Blended learning in the EFL Classroom – what it is and why we’re doing it.

Find out about how we are incorporating blended learning in our classrooms, and learn some great vocabulary too! You can find the definitions for the highlighted words in the glossary at the end of the article. 

When I sat down for a meeting with my teachers on the 10th March, I couldn’t have known how much was soon to change. Although we are based in Edinburgh, I had worked for many years in Spain and my former colleagues there had told me that the already enforced lockdown in Madrid looked set to last for 5 months. This piece of news utterly shocked me, and prompted me to immediately begin to research our online teaching options. 

As soon as I started looking at what was available, I realised that we had been asleep at the wheel. After only a few minutes digging, I discovered that included in our G Suites fee were the Google Classrooms and Google Meet platforms. We had had these resources at our finger tips for years, but we hadn’t used them! As lockdown progressed and we had to pivot to exclusive online teaching, myself and the teaching team began to develop our virtual learning skills. The result has been the discovery of how we can use technology not as a gimmick, but as a way to truly help our learners advance. 

At the start of September we came back to the classroom, but with new safety measures in place to ensure the safety of students and staff. This meant that there would have to be a lot of changes in how we deliver our face to face classes. Things as commonplace as handing out a photocopy had to be reviewed. Not only that, we didn’t want to lose the fantastic new skills we had spent 5 months honing online. The clear way forward for us was to implement blended learning as a permanent feature of our methodology. 

What is blended learning?
Blended learning basically means using a combination of what we can call “traditional” teaching with technology. There are lots of different approaches to blended learning, with the flipped classroom probably being the most common. Check out the video below from Education Technology for a great summary.

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​Thinking about our own experience, we asked ourselves the following questions:

  • What elements of online teaching were the most successful, both in terms of teaching and administration?
  • Which can be used easily with smartphones?
  • What practical aspects do we need to consider, and how can we resolve any problems?

What elements of online teaching were the most successful, both in terms of teaching and administration? 
Through feedback from both teachers an students, the most successful elements we used were

  • Google Classrooms – both teachers and students found this a great way to keep track of work, issue and receive feedback, and communicate with each other. From a teaching perspective, once you have uploaded your course, you can then copy them for new groups. We of course had to do more work over these 5 months, but none of it has gone to waste as most of our courses are now fully uploaded onto the system. We also found Classrooms incredibly user friendly, and students only need a Google account to access it. If you work for a large institution, Google is often not compatible with policies, but for smaller schools or individual teachers, it really has been a godsend!
  • Google Docs – it’s tempting to play with  lots of new technological tools when teaching online, but it’s important to keep remembering that we are teaching English, not how to use software or applications. We have found that a Google doc will serve most of your needs. It is very easy to adjust share settings so that learners can collaborate on the same document, and you can use it for a variety of tasks. Some of the most effective uses we found for Google Docs were
  1. Consolidation – in a face to face lesson, you often don’t have the time or chance to look at every students’ written answers. By using a Google Doc, students can write their answers in real time, and you can give immediate feedback. For example, in a C1 lesson on linkers and register, I gave each student 2 linkers. They had to establish what register they should be used in, and write an example sentence. As they were writing, I would highlight any problems in their sentence and they would try and correct it. And then as a class, we would discuss any remaining errors together. It was a fantastic way for me to see how much they had actually processed, for the learner to self-correct and properly process the information, and for the whole group to learn from each others’ errors.  This took minimal preparation, and was an extremely beneficial activity.
  2. Cambridge Exam Use of English tasks – I would often use a Google Doc to copy and paste a use of English question, such as the open cloze  and make a table underneath with a column for each questions and each students’ answers. Students would make a note of their answers on a separate document or paper, and then when prompted they would write their answers into the table. it was a great way to be able to see the variety of answers students chose. We would look at any incorrect answers and discuss why that couldn’t be used. 
  3. Spoken Feedback – As students were doing a speaking task, I would write a selection of feedback on a Google doc. Students would then re-write the sentences to make them sound better, or to correct any errors present. 

In our face to face lessons, it was clear that we needed to use interactive documents too. The benefits to language acquisition were clear, and it also allows the lessons to be interactive during these Covid times when moving around a classroom or playing board games are simply not an option. 

  • Google Jamboard – All of our teachers are big fans of using cards and board games in class to add a kinetic element to the learning experience. We clearly couldn’t use these online, and in the Covid classroom it also presented a big problem. The workaround we have used is Google Jamboard. We use it for so many things, from pronunciation by organising words to their phonetic symbols, to grading language, or to using it to play games. 
  • Quizlet – we have had Quizlet for a long time, but with online teaching it took on a new role. It is excellent for both presenting vocabulary, but also as a self-study tool for our students. Each class has a specific Quizlet folder which can be directly accessed through Google Classrooms.

Which can be used easily with smartphones? We found that all of Google’s products like Docs and Jamboards can be easily used with a mobile phone, but of course typing at length creates an issue. The number of students using laptops vs mobile phones varies from class to class, but around half of our students are using their phones, which means we need to make sure materials are easy to read and interact with on them. For example, a big thing to consider when producing material for class are reading tasks – It can be difficult to read a text on an A4 layout on a phone. To combat this, we have edited the text to have narrower margins so that they are smartphone friendly. 


What practical aspects do we need to consider, and how can we resolve any problems? 
After a detailed risk assessment, we identified the following main issues which would affect how we normally managed a classroom, and came up with creative solutions:

  • Handing out photocopies – provide all material through Google Classrooms
  • Speaking face to face with a partner – Ensuring 1m+ distance between students and having face coverings on at all time. Students are also positioned so they aren’t directly face to face. Another great way to be able to give more detailed speaking feedback is by having students record themselves and upload the recordings to the Google Classroom.
  • Monitoring students work – instead of a teacher circulating the classroom, we have students use Google docs which can be displayed on the main screen. This also offers a fantastic opportunity for peer correction. 
  • Drilling pronunciation – it’s important to be able to see a teacher’s mouth when working with pronunciation! We’ve worked around this by recording videos which can be uploaded to Classrooms, and then students do their own recordings so we can give feedback.
  • Technophobic students – we have clearly communicated with students that we are here to help, and have offered tech tutorials for those who have struggled with how to get to grips with the platforms we are using. 
  • Students or teachers who have to self-isolate – If a student misses a face to face lesson, we are offering them an online catch up chat with their teacher. In the case that a number of students or the teacher themselves have to self-isolate, we move the class online temporarily. 

While some students have preferred to continue to study only online with us, we have found a lot of them really wanted to come back to the classroom. As we move into an uncertain winter, we feel that it’s important to be able to offer some (safely socially-distanced!) human contact along with our excellent English teaching. Blended learning is the tool which has allowed us to come back to classroom teaching, and improve our students’ learning experience even more!

GLOSSARY
be asleep at the wheel – not paying attention to a situation, so that something bad happens
dig for something e.g. information – to investigate in an attempt to uncover information about someone or something.
pivot – to change your opinions, statements, decisions, etc. so that they are different to what they were before
gimmick – something that is not serious or of real value that is used to attract people’s attention or interest temporarily, especially to make them buy something:
hone (your skills) – to direct something such as an ability to make it more effective:
a workaround – a way of dealing with a problem or making something work despite the problem, without completely solving it
get to grips – to make an effort to understand and deal with a problem or situation:

Are you an English teacher, or need to teach your subject in English? Did you know that we offer online English Language Teaching and CLIL courses? We can run these for your team, or you can join our group courses as an individual. Get in touch with us for more information on when our next course is, and download our brochure for more information. 

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