Moving from face-to-face to distance approaches for teaching English to young learners: Issues and experiences in developing materials
Shelagh Rixon, Centre for English Language Teacher Education, University of Warwick
In January 2003, CELTE was awarded a Warwick Teaching Development Fund (TDF) grant to experiment with a different way of doing something that we feel we already know how to do quite well face-to-face. In order for our efforts to make sense in this article I need first to describe what it is that we do face-to-face.
The core of Term Two of our MA in English Language Teaching is a double-weighted module entitled ‘Professional Practice’. To fulfil the requirements, students have to create a portfolio which is centred around the design of an English Language syllabus, course outline and sample teaching materials, destined for a carefully identified and described target group. Teacher’s notes to accompany the sample materials and a statement on assessment policy with an example of an appropriate assessment instrument are also required. The work in the portfolio is supported by a closely argued academic rationale for decisions made all along the line. This marriage of practical and research literature based work is typical of the work we do with students on the MA in English Language Teaching. The whole portfolio for this module is the equivalent of 6,000 words. This makes the module a suitable candidate for a free-standing Post Graduate Award.
Throughout this article I am determined not to use the word ‘deliver’, which is going to be difficult when describing work on a Distance Learning project, but probably worth it in terms of keeping jargon-irritation levels low. I shall not be able to avoid the word ‘process’ however.
Without wanting to sound too pseud, the face-to-face module is a very process-based affair. The way in which the students arrive at their portfolios is through 45 to 50 hours of workshop style meetings twice a week with lecturers who are grounded both in materials design and in the background and research in the disciplines that lead into it. These are backed up by individual and small group ‘editorial’ consultations as students begin to build up their portfolios week by week, starting from the Target Group Description and working through systematically issue by issue. There is some input each week and reading to be done on each area between meetings, but students bring their own draft work and ideas session by session. These are presented, displayed, tried out, discussed and commented on by everyone in the group and the portfolio gradually grows until it is ready to be revised and submitted a little after the end of term.
Many of our students are experienced in lesson planning and following other people’s course materials. However, they have never created substantial quantities of their own teaching materials before or been required to work out a coherent large-scale course design of their own. Many find it enjoyable and exciting, but others need a great deal of support and encouragement. The tricky part is that for all the system, coherence and academic backing that we try to bring to the approach, this is a creative piece of work and affective concerns are very relevant. In short, people can get edgy if their first drafts do not hit home and can even suffer degrees of writer’s block.
Rationale for change
The existing MA in ELT comes in 4 specialisations – English for Special Purposes, English Teaching for Secondary and Tertiary level students [ELT for short], English Language Teaching and Multimedia, and English for Young Learners [EYL], which is the branch in which my colleagues and I work. Young Learners are defined as children in the 5 to 11 or 12 year old range, who may be learning English as a Foreign or Second Language in the mainstream state-supported primary school system in their country or else in a private language school class designed for children.
It is the Professional Practice Module in EYL, which CELTE proposes to experiment with as a Distance Module for a Post Graduate Award. The first reason for this is that there seems to be a demand for it. We have received many enquiries over the past 5 years from teachers who are already officially qualified to teach other age groups, but who have moved over to teach children. They do not need a full MA; they may already have one, but they do need a formal qualification that attests to their ability to conceptualise and describe their practice as well as ‘just do it’.
The second reason is that it seemed an interesting thing to try in its own right. So, how to turn something that as I have described it is highly process-based and depends a lot on group spirit and solidarity into a set of materials that can be followed with enjoyment and some prospect of success by people whom we may never meet face-to-face?
Developing the ideas as a project
Colleagues in CELTE are experienced in a number of areas that can be brought in to the project. The rest of the team at the moment consists of:
- Annamaria Pinter who shares the teaching in the Young Learners specialism with me.
- Charles Tante, the Postgraduate Research Fellow working for a PhD in the area of Assessment of Young Learners
- Tim Kelly who advises us on video and multimedia production issues.
- Paul Wilson who is an expert in website design and who is already working on the CELTE2 website.
Those descriptions partly give away the direction that the project has taken since I first put in the proposal to CAP. Many things have overtaken and changed since then. I choose [and I hope that CAP agrees!] to view this positively. It is interesting what you find out when you start trying.
We have worked through a series of meetings to draw in different people’s responses to the ‘givens’ and the issues outlined above. Different members of the team have developed their own areas. We are moving pretty well, but not at the speed I claimed we would. This seems to be what happens on all such projects, so thank you CAP for being flexible and others take warning and double your original time estimates.
Some of the ‘givens’ worked in our favour. The module assignment must be exactly equivalent in content, size and level to the face-to-face one. It is reasonably easy to break that down into sub-tasks that can be ‘dosed’ to distance students and their draft results sent back to us for formative feedback before the final submission. The difficult and interesting part is how to do this in a way that is also attractive.
Course design approaches
There is a need to pace and keep tabs on distance students as well as to keep them cheerful and involved. At an early stage, we felt that a website would support these aims. As well as providing the basic course materials, the website allowed us to build in timing devices and ways of interacting with the students. However, we have decided to focus strongly on getting the students in touch with each other. We were keen for the students to exchange views and form relationships, rather than creating bands of widely scattered interlocutors all wanting 24-hour email access to their tutors. Firm but friendly ways of keeping them at bay except for at designated points in the course were needed, because we will continue to carry out our day-to-day, face-to-face teaching and other responsibilities. Thus the components of the Course Calendar and the Student/Tutor Forum (discussion) pages came into the design.
The need to create a student community was a strong push in the direction of becoming more ‘e’ than originally intended. Once landed in that area, this generated a stream of new ideas in terms of other things that we wanted to do and other ways in which we wanted the students to work. This led directly to thinking about the possible structure of the website, what links with what and how to express that in web terms – a concept map, if you like. We developed a set of boxes and areas to fill and formulated the links between them, a beautiful architecture.
At the moment we are trying out our architecture by working on how to express a particular section of the course material across those boxes. The diagram here illustrates the approach; it represents Charles’ section on assessing children’s learning.
- It has been an excellent opportunity to have the funding to allow us to find out what works best and to learn new skills. We have been able to collect material that we are pretty sure will be useful in the final product, but which perhaps we would not have dared to take a financial risk on if working on the ‘real’ project from scratch. Examples are the mini-consultancies on our web design and the filming of classroom data in Hungary.
- Funding never seems to buy you time. It all takes ages. You may predict and plan for it to take ages, but it will take ages more. Next time, it should be quicker!
- It is wise to start small while you are learning. I am glad we did. I am thinking of a sister University whose Distance MA is two modules short of a picnic, because of factor  above, and whose disgruntled distance students are consequently in stasis.
- The first temptation to fight is that of doing things just because they can be done. For example, a clearly interesting and useful activity to complement our Hungarian video data is to undertake transcription and analysis of the interactions between teacher and children. But this is not within the terms of reference of the original assignment task. It is all too easy to get carried away into designing a completely different course from the face-to-face one. Therefore the principle use of the video will be for stimulation and comparison purposes. This helps the students to reflect on their own classroom contexts and gives them a focus for the online discussions with their ‘Forum’ mates. We will invite them to do so in no uncertain terms as we expect this activity will help them with the Target Group Description aspect of the assignment. It is very tempting, but not relevant, to do other cleverer things.
- The second temptation to fight is that of discarding activities that do not feed literal-mindedly and obviously into the assignment. We have fought this one and are currently enjoying creating a number of indirect study aids. An example of the is the ultimate animated model bibliography that, when sections are clicked, will answer all those niggling questions about what do to about secondary references and chapters in collections and so on. This is the sort of back up that all our students need and by creating it for the distance course, we have it available for our face-to-face students too.
- Students on a Distance course may not end up reading precisely the same ‘classics’ to which face-to-face students have access. There is a growing and respectable body of research literature in the YL field. We wanted the distance students not to depend solely on the module materials written by Annamaria, Charles and myself but to read from the wider literature in the same way as our face-to-face students do.
I originally had book bundles and parcels of copyright cleared articles in mind as a major resource for them. Now we know that this will not be a practical choice if colleagues and I wish to avoid spending most of our working lives chasing and renewing article permissions. I have a number of “strange but true” stories regarding copyright clearance. One publisher did not know who has the copyright on a key edited collection that they acquired through a take-over and promptly put out of print. This means that they will ‘neither withhold nor give’ permission to use extracts. Suffice it to say that chasing copyright permissions is no way to spend a summer.
Distance students need to read at an equivalent depth and range but they cannot be supplied with all the ‘old established’ things. We are going for perhaps one or two books to be sent by snail mail and covered by the course fee and, for articles, the access that Warwick registered students have to journals online. Fortunately many of the journals that support our field are already part of what Warwick offers. This has been a ‘good’ frustrating experience in a way since it is forcing us to discover new readings and new sources of reading matter, which will also benefit our face-to-face students.
- Getting a beautiful architecture for your course is rather scary until you have filled some of the buildings. I do believe that we have taken the right decision to evaluate critically the functions we need to perform and our structure, before launching into creating large quantities of content.
- And did I say that it takes ages.
Centre for English Language Teacher Education
University of Warwick