Exploring Web 2.0, and learning to SMiLE

Social Media in Language Education

Michael Shade
School of Language, Literature and Communication, University of Brighton

In the course of academic year 2007-08 I embarked on a journey through the unexplored – by me at least – territory of Web 2.0, to see what it might be able to contribute to our students’ language learning experience. This is a brief report on that journey, through what turns out to be an ever-changing landscape; it’s a journey which we can be sure has some way to run. I hope you will find one or two things of relevance to your own interests and concerns.

VLE: Blackboard
For several years teachers on the SLLC’s Institution-wide Language Programme have been using the University’s Virtual Learning Environment, BlackboardStudentcentral in UoB parlance, or as Stan says, “Studentcentral when it works, Blackboard when it doesn’t” – in fairly limited and obvious ways: announcements, email contact; links to internal and external web resources; materials to consult and download; information, task outlines.

NB: I have not yet been able to discover how to open areas of Studentcentral to the outside world, so for the moment at least a few of the links offered here may bring you up against a brick wall if you are not a member of the University of Brighton. Apologies. If you’d like to see some of the material referred to here, please email me and I’ll see if we can arrange access on an individual basis.

Discovering Web 2.0
Following up a long-standing interest in the general area of eLearning, during the first part of 2007 I took part in a number of face-to-face and online groups and workshops:

UK HE Languages Subject Centre eLearning Conference
IATEFL Conference: Learning Technologies SIG
UoB eLearning Ginger Group – see Community@Brighton Group (UoB only)
Webheads in Action Online Convergence
The Future of Education (University of Manitoba)
eTrends (Australian Flexible Learning Framework)
ElggJam07 – on Community@Brighton (UoB only?)

– and the twin realisations dawned that:

– the emerging area of online social media has a huge potential for language learning
– much of it isn’t available within Blackboard

These ideas were reinforced during a 6-week session on Social Media in English Language Teaching – SMiELT – part of the TESOL Electronic Village Online earlier this year; what’s more, thanks for the acronym 🙂 !

Social Media platform: ELGG
At the same time the Learning Technologies team within the University were developing a pioneering implementation of the social media platform ELGG to complement the use of Blackboard, and provide some of the facilities they felt were lacking. In particular, I was advised that ELGG would provide a better and more flexible blogging tool than Blackboard.

In September 2007 the UoB ELGG platform – Community@Brighton – went live, with the intention of facilitating the establishment of communities of interest within the University. These communities can be open to any member of the University, and normally are, but it also allows us to set up restricted groups, and to import module groups directly from Studentcentral. This was of particular interest to us, as ELGG could thereby offer us a protected environment within which a tutor and a group of students could explore the possibilities the platform might hold for language learning.

Blog in ELGG
At the beginning of the year we set up a couple of Groups within Community@Brighton for specific modules: Spanish Intermediate (SP131) and Spanish Advanced 3 (SP201).

During the first semester I set the same weekly short writing tasks – in Spanish – as I have set in previous years, arising out of class activities. These tasks do not form part of the assessment programme for the module. Students were allowed to submit their work either hand-written or word-processed on paper, as before, or via the Group blog within Community@Brighton: Intermediate Group Blog, Advanced Group Blog.

– I deliberately left the choice of medium open to the student, as I was aware that with some students there would be obstacles to online participation. Every year there are some students who do not appear as registered for the appropriate module on Blackboard until some months into the academic year; consequently they are not included when the module group members are imported into C@B. Although C@B has a fairly simple procedure for an individual to apply directly to join a Group, I felt that for some students this could well be just one more gap to fall through.

– access to all posts and comments was restricted to Group members only; for the purposes of this report I am making some of them visible to the world outside UoB – you should be able to access them directly from the links above, without needing a log-in or password.

For each task, I started a new Post with an outline of the task; students then wrote their work as a response to the Post, either directly into the Comment area (which has a number of standard word-processing facilities), or by writing elsewhere and then Copying and Pasting it in. Each task then appears as a Post by the Tutor followed by a series of student Comments.

– I continued using Blackboard as before for these courses, placing material in Items and Folders in a Learning Material area: click – click – click – click – click – . . .  😦

First thoughts
As we began to use the blog format, a number of consequences soon became apparent.

On the plus side
1) Students could read each other’s work; what is more, they could read several pieces by different classmates on the same visit if they wished. This enables them to see – and hopefully learn from – how others may be using:

– different approaches to the task
– different ranges of vocabulary, structure and expression

2) A student’s own work could be read by others; this may inhibit some, or inspire more care – my impression is that there was a bit of both.

3) Students could return to their own published work and easily edit it online – add, subtract, alter – whenever they wanted to.

4) Although the work was public (to the group, at least) the teacher could offer feedback or corrections privately, either electronically or on paper. Either way involved a bit more work for the teacher:

– the electronic method I used was to Copy and Paste the student’s work into a Word document, then use Tools > Track Changes to indicate comments and corrections, and email the corrected piece back to the student;

– sometimes I printed the work out and corrected it using an even older technology – a red pen.

5) In the light of feedback from the tutor, students could return to their published work and make corrections if they wished.

On the not-so-plus side
1) Some students joined the C@B Group late, for reasons outlined above; a few never quite made it.

2) Some students did not contribute work online – through a degree of technophobia in some cases, maybe through techno-laziness in others.

3) Although instructions were clearly set out, clearly expressed, clearly signalled, and frequently repeated, some students managed to place their work in a variety of places where it didn’t belong. Very few of these managed to re-locate their work appropriately.

Digital natives, eh? 😉

4) Students did not comment on the contributions of others; it appears the Group blog format used here is not conducive to commenting on a post by a specific individual.

Walking on the Wiki side
For the second module, in Semester 2, I wanted more flexibility in the presentation of materials than appeared to be available through Blackboard. Since I was already using the Blog in ELGG, I enquired whether it also included a Wiki function; however this facility had been withdrawn for technical reasons. I was then pointed towards the Wiki within Blackboard, which is so well hidden that I had not discovered it in 5 years of Blackboarding!

Edit view > Select (drop-down menu) > Wiki

So for the second semester materials were presented within Blackboard’s Wiki, rather than through the Learning Material area: go to Spanish Intermediate, then follow Learning Material > Materiales para SP132: View

For my purposes, I found the Wiki to be quicker and easier to use, and more flexible, than the Learning Material area; it is for instance easy to create a set of linked pages, one for each topic within a module – a sort of mini website, which is more or less the functionality I had been looking for. You lose the ability to switch individual items on or off, but I have rarely used that anyway, and didn’t miss it.

Students were given writing access to the Wiki area; I suggested they might like to add in urls and comments about useful sites they’d come across, and I set up a text box with a distinguishing yellow background for them to write in. Very few did – and some of those misunderstood the instructions, and put work in that should have gone elsewhere.

Nevertheless the Wiki works reasonably well as a quick and not-too-dirty website – I know that’s not what the format was intended for, but it does more or less what I was looking for, and maybe I’ll find a way to exploit the collaborative function later.

Wiki Media
I needed to display images, Powerpoint presentations and movies, and I wanted them to appear within the content pages. The preferred solution would be for presentations and movies to be embedded alongside the text material that referred to them, rather than on separate pages.


As elsewhere in Blackboard, you can insert an image directly from your desktop:
– Image button > Browse and select > Upload > Insert


However, I couldn’t get a Powerpoint presentation (.pps) to show within the Wiki page – when I do:
– Upload File button > Browse and select > Upload > Insert
. . . it displays as a link, which then – on my Macs at least – downloads the file and opens Powerpoint as a separate application. Which is not what I wanted.
Not so great.


My first attempt to get round this was to convert the original .ppt file to a .mov QuickTime movie:
– File > Save As > Format: Powerpoint Movie (QT Format)
This was then uploaded and inserted as before, and the resulting link displayed the movie in a new page, still within Blackboard.

(See Spanish Intermediate, then follow Learning Material > Materiales para SP132: View, and follow the link to ¿Quién es esta mujer? > Presentación)

So far so good – except that the movie plays straight through as if it were a movie (?), but of course it’s not intended to be a movie. It’s a presentation. I wanted the student to have to move it forward through all the animations and individual slides. They’re there for a reason.

Back to ELGG
No advance on Blackboard – the link downloads the file and opens it up in Powerpoint.


Breaking Out
At this point I decided to Break Out, and see what the world outside Blackboard and ELGG had to offer. I trawled the world of Web 2.0, and came up with:

The Presentation Two-step Solution
Step 1: upload the file to a presentation sharing site, such as SlideShare or my preference SlideBoom. Unfortunately there is a lot of extraneous material on the presentation pages on these sites, and I wanted a cleaner display without distractions that could sit within my Blackboard module pages. The solution I found is to embed the slide player in a site of your own whose appearance you can control: so, on the SlideBoom page for your presentation, Copy the .html code they offer you to ‘Embed into your blog’, and then go to:

Step 2: set up a Blog on eg Blogger or WordPress, start a new Post, switch to hmtl view in the Editor, and Paste in the embedding code you copied from SlideBoom. Start a fresh Post for each new embed.

Step 3: in the Blackboard Wiki, write a Link to the page for your Blog Post; your Powerpoint > SlideBoom > Blogger > Blackboard presentation now displays where you wanted it in the first place, with full viewer control over animations and slide progression. And the SlideBoom viewer at least allows you to view the presentation full-screen (click rectangular button).

(See Spanish Intermediate, then follow Learning Material > Materiales para SP132: View, and follow the link to Granada > Presentación)

Sorted. 🙂

Well, sort of. I didn’t mention the bit about having to re-size the slide player so it fits into the Blog frame – otherwise you lose one edge of the slides; to do this you have to find the size parameters in the embedding html, and change them by hand until they fit. 😦

It would be great if Blackboard (and ELGG) could convert Powerpoint to a format that would play on the web, retaining user-control over animations and slide progression, and  if they could embed a presentation/flash player into a normal page. But I haven’t been able to find a way to do it, and although this solution sounds a bit complicated and takes more time than you’d like, once I’d got used to the procedure I was glad to have a way of displaying presentations where, and more or less how, I wanted them.

Something similar will work for embedding movies, eg from YouTube or TeacherTube; Blackboard at least does accept an uploaded file, such as a .mov, although it displays in a new frame rather than embedding within the current one (see above).

And needless to say, SlideShare, SlideBoom, Blogger and WordPress, YouTube and TeacherTube are all free to use in the way described. This is Web 2.0, after all. The downside is that your material is now hosted on the World Wide Web, and can therefore in theory be seen by anyone, anywhere, including Google. In practice, though, people are unlikely to stumble across it by chance; and you can decrease the possibility even further if you avoid placing links to it on the open Web.

Speaking Out
In the course of my Web 2.0 wanderings I came across VoiceThread, which enables you to upload a picture and record a verbal comment to accompany it; visitors – eg students – can then view and listen, and record their own comments. You can also post text comments. I displayed it in the same way as the presentations discussed above, by embedding it into the external blog and calling it up within Blackboard.

This is another technology that seems to have great potential for language learning; it worked fine but only a couple of students used it to record.

Workshops and Wikis
SMiLEing together

In March we initiated a series of weekly workshop sessions to offer SLLC staff an opportunity to acquaint themselves with the world of SMiLE, and a small but enthusiastic group has been getting together more or less every week since then. In these workshops we’ve had a look at how Language Teachers around the world have been trying out these new media, and begun getting to grips with some of them for ourselves.

Participants have started up their first blogs, inserted pictures, created links, and commented on each other’s posts. We’ve looked at Flickr for photos, YouTube for videos, last.fm for music – including our own Spanish music channel, Twitter for short messages, and embedding widgets to display these in our blogs. We’ve also taken photos on our mobile phones and posted them directly and immediately to Flickr and blogs. And of course we’ve been discussing what part each of these media could play in language learning.

SMiLE in a Wiki
We have set up a SMiLE Wiki to keep track of what we are doing; so far it has general descriptions of various types of social media platform, guidelines on how to use them, and links to examples of good practice. It is intended to be a working wiki, and could serve as a basis for future workshops within the SLLC and also more widely within UoB and elsewhere.

This Wiki is also a Break-Out – I’ve hosted it on pbwiki, which I find easier to use, smarter to look at, and more fully-featured than the Blackboard Wiki. It also has the added advantage of being easy to open to visitors and contributors from outside the University. In particular I am intending to invite the Webheads group (language teachers from around the world) to look at what we’re doing and let us know what they think.

Keep SMiLEing
We are now looking at how we can integrate some of these platforms into our teaching for the coming academic year. In particular we would like to

– set up Community@Brighton Group Blogs, as described above, for other modules
– further adapt and develop the activities outlined here
– expand our own in-house audio and video recorded material
– make a wider range of materials available to students online, along with suitable activities
– encourage students – and colleagues – to make greater use of these online platforms

That should keep us occupied for a bit. 🙂


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9 Responses to “Exploring Web 2.0, and learning to SMiLE”

  1. Sharon Owens Says:

    I teach 8th grade U.S. History and have been looking for ways to integrate technology into the classroom. I want my students to be able to post their work and give feedback to others. This description of the process you have been going through is very helpful. I especially appreciate that you tell some of the difficulties and not just successes. It also proves that no matter what a teacher might do to get all students motivated, there will be varying levels of participation and success. It is assumed that young people have an innate ability to do all things techno, but the results you describe show that, as with all processes, there are varying levels of understanding, experience, and willingness to participate. I especially liked learning about Voice Thread and the links to SMiELT.

  2. Emma Miliani Says:

    Quite interesting material. A pity some of the Spanish is not accesible. Did I miss out something?
    Emma Miliani

  3. michalska Says:

    Emma – all the material on the University of Brighton’s VLE (Blackboard) is in principle only accessible to members of the University, including the wiki referred to here. I am told there is a way of inviting observers from outside the University, but I’m afraid I haven’t found out how to do it yet.

    If anyone wishes to see the wiki, please email me directly: m.shade @ bton.ac.uk (without the spaces), and when I find out, hopefully within the next couple of days. I’ll invite you.

    Meanwhile, I seem to have worked out how to make the blog material on the ELGG platform accessible, so I’ll open up more of it – unfortunately I have to do this post by post, one at a time, so it may not be available for a day or so.



  4. jess Says:

    I am very interested to hear more about the blog v wiki findings. I use blogs with my students on a creative writing module on the same Blackboard platform. 96% of my students us it and have commented that it helped them – I have co-written a case study that is on the web, go to http://www.english.heacademy.ac.uk/explore/publications/casestudies/technology/blogs_feedback.php
    I tried to use a wiki 3 yrs ago but they weren’t interested so I persevered with the blog. Maybe it is time I tried again??

  5. michalska Says:

    Jess – I used the blog on Community@Brighton (ELGG) for students’ writing; the wiki was my attempt to set up an easily maintained mini-website for the presentation of materials, and it worked quite well in this sense. However, although I attempted to create a space for students to add things like links or comments only one or two did so – so I didn’t really get the collaborative aspect of the wiki format to function.

    As I commented above, in the blog students didn’t comment on what others had written. I would like to incorporate this aspect of the blog format into these courses, but the Group blog structure that I used doesn’t really allow you to work in this way.

    I’m wondering now whether it would be possible to set it up so that students do their writing in their own C@B blog, which would allow commenting, and have their work aggregated into a group area so that they all have access to each others’ work in one place. At the moment all I can think of are reasons why this wouldn’t work – I’ll check with our Learning Technologies people. Stan, Katie – are you reading this?

  6. carla arena Says:

    Hey, Michael. Excellent account of your journey. Just keep going with this small group of enthusiasts and you can make a revolution in language learning. You’re lucky to have co-workers who want to give this step further. I’m also lucky that I have found some soulmates in the journey and just thank every day to be part of the Webheads! Keep sharing. We’re here listening to you.

  7. Reifietty Says:

    Thanks for the post

  8. Pauline Says:

    Michael – this is a great summary and thank you for introducing me to Voice Thread – I hadn’t come across it before and can’t wait to try it out in several subject areas!

  9. Why blog? « The Daily Post Says:

    […] here, but I discussed some of the issues that arose in a post at the end of that academic year: Exploring Web2.0, and learning to SMiLE. This experience led to a series of workshops for colleagues, an informal working group, and a […]

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