Magic? A teacher’s first term with Touchstone Blended Learning

Teacher Dina Dobrou

“We’re going to run a Blended Learning course using Touchstone from Cambridge”, my school director announced.

These two words instantly ‘clicked’:

Blended Learning:

A mixing of different learning environments. It combines traditional face-to-face classroom methods with more computer-mediated activities.(Wikipedia)


1. A test or criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of a thing.

2. A fundamental or quintessential part or feature. (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary)

This should be interesting…was my first thought, as teaching with technology has been the apple of my eye for the past two years.

Darn! I have this class with a couple of older students (60 something)…it’s going to be a mess with technology…Why me?…was my second thought…(Yes, the fear of technology going wrong or stakeholders not being able to handle it, is an issue apparent even among the techiest of our profession).

For a start, I think I was being a bit biased about my older students as they very pleasantly surprised me as you will see later on. Secondly, it being Blended Learning I knew I had to focus on both the technological aspects and the face to face ones. I soon discovered that they work separately as well as hand in hand, perfectly well.

On Technology:

Upon completing the online course for teachers I was more confident about converting even my most non-techy student into a confident, independent user of the interface offered by Touchstone. Initially, some tech training in class was involved and follow-up on the students’ ability to work independently from home.

It was a long process at first and to this day I can’t say that we’ve used all Touchstone features such as the Wiki, Blog, Voice Tools, Chat, Forum, though we did go through them one by one, taking time to make sure they know how to navigate the Online Course, which was of paramount importance as whenever someone missed a class they knew they could keep up with the rest of us by catching up online (so dropout numbers…dropped).

Overall, I can now proudly say that, because of this course, my most non-techy student set up an email account, got a laptop, discovered the world of online dictionaries, Wikipedia, YouTube and TED talks and became a very independent learner whose skills have developed considerably.

On face-to-face:

As a new teacher (some 16 years ago) I had to rely a lot on Teachers’ books for teaching guidance and lesson plans. If you have been around for as long as I have you will have learnt the hard way that Teacher’s books are not always what they’re cracked up to be. More often than not, instead of a book that guides teachers (especially inexperienced ones) and provides lesson plans for the content in the Student’s book,  they’re a mere “key-to-the-SB-activities-with-the-occasional-photocopiable-material” (correct me if I’m wrong on this).

What I’ve discovered in Touchstone was that I can completely rely on the Teacher’s book to get a clear, thorough and concise step-by-step journey into language exploration with my students and a wealth of ideas and opportunities for stimulating discussion. It is not, however, a “teacher-breathes-in-teacher-breathes-out” approach to lesson planning and allows for adaptation to fit your students’ needs.

So, if you’re starting out with Touchstone, here are a few tips I found useful:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Embrace the Teacher’s book lesson plan and let it guide you. If anything, it might change some of your established routines and your classroom dynamics (the inductive approach to teaching is apparent throughout) and urge you to ‘step out of your comfort zone’ and teach differently.
  • Take time in class to provide some tech training. It is not a waste of time. It will be a lifesaver eventually.
  • First things first…or…the easiest things first. Start training your students with what you (and especially your students) find easier to handle. One thing at a time, plus follow-up worked best for me:
  • Online Course/ Online Workbook etc.
  • Voice Tools
  • Forum
  • Wiki
  • (…you define the order…)

I will finish with my favourite motto and a picture to illustrate this:

                                                Step out of your comfort zone!


What have they been up to?

‘I have eyes in the back of my head’. Teachers everywhere

Classroom management is all about knowing and controlling what is going on in your classroom and is a core competency for teachers teaching face to face.  This is reduced to a certain degree in online teaching but we still need to know what our students are getting up to when they think we’re not looking.  Teacher omniscience is not only about behaviour though.  It’s also about appreciating what our students are understanding or struggling with and making decisions about how to address this.  So how can we be sure they are doing what we want them to do?

1. LMS access data

examples of dataUsing the information in Teacher Reports, you can easily track how much time your students have spent in the LMS.  You can filter the reports so that they just show one class so you can see straightaway if anyone is spending a lot less time than the others in the system.  This may mean that the student is slacking and just doing the bare minimum.  Be careful though – it could mean that the student’s level is a bit higher than the others so they are getting through the material faster.  If this is the case you will need to devise some additional tasks e.g. research and blogging that they can do to keep them interested but how do you know which is which?

2. Student progress data

Looking at student progress, you can see very detailed information on how the students are doing at any one time by clicking on the student’s name.  You can even see how many times a student attempted a particular exercise.

students progressLooking at the data for the student above, we can easily see the area she needs more support with.  She probably understands yes/no questions fairly well is struggling with the vocabulary for the lesson.  Hover over learning outcomes to get a clearer picture of what the student should be able to do now that she’s finshed this lesson.

This data isn’t really worth putting on certificates.  It’s for you to get a clear idea of what you need to do in your next face to face session or synchronous activity*.  Think about doing a grammar gamble or a quiz or a communicative activity that uses the language or skills in question that would give you an opportunity to address the issue with the group and see if they can help each other find the answers.

3. Web 2.0 Tools

web 2.0 tools imagesThese communicative tools provide you with a unique window on your students’ world.  You have the chance to see what they are thinking and how they express themselves in ways that are not available to you face to face.  For instance, with Voice Tools you will be able to hear the pronunciation of even those shy students who stop talking whenever they see you approaching.  Because the tasks in the Forum and Blog are directly prepared and scaffolded in the Touchstone content, you can get a very clear picture of what your learners have understood from their activity in the online course.  Take care not to fall into the trap of trying to correct all mistakes for everyone but do invite comment on common errors when in class.  Give them the opportunity to correct themselves as a group first and then fill in the gaps in their knowledge when they’ve run out of options.

Speaking of behaviour, you may still need to check into forums etc to make sure everyone is ‘playing nicely’.  It is important to establish an atmosphere of trust in the online learning environment so that students feel confident enough to risk making mistakes that their peers will see.  If there is anyone in the group who is behaving antisocially, e.g. making fun of other students, they are damaging that atmosphere and negating the value of the community of learners.  Part of the cure for this is to agree ‘class rules’ or netiquette and to emphasise its importance during orientation – not what punishments are available for rule breakers but what value there is for everyone if everyone follows the rules.

We no longer need to have eyes in the back of our heads but we still need to know what our students are getting up to and how we do that is changng too…

Oh no, not grammar!

‘I am the Roman Emperor, and am above grammar.’ Emperor Sigismund

Yeah right!  Nobody’s above grammar – even the Emperor’s sentence is grammatically correct.  There are people out there who don’t get on with grammar, either because they don’t like the idea of rules or they don’t get it at all so they need to learn languages differently but often it’s because they think it’s boring…but it doesn’t have to be.

You’ll notice that in Touchstone Online there are no long grammatical tables of verb conjugations with spellings and tenses that send our students to sleep.  Instead, every grammar point is raised within a specific context so the language point is grounded in some kind of communicative purpose i.e. to furnish the students with the language they need to talk about about a particular topic or get a particular thing done.  This makes the language so much more memorable for the learners especially as in the discussions using that language, they get to talk about their own personal experiences.  So far so good.

I’ve learned a number of other languages and I always feel my heart sinking when my teacher presents me with a long table of nouns and verbs and then reads it to me.  I know that no matter how dedicated a grammar nerd I am, by the time the teacher gets half way through the table I will be doing my shopping list in my head and not listening to a word.  So I really feel for our students.  Contextualisation, making it ‘real’ and applying it to situations they might actually encounter and even enjoy (gasp!) is the key to making your grammar lesson successful.

And that’s what the Touchstone Online grammar videos do.  The truth is that the grammar is being taught all the way from the beginning of the lesson.  The grammar is there in the very first example sentences when it is not highlighted.  It is there in the Figure it Out section when the students are asked to do a sentence structure exercise without any explanation (but with the help of a reading text) and again in more Figure it Out work where they are asked to think a little harder about the structure with a bit less help, again without an explanation.  So by the time they come to look at the Flash video with the explanation, the grammar is not being explained to them but should be confirming what they have hypothesised throughout the earlier part of the lesson.  This then leads on to lots of lovely practice where they get to put it into use in fun personalised ways.  The key difference between the two approaches is that the students make the rules and the course confirms their suspicions rather than going in cold and being told stuff.

So what does this mean for you?  Lots of teachers have asked me whether they can use these videos in class instead of doing grammar presentation.  It depends largely on how you want to use it.  If you want to teach them the present perfect so you show them the video on the Present Perfect and then ask them to do exercises then the answer is definitely ‘no’.  The students will like the interface and the fact that it’s high tech but other than that there is no difference from reading out a grammar table.  If you have set up the context and done lots of figuring it out activities, you could potentially use it as a summary of the rules they have already discerned for themselves.  Use this judiciously however as it is easy to look lazy if you are always putting on videos and the students will eventually bore of this too.  Use it occasionally to bring some variety into the classroom but don’t rely on it.  It’s best to let the students use it themselves at home so you can do a game to review it in class and place a heavier emphasis on either the communicative activities or specific skills or problem areas so you really maximise their time with you.

Have fun!

What’s it all about?

During recent training with some very smart teachers in Moscow in October, it became apparent that teachers were feeling confident about some parts of the LMS, teaching using the programme and the Web 2.0 tools…but not all of them.  Everybody had different strengths and weaknesses and were worried about different components or activities or philosophies or had one idea of how to use something but wanted to try alternatives.

So, on the inspired suggestion of Olga from Samara, I have started this blog to keep putting out ideas for teaching, for using the platform and motivating students.  Every Monday there will be a post on a topic of the week, with technical How To’s and pedagogical What For’s with practical advice on different components and methodology.  Teachers are invited to share their practical ideas too, particularly if they try out something they heard on the blog.  From time to time we’ll hear from other trainers and even teachers who would like to talk about their experiences of how they adopted Touchstone with their learners.

I hope that this will become a resource for new and experienced teachers alike so if there’s anything in particular you’d like to read about and try out do let me know!