Wroclaw University of Environmental and Life Sciences, Poland
It is relatively easy to learn how to produce average e-content and how to technically manage courses on e-learning platforms. On the other hand, it is truly challenging to design a brain- friendly course that will enhance the learning process. In this paper I share my experience in using asynchronous (ESP and GE course on Moodle) and synchronous e-learning (ClickMeeting e-learning platform) with university students and consider the brain-friendly potential of b-learning courses.
Key words: synchronous b-learning, asynchronous b-leaning, Moodle, brain-friendly, neurodidactic, neuroscience
It may be observed that many Polish university students learning a foreign language have problems with achieving B2 level. Do they lack motivation? According to neuroscience, one of the reasons for unsatisfactory progress may be the insufficient number of examples provided to the brain. The fact that students are often rules-fed and examples-deficient does not help either (Zylinska, 2013). At the same time teachers work in a certain reality with its constraints (limited number of hours and curricula). Instead of blaming either learners or educators we should use our brains and creatively solve the problem.
Money spent on brain is never spent in vain
Neurogenesis can be stimulated by forcing the brain to work by exposing it to new ideas or stimuli that require reaction. If we place a human being or an animal in a diverse, attractive environment and create a situation which leads to intellectual effort, we will certainly help neurons grow. A cognitive challenge is vital if we are interested in the development of neurons. If not stimulated, the neurons literally die of boredom (Shors, 2009). Fortunately, the revelations about neurons are true for adults as well (Shors, 2009) and the more we learn the easier learning becomes. Our brain simply loves it.
Learning is much more rewarding if learners become explorers asking questions and looking for answers actively using theory in practice. Also, to help students use the full potential of their brains, the differences between these brains should be considered. As professor Vetulani (2014) observes, human intelligence is a complex phenomenon and it makes sense to accept Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences because students learn in ways that are distinctively characteristic for them and it would be better if teachers presented particular issues using a number of means. But is it possible to offer brain-friendly language courses if we cannot expect changes in the number of teaching hours?
To blend or not to blend
A brain-friendly language course should make use of the natural curiosity of a human brain and it ought to be adjusted to students’ needs. There should also be proper proportions between the time devoted to introducing new material and the time needed for its active processing. If new information is not processed, neurons will not “record” it. According to Zylinska this proportion should be at least 1:3.
Johan van Niekerk and Paul Webb claim that “there exists extensive evidence that a blended learning approach (…) is substantially more effective than using only face-to-face educational methods” (p. 16, Niekerk & Webb, 2016). Although it should be stressed that course material ought to be carefully designed according to “sound pedagogical principles”. In the same paper Niekerk and Webb refer to Bersin (2004): “one way to augment traditional classroom education and to provide support for both a greater variety of learning styles and more flexibility in terms of time spent learning is the use of blended and/or e-learning material” (p. 16, Niekerk & Webb, 2016).
There are a lot of options when it comes to technology application in language teaching and learning, for example access to web-based materials, edublogs, chat, VLEs. When used expertly and with a principled approach, it can be used to help in achieving a synergy effect in a language course and enhance the classroom component of the course.
Synchronous and asynchronous e-learning
The asynchronous course on our University Moodle platform was created to bring new quality to language classes, to boost specialist language learning and enable students to work regularly at their convenience. Also, asynchronous online learning, apart from the structured use of technology, very often results in the unstructured use of technology when a learner makes use of the hypertextuality of online learning. Curiosity and natural desire to learn is supported. Courses augment F2F classes and can be used in different ways depending on learners’ needs. “A thoughtful blend of face-to-face and online elements (…) tend to be perceived by students as carrying value far beyond just cognitive gains: for example, students indicate that (…) they are motivated to engage in active, self-initiated learning” (p. 401, Motschnig & Standl).
In February 2017 I asked my students to complete the course evaluation questionnaire. 52% of the respondents decided that distance learning was a good idea and 35% did not like it. In this group 50% thought that private tuition would be the best option. Only 20% chose traditional courses as the most attractive, whereas 30% decided that b-learning suits them best. As the most efficient ways of language learning students chose watching films (65%), listening to songs (48%) and group meetings (35%). Asked about other factors important in language learning 70% ticked regularity, 61% relaxed atmosphere and 52% motivation. This proves that students know what “works for them”. They instinctively choose brain-friendly options. To design a course that meets these expectations is a challenge for course designers but hopefully it is not an impossible thing.
In April 2018 I tested ClickMeeting e-learning platform. The teacher and the students all stayed at home but met online at the set time. It was possible to communicate either via microphone (“queuing”) or on chat. Students’ feedback was quite positive. Most of them liked it because it was different and interesting. Many stressed that the relaxed atmosphere (working from home in sportswear with a mug of coffee) was “fantastic”. On the other hand, speaking “to the screen” felt rather awkward and confusing and the problem of “queuing” to say something hindered communication. All the group decided that the solution was an interesting option for a lecture and not for practical classes.
Did curiosity kill the cat?
Learning process can become more attractive and effective when we use b-learning based on sound pedagogical principles. An attractive way of presenting knowledge contributes to the interest and motivation of students and the time they devote to learning a foreign language is automatically longer. When designing courses, we should remember that the brain needs challenges, struggle and novelty. Did curiosity kill the cat? I do not think so. I think the cat learnt a lot.
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