Technology is changing the way we teach, and the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement is committed to supporting practitioners with the integration of technology into curricula and instruction.
To help inform the creation of relevant professional development, we sought input from stakeholders across Alberta. Stakeholder feedback indicated that ELL instructors would greatly benefit from learning opportunities that enhance their technological skills and usage of technology to support English language learning in Alberta. To help address this need, the Centre developed an online course, Enhancing ELL Through Technology, to help increase instructors’ awareness of online learning options and the implementation of e-learning tools in ESL programs throughout the province.
This unique online professional development experience for ELL instructors focused on integrating e-learning tools in the classroom. This eight week online course was designed to address the everyday needs of ELL instructors through realistic engagement and hands-on applications. Participants engaged in activities, assignments, interactive resources, and discussion forums, all to supplement and enhance the instructor’s existing knowledge base.
Phase I: Needs Assessment
Recognizing the importance of effective online professional development opportunities, the Centre conducted a needs assessment across Alberta to inform course content and the utilization of an online platform. The needs assessment included:
1. Distributing an online survey:
Results from the online survey distributed to ELL stakeholders across the province, through ATESL, indicated that online tools are being used by ELL instructors in Alberta in a limited scope. A sizeable number of respondents indicated that they are unable to use common online tools for teaching, learning and communicating without help. The majority of instructors indicated that they have experienced difficulty integrating technology into the classroom, mainly due to insufficient time to develop suitable materials and lack of skills.
Conclusions drawn from the survey support the notion that ELL instructors require support in the utilization of technology in the classroom and that ELL instructors will benefit from professional development opportunities focusing on how to use and integrate online tools in the classroom.
2. Facilitating a focus group:
Information was gathered in a focus group with ELL practitioners at Bow Valley College to glean more insight regarding the online learning needs and areas of interest for ELL instructors. Surveying finds were further explored to inform stakeholder needs and course development.
3. Conducting Research:
Research was undertaken to ensure effective course design, timelines and navigation based on accessibility, clarity, readability and functionality. Research focused on best practices for the development and design of online courses and the integration of online learning tools in an ELL setting.
Phase II: Course Development
Course development involved:
1. Determining course outcomes and objectives:
Information gathered in the needs assessment portion of the project informed the development of course outcomes and objectives. Outcomes and objectives focused on:
- exposing ELL instructors to effective online tools and best practices for online teaching
- encouraging instructors to explore online tools and to build their confidence with technology
- giving instructors the opportunity to experience online learning and online activities as learners, so that they could assess the suitability of activities for their ELL learners
2. Designing online learning environment:
Best Practices in online learning were reviewed and informed the design of the learning environment. Participant feedback at course completion indicated that the learning environment was easy to navigate and intuitive in design.
3. Developing course content framework:
Content in each week of Enhancing ELL with Technology focused on different aspects of online learning. Three major focus areas were selected: online learning and technology, online tools and teaching methods, and application of learning.
A three-part learning framework guided participants through activities in each week of the course:
- Part 1: Ask and explore
- Part 2: Learn and analyze
- Part 3: Apply and reflect
4. Developing course content and learning activities:
Content and learning assets were developed for all modules of the course. Activities created included both synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities. Activities in the modules focus on the areas described as follows:
Module One, Weeks 1-3: Online Learning and Technology
In this module, participants:
- are introduced to the concept of online learning and explore the benefits and challenges of online learning
- explore the concept of technology and how it affects the ELL context
- research digital literacy, what it is and how it affects ELL learners
Module Two, Weeks 4-6: Online Tools and Teaching Methods
In this module, participants explore, analyze and reflect on the:
- use of online tools to enhance receptive skills (reading and listening) in the ELL setting
- use of online tools to enhance productive skills (speaking and writing) in the ELL setting
- use of the flipped classroom model of teaching and learning
- use of screencasting tools to facilitate learning
Module Three, Weeks 7 and 8: Application of Learning
In this module, participants:
- plan and deliver a lesson incorporating online tools explored in the workshop to enhance the ELL experience
- prepare and post a presentation sharing results and reflections on the lessons they developed and delivered
5. Revising course content:
The online facilitators for Enhancing ELL with Technology noted areas for revisions throughout the workshop. At the end of the pilot offering, participants completed a questionnaire to evaluate workshop content. All feedback was taken into consideration to determine the revisions to be made. Revisions were made to the workshop accordingly.
Phase III: Pilot Course
The pilot of Enhancing ELL with Technology was offered from January to March 2013.
The part–time course was eight weeks in length. Participants were expected to complete five to seven hours of work per week. The course included three mandatory synchronous webinar sessions. Three optional, synchronous drop-in sessions (virtual office hours) were added to ensure that participants had adequate support.
Participants were required to complete all learning activities, discussion board postings, attend or view the webinars and complete the final assignment in order to receive a certificate of participation for the course.
The online facilitators and a help desk support person interacted with participants online throughout the course. As this was the first online learning experience for many of the participants, they were highly supported and encouraged throughout each module.
25 participants registered in the course. Participants came from the following Alberta communities:
- Medicine Hat
- Red Deer
- Bragg Creek
The following key findings and recommendations are based on the research and findings from the delivery of Enhancing ELL with Technology.
Online delivery is an effective way to deliver professional development opportunities for ELL practitioners.
Online delivery reduces geographical boundaries and physical barriers to learning. It also allows ELL instructors across Alberta the opportunity to share ideas and learn from one another in an online environment with their peers from across the province. Participants in Enhancing ELL with Technology represented different communities in Alberta. Had this professional development course been offered in person, many would not have been able to attend.
The development of an online course requires a significant investment of dedicated resources, including time, human resources, software and hardware.
The development of online courses requires a significantly greater time commitment than the development of face to face courses. The development of online courses involves the use of specialized software to create learning assets and interactive activities. Hardware, such as the following, also needs to be considered when creating an online course: computer with the capabilities to run the development software, high quality headsets with microphones for webinars, good quality camera and video cameras to record content and create visuals.
Online courses must be engaging in order to keep participants interested.
Online courses should incorporate activities that appeal to different learning styles in order to engage all participants. Interaction should be encouraged and audio and video assets should be included.
- Visual learners benefit from a visually organized learning space with visuals interspersed in the webinars and course materials.
- Auditory learners benefit from “how to” or help videos along with instructional PDFs, videos and podcasts in the weekly resources, and from access to a help desk phone line.
- Kinesthetic learners benefit from hands-on activities that they can do while listening to webinars or in assignments.
- Synchronous learning activities should be interspersed with asynchronous learning activities to bring participants together at different points in the course and to ensure that participants are on track.
The technology utilized in online courses must be accessible to participants.
There is a great deal of technology available for online learning. The capabilities and resources of the participants in an online course must be considered before integrating it.
- Online learning and the technology involved may be new to participants. Help videos or links to tutorials should be included for any technology which may be new to participants, such as discussion boards, technology used for webinars, and any social media tools involved.
- Any sites or software that participants are required to use should be accessible free of charge or membership costs should be communicated before participants sign up for a course.
- The number of new technologies or programs that participants have to learn in order to participate in the course should be manageable.
Online courses should be developed with a clear structure that is transparent to participants.
The development of online course content requires structure and prescription. The course template and learning environment should be intuitive and predictable so that they do not interfere with the content of the course. Creating and using consistent, visually appealing templates for all assignments, handouts and PowerPoint presentations helps participants navigate course content with confidence. A detailed outline which provides specific information on the learning outcomes and objectives gives participants a clear picture of the online course and helps them to determine how it will benefit them.
Online courses should include clear expectations for facilitators.
The role of online facilitator may be new to instructors, so support should be available to them. A course guide should be created for the online facilitator that incorporates best practices for online facilitation. To ensure consistency in online courses, clear expectations for online facilitators should be laid out including:
- Expectations for number of hours to be spent facilitating the course
- Expectations around communication with participants
- Clear instructions for all activities
- Resources that provide background material related to content
- Checklists and outlines to facilitate organization of instructor tasks and to track learner progress and participatio
Online courses must provide safe environments for participants.
- A safe and welcoming environment that builds community must be created in which participants can feel comfortable sharing their opinions and ideas. A great deal of consideration, time and resources were dedicated to the pilot delivery of Enhancing ELL with Technology to create a sense of community and encourage engagement.
- The learning environment must be a secure one, in which only the instructor or other participants are reading the participants’ discussion board postings or viewing assignments.
- Facilitators should establish an open and encouraging rapport with participants.
- Communication between facilitators and participants should occur on a regular basis.
- Participants should be encouraged to communicate and collaborate with each other.
- A help desk should be available and accessible to support participants.
Online courses should clearly communicate expectations and timelines for participants.
Course expectations should be clearly stated from the onset of the course so that participants can plan accordingly. This includes:
- A participant checklist that includes explicit details about course technology requirements and time commitments
- Learning outcomes and evaluation standards
- Required participation on discussion boards
- Withdrawal procedures
- All assignments, topics, projects, discussion board requirements and assessments
- Clearly stated timelines and deadlines so that participants can plan accordingly
Online courses require clear, consistent communication.
- Communication between the facilitator and participants in an online course is a key to success.
- Online facilitators should maintain an accessible and consistent presence in an online course. Clear guidelines about when facilitators will be accessible and when they will respond to comments should be communicated to participants from the course onset.
- Communication between the online facilitator and participants should be done in a timely fashion. Online facilitators should respond to assignments and discussion board comments within 24 hours on weekdays. Clear guidelines as to when facilitators will respond to weekend postings should be communicated and followed.
- Course facilitators should be responsive to the needs of course participants. We discovered in the pilot offering of Enhancing ELL with Technology that participants would benefit from additional support and as such built in virtual office hours to accommodate this.