Making e-learning resources relevant

EditE-learning resources have a number of advantages over book and paper based resources. In this article, I’m going to write about one in particular: the importance of being able to edit the resources that you use with learners. This article focuses directly on resources for learning English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and English as a Second Language (ESL) as they provide very clear examples of why it is important.

Why would you want to edit learning resources?

Apart from obvious reasons, such as changes to the syllabus, correcting typos, correcting wrong answers and other such errors, it’s a great advantage to be able to edit resources to bring them into line with other resources to create more coherent, better targeted courses.

Frequently, e-learning resources are used in combination with classroom, task-based and other types of learning activities, otherwise known as blended learning. Under these circumstances, it’s desirable to limit the scope of what learners are exposed to in order to help them focus on the core curriculum. In the case of EFL/ESL lessons, you’ll most probably have more success presenting and practising the same 8-12 new words and expressions in the classroom and on-line than if you present one set of vocabulary in class and another, different set on-line.

Good resources, inappropriate content

There are plenty of very good and very effective photocopiable resources and self-study materials for EFL/ESL learners to learn and practise with. The difficulty arises when we try to construct a coherent, well focused lesson or course with a core syllabus using these resources. For example, if a lesson covers comparative and superlative adjectives and transport and travel vocabulary but the photocopiable resources for adjectives cover lifestyle vocabulary, and the resources for transport and travel vocabulary cover the Present Perfect, then we’ve just doubled the amount of new language being simultaneously presented and practised. For many students, having to grapple with two lexical areas of vocabulary and two areas of structure and use at the same time can be overwhelming and confusing.

Lesson objectives: Grammar = comparative & superlative adjectives, Vocabulary = transport & travel

  • Resource #1: Grammar = comparative & superlative adjectives, Vocabulary = lifestyle & leisure
  • Resource #2: Grammar = Present Perfect simple, Vocabulary = transport & travel

Inconsistencies across different resources

Futhermore, for any language that we expect the learner to remember and use correctly, a certain amount of practice and repetition is necessary so we need a series of different types of activity to recycle the target language. Photocopiable resources and self-study materials tend to cover each language point once, therefore  learners usually need more resources from other sources. If we use a photocopiable resource in one instance to learn and practise vocabulary in a particular lexical area, such as transport and travel for Intermediate students, the specific vocabulary can vary from resource to resource since photocopiable resource authors often have different ideas about what the vocabulary for a particular lexical area for a particular level of English should be. This can result in learners being expected to learn more new vocabulary than is reasonable in a given length of time.

If we were to add yet more resources, the amount of language presented quickly becomes unmanageable. Currently, a lot of teachers spend a lot of time adapting or rewriting resources because they are inappropriate for the language points that they are teaching.

How does e-learning have an advantage over other resources?

Books and worksheets, our most familiar learning resources, are published in what’s known as hard copy, in other words, on paper. Unless we get heavily involved with Tippex, scissors, tape and glue, these resources are essentially uneditable. E-learning resources differ from this in that they are stored electronically and can be easily copied and edited, so having your texts and pictures in MS Word or Open Office Writer documents means that you can copy and paste any of them into a new resource and edit them and publish them as necessary. With Google Docs you have the added bonus of having the resources available in one easily accessible place.

To avoid copyright infringement issues, I recommend only using your own original content or Creative Commons content (Wikipedia, Flickr, Wikimedia, etc.) for this and properly acknowledging all authors and contributors.

Data driven learning resources and learning interactions

Electronic documents are somewhat more convenient than hard copy resources but, of course, computers and software are capable of making our lives much easier by generating learning resources that are multimedia and interactive and hosting them on the Internet where learners can have access to them anytime and from anywhere they have an Internet connection. Here, I’m talking about dynamic learning resources supported by learning management systems.

Dynamic simply means that the resources are generated by software automatically so all we need is the resource content, i.e. text, questions, answers, images, audio and sometimes video, in an appropriate format. An e-learning application, usually Flash or Java based, can read the learning resource content and create a unique learning resource. In the world of e-learning this is called a learning interaction. A learning interaction can be as simple as a page of text and images or it can be a highly interactive grammar game or self-correcting dictation.

So we have:

learning resource content (data) + e-learning application (software) = learning interaction (resource)

The beauty of this “data-driven” model is that we only have to author the learning resource content once. After that, we can use it, dynamically (i.e. automatically) to create any number of different learning interactions. All we have to do is substitute different e-learning applications that can read the learning resource content. E-learning applications can be word searches, dictations, multiple matching, multiple choice, true or false, short answer, gap-fill, written answer dialogues, spoken answer dialogues, listening activities, shadow reading activities, subtitled video, tests, etc. From just one set of learning resource content, it’s possible to create any number of learning interactions that focus on developing learners’ skills and knowledge. An added advantage of this model is that it encourages learning resource designers to recycle language more frequently thereby ensuring that learners get adequate practice. You can see an example of this on the demo course on my learning management system (login as a guest). On the demo course, the learning interactions “Word Search”, “Listen and Select” and “Look and Describe” all share the same learning content. If we edit the learning content, the changes are immediately reflected in all the learning interactions. We can also create a new set of learning content by copying and the original set and editing it to suit another purpose. Again, with this new set of learning content, we can dynamically create any number of different learning interactions.

This idea of keeping learning content and learning applications separate and combining them to create learning interactions can reduce course content development time dramatically. With a relatively small library of learning applications and learning content, it’s possible to provide hours of effective, engaging, varied, high-quality learning interactions in a very short space of time. It’s also very easy to copy and edit entire courses to re-purpose the learning content. So here we have an easy way to create lots of appropriate, well targeted and effective e-learning resources!

A quick note about SCORM

The Shareable Content Object Reference Model is an e-learning standard initially commissioned by the US military in 1999. It’s very different to dynamically driven e-learning resources. It’s not easily editable as it requires each learning interaction to be a self-contained package, i.e. they don’t share the same source of learning content, so in order to edit the learning content of a set of interactions, it’s necessary to edit and re-author all the interactions individually which is quite a complicated and involved task. I wrote an earlier article about the pros and cons of SCORM on this blog.