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Wikis and virtual learning environments – testing the water (part 2)

On today’s blog I’d like to talk about the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) which I have been using called Schoology. I have been using Schoology for less than a month but in that short amount of time I regard it very highly.

I think every school, whether small or large, would value from a VLE. Which VLE to use, Moodle, Blackboard, Frog, Edmodo, or Schoology, depends largely upon how you will use it and who for. I think VLEs are amazing things. I missed having one in my own education and I am envious of students having all this amazing technology available to help their learning today.

The VLE I have set up is for classes of ESL students. My class sizes vary from 4 to 15 students max. I am using the VLE as a study space for students to come and use resources that I have selected appropriate to their level and set small assignments in class. The VLE has so much more potential than this, but it’s key role is to make learners more independent and autonomous.

I am no stranger to VLEs mind. A few years back I had a short role as a trainer for a Moodle sales company. In the UK the government made it compulsory for all primary and secondary schools to have a VLE. The company I worked for set-up your Moodle and charged for its hosting and training.

At the time I saw Moodle as a brilliant VLE. It’s used by the Open University, and many other universities across the world, and was the most widely used, and probably still is, VLE in the world. It was open-source too, which meant the code wasn’t locked down, so many people could work on Moodle to make it better. I think what happened though is that it became too much and too difficult to understand everything that went on in it. Too many IT technicians and not enough educators working on it was a likely cause. Luckily for me that gave me a job to instruct confused teachers on how to create courses and resources. What they didn’t know though was that I found it very confusing at times too. I bought the guide on how to use it and would always get lost somewhere.

Anyway, let’s focus on Schoology.

The school I currently work at does not use a VLE, which gave me some freedom to try out Schoology as a potential candidate for future use. It is the first VLE I have tried as a teacher and I am very happy with it.

The first thing you notice about Schoology is that you already know how to use it. It’s pretty much the old Facebook layout with a few extras. My students even commented on this and how much they liked the idea of having something like Facebook for the classroom. One advantage I think of straight away is no training! This means no extra costs for the school and no unpaid training sessions. Bonus!

Another thing about Schoology is that it’s free. You can pay for a premium package if you’re a big school, but if you’re using like me, in a small language school, then there are no costs involved. You can of course download Moodle for free. Be wary! To do this you will need a fast computer and access to somewhere that will host it online for you. You might as well pay for all that fuss. Schoology is accessed online. There is no download. All you need to do is sign up using your email account. Two mature students I had didn’t have an email account – no problem I said – and it took about 5 minutes to set them up on Gmail and allow access to the VLE.

At the moment I have set up two classes on to the VLE. A beginners class and a pre-intermediate class. The type of content obviously varies for different levels, but the basic set-up is the same.

The first thing I have done is create courses. Courses can be seen as classrooms on your VLE.  In the courses/classrooms you can start to add materials. There are 6 options of content that you can create in the materials section and you can hide or make visible, just like in Moodle, and decide what you want to show. The 6 are: assignments, online tests/quizzes, files/links, discussions, albums, pages. At the moment I have only got as far as using 3 of them and hidden the others.

Assignments can be used as in-class assignments or homework assignments. I have wanted to watch how students use the VLE so I have only used it in class so far. It’s easy to create an assignment. All you do is click into assignments, choose create assignment, give it a name and then give instructions to your class. You can also provide students with files to look at or links to click on. If you were setting an assignment as homework then you can set a date, allow grading options and allow students to upload finished documents.

In the files/links section you can add files and links. Definitely useful. In here you can separate them into different folders. Great for independent learners. Say a student is struggling with the present perfect, then they can click into the folder and practice using all the links and files you have provided in previous lessons. I think about how much time I spend looking for good resources. I think it’s great how I can now save all these in an accessible place for both myself and students.

Discussions are also a great way to get students interacting with each other. The other week I tried a live discussion with the class. It’s pretty similar to a Facebook wall. I can definitely see the potential in this by getting students to practice their English outside of class. It would be great to set a week long chat on a topic so students can contribute and continually practice what they’ve learnt.

One final thing I’d like to mention is the Schoology network. Schoology is also a social networking site. It is not just a VLE. On here you can join groups such as Schoology Educators where other people who use Schoology will communicate with each other on technical issues or anything else. There is also a system where you can upload your resources from your computer. You can decide if you want to share your resources to the larger Schoology network of teachers. I currently use GoogleDrive as an online drop box for all my resources but I am considering moving them over as it may make things faster in the future when using Schoology, but if you don’t keep files online already and you don’t have Schoology then I would recommend signing up and uploading your resources here.

I hope you have enjoyed reading.




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Wikis and virtual learning environments – testing the water (part 1)

Over the past month I have been trying to integrate more technology into my classroom and I have been experimenting with two things, the first being a wiki and the second being a virtual learning environment (VLE) or, if you are from North America, learning management system (LMS). The wiki website I have been using is from Pbworks.com and the VLE is from Schoology.com.

Let me start by saying that I am not a complete novice when it comes to using both wikis or VLEs. Many years back I worked for a company where I trained teachers, and some businesses, on how to use Moodle. I even started to create a wiki for that same company to help train new sales staff on products and terminology (although I left before it was ever finished or used). This is, however, the first time I will be using both as a teacher, and I’d like to share my experiences in this blog.

Let me start in this blog (part 1) with the wiki. The class I have been using the wiki with is a small group of students who I have for 1 hour each day, Monday to Friday. They are mainly Arabic men, aged from 19 to 50, and are at a high pre-intermediate level. The aim of the class is to work on practising a skill for that hour. The point of the lesson is to spend a quarter of their day with a different teacher where coursebooks aren’t used. I usually pick a theme, e.g. food, and practise skills around that theme like listening to a recipe, role plays in a supermarket, or a discussion about strange foods around the world.

The first week using the wiki I planned my lessons to practise speaking, listening, and reading, but I mostly wanted to focus on writing and collaborating within the wiki. My Arabic students tend to appreciate writing in class as much as, and sometimes more than, speaking, so the wiki really appealed to me here. It seemed like the right group to use as my guinea pigs.

You might have heard of something called Wikipedia, the most famous wiki of them all. Now, I have heard lots of very good ideas about how to use a wiki in class such as collaborative story writing, however I wanted to try to use our class wiki a bit like an encyclopaedia. Just as Wikipedia do, I wanted to take a theme or subject, take some key points from that and then write about them. I planned my week very logically as follows:

Monday – introduce a topic and practice speaking skills.

Tuesday – do a listening exercise around the same topic and have a small comprehension and a follow up discussion.

Wednesday – Students write on the wiki.

Thursday – Students finish off writing and present their wikis to the class.

Friday – make corrections, choose several words within their wiki to create more pages.

I used this basic plan with the topic of signs and symbols. I made some of my own resources and also used a peace symbols listening exercise from the British Council website, which, by the way, turned out to be interesting and new for both teacher and students. On Wednesday I got the students to write about one symbol each, putting the reading/listening from Tuesday’s lesson into their own words, and finding more information and pictures from the internet.

I think as a whole the weekly plan to set up and create a class wiki worked well. Students enjoyed the chosen topic. They also enjoyed being creative with a webpage of their own and inserting pictures to make it look good.  They all appreciated the extra writing practise too.

From a teachers perspective it really gave me the time to observe my students strengths and weaknesses. It also gave me time to sit down with my students, ask them what they were going to write and what new things they have found. We shared how to add a page and how to insert a picture communicating all the time. We were all learning how to use the wiki together so it really helped the dynamic of the group.

So yes, I am fairly happy with the wiki so far. It has proved itself to be educationally useful. It involved little extra effort on my behalf and it was producing positive results and good work. There were however a few things that I didn’t like.

Firstly the navigation in Pbworks. Now that’s not to say there isn’t some sort of navigation. There is a navigation bar on the side to jump to different pages within the wiki, however this is in alphabetical order and the class has made quite a few pages making a long list. There is a sidebar area where you can edit and create links to main pages but at the moment students are just using backspace or calling me over because they’re lost.

Another thing about the wiki is that it looks a bit dated. Now I’m no graphic designer, and I don’t think the majority of my students are either, but I am afraid that the wiki may look dull and amateurish and that students will lose interest. There are things you can do to it though such as add a logo or change the colour, but it’s the limitations of the text boxes that make it appear a bit messy. I think my main concern is that students are all using different size fonts and lots of typefaces. One thing I could do is set aside time each week to ‘tidy up’ the wiki making it look more appealing or train students to always edit a page a certain way. The latter could even turn into a collaborative wiki page designed by the students themselves.

Overall, the PBworks wiki has worked well. I got some good feedback from the students and we have worked on the wiki for two full weeks on two different topics. If you would like to see what my class has done so far then please click here.

Please feel free to make any comments as to how you have used wikis in class or if you have used something similar to PBworks.

In my next blog I will write about my experiences with Schoology in part 2.

Thanks for reading,


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