14 Nov 2011

Does Online Learning Work for EFL?

Guest post written by Marina Salsbury

The growth of online technology over the last few years has created a new world of possibilities for language learners. Many teachers continue to avoid or ignore online technologies in favor of paper-and-pencil homework, but the growing population of digital natives makes it essential for teachers to examine online technologies and take advantage of their usefulness for language learning, whether supplementing in-class instruction or even working to provide courses entirely online. For ESL and EFL teachers, a variety of online tools appeal to students while focusing attention on improving English proficiency.

The most common types of technology that can be helpful for EFL learners are online quizzes and games. Sites like UsingEnglish.com offer hundreds of free quizzes students can use to practice grammatical concepts, and online games that require focus on English usage and grammar. Many other sites offer similar activities, but teachers should be careful to review them first to make sure that they are level-appropriate, user friendly, and free to use. 

While creative use of technology can be used effectively to supplement English language instruction, teachers must be careful not to allow technology use to overshadow the importance of interaction with English speakers. Without face-to-face interaction, language learners may never develop the communicative competence essential for proficient, fluent English. However, with a computer and an internet connection, to some extent even this concern can be addressed through strategic use of technology. Videoconferencing tools such as Skype make it easy and inexpensive to talk face to face with instructors, conversation partners, and native speakers of English all over the world.

The internet offers many excellent options appealing to digital natives in a language learning environment. Even teachers with no great technology experience can begin with the use of ready-made quizzes and games, or explore further options through sources such as the online journal Language Learning and Technology. Ultimately these technologies work best as supplements to the personal interaction between students, teachers, and peers, though already it may be possible to provide that interaction in entirely web-based contexts. At the very least, exploring these options and finding ways to incorporate them into lessons, homework assignments, and everyday language use can enrich the experience of EFL students and help make their language learning more relevant, interesting, and effective. 

24 Jul 2011

Technology and Educational Leadership

Guest post written by Lindsey Wright

Some fear technology in education, while others praise it to the rafters as the saviour of students. However, neither side has quite the right view of things. Just as in any other field, technology in education is only beneficial when properly used. Technology is a resource, just like a book, a DVD, or a board game, that can be used to enhance the educational experience of children or and help them develop the skills they need to succeed in the world. Just as basic literacy is fundamental to student success, so too is computer literacy now an essential component of adult life. In an age where more and more students are opting to get their degrees through non-traditional methods, like at an online school, introducing students to this invaluable resource just makes good sense.

Negative Views

Stories abound of how technology is changing students’ mental abilities. Their attention spans are shortening, their literacy rates seem to be declining, and their desire for entertainment is insatiable. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that talking heads use to support their assertions that technology shouldn't be integrated into the classroom.

One need only look at an account out of one high school English teacher’s one-woman war against the insidious infiltration of technology. An article in the Kennebec Journal details Sarah Schmitt’s daily battle against technology. Get caught texting? She’ll toss your phone in the trash, and you can retrieve it at your own risk.

Smartphones, it appears, have wrought the single greatest change on classrooms since the advent of the chalkboard. Kids are totally connected at all times now, and it shows in how they respond to teachers. Instead of giving instructors their undivided attention, students are distracted. Off-task behavior seems to have become the norm in some classrooms, and educators are constantly battling to reclaim student attention from the digital menace.

Other changes, like worsening penmanship, are also attributed to the pervasive infiltration of technology. Likewise, students' vocabularies seem to be diminishing as texting limits how they express themselves. One student in Schmitt’s class even described Hamlet as a “girly man” who was prone to “freak out.” Hardly the expressions of a brilliant linguistic, but it’s not just the fault of technology.

Positive Views

Although Schmitt is guilty of tossing cell phones, at the same time she has embraced technology as a way to combat its more insidious effects, understanding that technology is a resource that can be used to create new avenues of learning. In Schmitt’s classroom, every student has a laptop that can be used for research and writing, part of a statewide program begun in 2002. In addition, she uses computerized whiteboards to help engage students and maintains a web page for homework and other pertinent class information.

In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way World Learns, authors Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson explore why technology matters in education, and how innovation can change how technology is employed in the classroom. Yes, the book uses business models to make its point and treats students as consumers, but in a manner of speaking, they are. Students are consumers of education, and as such, innovation is needed to meet the every changing needs of the learner.

What Disrupting Class proposes is looking beyond the negatives of technology, from its ability to distract to the lack of computers in classrooms, to the positives that can be created by using technology in innovative ways. Rather than tossing out smartphones, teachers should encourage students to use them to do research. Another review of the book, this time published in Education World, discusses the fact that teachers are now facilitators of learning. Rather than standing at the front of the classroom and imparting wisdom to the eager ears of students, teachers now assist students in seeking out information. This doesn’t mean that teachers no longer impart information, it means that teachers have assumed another role in the classroom: that of mentor. In this arrangement, the instruction of teachers provides students with the tools to carry out their own research, and their guidance allows students research in an effective and safe manner.

Technology hasn’t destroyed education. It’s become another tool in the educator’s toolbox for facilitating student inquiry and learning. It allows teachers to target the different learning styles of myriad students. The authors of Disrupting Class argue that the innovations presented by technology are one of the greatest weapons to combat the creation of disaffected learners, and they’re right. These days lecturing and writing on a whiteboard isn’t enough to reach most students. The development of a tool that can be customized and tailored for each individual student, the way student-centered inquiry through technology can, is proof positive that technology should be embraced in the classroom as a resource to help budding minds reach their fullest potential.

Today’s classrooms must be wired to the digital age. Students are expected to be computer literate by middle school and to demonstrate high levels of computer competency when they apply for jobs. They’re already primed for digital communication with smartphones, iPods, and tablets. They keep social media sites up to date and spend their spare time texting friends. Educators should take advantage of this natural propensity to teach not only academic competencies related to technology, but also to reinforce the fact that moderation is an important aspect of technology usage. It’s no longer enough to assign students homework that requires a computer. Now, the computers need to be in the classrooms and in the students’ hands. They need to be instruments of inquiry and facilitators of information in the same manner as other educational resources — even those stalwart information resources of old, books.

Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education.

24 Aug 2010

I have been referenced! Does that make me an academic now? :-)

I just had to blog this... I have just discovered one of my blog posts has made it into the recommended reading list for a university anthropology course!  How cool is that?!  The now renowned post is on phatic communication, twitter, and web2.0....

Thanks to Professor David Jacobson's (see left'Social Relations in Cyberspace' course, otherwise known as 'Anthropology 138a', at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, USA, my little blog is a little better known!  Professor Jacobson has written on a wide range of topics including, interestingly, conducting ethnography in cyberspace.  

However, I hope readers are not too disappointed with the slight change in blog direction since April 2009 from ethnography, applied linguistics, and critical approaches to communication to the more practical matters of educational management and how to deliver quality services in English language schools.
See the screenshot below, provided as evidence:

So in thanks to Professor Jacobson, here is a link to one of his publications which I will be checking out as I certainly do have some ethnography to do!  And perhaps when I get back into my MA dissertation, the slightly more academic blog posts will return!

Isn't it nice when you get a little bit of recognition?!


17 Aug 2010

The Continual Improvement Cycle (Quality Management for Schools Part #2)

So at long last, Part 2 in my Quality Management for Schools series...   I want to describe in more detail exactly how a quality management system can generate continual improvement.  Probably the most fundamental principle of the ISO9001 is that "continual improvement of the organisation's overall performance should be a permanent objective of the organisation".  

Sounds great, but how do you do that?  Okay, let’s take a little detour…

Task 1:  I want you to think of your school recruitment procedure for either teachers or admin staff.  Think of all the steps involved – drafting an advert, interviewing, checking references, inductions, training – and make a list.  Go on, write it down.  If it helps, draw up a little flow chart so you don’t miss any steps.  Honestly, it will be worth it later. 

Okay, now I need to introduce the Plan-Do-Check-Cycle formulated by quality guru W. Edwards Deming.  It can be applied to any process in your organisation and is the simplest, most straightforward approach to orient any process or procedure towards continual improvement.  Basically, any continually improving process follows 4 stages as shown below.

In other words, you have to plan what you're going to do; then you have to do it; then you have to check you actually did what you set out to; and if not, you need to take action to make sure next time you do.  If there are negative results, you need to plan how to minimize them next time.  If there are positive results, you need to discern exactly where they came from and try and achieve them again next time, but better. 

Repeating this cycle again and again – pausing to reflect on each outcome, assessing the reasons for success or failure, and actually acting on that assessment – will lead to the continual improvement of the process and its outcomes.  It’s a simple feedback loop, but requires focus and discipline.  You may well expect such and such an outcome but actually get a completely different one, sometimes better, sometimes worse.  In the hustle and bustle of a busy school, too often these reflections can be overlooked, oversimplified, undervalued, or simply forgotten. 

No matter how complex the organization, its activities can be described as smaller interlinking processes and procedures.  Whether it is course design, handling enquiries, inspecting accommodation, recording student data, getting student feedback, whatever, there is scope for implementing Deming’s plan-do-check-act cycle.  And when applied to each individual process in the organization, it adds up to a global, company-wide schema of improvement.

     Task 2:  Now go back to your list from Task 1 and reflect a little on each of those steps.  What kind of task is it?  What is it trying to achieve?  For whose benefit?  Categorise each step as either planning, doing, checking, or acting activities.  Now plot these steps on a PDCA chart as shown below:




I am guessing you probably found you have more ‘doing’ activities than ‘planning’, ‘checking’ or ‘acting’.  The aim is to have a suitable balance between the stages that leads to improvement.  I did this task during my presentation at EnglishUK’s ELT Management Conference 2010 and the only member of the audience that had a well balanced chart with activities covering all 4 categories worked at an ISO9001 certified company – quod erat demonstrandum!

The chances are, you probably do check things and act upon feedback, but perhaps not formally.  You no doubt talk to new staff members to make sure they are okay, help them out, support them.  But perhaps you don’t record these actions.  And that’s a shame.  It would be good to evidence exactly why what you do is so good, or exactly why what you did was so bad and exactly how you’re going to do it better next time.  

If you get feedback from your job applicants, you could improve the content of your job advert next time.  If you test your new staff member on what they remember of the induction after a week, you can improve its content and delivery next time.  If you get feedback from your new staff member and their co-workers a couple of weeks into the job, you can improve the training or re-write the handbook.  If you get more accurate student forecasts, you can better plan when and how many teachers to recruit and for how long to hire them.  And if you evidence what action you took and why, everyone else in the company who has to do a similar task can learn from your experience.  And so the improvement continues... 

Of course, it depends how each process fits together with others.  Perhaps there are management or planning meetings where the results from the checking activities in the recruitment procedure are actually digested and decisions made on how to recruit staff differently next time, but the principle is the same.  There's nothing stopping you applying some PDCA to whatever procedures you are in charge of - even if it is only ordering the stationery.  Suppliers still need to be selected, staff needs have to be determined, the right stationery at the right price has to be identified, deliveries need checked against orders, the users need to be asked if the products are actually fit for purpose, and if not, alternatives need to be found, etc.

And the last thing to remember is that it takes time.  It takes a lot of reflection, a lot of attention, a lot of focus.  But the results should be worth it.

Next in the series:
  • Implementing the ISO9001 in a language school
  • Beginners guide to auditing

7 Aug 2010

Designing Better Services

I haven't posted for a while but have been waiting for a kick of inspiration and here it is.  If you haven't already heard the buzz surrounding "design thinking" and "service design" then check out this very short introduction by LiveWork and for some examples see this fantastic supplement from the Guardian

The whole sphere of service design has been intriguing me for months now, and I will be posting about it over the coming months.  The "businesspeople" in the quote can just as easily be replaced with managers or organisations because design thinking is not about purely commercial interests.  Service design has applications in heath care, education, social services, absolutely anywhere there is a service, a user, and a community.  And that includes teaching, learning and publishing.  

Exactly how is this relevant to EFL schools?  Well, more to follow soon!

Some books to get started with service design:

5 Apr 2010

Quality Management for Language Schools #1

Following my 'Learning from Big Business' theme, I have decided to post a series on Quality Management in EFL schools, specifically the ISO9001 in the EFL school where I am currently school manager and DOS.  This post explores a few basic questions:

  1. What is a quality management system?
  2. What is ISO9001?
  3. What is the relevance to EFL schools?
Future posts will look at implementing ISO9001, the 8 principles of quality management, the plan-do-check-act cycle and internal auditing.  So let's get started...

To introduce the ISO9001 and what it means for a company and its customers, I have found a little youtube video to help me explain: welcome to Daintee, Sri Lanka's only ISO9001 certified confectioner.

Oh, I forgot to say, the video is in Tamil, so you might not have picked up much.  But if you are (or used to be) a TEFL teacher you should have picked up the blatantly obvious visual clues:
  • Modern, process line production (not Old Granny Amirtha's cramped kitchen)
  • Quality is checked during production
  • Quality is worth communicating to your customers
  • Safe enough to give your kids
So, reading between the lines, we can see a quality management includes quality control, modern processes, quality assurance, and communication.

1. What is a Quality Management System?

A quality management system involves a company-wide commitment to quality and the continual improvement of products and services by monitoring and responding to client feedback.  But doesn't that all sound a bit too corporate for EFL managers and Directors of Studies?  We'll see...

While specifics vary widely from system to system and industry to industry, almost any quality management system (QMS) will revolve around 6 key elements:

You won't get anywhere without clear, achievable goals.  There must be a commitment to quality from the company's overall vision and mission statement to the actual business objectives and sales targets.  This has to cascade down to job descriptions, staff handbooks, meeting agendas, CPD plans, etc.

Any business activity can be described as a process with inputs and outputs; the output of one process being the input of another.  An output can be anything from a report or a single statistic to a trained employee or a new syllabus.  Re-framing your work around processes helps you look objectively at what staff do and how they do it, improving flow and efficiency.

Problem Prevention
We all know prevention is better than the cure; a proactive business operated better than a reactive one.  Some example activities include due diligence, risk assessments, planning, forecasting student numbers, accommodation supplier inspections, tracking market trends, market research, etc.  Problem prevention must be a key step in any process. 

Problem Detection
Detecting problems pre-delivery is very tricky in the service industry.  However, you can standardize responses to enquiries, implement approval procedures for progress tests, syllabuses, marketing literature, etc. Post-delivery you can more than rely on complaints, customer feedback, teaching observations, audits, spot checks, etc.

Problem Correction
While you can easily replace a product, you cannot replace someone's language learning.  A discount or a change of course or class or teacher may go some way to remedying the situation.  But quality management requires reflection on the cause of the problem and action to revise working practices to ensure it does not reoccur.  You must learn from your mistakes. 

Finally, what I think it the most crucial element in management: communication.  Without care and attention to communication (top-down, internal, customers, suppliers, partners, B2B, the public, all stakeholders) quality management is doomed to fail.  Employees will not care about it; policies will not be implemented; standards will not be maintained; and even if they are, your customers will not be listening to you.  You must remember, communication starts with listening.  

2. What is the ISO9001?

The ISO9001 standard (known simply as the 'standard') is a list of interrelated statements about what the company does.  It insists the business is oriented around the customer by analysing their needs and requirements, delivering the right products and services, monitoring feedback, responding to feedback, and, importantly, communicating with the customer about all such activities.

The standard has 8 sections, totalling 38 clauses with numerous sub-clauses, with the meaty ones being in sections 4-8 (the first 3 are almost impenetrable jargon).  They are:
  1. Scope
  2. Normative References
  3. Terms and Conditions
  4. Quality Management System
  5. Management
  6. Resources
  7. Product Realisation
  8. Measurement, Analysis and Improvement
There are 135 'shall' statements setting the norms of an ISO9001 certified business but as many of the shall-statements are phrased as "the organisation shall a, b, c and d" there are in fact 364 implied shall-statements, each requiring a response from the organisation.  That's a lot of standards to maintain! 

I'll paraphrase some examples to give you a flavour:

4.2 The QMS shall include a policy, objectives, a manual, processes, and records. 

4.1 The organisations shall:
  • determine the processes needed to operate their business
  • ensure adequate resources are available to meet the quality required
  • monitor, measure and analyse the products and processes
  • continually improve these processes
5.1 Top management shall commit to the QMS.

So there is a great deal of flexibility in deciding how each company, in its industry, and with its particular set of clients, meets the standard.  Whether they meet the standard or not is reviewed annually by an external audit with a very wide scope, covering anything from sales to customer feedback, health and safety regulations to marketing literature. 

The ISO9001 is a long-term investment, there is no fast buck to be made, and it requires a considerable top-down commitment.  It could be a complete overhaul of how a company operates, completely re-framing its daily business operation.

So why bother?  Well, the theory goes ISO9001 (or quality managed) companies:
  • Enjoy higher market share
  • Charge premium prices
  • Improve efficiency and cut costs
  • Achieve higher customer satisfaction
  • Enhance their reputation
  • Better train and motivate staff
If it works for a Sri Lankan confectioner, a Canadian military engineering software division and a Japanese fish market, the same results can be expected for an EFL school.

3. Is it Relevant to EFL schools?

For an EFL school in the UK, the 'British Council' marque is the only badge of quality with any currency.  The ISO9001 does not work well as a badge to stick on the company letterhead or website.  Although it is widely-known in Korea and Japan and perhaps among corporate clients, it is almost unknown to young university-age student from Europe and the Middle East. 

UK schools are regulated by the British Council (or ABLS or ASIC) and the UKBA.  Many schools also join quality associations like Quality English, EAQUALS and IALC.  Some may opt for Investors in People status or become LearnDirect centres.  Each organisation sets a mountain of standards and criteria that have to be maintained.

If you are the principal or DOS who has to deliver services and train staff to meet these criteria you might feel like you a competing in one of the world's largest jigsaw competitions!  The ISO9001 is one standard that will encompass all others and deliver the key objective: continual improvement

It is the continual improvement that makes it all worthwhile.  You can prove, over and over again, you can meet any external regulations and quality standards.  An EFL school will find meeting UKBA regulations much easier.  If you want to become a test centre, meeting requirements of test security and administration will be a cinch.  Applying for EU funding, a formality (well, maybe not, but you get the point).

A key difference between the ISO and British Council standards, are that the ISO are principle-based rather than task-based, so they are applicable in any industry.  That said, you might notice the most recent British Council handbook includes a new standard:

So all accredited schools might be heading a little closer to ISO9001 whether they know it or not. 

Next post: The Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle and Implementing ISO9001 in an EFL school