Saturday, 29 October 2016

Review: Exploiting Infographics by Nik Peachey

Nik Peachey has been at the forefront of educational technology in ELT for many years, always exploring new ideas and media and linking them to best practices and effective learning.

He is now well-established as an independent publisher and in this review, I will look at his latest e-book Exploting Infographics.

Exploiting Infographics by Nik Peachey
Available to buy from
A free copy of this e-book was provided by the author for review purposes

Of all the recent trends in digital media, infographics have been one of the most intriguing. They offer the chance to digest topics in a concise but detailed manner with an added layer of engaging visuals. Indeed, the visual element can provide a great deal of support for the struggling L2 reader and this book aims to provide ideas for both using and creating infographics in class.

The book itself is available in pdf format and is quite short at 30 pages. However, much like infographics themselves, there is a lot packed into this volume. It begins with an introduction examining why we should use infographics followed by a useful look at how the students can view them in class. Considering a range of tech settings, Nik gives ideas for sharing the images in the well-resourced classroom with tablets and/or laptops available, for the online classroom, and even for classrooms with just one PC and projector or no digital technology at all.

The next section looks at generic activities that can be adapted to whichever infographics we decide to bring into class. Each activity is presented through a brief overview followed by the rationale for doing it. I personally found the ideas for fact-checking and investigating author bias and motivation interesting as my teenage students have a tendency to view infographics as entirely factual and free of opinions.

Following on from there, Nik shares ideas for getting learners to create their own infographics. These can mimic the factual ones commonly shared online or they can present personal information as an alternative 'getting to know you activity'. My favourite suggestion is that of researching and presenting a grammar point, which sounds like a great way to get students analysing and thinking about the language they have studied more carefully. In fact, combining those two ideas, students could make a personal timeline and then use it to demonstrate examples of past simple and present perfect - a great way to personalise the learning process.

Of course, creating infographics can be daunting so they next chapter looks at the whole process from researching a topic to structure to design. This is a particularly useful section of the book, not only for students but for teachers as well who are looking to create sample infographics tailored to their students' needs.

The final part of the book gives overviews of eight tools available online for creating infographic images. All of them are either completely free or 'freemium' (free basic account with some paid-only content) and Nik provides brief details about the affordances of each site.

As mentioned earlier, the book is not particularly long but it contains a lot of useful information and ideas. It will provide a great reference for teachers interested in exploiting infographics in the language classroom and also for those interested in creating them. The only thing which could have made the book even more appealing would have been a few samples to represent the ideas shared. However, as one of the aims of the book is to encourage critical thinking, perhaps it is better for the readers to be encouraged to make their own.

I am certainly looking forward to adapting some of the ideas for use with my classes in the near future.

If you are interested in doing the same, Exploiting Infographics can be purchased for £2.99 via Peachey Publications.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

PLNing Development: The (d)evolution of Twitter

Having delved back into past posts over the summer to reflect on how my teaching has been influenced by dogme, I am now in the process of looking back through my old posts on online CPD  (Continuous Professional Development) and growing a PLN (Personal Learning Network). The first in what will hopefully be a series of posts focuses on where the whole online journey of self-development began for me - Twitter.

A Slow Start
I first heard about teachers using Twitter to connect on the forums of my MA course back in 2010. Intrigued, I signed up but then.... didn't know where to start! I followed the account for the Teaching English website and a couple of people I knew but nothing happened and I wasn't sure how to make it happen. I then left Twitter alone for a while.

Getting Connected
By the summer of that year, I had become interested in the idea of blogging for teacher development but finding an audience was tough and my posts were going largely unread. A colleague on my MA suggested sharing my blog on Twitter to drive traffic towards it. I then returned to the 'micro-blogging' site and followed people my MA coursemates were following. Slowly but surely, people started to follow me back. Through links shared on Twitter, I found blogs to read, and I discovered the world of online conferences and webinars. Perhaps most importantly, I connected with other teachers from different contexts around the world. We started to share ideas, offer advice and push each other's thinking forward.

It was around this time that I blogged about using Twitter to build up my PLN for the first time. Over the next year or so, I would check Tweet Deck (haven't used that in ages!) several times a day always keen to see the links that had been shared and the conversations that had been taking place since I last checked in. These would often give inspiration for blog posts, ideas to try out in class, or areas to focus on in my MA studies... Exciting times!

Chats, Challenges & Conferences
Shortly after I became active on Twitter, #ELTchat started up and things really took off. Wednesday afternoons and evenings were crunch times in my weekly professional development as a global group of teachers engaged in a fast and furious analysis of important issues in ELT. That led to more connections, and more ideas to take into class and turn into blog posts or workshops.
Then there were the challenges that came up, inviting teachers to write a blog post, make a video or in some other way communicate an idea about teaching or teacher development. There was even a challenge to post about top people to follow on Twitter...

And then there was the almost obligatory and inevitable workshop session on using Twitter (one of hundreds that must have been given around the world at this time!) That helped me dig into what is was about Twitter that was so important: it was never about the numbers of followers and tweets; it was about the connections made with people and the ideas that were shared and developed. I can honestly say that had I never got involved on Twitter this much, I would probably be entering my 15th year of teaching primary school kids in the same establishment in Turkey...

From sharing ideas to sharing links
I also did some research into Twitter, blogs and social media for CPD during my MA. I remember how I scoffed at one article I read (apologies but the exact quote and reference has long since escaped my mind) that described such platforms as merely places for 'one-way broadcasting' - the author obviously had not engaged in such an active community as I had, I confidently declared to myself, and did therefore not regard PLNs and online CPD in the same way that I did.
However, nowadays I would agree that the author has a point. I don't go on Twitter that often these days and when I do, it's usually to share a link to one of my blog posts or articles. Others seem to do the same, sharing links either to their own work or to interesting articles. These get 'liked' and 'retweeted' but there is very little conversation going on. 'One-way broadcasting' seems a good phrase to describe it all. Like a radio channel, we send tweets out, other pick them up but very little comes back...

Something seems to be missing...
So why has this happened and what does it mean for the current state of online CPD? I would suggest the following (all based on my own observations and personal experience rather than any rigorous research I should add):

The Rise of 'Social Media & Sharing' Apps
In its early days, Twitter's 140 character limit made it unique. It facilitated a quick exchange of to-the-point comments which actually allowed for more back-and-forth interaction than one might have expected. Indeed, it was designed to mimic the space given to write text messages on our phones. However, other social media and sharing apps that have come along in recent years have been more about sharing things found online in the age of the smartphone: Pinterest, for example, is mainly used for sharing images and links; Flipboard is about aggregating articles into stylish 'magazines'; recent arrivals like Snapchat are about sharing the moment. The way people use Twitter seems to have changed accordingly - it's less about SMS-style conversation now and more about that smartphone driven quick sharing of links.

Migration and Moving On
People move on and trends come and go, and this is especially true of technology. I think I caught the crest of a wave when I joined Twitter but that has ebbed away to an extent. That is not to say of course that those people are no longer active professionally or no longer engage in CPD, just that they have moved onto other things. Some people who were active on Twitter a few years ago have now gone quiet and are most likely giving their all in their classrooms and schools as I write. Others have migrated to Facebook, staying connected with their closest connections from Twitter and elsewhere. And others still have moved up professionally and now have more demands on their time or no longer teach so much in the classroom, which was and always will be the primary inspiration for blogging. Many of the bloggers and tweeters I originally connected with are now still writing but they often contribute to blogs, websites and newsletters run by teacher development groups like Teaching English and iTDi or teacher associations like IATEFL.
Downsizing CPD
One thing I have come to reflect on about my own CPD is that it simply does not need to be as continuous as it once was. At the time I first got involved in making PLN connections, I had been teaching for only half the time I have been teaching now. I was in the midst of an MA and exploring what language education is all about. The constant exchanges and sharing of ideas on Twitter was exactly what I needed at that time and really pushed my thinking forward, helping my with my studies and with developing my career.

Now, the ability to analyse, reflect on and adapt my practice is part of who I am as an educator. Instead of looking to the Twittersphere for inspiration and help, I look at how I can connect and share ideas with the teachers in my own staffroom. It's smaller scale but it is just as effective. Without those experiences on Twitter, I would probably not engage in local small-scale CPD in the same way.

So thanks Twitter for helping me connect with so many great people, several of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting in person and look forward to seeing again at IATEFL next year. Thanks for helping me collaborate, reflect and develop. And thanks for helping me transfer that back to my working context.

Now, I'll just tweet this post and my reflections for the day are done. ;-)