The big adventure: Implementing Macmillan English Campus into your teaching

05-Mar-2012

A growing number of language schools, universities and other institutions face the challenge of catering for the needs of their computer-savvy students: Learners who use computers on a daily basis and whose smartphones provide them with easy access to online resources 24/7 are no longer happy to learn a foreign language by using a book and a CD exclusively. I am a firm believer in the power of the printed word but have come to realize that today’s lifestyles ask for more flexible ways of presenting content. Isn’t it wonderful to be able to check your emails online wherever you are, to upload your holiday snaps and send your loved ones a link to a website instead of bombarding them with attachments containing your selection of photos? Why then stop there instead of trying to incorporate online resources into your teaching?

In 2007 our English department tried it out and was pleasantly surprised.  At the time I worked for a German “Volkshochschule”, an adult education institution with a reputation of adhering to traditional approaches and of being reluctant to embrace change.  Looking at the teaching materials available left no room for doubt – we had to react to a growing number of online materials for ELT as well as the changing needs of our learners, a lot of whom need to progress quickly.  Assuming that learners who need to progress quickly opt for more intensively-paced learning, and knowing that professional commitments, business trips, illness or other reasons can prevent them from coming to class, we sought ways to keep the attrition rate low.

Introducing Macmillan English Campus
One way of meeting these changing needs was to shift some of the learning to a different medium. In our context, additional features had to:

•    be available 24/7.
•    be easy to access and straightforward to use.
•    provide opportunities for interaction between learners and teachers.
•    cover a range of skills.
•    offer opportunities for review.
•    provide plenty of enriching activities of good quality without overburdening the teachers.
•    ensure that freelance teachers would be working with easy-to-use devices without spending a lot of their time preparing materials, assigning tasks and marking them.

Unlike most language schools, Volkshochschulen offer their courses at a number of locations spread across the city, thereby facilitating access. Most courses are held on school premises, i.e. in classrooms originally laid out for classes of 25-35 pupils. Classrooms are equipped with a blackboard or whiteboard and CD players, but the schools’ IT firewalls prevent internet access even via the teacher’s notebook.

At first glance these conditions appeared to argue against introducing a technology strand to the language classroom. In our teaching context, the solution lay not in an open-source platform such as Moodle, but rather in acquiring ready-made content to eliminate development time and cost.

Macmillan English Campus (MEC) was the logical step in that direction.  MEC is an internet-based, interactive learning environment that comprises material for both adult and teenage courses, and covers General as well as Business English. Users can choose between ready-made courses that complement one of the Macmillan coursebook series, opt for a course built according to CEF guidelines, or use the material available to build their own course. The flexibility of the platform and variety of material it provides makes MEC suitable for practically every need. In addition to set courses, users have access to news articles, tests, webquests, a grammar reference section, games, and materials to prepare for Cambridge exams and the TOEFL test. Teachers as well as learners can log on wherever they have internet access.

In spring 2007 MEC was introduced to those courses designed for quick progress: intensive, exam preparation and business English courses. For these courses it serves as a tool complementing the F2F sessions. Courses commence with an introductory session in an IT room on the second day of the course. The teacher introduces the class to MEC, helps with logging on to the site and provides learners with an overview of its features. The group tries out some activities, creates an entry in the word list, is introduced to the dictionary, and spends the remaining teaching time working on some exercises – both individually and in groups. Depending on the level of the group, this first session can provide learners with a very detailed overview or focus on more advanced features of MEC. Afterwards, MEC is used as a complement to F2F sessions with a focus on consolidating or reviewing language.  The ratio of content delivered F2F and online is 70/30. The number of hours spent online is higher during school holidays when classes don’t meet F2F. Thus MEC provides for continuation and review during non-teaching times.

What the users think

All in all, user feedback from both teachers and learners is positive. This is what teachers like:
•    MEC gives access to quality resources and tools.
•    MEC makes lessons more interesting.
•    Teachers can tailor the syllabus to suit their students’ needs.
•    MEC helps keep track of students’ progress.

Learners appreciate a variety of features:
•    Independent access.
•    24/7 access to engaging L2 exercises.
•    Automatic marking encourages to re-do exercises.
•    Extra practice.
•    Playing language games.
•    Listening and pronunciation activities.

Mapping learners’ language and computing skills over time has been enlightening and has helped tailor introductions to the needs of individual groups. The same applies to training new teachers to use MEC in the classroom. At the beginning the focus was on a detailed description of the site; today training pinpoints specific features such as the dictionary. Training is no longer provided predominantly by the institution. After an initial training session the institution refers its teachers to the online clinics MEC offers regularly and to the MEC teachers’ blog. Learners and teachers alike have become more independent users over the past years. In our teaching context the benefits of introducing a VLE (virtual learning environment) have certainly made it worthwhile.

You can find the first artile from this series below:

Teaching in the 21st Century

Astrid

Leave a Comment