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Tech Train your Teachers

UEC_LOGO.jpgThis Monday, February 10, 2014 at the University of Electro Communications in Chofu, an Educational Technology for EFL event is being held for faculty and staff. The faculty development event is a joint workshop for the English Department and Undergraduate Technical English Management Committee and two of DMLL’s own, Brett Milliner and Travis Cote have been invited to share their (modest) expertise in mobile learning for the EFL context.

Leading off the event will be Ms. Jie Shi, a professor at UEC. Professor Shi will be discussing the importance of educational technology for tertiary English education and specifically, how it relates to students of science and engineering. Next up will be Brett Milliner who plans to give a how-to on designing vocabulary and reading exercises using Quizlet. Presenting third will be Travis Cote who will demonstrate how to use a smartphone video app to encourage productive speaking practice and a couple of applications that support the flipped lesson. And finally, Norimasa Yamazaki of the UEC’s e-Learning Center will close with an introduction and Q & A on WebClass.

I tip my hat to the folks at UEC for hosting us all come Monday morning, and of course to the tireless Professor Shi, for her efforts to organise the whole event. As well, I am honoured to have been invited as a presenter and I’m looking forward to learning much more about tech in the tertiary classroom.

There has been a flurry of education and tech-related events in Tokyo over the last few months (at least it appears that way to me!) and that’s a good thing for teachers and students alike. Mobile devices are here to stay, and despite the plethora of applications that come and go on a weekly basis, students should be digitally literate and as teachers we can play a big role in that production. In order to fill those large shoes we must make every effort, and take every chance that comes along, to push our own borders of expertise and absorb the expertise of others in the field.

Have a nice weekend, see you Monday.

Tech for Teach

O Cameo, Cameo! wherefore art thou Cameo?

cameoJust towards the end of the 2013 spring semester, and just before the summer holiday began earlier this year, many of my students approached asking what they could do to practice speaking English over the vacation (my first thought was to recommend they troll Roppongi looking for an English-speaking boyfriend or girlfriend, but I wisely held that advice to myself). As many frequently admit, our students are keen to improve their speaking skills but the chances to practice outside the classroom are often very difficult to come by. Well, lo and behold; just as classes were winding down for the 2013 winter holiday, my students were asking again how they could practice speaking over the winter break. Lucky for them there’s Cameo.

I must confess, my idea came spur-of-the-moment and my assignment for them was to download the app (free, iOS only), shoot a short video (in English), upload it to the Cameo cloud, share the finished product with me and I would then upload their videos to our class blog page. I had made two short movies over the previous weekend at the Shinjuku Illumination event using my own daughters in the starring roles, so to preface the task, I showed them my movies in class. An instant hit. 

I’m a big fan of make-your-own-video apps and Cameo is not the first one I’ve come across that offers this capability on a handheld device, however it is one of the hippest. Recently earning “Best of 2013” on the App Store, Cameo seamlessly and effortlessly allows the user to record multiple, six second videos, rearrange them in any order, splice them together, run your movie through 23 (currently available) themes/filters, add a soundtrack (or not) and then share via Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or email.

Since I teach students in the College of Tourism and Hospitality, my only requirement (other than speaking English) was that they make a video related to tourism in Japan. If they were going to visit Hakone this holiday, for example, then make a movie about one of the attractions in the Hakone region.

I like this particular app because each individual clip is limited to six seconds (a total maximum video length of 2 minutes is preferred for ease of upload) and for our cohorts of digital natives, this quick pace is perfect for their rapidly shifting attention. In addition, the themes are very hip, artsy, and retro. What’s more, the bank of soundtracks offered within the app feature new, up-and-coming indie musicians and bands. As a language teacher, I like the self-made video activity because I know from experience that my students rehearse and practice the monologue (or dialogue) many times and this not only improves the final quality of the language output but also increases the quantity of L2 (Second Language) production.

Shakespeare was right; all the world is a stage and Cameo gives our digitally mobile students a tool to strut their hour upon the stage and to tell their tale of sound, image and creativity.

Tech for Teach

Blackboard Mobile

BbI teach at Tamagawa University, a beautiful campus about 40 minutes west of Shinjuku. The  total student body at Tamagawa University is approximately 8,000 strong. To communicate online with that population, my school started using the Blackboard LMS platform in early 2004. For those of you not familiar with Blackboard or an LMS, allow me to briefly explain.

An LMS, or Learning Management System, is either a software application or web-based technology that is used to plan, deliver and assess learning. An LMS provides a teacher with many tools and students with many resources. A teacher can send out class-wide announcements, create and deliver content, monitor student participation, and even assess student performance. In addition, it provides students with the ability to use interactive features such as blogs, online journals, threaded discussions and wikis. There are numerous institutional learning management systems available, including Moodle, Desire2Learn, Canvas, Sakai, Language Cloud, and of course, Blackboard.

Blackboard ranks as one of the biggest players in the LMS business, one of the most powerful, and also one – if not the – most expensive platforms out there. However, despite the ubiquity, variety and the power of these collaborative platforms, like any tech tool, the problem I find lies with getting our students to use them.

Although my students all have a personal PC, and it’s not unusual for them to be required to bring it to class everyday, there is never a shortage of sighs and complaints when a teacher makes this demand; “It’s too heavy”, “My PC is broken”, “I can’t connect to the wi-fi”, are all too common gripes. However, they are glued to their smartphones (or is it vice versa?) and as more and more students in Japan (and indeed, around the world) are accessing their digital online content via smartphones, it was only a matter of time before my institution decided to test drive the Blackboard Mobile app (screen shot from iPhone below).

Photo 2013-12-18 12 36 14

As one of the resident “techies” on campus, my colleague (and fellow contributor to DMLL, Brett Milliner) and I were asked to pilot the mobile application of Blackboard for a slated campus-wide release in 2014. The pilot version –  for both iOS and Android – was made available to students in my academic English classes, about 30 students total. Support staff from my university’s e-Education Centre visited my classes for about 20 minutes to explain to the students what their teacher had gotten them involved in and how to basically operate the app. At the moment, and until the big rollout next year, my university is operating two separate servers specifically for Blackboard: one for the PC-based version and another one for the mobile version. Obviously this helps with the data organisation but it does present a bit of a problem for now since the two servers are not synced with each other. It’s more of an inconvenience as I have to periodically check both the PC and the mobile sites.

I downloaded the Bb Mobile app on my iPad and my students on their smartphones. I must admit: during the first month of using the app I wasn’t terribly impressed. It seemed “heavy”, as in too many features from the PC platform were simply copied across into the mobile platform and as a result, it didn’t really feel like a proper, streamlined mobile version. However, when compared to the PC version, my students have heaped praise on the ease of posting to our class blog page and I like the fact that any announcements sent to the students via Blackboard pop up as a push notification on their lock screen. Now, when something is due, there are no “I didn’t see your message” excuses!

Operating and maintaining an online LMS platform – be it mobile or traditional – for 8,000 students and about 2,000 faculty and staff is no small feat; nor is it a meagre budgetary item. Tamagawa University has an entire department (e-Education Centre) devoted to its Blackboard system, including the faculty and student email accounts. Whether their time, effort and investment in Blackboard is rewarded through increased student access using the mobile app remains to be seen. At the very least, yet significantly, I do believe this mobile platform will increase the frequency and chances that my students will have to interact with English, anytime and anywhere.