Sunday, 14 October 2012

Pete Sharma rocks Milan (with a little help from his friends): full report from the PSA Symposium, 2012 (Part 2)

Hold that thought: Luke Baxter of Richmond ELT
Next up were Luke Baxter and Cathy Smith of Richmond ELT, the Oxford-based publisher that is also part of the Santillana Publishing Group which is in turn owned by Prisa, the world’s leading Spanish and Portuguese-language business group in the fields of education, information and entertainment.

Richmond chose to ponder the theme of convergence and Luke started off by quoting the business technology consultant Ifeanyi O. Asonye, who defined convergence as 'the priming of underlying digital technology components and features such as voice, texts, video, pictures, broadcasts, presentation, streaming media, global connectivity and personalized services; the combination of all of these features and abilities from multiple electronic systems into a simplified, converged and computer-mediated communication system to enable individuals to interact, play, communicate, collaborate and share information in many new and different ways'. 

As an experienced EFL teacher, Luke brought along some realia to underline how “old media” from the real world – books and vinyl records are now available on just about any digital platform, including  the cloud. Newspapers and maps can be accessed from an iPad and even analogue gadgets such as a compass and a spirit level have been transformed into digital versions as apps.

In the field of language learning this process of convergence is well under way as content from books, audio and CD-ROM activities is gradually integrated with Virtual Learning Environments. 

Luke Baxter and Cathy Smith of Richmond ELT converge on
the British Consulate-General, Milan for the PSA Symposium
Convergence is also changing both attitudes and behaviour towards learning. As Luke pointed out, when he taught English in Spain, students used CD-ROMs but their teachers really knew exactly what they were doing with them. As learning becomes more integrated this kind of self-study activity can be managed more effectively by teachers with access to students’ activity profile and results (e.g. via the Learning Platforms accompanying several Richmond series – and also in Little Bridge, as we heard earlier).

Cathy demonstrated media convergence in action by introducing delegates to The BigPicture – Richmond’s new course for young adults. This includes wordlists, transcripts and online resources available through the Learning Platform, which has a special interface for teachers. Some of the features designed to enhance learning (and make teachers’ lives easier) include the ability to create drag and drop exercises, detailed student record-keeping functions, e.g. attendance and instant scores on exercises.

Cathy and The Big Picture Learning Platform
The Big Picture also features specially-made videos, Richmond Vodcasts, which are integrated with the course content. Other highlights include the Big Picture blog and the Forum which has a social networking interface. The Test Studio allows teachers to generate tests based on material from any part of the book being used in class and to get instant feedback from students, who can complete tests on the learning platform. Test material can be created as Word files or made interactive.

The Learning Platform also boasts an audio player where students can do listening activities either with or without the audio script. The Teachers Book for each course can be found online and there is a wealth of ready-made extension activities available.

Continuing with the theme of convergence, Luke looked at the (even) bigger picture of how new technology is impacting on teaching languages. He started by considering the Cloud, which, as he pointed out, is not really a new concept. Web mail accounts, such as Hotmail, which send messages to your account not your computer, have been around for a long time. Services such as Google Cloud and Dropbox now allow us access our media wherever we are. This is a huge boon for teachers working in different places who no longer have to cart books, student records and audio devices around. Integrated learning environments, such as Richmond’s, allow teachers to use different media in more flexible and productive ways. (The “golden age of EFL” when students would sit patiently watching their teacher spool through cassette tapes to find the right bit are now becoming a distant memory.) 

The challenge for publishers is to get the content right and produce material that can work both in class and at home or on the move – which is increasingly where a lot of learning and practice takes place (a point picked up during the Open Forum later). Mundane but valuable “heads down” activity, such as grammar exercises can more profitably be done outside of the classroom, while valuable class time can be spent on more engaging activities, such as discussing language problems. (This is especially true nowadays as there is less and less time available for class teaching.)

Richmond's New Framework series for adults and young adults
However, publishers also face an increasing threat from the phenomenon of convergence and digitalisation. While photocopying may become less of an issue as more content goes online, the publishing industry increasingly faces the problems that have beset the music industry. Trying to retain ownership of the music, as Luke pointed out, the music industry nearly managed to kill itself. Publishers should make material available in the cloud, but also ensure that they can generate sufficient revenue from it.

In order for content to appeal to both students and teachers it should be social, updated, fresh and alive. Interest can only be sustained if there is a constant supply of new material , podcasts and blogs. Sourcing and distributing this content sets publishers an extra challenge.
As with Little Bridge, Richmond’s Learning Platform allows students to interact socially. Indeed, it is this social element of online learning that could become the most significant factor in the convergence of “old” and “new” media, a process that could still up to five years in the ELT publishing industry.

The gradual process of media convergence (Richmond ELT)
It should be noted that convergence does not mean “total digitalisation”. There will always be books, for example, and publishers such as Richmond have no intention of completely abandoning printed or “optical” media (CDs / DVDs etc). The key thing is to make content available on as wide a range of platforms as possible – including online – and to give teachers and students the widest possible choice in how they decide to access material. Cathy and Luke pointed out that they themselves are a good example of convergence in action: while Cathy still has a Filofax, Luke is fixated on his iPad. People are free to choose the medium they are most comfortable with.

Interested in Learning Management Systems? Read my write-up of the Pearson / British Council Digital Transformation in the English Teaching World event earlier this year on, which featured Pearson's LMS / VLE MyEnglishLab. 


Valeria Mordenti of SMART Technologies at the PSA Symposium
Valeria Mordenti, Marketing Manager Italy and South East Europe at SMART Technologies, spoke (in Italian) about solutions for teaching foreign languages using SMART’s Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) known in Italian as Lavagne Interattive Multimediale (LMI).

She started by giving an overview of the company and its mission. As the creator of the world’s first interactive whiteboard in 1991 SMART remains the world’s leading provider of this technology to mainly educational institutions around the world. (It has just under half of the IWB market according to a 2010 study by Futuresource Consulting.)

SMART has been providing solutions for the education,
business and government communities for 25 years.
SMART is based in Calgary, Canada, and has offices worldwide. More than two million SMART Board interactive whiteboards are used by over 40 million students and their teachers, and SMART products are used in more than 175 countries. The company has over 1700 employees, of which 500 work in R&D (40% hardware, 60% software R&D). SMART is the market leader in collaborative solutions for education

SMART’s global distribution network includes 300 resellers in North America and 65 distributors worldwide. Over 400 SMART resources are available for sales, service training and support through its Ecosystem network. SMART Ecosystem Network (SEN), a community designed to nurture the growth of companies and individuals interested in working with SMART. The network provides technical resources, accreditation programs and marketing support to its members, ensuring they are given the resources they need to develop and market software and content that work well with award-winning SMART products, such as the SMART Board interactive whiteboard, the SMART Table interactive learning center and the SMART Response interactive response system.

SMART’s company mission is to improve the learning and teaching experience through the use of technology in lessons. To achieve this objective, the company brings vast technical experience in both hardware and software. It also has extensive experience and know-how in the areas of integrating technology in educational contexts; pedagogy and methodology; and, of course, in implementation and support for its products and services. SMART is also particularly strong in developing online communities, particularly those in the Ecosystem Network.

What will the school learning environment look like in the future?
Valeria then painted a picture of how SMART technology is currently used in different learning environments and she also looked forward to consider what the school of the future will be like.

Typical learning environments include the classic situation of a teacher standing at the front of a class arranged in rows. Another environment is group learning where students work more collaboratively (often the case in communicative language classes). More modern settings include personal learning, where different technologies and devices are integrated and customised for each individual student and finally remote learning, which allows students to share material without the need for the teacher being physically present.

SMART solutions can help educational institutions and
teachers transform the classroom as we know it.
The challenge for educational institutions in the 21st century is to transform the classroom as we know it today, while retaining the benefits of traditional teacher-led instruction. The needs of educators themselves are changing. Digital natives now represent the majority of students in today’s classrooms and the relationship between students and computer technology is growing ever stronger. Encouragingly, the levels of IT competence among teachers is generally increasing and the role of personal devices in education (netbooks, tablets, e-readers, smartphones) is set to increase. 

In SMART’s vision the class of the future will integrate the various learning environments into a single system in which teachers can move easily from environment to another. This will allow them to create and share materials and use them to teach. They will also be able to check students’ progress in learning and provide support both in and outside the classroom.

While SMART is very much a technology company, it recognises that educational institutions often make basic errors when they decide to introduce or upgrade their computer technology. The most common mistake is to consider the various phases as separate projects without a coherent strategy or familiarity with the software architecture that supports the whole system. There are four main “sub projects” that need to be viewed within a single frame. These are: selecting IWB technology, accessing content on the system, intergrating personal devices and setting up distance learning.  While the development can happen in different phases it is critical that the choice made at the outset is correct.

The main advantages of the SMART platform are that it is easy to implement and easy to extend later. The architecture at its core emphasises ease of use. And, of course, the SMART classroom is an integrated learning environment which allows training and professional development to take place, as well as community resources to be accessed and developed. Additional services and support are also easily accessible.

The SMART software architecture has three main benefits. These are that the system is:

1. Open – Software Development Kits (SDKs) to integrate 3rd party applications and its Application Programming Interface (API) allows third party developers to create resources that can be integrated into the LMS and VLE.

2. Interoperable – SMART works with a wide range of platforms and operating systems including Microsoft, Apple, Linux and cloud-based services. It uses standard file formats to allow the widest possible use of existing and new material.

3. Scalable – based on a modular concept using software plug-ins that can be downloaded and customised, it is easy to extend and integrate new SMART hardware components and devices.

The SMART architecture also allows ICT solutions to be developed over time. It is able to meet new demands in training environments and it also “future proof” as technology evolves.

SMART has a range of software solutions designed to complement its state-of-the-art hardware. These include its SMART Notebook collaborative software; SMART Sync classroom management software; SMART Response CE assessment software; SMART Notebook SE (Student Edition) software; and the new SMART Classroom Suite, the first integrated learning software suite specially created for teachers and students, which organises and simplifies all entire teaching and learning activity.

The company also provides a range of complementary hardware including the SMART document camera which allows a teacher give students a close-up of both documents and 3D objects on the screen. The SMART Response handheld devices allow students to give instant feedback and take part in “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire”-style votes and quizzes, which can be highly motivating. Other technology on offer includes SMART Audio and the SMART Wireless slate, an input device specially adapted for class teaching.

Despite the relative lack of research about the efficacy and impact of new technology in the classroom, SMART’s IWB has been studied by Fabienne GĂ©rard and Jamey Widener [1]. The authors of the study found that the SMART IWB can facilitate both the learning and teaching processes by supporting oral skills and cognitive processes  and by sustaining student motivation and encouraging emulation. However, the researchers also pointed to potential problems with the technology if teachers are not properly trained in its use. (The study also highlighted certain practical problems relating to pens, which have to replaced in the pen tray in order for the system to recognise that the teacher no longer wishes to write on the board.)

Overall, then SMART’s interactive whiteboards in conjunction with their supporting software and community resources can provide a bridge that allows the benefits of computer technology to be accesses while encouraging human-to-human communication. Its SMART classroom enhances new kinds of learning and it brings the internet into every foreign language class. The technology also provides access to authentic documents and both represents and encourages a major shift in attitudes and practice in modern language learning and teaching practices.

As a postscript to her talk, Valeria added an example of SMART technology in action in the language learning classroom. She showed us “Teacher's Kitchen”, a resource created by Maite Cervera, Susana Zaera at Colegio Montserrat, which allows students to followa recipe in a bilingual class.

Using the Document Camera, the teachers created “A Tasty Salad” that included some useful lexis along with video “explanations” (e.g. chop, slice, etc). The lesson also involved a multiple choice component, which students could complete using their SMART Response devices. (Ingredients that you don't find in a salad: a) Vinegar b) Olives, c) Flour d) Pepper e) Lettuce – if you’re not sure of the answer, you’re either a) not a very good cook b) English or c) both!)

1. Gerard, F., &Widener, J. A SMARTer Way to Teach Foreign Language: The SMART Board Interactive Whiteboard as a Language Learning Tool[online]. Edcomapss. 1999. [cit. 2011-06-17]. Available at:

SMART Board 885ix interactive whiteboard system:
Up to 4 students can work together anywhere on the surface

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