Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Themes from #IATEFL – What’s ‘app-ening with mobile learning?

With an event the size of the annual IATEFL conference, it is important to go with an open mind. There is a temptation to go and see talks by ‘big names’ in ELT or play it safe with speakers you have seen before or have connections with online. However, that can mean missing out. There may well be a speaker you have never heard of before who will wow you with a great talk or it may be the topic that provides an unexpected surprise as some aspect of language education you had never investigated thoroughly before suddenly engages you.

And so it was for me at this conference with mobile learning. I consider myself to be a teacher who is confident with making use of technology in class but, more importantly, I am also a teacher who takes a critical view of the hardware, software, web tools, and apps that I could potentially make use of in class. I often think it is somewhat ironic that it was during and after studying for an MA in EdTech that I started to use tech less in class as I started to go beyond the ‘wow’ factor more.

Technology in the classroom

Image by @hanaticha via #eltpics

That is not to say that I never used mobile devices in class (indeed, I ran a workshop at the LTSIG PCE on using a gaming app to promote language learning) – my school has a set of iPads that can be checked out at anytime and I have also in the past ran activities on a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) basis. However, this has been nothing more than an occasional project or single lesson task and I never really thought about sustained use of mobile devices both in and out of the school environment.

The first talk that had an impact on me was the opening session of the LTSIG PCE by Agnes Kukulska-Hulme, who talked us through a project to help ESOL students integrate to life in the UK. During her talk, she said:

That struck a chord – through mobile devices, students can engage with language learning when outside the classroom, outside the school even. They can receive notifications and information about where they are and the can also document it as well. Through use of their camera and microphone and any number of apps that integrate them students have the opportunity to create a record of the language and the world they encounter which can then be brought back to the classroom and shared. As someone who values personalised learning, this idea appealed to me a great deal.

But, of course, we can’t just start using smartphones and tablets in class and expect our students to be automatically engaged and producing fantastic examples of their language in use. As with any idea, there must be sound reasoning behind it and as well as forward planning for practical and effective use. This is why Nicky Hockly’s talk ‘Planning for Mobile’ was such an interesting one.

Nicky Hockly in action at IATEFL

She went through the whole process of why we might consider incorporating mobile learning into our language programme and the importance of involving all the concerned parties (colleagues, school admin, parents, and of course students) to ensure a consistent approach – Nicky highlighted this with an example of how she had previously taught a class with a whole programme of mobile learning projects planned only to see the teacher in the class next door going into lessons with a large box and demanding students surrender all their devices!

The importance of approaching stakeholders with a clear plan was highlighted as was the need for a pilot phase and (crucially) an evaluation of that pilot phase before more wide scale implementation. The need for learner and teacher support was also stressed, something that is perhaps lacking in my context at present.

Nicky also showed us some practical examples of how mobile devices can be used to do just what their name suggests – be mobile! They literally and figuratively put control of a task in the learners’ hands and should be used to get them out of the classroom, exploring their immediate environment and interacting with it.

Paul Driver ready to Hack the Classroom

Speaking of interacting with our surroundings, one of the highlights of the conference for me was Paul Driver’s session ‘Hacking the Classroom’ about using augmented reality apps. I was lucky enough to get to meet Paul before his talk and see what AR actually is. He was at a stand in the exhibition hall surrounded by posters. They looked like normal posters until he opened an app called Aurasma and pointed his iPad at them. Suddenly, the images in the posters began to move and the people in the posters began to speak! Now, I have made comments in this very post about not falling for the ‘wow’ factor when it comes to technology but this really was a ‘wow’ moment!

Once I had undropped my jaw, Paul set about explaining how he puts this technology to use. His students had created ‘trigger’ posters with a high emphasis on images and not so much use of text but, through this app, they were able to embed video presentations in them. By holding up a mobile device (with the app running of course) and scanning the poster through the camera, the image would automatically play. The same technique had been used for information posters about his school and it was an interesting way to engage in audio-visual media rather than textual-visual as you might expect.

Paul Driver demonstrating an interactive map project

In his talk, he gave further examples of students using the app to create an interactive version of a world map to describe where they are from. He also described how he had created a ‘real world’ project for students in which the visited different locations outside the school and used the app to trigger video and audio of people describing what the area used to be like – an interactive listening activity indeed!

Not only do these devices allow interaction with the real world (rather than causing people to disconnect from it as is often assumed), they also afford a high degree of personalisation, especially in a BYOD setting. Dave Gatrell showed this in his talk ‘It’s MALL and it’s Wonderful’ with a mobile twist on the classic ‘Just a Minute’ game. Participants were challenged to find photos on their devices and then describe them for 60 seconds without pausing, repetition, or deviation from the topic. The use of personal photos definitely helped provide more engagement than a random topic and there is no need to ask your students to bring photos in as they already have them in their pockets!

Here are some other apps I saw in action at IATEFL and made a note of for future use:

Thinglink – an app demoed by Rolf Tynan at the LTSIG PCE. I have already discussed this one on my post about that day but in brief, it allows students to take photos and make them interactive by adding text, video clips, web links and more to them

Telligami – this was shown by Vicky Samuell (also at the LTSIG event!) and by Dave Gatrell in his talk. In the app, you can create an avatar and make a text-to-speech or audio recording to get it to talk. Vicky showed us examples of how her students had used it to introduce themselves and talk about their lives. As I have discovered with game avatars, this can provide a great way for shy students to open up more or even get into another character and produce extended spoken work. Dave also showed us how his students had used the app to present themselves as characters from stories and also how he used it for an avatar dictation in which he would describe his avatar while the students listened and tried to recreate it. Great ideas!

Aurasma – the aforementioned app used by Paul Driver for his AR projects.

Vine – as mentioned in my summary of the talks on video, a simple app for making six-second videos.

Of course, it is not the apps themselves that matter so much. However, these talks and these examples have given me some great ideas and provided me with the impetus to investigate more and examine some other apps with potential for use in the classroom and beyond.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Themes from #IATEFL – Video, Vines & Manifestos

It’s now almost a week since the big conference in Manchester finished and almost a week since I managed to get an update posted onto this here blog. The delays were brought about by the sheer scale of the event with its daytime session and evening socials, my other ‘roving reporter’ commitments to the IATEFL Online website (all gathered here for your reading pleasure), a long journey home (almost 48 hours!) and being struck down by illness shortly after returning…

But, anyway, enough of that. With the conference still relatively fresh in my memory, I have decided to ‘externalise’ what I have taken away from the whole event through a few posts on themes that arose from the talks I attended. Having already looked at assessment (though not including the ELTJ debate, which I did not attend) and teacher training, it’s time to focus the lens on language learning through video.

Image by @sandymillin via #eltpics

I attended three talks/workshops on the subject of video at IATEFL – Mike Harrison’s look at using Vine to create short form videos in the classroom, Jamie Keddie’s talk on putting video cameras in the hands of learners, and Kieran Donaghy and Anna Whitcher’s Video Manifesto for Language Learning.

I have already reviewed Mike’s talk on the IATEFL website (see here) as well as Jamie’s talk (here) and if that isn’t enough for you, Mr Keddie has also shared his entire talk on YouTube.

I thought that using Vines would appeal to my tween and teen learners and so it proved today when I mentioned in class that I had attended a session about using them at the conference. Their interest was immediately piqued and they started to tell me all about their favourite Vine loops. They showed a similar reaction when discussing the names of some the YouTubers mentioned in Jamie’s talk. Interestingly, most of them have never made a Vine or talking head video themselves but they are keen to try it out.

However, one important aspect of using film clips in class that was emphasised in Kieran and Anna’s talk in particular is the need to spend time to take stock of the world of images that at times seems to blur around us (this is another theme from the conference that I will be addressing in another post). They guided us through a short film they had made as a ‘Visual Manifesto for Language Teaching’ (visit this website to see the film in full) to emphasise the need to view images critically and plan how we use them in class in a more considered manner.

With the plethora of YouTube clips, 15-second Instagram videos, and now 6-second Vines, the temptation is to rush through it all – watch quickly, think superficially, and not really engage actively. It is important to take time to pause and reflect to encourage critical thinking and deep learning.

Mike showed how this is possible even with a six-second story as he directed the attendees to analyse one of the Vines he showed us – How many different camera angles were used? How did the story unfold? What reactions and emotions did the characters show? Amazing how much discussion can come out of such a short clip! Jamie also showed the crowd how filming something as seemingly straightforward as a retelling of a joke can take much preparation, practice, time, and careful editing. Kieran and Anna also highlighted how the process of engaging with a short film, whether through watching a clip or making one, is more important than the end product itself. It is crucial to ensure teachers and students alike are aware of this.

One aspect of these three talks that I will be bringing in is the idea of training learners in some basic considerations for film making – scripting, choosing a backdrop, ensuring the audio is clear, and lighting are all factors that can help a video project seem more complete and we will be looking at those over the coming weeks.

Videos, images, and the devices that capture them are often seen as easy resources to pick up and use in class. The main idea I am taking away from these IATEFL sessions is that, just like with any resource, it is never that simple. Such activities need to be carefully considered and directed to ensure our learners fulfil their creative potential.

Quotes, Paraphrases and Moments from #IATEFL

And just like that, my first visit to #IATEFL is over. It was a hectic, at times frantic, few days but it was a productive and enjoyable one too.
In-flight professional development
I am writing this post while waiting for take-off on my way back from Manchester but it will hopefully act as a filler while I write up other reflections on the sessions I attended. Right now, I am thinking of some of the quotes and soundbites that stood out for me and will attempt to capture that here. Some of them may not be word for word accurate  (hence the use of 'paraphrase' in the title) and they may or may not be attributed to those who uttered them. Some of them provoked moments of deep reflection and some of them were more frivolous but fun.
"A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there."
Liliana Simon encourages us to break with the routine and experiment.
"Bingo is the only thing that works with these kids."
Donald Freeman brilliantly crafts the story of a teacher struggling for ideas at the end of the week into his narrative of how we need to push ourselves to think a little deeper about what we do in the classroom.
Donal Freeman’s plenary at IATEFL 2015
"Teaching is the profession that eats its young."
Anthony Gaughan quotes J. Halford and draws (unintended) gasps from the sections of the audience int he process.
"The grim predictability: behind Joy Egbert's tailor-made tech-mediated individual input is still an exercise on the past simple."
Hugh Dellar brilliantly sums up what I was at the time struggling to fit into one tweet.
Joy Egbert’s plenary talk
"This helps them learn more efficiently, which means they learn more quickly."
Another point where I disagreed with Joy Egbert. Efficient use of class time does not mean quick progress. Indeed, as Candy van Olst said in her talk, meaningful learning takes time.
Candy van Olst on the value of real conversation
"Tests aren't going away, so…."
Jeremy Harmer makes a case for just getting on with it as far as testing goes. A good thing he didn’t say ‘tests aren’t going anyhwere’ as that would have been more open to interpretation!
"I was almost ready to leap to my feet in spontaneous applause and then she said the P word."
A reaction to the name dropping of certain companies during otherwise excellent talks.
(...pause... ...bend knees, long look at name tag...) "Oh, Dave - it's you!"
Repeated on a few occasions! I think I need to update my social media profile pics… or go to more conferences…
"I thought ‘I can’t sleep until I externalise this in a blog post.’"
Errr…. me discussing late-night blogging with Sandy Millin.
Well, with all that externalised and continental Europe unfolding beneath me, I think it’s time to catch up on some missed sleep and then plan out another IATEFL-themed blog post or three.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

#IATEFL Days 1&2–Rethinking Teacher Training

Another theme that has connected talks and sessions I have attended so far is that of teacher training. How can we do it most effectively? What changes can we make to initial teacher training to make it better? How can we ensure teachers continue their training beyond those introductory courses and stay in the profession? Big questions with no easy answers but it is important to think about them.

In the final session of day 1, I attended the British Council signature event, which consisted of a panel of John Tomsett, a head teacher from a school in York, Ines Miller, an associate professor involved in teacher training in Brazil, and Anthony Gaughan, an ‘unplugged’ teacher trainer based in Berlin.

 
British Council Signature Event Panel Discussion

This line-up naturally provided three quite different perspectives from three different contexts. This was a point Anthony emphasised when analysing issues with CELTA and similar training courses – he trains people in a specific context in Germany in which it is impossible to ‘prepare’ people to teach anywhere in the world. Willy Cardoso also focused on this area during his talk ( ) on day 2. No two CELTA or Trinity Cert courses can be the same. Even if they have the same syllabus, the differing contexts of location, the size of the trainee cohort, and the backgrounds, cultural and linguistic, of the people involved (trainees and trainers) all have an effect.

The fact is, in an ELT context, initial teacher training courses are very brief, too brief in fact. Willy got us to do the calculations – a typical CELTA runs for 120 hours and has 6 hours of teaching practice. That’s 5% of the course…. Think about it – only 5% of what is already a short course is being spent in the classroom in the role of a teacher.

Another issue is support. Groups like the British Council and International House have support programmes in place for newly-qualified teachers but these are the exceptions. In an unregulated global ‘industry’ such as ELT (not a phrasing I am happy with but I’ll come back to it later) there are simply too many private entities, too many small independent language schools in too many locations to keep track of. Most of them offer little or no support to new teachers beyond perhaps observation from the DoS or informal mentoring from a senior teacher..

This in turn leads to more problems. There is a high dropout rate in the ‘profession’ (again, not a phrase I am happy with but one I will come back to), not just language teaching but in education in general. Anthony put it like this:


Willy made the point that courses like CELTA and Trinity Cert TESOL are labelled as ‘introductory’ courses and yet only 10% of people who complete those courses go on to the higher-level diploma qualifications. Many quit language teaching within two years and others continue teaching for a long time with only that ‘introductory’ training qualification.

This can create a perception that getting into language teaching is easy. You do a 4-week course and that’s it. That raises questions of quality, and that word in turn has implications. Anthony posed the question of what we mean by ‘quality’ – an artistic, creative quality or expression or an industrial mark of perfection and conformity? (That is why the term ‘professional industry’ is not one I am a fan of).

So what’s the solution? That was the main focus of Willy’s talk. His first suggestion was to increase the number of teaching practice hours from 6 to 12. This allows for different styles of teaching such as team teaching and it also allows time for the trainee to be in class with his/her students without being observed every single second. It also provides time for trainees to repeat lessons giving them the chance to reflect and improve, as they would when working full-time.

He also promoted the idea of grounding the teaching practice in theory. Not ‘methods’ like PPP or other ways to structure a lesson but actual theories of how people learn. This connected to another theme from the panel of trying to ensure the training experience is personalised. If we can do this, those new teachers will go on to offer their students personalised learning. This in turn can have a knock-on effect for our students as they interact and converse with people from outside the language learning context (something emphasised by Candy van Olst in her talk on driving deeper learning through conversation).

In teacher training as in language teaching, the emphasis can often be too much on the course content and not enough on the people within the room. It is there in that space that exists between the people that learning can happen through interaction. If we can equip teachers and learners alike with the critical thinking capabilities to analyse, reflect, theorise, and apply their understanding, we can ensure education takes place in  a much more effective manner. The fact is teachers need 'people skills'. They need the intrapersonal skills to reflect within themselves and the interpersonal skills to connect with others.

The most important thing to do is to think. Think about what we do and why. Analyse the status quo and assess it. It may well be that we ultimately decide to continue as we are but the important thing is to question things and not just accept them because that is how it always has been. That is as true for teaching as it is for teacher training.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

#IATEFL Day 1 - Kicking Some Serious Assessment

The first day proper of IATEFL was pretty intense - lots of running around from talk to talk, lots of the other kind of talking with all sorts of great educators I either hadn't met in person before or hadn't seen for a few years, an interview, my first official report, and much more.

But throughout most of the sessions I attended today, one hot topic kept coming up - assessment... how we assess, why we assess, if we should assess, and what we can do to change and improve assessment. Although not directly mentioned, it first came up in Donald Freeman's opening plenary as he talked about the myths of 'direct causality,' 'sole responsibility,' and 'the goal of proficiency'. Teachers do not directly cause learners to learn, he argued. They are not solely responsible for the success or failure of their learners. They should not focus on nor worry about proficiency so much as it is not an easily defined or indeed realistic goal.

This is where assessment can be a problem - it often creates an artificial environment of direct causality (teacher teaches to the test, learner learns for the test); teachers and students alike feel sole responsibility for their perceived successes and failures; and it all becomes about proficiency. You pass a test, you earn a score, and you therefore demonstrate your proficiency.... But this misses the point of language learning (as Mr Freeman alluded to in his talk). It is much more complex and learners need more space to think and grow both within and outside the box (or 'suitcase' as we saw in the talk).


Fast forward to the young learner panel (including a chance to meet one of my MA tutors, Juup Stelma, for the first time as well as a first face-to-face meeting with Vicky Loras - whoop!) and assessment came up again. Juup and Vicky had both talked about affording learners the chance to explore and be creative through projects and and focusing on the process of their production rather than the accuracy of the end result. This stood in contrast to the talk of how the Cambridge YLE exams have been implemented in Uruguay (as explained by Maria Muniz and Magdelena de Stefani). Although a high emphasis is placed on integrating English into every day class activities and promoting 'gradual immersion,' the reality is that kids still get stressed by testing and teachers still find it difficult to resist the temptation to plough through past papers. This leads to the problem of being 'frozen' that we heard about in the plenary and we fall into the trap of satisfying the demands of the test rather than the needs of the learners.

And finally, a session with Jeremy Harmer entitled 'An uncertain and approximate business? Why teachers should love testing.' Jeremy presented interesting for and against cases before presenting the fact that tests are here to stay as they always have been. What, therefore, can we do to make sure they are better and that we prepare learners for them better? I'll let you view that talk and arrive at your own conclusions:
 

A couple of things struck me during the talk. First of all, I nodded my head while listening to Jeremy's suggestions to 'get inside the test' and 'bring the students in,' which mirrored many of my thoughts from my recent webinar on assessment for Teaching English.

Secondly, one area (or rather one example) where I found myself shaking my head in disagreement was the classic argument that test are important to show skills with the brain surgeon card being played. "I want my surgeon to be qualified. I want her or him to be someone who has passed tests with top marks and who has been assessed with flying colours!" so it goes. The fact that this person has passed tough tests shows that they are ready to perform complex and demanding tasks like brain surgery.

However, this example excludes something very important.

Experience.

Personally, if I were to go to a surgeon, I would not be so concerned with the letters before and after his/her name or the multitude of certificates and awards on display on the walls. I would want to know how often this surgeon had one this procedure before. I would want her/him to reassure me that she/he had done it many times. I would want to know that my surgeon would actually do it and not some trainee doctor or intern. Also, I would be listening to the doctor carefully and watching out for signs of confidence and competence in his her voice and general demeanour. In fact, I would be assessing the surgeon before deciding to let her/him cut me open or not.

Experience - it's more than a score!

#IATEFL Day 1–Teaching English Associates Interviews

I am happy to be a contributor to the Teaching English Associates group and it was a pleasure and an honour today to have the chance to be interviewed by Paul Braddock and alongside Vicky Samuell and Fiona Mauchline. We talked about current projects we are involved in, challenges teachers in our contexts face, and advice we would give to new teachers. It’s always good to hear different ideas and responses to the same questions and I hope you will enjoy the video:

 


And we weren’t the only associates in the studio today. David Petrie and Rachael Roberts also gave their takes on the same topics shortly afterwards:

Saturday, 11 April 2015

#IATEFL Day 0 – #LTSIGPCE

After many years of watching from afar via the excellent IATEFL Online service, I finally have the chance to attend the IATEFL conference in person this year. Strange that it took moving to such a far-flung corner of the globe as Gabon for that to happen but the world of ELT moves in mysterious ways sometimes!

Finally at the University of Manchester

One extra motivation for attending this year is that the event is in Manchester. I spent three years as a student on the MA programme at the University of Manchester without ever getting the chance to come here so I was keen to visit. That was also the deciding factor in attending today’s LTSIG PCE as it was held one the University campus – a chance to meet my former tutors and attend a day of learning technologies could not be missed. (There was also the fact that I had been offered the chance to be involved in the afternoon showcase but more on that later.)

The day began with lots of ‘bumping into’ people – Willy Cardoso for breakfast, Gary Motteram and Diane Slaouti at the University, fellow game-based learning enthusiast David Gatrell, MA colleagues Fiona Price and Sophia Madrivi, and old friends from Turkey like Kristina Smith.

The first session was on mobile learning. Agnes Kukulska-Hulme from the Open University talked us through the process of developing an app for immigrants in the UK to help them with their language learning. It was a good example of how an app can be designed not only with the learners in mind but also in response to what the learners need and how they use their devices. My main takeaway is summed up in the following tweet:


This is something I think could be applied to game-based learning as well. Agnes did touch on how a game was included in the app package as ‘a gateway to further learning’ for some users. I would love to see a game developed in the way this app has been – needs analysis, response to user feedback (perhaps through open alpha/beta testing), and something that tries to incorporate language naturally rather than forcing in some byte-sized grammar chunks.

Next up was Liliana Simon, who talked about the ‘Digital Corner’ project in Argentina and how teachers are being encouraged to make best use of educational technology in their contexts. It was interesting and encouraging to hear about such a state-sponsored programme  It was also interesting to hear that the same issues exist everywhere – teachers who are reluctant to use edtech, students who need training in how to use it effectively, those who have no or limited access to resources… It was also interesting to hear how some ‘issues’ have been bypassed. The course Liliana showed us for example encourages use of not only L1 but also other regional languages to exploit code-switching for its learning potential rather than trying to suppress it.

I still think the two questions I recently posed about using (or not using) edtech are the most important things to consider – a good teacher with tech also needs to be a good one without it and vice versa.It is important to break beyond the limits of your comfort zone:


The morning was rounded of by James Thomas talking about error correction through online tools (something I have an interest in). He started by introducing an ideal world scenario:


He then went on to describe Hypal, an online system where students upload work, teachers annotate errors and give feedback, and a corpus then collects and analyses all the error data. I liked the way that technology was put to use to ‘semi-automate’ the correction process while maintaining the all important human factor of communication between learner and teacher, including teacher feedback, student responses, and making action plans.

The data generated by Hypal was also intriguing as it highlighted most common error types for individual students and the class as a whole. Such data could be very useful in informing a reactive teaching approach. The inclusion of specific errors in the corpus looks like a highly useful idea – a great way to see how often and where errors come up.

I will go into more detail about two of the afternoon showcases over on ELT Sandbox but one I will mention here is Rolf Tynan’s presentation of Thinglink, an app I had never heard of before. It seems to be a nice way to link different forms of media together with options to use images, add text, links, and video clips. This obviously has lots of potential uses. Rolf told us about students taking pictures of their fridges at home, describing the healthy and unhealthy contents, or taking photos of their journeys to school and annotating them, or teachers taking photos of the class and leaving feedback comments for students and parents. Many possibilities!

The final session of the day was given by one of my former MA tutors, Diane Slaouti. It was a pleasure to finally see her (and Gary) in action in person, though it was strange to be listening to her without headphones plugged in!


She had pulled off an impressive feat of adapting her talk throughout the day to react and respond to things that had come up in the other talks. She made the session interactive by asking us to reflect on the common themes we had identified and what we would take away from today’s session.

For me, two thoughts kept coming back: one was that (as mentioned above) many of the same issues exist in different locations and contexts; the other was that privacy is a concern. Nearly every app, web tool or other piece of software that was shown elicited a question about privacy settings and security…. Valid concerns but it does strike me as being over protective at times…

Anyway, it was a stimulating day and I am very much looking forward to the first day ‘proper’ of IATEFL tomorrow!

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Introducing the Language Academy of Ruban Vert

“I’m calling from Gabon.”

That’s not something you expect to hear when a phone call interrupts breakfast on a Saturday morning.

“We have a project to open a language school and we would like to invite you to oversee it. Would you be interested?”

It took a few seconds to click. I had sent my CV to a school in Gabon but it was for a regular language teaching position, not a language school project.

“We’ve reviewed your application and if you are interested, we are willing to bring the language school project forward from 2016 to now.”


One year on from that phone call, here we are!

Further discussion revealed this was an international school with further ambitions to offer a range of educational services in Gabon, including language courses for adults. The facilities would be the main school’s facilities but apart from that it was just an idea. My role would be to set everything up – the courses on offer, the syllabi, the assessment programme, teacher recruitment and training…
Up to that point, Gabon was not at the top of my preferred list of the different applications I had made but this opportunity to set up a school almost from scratch lured me in. Now, a year on from that phone call, we have just finished our first short courses and are ready for the second sessions. The rest of this post will summarise and reflect on the work that went into getting this school open.

Market research
My first task on arrival was to get to know the local ‘market’ (I hesitate to use that word following some recent debates but in the context of ‘market research,’ it will do). I started with Gabonese staff at the school who speak English and expats who had been here for a while before branching out to speak to the school’s business partners and associates. I simply asked them how they themselves had learned English and what they thought people would expect from a language school here. The conversations developed from there (conversation driven market research if you like).

A couple of interesting things came up in response to those initial queries. When talking about language learning experiences, most of the people I talked to never mentioned teachers or school. They told me about travel to Anglophone African countries, the UK and the US. They described their days studying in South Africa and how they had to get to grips with the language to understand the lectures. They talked about working for Shell and the US embassy here in Gabon. Only the European expats mentioned learning in a school environment and that was only to say how much they hated it!

Secondly, the expectations were interesting. Did they mention NESTs or NNESTs? No. Experienced teachers? No. Course books and study materials? Technology (the digital kind)? Class size? Specialised learning programmes? No, no, no, and no. So what was mentioned?
Exams and accreditation.

“Will you offer courses for TOEFL or IELTS? Will people be able to sit those exams in the language school?” Those are questions I was asked again and again. When I said we were looking into options for offering those exams but it would take some time, the questions changed to what exams we would offer internally and by whom they would be accredited. Even in the middle of Africa in a country with no permanent testing centre for TOEFL and people telling stories of travelling all the way to Ghana just to sit IELTS, the standardised test is king.

Materials and marketing
Once the market research was done, it was time to design a learning programme and individual courses. I had fancy thoughts before coming of working in a low resource context where perhaps courses could be run free from the shackles of publishers that were so pervasive during my time in Turkey.

But no such luck.

I am, of course, not really in a low resource environment. The language school is backed by an international school with a target clientele of businesspeople, local and expat, and diplomats with plenty of disposable income. They would expect, so I was told, all the same features they might find in a language school in Europe or anywhere else.

So, reluctantly, I started to contact publishers about their materials and whether or not they operated in Gabon. However, as has been told in another recent story of mine, I reminded myself that it is not all about the books. They should not define the courses we run and the lesson we have. They should merely be available as a resource. With that in mind, I searched for books that offered plenty of extra resources for study outside of class (workbooks, online materials, and so on) and were from a well-known publisher (for marketing purposes).

Speaking of marketing, it was an interesting experience to be involved in the creative process for brochures, posters, and online ads. This was especially true during the photo shoots (not as flash as it sounds – it was done in house with school equipment and personnel). We wanted some action shots of ‘classes’ in action. At one point, I was told to make myself more prominent in the photos. When I enquired as to why, I was told that it was not really clear from the photos who the teacher was. That, I replied, meant the photo was what I wanted!

French advertising for our classes

A flexible learning programme
Despite being unable to escape from published materials, I resolved to not be trapped by them. The learning programmes for our general and business programmes were sketched out long before our course books arrived. Once they were here (after a lengthy and expensive process of clearing customs, worthy of a few blog posts of its own) rather than make any changes, I simply mapped the content of the books onto the programmes I had already been working on. As I said, they were ’sketched out’ to offer the teacher and students as much flexibility as possible in terms of timing and progress.

I also went for short-term courses of 24 hours of class time over 6 weeks. This was part marketing so we could open new classes and/or add in new students at regular intervals and also so we had enough time to show some progress but without it turning into a slog. After six weeks would come an assessment and then a week’s break to recharge before continuing. As a rough guide, we aim to cover about a quarter the relevant book’s material in those six weeks (not necessarily sequentially) but if the class can progress faster, great, and if they need more time to go through things more slowly, that’s fine too. As long as they are getting the input they need at the pace they need it, they are happy.

(An interesting aside here when I compare my Gabonese experiences with those in Turkey – students in Turkey were very keen to progress as quickly as possible and would take the view that the higher the level they were in, the better even if it was too tough for them. Here, people tend to sell themselves short. One lady, having been placed in an intermediate level class, looked surprised and told me in these exact words “I think it would be better if I were to start in an elementary level class” !!!)

Dual stream assessment
As mentioned above, I scheduled an assessment for the end of each six-week programme. However, I deliberately avoided pencil-and-paper testing of grammar and vocabulary. Instead, I went for a programme like this: 
  • in the first week of class, each student completes a writing and speaking task, the results of which are used by the teacher to inform the direction of the course 
  • in the final week, the same writing and speaking tasks are repeated and then compared with the original attempts to show progress 
  • a self-assessment task is also completed at the end of the six weeks and discussed with the teacher in a feedback meeting 
  • there is also a skills-based assessment, focusing either on a reading text or an audio/video passage followed by comprehension questions and a related discussion and/or written task
I think this gives me as the teacher a much clearer picture of the students’ language abilities and development than a traditional exam. It also gives the student a much clearer picture. They are involved in the process much more and they get immediate feedback on what they did well and what they need to work on. In this way, I try to ensure the assessment is summative and formative at the same time – it is based on what we have covered but also used to inform our future progress.

Besides, as I mentioned before, the demand for exams is all about brand names – TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC and so on. The students have the option to do external exams as well if they want/need an accredited ‘score’. We have accreditation for TOEIC in place already and we are progressing with Pearson to offer the LCCI JETSET exams (TOEFL and IELTS will be part of the long-term plan). When we already have these exams, why load the students with more in-house?

Future expansion plans
We have now been open for six weeks and the first round of classes has been completed with the second set to start after our mini-break. For now, the focus is on building a core group of general and business English clients and adding a few people interested in taking TOEIC this June.

Long-term there are plans for expansion in mind. We already have one contract with a local business and are aiming for a few more. EAP is also on the long-term plan with an increasing number of Gabonese young adults looking to go to English-speaking countries to further their academic studies. Together with an EAP programme, we are also looking into offering Saturday classes for teenagers next academic year as that is a demand that has emerged since we started taking enquiries and enrolments.

For now, we don’t want to push too far too soon but there are also longer-term aims to keep in mind: teacher training is one as we would like to reach out into the wider community and train up Gabonese people to be language teachers. That’s something I may not stay here long enough to realise but it is something I would certainly like to lay the foundations for.

Learning programmes with space in the syllabus to be flexible, responsive, and explore the language. Materials that are used to complement but not dominate our classes. Assessment that actually assesses and doesn’t just test. I knew it was possible. I just had to come to equatorial Africa to prove it!