How to create interactive online tasks

The last of our summaries from the MaWSIG Showcase at IATEFL in Liverpool 2019 comes from Jill Hadfield. In this post, Jill outlines the principles behind creating effective and motivating online tasks and proposes a six-step procedure for teachers to follow when creating their own online activities.

The changing landscape of ELT means that many teachers are now either using blended learning or teaching wholly online. However, the nature of online tasks and the types of groupings and interactions are very different from classroom tasks and groupings.

In my IATEFL workshop, I gave participants a toolkit for designing online tasks with an opportunity to try designing their own. We looked at principles for online task design, types of online interaction and the nature of noticing and feedback in online tasks. Finally, I gave participants a six-step procedure for creating online tasks.

Principles

I outlined five important principles underlying the creation of online tasks:

  1. Tasks should be between human <–> human not human <–> machine.
  2. Tasks should have a reason for communication, e.g. to share information, opinions or values or ideas.
  3. Tasks should have a purpose and have closure in an end point: communication should achieve something (the solution to a puzzle, for example, or the creation of a text or artefact).
  4. Tasks should involve two-way participation: members should both take account of each other’s contributions and contribute themselves.
  5. Tasks should include a range of interaction- and task-types.

Principle 3 is particularly important in online interaction: an online activity needs a clearly defined end point so that it doesn’t drag on or fizzle out. It is also important from the point of view of psychological satisfaction to have closure and the sense of having achieved something.

Task-types

Five task-types were outlined: factual: sharing information on factual topics; critical: an exchange of opinions; personal: an exchange of personal information; fanciful: entering into an imaginary scenario, such as a roleplay; creative: the creation of a story or poem. It is important to have a variety of these task-types to cater for learner preference and also for different language use.

Interaction patterns

So far, online tasks share characteristics with classroom tasks. But it is in the possible interaction patterns that online interaction task design differs most from face-to-face classroom interaction. Six online interaction patterns were presented, with examples:

Confetti: the teacher posts a stimulus and students respond. An example is a simple factual guessing game: the teacher posts a picture of a place and the students ask questions to discover where it is.

Pass the Parcel: the teacher posts a stimulus. The first student responds and then posts the next stimulus. An example is a fanciful activity, ‘Almost Superpower’, where the teacher posts a power, e.g. ‘I can fly.’ The student who responds first, e.g. ‘But you can only fly one metre off the ground’, posts the next power, e.g. ‘I can read people’s thoughts.’

Poker: students take numbered turns to post a stimulus; others react. An example is a fanciful Murder Mystery, where students post numbered clues and the others make deductions about what happened.

Breakout Room: students work in two closed groups, A and B, then regroup into pairs with one A and one B to interact by private message. This is a useful pattern for critical discussions, where the A and B groups can collect arguments for and against respectively, and then be regrouped into pairs to debate.

Postal Ballot: students post opinions in another critical discussion. Students vote on the opinions they agree with or like best, then discuss to reach a consensus: for example, students create laws for an imaginary country and vote on the laws they like best.

Writers’ Group: students react to a stimulus such as a picture or the first line of a story by producing a piece of creative writing, e.g. a story or a poem, and then read and comment on each other’s pieces.

The more complex interaction patterns involved in activities such as Poker and Breakout Room require the online platform to allow for closed sub-groups to be formed and to have a private message facility. These requirements, as well as the ability to post images easily, need to be borne in mind when selecting an online platform.

Feedback and error correction

Noticing, feedback, and focus on form are also very different in online contexts because of two factors: (1) the teacher and students can see all student contributions to the task, and (2) as most online interaction is asynchronous, the teacher has time to prepare a rich variety of feedback and language focus tasks.

A procedure for creating online tasks

Finally, participants were given a six-step process for creating their own tasks:

Choice 1: Discussion topic or language practice?

Choice 2: Which topic? What language? What level?

Choice 3: What activity type? (Factual, Critical, Personal, Fanciful, Creative)

Choice 4: What stimulus to provoke interaction? (e.g. an image, a question, a provocative statement, a clue to a mystery, a challenge to do something)

Choice 5: Interaction patterns (Confetti, Pass the Parcel, etc.)

Choice 6: Staging and rubrics.

References
Clandfield, L. & Hadfield, J. 2017. Interaction online. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jill Hadfield has worked as a teacher and teacher trainer in Britain, France, China, Tibet, Madagascar and New Zealand, run short courses and seminars for teachers in many other parts of the world and worked as consultant for the UK’s British Council and Department of International Development, writing materials for and reviewing aid projects in Africa. She is now Associate Professor at Unitec, New Zealand. She has written over 30 books, translated into a total of 17 languages. These include the  bestselling Longman Communication Games series, five books in the Oxford Basics series, Classroom Dynamics, a course for primary children: Excellent! published by Longman, which was nominated for the Duke of Edinburgh Award, two teacher education books: Top Tools for Language Teachers (Pearson) and An Introduction to Teaching English (OUP). Motivating Learning, co-authored with Zoltan Dornyei, was published in 2013 by Routledge in the Research and Resources in Language Teaching series, for which she is series editor. Her latest book, Interaction Online, co-authored with Lindsay Clandfield, was a finalist in the ELTons awards for Innovation in Teacher Resources.

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