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Building on success

As PRELIM 2 is launched, its project managers Rose Aylett and Martyn Clarke from NILE tell the Gazette why it was important to continue the good work of PRELIM 1

PRELIM 1 (the Partnered Remote Language Improvement project) brought together individuals from a range of different institutions and organisations, many of whom may not have had opportunities to work in or with such different contexts before. One of the really positive outcomes of the project was the evolution of supportive professional communities across international borders, different schools and practitioners, and across the traditional ‘teacher management’ divide.

A key factor in the efficacy of these Communities of Practice (CoP) was building space into the project for cohesion to develop. In a physical teachers’ room, socialisation, innovation and creative idea sharing are often the result of unplanned interactions during breaks. It’s a challenge to replicate this level of spontaneity online, but this means designing how ‘virtual spaces’ will be used for asynchronous and synchronous interaction is all the more important. On our UK partner CoP on Slack, we assigned various channels for different social purposes. Within different partnerships, community building was also worked into course structure through online ‘getting to know you’ activities, orientation weeks and the use of social media groups.

A second and equally important factor in the success of these CoPs was perhaps the extent to which participants felt they had a stake in decision-making and driving the community’s overall direction. We learned that for the best outcomes, interactions should be community directed and a ‘bottom-up’ grassroots approach was preferable to decision-making dictated by project stakeholders or management. Part of NILE’s role in our Slack CoP was identifying the topics of interest that were trending among participants and bringing these to the fore, creating space for them to be explored in more depth.

Another very positive, but unexpected outcome of PRELIM was several UK partners reporting a shape-shift in their organisational culture, whereby teachers involved in project delivery were taking on additional responsibilities and a more active role in the project management. It’s also important to note that the courses were delivered amid what was, for several countries, still the height of the pandemic (from January to March 2021). Working together to support ellow professionals at such a challenging time definitely reinforced a collective sense of purpose.

“Because PRELIM courses are bespoke and highly contextualised, no two 
projects will look exactly the same”

Unlike other projects, where success might be measured according to the number of course attendees or participants’ language level improvement, the primary objective of PRELIM has always been developing English teachers’ confidence. How each partnership achieved this through their course(s) was up for negotiation during the initial planning phase of the project. At the start, we envisaged that this would involve more of a focus on language development for teachers, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the expectation of several ETAs and their course participants – all in-service teachers – was that on their PRELIM course they would not just improve their knowledge and use of their subject (English), but also about how to teach it.

On some projects, this meant that a methodological focus was deliberately factored into course content. On others, it involved a much less structured, discursive reflection on class activities.

One project reported back that these conversations frequently continued on WhatsApp well beyond the scheduled class time they had been assigned, demonstrating how much value these teachers were deriving from deconstructing the methodology together.

PRELIM 2 courses will have a similar focus on improving confidence and so it is likely many partnerships may choose to incorporate an element of methodological reflection and analysis into their course material. However, as with the first iteration of the project, this will be negotiated between partners in the early stages. And because the courses are bespoke and highly contextualised, no two projects will look exactly the same.

PRELIM 1 necessitated a high level of flexibility from every participant. As learner needs on the ground became apparent during the exploratory planning phase of the project, various solutions to technological challenges were sought. Foremost among these was the creation of a ‘connectivity fund’ to cover the cost of data in countries where this was a barrier to participation.

However, meeting the realities of remote delivery involved more than simply covering the cost of internet access. Although many teachers and course participants might have been familiar with platforms such as Facebook or Signal, for many of them this was the first time they had used these particular tools for teaching and learning. This made learner training and platform- specific orientation all the more important, as well as teaching the English needed to use this technology effectively during everyday interactions. It’s exciting that the huge wealth of collective knowledge developed by partners who took part in PRELIM 1 can now be shared with new partners this year.

PRELIM has never been a one-size- fits-all project, which is reflected in the diversity among participating UK partners – from smaller private language schools to larger education groups and universities. Although evidencing quality online course delivery and teacher training was critical, past experience delivering such courses in ODA contexts was not a prerequisite for selection onto the project for PRELIM 1, nor will it be for centres applying to take part this time.

Rather than size or experience, we’ve found that organisational culture is what is more likely to characterise positive partnerships. An openness to new ways of working has been hugely beneficial for those working on PRELIM 1. Where this institutional ‘growth mindset’ was evident at all levels, this was reflected in the quality of course delivery. The project involves a lot of unknowns, and witnessing how each partner institution has worked creatively and collaboratively to address these has been really interesting.

Facilitating the first cohort of 20 PRELIM partnerships in 2020-2021 has been a privilege for us at NILE, and has given us a unique insight into the workings of a wide range of highly professional and dedicated English teaching organisations, during what has been a turbulent and uncertain time in education. Management of this project has reinforced the need for flexibility of approach in different contexts and with different partners. With up to 20 additional partnerships forming in PRELIM 2, the need for diversity of need will be even greater.

One of the key outcomes of PRELIM 1 was the development of a supportive CoP among the UK partners. In PRELIM 2 we hope to build on the success of this online community, and establish a similar CoP to facilitate learning and information sharing between partnered ETAs. Functioning along similar lines, on Slack and Zoom, this will be facilitated by IATEFL and will add a valuable dimension to the running of the project.

Across all the partnerships, a standout focus was the benefit of getting involved in something that offered fresh challenges. Meeting these challenges by working with new partners who brought unexpected expertise raised an awareness of the importance of not assuming we have all the answers, but rather of seeking to find the most useful questions. This has been tremendously refreshing as we start to plan for PRELIM 2 and also for the huge variety of projects that we work on here at NILE.

Image courtesy of PHOTO BY SHUTTERShTOCK
Liz Granirer
Liz Granirer
Liz has been a journalist for many years. She is currently editor of EL Gazette and has previously edited the magazines Young Performer, StepForward and Accounting Technician; been deputy editor on Right Start magazine; chief sub editor on Country Homes & Interiors; and sub editor on easyJet Traveller, Lonely Planet and Family Traveller magazines, along with a number of others.
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