Sunday, 14 November 2010

Using Google Docs in the EFL classroom

This term I made a decision to switch over to Google Docs to deal with all the written assignments my students do. Now, if you are not sure what Google Docs is - and don’t worry, you are not alone, Google doesn’t do the best job in the world to promote it - it’s an online document editor that can replace Microsoft Word if you don’t plan on doing anything too fancy such as inserting complex tables or pictures into your document. 

The basic interface of the Google Docs word processor (click to enlarge)

Let’s be honest though, much of what we do with word processing software isn’t that complex, often it’s just text and I rarely ask my students to do more than that, most of the time they are just submitting text essays.

Now, this term I had about fifty students on a higher level EFL/British culture course and they had to submit weekly learning journals and semi-regular essays. On a similar course last year I had so many problems trying to keep track of all their documents via email: often they would send documents but then not name them, or they would paste their text directly into the email and I had to copy/paste over to Word so I could comment and edit. And then I had to remember to email the document back with the comments on. It became a bit of a logistical nightmare.

Now with Google Docs all this emailing back and forth is largely unnecessary. All you have to do is to create a doc for each student with their name on it, share it with them via email. They then open up the document in their web browser and then any changes that they (or you) make to that doc will immediately appear on it. All you have to do is open it from your Google Docs account and you can see the changes and comment on them. Easy. Also, Google Docs has a half-decent comments facility, so you can highlight portions of the text and make comments in the margin. Nothing like the sophistication of that on Microsoft Word, but  it gets the job done.

a Google Doc with highlighting and comments (click to enlarge)

The one downside of this - apart from the rather rudimentary editing features it offers - is that the whole process of sharing a document seems to be needlessly complicated, particularly if you are trying to share it with a) someone who doesn’t have a Google account and b) doesn’t know that much about computers. Much as I love Google, they don’t have that whole intuitive UI thing down pat like Apple do, and I spend a lot of time walking my students through how to exactly set up a google account, accept the invitation to the document and then be able to view/edit the document online. It shouldn’t be that complicated.

Another thing I’ve found useful with Google Docs is the ability to use it for document storage and folder sharing. I mentioned above that you can share an individual document, but you can also share whole folders. This is particularly useful if a course has a lot of documents (articles/handouts etc) that you want your students to have and you don’t want to constantly keep photocopying the documents or digging them out for absent students. You can just share the whole folder with an individual or group via email invite and then they have access to all the documents. And it doesn’t matter if the document wasn’t created in Google Docs, since you can easily upload Microsoft Word, PDFs, or files of any other format to be stored in the online folder. You automatically get 1GB of free storage and you can increase that by paying a small amount of money every year (I pay about £3 for an extra 20GB).

Example of folder and different file types in it

Oh, and Google docs is excellent for creating surveys and questionnaires. Within Google docs there is a section called Google Forms and here you can easily create surveys that can then be either embedded in a webpage or sent as an email. When they are sent as an email, they survey itself is actually in the email so students only have to fill it out and press submit. I’ve found this really useful for getting feedback from students at the end of a chapter/topic/course.

Example of student survey

And the results are automatically collated into a spreadsheet for easy access. I know sites such as Survey Monkey do something similar, but for me it’s much easier if this can all be done from one place rather than having to use different sites for different things.

survey results collated into spreadsheet

Using Google Docs on mobile

Another main reason for switching over to Google Docs is the ability to view and (possibly) edit students’ documents on either my mobile phone or my ipad. I spend quite a bit of time on busses and trams travelling to and from work and I thought I could use that time by checking on students’ work, maybe even responding to what they’ve written.

Google do provide a fairly easy way to view Docs on your mobile device. You can just access them through the mobile web pages google provide. I find this useful if I just want to quickly check if students have submitted their essays or to have a quick skim through of what they have written.

Viewing Google Docs on a mobile phone

Editing Google Docs is less straightforward or cheap. Google haven't yet enabled editing on mobiles, not even on ipad, but it is supposed to be coming soon. You need to find a third party application to do this, normally part of a larger word processing package like Quick Office or Documents to Go, both of which are pretty pricey on both mobiles and ipad. In the end I chose Documents to Go as it had better bluetooth keyboard support on the ipad and seemed to handle tables much better (though neither of them handle tables terribly well).

Documents to Go on my Android mobile phone with options

I do actually edit Google docs on my phone, particularly making short comments on students journals and I use them on the ipad to make notes on trainees lessons during CELTA observations. These editing apps are even more limited than the online versions, some very basic formatting is possible (underline, font changes, bullets etc) but no ability to add margin comments or anything like that.

Documents to Go on the ipad with formatting options

There are certainly other uses of Google Docs. The one obvious use that I haven't really had a chance to experiment with is collaborative document editing. Students could share documents among themselves and work on texts together, or it could be a way to encourage peer correction among students. There is a chat facility that enables you to talk with your collaborator while editing the document.

Overall, I’ve found using Google Docs has really streamlined my (e)paper trail. At times last year with email it felt no better than having the students hand in work on paper and then constantly keeping track of where I’d physically left them. With Docs I always know exactly where everything is. It certainly can’t completely replace a dedicated offline editing programme like Microsoft Word - the functionality is still too limited, especially when it comes to inserting things like tables - but if you are working mainly with text, then it can do a pretty damn good job.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Free promo codes for Cambridge's Phonetic Focus app available

The very kind people at Cambridge Online have given me ten free promo codes for their latest iphone/ipod touch/ipad app Phonetics Focus to give away. These are only for the US itunes store (unfortunately) so you’ll have to have an account there to take advantage of it. I’ll do it like this: the first ten people to comment on this blog post will get one of the promo codes so you can download the app for free (retail price in the UK is £1.19, so I’m assuming it’s about $2 in the US store).

I don’t have a US account so I actually had to buy the app myself (!) but I didn’t mind. The app is based on the Cambridge website of the same name and is a website that I have been recommending to my students for months now to help them with their English pronunciation. There’s loads of great games and activities to do on the website, versions of hangman, matching, mazes, pelmanism.

The iphone/ipod touch app is a pared down version of what’s on the website, but it’s still the best ESL/EFL pronunciation app out there. There are four sections in the app:

The first section is the whole phonemic chart, you can click on the symbols and hear the sound.

The second section is simply an illustrated poster of the phonemic chart, showing the sound, a word containing it and a picture of the word. It’s a shame that there’s no interactive element here, it would have been useful to be able to click the words and hear them. The one useful thing you can do here is take a snapshot of certain parts of the poster using the camera icon on the page. 

However, the next section does give you those words from the poster on individual pages for you to click and hear. 

The last section is a short quiz section where you listen to two similar phonemes and have to choose the correct one.

The app isn’t as fully featured as the website (which is a shame) but it’s still one of the best EFL/ESL apps out there. I haven’t been impressed by the quality of ESL apps on the market, it’s mainly unexciting vocab list/quiz apps so it’s encouraging to see companies like Cambridge begin to release stuff which is a bit slicker and a bit more involved. Hope to see it continue.

So, anyhow, add your comments below and the first ten get the promo code to download for free.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Video review of flashcard apps for ipad and iphone

In my previous post I had a look at some of the flashcard apps available for the Android platform to help ESL students revise vocabulary. I've also now done a shortish video review of a couple of similar apps available for the ipad and iphone. The review itself was done on the ipad as I don't actually own an iphone but these apps are or will be available on both devices. I looked at Flashcards Deluxe Lite and Flashcards Plus and at the end I also created a short clip about the Quizlet website.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Vocabulary flashcard apps on Android

Most people trying to learn a language have probably used flashcards to help them remember vocabulary. Either a stack of cards in their pocket that they pull out and check on a regular basis or they might do things like sticking post-it notes around the house to indicate different objects. I’m trying to learn Russian myself at the moment so I’ve been looking into some of the apps available on the Android platform that might help me remember new words more easily. The great thing about having it on your phone is that you’ve always got it with you so it’s an easy way to revise when you’re stuck waiting around somewhere or when you’re on a bus or train.

If you are a teacher, it might be a good way to encourage students to study the vocabulary they’ve learnt in class or you can create vocabulary lists that they can then import into their flashcard apps on their phones or mobile devices. Below I take a look at a few and make some comments on their usefulness for students.

Vocabulary Trainer for Gdocs

This is the one I’m currently using for two reasons: firstly, it’s free (easily the most important in my view, I don’t really see the point of paying for such a simple app) and secondly it integrates with Google docs, something I’m an avid use of. So, the first thing I had to do was create a spreadsheet in Google docs with the words I want to learn in two columns like this.

You then give the app permission to import this and then it can create flashcards based on the columns. When you want to revise the vocabulary, you can then use the settings to decide how you want to see the cards (Eng-Rus, Rus-Eng) and whether they will show the other side of the card automatically after a specific number of seconds or manually when you swipe the screen. So you will see something like this:

You will see on the side with the English word there is the option to have the pronunciation, which is not much use to me but would be wonderful for ESL learners.

I like this app, it’s relatively simple to use, you can tweak it for your own personal needs and it’s free. The downside to it is that you cannot create flashcards on the phone itself, they have to be done in Google and then imported, so if you don’t use Google then it’s not terribly useful. However, if students do have a google account, you could easily create a word list and then share it with them via google and then they could download it for themselves.


This was another free app to download, I’ve only played with it a little but it does seem a little easier to use than the one above and you are not tied into Google to use it. However, you do need to set up an account on their website and you can then sync between your phone and your word lists. This is what the website page looks like where you create your word lists.

Once you’ve downloaded them, you can then view your flashcards on the phone.

You can see there is a ‘known’ button on the page. When you feel you know the word/translation, you can press this and it will keep a record of the percentage of the list that you ‘know’ and display it. You can also choose to hide or show the ‘known’ words.

A couple of things l like about this app is that you can add to your word list on the phone itself and you don’t need to do everything on the computer (though as far as I can see you can only initially create a list on the website). The other thing is that you can share your lists with others and download lists from other people. On the studydroid website there is a section where you can search through people’s lists and find something interesting or relevant for you. So, for example, I wanted to find some Russian word lists and found these:

I did a similar search for English lists and there were naturally more, but not that extensive and the search engine doesn’t enable you to really filter your search. It does rely on a community of studydroid users that may or may not exist into the future.

I might persist with StudyDroid and see how it compares over time with the Vocabulary Trainer. I like the fact that you can modify your lists on the fly and the ‘known’ button adds that element of progress to your vocabulary retention. I am just concerned about being tied into their website and wondering what happens if they go out of business. At least with the Vocabulary Trainer I know that Google are always going to be there.

Kaka flashcards

Like StudyDroid, I haven’t had this on my phone for long and - despite its unpromising name - it does have a lot going for it. Most notably, it can link up with the website Quizlet, which is a repository for a huge bank of vocabulary lists. If you are not familiar with Quizlet, it’s a website where you can upload and download flashcards, take quizzes and share lists with friends. Certainly a site worth recommending to your students.

Kaka Flashcards gives you access to all their lists through a search function and you can download them onto your phone. Similar to the other applications you can then test yourself by viewing one side of the card and then tapping to see the other. There doesn’t seem to be the extensive tweaking available for this as there is for the other two, but I suppose the access to the Quizlet database does make up for this.

The other good thing about this app is that you can actually create lists on the phone itself and you don’t have to go to the website to do that. While this app is not the most visually appealing, the link to the Quizlet website means that teachers and students can share lists and find loads of useful vocabulary items to put on their phone.

There are numerous other flashcard apps available on the Android Market, I just selected three to look at. If you go to a site like AppBrain, you can search for flashcards and get a very long list of applications that can be used in one way or another for language learning. Many of them come pre-packed with vocab lists and can be downloaded for specific languages (e.g. French-English, Greek-English etc). The great thing about the Android Market is that you can buy an app, try it out and as long as you uninstall it within 24 hours, you get a refund. This means you can try out paid apps without worrying that you might be wasting your money.

I think teachers could really exploit these apps to encourage students to review and remember vocabulary from the lesson. It wouldn’t be too difficult to create class lists and make them available on sites like Quizlet for students to download. Even better, get the students themselves to create them and share them amongst themselves. And although I’ve only looked at Android apps today (largely because that’s the only phone I’ve got), there also apps for the iphone/ipad that can access sites such as Quizlet. Anything that encourages students to engage with vocabulary has to be a good thing.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Apps on the ipad for ESL teachers and students

I’ve been using the Kindle app on the ipad since I bought the device and it’s now become my primary means of consuming books. To start with, there is a huge selection of books to choose from, you can buy them directly from the device, you can get samples of any book to see whether you want to purchase it and you can sync the books across multiple devices. So, for example, I sometimes read books on my Android phone and I can stop reading at a page in a book on my ipad and when I go to read it on my phone, it will be bookmarked at exactly the same page. Very, very cool.

One thing that they added in the latest version of the app is a dictionary look-up option. So, you can touch on a word in a book and it will bring up a definition of it at the bottom of the page. If you then want more information about the word, you can click on ‘full definition’ and it will pull up the word’s entry in the New Oxford American Dictionary. You’ve also got the option to do a Wikipedia or Google Search on the word. 

I began to think that this would be very useful for ESL students when reading books to be able to look up words and check their meaning. There’s also the option to annotate words/sentences on the page, so students can write their own notes about words or content that interest them.

And while I was looking at the Kindle I wondered what kinds of ESL books are actually on offer for the device both for teachers and students. Not much at the moment to be honest, but I think that's because so many ESL books are heavily formatted with pictures, diagrams and tables and those are the most difficult books to digitize. But there are some available on the market, a few grammar reference and exercise books, some teacher resource books (e.g. from the Cambridge series). But at least the ones that are available are slightly or in some cases quite significantly cheaper than their hard copy equivalent.

Another app I downloaded that I thought could be very useful in the classroom is iAnnotate, a PDF reader for the ipad that gives you the option to highlight, underline or make notes on the document. I think this was one of the initial concerns about the use of the ipad in education, whether it could adequately cope with the daily academic needs of students (textbooks, extensive notetaking) but I think there are enough apps out now to suggest it can. 

It’s a little expensive (about £5) but it is very easy to transfer PDFs from PC to ipad and annotating the documents is easy. Certainly for the students at my school this would be a very useful app as they have to read quite a lot of articles in their various academic skills classes.

One more app I thought might be useful in the classroom is Mobile Mouse, an app that lets you control your computer’s screen via the ipad. This means that from a distance you can open and close programs, surf the web, open and type Word documents and you can use the multi-touch on the ipad screen to zoom in and out. 

I think this would be a useful tool for adding things to the smartboard while moving around the room and students could do the same.

So yes, there are lots of apps out there that could easily be used in the classroom and I’ll give some of them a go in the next couple of months.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Mobile learning plans for the new term

Wow, I’ve just realized that it’s been over a month since I’ve written anything here. I haven’t given up on the blog by the way - and I’m talking to that dedicated band of approx 0-3 people who read my posts semi-regularly - it’s just that I’ve been working on an intensive course training Korean teachers over the last month and I just haven’t had time to update it.

And to be honest, I didn’t have that much to say. Most of my posts are based on hands-on experience of using technology with my students, but this just wasn’t possible with the group I was working with over the summer so it really would have been posting for the sake of posting. Doing a course with little or no tech integration was interesting in itself, it wasn’t in any way better for being stripped of technology but it did help me remember the importance of using classroom tools (technology, paper, whiteboards, any kind of equipment) only when necessary. This course didn’t need technology, it wouldn’t help the students learn any better, so I didn’t use it. You see, people always assume us techheads try to crowbar it in even when it doesn’t belong, but that’s not always true....

But now I’m on a break and I’ve started to think towards the new academic year and what areas of technology I’d like to focus on to see what’s going to help my students learn more effectively. By the way, this does sound rather unnatural, a list of arbitrary tech things I’d like to try out in class, sounds like the crowbarring thing I said I didn’t do in the previous paragraph. But it’s not. This is just a small part of my overall plans for the new term, I have lots of non-tech goals for my teaching as well, I just don’t share them through a blog. So these are things I have actually thought about...

Mobile learning

Last term I was only able to run a voluntary group throughout my school with students who were interested in learning through their mobiles. This amounted to daily text messages with a word of the day, some IM chat and creating social networking groups where they could share links/photos etc. It was ok, but the numbers dwindled as the novelty wore off, and the lack of direct contact with the students made it seem a little artificial.

This term I would like to experiment with mobile learning with my own students and see if that makes any kind of difference to the experience.  I think if the content is linked to what they are studying, it’s more likely that using their phones will seem a natural part of the course and not a random process.

But it will still have to be a purely voluntary thing. The school doesn’t fund any of this so students will have to bear the cost of text messages and data usage themselves and if they don’t have unlimited data/text contracts, I can’t force them to take part in this. This is still one of the biggest hurdles to implementing effective mobile programs, the difference between the devices and plans that all the students have got, but I’m working on the assumption that in a few years’ time all students will probably have unlimited data/text plans, so this is just advance preparation for that.

Using the ipad in the classroom

In a previous post I blogged about the ipad and how I saw it’s use in the ESL classroom. I’ve had the device for about a month now and my view hasn’t changed, in fact it’s probably been strengthened. I read somewhere that the ipad won’t necessarily replace computers but it will replace paper, and I’m beginning to see the truth in this. It’s a perfect device for reading on and for sharing information through various applications. It’s an amazing device for reading books and articles, browsing the web and many of the apps are designed to create the feeling that you are reading a newspaper or magazine.

Flipboard, for example, takes all your Facebook and Twitter feeds and turns it into an attractive magazine format, while Discover takes Wikipedia entries and does the same. The Amazon Kindle app lets you buy and read books and you can annotate them and even share those annotations with others. Of course many of these things can be done on either a desktop or laptop computer, but the form factor and the ease of use makes it a much easier device to integrate in the classroom.

There are also numerous brainstorming apps for the ipad, and I can see how these could become a great way for students to collaborate with each other when discussing topics or working on projects.

As a teacher I can think of numerous other uses for it in the classroom. Actually the other day I used it for the first time in class, the teacher group I was training did some micro-teaching and I wandered round the class watching them and making notes on my ipad in google docs. I then pulled that document up at the end of the lesson on the smartboard for discussion. It was a much quicker and better way of sharing than making notes by hand and then photocopying for all the teachers in the class.

Now of course there is the (minor) stumbling block that none of my students are likely to have ipads next term. Still, I don’t see that as being a huge issue, my plan is to lend out my own ipad to one student every so often and get them to experience the same lesson the others are doing but solely through the device. So, for example, while the other students get a reading text on paper, that one student gets it on the ipad. When I ask students to brainstorm ideas, that students can use the ipad while the others jot them down on paper. I can then observe the differences between their experiences and also get direct feedback from the students themselves about how easy or difficult it was to use.

So, I’ll keep you updated on all this, I’ll be trying these things out from the end of September and I’ll blog on how it all went.