Literary-Humanistic Syllabi and Text Books
According to policy documents with regard to study groups (1967), syllabus reforms workshops (1971) and University Grants Commission’s Curriculum Development Centre Report on English (1989) on English Language Teaching in India, English should be taught for purely pragmatic considerations of meeting the communicative needs of users in academic or business domains. However, paradoxically, most colleges and universities in the north-western parts of India prescribe syllabi which include essays, poems, short stories, plays and novels for English Language Teaching. Presumably, (most of the university syllabus documents do not state the course goals explicitly), the goal of these literature-based courses is to help learners master English language through the study of literary texts. However, it is very difficult to understand how by studying dated poems and plays, learners will be able to use English effectively to communicate in real life. By studying English located in such literary contexts, learners can at best get exposed to the literary use of language, which does not help them attain proficiency in using English in their day-to-day life.
Major Issues with the Traditional Methodology of Teaching
The traditional methodology of teaching does not help either. A typical English class in north India has around 70-80 students and the teacher is expected to explain the prescribed text in an interesting manner so as to engage the learners. So, most “good” teachers think of themselves as good “performers”. However while “performing” to explain the text, teachers get so carried away that they forget to focus on language practice by the students. Performance for them is an easy way out to avoid the hard work and drudgery involved in language practice. After the textual explication, teachers typically single out those topics for discussion that are important from an examination point of view. Some teachers dictate notes on these topics so that learners can memorize them and reproduce them in their final exams.
Being passive listeners, students do not get a chance to practice English; nor do they get any individual attention from their teacher to resolve their learning difficulties. Moreover, the language used in the classroom is “literary”, not authentic. Therefore, what learners get at the end of the class is a vague idea of the content or the story and a hazy idea of the language. They find literature-based textbooks and grammar-translation method of teaching quite boring and not tuned to their real life communicative needs. Even the exam-related exercises that they do in the class rarely contribute to their language acquisition.
Teachers however cannot deviate much from the given syllabus because the term-end achievement test is strictly based on the syllabus. Moreover, the time allotted for the class is also insufficient. A teacher meets a large class of learners daily for a 40 minute period and spends nearly 10 minutes on activities such as roll-call and disciplining. The rest of the time is spent on “covering” the prescribed syllabus for the term, i.e. lecturing on poems, short stories, essays, novels or plays. In such a large class, it is indeed a big challenge for the teacher to interact with learners, address their individual learning problems and give prompt and appropriate feedback to them. Learners who remain “unattended”, and who do not get corrective feedback from the teacher resort to acts of mischief, thereby disturbing the classroom discipline. So the real issue is to engage learners in meaningful language practice within and beyond the face-to-face class and to motivate them to develop their general communicative ability.
Is Blended Teaching and Learning the Answer?
I think that if I blend my class-based teaching with web-based learning, I may be able to resolve many of the problems mentioned above. I would like my learners to shift their focus from examination-oriented learning to meaningful, multimedia-assisted, individualized language learning. I am hopeful that controlled exposure to course-related online learning tasks will motivate learners to make an effort to improve their language skills. I believe blending my classroom teaching with online teaching will:
- Raise learners’ motivation levels by making instructional inputs interesting and by exploiting web resources, which contain a lot of audio-visual and illustrative materials.
- Shift learners’ attention from examination-oriented learning to genuine and authentic language learning by making them use English in real-life communicative situations.
- Motivate learners to interact with online material individually or in pairs and exploit web resources for assigned learning purposes, e.g., completing a project or an assignment, participating in online discussions and surveys, learning through WebQuests and so on.
- Help the teacher reach out to each learner, address individual learning problems and give appropriate corrective feedback.
Methodological Intervention to Achieve Objectives
As discussed earlier, I can neither deviate from the given syllabus nor design my own tests. It is my university which designs the syllabus and the term-end achievement test which is taken by approximately 1 lakh students studying in various affiliated colleges. However, I can manipulate my teaching methodology, and I do it as much as possible and that is what makes my teaching “different” from the majority of other teachers in my area who teach mostly by “lecturing”.
Ways of Blending Class and Online Teaching and Learning
I teach my large classes by approaching them as a whole class (having 70-80 learners) and as a composition class (having 20-25 students). For the large class, I use a computer that is connected to an LCD projector and a good sound system to make presentations. The idea is to provide the learners with “comprehensible inputs” on the prescribed language genres (poems, plays, paragraphs, short stories, novels, etc.). Using an interactive lecture alongside PPTs on a Smart board, I introduce learners to the target language genre and assist them in comprehending it, by providing the necessary explanations and word-meanings. I also make use of the traditional “chalk and talk” method to resolve any difficulties that come up in the moment, and to provide corrective / productive feedback on the fly. To check their understanding, I keep asking the learners comprehension-check questions during my presentation. The computer, internet and smart board help me to exploit the text, graphics, video and audio content, thereby enriching my teaching as well as the learners’ learning. I encourage them to take notes and to respond to the language tasks either individually or in pairs.
In my composition class, my aim is to provide an individualized learning experience to my learners and to foster self-directed learning. For this I make the computer science laboratory of my college “double up” as the language lab. This laboratory has 30 computers that are connected to the teacher’s computer through a LAN. I give the learners tasks based on some of the concepts they were exposed to in the “whole class” and some additional exercises on composition (e.g. paragraph-writing, short essay, dialogue writing / completion, letter, précis-writing etc.). In addition to this, I give them grammar and vocabulary exercises using authoring tools such as Hot Potatoes and Author Plus. Sometimes I use DVDs on communicative English so that students may view them independently and learn from them. I can access the learners’ computers through my master console and monitor and correct their on-task performance and give my feedback.
Online Learning Options
The activities mentioned above are mostly “on-campus” activities; I wanted to try WebQuests and other tools such as Wall Wisher and YouTube to give the learners an experience of independent, individualized “off-campus” online learning. I believe that all learners should ideally aim for learner autonomy. Who doesn't want to learn at their own pace, in their own time and at their own place? Ideally, autonomous learners should set their own learning goals and take responsibility for their learning. But such absolute autonomy is not possible in institutionalized instructional systems. In schools and colleges, we may therefore aim for “teacher-induced” learner autonomy, where a teacher leads his / her learners to do things independently and to “own” responsibility for their learning.
So I “set up” some learning scenarios in a series of WebQuests, where learners are encouraged to use various web tools to reach certain pre-determined learning goals. In these WebQuests, online tools such as Wall Wisher, YouTube, and links to relevant websites are integrated to create a scenario for holistic learning. I believe that learners would feel excited with their new-found freedom and flexi-learning and may be gradually motivated to become autonomous learners.
I have always felt that I have very few contact hours (just 5 hours per week!) in my College to help my students learn English. Through online teaching, I can use web tools such as Google Drive, Delicious, PBL, Nicenet, WebQuests, Rubrics, Wall Wisher, Popplet, Blogs and Wikis, etc., to connect with my learners online anytime, anywhere. I believe that in this “web based class” beyond the “on-campus” class, learners experience greater autonomy and individualized learning. But for this to be effective, I need to train my learners in “how to learn independently”. I propose to gradually shift them from teacher dependence to autonomy by “setting up” online language learning tasks for them and playing a supportive role. I feel that by experiencing genuine language use through online resources, my learners would be motivated to learn English not for “passing” their exams but as a vehicle for effective real-life communication.
Experiments with Interactive PPTs and Online Learning
Interactive PPTs are great audio-visual multimedia tools for engaging and motivating a large number of students. With the help of these tools, a teacher can not only introduce concepts in an interesting way, but also engage students in many interactive activities built into the PPT. For instance, I used an interactive PPT for teaching Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” and found that my learners participated actively throughout the lesson.
Another online resource that can be used as a tool in teaching-learning is WebQuests. When I first mentioned the word “WebQuest” to my students, they had no clue as to what it was. I asked them to try Wikipedia and Google to find out about WebQuests, but they were unsuccessful. Then I decided to demonstrate to them how learning can take place through WebQuests using examples from Zunal.com and Questgarden.com. I demonstrated step by step, how they could learn either individually or in pairs using a WebQuest. They understood this way of learning, and we agreed that they would work with three WebQuests: “Sounds of English”, “Macbeth’s Character Through Soliloquies” and “How to Write a Persuasive Essay”. The learners were initially apprehensive about this new way of learning, but their excitement and motivation grew as they got involved in doing the WebQuests. While they were working on the WebQuests, I was there with them and helped them if they needed some clarification. To complete the assigned tasks, they discussed, explored and asked me questions; they were completely focused on completing the assigned tasks in the WebQuests. I found my class had suddenly come alive. Although finally, the learners’ average success rate was around 60 per cent, I was happy to find learners taking an interest in online learning and enjoying it. I had found a good way of reaching out to each one of my learners and engaging them in meaningful language practice not only in the class but also beyond my class, on the Web.
My learners are adults and adults mostly like to do things their own way. However, in my examination-oriented academic context, my adult learners depend heavily on teachers and ‘bazaar notes’ i.e substandard ‘guide books’ to pass examinations. However, there is a growing awareness among learners to learn English to get and retain employment in communication-centric sectors such as the BPO, KPO, hospitality and management and so on. I have increasingly felt that learners are usually put off by the outdated syllabus and Grammar-Translation method of teaching English. In my experiment with web-based learning, learners showed an inclination and motivation to learn the prescribed syllabus in a new and exciting way. Gradually, I intend to introduce them to a more elaborate integration of web-based learning, where they can learn more flexibly and autonomously. I have developed a website to provide supplementary online tasks to my learners and to keep in touch with them. My experiments and experiences with blended teaching and learning have enthused both my students and me, and I would recommend this to the entire teaching-learning community.
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University Grants Commission. (1971). Syllabus reform workshop on English. New Delhi: University Grants Commission Press.
University Grants Commission. (1989). Curriculum development centre report on English. New Delhi: University Grants Commission Press.