“Grassroots entrepreneurship” was listed as one of four characteristics that ELTJam says1 one can use to understand the current so called ed-tech movement and/or revolution. The others being money, disruption, polarisation/controversy.
Amongst the examples they gave of such entrepreneurship initiatives was Marie Goodwin2, a teacher who wanted a platform to help kids with reading3. The grassroots language technology series is trying to show that many teachers are doing similar, probably much smaller and mostly non-commercial, projects.
Our next person in the series is Glenys Hanson, @GlenysHanson, who I first met on an online pronunciation course. Many thanks to Glenys for sharing her experiences.
1. Can you share a bit about your background?
Glenys: I’m from Wales but I’ve been living in France for nearly 50 years. I was an English as a foreign language teacher at the Centre de linguistique appliqué, Université de Franche-Comté, from 1977 to 2010. I started making sites and interactive exercises while I was there. Starting in 2001, I created what became English Online France, a site of resources for people learning English and their teachers. It still exists with most of the content I created but the presentation has changed.
For the university, I also ran about a dozen distance learning courses on the learning management system, Moodle. These were at “licence” and “masters” level and though they included interactive exercises much of the course work was different kinds of tasks. Half the students were in Africa so they were not blended courses.
2. What motivated you to set up your online exercises site?
Glenys: I’d originally put my exercises on the English Online France site but by now many of them look very old-fashioned and I feel they need pedagogical updating too. As I’ve retired, I no longer have admin access to my former workplace site so decided to put the revamped versions on my own site: ESL EXOS.
The reason I decided to put learning exercises on line was that I couldn’t find any on the Internet to give my students the kind of practice I felt they needed outside of class. These days it is possible to find a few learning exercises but still not very many. There are, of course, thousands of tests, quizzes and games for English learners but hardly any exercises aiming to help students to discover for themselves how the language functions. Many (?most) teachers don’t even realise that there is a difference between testing and learning exercises.
3. What kind of time commitment is required to design the exercises?
Glenys: People who ask this question seldom go on to make on-line exercises. What great footballer started out by asking “What kind of time commitment is required to learn football?” Either you’re bitten by the bug and just love doing it or you don’t do it at all.
If you want a figure, I’ve read that it takes about 10h of development (pedagogical inspiration, technical realisation plus testing) to create a set of exercises that will take 1h for a student to do. Of course, that hour can be done by hundreds and even thousands of students over and over again.
In fact, learning to use an authoring program such as Hot Potatoes or TexToys is quite quick. It can take less than an hour for a newbie to make a simple MCQ or Cloze exercise. There are other authoring programs, usually Flash based, but they limit you to the question types the creators have determined on. “Out of the box” Hot Potatoes exercises look boring and old-fashioned, but the code can be “hacked” to produce an infinite variety of exercises types and graphic styles.
4. To what extent would you recommend other teachers to try to develop similar language tools?
Glenys: First teachers should determine whether or not they really need to. If they can find exercises that already exist on the Internet that suit the needs of their students, they can simply provide their students with lists of links. There’s no point in duplicating work that exists and is freely available. In the past, I created some listening and reading exercises but I haven’t revised them to put them on ESL EXOS because there’s a lot of good stuff already out there.
Another reason for teachers to create their own exercises is because they need to track and grade their students’ work. Systems like Moodle come with their own built in quiz tools. Moodle’s is very good but if the teacher ever decides to leave Moodle they can’t take the quizzes with them. Hot Potatoes creates web pages which can easily be moved around different types of site. They can also be integrated into Moodle in a way that allows students’ work to be tracked and graded. I’m not sure to what extent this is possible on other LMSs.
The third thing I would recommend is to start on this sort of stuff as young as possible: like learning to drive, it’s a doddle when you’re 15, it’s not when you’re 50. I had no choice – it just wasn’t around when I was young.
5. Do you recommend/know of other non-commercial language tech sites?
Glenys: Not sure what you mean by “language tech sites”. I know of a number of sites created by people who started out as language teachers and who have gone into the technical side of things in different ways.
- Martin Holmes started out as an English teacher and went on to create Textoys and, with Stewart Arniel, Hot Potatoes. Martin and Stewart are no longer developing Hot Potatoes, but Stan Bogdanov, also an English teacher, is. On his site you can find his Hot Potatoes add-ons. He hosts those created by Michael Rottmeier and Agnès Simonet as well. Stan is also in the process of making versions of Hot Potaotes that will work on mobile devices. At the moment, some do and some don’t.
- Michael Marzio’s Real English site of videoed street interviews accompanied by interactive exercises is free but funded by ads. A wonderful site!
- Todd Beuckens’ ELLLO site of short videos of young people discussing a wide range of subjects.
- Deborah Delin’s Strivney is a Moodle site for children learning English. As well as hundreds of Hot Potatoes exercises, she’s made some amazing Flash ones too. Log in to see, for example: Beginners English – A Rod.
- Ángel Terán not a language teacher but his LyricsTraining site is a great tool for language learning. It’s a commercial company but free to use on line.
- Max Bury creates software and has a lot of stimulating blog posts about learning.
1. IATEFL2015 video: An engaged tone: how ELT might handle the ‘EdTech revolution’