Monday, 31 March 2014

Motivating students through website creation

Over the last term I’ve been teaching an options class called English through Technology. The purpose of the course is to combine straightforward English language learning with elements of digital literacy relevant for our students future studies at university. So, for example, students have been learning how to use different presentation software, how to create videos and edit them, how to use different search engines, and these are all designed to give them the skills necessary to cope with life when they take up their place in their departments.

As we got near the end of the course I wanted them to work on a project that would allow them to combine a lot of these skills and also to produce something which was real and meaningful for both them and would have an audience beyond the classroom. We came up with the idea of creating a website for future students of our school. The idea would be to provide a real and honest guide from current students giving information to future students about all aspects of life in Sheffield and the school. This was partially inspired by an award-winning project from a colleague of mine called Gary Wood, who got his first-year linguistics students to create a site for future undergraduates.

The homepage of our website

We started off by talking about what kinds of general topics would be relevant for the students. They came up with some general topics such as transport, family life, studies etc and then we looked at these in more detail to come up with specific areas for each of these topics. We then assign different people different areas to work on, so they worked in pairs or groups and got down to work

In terms of of the technical side of creating the website, we decided to use Google Sites. There were two reasons for this: firstly, they are available through their university accounts, so it was easy to access and use them. Secondly, they are very simple to use, they don't require any great programming knowledge, and students can just use the interface to edit and create their pages. This allowed them to spend more time focusing on the content and the writing of the webpages rather than the technical side of creating them. 

A webpage giving info about children's education
The response from the class to this task has been incredible. Over the last three weeks they have worked almost constantly on this website. My role has been just to guide them, give them ideas and occasionally check what they'd written. Most of the work has been done by them, even down to the design of the site logo. And the level of engagement has been incredible. During the lesson there is almost no time when the students concentration slips, they are constantly engaged, talking, thinking, researching, or doing something connected to the website, something I rarely see in my ‘normal’ classes. They’ve been working on the project outside of the lessons making and editing videos. I have had very little input on what they had to do, I've given them some small technical help, and some occasional structural or stylistic help with the language.

They interviewed and videoed teachers for the website
What this experiment showed me was the value of giving students real and meaningful tasks to do. This website will be sent to future students and I think that feeling of having a real audience is very motivating for students. I think this kind of project work - properly supervised and structured - can be a tremendous tool for motivating students to be creative with the language.