OTLA Project Lead Alexandra Bates, reflects on the action research project undertaken by her team (and herself) at ACL Essex.
At the beginning of the 21 /22 academic year, an inhouse webinar on ‘how to embed digital skills into any lesson’ felt like the right tack to take. Covid lockdowns and the subsequent abrupt move to online teaching had fast forwarded professional development for ESOL tutors at lightning speed.
However, when I saw the exasperated look on tutors faces, and fielded panicked questions about if entirely new schemes of work needed to be written, I realised that the approach needed de-mystifying. After the fast-paced learning curve to online teaching we had all ridden and some had endured, the simplicity of what we were trying to highlight was harder to communicate than expected.
As the pandemic and initial lockdown shock died down, TAGs (teacher assessed grades) were submitted and TEAMS functions mastered, tutors were left feeling bewildered with the number of new ideas, material and thinking about the new age of teaching that had been fast tracked into their careers. Everyone was CPD and webinar weary.
Nonetheless, although not surprisingly in a time of vast choice, tutors still reach for their tried and tested go-tos for lesson delivery, which in some cases remain un-updated. In a recent poll of the tutors I work with, when asked where they look for their lesson planning ideas, they listed all the old favourites (Skills Workshop , Excellence Gateway, BBC Learning English as well as real life, physically copiable activity books). Tutors still need quick, easy to access ideas that are straightforward to follow, fun and meaningful. But are they reaching for the ones that support digital skills?
So with the push of the OTLA8 Action Research funding behind us we set out to create ready-to-go resources which would debunk the ‘embed digital skills’ dogma and help the least techy of tutors feel at home helping learners live and learn alongside them in the world of tech.
A tutor who participated in our project described her ‘lightbulb moment’ in realising that all the talk about embedding digital skills really only meant changing pre-existing tasks such as ‘write an email to your friend’ from writing it on a printed-out email template to actually doing it as an email and sending it in real time to the tutor for correction and feedback (this has since become one of our nuggets: ‘writing a live email’). And yet I regularly see lessons where precious time and paper saving opportunities like that are missed. We want our resources to help build tutor confidence to modify not reinvent their practice.
The project was launched as collaboration between IT, English (including supported learning) and ESOL curriculum areas, and our pooled thinking on creating these ‘teaching nuggets’ has been inspirational! When an IT tutor shared his tactic of inviting learners to guess the ‘Device of the Day’ by providing a verbal description and allowing learners to explore a selected device by sight and feel before discovering its name, the ESOL, English and supported learning staff were visibly excited by the ease and equipment-light nature of an activity that presents such wonderful learning opportunities, while also supporting digital awareness.
Similarly, an ESOL tutor’s ‘online Supermarket Sweep’ activity shows off ESOL practice in vocabulary building, graphic facilitation, and word categorisation. Since being written up and shared as a fun, flexible task to support the idea of safe online transaction it has received rave reviews from the tutors and learners who have used it in their groups ranging from beginning to read and write, ESOL for refugees and Let’s Get Digital for ESOL.
While the momentum for these nuggets of teaching within our service and between those involved in the project has grown, when trying to upscale the project we found ourselves back at the starting point: HOW and WHERE can we make these ideas and tasks easily accessible to time-poor tutors without making it feel cumbersome or hidden behind file structures, logins, and paywalls. The answer must be to make them become part of the teaching toolkit that we know our staff rely on.
The starting point has been to ‘publish’ some of the most popular nuggets (Device of the Day, Supermarket Sweep and Wordle) to the Skills Workshop and share on Enhance / EDS Community of Practice. These represent free platforms we already know our colleagues are tapping in to. Each nugget comes with easy-to-follow instructions, ideas for differentiation, required resources and suggested timing.
The project ends this spring, but the purpose is long-term: to establish resources which embed digital skills discreetly without requiring a complete overhaul of anyone’s teaching back catalogue. Importantly the nugget formula is flexible; it can be applied to any concept, old or new, to provide resources which do not overcomplicate the task at hand.
I have taught ESOL, EFL and MFL for 15 years internationally and in the UK. I am now working for Adult Community Learning Essex as Curriculum Lead for ESOL. Over the last two years we have been developing the ESOL curriculum to provide additional training in digital skills, employability and Functional Skills English tailored for ESOL learners.