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Published January 29, 2012 | English (Second Language)

Teaching Without Books in 101

Why did we decide to replace the traditional student books and grammar books used in our 101s with the Net? We had discussed this casually over the last couple of years, simply because we often found that the books were limiting—themes were outdated, the subject sequences didn't complement our teaching styles or personalities, and of course preoccupation with the environment, not to mention the cost of books for the students whom we assumed all have access to a computer, if not at home, certainly at the college.

Why did we decide to replace the traditional student books and grammar books used in our 101s with the Net? We had discussed this casually over the last couple of years, simply because we often found that the books were limiting—themes were outdated, the subject sequences didn't complement our teaching styles or personalities, and of course preoccupation with the environment, not to mention the cost of books for the students whom we assumed all have access to a computer, if not at home, certainly at the college.

A Conversation with Julie Hamel about the Use of IT in her Course without Booksa

This term, we were three teachers on the same course, three teachers with very different interests—two prefer social issues or psychology, and the other leans more toward culture and history—so using the Net would allow us to pick and choose what we wanted to discuss or write about with our students. Authors rarely take risks; they pick and choose the historical, the politically correct, and mainstream content. Without the worries publishers have, we had the liberty to choose more current and thought-provoking content.

Clearly, we had to teach the same grammar based on the MELS requirements. This meant testing the same things throughout the term, but not necessarily in the same order. We decided we would have fun with our theme choices and allow students to participate in those choices. Throughout the process, we researched material –videos or texts— from the public domain, and ended up with a substantial bank of readings and listenings.

Content

Finding content on the Net was a piece of cake, as long as we met the MELS objectives—for example the required number of words in a text for comprehension, the components necessary for writing an essay, essay samples and the grammar required at that level. The Web is a treasure trove of material. Many sites are available for reading and listening, YouTube being the better-known one. We also used TED.com or FORA which feature some of the best and most eclectic speakers from around the world. Englishforeveryone.org has some reading material to offer (more for beginners but some for intermediate learners) and of course CBC or BBC with their pod casts and videos. BBC Learning is jammed packed with educational components like six-minute radio captions and grammar lessons. However, searching and selecting requires hours and hours of reading and adapting the material because the Net is also riddled with spelling and syntax mistakes. Furthermore, we had to make up our own questionnaires, which was extremely time consuming. It was like writing the book for the course rather than buying it.

CBC News website

CBC News website

University of Victoria website

University of Victoria website

As for grammar, well, we hit the jackpot. One can work with sites such as ELC Study Zone or Englishpage.com or English Club to cover and practice grammar. Most of the exercises are self-correcting, so students can gauge themselves—great to use as formative work. But if custom-made is the preference, then one can create material on Moodle using the same self-correcting format. Moodle has the advantage of being slightly more user friendly than Omnivox, making it more efficient to link students and monitor what they did and did not do. Again, the idea was to fly bookless and produce a minimum of printing. Whatever printing was needed, we sent documents electronically via Omnivox or Moodle to the students; it was their responsibility to print. It is debatable whether using less paper is environmentally sounder than using up mega watts of energy, but when we started out that question had not occurred to us.

BBC website

BBC website

TED website

TED website

The fact that students were an inherent part of choosing content was also an advantage; their interest was piqued and tweaked. When the projector or the screen was on, they were all eyes. But that did not rally more students to actually do the work. We estimate the number of slackers in our classes not accessing and doing the work would have been equivalent to those who rarely open books in a traditional textbook environment.

Technicalities :

One has to bear in mind that when you are using computers and multimedia screens or smartboards you're relying on power. Now, granted power failures are rare, but glitches are not: batteries run out, colleagues forget to put the mouse back onto its charger, the server is out of order and so on. There's a fair amount of stress linked to giving over your class time to the gods of technology, and without a doubt, our college technicians were becoming our lifesavers, if not best friends.

Also, it took some time for students to comprehend that they had to match documents to class content, and to take the time to check their mailboxes on a regular basis. It's much easier to tell a class which pages to do and for when. It's another story to tell them that they need to download such and such, watch it and then print out the questionnaire, followed by a reading or two, and oh, make sure you formulate your own questions for those as well. One of us used Moodle only, which is a more user-friendly platform because all of the attachments can be found and linked on one page, compared to Omnivox where you have a choice between documents and communiqués, thus adding to the confusion. On the other hand, using technology should force students eventually to hone their organizational skills.

Student Opinions :

In a class of 23 students, 9 wrote that they prefer using books while the others opted for the electronic approach. Here is what they had to say :

Having the documents on the Internet is a great thing. I remember in the past, some teachers gave us exercises in the books and they would do something else and we wrote in the books. Those classes were boring.

I appreciate that we don't have to buy a book that we're not going to use half of.

I think it's a good way to save money because the term is expensive. We don't really need a grammar book because we can find it all on the Net.

It's better to use Internet. Almost half the pages are not used in a manual.

I prefer writing than typing, but like the Internet but I would like a book too.

I personally prefer having a book because I feel more organized than having a lot of sheets separated in a binder and I think it's easier to remember the homework because I can easily forget to go on Omnivox.

I prefer when I have a book because we can always have it with us. Personally I can't always go on a computer and print.

Conclusion :

All in all it was a wonderful experience in creativity, but because we ended up doing both the teaching and writing, time became an issue. In spite of the fact that we do have a bank of material, we feel like we're running two jobs: that of author and teacher. Will we repeat the experience? That will depend on the publication du jour.

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