Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The EFL Course Wiki as a Writers Community

The EFL Course Wiki as a Writers Community

A Paperless Classroom
When students just hand in papers to teachers they simply lose touch with the writer's reality: you belong to a community of writers, bloggers, learners. Focus on certification exams used to make my students a bit of islands to themselves. My students this year are intrigued about the people who were in my class last year. They know their writings, which appear in the FCE blog. They use those writings as study materials or examples to build upon. They comment on them, reflect on their skills to solve writing problems, filter and write differently -paving the road with corpora for future students.

Writing, reviewing, reflecting
I am not fully exploiting the possibilities of a wiki yet, such as collaboration with other classrooms. I am taking time to learn and see how students receive the innovation, the adoption and resistance game. However, I have never had a class so willing to review and re-write a piece
without my request. Students come back to an assignment even weeks after finishing it. They are experiencing what writing is really about. Nor have I heard students voicing in class so much reflection on the process. The wiki history is revealing of the revision steps; but not the feelings around those alterations. The moments when words just do not come, the haunting idea that it all sounds too simple or foreign. Students learn a lot by voicing and sharing these doubts as well as the documented results on the wiki page.

Network collaboration
As a teacher, I am also going through an analogous learning path. I read educational blogs daily, comment and jot down ideas to publish in this professional development blog. Twitter -a microblogging tool- has allowed a closer contact and much more interconnectedness with nodes in my network. It is a place where trivia appears interleaved with questions or simply thinking aloud while you plan lessons or do your job.

A matter of collocations

This afternoon I read a question from Gardner Campbell, a professor of English in Virginia, United States. He needed a verb to collocate with a specific noun. A daily question for those who teach or translate from English. Collocations are the toughest points to learn at an advanced level. Dictionaries guide, but they do not always close the debate. We tend to have long conversations about how to learn them in class.

Gardner records in his blog how my answer triggered off thoughts and another quest for learning. To my surprise, Gardner's curiosity took him right to corpus linguistics and to the notion of collocation. His reflections on the teaching and learning implications could not have come closer to the idea underpinning my class wiki project.

Shared, published and shared again
To make things even more interesting, roughly at the same time Gardner was writing his post, I was in class answering a question: What does the university do with all the exams they collect from students every year? (about 200,000 from all round the world). They do not come back to students. They belong to the university. They are certainly the basis for corpora creation, future modifications of the exam and course books as well as dictionaries for them. But they are private and we cannot have access.

Then I explained why our class wiki is called Corpus and why we are sharing with the world our samples of "English as a foreign language". B
ack home in the evening, I find that Gardner's post is a good synthesis that my students could understand. I automatically decided to write this 'answer' post.

Gardner shared a thought on the concept of collocation: “what a great way to start a conversation about language with native speakers.” That reminded me of my students when they say 'I heard this or that in a film'. It would be most helpful to have some podcast from native speakers discussing why a combination of words sounds funny or right and start a discussion in class. It had not occurred to me a native speaker would consider it so interesting. This exchange with my network has helped me to see alternatives to plan how to connect dialogues with native speakers and the curricular needs of my course. Minimal exchange, yet so significant.

Technology enabled learning
Learning is quite unexpected. It is an experience not always subject to schedule. Different tools combined can make the here and now a classroom. A collaborative attitude in front of the screen, a will to share and let other people's thoughts be the vehicle for learning are base requirements. Lifelong learning has to do with paying attention to those teachable moments that pull our minds instead of relying only on artificially recreated -'walled'- learning.

Gardner says,

Education should prepare us to notice and enjoy longer and longer trains of thought. That’s another way of talking about connections, yes, but in this case the connections came unexpectedly, within a personal exchange, and using a medium (Twitter) that seems amorphous and aimless, at least at first. And the catalyst was a moment of shared inquiry that spread far beyond the walls of this “classroom.” Not a bad model for education. We need more in-the-moment connectedness as well as more opportunities for shared reflection out of the moment. For me, teaching and learning technologies give us the richest set of possibilities, for both. That was certainly part of the dream of the early pioneers in this field.

The learning place is the ever shifting node in our network. From there, you build knowledge and create content to share. The tools are simply the media to facilitate everlasting venues for conversation. The classroom is a place where teachers can make students come closer to a connected world experience. A place where lifelong learning is modeled by teachers who can enter the classroom energised by a recent exchange with their own community of practice and not just share lessons learnt in their college days.

I think it is very important for future students to get in touch with the online artifacts created by the previous class. These previous steps not only give them an idea of what is expected at a given learning stage, but also makes them see themselves as part of a community of writers where they belong. No writer in real life is born out of nothing. You need to read others to find your own voice. Then you go out again and try to meet other voices to learn collaboration in a flat world.

It is hard to envision those changes in a classroom if teachers do not assign time to their own self-guided learning journeys. Time to read, comment and publish their reflections in blogs. Time to be online and available for a serendipitous exchange. Students can grasp better this kind of education when teachers are having similar learning experiences in their own professional development efforts.

Tools per se do not distill learning. It is technology coupled with inquiry-driven minds; curious, connected passionate people, able to make anytime, anywhere an optimal learning environment.

So much to learn yet. I feel I am just standing at the threshold of the idea of a 'wikified' class.

(Edited on 2 September 2007)