Category Archives: Online teaching

Lifelong learning in the digital age



John Watson, Fallen David (2005). Retrieved from

Teachers are tasked with the huge privilege and responsibility to shape their students into lifelong learners, giving them the skills and curiosity to continue learning on their own initiative beyond their formal education. Howell (2012, pp. 39-43) outlines the significance of lifelong learning as recognised in various policy documents, notably the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008), which acknowledges the speed at which technology is developing and the necessity for young people to be ‘highly skilled’ in its use. Such competence is essential for the reasons outlined in my previous post on the ‘digital divide’, notably to maximise students’ employability and aptitude for student-centred tertiary study, in addition to shaping the ‘active and informed citizens’ envisaged by the declaration.

The digital age has certainly facilitated independent and lifelong learning, with constant connectivity and information on demand meaning that any information is available at any time. Whereas twenty years ago a large portion of the population was limited to physical books and television in obtaining information, this is no longer the case for the vast majority of the Australian population. The internet equally facilitates online communication with co-collaborators domestically and internationally for only the minimal cost of the connection, lending itself to collaborative learning. Evidently, the technology will continue to evolve and increase the already seemingly endless possibilities for online learning.

Although students can already access information online and learn in a less formal way, online materials that are specifically created for education provide engaging ways of integrating technology into the classroom and ideally peaking students’ interest to the extent that they are likely to revisit them in their spare time. In this way, students will adopt the habit of accessing and interacting with educational content from home, therefore accelerating their learning and setting them up for lifelong curiosity. Examples of such content include online games, for example the enjoyable and somewhat addictive Corporation Inc to teach various economic concepts and financial literacy, and Vicki Hollett’s One Minute English YouTube series to present grammar and vocabulary for learners of English as a second language in an engaging way. For upper school students, particularly the gifted and talented, content can be taken from MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) or the more user-friendly Coursera site, which runs free online University courses (many of which are introductory). The essential element here is selecting content that excites students and clearly explaining or showing how the content can be accessed from outside the classroom.


Expecting students to become lifelong learners without providing a role model is, however, a more challenging task. For this reason, and many others, teachers need to continue their professional development throughout their careers and ensure that their students are constantly aware of it. For example, teachers could briefly tell their students about a professional development day when they return to school or show them a book they are reading. Even online courses which are unrelated to teachers’ specialisations could spark interest among students. As such, teachers need to be active in lifelong learning themselves and open with their students about their learning.

In summary, available technologies and particularly internet access are gifts for educators in terms of encouraging lifelong learning. Teachers need to grasp such technologies and engage learners by integrating them into their lessons and encouraging follow-up after class, as well as sharing their personal learning experiences with their students.


Barr, A., Gillard, J., Firth, V., Scrymgour, M., Welford, R., Lomax-Smith, J., . . . Constable, E. (2008). Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. Melbourne: Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.

Howell, J. (2012). Teaching with ICT: Digital Pedagogies for Collaboration and Creativity. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press.


Italki Review

italkiI am proud to say that this morning I managed to get out of bed at 6:15am for my 15th Italki/Skype Chinese lesson. My regular teacher Ally helped me wrestle with a particularly daunting unit in my book on shopping (with lots of numbers and vocabulary for clothing and department stores). I’ve been learning Chinese and Spanish with Italki for four months now and although there are already a good number of helpful reviews online explaining exactly how it works, (such as the one by Fluent in 3 Months you can find here), I would like to share some of the things I appreciate about it and some of the things I don’t.

If you’d like to make an account and check it out, you can use my referral link here.

Features I like:

  • Language partners – Free conversation/writing practice

Although language partnering certainly isn’t a new idea, italki provides a forum where you in can get in contact with native speakers of the language you’re learning and either communicate with them by message or organise Skype meetups. This is great for conversation practice and putting anything you learnt in lessons to use. As you might have guessed, English speakers are in hot demand so I haven’t actually had to search for any language partners myself. Although this is quite helpful for me in Spanish, my Chinese isn’t anywhere near advanced enough to be able to take part in casual conversation. In my experience Chinese non-teachers tend to complicate things more than they need to and ‘language exchanges’ can become English conversation practice. If you want to go this route, make sure you agree on how much time you want to spend speaking each language and tell them whether or not it’s appropriate for them to Skype you anytime you’re online (some students are more enthusiastic than others).

  • Informal tutoring

Informal tutoring is a more casual kind of language training which is useful for revising anything you’ve already looked at with a teacher. For Chinese, for example, I seem to need to repeat a lesson two or three times before I can get a good grasp on the vocabulary and remember the complete phrases. The main advantage of informal tutoring is that it’s less expensive than professional lessons and you’ll see that many of the trained teachers on the site also provide informal tutoring. This is definitely worth a try.

  • Trial lessons – Try before you buy

One of the biggest advantages of Italki is that you can take up to 5 trial lessons with different teachers to see which one best suits your needs. I didn’t gel with the first couple of teachers I tried as I felt they moved too quickly and didn’t have me repeat enough (don’t we language teachers make difficult students?). Before settling on a regular teacher, I recommend you shop around.

  • Teachers’ availability – You can find someone available most of the time

I love waking up early and having my Skype class with my tea and toast. Thanks to the time difference between here and China, I can have a class at 6:30 or 7am if I like.

  • My notebook – Have your writing corrected

After my lessons, or in fact whenever I like, I can write something in my notebook in one of the languages I’m learning. Native speakers can check and correct this and give me feedback, (and I can do the same thing for their English).

  • My referral link

If anyone signs up to italki using my referral link, and then tops up their account I get bonus credits I can put toward classes.

One improvement that could be made:

  • Class time length – 1H plus

Although it’s possible to have 30-minute trial lessons, it doesn’t seem to be possible to organise regular 30-minute classes. This is a shame because I think two 30-minute classes a week would be much easier to fit into my schedule than a whole hour and it would also help with concentration and make homework more manageable.

So please check out the site and tell me what you think, I hope you’ll enjoy it and find it as useful as I do!


Italki’s marketing department has informed me that there are in fact teachers offering 30 minute lessons, so I’ll sign up for a few and let you know how it goes!


The Fundamentals of Online Teaching: Course on hold

On hold

I just received the following email:

Dear Kirstin,

We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.

I knew they were having some difficulties organizing groups for the assignments etc. but I am very surprised indeed that they’ve ended up suspending the whole course! Perhaps there’s a certain irony in a course on online education being closed down owing to course design problems. I think this also highlights the inherent difficulty of having to plan an entire course before it has begun, with limited opportunity to change it as it goes along. We can see by this example that this can be a challenge even for the experts. Luckily this is a free course that isn’t required to fit into any university schedules.

The readings from the first week were really great, so I think that while I’m waiting for the course to come back online I’d like to take some time to reflect on them in more detail and think about how I can better integrate the ‘teaching by doing’ principle into my classes.

If you’d like to sign up to the class (although I’m not quite sure when it will start again) you can do so here

Week 1: The Fundamentals of Online teaching: Teaching by doing

This is my second post on a Coursera course I’m currently doing on online course design and teaching. This week the focus is on teaching theories and in particular the importance of having students learn in a hands-on way. Our first assignment was to reflect on some excellent articles and videos provided to us on teaching with technology.

When I first began reflecting on ‘learning by doing’ I thought of baby cheetahs learning to hunt. They learn by hunting themselves and if they don’t do it correctly there won’t be anything to eat. Perhaps this can be applied to business language learning: if you can’t communicate effectively it can be very difficult to do your job!


Here are my reflections:

The first article ‘The Trans-classroom Teacher (Lowes 2008)’ had me thinking very deeply about the process of adapting a course from a face-to-face format to an online one. It reminded me of ESL veteran Thomas SC Farrell’s plenary session at last year’s TESOL France conference ‘Reflecting on Reflective Practice’ when he encouraged us to consider very closely why we do what we do in the classroom. This is equally as important for the big things as the small things (the words we say, the gestures we make and the order of activities). I was unsurprised at the teachers’ reports that this reflection led them to make changes that significantly improved their face-to-face classes too. ‘Brain-based learning’ (Clemons 2005) reiterated the importance of structuring materials into ‘chunks’ in order for students to integrate these into their spatial memory. My attention was drawn in particular to the importance of emotions in learning and students’ tendency to close-up when they sense anxiety, threat etc. As a language teacher, it can be challenge to teach in a way that is sufficiently intense and varied enough to peak students’ attention while being careful not to make students feel anxious or threatened. This is something that varies between students, so teachers’ adaptability is paramount. I wonder if a one-size-fits-all online system will be able to address this for all students?

‘What we learn when we learn by doing’ (Schank 1995) was a scathing criticism of rote-learning and teaching for the sake of teaching and reminded me of the importance of teaching what is immediately useful and in a meaningful way. For me, this is particularly relevant in the context of adult learning and English for business. Motivation is natural when the student needs a particular language to do their job and when the motivation wanes the first question to be asked is ‘Is this material immediately relevant?’ The students at Carnegie Mellon West seem extremely motivated and can see straight away how the skills they are learning are applicable to the work environment they will soon enter.

Overall, I really appreciated having the opportunity to reflect on the question of doing vs reading/listening in learning. While it isn’t something new for me (as teacher-training has been centred on ‘doing’ for some time now), these resources are a fresh reminder of the importance of taking a step back and really putting this into our courses.

Fundamentals of Online teaching: Planning and Application

2013 has arrived with an excellent variety of new Coursera courses to be followed. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to investigate this site you really must! You’ll find free online courses, provided by top universities. One of the courses that caught my eye was the one that I will be blogging about for the next six weeks, ‘The Fundamentals of Online Teaching: Planning and Application’. In the ESL sphere online teaching is becoming more and more common, in response for demand for more convenience and lower-cost courses. Converting traditional teaching practices and materials, however, to an online application is no easy feat. At this year’s TESOL France conference, I had the pleasure of attending English360 founder Jeremy Day’s talk on ‘blended learning’ programmes. What I took away from it was that although e-learning isn’t necessarily ideal for teaching all receptive and productive skills, that when learners are ready to invest their time outside of class, teacher contact time can really be optimized. Perhaps by the end of the course I may be convinced that a well-designed online course can substitute face-to-face language learning?

This week I look forward to revisiting some educational theories (this time in the context of online education). I will keep you posted as to my discoveries and thoughts.


For the course we will be working in groups of 21. Firstly we tried to organize the groups by having each person enter their name in a spot on an Google spreadsheet. Somehow this was deleted and chaos ensued. Now we’re just figuring it out through forums. I think this provides an excellent example of something to think about when you’re designing an online course (especially of this size!).

TESOL France Colloquium Reflections: Teaching with Springpad


And yes, although it has almost been a month since the TESOL France 2012 Colloquium, I’m still flicking through my notes and testing the little ‘nuggets’ that I found there. This post is about Springpad, a tool I discovered in Hakan Senturk’s presentation that you can read more about here. As a teacher who is enthusiastic about technology and its potential to increase student autonomy and connect them when they are outside the classroom, I thought that this was something I should try. I have always had a tendency to find many different online resources to use in class with students. What appeals to me about Springpad is that it allows me to bring it all into one place and create a ‘Scapbook’, if you like, allowing students to access, comment on and contribute to resources. I had toyed with other tools like evernote before, but found them less user-friendly.

I am currently using Springpad with one student who is following a general English course. So far I have only used it for online resources, although I think it would be useful for me to upload the class notes into the same notebook to encourage my student to access it more often.

And so with any great teaching tool that endeavours to maximize student autonomy and online interaction, I believe the challenge lies in getting students to use it. So far we’ve looked at it together in class and I’ve added extra resources that are related to what we’ve covered together. Perhaps it would be a good idea to set some specific homework tasks. I would love to hear from any other teachers who have experimented with Springpad and what kind of feedback they’ve had from students.

Check out Hakan’s Blog here

My skype trial lesson: a student’s perspective

I saw an advertisement for a free trial lesson in Chinese by Skype and I just couldn’t help myself. I booked it straight away for Sunday morning and then completely forgot about it. I woke up to my ipad ringing and introduced myself to my new teacher. The conversation went a little something like this:

S: Good morning Kirstin. My name’s Sally.

K: Nice to meet you Sally. Is that your real name, or do you have a Chinese name?

S: Yes I do, but it’s too complicated.

I was a little surprised that they would have this system of replacing Chinese names with western ones, when people are signing up for their lessons to have some authentic Chinese contact. I thought it would make business sense to use the teachers authentic name. If I started calling myself Camille I think it would make students suspicious of my English expertise!

Anyway, ‘Sally’ went on to tell me how beautiful I was (in spite of the fact that I was straight out of bed and had pillow-creases on my face). Throughout the class, she always told me that I was doing a great job and that I was a natural. Whether all of this is Chinese culture or the dynamic of any trial lesson I cannot say. But coming from New Zealand’s  ‘everyone-wins’  school system, this teaching style really resonated with me. But am I the exception? I know that many of the French students I teach would have taken this praise as mockery.

Pedagogically the class was sound; we covered basic introductions and talked about my job and family. I listened and repeated, then we did some rolepalys and ‘Sally’ gave me some feedback on my pronunciation. Sally is completely bilingual and so a large part of the class was in English. It would have been interesting to see a CELTA-style introductory lesson exclusively in Chinese, but perhaps that would be more complicated by Skype than face to face?

For the moment I won’t be continuing my online Chinese lessons: the time difference makes the timing a little complicated and I can’t guarantee that I’ll be up early every Sunday morning. I do, however, encourage you to take a free trial lesson and share your impressions. You can find the information here.