The policy and experiences of expanding online learning at George Brown College in Toronto have been the subject of Pockets of Innovation stories on the strategic plan for online learning and the implementation of the consolidation and alignment necessary to move forward. Many of the faculties are adopting online learning as a way of enhancing the student experience. In the School of English as a Second Language, each of the courses in the nine levels of the English for Academic Purposes program is to be supplemented with online resources and assignments built around the existing curriculum and learning outcomes.
Working with Dr. Liz Romero, Instructional Designer in E-Learning and Teaching Innovation, Maria Glass, Professor in the School of English as a Second language, designed and developed online activities to give the students in levels 2 and 3 of the program experience in all aspects of language learning – listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
All of the online activities are closely tied to the language and objectives being covered in class that week, offering the students additional opportunity for practice and feedback. With each course being eight weeks in duration, eight modules have been designed for each level. Levels 2 and 3 are basic steps in the process of learning English, so multiple guides and tools, as well as plentiful opportunities for practice, are essential elements of all the online tasks.
The online components are worth 10% of the final grade. The teachers in each class can adjust the online workload based on their students’ responses and progress. Online teachers’ guides outline all the activities, resources, and supports, as well as the expectations for the teachers.
The online activities were designed between winter and summer of 2013 and are being piloted in the classrooms in the Fall 2013 semester. The level 2 blended course is being tested in three classes with three different teachers, with support from Dr. Glass. Each week’s activity has a distinct, practical purpose:
Week 1: In the first week, the students construct an avatar who will be their online representative throughout the course. Guided by questions and examples using both voice and print from the course avatar, Avatoo, students write and record a description of the basic characteristics of their avatar, as well as use software to design the physical appearance. The students post their avatars and at the end of the course, a choice will be made of the best avatar. Each week provides a blog for the students to ask each other questions and request help.
Week 3: Students pick a problem for their avatars from a list with such examples as “making friends in Toronto” and “teacher is talking too fast” and, following examples provided, write a letter to an advice column asking for help. The letters are posted on their blog and classmates chose one letter to respond to with suggestions. This matches the classroom lessons and textbook chapters on the language to use when giving advice.
Week 5: Health is the concern in week 5 as the avatar is not well, choosing and posting a list of symptoms. The other students then review the posts and send a reply to one with ideas of what to do. The avatar is then referred to a specialist and must listen to and leave a voice mail, as well as complete a health history questionnaire. In addition, the students listen to a nurse interview a patient about her history and symptoms and must complete the same questionnaire for the patient. This extra step is to ensure they understand the content.
Week 7: In an earlier week, the avatar needed a job, picked one from a list, and filled out an application based on models of common application forms used in Canada. The form is submitted to the professor for comment. In week 7, the avatar gets a call from the company outlining times for a job interview. The student has to leave a voice message and then has a phone interview based on five questions. The student can prepare and rehearse before recording a version for the professors to assess. Examples and support are available throughout the process to help the students prepare for the assignments.
For the Level 3 course, the end product is the preparation of an online magazine on Toronto’s traditional neighbourhoods, with students divided into teams of two to research and write an article on a specific area. Resources and guides are available to support each weekly step of the process of researching, interviewing, and writing. For example, in week 6, the students find out about the entertainment facilities available in their neighbourhood for families, children couples, seniors, etc., and post the findings. They assess what amenities are missing and write a letter to the local city councillor about the lack and submit it to the professor. The students compile and edit their weekly reports into an article for the online magazine and the final activity is the preparation of a two-minute video to highlight some aspects of each neighbourhood.
Outcomes and Benefits
Using avatars as their representatives encourages students to take more chances, speak out more, and take on more difficult tasks. This is essential as the key benefit to the online activities is that the students complete tasks and communicate verbally and in writing, rather than just listening.
So far, the students have responded positively to the idea of the avatars and the activities. There will be an evaluation at the end of the course to assess content and effectiveness.
The professors are changing their way of teaching as online activities introduce a new paradigm for student and teacher expectations and behaviour. This can be a benefit and a challenge at the same time, with the end purpose as better student learning. The professors have to learn the tool and the content, as well as new teaching approaches.
Challenges and Enhancements
Maria Glass describes the online activities as being “created with imagination, not with limitations. Now, during the pilot phase, we are solving the issues of the limitations.”
As with any pilot, problems and technological challenges occur and have to be addressed quickly. For example, the student method of communication has changed from an individual wiki to a blog due to problems with the learning management system. In addition, the new building housing the School has some technological dead spots despite having WiFi. The problems are being addressed as they arise.
The students also have varying familiarity and comfort with technology and so need help with the technology, as well as the language. One of the teachers has prepared a detailed guide, which is handed out in print; this will be made available to all students. Print back-up is essential for new language students.
Activities were designed for all eight weeks of the courses. It may be better to have online activities for only six weeks, leaving the first and last weeks less encumbered for late arrivals and final class activities.
Research will be conducted on both the professors’ and the students’ responses to the use of the online tools. Throughout the pilot process, changes and improvements are being made.
For Further Information
Maria Glass, Ph.D.
School of English as a Second language
Preparatory and Liberal Studies
George Brown College
Liz Romero, Ph.D.
E-Learning and Teaching Innovation
George Brown College