Monday, 11 June 2012

Working on the Web with Kids - Was it really worth it?

Another teaching year has to come to an end and the corridors of TED Ankara lay silent with the kids on holiday and the teachers mulling around trying to create/avoid things to do (depending on how you look at it). It has been very much a different year for me both in the classroom and out of it and one of the biggest differences has been my involvement with the 5th and 6th Grades’ wiki sites and the introduction of class blogging.

Now is a natural time for reflection and review, especially ahead of considering changes and improvements for next year. As I reflect on how we used the website and the extent to which it helped my students develop their English skills, I can’t help but ask myself “was it all really worth it?”

What a tangled web we weave… especially when kids are involved! Image by jasoneppink

Why it was worth it

In the English department at my school, we often discuss how we can get the students to use the language they learn outside class and how to get them to realise that English is more than just a lesson. In that sense, the wiki was a great way to extend their use of English and learning beyond the classroom walls. I was mindful of avoiding GGF-style activities (glorified gap-fills) and activities that just required students to point and click or guess. Instead, I made an effort to incorporate activities that would involve discussion and sharing of ideas and opinions and interaction between the students. I was also responsive to themes and topics that had arisen in class, tailoring tasks to individual classes with content I knew they would respond to and asking what kind of tasks they would like to see on the wiki.

Video also became a common feature of the wiki, both clips I made myself and clips I made with the students in class. They really enjoyed the stories I made for them and were highly motivated by the possibility of seeing their own dramatic creations on the website too. The use of video made the site much more colourful and engaging than page after page of text-based activities as did the inclusion of student-generated content.

I also found the wiki was a great way to reach out to students and develop better relationships with them. I think this stems from the fact that the pages and tasks that were uploaded to the site were very noticeably my own creations and the students got a real sense of the fact that I was creating these resources for them. Through my videos and personal pages, they also got to know me a lot better despite the fact that they only saw me in class for three hours a week. I can say without a doubt that I had better relationships with my students this year than in previous years and I believe the wiki played a role in that.

It also made my efforts much more visible to the parents and to the senior management staff at my school. I was constantly being thanked and praised for the tasks that were set and the level of personal input from me in creating them and interacting with the students through the comments and responses. For me personally, this was a vindication of what I was doing that was much appreciated.

Why it wasn’t worth it

As ever, there are two sides to every coin and for every benefit brought about by the wiki, there were issues as well. While it is true that the kids enjoyed the personalised activities and the opportunity to contrıbute their own work to the wiki, that only applies to the kids who actually logged on. In each of the 5 classes I taught, I would say that about a third of the students were highly active on the wiki, another third were active some of the time and the rest just simply did not use it. There were various reasons given - one of the main things to look at next year is setting up student accounts as many students had problems registering with pbworks or said they had forgotten their passwords and were unable to reset them. Others just viewed the activities, even the video and discussion-based ones, as extra homework which, as there were no grades given or punishments handed out for not doing them, was not compulsory. So, while I reached a lot of students and formed connections with them, there were others who were unfortunately unreachable.

Another issue was the fact that no classes other than my own were that active on the wiki. Perhaps this is a side effect of my tailoring of activities to suit each class I taught as the other teachers were not doing this. They wanted generic tasks with right/wrong answers and automatic feedback to point their students towards. As that is not what I thought the website should be, they became less keen to work on the wiki and, as a result, so did their classes.

And, although the website earned me more recognition from parents and administrators, it also took up a lot of my time outside of class. Creating, designing and editing the resources and activities was no easy task. I also invested a lot of time in converting student-generated materials to web-based tasks (scanning, video editing etc.) and self-learning useful bits of HTML code to overcome the limitations of the pbworks system. But what did I gain as a result? Praise, recognition and a few motivated students sure but I also lost free time that I could have spent with my family or getting ahead with my studies and no extra compensation, financial or otherwise, for my late nights at the laptop screen. I seriously think this is something that needs to be addressed not just in my school but in education centres around the world in general - having a class or school website is not merely ‘something extra’ that can be knocked together in the odd free teaching hour. To do it right, it takes a lot of time and this should be recognised either with extra pay or reduced teaching hours.

So, was it worth it or not?

I’ve been contemplating this one for the last couple of weeks now and my final answer would have to be yes, it was worth it. The problems I highlighted above about lack of total student and teacher engagement are problems that can be addressed and (hopefully) solved next year (more on my ideas for next years’ changes in a future post). As for the time it takes, that will hopefully be reduced next time as I can work with the same raw materials (self-made videos, Hot Potato exercises, discussion tasks etc.) and adapt them to the needs and interests of my new classes.

And at the end of the day, I’m a sucker for reaching out to and connecting with the kids. Even if it was only some and not all of them, that was enough to have made it worth it. Smile

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