Online English course for IT Professionals: Final Report by 47e665z

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									Final Evaluation of EIT Project, Lithuania

This is my final evaluation of the Online English course for IT professionals and
follows a preliminary evaluation written in March of this year, followed by an interim
evaluation which took place in July. My evaluation is based on the following sample
materials supplied as representative of the course as a whole: Month 2, Week 2; Month
4, Week 4; Month 6, Week 1; Month 8, Week 1; a case study from Month 4 and a web
conference also from Month 4.

In all, over less than a year an impressive quantity of teaching materials has been
developed making extensive use of resources particularly suited to an online project:
links to websites providing information such as online dictionaries, websites providing
reading and listening activities together with computer programmes and computer
resources.

The nature of the course as web-based rather than print-based enables the course
developers to continue developing and modifying the material on an ongoing basis.
They will be able to draw on students’ learning experiences while using the course,
teachers’ observations and reactions and test and exam results. This is a particular
strength of the project in that it has the element of continuous improvement, making
feedback from its stakeholders meaningful and useful. I am not aware as to whether a
formal mechanism for feeding back to course developers has been evolved, but if not
would suggest that this would be an extremely positive addition to the project.

The ongoing nature of the project also allows me, in this evaluation, to make a number
of suggestions for further improvements knowing that the course developers have the
possibility of acting on them where they consider this appropriate.

General approach
The general approach of mini-lessons of about ten minutes each is unusual and
interesting: it means that busy professionals who may not have large amounts of time
to devote to language learning will be encouraged to take a short time out each day to
study English as part of their routine without it becoming a burden. They are
presented with a small amount of language to study, or a shortish activity to work on
and develop their skills with. This means that new language is often presented directly
and briefly without going through a more orthodox inductive process of discovering
grammar rules or meanings of lexis. This approach to presentation of new language
may have the advantage that, in the absence of a teacher, there is less room for
misunderstanding and that the activity is briefer than might be the case in a classroom
situation. It does, however, mean that language has to be presented very clearly,
avoiding metalanguage, and with the language level of the target students clearly in
mind. They should not have to struggle to understand grammar explanations and all
explanations should be supported with clear examples.

Below is an explanation taken from Month 4, Week 4:

Activity 1 Will or going to?
We use going to for arrangements, plans and intentions, e.g. What are you going to do
next weekend?
We use will + the infinitive of the verb for guesses and spontaneous offers, e.g. I think
robots will replace people in the future. I'll send the email for you.
For further grammar support click here

I have not seen the further grammar support, but I would suggest firstly that the
grammar explanation is a little thin – we also use going to to predict future events based
on present evidence and will to make predictions unsupported by present evidence
(e.g. the example about robots). What are you going to do next weekend? probably is not
sufficient example to make plans, arrangements and intentions clear and should
probably be contrasted with using will in a similar sentence. Also arrangements and
intentions are lexical items which are probably above the level of elementary students
and would need to be supported by clear examples. (Also, don’t we use the Present
continuous to talk about arrangements – I can’t go out with you this afternoon because I’m
meeting Angela at 3.?)

In addition to a very complete grammar syllabus, the course, as we would expect,
teaches specialist IT lexis, a range of functional language which IT professionals would
be expected to use in their jobs, language skills related to the IT profession together
with a range of generalist vocabulary and skills which would be suitable to such
professionals outside their immediate working lives.

A further positive aspect of the course is the constant emphasis on learner training and
learner development: students are encouraged to use dictionaries, think about how
they learn and use resources for their learning, especially on the Internet. They are also
encouraged to think about how they will need to use English when working in IT.

The regular end-of-week tests serve a double role of showing students how much they
have already learnt while at the same time reinforcing learning by revisiting the main
areas taught in the previous week. This highlights another strong point of the course,
which is the constant recycling of language and skills work, so that, for example,
although a student may not be proficient at giving IT advice towards the beginning of
the course, by the end they will have had enough practice to be able to handle a task
like this with some confidence. The sample materials contain activities related to
trouble-shooting skills spread over eight months and in a number of ways from giving
advice to their course mates to posting advice on their forum to evaluating existing
web-based advice.

The guide to students at the beginning of each week (This week you will…) is an
excellent added feature. Students working alone on a course in a self-study mode need
a lot of support, they need to know why they are doing activities, what they can expect
to be learning and what the value of the activities is. Combined with the weekly tests,
they will know what they should be learning and also that they are making progress.
Methodology
As previously stated, the approach to teaching new language is not inductive. Instead
of being led by the materials to discover for themselves how grammar is used, what
words mean and how they are used, generally students are simply told the rules or
invited to use a dictionary. While a more task-based approach to learning would be
more time-consuming for students (and we have to bear in mind that these are mini-
lessons), I believe students would generally find doing tasks more interesting and
challenging and it would facilitate the learning process. Here is an example: In Month
2, Week 2, Day 3, I think it would be better to supply pictures of the various objects
and ask students to match the words to the pictures before categorising them on the
table. (Incidentally, the instructions for this exercise only ask students to put the
objects in alphabetical order – rather a basic mechanical exercise for adults – rather
than to categorise them. These instructions need some revision).

Modern language learning theory suggests that vocabulary should not be learnt in lists
in isolation but rather in ‘lexical chunks’ i.e. with accompanying collocations, with
related prepositions and in a grammatical context so that learners can use it naturally
and correctly. I would suggest that where possible, vocabulary is presented in a
context – either in a reading or a listening text – and rather than just looking for
definitions in a dictionary (which is one part of the process, but not normally the first
part), students are given exercises where they have to use the words and put them into
a context. In Month 2, Week 2, Day 1, students are presented with a huge list of
vocabulary, but no opportunity to practice it later. I would suggest a shorter list –
perhaps omitting items not directly related to IT such as whiteboard, security camera etc.
– and a gapfill exercise where they have to place the items in sentences which then
contextualise them.

Level
The course is directed at A1 to A2 level students. The grammar input is appropriate
for this level, especially as the A1 students are likely to be false beginners. As
previously mentioned these students will require clear explanations avoiding
metalanguage and supported by examples. The vocabulary input is generally suitable
also for IT professionals and many, even if they lack language skills, will be familiar
with much of the IT vocabulary already as a result of their professional activities.
Having it as part of their English course will reinforce their existing knowledge and
formalise it.

The course makes use of authentic materials available on the web, which means that
students on occasions are asked to work with materials well above their level. I think
this is fine and that students should be challenged with authentic materials as long as
the task is doable and that students understand that they should be able to do the task
even though they cannot understand everything they read or hear. Students find
successfully working with authentic materials motivating and beneficial. The most
rewarding tasks are ones which are challenging but not beyond students’ capacities.
However, tasks which are too difficult can be discouraging.

Particular features
The course offers particular features which set it aside from more conventional
classroom-based courses, for example forums, the use of Skype to contact course
mates, computer features such as the ability to record answers and play them back, and
links to online resources such as dictionaries. The forums and having a course mate
are a good use of the resources a web-based course can offer, they break the isolation
which students studying alone may feel and give them opportunities to interact as well
as being able to compare their work and progress with that of other students on the
course. As the EIT project continues, the work recorded and submitted to the forums
will build up a valuable resource for course developers and course tutors allowing
them to pinpoint the language problems their students have (which they can then
develop materials and activities to remedy) and reflecting students’ interests, needs
and opinions so that as time goes by materials can be adapted to fit students’
requirements better. Combined with more traditional classroom teaching, the course
will be an interesting, innovative and productive example of blended learning.

A word of warning about Internet forums from my own experience of these with
online English courses: they have a certain inertia and it can be quite difficult to
encourage students to participate possibly due to shyness, or embarrassment about the
quality of their English. Certain individuals may make considerable use of the forums
while others hang back and can be difficult to persuade to participate. The principle,
however, is good.

I am taken with the idea of Course Mates and the use of Skype (See Month 2, Week 2,
Day 4:

Activity 1. Choose 2 computer problems from the list below. Go to Skype, call your course mate
and ask for advice with these problems.

Again, an excellent idea in principle, but
-  does the course design have any way of ensuring that students actually do this?
-  is there any way of monitoring students’ performance in this sort of activity
   (perhaps students’ conversations can be recorded and submitted to course tutors)?
-  will students organise timetables and times when they can call each other to do
   their course activities?
This is not clear from the materials I have been supplied with.

Case studies
I like the Case study supplied with the materials for Month 4 – it seems relevant to
students’ needs, interesting including for a layman such as myself and the
accompanying website and the advice posted their interesting and debatable. My only
problem with it is the Student’s notes (The main objective of this activity is, to raise your
awareness of possible "knowledge barriers" between ICT professionals (you) and regular ICT
users. During this activity you are supposed to learn (how) to avoid potential difficulties arising
from that barrier. You are also supposed to memorize phrases and terminology that support you
in effectively answering questions, suggesting solutions and customizing advice. Moreover, you
should get used to collaborative work and you train how to communicate in a group.) which if
addressed to A1/A2 level students are way above level – more B2/C1 and really need
simplifying to be accessible. However, together with the many other options and
activities offered by this course, this case study and the accompanying web conference
show an excellent variety of different and very relevant activities which students will
find both useful and highly motivating.

Suggestions for on-going development / Areas for attention
Below are a number of comments on specific parts of the material supplied for
evaluation. The comments are made in the same order as they appear in the material.
I hope where possible they can be applied more generally to material I have not seen.
My comments do not aim to repeat comments made in my previous reports as I take it
that if those comments have not been acted on, it is as a result of a deliberate decision
by the course developers.

-   Month 2, Week 2, This week you will… Find out about a new technique to learn new
    words easier – attention to correctness – I would write more easily and am not at all
    sure that easier would be correct in spoken American English either. Similarly
    practise giving. While on this, correct punctuation is also important. These lists
    should, I believe, be punctuated as follows:

                                   This week you will:

       revise the IT words you learned last week
       learn to talk about people’s possessions
       learn about things you usually have in an office
       practice to give giving advice to people when they have problems with their
        computers
       find out about a new technique to learn new words easier more easily.

    Hopefully, the project will be employing a proof-reader to check for all these
    details.

-   Month 2, Week 2, Day 1: The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary gives the
    plural of mouse as mice including for the computer device. As stated previously,
    this activity could be brought alive by contextualising the vocabulary presented,
    perhaps instead of listening to the individual words, students listen to an IT expert
    talking about them, defining them and saying how each of the devices is used.
    Students then understand what each of them is and translate them into their own
    language, after which they check their answers by looking in a bilingual dictionary.

-   Day 3 – as previously stated, I would ask students to match the words to pictures
    which can probably be easily found in a clipart library. I would omit the
    instruction to put the words into alphabetical order but include an instruction
    about writing the words in the correct column in the table below.

-   Day 4 – Communication bit – I would suggest asking students to listen to two
    people discussing a problem and do connected exercises before throwing them in
    at the deep end with Activity 1. If it is not possible to record a dialogue, they can
    be given a reading text which perhaps gives advice for two of the problems and ask
    students to say which two problems the advice is trying to solve. This could then
    be followed by language exercises. The problems here in this activity are
    interesting problems which are challenging to solve even in one’s own language. I
    assume that course mates will speak different first languages, necessitating the
    need to communicate in English.

-   Day 6: I think you have to make allowance for the possibility that some of the
    people doing this course will be pre-service students i.e. not working yet and that
    therefore Activity 1 may not be accessible to them. Others may work in extremely
    large open-plan offices. You could offer an alternative of My dream office or My ideal
    office and this may also be more interesting for people who are already working.

-   Day 7 – Testing: One of the problems of test items which only offer two
    alternatives (a or b; true or false) is that they do not produce meaningful results –
    someone with no knowledge of English should get 50% correct. How many correct
    answers do you envisage students should get to be making satisfactory progress? I
    presume that somewhere in the course information for students you will say how
    many marks they should be getting in these progress tests for their learning to be
    considered satisfactory. And a lot of the problems with these tests would be
    removed if they were offered a choice of 3 (which many testers consider the ideal
    number for multiple-choice items).

-   Month 4, Week 4, in this week you will…: I think it would be more accurate to
    write learn to make adjectives negative as I do not think there is such a thing as a
    negative adjective (though we do talk about negative prefixes and suffixes).

-   Day 3: when they come to these adjectives, I feel that before working on
    manipulating adjectives by adding prefixes (incidentally, why not also the suffix –
    less?) students should know what the adjectives they are working on mean. I
    would prefer to see them presented in a context, at least a sentence where students
    can deduce the meaning. Some of these items (responsive, consistent, emotional) may
    be above level and perhaps should be replaced – they seem to me to be quite low-
    frequency.

-   Day 6 – I like this final activity and especially the idea of students posting their
    recordings on the forum. You might consider adding a facility for students to give
    feedback on each other’s recordings. Encouraging students to give each other
    feedback develops their critical self-awareness and is a useful part of learner
    training. (Incidentally recordings is misspelled in the instructions: please employ a
    proof-reader – it is money well spent and avoids bringing the course into discredit.
    I hear complaints from teachers when even such a small thing as a comma is
    misplaced in a text.)

-   Month 6, Week 1, Day 1 – a very interesting text.
-   Day 4 - Activity 2 – I would provide a text and ask students to complete it with
    these verbs in brackets. It is always more desirable to provide a context and a story
    rather than having students working rather mechanically from lists.

-   Day 7 – similarly, give students at least a complete sentence to match up e.g. Piotr
    decided to apply --- for a job as a systems analyst with Wroclaw Computers.

-   Month 8, Week 1, Day 6, Activity 2 – I think this activity – where students are
    asked to count the number of phonemes in individual words – is of dubious value
    as I am not clear what students will learn from it. I found it quite hard to do myself
    and rather unnatural. It could be somewhat improved by referring students to the
    recorded pronunciations in the Cambridge Online Dictionary first, or even
    providing recorded examples yourselves. My inclination, though would be to
    replace it with some more useful pronunciation work.
    On the other hand, I think the provision of pronunciation work is a valuable
    contribution to the course – the Cambridge Dictionaries provide British and
    American pronunciation – and work on individual sounds, especially vowel
    sounds, is valuable, as is work on word stress, sentence stress, intonation and other
    aspects of pronunciation.

    Conclusion
    I think the course materials supplied here as representative of the whole course
    demonstrate an innovative, varied and useful course with considerable potential. I
    think producing a course of this length and with this quantity of materials is a
    major achievement given the very short timescale in which it has been done.

    There are a number of areas which need further attention (some of which are
    detailed in the previous section), but the ongoing nature of the project together
    with the experience of students and teachers working together on the materials and
    providing feedback means that over time this course has the chance to become
    something very good indeed. My congratulations to all those involved: I wish
    them and the course every success.

    Guy Brook-Hart

    Valencia, 8th December 2009

								
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