Success and failure, pt. 2 – Blended learning, mixed results

Starting around 2010 I started putting content online for our students, each class with one page in its own hidden directory under our school’s domain.

I intended the kids’ classes’ sites as just a way to share the music and art the kids had made, and as a high-tech replacement for the special free classes for parents that we used to have on Saturday mornings.

The adults’ sites had links for videos and articles that we were using for homework that week as well as printable worksheets for weeks when I didn’t assign anything.  The centerpiece of an adult classes’ site though was a class dictionary which was updated weekly, and could be checked by all the students in the class in addition to being used in games and flash card-style javascript applications in the browser window.  Every week after my adult classes I’d update the xml dictionary file for their class and upload it with a few new words, chosen by the students from that week’s materials and discussions, along with definitions and example sentences.  Eventually most of those xml files came to contain hundreds such entries stretching back for years.

You can see an example of the kind of site that our adult classes had here.

So you can guess from the title of this post that not all went according to plan.  I’m still glad I made the sites, as probably are most of my students, but the overall lesson from this excursion into online territory is that you shouldn’t spend too much time designing additional content or services that are outside the norms of your particular teaching milieu.


The canonical eikaiwa class has neither homework nor an online component.  I say this not because the majority of eikaiwa schools don’t give homework (I have no idea whether  individually owned schools do) but the major chains, at least one of whom can be found in every hamlet across Japan, don’t give homework.  As I wrote in the School Owners SIG Newsletter, about half of eikaiwa schools are part of a chain like Aeon or Peppy.  They set the standard whether we like it or not, and their standard is “come an hour a week and talk or play games, then buy a textbook on your way out.”

I was a bit surprised to find after starting with first- and second-year university students that they also are unaccustomed to doing coursework online, or really anything at all with computers besides email and web browsing.  This was really just due to a lack of research on my part – the unfamiliarity of Japanese undergrads with ICT is widely attested to.  I’ve found out in dribs and drabs since then that the average high schooler does practically all of his/her coursework by hand, and the only essays he/she writes are of the “what I did over summer vacation” variety.  No wonder I kept getting compare/contrast essays whose theses were “Therefore, I like Disneyland, but I don’t like Universal Studios.”

I don’t mean to digress into a rant on how computer illiterate the typical Japanese English student is, but the point is I was attempting something that my students were less prepared for than I anticipated.

The first problem was that by locating the class sites in hidden (i.e., not linked from anywhere) directories I was making it very difficult for my students to find them, even after I gave them the URLs.  You see, URLs are not the default means of going places on the Internet in Japan – search engines are.  That is why commercials here end with a short animation of someone clicking a 検索 kensaku (search) button after entering the product’s name.  In my experience, about as many people know how URLs work in Japan as understand the Dewey Decimal System in the US.  My students were typing the URLs I gave them into Google search.  The two ways we found around this problem were for me to find the address bar on their phone’s browser and enter and bookmark it myself, or for us to email the link to them individually.

On one occasion we changed the addresses of those directories, thinking that current students might not want their ex-classmates to have access to pictures and classroom recordings in perpetuity, and told them the new URLs.  (Folks in Japan are also very anxious about any identifying information appearing on the Internet – hence facebook in Japan has almost no pictures with faces).  When we then had a homework assignment that required them to use their class dictionaries, every student in the class later told me they suddenly couldn’t find their class website – meaning they hadn’t checked them once in the months since we’d changed them.

I now get a spasm in my duodenum whenever I see this

Once all our students found their class websites, things were fairly smooth, as long as the most we expected was for the students to watch videos or read articles that were linked from their class websites.  The xml-based class dictionaries, the part that was by far the most labor-intensive to design and was also updated every week, went unused probably 95% of the time.  I know this because in addition to putting the words in the class websites, I would write last week’s and sometimes all the month’s words on the whiteboard at the beginning of class and have a kind of informal review session.  Only a handful of students ever showed any signs of having seen those words since the last time they were mentioned in class.

So here’s the Success! part of the story:

When there was at least one person in a class who regularly checked the class dictionary, it sort of guilted the others into keeping abreast at least some of the time, or at least made the vocabulary review sessions more of a give-and-take between me and one person rather than a give-and-give with just me.  The vocabulary was usually something of interest to everyone in the group or the lynchpin of a part of the conversation that everyone had participated in, and a little contextualized review with at least one other student usually jogged the other students’ memories.  Some of these review sessions bore fruit in the form of new conversations or continuations of previous conversations, and if most of the class didn’t remember the words from the first time we focused on them they were motivated to join in the discussion when they were brought up for review again.  These cases still weren’t ideal, since I designed the sites with the hopes that they would be used for spaced repetition as we are all told now is very helpful for learning vocabulary, and I had assumed that the fact that we had all chosen these words together would lead to a sense of investment in the dictionaries as a group project that they would all be interested in maintaining.

For a few students, the class dictionaries were clearly something of great value that they returned to again and again.  In a few cases students even asked for the xml files themselves after we’d closed so they could continue to use them themselves (somehow – without the html and javascript to read it the xml is a bit obtuse).  These were usually the types of self-motivated students who needed more facilitation for their independent study than “teaching” as the term is often defined.  For these students, the class websites were what I wanted them to be; a continuation of our class time outside of the 50 minutes they were physically present in my classroom and a significant boon to the quality of the education we offered.

The videos and other links, though by far the easiest parts of the sites to maintain, were the most used and did exactly what they were supposed to do – motivate students to do something in English between the last class and the next one, taking care of input as well as output and sometimes focus on form depending on what I put on the worksheets that accompanied them.  They also led to discussions in the following class, took away a lot of the scariness of the English-language Internet (one of my recurring homework tasks was reading the comments under a news article), and let students interact with each other and strangers in a new forum.  It helped to have students choose an article or video one week and assign that article or video to another student for the next week – students almost always did homework when it was given to them by a peer.

But clearly in many ways my experiment with blended learning was a failure.

You can track my dropping expectations for use of the class websites with the number of new entries in the class dictionaries per week over the years.  It started at 4 per week, which seems reasonable in retrospect.  When the imbalance between how much time it was taking me to keep the dictionaries updated and how much I saw my students were using them grew a bit tiresome, I dropped it to 3 per week, and then 2 for everyone except private students.  Even then the time I spent writing example sentences was almost always greater than the time anyone spent reading them.

Not to mention writing the javascript, CSS and html for the various games and confabulations to get people motivated to review their class vocabulary took a lot of time up front, which when added to the time spent maintaining the dictionaries every week, would almost definitely have been better used on more analog projects.

Even the videos and articles took a bit more time than was necessary.  It was always possible to just email links to students.  Since the sense of student ownership of the websites never materialized, email might have been a more expedient choice, even for mp3 files or pictures.  The sites, as you can see, also feature student quotes.  These may have been appreciated by my students, but if so they never mentioned it.

I could have just gone with the completely atomistic approach and emailed everyone their content every week separately, or alternatively I could have gone fully student-made and just had them build class wikis.  In our class websites’ case the students suggested and chose content but in the end it was me who edited the files in TextWrangler and uploaded them via ftp.  The students may have felt divested from the class websites because in the end the teacher had all the power over them.  Wikis would have left everything up to them, which isn’t always a recipe for success, but at least I wouldn’t have felt such an imbalance between their participation and mine.

Part of me also thinks the idea of an online component with vocabulary review is just too academic-sounding for a commercial eikaiwa-style school, and no amount of customizing or prettying it up was going to make it appealing.  Of course, we never considered ourselves “just” an eikaiwa, but if students think they’re at an eikaiwa, it’s very hard to convince them that they’re actually in a real class run by people who take education seriously.  You can’t offer a soft cheese course at what looks like a greasy spoon diner in a country with thousands of greasy spoon diners and be disappointed when only a few people try it only to spread it on their waffles.


4 thoughts on “Success and failure, pt. 2 – Blended learning, mixed results

  1. […] Adults turned in homework for about 1/3 of their total scheduled lessons, about half the time they actually attended.  Homework at our school was rewarded with a sticker on a sheet, and when they had gathered 10 stickers they got some sort of prize, usually stationery or snacks.  Doing homework was always an option for adults; we gave unique homework assignments most weeks, and the weeks that we didn’t they always had the option of writing in their diaries or printing out a score sheet from one of the quizzes on their class websites. […]


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