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Wisdom of the Nile ...

The Gazette asked the Norwich Institute for Language Education to let us look in its file of teachers’ questions and the answers given by its experts

I’ve reached the stage in my career where I’d really like to do an MA, but I can’t afford the time or the cost of travelling to the UK to do a full-time course. Is there anything I can do?

Dave Allan (director): It used to be the case that MAs in ELT or continuing professional development in some aspect of language education typically lasted nine months or a year and were studied full-time at the institution. With the recent advances in digital delivery there are innovative tutor-led programmes now available at masters level for teachers of EFL/Esol which have been specifically designed to make it possible for working professionals to follow a course successfully while still in full-time employment.

The combination of a flexible modular approach to programme design with course content developed from the start to be mediated through an online or blended learning mode of delivery has meant that those wanting to combine masters-level CPD with continuing employment can now stage their studies over a period as long as five years, with staged payments as well. Some MA course providers have come to agreements with high-status partner institutions overseas to deliver ‘in country’. For example, Nile has agreements with education authorities in Austria, with ‘Culturas’ in Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, and with the British Council in Colombia, for some of the face-to-face delivery of blended learning modules to be in-country for the participants, making absences from family and work manageable and affordable. Other providers have gone for fully online delivery, which Nile can also offer.

How can we promote learner autonomy in our classes?

Alan Mackenzie (associate director): Autonomy is all about where choice lies. Who is choosing to do what, when and how? We are of course, constrained by the curriculum, but learners can have input into how they achieve learning outcomes. Step 1 is to ask questions rather than telling them what to do. Tell them the learning objective: ‘Today we are going to learn how to buy and sell food in the market.’ Pose them a problem: ‘What language will we need to be able to do this?’ Have them volunteer language necessary to complete the task. This discussion can be done in L1.

Step 2 is facilitating them to learn the skills necessary to find information for themselves. Get them to research vocabulary they don’t know and phrases they need. You can hold a whole class discussion on how to go about this: looking at the textbook, finding language that isn’t there in the dictionary. As a teacher, you can provide models for how the language sounds or use a CD or online source for this.

Step 3 is to help them to work out how they can best practise using the language they have discovered. Some students might want to write their own model dialogues, some might want to sit quietly and memorise the language they have discovered, others will want to pair up and practice with each other. This will depend on their individual learning styles. Finally they need to assess whether they have actually achieved the learning outcome.

For this example a roleplay of a stall-owner and customer would be appropriate. Once they have performed, they can assess how well they did it and how they could improve it. Feedback from other students and the teacher would be useful here. It is important that they get that opportunity to repeat the assessment task having implemented their improvements.

Finally, a reflection on how they learned what they learned and how they could learn more and better in the future will bolster their study skills and suggest alternative ways of achieving better results in the future.

If travelling to an English-speaking country for CPD is unfeasible, what are the main points of quality to look for in distance/online learning?

Thom Kiddle (deputy director): The key factor is the extent of contact with and support from a dedicated experienced tutor. Massive open online courses (Moocs), which provide digital content and collaborative learning with a large group of peers, have been much hyped in the last few years, but in our view professional development in an area such as ELT can only be effective with contextualised responses to the needs of each participant.

Other key principles in effective online learning include multimodality – making full use of the digital medium with a combination of video, audio, text, image and animation, and the synchronous (live) and asynchronous (at the time of your choosing) ways of interacting with these. Then there is participation – ensuring active and direct participation for online learners, as well as vicarious participation through an awareness of, and engagement in, what other course participants are doing. Likewise orchestration, the ability of the tutor to respond to emerging needs and interests rather than purely pre-packaged content, and feedback – the directed, constructive responses from tutor and peers which enable you to construct and maintain your identity as a successful online learner.

CPD is something which is important to me but, as I am based in Latin America, I am finding it hard to find really meaningful courses with well-qualified trainers. Have you got any suggestions?

Carole Robinson (senior trainer): This is something that the industry is acutely aware of. Many centres are expanding their teacher training facilities in Latin America – for example, at Nile we are collaborating with The Anglo in Mexico and Uruguay by running blended and online Delta courses (each of the three modules) through them under our banner. This means we are training up tutors for Delta in those locations, enabling more candidates to do Delta and, of course, there are more qualified trainers in the area. This type of project is expanding throughout the region, so you may find that there is a centre near you which is able to set up running the Delta modules through Nile (or other providers).