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Diving into digital learning


Academic and author Anne O’Keeffe explains to Melanie Butler how her ELT evolution has led to a new masters in applied linguistics

You started your life in teaching as an undergraduate at Mary Immaculate College (MIC), presumably aiming to be a teacher in Ireland, and you ended up back there as an academic researcher and trainer in English language teaching. What would your undergraduate self think?

It really still amuses me to walk through the same corridors and see the same people and places as when I was an undergraduate. I sometimes see former lecturers who are now my colleagues and have flashbacks to my college days – wondering if I have an essay due! I was so delighted to get a place in MIC as an undergraduate. It is the most esteemed teacher education institution in Ireland.

I was equally thrilled to set off on my teaching career when I graduated. My first stop was an EFL post in a small town called Manresa, outside Barcelona. I loved it but realised within a year that, though I was a state-qualified teacher, I needed specialised expertise to really do this job right. So off I went back to college to do my MA in ELT, and guess what? I’m still in that college!

The reality is that I love what I do. I love teaching and I love learning more about language and how best we can teach it. Looking back, the decision to go back to college to undertake my MA was the most defining moment in my career. I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me back then when I was 21 that I would go on to write seven books about English language teaching.

You are the co-author of the grammar profile for the Cambridge Profile of English. What was the toughest thing about the project and what is the most surprising?

This was the biggest project I have ever taken on. Geraldine, Mark and I had worked on CUP’s English Grammar Today books and they approached us to undertake this research into the Cambridge Learner Corpus. It was so exciting to get our hands on this but the task was so utterly daunting in scale. Just imagine – the corpus contains 55 million words of Cambridge exam papers. That’s over 200,000 scripts, from 215 countries, by candidates with 143 different first languages!

Our task was essentially to find out what grammar students actually know at each level by looking at the grammar patterns they use. In many cases, we found that the assumptions about what grammar learners know at each level were inaccurate.

The big learning for us was that grammar structures are learnt very incrementally. A1 learners have the basis of so many grammar patterns but by B1 they can do so much more with these patterns.

The next step is to make all this available as a resource, like the English Vocabulary Profile. Cambridge University Press is currently building this online search portal and will make this available as an open resource. Who knows? It might change how we teach grammar!

One question that teachers always ask us is, what is the best balance, for example in a masters course, between linguistic research and hands-on classroom-based practice?

It really depends on the individual and where they are at in terms of their professional development. Some will feel a need for a masters that will give them more competency and knowledge in terms of English language pedagogy (and possibly a teaching qualification). Others will feel a desire to nourish their curiosity about the language that they teach. They may long to find out more about the cutting-edge research into the English language as well as current thinking on language acquisition. I guess you could say that if you need more expertise and qualification in ELT/Tesol, take an MA in ELT/Tesol. If you are more interested in a masters for your own professional expertise and knowledge, applied linguistics is probably best.

Another of your research interests is in blended learning. How did you first get interested in that and what do you think is the single most important impact on ELT of this area so far?

At my institution one of my briefs is to promote the use of technology-enhanced learning. I can’t preach this without first doing it myself and so I threw myself into all things digital a few years ago. I overhauled my undergraduate ELT programmes so that the virtual learning environment Moodle is a central resource. My students create wikis on materials design, they take online grammar quizzes, they engage in debates on discussion chat rooms and they create and share materials portfolios. They love being able to see each other’s work online. In a traditional setting students don’t get to see each other’s essays and exam papers. Online learning opens up education in time and space, and offers so many collaborative opportunities for learning.

For ELT, I would see open educational resources as the biggest impact. There is simply so much out there now. The important thing is being able to discern which are quality resources and best suited to your pedagogical context. I would also say that Twitter has a major role in connecting ELT as a community.

You are launching a new online MA in applied linguistics. What do you see as the main advantage and disadvantage of taking such a degree by distance and how have you tried to avoid the pitfalls?

Online and blended learning means that we can offer a programme with world-class guest lecturers like Michael McCarthy, Ronald Carter, Randi Reppen and Steve Walsh on our webinars. It also means that people don’t need to give up work for a year and possibly travel to another country. Online learning also offers a lot more opportunity for collaborative learning. The downside is, of course, that there is no face-to-face component, but we are committed to creating a sense of community on the programme and we will use Skype tutorials as a means of supporting study groups on the programme so that people can get to know each other. Knowing your classmates and connecting with them is really important.

IMMACULATE RECORD Anne O’Keeffe threw herself into online learning before overhauling ELT at MIC (Courtesy Mary Immaculate College)