A Training Lesson Plan on Virtual Communities for EFL
This paper tackles a challenging issue: the use of Virtual Communities in EFL learning/teaching. It features an in-service training lesson plan meant to encourage EFL teachers to explore Virtual Communities in view of using them with students, thus helping them to engage in highly motivating activities.
The in-service training lesson plan is designed for EFL teachers who are interested in technology as a privileged tool for enhancing language learning. It aims at enabling teachers to explore, build and use different types of Internet based communities in their teaching practice. The idea of the training course was spurred by some drawbacks commonly met in EFL learning situations:
- most EFL students do not live in an English-speaking environment, so they don't get much exposure to the language
- students are often placed in large groups and have only a few classes per week, thus they do not get enough practice in the target language
- learners as often as not have access to a limited range of resources
When learners become active members of a virtual community they may:
- gain access to a larger amount of language resources
- get plenty of exposure to the target language
- learn how to interact, co-operate and share things with real people
- be able to cope better with problems
- engage in more individualized interactions with the teacher
- become more involved and independent learners
The use of Virtual Communities may also provide some side benefits in terms of classroom management:
- using the computer will simplify management procedures, both for teachers and pupils
- all the interactions and materials produced will be recorded, making it easier to retrieve, analyze and share them
- marking and assessment procedures will be simplified
When dealing with technology issues, there is always a double focus: on tools and resources on one side and on teaching principles and practices on the other.
Section One : General Framework
The training course is made up of three sessions of about three hours each, covering different features of the target topic.
1. What are Virtual Communities?
The first session aims to introduce Virtual Communities to trainees and make them aware of their educational potential for language learning. This aim will be achieved through first-hand exploration of a few Virtual Communities. Though relatively new, Virtual Communities rely on some well established pedagogical principles. Recalling these may help trainees to feel Virtual Communities are less alien than they may believe. Finally, trainees are required to think about ways of using Virtual Communities with their students, so that they may feel encouraged to try a few activities out with students.
2. How can Virtual Communities be Exploited?
The second session focuses on tools relied upon by Virtual Communities. First of all, trainees will be asked to identify and classify them, according to suitable criteria. Then they will experiment with a few tools themselves. Finally, trainees will draft the outline of lesson plans for virtual activities with their students, using the tools they have just tried out. This is a highly practical session, mainly based on the assumption that learning by doing is one of the most effective ways of learning, provided you are able to reflect critically on what you do.
3. Creating and Exploiting Virtual Environments
The third session is intended to let trainees explore and exploit Online Platforms, powerful learning environments. combining most of the tools presented and exploited in session two in a single package, and providing many more functions as well. The last part of session three will be devoted to devising possible teaching activities for the use of Online Platforms with students. At the end of session three trainees ought to be able to cope with at least some form of online interaction and have the knowledge to explore this field further.
Section Two: Implementation
WARM UP – (Not included)
- Elicit trainees’ previous knowledge
- Introduce session topics
- Outline basic principles Virtual Communities rely upon
- Raise trainees’ awareness of collaborative learning
- Prior knowledge of target topic. Trainer presents trainees the following quotation: " The question we need to ask is 'What do we want to accomplish in our courses, and can technology advance our teaching goals?' rather than, 'What can we do with technology?'" (Creed 1996). She asks trainees to comment on it. Then trainees are asked to write down their own definition of Virtual Communities. Trainees compare/discuss definitions in groups. Trainees report to whole group. Finally trainer shows the following definition of Virtual Communities: "A group of people who may or may not meet one another face-to-face, and who exchange words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks." H. Rheingold. Trainees comment on it.
- Power Point presentation based lecturette: Constructivism; Situational learning; Collaborative learning. Q/A, clarification.
- Exploration of collaborative issues. Trainees discuss pros/cons of collaborative learning, providing examples from their teaching experience. Trainees report to whole group. Trainer sums up outcomes.
During this stage trainees will learn about the underlying principles of Virtual Communities. It is really important for trainer to know exactly what information trainees already have about the topic, so that trainer will be able to adapt, if not her materials at least her presentation. Many trainees may already be familiar with collaborative learning and may even have practiced it in one form or another. This may be useful to link the new topic to trainees’ experience and offer them the opportunity to reflect on the fact that even the newest approaches rely on a background of widely shared and codified principles. At this stage, it is also important to link principles and practice, so that trainees get the feeling that they are doing something really relevant. Trainer should pay special attention to keeping the right balance between her working time and that of trainees. Trainer may ask trainees to think about possible virtual applications of what they already do with students at a collaborative level.
SAMPLES VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES
- Present real examples of Virtual Communities
- Let Ts explore real Virtual Communities on their own
- Highlight main features/tools of Virtual Communities
- Think of possible uses for Virtual Communities
- Samples of Virtual Communities. Trainer presents selected list of Virtual Communities. Trainer explores one or two pointing out main features. Trainees choose one or two Virtual Communities and explore them. Trainees note down main features, materials, tools etc. provided in Virtual Communities. Trainees report to whole group on findings. Trainer sums up main points.
- Teaching/learning exploitation of existing EFL Virtual Communities. Trainees choose sample Virtual Communities and think about possible teaching/learning exploitation. Trainees share ideas in the group, choose one or more activities and outline lesson plan Trainees report to whole group. Trainer sums up.
In this stage trainees are actually given the opportunity to get hands-on experience. Trainees ought to leave with the feeling of having learned something usable. Trainer should choose simple sample Virtual Communities that can be easily and successfully explored, even by inexperienced people; they ought to offer all the typical features and tools usually provided by Virtual Communities. They also ought to be visually appealing and intellectually stimulating. The actual Virtual Communities exploration may be carried out either individually or in pairs. Technologically poorer trainees may initially be guided by trainer or by quite expert trainees. Trainer has to encourage all trainees to try things out on their own. If trainees do not try things out immediately, the chances are they will never be able to do so. It may be difficult to pull trainees away from their exploration, once they start, so trainer ought to keep an eye on time and gently lead trainees to the next task, teaching exploitation of Virtual Communities. For this second task Trainer has to take extra care with group formation, if she wants groups to produce useful outcomes. Groups may lack ideas, or they may resort to very trivial or over-trodden ones. It is trainer responsibility to supervise group work in order to stimulate, suggest, or encourage.
TOOLS USED IN VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES
- Gather feedback
- Refresh/revise previous session outcomes
- Analyze Virtual Communities in detail
- Identify tools
- Try classification of tools
- Highlight main tools
- Provide classification criteria
- Decide how to choose tools
- Set up an e-mail account
- Warm up. trainees exchange feedback on previous session focusing on any teaching exploitation they may have tried. Trainees report to whole group.
- Different types of Virtual Communities. Trainees to go over samples of Virtual Communities in groups and list tools for interaction, material storage, other functions. Trainees present and discuss findings. Trainer sums up findings on white board. Trainees classify communication tools according to suitable criteria. Trainees present and discuss classification. Trainer sums up outcomes on white board.
- Power Point presentation based lecturette. Different solutions to build up Virtual Communities. Classification of tools When, why, how to use them. Q/A, clarification.
- Setting up an e-mail account. Trainees brainstorm different ways of getting e-mail accounts. Trainees report to whole group. Trainer leads trainees through different steps of setting up a free e-mail account. Trainees set up an e-mail account for themselves.
The first stage is meant for the identification/classification of tools, the second stage is devoted to working with them. It is advisable to recall the core features of the previous session, both to gather feedback on acquisition/feelings, and to see whether trainees have tried out some activities with their students. Then trainees are asked to have a closer look at a few Virtual Communities. The task aims at enabling trainees to identify the main tools used for online interaction. Trainees ought to be able to find out the two main types of online interaction – synchronous and asynchronous – the second being by far the most widespread. They ought also to realize that e-mail and mailing lists are asynchronous interaction tools, while text or voice chat is the most used synchronous interaction tool. The last task is a highly practical one. Trainees are required to set up a free e-mail account for themselves.. There's a double aim: first to show trainees how to do it, so that they can to do the same with their students; secondly, to have trainees use the newly created accounts for the setting up of a mailing list.
PRACTICE WITH VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES TOOLS
- Set up a mailing list
- Learn how to participate in a forum
- Learn how to participate in chat
- Think about possible teaching applications
- Setting up a mailing list/newsgroup. Trainer sets up a group on Yahoo or similar using trainees’ newly created e-mail addresses. Trainees observe procedure. Trainees explore functions offered by newsgroup. Trainees exchange messages and try out functions explored.
- Participating in a forum. Trainer elicits trainees’ previous knowledge of topic. Trainer shows previously chosen EFL related forum. Trainer explains different functions (sending messages, threading, using emoticons, attaching files etc.). Trainees explore/practise functions in pairs. Trainees send messages to forum and use functions explored.
- Participating in a chat. Trainer elicits trainees’ previous knowledge of topic. Trainer shows previously chosen EFL related chat. Trainer explains different functions. Trainees explore functions in pairs. Trainees engage in chat session with each other.
- Planning of teaching/learning activities. Trainees explore activities provided by trainer. Trainees share ideas in small groups. Trainees adapt outline lesson plan for their students needs. Trainees present their findings to whole group.
In stage two trainees are going to explore and use a few tools commonly found in virtual interaction, both in synchronous and asynchronous modes. Trainees are not expected to become confident users of Virtual Communities tools. The task is intended to raise trainees’ awareness and curiosity.. The newly created mailing list may be used to let trainees keep in touch and exchange ideas, suggestions and materials during and after the course. The procedure is the usual one: elicitation of trainees’ previous knowledge, demonstration of how to use different tools, actual practice with tools, devising and planning of teaching activities for students, featuring the newly presented tools. If there isn't enough time to get a usable outline of a lesson plan during the session, trainees may be required to complete it for homework. Trainer ought to devote extra care to pairing/grouping trainees, considering not only trainees’ level of technological competence, but also their interest or the type of school they come from, so that they may derive maximum benefit from their co-operation. Trainer will have to discreetly but carefully supervise group work, so that she may prompt trainees if/when they lack ideas and support them or lead them in a practicable direction.
- Gather feedback
- Refresh/revise previous session outcomes
- Explore Online Platforms in detail
- Identify main tools/functions
- Highlight main types of Online Platforms and the tools they provide
- Learn how to choose Online Platforms
- Analyze, further explore samples Online Platforms
- Warm up. Trainees exchange feedback on previous session.
- Different types of Virtual Communities. Trainer elicits trainees previous knowledge on topic through quick brainstorm activity. Trainer provides a list of sample Online Platforms. Trainees explore one or more Online Platforms in pairs and note down main features, functions, tools provided. Trainees report to whole group. Trainer sums up findings on white board.
- Power Point presentation based lecturette. Main features of Online Platforms Different types of Online Platforms (free, commercial ones). Tools Online Platforms provide (interaction tools, storage, testing, announcement, administration etc.). Pros/cons of Online Platforms. Open source, commercial platforms. Q/A, clarification.
- Comparing/contrasting Online Platforms. Trainer assigns different Online Platforms to small groups of trainees. Trainees explore them in detail to compare/contrast them, deciding on suitability for teaching purposes. Trainees report to whole group on findings. Trainer sums up findings on white board.
Session three is completely devoted to Online Platforms. The first task is meant to gather feedback. Trainer may start commenting on any interaction that has occurred on the group mailing list and then let trainees report on any attempts they may have made on their own or with students. The second task is focused on Online Platforms. Trainees may already be familiar with Online Platforms. Trainer has to elicit trainees’ previous knowledge to be able to adapt what she is going to say in her presentation in task three. The main aim of task two is to let trainees identify the tools they have experimented with in session two and realize they are grouped all together in Online Platforms. Trainees may also identify a few more tools/functions. In any case, Trainer may point out some more tools in her summing up. The Power Point presentation based lecturette is meant to further clarify what Online Platforms are, but also to offer hints on how they may be used for teaching/learning purposes. The main differences between free/open source platforms and commercial ones ought also to be pointed out. Task four is meant for further exploration of Online Platforms, offering trainees the opportunity to look for new features/functions, but also to let them think of possible teaching exploitation. At the end of stage one trainees should have gathered a few ideas on what kind of support for teaching Online Platforms may offer and what use can actually be made of them.
EXPERIMENTING WITH ONLINE PLATFORMS
- Exploit teaching potential of Online Platforms
- Apply what trainees have learned
- Share ideas, products, materials
- Gather feedback
- Devise a project/learning session for an Online Platforms. Trainees think about project/learning session and share ideas in groups. Trainees decide on common project/learning session. Trainees choose most suitable Online Platforms to implement chosen project/learning session. Trainees plan, draft and implement outline of a complete project or learning session using as many virtual tools as possible from the ones provided by chosen Online Platforms.
- Report to whole group. Trainees report on implemented project. Trainees point out pros and cons of using Online Platforms. Trainees comment on other groups’ projects. Trainer sums up findings.
- Conclusion. Trainer provides final meaningful quotation. Trainees are asked to briefly brainstorm course outcomes and/or ideas on further applications to gather feedback. Trainees fill in final evaluation questionnaire.
Stage two of session three is devoted to teaching exploitation of Online Platforms. Trainees think about a teaching project or learning session they would like to implement for their students, then chose suitable Online Platforms There are two main aims in task one: to let Trainees think about practical exploitation of Online Platforms and to let them use as many virtual tools as possible. It is trainer's responsibility to support groups with a few hints/suggestion. Grouping is very important for this task. Trainees ought to group according to common interests, so that trainees may find it easier to get focused. Task two is a report on group outcomes. Trainees may gather lots of ideas for further exploitation of Virtual Communities/Online Platforms in their teaching. Trainer may ask trainees to share their products uploading them on the group mailing list. Task three is meant as a course rounding up and leave taking, but also as a way of gathering further feedback on how trainees feel about the course and its outcomes. Trainees are not expected to have become expert in virtual interaction, but they may feel confident enough to explore the field further on their own and try out a few things with their students.
There are two basic assumptions behind the course presented in the in-service training lesson plan: on the one hand technology may offer the opportunity to create virtual communities where people can meet and share ideas, knowledge, opinions or just for fun; on the other hand virtual communities may prove extremely beneficial for language learning. It may be safely stated, as a final remark, that if learners become active members of a virtual community, they will get plenty of language exposure, they will learn how to interact, co-operate and share things with real people, thus increasing their interpersonal skills and their intercultural awareness.
- Boetcher S. et al. What is a Virtual Community and Why Would You Ever Need One?
Retrieved from http://www.fullcirc.com/community/communitywhatwhy.htm, January 2004.
- Creed, T. (1996). Extending the classroom walls electronically. In New Paradigms for College Teaching, Campbell W. & C. Smith, (Eds.) Edina, MN; Interaction Book Co.
Retrieved from http://www.ntlf.com/html/sf/Virtual Communities_extend.htm, January 2004.
- Graeme D., Online Communities for Professional Development,
Retrieved from http://magazines.fasfind.com/wwwtools/, January 2004.
- Robbins, J. Contributions of a Virtual Community to Self-Regulated Learning in a Constructivist EFL Writing Course, San Francisco State University March 25, 2000.
Retrieved from http://jillrobbins.com/techno/outline.html, January 2004.
- Rheingold H., The Virtual Community,
Retrieved from http://www.rheingold.com/vc/book/, January 2004.
The paper is based on an assignment carried out at NILE /Leeds Metropolitan University as part of a teacher trainer co-funded bursary scheme by British Council/Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs.