coursebook. All four iZone levels have a coursebook that can be used as it is by the teacher in class. That part is the same.

Now imagine that before every class, your students go online to prepare. They go through the videos, they check their listening and comprehension. They work with the skills and strategies. They practise the vocabulary and functions. They familiarize themselves with the topics. They grade themselves as they go. They work at their own pace, perhaps at home, even in the middle of the night if they like!

Next, they come to class with the book. They already have the schema and know the topic. You introduce the same vocabulary and structures, in a different set of situations, helping them to reinforce the learning they have done, using the strategies in new ways to stretch them, engaging them in communicative tasks, using your skill as a teacher to develop their language.

They then go online again, and do the extra writing tasks, the language games, watch the longer version of the video, and take a test to check their progress.

So it is a fully-integrated package, using what we know about face-to-face and enhancing it with what we know about online. I think it adds up to much more than the sum of its parts.

How important is the listening component of iZone? Do the students have graded materials to listen to outside of the classroom?

They have a ton of listening to do online, and it is level dependent. The Longman corpus and the Longman Spoken Grammar is woven through the course and listening tracks, so students start with the S1 words (most frequently-occuring 1000 words in spoken English) and move through to the S3 words and beyond. Not only listening exercises as you describe, but there are also video tasks, role-play tasks, recording their voices and playing back, and even the language points are in the form of an avatar speaking to them. They then have all the audio sections in the coursebook as well. It is a large body of varied listening material, which gives much more practice of target language than you would get in a course lacking the online lab.

How can iZone save teachers time?

As mentioned, when students prepare online they are ready to go when they come to class. The 'getting ready' exercises in conventional courses are time-consuming. With iZone, students not only prepare the topic, but they prepare the vocabulary, functions and strategies as well. It saves a huge amount of time, and students are not confused. Also, the teacher does not have to make or mark homework. The tests are online and graded automatically online. There are additional downloadable tests if that's not enough!

How much does the teacher's book help teachers who are not proficient in using technology in the classroom?

There is lots of support online. The technology is in the background. The teacher is teaching the book, and the online component takes care of itself. Detailed notes are freely available to help the teacher.

And finally. Do your children ever teach you about new technology?

Yes, all the time. I am doing a project on the use of technology to help student writing, especially genre-based writing. My son has taught me how to use my iPad properly!

Thank you very much for answering the questions. If there's anything else you would like to add, please feel free to do so.

Mark, I'm sure there's more, but that's enough for now. Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to talk about what I like!

Roger - Thanks again for the interesting and informative interview. I hope that your answers will stimulate ideas on the use of blended learning in English language teaching - or the teaching of any other language.