The ability to communicate clearly and accurately in English is essential for many roles in society. In Hong Kong, where ongoing English enhancement through part-time courses is commonplace, e-learning is playing an ever more important role. On Monday 4 May, the E-Learning Team interviewed Ms Cecilia Kak, Programme Director at the College of Humanities and Law, to find out how e-learning pedagogy can help in the provision of English courses. Here she shares her experience and discusses best practices.
How is E-learning used in English courses?
Firstly, we use e-learning in our General English and English Language Skills courses to supplement classroom teaching. We’re very much aware of the need for practice and recycling in language teaching so we have designed e-learning components that allow students to follow up the work they do in class. Most of our students have one three-hour lesson per week, so it is essential that they have the chance to review lessons and get further practice. We use course books in class, and for most units of these books we provide follow-up e-learning material. This can be in the form of online grammar and vocabulary quizzes, videos with online comprehension exercises, and short writing tasks that are corrected by the teacher.
Some of my enthusiastic and devoted teachers have contributed to the production of a series of short animated video cartoons and audio clips, each followed by language exercises. I hope these arouse interest and promote self-access learning after class. My heartfelt thanks go to the E-learning Team. This SPACEY series will go live in Summer 2020, marking the 63rd anniversary of SPACE English, serving the Hong Kong community since 1959.
SPACEY series animated learning resources
Secondly, we also use e-learning in our 45-, 60- and 90-hour Business English courses to supplement classroom teaching. Our students are mainly busy working adults and they sometimes miss lessons due to business travel commitments. With e-learning, they can revisit the lesson materials on the SOUL2.0 platform. Teachers follow up their classes by uploading samples for reference and conducting discussion forums. Learners benefit greatly because they are not limited to the three-hour face-to-face lecture.
With the earnest efforts rendered by the E-Learning Team, online word glossaries on different areas, vocabulary matching activities, interactive games on Business English, resources repository have been made available on SOUL2.0 since December 2014, with new, innovative additions each year.
Since 2015, the English Language Team, supported by the E-Learning Team, have worked on two sites for pronunciation learning and practice. One of these has been specifically designed for Phonics Training for Adults course participants. These sites are continuously monitored and improved.
Phonics Training for Adults Website
To maximise learning outcomes in presentation skills courses, the E-learning Team is also assisting in video recording students’ presentations. This facilitates the teacher’s individual post-presentation feedback and heightens learning effectiveness while making students’ learning experience rewarding and enjoyable. These methods will be adopted in the upcoming new course which culminates the programme, Mastering Public Speaking and Presentation Skills.
Registered students and trainees from our corporate clients have also found the resources useful.
What benefits to students and teachers have you observed with the use of E-learning?
Our feedback questionnaires show that students appreciate the extra practice and the chance to review the topics they’ve looked at in class. Before we introduced e-learning, students were always asking for more listening material that they could do at home. The e-learning component goes a long way towards meeting this need. Students also find that while doing e-learning work at home, questions will often occur to them that they didn’t think of in class. They can then follow these up with the teacher in the next session or contact the teacher online. This process of reflecting and finding the answers to questions is an essential part of the learning process.
Another benefit is that e-learning helps students keep track of their individual progress and that of the course as a whole as well as providing useful revision material when there are tests. E-learning also contains links to external sites for self-study and students are encouraged to explore these. In so doing, they become more autonomous learners.
We find that many teachers already provide students with links for further study and encourage them to use online resources. E-learning helps them in this respect as there are activities that they can recommend for all of the main course topics.
What challenges have you encountered?
We have seven courses in the SPACE General English Programme and up to ten courses in our English Language Skills Programme running at any one time. That means we have had to source or produce a large amount of material. This was a challenge at the beginning as we only had a small team. It was also quite a steep learning curve as we had to work out exactly what kind of material we would provide and how students would engage with it. At first, we tried using downloadable printable material alongside other material that was purely online. Experience showed that the online material was far more popular as students did not like having to print off material at home. We also had to produce our own audio material for courses where existing online material was not suitable. We did this in-house with the help of our colleagues at SOUL and the contribution of our part-time teachers. We found this was not as difficult to produce as it might seem, and we’ve been very satisfied with the results.
My heartfelt thanks to our SOUL colleagues, who are always ready to answer my endless requests and make our seemingly impossible missions possible.
How long did it take to prepare the E-learning components of your courses?
Given the large quantity of material needed for our courses, we reduced the burden of material writing by introducing e-learning gradually, starting with the higher levels of our General English courses and then extending it to other courses a year or two later. To begin with, we used quite a high proportion of material that was already available online and incorporated it into the SOUL platform. This included grammar quizzes from reliable sources and YouTube videos from mainstream producers such as the BBC, as well as videos put out by the course book publishers on their YouTube channels. These were either linked or embedded, so there were no copyright issues. Since then we have been moving towards using entirely our own material as this enables us to take better advantage of features of the SOUL platform such as automatic recording and monitoring of students’ progress. All-in-all, it’s been a gradual process in which we have continuously increased the amount of our own e-learning material over the past six years while making use of some existing online sources.
What is your advice to Programme Teams who are considering incorporating e-learning into their programmes?
I think it’s useful for e-learning material to be clearly linked to the course syllabus so that it gives students the chance to follow up and consolidate the work they’ve done in class. It’s also a good idea to have a variety of short activities as this is more interesting for students and allows them to work on their e-learning tasks one-by-one, bearing in mind people often have limited time to study between classes. ‘A little often’ is a good approach anyway.
I’d also suggest looking online for good material that you can incorporate into your e-learning. Most YouTube producers allow their videos to be embedded. Video is time-consuming to produce and although you may have to produce some of your own, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel.
What aspects of your programmes do you hope to improve through the use of E-learning?
Language learning requires constant practice. It’s not enough to simply understand the use of a grammar structure or the meaning of a word. You need exposure to many examples and then use it yourself. The same applies to pronunciation, where it is often necessary to listen to items dozens of times before you can pronounce them in an acceptable way. In a three-hour class there is not as much time for this as is needed, so e-learning is extremely valuable here.
Students also need constant encouragement and motivation. There’s always a danger with once-a-week courses that they might feel remote from the School – that they are left on their own to study compared with full-time students. E-learning makes them feel more included while helping them understand the value of regular practice between lessons.
As a programme leader, what are the challenges of incorporating technology into your teachers’ methods and approach?
We find that teachers vary in terms of their experience with e-learning. Most are very keen to adopt new technology, and some are already skilled in using it. Others are less familiar and need help. It’s important to support teachers and encourage them to embrace e-learning. The most important thing is to make sure they understand what the e-learning components of our courses are, and what is required of them and of students. We fully brief new teachers on this before they start teaching for us. In addition to this, the periodic training courses provided by the SOUL Team are important for a more thorough understanding of the features that can be exploited for different subjects, teaching styles and individual teachers’ needs.
Students also vary in their experience of e-learning and some need help and encouragement at the start. Teachers play a valuable role here by highlighting relevant e-learning materials during lessons and being on hand to answer any questions students may have.
As time has progressed, we’ve found that teachers and students are increasingly familiar with the basics of e-learning in terms of the kind of activities, e-learning platforms and so on. It’s becoming a part of adult education that is both accepted and expected.
To align with the School’s e-learning and technology strategy, I would like to try out virtual reality and blended learning in literature, speaking and writing courses.
And the way forward?
We need to invest time and energy in the application of E-learning and advanced technology in English language teaching and learning, and, more importantly, in assessment. Look at Cambridge Assessment English. Huge efforts have been put into the development of an AI-empowered English proficiency test – Linguaskill General and Linguaskill Business. It’s been made known to learners all over the world, tested in more than 50 countries. Technology has turned the impossible into possible. HKU SPACE is privileged to be authorised as the first Cambridge Assessment English’s testing agent providing Linguaskill Tests in Hong Kong. At SPACE, this is the benchmark test that Continuing Education Fund applicants need to pass in order to be eligible for their course and test fee reimbursements. All of us should therefore be more technically savvy and be prepared for more online challenges in terms of teaching, learning and assessment.
Has COVID-19 affected you?
The latter part of 2019 saw a period of unrest, followed by COVID-19. With classroom teaching cancelled before the end of the semester, the need arose to conduct classes online. This came as a shock as I had a group of HKU masters’ degree students from mainland China attending a business communication course with SPACE. With very short notice, we swapped all English courses to online teaching using virtual classrooms and were able to continue with the course even though the students were no longer in Hong Kong. Between March and May, we operate purely online classes using Adobe Connect and Zoom.
Thanks again to our E-learning colleagues, who helped provide training, solve our technical problems, often in their own time, and made a tremendous effort to help us upload the videos to the SOUL platform so that all who could not take part in the scheduled classes could follow up by viewing the videoed lessons.
The experience wasn’t without difficulties. How to engage students in an online virtual class remains a challenging task, while in some areas the quality of internet connections may occasionally present problems to both teachers and students.
The whole episode provided the Programme Team with valuable experience in the use of webinars and virtual classroom facilities. With the rapid technological advances currently being made, it is likely that those problems we did experience will be solved in the near future.
Ms Cecilia Kak