Specifying elearning resources and strategies

Specifying elearning resources and strategiesA common challenge facing those about to embark on elearning projects is knowing just what their options are and what they have to offer. Novice project managers, teachers, and curriculum developers often find themselves at a loss as to where they should start and what they should be looking into. This article is not intended to be a definitive guide (That could fill several books!) but more of a general outline and starting point to investigate and gain a broader understanding of what options may currently be available and how they can be used.

How does this guide fit in with elearning projects?

Organised learning involves some kind of explicit or implicit learning contract, i.e. an agreement and alignment between learners, teachers, and support staff of shared objectives and goals. Here’s a quick overview of some of the main aspects* of developing an elearning contract:

  • Diagnosing learners’ needs
  • Specifying learning objectives
  • Specifying learning resources and strategies
  • Specifying evidence of accomplishment
  • Specifying how the evidence will be validated
  • Reviewing the learning contract
  • Carrying out the learning contract
  • Evaluating learning

Adapted from: Knowles, M. S. Self-Directed Learning. A guide for learners and teachers, 1975, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

This guide is limited to a broad overview of one particular aspect of investigating, planning, and developing an learning project; Specifying learning resources and strategies; and, in order to limit the scope, does not take into account strategies such as blended learning, i.e. combined face-to-face and online learning. Blended learning in particular, makes many more options available so curriculum developers, teachers, and learners can have the best (or worst?) of both worlds. It also assumes that your project will be centred around a learning management system (LMS) that supports some or all of the features and tools listed.

*Please note that this list is by no means definitive or a set sequence of stages. Developing elearning is often a complex, messy, recursive, fluid activity that frequently revisits and re-evaluates the various aspects in the light of unforeseen discoveries and developments.

What are the options?

This guide is by no means exhaustive and lists only the more commonly researched and used resources, activities, and strategies. There are more options and many that are specifically for particular topics and subject areas. I’m frequently surprised by the number of qualified, experienced teachers, instructional designers, and curriculum developers working in elearning who appear to be unaware or at least uninitiated in using many of the options available to them. Hopefully, this guide can provoke more investigation into and discovery of more of these options.

Resources

  • Text documents: HTML web pages, pure text, Microsoft Office Doc, Open Office ODT, PDF, and eBook formats, e.g. EPUB (free and open ebook standard), AZW, and MOBI.
  • Images: tables, charts, diagrams, infographics, illustrations, photos, etc.
  • Audio recordings: radio programmes, podcasts, lecture recordings, interviews, self-speech recordings, i.e. listening back to yourself talking your way through an activity or problem, etc.
  • Video recordings: similar to audio recording but also including presentations, visual documentaries, etc.
  • Animations: animated illustrations, animated 2D and 3D models, interactive models, etc.
  • Slide show presentations: PowerPoint, Adobe Captivate, Raptivity, Slideshare, Prezzi, etc.
  • 3rd party websites, databases and repositories: external sources of information and media; Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons, OER, Google/Yahoo!/Bing Maps, etc.

Synchronous activities

Chat

Allows participants to have real time synchronous text discussions. Pure text discussions have some advantages over voice discussions, in that although they are generally slower and convey less information, so they tend to provide stronger focus on the content of what participants are saying and can encourage normally reticent learners to make more contributions. Additionally, since it is more difficult for and more obvious when some learners try to dominate the conversation, there tends to be more evenly distributed participation and greater inclusion. Chat sessions are also easier to analyse and assess than voice over internet protocol (VoIP) since they’re already transcribed.

Chat services also allow learners to contact each other more spontaneously and informally to ask questions and/or ask for clarifications, and generally increase their engagement, social presence, and sense of community.

Popular examples: Skype chat, MSN Messenger, Facebook chat, etc. Almost all modern LMS’ have chat activities available.

Web meetings

These are real time online virtual spaces that often include multi-way chat, voice over internet protocol (VoIP), audio, and video, shared whiteboards, file uploads/downloads, and slide show presentations. Some services allow participants to attend by traditional telephone for when internet access/bandwidth is an issue. Many web meeting services also offer the option to record sessions so that learners and teachers can review and refer to them at a later date.

Web meetings are an effective way for learners and teachers to increase social presence, get to know each other, build trust and cultivate a stronger sense of belonging and community between  participants.

If users require or would like to access web meetings on mobile devices, it’s essential to check that whichever service you choose provides a native app for it. For the foreseeable future, web browsers on mobile devices are unlikely to have sufficient capacity to reliably support the high demands of multiple participants in multi-way, multimedia communication over the web.

Web meeting software services run on media servers with high processing and bandwidth requirements, and are complex and require highly specialised skills to maintain. Most media servers are consumed as 3rd party web services from independent specialist providers, even by many of the larger media organisations, universities, colleges, and institutions.

Popular examples: Big Blue Button (free and open source), Meeting Burner, Tok Box, WizIQ, Google Hangouts, Skype, and Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate).

Collaborative documents

Shared online text documents, databases, and spreadsheets that can be edited in real time by multiple participants simultaneously. Real time online co-construction of documents can provide a strong focal point to discussions and collaborative projects especially in Social Constructionist learning and teaching approaches, where the emphasis is on the process of creating a document rather than the finished document itself (process vs. product).

Popular examples: Etherpad (free and open source), Google Docs, MS SharePoint, etc. Here’s an example of integrating a collaborative document platform with an LMS: Etherpad and Moodle Integration

Asynchronous activities

Assignments

Similar to traditional college and university essay “drop boxes”, assignment activities enable teachers and assessors to grade and give comments and feedback on uploaded files and assignments created on and off line. Submissions can be documents, images, diagrams, concept maps, infographics, posters, learners’ blog posts, inline web pages, audio, and/or video recordings. Some assignment activities support peer assessment. An advantage to online assignment activities is that learners and teachers can always be sure that they’re looking at the latest version of a document and its comments, avoiding the confusion of trying to manage multiple versions of files from multiple learners via repositories or email (Yes, some people do that!), and can also review earlier versions to see the progress of changes.

Also consider using forums, glossaries, databases, and wikis for collaborative assignments.

Databases

Enable participants to create, maintain and search a bank of record entries. Most people understand databases as MS Excel spreadsheets (although spreadsheets and databases are quite different). They can be a useful tool for learning how to categorise and organise information, construct overviews, and thereby gain a broader understanding of a process, system, or subject area. Databases needn’t be limited to storing text; they can support multimedia too. Having online databases means that learners can collaborate in editing them, leading to greater discussion, reflection, analytical and critical thinking, and therefore deeper learning.

Popular examples: Open Office Base (free and open source), DHTMLX.com (free and open source), Microsoft Access, etc.

Feedback (surveys)

For creating and conducting surveys to collect feedback from learners. High quality feedback can give teachers and curriculum developers invaluable information and opinions from learners related to resource, curriculum, and course design, as well as attitudes and relationships towards each other, teachers, and support staff. Feedback that is frequent, and easy to administer and easy to participate in, and is anonymous when and if required, is an effective way to offer real choice and control over to learners and make their learning experiences more democratic, inclusive, responsive, and engaging.

Forums

Forums allow participants to have asynchronous discussions. For many years, online discussion forums have been one of the main focal points of elearning, communities of practice, and communities of inquiry. They offer many of the benefits of face-to-face discussions and, in addition, give opportunities for different styles of discussion and interaction, as well as providing environments where normally reticent participants can contribute more and have a more influential voice. As forums are asynchronous, they allow time for participants to reflect on their ideas, do further reading and research, and give more informed and considered responses. Some forums support peer assessment via rating systems.

Popular examples: BuddyPress.org (free and open source software), phpBB.org (free and open source software), Elgg.org (free and open source software), Slashdot.org, LinkedIn.com, Actionscript.org, and Facebook.com.

Glossaries

Glossaries enable participants to create and maintain lists of definitions, like a dictionary.  Some glossaries support peer assessment via rating systems, peer, and teacher feedback, and hyperlinks can be automatically added to glossary entries whenever they are used in online text within the LMS. Learners can collaboratively build class glossaries, thereby demonstrating their understanding and mastery of learning objectives while they study and continually use them as a reference resource for key terms and ideas. They can also update and refine their glossary entries as they deepen their experience and understanding.

Lessons/Presentations

Lessons/Presentations are mostly used for bringing together different types of activities into one session and/or creating branching scenarios***. In most cases, lessons amount to presentations of information, maybe with some practice, and maybe with quizzes or tests, i.e. the so called “present-practice-produce” (PPP) approach to learning and teaching; appropriate for transmitting “useful to know” information. As an alternative or complement, it’s also worth considering reading texts, documentaries, and/or silent demonstrations with follow up chat and/or forum discussions so that learners and teachers can get a clearer idea of what learners have understood and learned from the information presented.

Beware: There are many elearning “experts” and quiz software vendors who claim that including quizzes throughout presentations promotes deeper learning. They frequently fail to differentiate between quizzes during presentations and spaced repetition (a technique for memorising verbatim information). To my knowledge, there is no conclusive evidence to support these claims. A meta-study of research papers** on present-practise-produce elearning with and without quizzes concluded that there were no measurable differences in learning outcomes and that including quizzes only managed to needlessly take up more of learners’ time for the same gains.

**Source: U.S. Department of Education, Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – Review of Online Learning Studies (2009) (PDF)

***A note on branching scenarios: They were an early attempt at adaptive learning, i.e. changing the activities and resources presented to learners according to their responses to choices and questions. They are very difficult and labour intensive to design and set up and have so far shown to be of marginal benefit in comparison to learner centred activities and decision making, e.g. reflective inquiry and reflective practice. Current research is looking into artificial intelligence for solutions but we’re a long way off from anything broadly productive.

Polls

A teacher or learner asks a question and specifies a choice of multiple responses and encourage participants to vote on them. Polls are a quick and easy way to offer choices and gauge reactions to and understanding of learning resources and activities. Many forum software packages, web meeting services, and some learning management systems (LMS’) have polling activities built in and/or are available as extensions.

Quizzes

Allow the teacher to design and set tests and exams, which may also be automatically marked and feedback and/or to correct answers shown. Quizzes can support audio, video, and animations, and some interactive features such as drag and drop matching, order sequencing, and identifying points and areas on images. Native learning management system (LMS) online quizzes have mostly taken over from earlier SCORM based assessment and testing. They are usually easier to create, organise, and maintain, are more flexible, support more features, are easier to make accessible (for Section 508 compliance or similar accessibility legislation), and are more secure, e.g. with SCORM the answers to quizzes are sent to the learners’ web browser cache where “tech savvy” learners can access them.

SCORM packages

SCORM packages are usually authored/created by instructional designers with rapid elearning integrated development environments (IDEs), e.g. Adobe Captivate, Raptivity, and Articulate, among many others. They present an easy entry point into elearning design and development and allow novice elearning instructional designers with very little technical know-how, a shallower learning curve to producing learning resources and activities. They were previously used to present content and give quizzes but have since been superseded by open format, easier to create, edit, and maintain resources and tools that most modern LMS’ support, e.g. presentations, lessons, and quizzes. However, they are still widely used in military organisations (e.g. the US Pentagon is a huge “cash cow” for SCORM based elearning products and services) and corporations for things like basic health and safety conformance/compliance training, and training to use software, since they are much cheaper than providing tutored or supervised training.

However, rapid elearning IDEs like Adobe Captivate and Techsmith Camtasia do have legitimate and productive uses, for example rapid prototyping of ideas for learning interactions, quick “How to…” guides for teacher and learner technical support, and silent demonstrations.

Also see: Cheating in SCORM

Surveys

For gathering data from students to help teachers and curriculum developers learn about classes, resources, and strategies, and reflect on their own teaching. Appropriately designed surveys can also encourage reflective thinking and help to further develop learners’ analytical and critical thinking skills.

Popular examples: Lime Survey (free and open source), Survey Monkey.

Wikis

A collection of web pages that participants can add to or edit; a kind of collaborative encyclopedia. Common activities are co-creating documentation, collaboratively constructing narratives and stories, and categorising, ordering, sorting, and organising information. Most wiki software keeps a record of changes, who made them, and when, making them useful tools for assessing contributions and collaboration between learners.

Popular examples: Wikipedia.org (MediaWiki, which is free and open source).

Caveats and common issues

Different learners will more than likely have different knowledge, experiences, and abilities, and many will be unfamiliar with some of the current elearning activities on web platforms. Which of the options available that you choose to use will depend on learners’ and teachers’ needs, prior knowledge, experiences, and abilities.

Despite what many people believe, we tend to be very poor at multi-tasking; only about 2% of people can multi-task efficiently; and we need to focus on one activity (frame of attention) at a time. In particular, learners and teachers frequently report that they sometimes feel overwhelmed by the skills and knowledge they have to learn in order to successfully complete learning activities. It’s possible to overload the best and brightest of learners by asking them to learn too many things at once. There are three main areas:

  • Tools: Do learners (and teachers!) already know how the tools work and how to use them? Can they easily perform all the actions the learning activity requires of them? e.g. navigate, create, save, edit, submit, download, upload, link to, recover forgotten passwords, etc.
  • Rubrics: The fundamental design of the learning activities. What do learners have to do? How complex are the activities, what are “the rules”, and how long will it take to learn them?
  • Learning objectives: The skill(s) and/or knowledge they are supposed to acquire and/or develop, i.e. the syllabus.

To avoid “cognitive overload” and demotivating learners as soon as they start an activity, it’s important to consider just how much it’s asking learners to do at once in relation to their existing knowledge, experience, and abilities. Ideally, we’d like to spend as much time as possible on learning objectives and as little time as possible on learning to use tools and understanding rubrics. However, some activities can offer significant learning opportunities that make them worth the time and effort. In such cases, we need to reduce the cognitive load from the learning objectives while learners focus on learning how to use the tools and/or what they have to do (the rubrics); so called introductory or user interface training activities.

What’s next?

Now that we’ve established a broader overview of some of the options available for developing resources and learning strategies, we have a starting point for further investigation. There are many more specific and comprehensive books and guides available, as well as large and growing bodies of research into online learning and teaching approaches, methods, and strategies.

However, and I can’t stress this enough, there is no substitute for hands on experience and experimentation, and “learning by doing.” Trying out elearning tools and strategies with learners and watching activities unfold in different contexts, and getting honest, direct feedback from learners and teachers is invaluable. It also gives a better understanding of research papers, providing much needed background procedural knowledge to their usually abstract, declarative generalisations.

A word of caution

Beware of books, guides, and gurus who say things like “This is how it’s done.” or “If you do X, Y will happen.” People are complex and unpredictable. It’s difficult to say how they’ll react to or behave in a given activity. More reputable researchers report their findings along the lines of, “I did this with these particular learners, here’s the context and their backgrounds, and here’s the data I collected and my interpretation of what unfolded.” Above all, be prepared to be comfortable with dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, and getting mixed results. As with all learning and teaching activities in any medium, it takes time, insight, discipline, patience, and understanding complex concepts and interactions to get to grips with elearning.

An alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design

[swfobj src=”https://matbury.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/social_networking.swf” width=”600″ height=”300″]An alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design[/swfobj]

The following article is a tentative presentation of a few ideas for an alternative approach to EFL/ESL course design that incorporate the rapidly evolving technologies and social norms of the 21st century. The ideas I’m presenting here are by no means new or my own. My intention is to share my thoughts and hopefully stimulate some discussion and constructive criticism about them.

On EFL and ESL course books

Currently, the majority of EFL and ESL courses at private language academies, public colleges and universities rely on course books, from such publishers as Oxford and Cambridge University Press’, Longman Pearson and MacMillan, to provide the syllabus and curriculum for learning English. If we want to provide alternative approaches to learning and teaching, we need to re-evaluate the role of books and other resources both in and out of the classroom.

The current learning and teaching paradigm

The majority of EFL and ESL programmes at schools, colleges, universities and language academies around the world emphasise a single learning and teaching approach as prescribed by the Cambridge CELTA, DELTA and Trinity RSA (EFL and ESL teaching certificates and diplomas), and defined in Communicative Language Teaching Today (Jack C. Richards 2006). The most commonly found EFL and ESL course books are also based on this teaching approach. They use, without exception, explicit focus on forms, strongly behaviorist/cognitivist approaches to learning and teaching, i.e. a list of grammatical structures and lexical sets of vocabulary and expressions that learners study, memorise and apply in a regular, paced, linear progression.

No course books!?

Focus on form, necessarily, makes up a proportion of any EFL/ESL programme but, from the course books I’ve seen over the past 11 years, the coverage of language patterns, vocabulary and grammar leaves a lot to be desired and is usually inadequate for learners’ needs, especially in learner-led programmes. It’s hardly surprising, since course books try to provide comprehensive vocabulary and grammar references, guided lessons, reading, writing, listening and conversation materials, exercises and even tests for 9 month programmes in only 100-300 pages.

Instead, if we regard books as simply another resource, learners would be required to obtain their own copies of dictionaries, grammar references and, in the case of exam preparation, practice tests. These may be print or digital copies from whichever publisher and vendor they prefer or even online resources. An increasing number of learners now use their mobile phones to access dictionaries. Teachers and academic directors could provide some assistance with recommending a range of appropriate choices according to learners’ specific needs, e.g. academic, medical or engineering dictionaries.

  • Dictionaries are based on systematic studies of corpuses and usage frequency lists, give concise definitions and examples of correct use in a variety of the most common contexts. Bilingual dictionaries also have comparisons of accurately translated example sentences. Picture dictionaries are an option for lower levels of language proficiency.
  • Grammar references give concise and comprehensive definitions and examples of language patterns, and cover the language in use in a variety of contexts.
  • Practice tests provide authentic, realistic examples of what learners can expect and prepare for in official exams, for example Cambridge University Press’ ESOL practice test books and free downloadable sample exams. They’re usually guaranteed to be consistent and at the correct level of difficulty and test the same language points as the official exams.

Any focus on form would be initiated and driven by learners’ curiosity and interest, as and when it is useful and appropriate. From this perspective, the brief vocabulary and grammar references provided by EFL and ESL course books would, in most cases, be insufficient to meet learners’ needs.

Input

According to Stephen Krashen, Rod Ellis, et al, one of the most important factors in second language acquisition (SLA) is comprehensible input, i.e. reading, watching and listening to authentic, meaningful English. They also inform us that the input must be relevant and interesting to learners and that they should feel relaxed and receptive (low affective filters) in order to gain the maximum benefit from it.

From media impoverished to media rich

One of the major differences between the 20th and 21st centuries is how we access information and media. In the 20th century, learners went to schools, colleges, universities and libraries to access high quality information and media, and there were very few alternatives. We lived in a media impoverished world where media distribution networks, to a great extent, decided what we could and couldn’t have access to. In the 21st century, all this has changed. People with internet access now have a world of information and media at their finger tips. As Diana Laufenberg among others informs us, this has profound implications on how we organise the ways in which we learn. In particular, EFL learners have access to enormous quantities and a staggering range of media for input that they can read, watch and listen to at a low cost and in the comfort of their own homes, at work and now even while they’re on the move. This means that learners can now search for and collate their own input based on their own particular needs instead of their teachers teaching them vocabulary and grammar related to parts of a wheelbarrow or sewage farms (Laser B1, MacMillan) or out of date film and pop stars to teenagers from course books.

From the outset, learners should be informed that an integral part of their courses will be reading, watching and listening to authentic English language media. Learners will be required to read, watch and listen to a minimum number of words/pages/hours of language each week. Input media could include:

  • Reading – Novels, graphic novels, magazines, newspapers and news websites, blogs and non-fiction
  • Watching – Films, soap operas, sitcoms, documentaries, news programmes, lectures and presentations
  • Listening – Radio programmes, podcasts, music and audio books

Perhaps the first text, video, listening or two could  be prescribed by their teacher so that learners can get to grips with what they are required to do on their courses (rubric) and make informed decisions. However, in order to make the input interesting and relevant to learners, they should be encouraged to find and choose their own. This also opens up the possibility of learners reviewing books, films, programmes, etc. and making recommendations to each other, thereby making communicative and collaborative activities that are realistic, meaningful and functional. Timothy Bell did some interesting research on student led reading programmes at Kuwait University. This approach to resources should dramatically increase the overall number of hours of study since much of the input will take place at home, at work or in the library. Learners would also have the option to organise study sessions together for themselves such as book clubs, film nights, etc.

As I stated earlier, each individual learner can easily satisfy his or her own particular tastes and preferences and access high quality, authentic text, audio and video quickly, conveniently and cheaply. Internet book, music and video shops (mail order), desktops, laptops, media centres, tablets, smartphones and eReaders all offer convenient ways for learners to consume media.

Processing

Learners will be encouraged to process input in various ways by sharing, reflecting, discovering, discussing, problem solving, advising, etc. They can share and compare their understanding of input either verbally or in writing and the focus is kept mainly on meaning so that language acquisition and awareness occurs implicitly. The collaborative or group approach to learning lends itself well to this kind of processing and gives ample scope for learners to develop their communicative skills and to negotiate meaning. Also, learners will develop practical skills that are useful in real world situations when working on projects and on teams in their professional and social lives.

Process writing

We can help learners to learn the skills they need to be more expressive, dramatic and convincing writers, learning how to create suspense, mystery, dynamism to keep readers engaged, to organise compositions into coherent wholes with their salient points emphasised and expanded as opposed to a list of sentences strung together.

Peer review

Learners can develop their analytical and critical thinking skills by assessing their own and each others’ written and spoken production. It would also help learners enormously and give them great satisfaction to know that the hard work that they put into writing and giving presentations would be appreciated by more people. Additionally, learners can read, watch or hear alternative interpretations of assignments by their peers which could inspire further ideas of their own.

Discussing and debating

Learners can research and prepare presentations for discussions and debates, and develop their discourse management and reasoning skills in both face-to-face spoken debate and on online chat and forums. They can also learn how to share and contrast different points of view without creating conflict and thereby learn more about their peers’ and their own world views which, in my opinion, is the main objective of discussion and debate.

Interpreting and appreciating

Groups of learners can read, watch and listen to media and give their own personal interpretations and opinions. They can reflect on what they understand about it, develop their own ideas and share and contrast them with their group.

Recommending and encouraging

In reading programmes, many researchers have noted that recommendations made by learners’ peers had significantly more influence on their choices of books than those from their teachers.

Concept mapping and illustrating

Concept mapping is a way for learners to interpret and process what they understand and how they think about complex ideas and concepts. Learners’ concept maps tend to be personal and idiosyncratic and, when used correctly, can help facilitate their linguistic skills to express themselves more concisely and allusively.

An alternative view of teacher intervention and error correction

We, as educators, need to cultivate an atmosphere of responsibility, mutual understanding, support and shared purpose. Mistakes/Errors should not be seen as failures but rather as a necessary and integral part of the learning process. If learners aren’t making mistakes, they probably aren’t learning as much as they could. It is my belief that intervention on the part of teachers to correct errors will, in most situations, be counter productive since they interrupt learning activities and inhibit the free flow of thoughts and ideas. On the other hand, while negotiating meaning during communication, some learners tend to correct each other helpfully or, when negotiation of meaning fails, seek help from other learners or a teacher. In this case, when seeking help, the focus on form is initiated by learners and their desire to “get it right” at a point when it is most useful, relevant and memorable to them.

Output

Processing input often inspires learners to create works of their own. In many cases, it seems like the natural and logical ‘next step’ since they may be inspired by the language input, their peers’ ideas or their own, and want to participate in some creative output activities.  For example:

  • Writing – Emails, letters, short stories, plays, dialogues, reviews, essays, reports, letters of reference, etc.
  • Speaking – Telling anecdotes, telling jokes, giving presentations, dramatic performances, comedy performances, etc.

Learners can produce language output for summative and formative assessment which contributes to a “body of work” or portfolio. This is especially useful for participants in the European Commission’s Europass (C.V. and portfolio) project. Assessment can take many forms and be organised in many ways. In some cases, the process may be the main aim, e.g. learner created tests or peer assessment, in others the aim may be to indicate increases in competencies and/or overall language proficiency.

Additionally, when learners generate a substantial body of work during their studies, it gives them and their teachers an overview and it is more representative and reflective of their language proficency and progress towards their goals. As a teacher, I prefer using learners’ portfolios to decide when they’re ready to move up a level, rather than using high-stakes, standardised testing methods, which only assess a very narrow set of skills and knowledge, at the end of a semester or academic year.

To sum up…

It is my ambition to come up with some coherent, comprehensive form of an alternative approach to EFL and ESL course design that focuses on the following points:

  • Creating communities of learning and teaching.
  • Make exchanges between learners as natural, functional and meaningful as possible (socialising is a function).
  • Acquiring language and developing language awareness and skills occurs naturally as part of learning activities.
  • Allow and support learners in choosing their own input to meet their own particular learning needs.
  • Learners review and recommend input to each other.
  • Focus on form (grammar and vocabulary patterns) is initiated and driven by learners’ needs, curiosity and interest.
  • Learners process input and share their understanding of it in writing or spoken (classroom, online or blended learning).
  • Processing is doing meaningful, engaging real world tasks with the input.
  • Learners create “bodies of work”, i.e. portfolios, both individually and collaboratively.
  • Learners assess their own work and each others’ to develop their higher order thinking skills (Analysing and Evaluating).
  • Formative assessment plays a central role in learning, i.e. learners give each other constructive criticism as well as getting teacher feedback.
  • Mistakes/Errors are seen as points of learning, not as failures, on the path to language development.
  • The emphasis is on experimentation and play, i.e. discovery through trial and error and negotiation of meaning.

I await your constructive criticisms and comments!

Further reading

Good quality video Part II

Recording high-quality video Part II
Recording video from webcams:
Several HD (high definition) web cameras have appeared on the market recently promising to record up to 1400 by 900 pixel resolution video for an outlay of around €100 or less. The specific webcams that I’ve seen are the Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000, the Microsoft ???? and the Creative ????. Although these cameras are capable, in theory, of the claimed results, it’s important to bear in mind what else is necessary to achieve them. Unfortunately, the average PC or Mac on sale today does not have the processing power required to compress and record a high resolution video stream. They’ll struggle with even relatively low resolution video streams and usually compensate by automatically reducing the frame rate from 30 frames per second to as low as four frames per second. In order to record high definition video from a webcam at 30 fps, you’d need a very powerful computer to do so. Something like an extreme gamers PC. To be honest, you’d get better results from getting a “normal”, cheaper PC and spending the money you’d save on a high definition video camera. Plus, it’d be a lot more flexible and easier to shoot on location plus you’d get the added benefits of optical zoom and no PC fan noise in the background to deal with.

creative_livecam_socialize_hdmicrosoft_lifecam_cinema_webcamlogitech_quickcam_pro_9000I’ve had quite a few inquiries about using web cameras to record video for e-learning purposes. On the face of it, it seems to be an easy way to record high definition video very cheaply. In this article, I’m going to talk about what’s available at the moment and what you can realistically expect from an HD web camera.

Several HD (high definition) web cameras have appeared on the market recently promising to record up to 1280×720 pixel resolution video at up to 30 frames per second for an outlay of around €100 or less. The specific webcams that I’ve seen are the “Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000“, the “Microsoft LifeCam Cinema” and the “Creative Live! Cam Socialize HD“. Although these cameras are capable, in theory, of the claimed results, it’s important to bear in mind what else is necessary to achieve them. Unfortunately, the average PC or Mac on sale today does not have the processing power required to compress and record a high resolution video stream. Only the Microsoft product information appears to be completely open and honest about this, recommending an Intel Dual-Core 3.0 GHz or higher CPU and at least 2GB of RAM. Less powerful computers will struggle with high resolution video streams and usually compensate by automatically reducing the frame rate from 30 frames per second to as low as four frames per second, hence the words “up to” next to the frame rate you’ll see in manufacturers’ descriptions.

High definition blur

The effect of a slow frame rate on video is quite noticeable: if anything in view moves, it gets blurred. This really defeats the whole point of high definition which is clear, sharp image quality. To see this in action, have a look at the many web camera reviews posted by users on YouTube.com and look for anyone who moves their head or hands in front of the camera. You can then compare these with reviews of 3CCD high definition camcorders to see the difference.

Also, you’ll need to acquire software that is capable of compressing and recording the webcam video stream to a high quality format, the best one being MPEG -2 (DVD quality). If the video stream is compressed too much, for example with H.264 (MP4  or MOV), any subsequent editing or recoding that you do will substantially reduce the image quality.

To be honest, you’d get better results from getting a “normal”, cheaper PC and spending the money you’d save on an MPEG-2 high definition video camera. It’d be a lot more flexible and easier to shoot on location plus you’d get the added benefits of decent optical zoom and no PC fan noise in the background to deal with.

Good quality video

 

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The Red One from Red

This article is a follow-up to my post, “Good quality audio”. Here, I’ll give a few tips aimed at new-comers to recording video for the web and how to get the best results. I’m assuming that, as a new-comer, you have very basic, low-budget equipment or are about to buy or borrow some. Obviously, something like the industry standard “Red One” from Red, starting at $17,500 for the body alone (not including lenses or recorder, although I’m sure they’ll give you a free t-shirt), is out of our budget.

A little personal video history

My introduction to recording video came when I was very young and my American uncle came to visit us in the UK. He brought an enormous VHS camcorder with him to record his visit for posterity and gave me, aged 13, the responsibility of being his documentary cameraman. Later, I went on to use the (enormous) old industry standard U-Matic video tape recorders, had some basic video recording and production training at art college, and eventually moved on to digital video with 8mm MiniDV recorders. The jump in picture quality from VHS, Betamax and U-Matic to MiniDV was astonishing. I’ve tried other formats since but, for the moment at least, I find that this format offers the best results for the money.

Why do I recommend MiniDV?

It’s an old format and surely the newer SD-Card or HDD video cameras are better, aren’t they?

In my opinion, it depends what you mean by “better”. The newer consumer camcorders are cheaper (sometimes), smaller, lighter, more robust and often, you can take video shot on them and upload it directly onto video sharing websites like YouTube, with no editing or conversion software necessary. It’s wonderful to be able to do that. The downside is that these camcorders use an extremely high rate of digital video compression so while the footage shot on them looks good in its original format, once you start to edit it and, necessarily, recode it, it degrades rapidly. The end result is often unwatchable. MiniDV, on the other hand, uses a low rate of compression (MPEG-2) so that it’s possible to do more editing, recoding and adding special effects and still maintain reasonably good picture quality. Apparently, the BBC still use MiniDV for a lot of its mobile “rough ‘n’ ready” video.  Be warned though, when you come to download video footage onto your computer, you’ll quickly fill up a good few Gigabytes of hard-disk space. You may want to consider installing bigger, faster (7,200 RPM minimum) hard-discs on your computer if you intend to do a lot of editing.

Some of the new hard disk drive and SD card camcorders now include higher bit rate recording in the newer H.264/AVC (Advanced Video Compression) format currently being promoted by Sony and Panasonic. It promises double the rate of compression for the same olour depth and image quality. Although it’s popularly being hailed as the new de facto CODEC, most professionals are still using the older MPEG-2 CODEC simply because it’s more mature, there’s much better software support for it and it takes much less time to render edited videos into a final master copy. For example, most of the Blue-Ray disc movies available today are MPEG-2 not H.264/AVC.

What should I look for in a video camera?

A budget 3CCD MiniDV camcorder
A budget 3CCD MiniDV camcorder

Since we’re on a low budget, my advice is to get the best MiniDV camcorder you can. Something that surprises me about a lot of consumer camcorders, even quite expensive ones, is the lack of microphone inputs so that you can use external microphones to record sound. Some consumer camcorders come with the label “semi-pro” and they usually have microphone inputs and sometimes a “shoe” on which you can attach specialised microphones. Sound is one of the most important parts of the video recording as it contains the speech and the sounds that objects might make. It often carries the “story” of a presentation. Of course, it is possible to record audio separately and manually synchronise the sound and video streams while editing but this is a time consuming extra task that you could really do without. Ideally, you want a stereo input jack so that you can use a stereo microphone or a pair of mono mics. See my article on good quality audio for more details about this.

Another important point with video cameras is the quality of the CCD (charged coupled device) chip. This is the light sensor that converts the light coming in through the camera lens into a digital video image. Needless to say, if the CCD chip is poor quality or has low light sensitivity, no amount of extra features or professional editing software can give you good quality video. The best quality chips use 3 CCD devices which give the best image quality and the best sensitivity, which is useful for shooting in low light conditions such as indoors.

You can find a number of suitable MiniDV 3CCD camcorders of various ages, conditions and prices on shopping sites such as Amazon and eBay. I’ve seen good cameras on eBay for as little as £40.

Update (19th July 2009): Now it looks like HDD camcorders are coming onto the second-hand market at an affordable price. I looked on eBay.co.uk and found quite a few good cameras selling at around the £200 (€230 or $330 US) price range. Before buying any camera, check with the camera manufacturer about what video compression settings the camera has and if they’re suitable for high-quality editing.

Don’t forget to budget for lighting

Even the best of video cameras can only work with the light you give them. Low light conditions give you poor, flat, grainy image quality so it’s well worth investing in at least three good lights. I say three lights because subjects lit with only one or two lights tend to look rather flat and lifeless. Most people who work in photography understand the three-point lighting system. It’s effective and with a little experimentation and trial and error, you can bring your video footage (and studio photography) to life. The principles are simple. You have three lights: a fill light, a key light and a back light. This arrangement ensures that every area of the subject is lit and not in shadow and also gives a 3D effect, making the subject look more life-like. It’s an advantage if the lights give off a broad spectrum of light (i.e. fluorescent lamps or something similar) and even better if you can control their luminosity (i.e you can dim them). You may even want to consider setting up something similar for your webcam if you do a lot of VoIP and video conferencing.

Three-point lighting
Three-point lighting

What about video editing?

When choosing the best video editing software, I think there’s a trade-off between usability and editing features. Professional video editing software allows you to do just about anything you like with your video rushes to get some really impressive results. You usually have the option of using “keying”, also known as “green screen”, to remove the background. Even things like good-looking custom titling can only be achieved with professional software but the problem is that it’s difficult for a novice to use. If you’re new to video editing or have only ever used software packages such as Windows Movie Maker (included with Windows) or iMovie (included with most Macs), professional editing suites like Adobe Premiere Pro (Windows and Mac), Sony Vegas Pro (Windows only) or Final Cut Studio (Mac only) can be daunting and can take weeks or even months to get to grips with. Luckily, they all do consumer versions with intuitive, easy to use features that allow you to start creating your mini epics within hours, if not minutes. The trade-off is that most of the features are set up as pre-set combinations, for ease of use, and are either difficult or impossible to adjust individual feature settings in them to get the specific results you might want. If you’re technically minded and willing to spend the time and money and you want complete control over your editing features, then the pro options are the ones to go for. For fast and not bad looking results, go for the cheaper consumer options. Almost all video editing software has a convenient option for producing video for the web. Even Quicktime pro*, currently at $29.99, can convert a number of compatible formats to MP4 (H.264) for web deployment on Flash Player or the Quicktime browser plugin. By the way, I don’t recommend publishing your videos to the WMV (Windows Media Video) format used by Windows Movie Maker. It’s very difficult to deploy on the web reliably and a lot of people using Mac or Linux operating systems won’t be able to view it at all. I’ll write another article on video formats and media containers soon.

* If you have Quicktime installed on your computer, you already have Quicktime Pro. All you need to do is buy a serial key from Apple to activate the media converter functions on it.

Plan and storyboard your presentation

I think getting physically good results in video is somewhat easier than in audio recording. Most camcorders today capture pretty good quality video so I think the most important thing to concentrate on is the storyline or how you storyboard your video presentation. It’s important to establish a context before going into detail. For example, if you’re doing an interview with a representative of an organisation, start with a short clip of the outside of their headquarters or something with their logo on before showing the interview. Also, don’t forget to introduce the representative and give a little background information about them before launching into the interview questions. All this is setting the context and it makes it much easier for your audience to follow who the person is and what is going on.

Your video clips, no matter how short, should also have a beginning, middle and end. I think it’s best to think of it as taking your viewers on a journey. Whether it’s a visual journey or a spoken one, it’s still a good idea to let your audience know where they’re going to go, then where they’re going and then where they’ve been. Try to maintain a sense of continuity and a logical progression from one scene to the next.

If possible, I recommend attending some kind of introductory course to video recording and editing. An experience professional can get you started, give you hands-on practice, teach you how to storyboard and edit, teach you the finer points of video technique, answer your questions and guide you toward producing some high quality and captivating videos.

 

Good quality audio

What’s the best way to record audio and achieve professional sounding results? It’s not as expensive or as difficult as you might think. For the average Podcaster or for dialogues and presentations, it’s relatively easy to get set up and start producing high quality audio material like a radio station. Let me explain some of the basic principles…

What you start with determines what you’ll end up with

The quality of your unprocessed, uncompressed audio recordings will determine the quality of the end results. Getting the best possible recordings in the first place should be your top priority. This comes down to two things: the equipment and the techniques you use to record it.

Choosing the right microphone

A cardioid pattern mic records sounds in front of it
A cardioid pattern mic records sounds in front of it

The starting point is a good quality microphone but also the right type for the job you have in mind. Luckily, with the growth of Podcasting and computer based audio recording in general, there is a wide selection of microphones available and they’ve come down in price quite dramatically in the last few years. Choosing the right kind of microphone is just as important as the quality. There are basically two types: unidirectional, also known as cardioid or hyper-cardioid microphones, and omnidirectional, also known as border microphones. What’s the difference? Unidirectional mics only record sounds that are directly in front of them, whereas omnidirectional mics record sounds coming from all directions.

Which type should I use?

A shotgun mic cuts out unwanted background noise
A shotgun mic cuts out unwanted background noise

In most cases, it’s best to use unidirectional mics. This is for general studio recording and out on location for things like interviews or news reports. Use an omnidirectional microphone to make mono recordings of two or more people in a quiet room. Omnidirectional mics are sometimes used as “border mics” that pic up additional background noise or ambient noise and recorded as a separate track that is mixed in later. In situations where you expect a lot of background noise such as in town centres, shopping centres, schools, universities or cafes, it’s advisable to use a “shotgun” mic. These are extremely directional and do a pretty good job of cutting out any sound that isn’t directly in front of them. Professional quality camcorders often come equipped with a shotgun mic.

Get the right connections

An important thing to bear in mind is how you intend to connect it to your recording device. If it’s a DAT, Mini-disc or your computer, check that the mic can be easily plugged in. Some mics require phantom power (48v) which can only be provided through a good quality mixing desk, although many good quality condenser mics include a battery compartment so that phantom power is not necessary and you can plug them directly into your recording device. Cheaper consumer condenser mics often require what is known as “plug in power” or have a battery compartment built in. Most modern digital recorders, such as MiniDiscs and dictaphones, include plug in power so the battery compartment is unnecessary. Computer plug in power is different to digital recorders and you may experience compatibility problems with some microphones. If in doubt, test microphones before purchasing or you can always buy good quality purpose made USB microphones that are typically sold as Podcasting mics.

How can I make a stereo recording?

A coincident pair of mics to make stereo recordings
A coincident pair of mics to make stereo recordings

The easiest way to make a stereo recording is to use what’s known as a coincident pair. It’s basically two microphones crossed together pointed at either side of the source(s) of the sound. There are specially designed “stereo mics” that have two mics inside a single unit. While they’re quicker to set up and more convenient, you’ll definitely get better results with separate mics, plus you’ll also have the option to use them for interview style studio or location recording.

Beware of the term binaural recording. This is not stereo recording as we all understand it, is intended exclusively for use with headphones and attempts to reproduce a “live” listening experience. There’s a sample binaural recording on the Wikipedia.org page on the link above. Try listening to it with headphones and through your speakers to hear the difference.

Microphone technique and placing

Having good quality microphones is only half the story however. It’s quite possible to make terrible recordings with top quality mics. The position of the mic(s) relative to the speaker(s) and other sources of sound will also determine the quality of your recordings. Here’s some basic advice:

Correct distancing

If you’re talking into a mic, you want it to be about 20cm away (or the distance between the tip of your thumb to the tip of your little finger when they’re outstretched) from your mouth and not directly in front of it. Having the mic directly in front of your mouth results in “popping” where consonant sounds such as “p”s and “b”s send a wave of air directly into the mic and distort the recording. Most people hold the mic slightly lower than their mouth but positioning it to the side usually gives better results. By the way, most headset mics are positioned way too close to your mouth and usually use poor quality mic capsules with low sound sensitivity to compensate.

Avoiding handling noise

If you’re making stereo recordings or using a fixed position mic (i.e. not hand-held), use a mic stand on the floor whenever possible. Putting stands on a table increases “handling noise”. This is when the mic pics up vibrations through the mic stand or from your hands when you’re holding it, touching the table, etc. Be conscious of this because it can ruin a perfectly good recording!

Beware of background noise

Also be aware of all other sources of sound in the area where you’re recording. Human ears naturally filter out background noise but mics are not so smart. For example, you might not notice the sound of the fan on your computer but you’ll certainly notice it when you listen back to the recording.

Recording directly onto PCs and laptops

Most computers come equipped with fairly good quality sound cards so you can just plug in a mic and press record on your favourite recording software. If you’re lucky, you won’t have a problem with hum and hiss when recording with microphones directly onto a PC or laptop. Unfortunately, this seems to be a very common problem and it usually has nothing to do with your microphones, mixers, gain levels, etc. as you might read on some on-line forums. The most common cause of hum and hiss is from the sound card in your PC or laptop picking up noise from the hard disc drive, CPU, cooling fan, etc. inside. You can check if this is the problem by unplugging your microphone but leaving the cable in (so that if there’s an internal mic, it doesn’t get switched on) and recording a few seconds of no input. If you still hear hum and hiss on the recording, then it’s most probably the sound card. Fortunately, you can buy external sound cards that will remedy the situation. Professional quality ones start at around £100 (24 bit, 96 KHz) and budget ones at around £30 (16 bit, 48 KHz).

Personally, I rarely record audio directly into a computer. I prefer to use a stand-alone, battery powered PCM WAV recorder. They’re small, pocket-sized devices that often have a coincident pair of microphones built in and various inputs for plugging external microphones in. They record high bit-rate, high quality, uncompressed audio onto SD cards that you can then transfer to your computer for editing. The microphone I use most often, even indoors, is a battery powered super-cardioid (“shotgun”) microphone held with a “shockmount” which suspends the mic to prevent handling noise (shockmounts are small, cheap, and a good investment).

Monitoring

Listening to what you’re recording in real time is a big advantage, especially in improvised or experimental situations. It’s also incredibly useful for learning about how best to position mics. In a recording studio, you have the luxury of a sound proofed mixing room but in real life and out on the road, this isn’t always possible. Headphones that isolate your ears from the outside world are an excellent option, in fact, I’ve found that a simple, relatively inexpensive pair of Sony ear-plug style ear-buds allow me to monitor mic recordings in almost any situation.

Choosing the correct recording formats

I always record in an uncompressed format because digital compression such as MP3 and AAC is “lossy”. Lossy means that you lose a lot of detail and resolution in the sound and as you edit and process it, the quality of the sound diminishes. Just as it’s important to edit and process digital photos with the highest pixel resolution possible, it’s equally important to edit and process audio recordings with the highest bit-rate and sample frequency possible. If you can, record directly to 16 bit WAV (Windows) or AIFF (Mac) files with a sample frequency of 96 KHz (96,000 Hz). However, this professional quality recording isn’t always possible so 8 bit WAV/AIFF files with a sample rate of 44.1 KHz (44,100 Hz) are perfectly adequate. Good audio recording software will have these options available. When you have edited and processed your recordings and you’re happy with the results, then it’s time to convert them to MP3 or AAC for distribution over the Internet.

Which output format should I choose MP3 or AAC?

It depends on what you want. MP3 is the most widely accepted and compatible format. While Flash Player, the de facto multimedia platform on the web, supports both, some MP3 players do not support AAC so bear this in mind when choosing a format. The main advantage of AAC over MP3 is that it preserves better audio quality at very high compression rates (smaller file sizes) and the main advantage of MP3 over AAC is that it is much better audio quality at low compression rates (larger file sizes). Both formats support DRM (digital rights management) but both can be easily defeated with readily available 3rd party software.

Which software package should I use?

In my opinion, the easiest software package for non-professionals to use that produces the best results is Adobe Soundbooth. It isn’t cheap and if you’re on a budget, I’d recommend using Audacity which is free and open source. There’s a list of digital audio editors here. Whichever software package you decide to use, make sure you can do the following easily:

  • Set the overall volume (gain) of the audio tracks.
  • Fade tracks in and out.
  • Cut, splice, paste, move and delete sections of a track.
  • Add audio effects and processing such as compression, reverb, EQ, noise reduction, de-esser and aural exciter (Ideally have a selection of optimised presets for things like “radio leveller” or “female voice”).
  • Set the sample frequency* when recording and converting to MP3 (e.g. 44.1 KHz).
  • Set the digital compression bit-rate when converting to MP3 (e.g. 56 Kbps).

* Flash Player only supports sample frequencies of 11, 22 and 44.1 KHz and compression bit-rates under 128Kbps. It does not support variable bit-rates.

A final word

There’s a lot to learn about making good, high quality audio recordings but understanding a few basic concepts will help enormously. Of course, the best thing to do is get set up and experiment, try different things out, push things to the extreme and see what results you get. Above all, do lots of it and have fun while you learn. Good luck and happy recording! 🙂