Thursday, January 31, 2013

Four Groups... One Long Lesson

A few weeks ago I held a live session on needs analysis for the EVO Designed for Business course.  The course is designed and moderated by some of the most talented trainers I've ever met and it was an honor to be involved.

During the live session, I talked about a common technique I use when the needs of the learner aren't necessarily aligned with what the organization would like to see in the training.  To facilitate both I simply change the context of the task, but not the task itself.  This is nothing new; course books do it all the time.  For example, instead of making arrangements for a business meeting... we make arrangements for a barbeque.  The learners get the 'break from work' so many are looking for, and they are still learning the language and skills needed in their jobs.

However, because I almost never use course books, I instead look for simple things in the learners' lives to exploit for skills practice in the classroom.  During the live session I gave the example of the May Tree, a tradition here in Bavaria.  You can find the live session recording here.

To follow up, I'd like to give an example of how this is scalable to various classes.  In this example, I have taken a different point of view on task based learning.  Instead of one class completing the task over several lessons, various classes work on the task in sequence to complete the overall project.

Lesson Plan:  The Glühwein Stand (Mulled Wine Stand)

Class 1 - Intermediate, 6 Students, 60 min
Objective - Proposing ideas, giving justification, describing purpose, agree / disagree

I explained the task that today we would plan a glühwein stand for the city christmas market (this class was in early December).  The profits would go to charity.  Each class throughout the day would use the work from the class before to take the next step.  For this group, the task was to identify all of the resources needed to start the stand.

Source:  eltpics, @jeeves_

The learners were all given stacks of note cards and told to brainstorm all the things they need.  Write each resource on a different card.  Then they created an affinity diagram in the middle of the table and assigned the resources a catergory name like "Equipment", "Staff", "Materials", "Documentation", etc.

Throughout the lesson, I offered feedback, injected useful phrases, highlighted vocabulary, etc.

Class 2 - Upper Intermediate, 3 Students, 60 min
Objectives - Clarifying, vocabulary for regulations, collocations, syntax, and brevity

At the start of the lesson I gave the group the stack of note cards from the previous group and asked them to 'recreate' the affinity diagram.  The group asked me questions to clarify what the cards meant and the categories.  I recorded and added clarifying phrases on the board.

I then told them to focus on the legal aspects of the stand.  What authorizations would be need?  They researched the information (in German) on the web and had to explain it in English (a common task in their work).  On two websites, I asked them to translate particularly complex sentences, identify collocations, and condense sentences.

Their final task was to create a list of steps to be completed in order to get city approval for the stand.

Class 3 - Pre-Intermediate, 6 Students, 60 min
Objectives - Asking for opinions, stating opinions, saying numbers, talking about budgets

The lesson fit perfectly with the previous lessons in that we has just practiced numbers and talking about costs.  This group was given the note cards from Class 1 and given the task to create a budget for all the resources.  How much do the cups cost?  How much does it cost to rent / buy a stand?  Etc.  Feedback... naturally.

By the end of the lesson they had a catergorized budget on A4 paper.  I ran to the copy machine for the next lesson.

Class 4 - Intermediate, 7 Students, 60 min
Objectives - reach an agreement, discussion options, formal emails for assistance

Finally, each student in the last class was given a copy of the proposed budget from the lesson before.  Their job was to create a profit projection and determine how they could make the most money.  The charity wanted to know how much in donations they should expect before approving the project.  I turned over the white board to one of the learners and got out of the way.  During the discussion they decided that the best way to save money was to ask for volunteers and donations of equipment.  They made a profit calculation and make a list of people / organizations to contact for support.

A natural follow up task was for them to actually write the emails for support.  Each student was given a different contact person and they had to request a donation for the stand (equipment, volunteer support, etc.) or authorization from the charity and government (from Class 2).

By the end of the day I was able to write an email to all of the students and tell them how much money we would donate as a result of their work.  The feedback was great and several suggested that we acutally make it a reality.  I guess that would have to be another lesson.

They used the functional language needed in their work, but the context was something taken from their personal lives.  Combined with doses of feedback... the lessons were very student led and had minimal teacher talking time.

Monday, January 21, 2013

How to Create a Great E-Learning Environment

After having taken a nice long vacation from email, the Internet, Twitter, and my blog, I am feeling recharged and ready to start 2013!  It is clear for me that 2013 will be a year of growth in e-learning and managing training virtually.  So I thought I would start by recording what I have learned so far.

For those who do not know, I never finished my university diploma.  I dropped out of college due to financial constraints and "other pursuits" in 2001 and it has haunted me ever since.  So in 2010 I restarted my journey toward societal acceptance by enrolling in online study from the University of Maryland to obtain my BS in Marketing.  Over the past two years I have seen all sorts of teaching, moderation, tasks, and so on from the professors of the university.  Combined with my limited experience in conducting training online, I'd like to share...

Best Practice in Online Learning or How to manage an asynchronous online conversation...

1.  Start off with a general introduction

One of the over-arching themes of adult online learning is that the participants place their daily lives on hold during the course.  They are extremely interested in really getting to know the other people in class and friendships come naturally.  Therefore, it is best to leave the personal introduction task as general as possible.  In fact, the wording, "Post an introduction of yourself," is typically sufficient to build a proper collaborative network.  This type of task will truly encourage the learners to read and remember the posts of their peers.

2.  Reduce teacher talking time

Teachers should moderate the discussion as little as possible.  Remember, the key aspect of online learning is that the learners "find their own path".  Any guidance, correction, or feedback will only disrupt that process.  Besides, feedback is generally best when withheld until grading an assignment.

Additionally, because the participants are reading all of the other posts there is no need to refer to the opinions of other class members.  Saying things like, "Interesting point of view, but I think Jenny might disagree," is simply a waste of time.  The learners will have already read the post and in fact are probably already preparing a response.  The same is true for links to additional material.  One characteristic of adult learners is that they are only interested in learning the material provided in the course.  Optional links and 'for more information' resources are seen as disruptive.

3.  Set rules about how often and when posts must be written

The real value of an online forum is the number of posts the class can write.  This shows real collaboration.  The quality of the ideas is only secondary.  Therefore, your learners will truly benefit from rules like, "Post your response by Tuesday, one reply to another classmate by Friday, and two more replies by Sunday."  These rules ensure that ideas are spread and that everyone is getting the most from the discussion.  Furthermore, it will help the learners manage their lives better and assist them in prioritizing their tasks.

4.  Focus on the theory

Adult learners are fascinated by theoretical learning.  In surveys, most respondents say what they enjoy most is reflecting on theoretical tasks and coming up with ways to apply them to their real world situations.  By providing practical tips and applications, the teacher is only robbing the learners of this opportunity.

5.  Rewards and praise often fall flat in adult courses

It is a universally accepted truth that only children respond well to praise and reward for positive effort and results.  For adult learners the reward is the course itself (and naturally any certification).  Therefore, providing positive comments to good ideas or dedication to the group should be minimized.  The learners will undoubtedly find it condescending and resent the trainer.  Along with this, competitions and games should be removed completely from the adult online training environment because it will only cause further demotivation.

6. Keep tasks open ended

When giving instructions, remember to keep them as general as possible.  Use vague verbs like discuss, reply, and consider because these will yield the best results for online discussion.  Also, because adult learners are continually focused on achieving the learning objectives, there is no need to inform them of the purpose behind the individual tasks.  The extensive introduction document you send at the beginning of the course will be read with vigour and the learners will clearly see how everything fits together.  Giving a purpose is simply redundant.

7.  Summarize activities are the best

Perhaps the best online discussion activity is to ask the learners to summarize a document, chapter, website, etc.  The most effective way to generate differences of opinion is to have 30 responses which all say the same thing.  The students will discuss continuously about why and how one summary is different than others.

So those are my lessons learned for effective e-learning.  Happy moderation and I hope you have a great new year!