iPad-Assisted Dialogic Learning: Innovation to Year 9 English Scheme of Work
I had been wondering how I could offer my top set Year 9 a learning experience that not only would meet the KS3 English curriculum requirements but also offer them an opportunity to stretch their abilities to the full. I found inspiration in my own learning experience – my two-year, part-time Cambridge MEd course via a blended learning route.
Firstly, my blended learning route involved a combination of online and residential requirements. Six residential conferences at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge, were organised each year. In addition, the course contents were delivered via weekly online sessions during term time that incorporated discussions in small groups of 2 – 5 on assigned topics. Several “elective” options on subjects or research methodologies formed another requirement. Regular supervisions also took place between students and their supervisors.
It was the format of my weekly online sessions that inspired me. Essentially, the weekly session was a conventional real-time discussion. Reading and written material, together with assignments, required for each session were posted on the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Our course leader acted as the convenor, instructor and teacher during the online sessions. In each session, discussions on given topics took place in different chat rooms. Our discussions were always lively and well-informed. We learned from describing, narrating, discussing, critiquing, evaluating each other’s comments and ideas. A separate forum was set up for individual or group summaries, feedback or commentaries.
The advantages of this model include the following characteristics: small group, pace and challenge, dialogic teaching and learning, visible record of all discussions.
E-learning + m-learning = u-learning
Computing-assisted learning has evolved rapidly in the past five decades since the introduction of Computer Assisted Instructions at Stanford University in the 1960s. With the available of such technology, the term “electronic learning” (e-learning) emerged to characterised how knowledge was shared through electronic media. Learning could take place via the use of computers, on websites or through digital collaboration (Smith, 2012). Indeed, Brown (2000) predicted that a new “learning ecology” was created as a result of such technology. In addition to access to an unfathomable amount of information, its communicative and interactive capacities, the objective of e-learning, suggested by Garrison and Anderson (2011), “is to blend diversity and cohesiveness into a dynamic and intellectually challenging ‘learning ecology'” (2011).
Broadly defined as “the delivery of learning content to learners utilizing mobile computing devices” (Parsons & Ryu, 2006), mobile-learing (m-learning) is characterised by the ownership of portable devices such as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs, such as Palm), digital media players (MP3 players and iPods) and smartphones, including android models and iPhones (Chris, 2008). Mobile technology frees the “learning ecology” of e-learning from its temporal, geographical and physical constrains. M-learning is therefore credited for its anytime, anywhere promise that offers a greater flexibility to learners (Gaudill, 2007). In effect, not only can learners access material through Internet connection (e-learning), access is possible whilst they are either in a workplace or in a an airport departure lounge via their smartphones or iPads (m-learning), providing Wifi connection is available.
And it is the “non obtrusive” (Smith, 2012) character of Wifi, 3G and 4G technology that takes computing-assisted learning to a ubiquitous level. Ubiquitous computing is defined as “an environment when the computer is integral but embedded into the background of daily life” (Park, 2011). Originally, envisioned in the 1990s by Mark Weiser was a world in which computers were embedded in everyday objects. Credited as the person who first coined the phrase “ubiquitous computing”, Weiser (1991) remarks, “the most profound technologies are those that disappear” (p. 94). It is argued that with the development of communication technologies, a new education concept evolved into being (Smith, 2012). Ubiquitous learning (u-learning) became the next phase of computing-assisted learning, combing the key characteristics of both e-leanring and m-learning to provide “adaptive learning for students, as well as providing a pervasive and omnipresent learning environment” (Smith, 2012).
U-learning in practice
Our blended learning route exploited ubiquitous computing in the way that a various types of media resources (still images and video clips) and textual material were embedded in the VLE that was accessible any time on desktop as well as portable devices via the Internet. The ways in which all participants communicated during these sessions included the use of online chat rooms and Skype. All of us took part without leaving our own homes or workplace. In fact, as long as access to the Internet was available, the session could take place practically anywhere.
Paradoxically, our “visibility” was only made possible by the “invisibility” of certain technologies – for example, Wifi and the Internet – to allow our discussions and Skype to take pace (admittedly, occasionally we did experience some connection difficulties). Disappearing out of view has made the power of those technologies more noticeable. Crow (2007) explains, “ubiquitous computing allows us to envision a classroom in which the teacher remains focused on his or her field of expertise (e.g. math or social studies) while still utilizing technology to enhance student learning” (p. 129). Ubiquitous learning (u-learning) is the theoretic underpinning of such teaching and learning experience that overcomes the temporal, physical and geographical boundaries. It worked for my weekly discussion during my MEd course, and I thought it was the answer that I was looking for.
A thematic approach
Instead of the regular scheme of reading a single novel in the class and learn some key skills in textual analysis for a literature essay assessment, I am trying to offer this highly able and motivated group something that would stretch and challenge them. In addition to the key skills, I have introduced a comparative element integral to GCSE and A-level English Literature courses in this one-off thematic scheme for this group: Bildungsroman fiction. It certainly demands perseverance and resilience on both the students and the teacher’s parts.
In addition to The Boy in Striped Pyjamas and The Hunger Games (normally the students are only required to read one), I have added Great Gatsby and The Great Expectations (both are GCSE and A-level texts). Two trainee teachers will be delivering the two additional texts under my supervision in the first 5 weeks of this term. Their teaching will also inform the group the ways in which they would peer-teach the group the other two texts. In lesson time, we would look at extracts closely to learn the skills of textual and language analysis. The group can read the texts in their entireties as continuous homework. In the final two weeks, the students responsible for their chosen texts will then lead the lessons with resources and activities designed by themselves.
In terms of the nature of this scheme, it is more collaborative and dialogic (Alexander, 2010). We use an App called Edmodo to record many of the learning outcomes in the form of “posts”. Such Virtual Learning Environment has become increasingly more popular even in higher education. Instead of recorded discussions in class, the group has been putting their responses to discussion questions on Edmodo as small groups or individuals.
It is hoped that this scheme will offer this group not only academic rigour but also a rare opportunity to delve into literary fiction in more breadth and depth.
Dialogic space as pedagogical framework
Outlined in Robin Alexander’s dialogic learning are some of the key features found in my MEd online sessions. Mercer, Warwick, Kershner and Staarman (2010) have found some useful facilities of the interactive whiteboard (IWB) to provide a dialogic space to support students’ discussion (p. 381). The point out that the IWB “allows a teacher to ‘scaffold’ collaborative tasks by arranging material, in a specific sequence, on the IWB for the children to access and encounter as they progress through a set task (p. 381). Interestingly, my use of Edmodo, adopted from my MEd online discussion format, resembles the ways in which the teachers use the IWB in Mercer et al‘s study.
In the sequence of lessons recorded, my “instruction talk” in “teaching talk” was replaced by written instructions posted at the start of each session; it was reduced to the bare minimum. Most of the “chats” taking place in these sessions were manifestations of various aspects of “learning talk”, such as “narrate, explain, analyse, speculate, imagine, explore, evaluate, discuss, argue and justify” (Alexander, 2010).
The pedagogical framework for the Bildungsroman scheme is borrowed from the basic pedagogical principles of my MEd weekly online discussion. The pedagogical structure consisted of individual, paired and small group work/talk. Each week, the lecturer would not only reconfigure the groupings, she would also alter the sequence of activities: sometimes we started with individual work, sometimes we were put in groups to discuss part of the week’s reading, writing or research assignments. Groups were mixed up on weekly basis, sometimes, within one evening. It was a highly dynamic way of dialogic learning through exposing us to different ideas and attitudes towards issues being discussed.
Unlike the restrictions to the dialogic space caused by the size and position of the IWB in the study by Mercer et al (2010, p. 382), my MEd experience seemed to have overcome such issue by utilising Web 2 technologies to accommodate multiple users sharing chat rooms from remote sites. Although all the participants were absent from sight from each other, with only typed script clearly appearing in the “chat rooms”, ironically, there was no hiding place for those who did not contribute, purposefully or otherwise. Additional, the dialogic space created was multi-dimentional and multi-directional.
With my Year 9 class size of 33 (three times the size of my MEd group), my immediate challenge when adopting such theoretically-rich and practically-sophisticated approach to my classroom became clear. How could I make sure the lesson proceed with smooth transitions between activities whilst progress was also visible and evidenced, fulfilling both structural and dialogic demands?
Prensky (2001) highlights the immediate predicament faced by 21-century teachers when they try to teach a generation born into, and brought up, in a world surrounding by ubiquitous computing. “Digital immigrants” and “digital natives” are used to described the two generations (Prensky, 2001). Prensky (2001) goes on to stress: “our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language” (2001). To some, his claim may sound exaggerated, however, as a digital immigrant instructor, I was acutely aware the importance of my role in providing a environment that would provide my digital native students a relevant and challenging learning environment, both in the classroom and the VLE.
iPad as Dialogic teaching and learning tools
The potential of iPad in education is documented in a case study conducted by Henderson and Yeow (2012). Since the introduction of iPads to our school, almost every student own an iPad through the school’s iPad for Learning leasing programme. As the infrastructure improves, so has the reliability of Internet connections, essential to the effective use of iPads.
Henderson and Yeow’s (2012) study evaluates the issues of engagement and collaboration in employing iPad in the classroom. The interviews in the study point out the obvious advantage of using iPad for reading in small groups in comparison with netbooks or desktops (Henderson & Yeow, 2012). Whilst in my class, it was true that occasionally some students might need to share iPads for certainly activities, I would not normally ask my students to share an iPad for reading. I would prepare some hard copies of the text in I had anticipated the situation when certain students could not use their iPads for whatever reason. Some of the tasks in my new scheme of work directly encouraged the students to collaborative in small groups of no more than 5, with each of them responsible for a specific task, research, collate, scribe or some other creative undertakings.
In terms of engagement, Henderson and Yeow’s (2012) study attributes ease of use as the key factor for high engagement regardless of intelligence. In order to build the students’, and indeed the teachers’, confidence and competence of using iPads, it is essential that they are not discouraged by complicated usability and functionality. As members of my Year 9 groups would have had used iPads for over a year, there was very little concern on my part over their ability to engage with their iPads. They were all very competent users.
Edmodo as a collaborative tool
Learning as a co-constructive process was the key theoretical underpinning of my scheme of work. Psychological and social benefits of cooperative learning have been documented in research into social interdependence theory (Johnson, 2003). The potential of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) and Web 2 platform (that facilitates podcast, blog, chatrooms for social networking) in realising the advantages of co-constructive and collaborative learning as opposed to conventional, teacher-centred model began to draw many educators’ and researchers’ interest (Marttunen & Laurinen, 2007; Zhang, Scardamalia, Reeve, & Messina, 2009; Groenke & Paulus, 2008; MacArthur, 2009).
Despite my early scepticism in the last academic year about the educational merits of Edmodo and its ease of use, I decided to give it a try, purely because I thought I was in a more favourable situation this year. Firstly, this was a top-set group and secondly, I would have two trainee teachers co-teaching this group with me.
One of the fist reactions of the students to Edmodo was that they mistook it for Facebook. Indeed, Edmodo has the appearance and some interactive functionalities similar to Facebook (See Figure 1). Instead of a recreational or social goal in its purpose, Edmodo provides a learning network that brings teachers and students together in and outside the classroom (Holland & Muilenburg, 2011). Some of its basic functions described by Fernandez-Ulloa (2013) include:
- Teachers are able to post topics for discussions, grade students’ work, set assignments, grade students’ work.
- Teachers can differentiate and individualise learning through the creation of sub-groups within a course.
- Students can submit homework and view their grades and comments by their peers and the teacher.
- Teachers can create quizzes and polls.
In my experimental scheme that incorporates the use of Edmodo (on iPads and on desktop), I tested the first three basic functions in an attempt to explore its dialogic potential.
Dialogic teaching in action: vignette one
Modelled on the format of my MEd weekly online session, I posted the lesson plan on Edmodo as a Post. However, this lesson was severely curtailed because of a fire alarm right at the end of the previous lesson. When every student and the trainee teacher and a teaching assistant returned to the class, there were only 25 minutes left to that lesson. I made a decision to go straight to Task 2 of PART I. The students started working in pairs or groups of 3 or 4. All three adults began to circulate to monitor progress and offer support to all the groups.
It is evident that this group had followed my instruction talk in a written form and attempted to select and analyse three of Dickens’s techniques. The identification and analysis of “dialect” (paragraph 1) and “negative lexis” (paragraph 2) are particularly successful. Considering they were only given 15 minutes for this task, a typical comment such as this one clearly demonstrate and evidence the remarkable progress that the group made in a very short space of time.
My feedback was not only intended for this group; I was also modelling a response that each one of the group was required to give to the comment of a group of his/her own choice.
The evaluate quality of these talks is evident. Not only have they praised what others have done successfully, they are also able to offer highly critical advice to each other.
Dialogic teaching in action: vignette two
A similar lesson on the text, Great Gatsby, was planned. It resulted in a similar outcome. Instead of completing all the activities over a couple of lessons as it happened in the last lesson, all activities were finished in one lesson on this occasion. The following three screenshots illustrate the sequence of learning.
Overall, the trial has been a successful one in both lessons. Extrapolated from my MEd online session is a simple formula of individual, paired and group work in a highly dialogic structure. The use of iPads has meant that the students were able to access lesson material, share resources and record work without major disruption. The invisibility of certain technologies such as WiFi, network connection and Cloud has certainly made these lessons examples of u-learning with much promise.
However, a couple of additional points have to be noted. Firstly, a robust infrastructure plays a crucial part in the successful in embedding iPads in the classroom. During both lessons, there were students who could not access the Internet for their research. Initially, the students expected the teachers to resolve the problems for them, however, they soon learned to find the solutions by distributing work effectively within their working groups. Another issue arising from this experience was monitoring students effort and progress, both formed part of teacher assessment of their “progress” and “attitudes to learning” grades. Clearly, effective strategies are required to ensure that talk does not digress to off-task chat.
It is worth considering whether or not the use of learning platform such as Edmodo is only more successful with higher ability groups? Further observations and studies are needed to draw comparison between different groups. Similarly, how effective Edmodo is in different subjects remains an area for further investigation.
Finally, it is undeniable that many students did recognise and appreciate my effort to try something different. Many have found the scaffolding process of developing their analytical skills through posting and responding to comments extremely useful. This dialogic learning had directly resulted in the outcome of their assignment – producing a comparative essay. They agreed that it had been a hard scheme of work, but they had learned awful lot in the process.
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