Teacher involvement is fundamental to the success of online resources. Julia Ker from the University of Surrey talks to Andrew Stokes about how the Language Study Area makes a success of self-study resources through awareness building, advice and, above all, teacher participation.
AS: Many institutions find that their online materials for English and other languages are under-used. Why do you think this is?
JK: Often students start the year with good intentions, but the time they have available for language self-study decreases when they get closer to exam and assignment deadlines, even though this may be when they need the resources most. It can also be difficult to get the word out to students, particularly if they are not on a language program. Accessibility is also an issue.
Julia is responsible for supervising the Language Study Area (self-access centre) and also provides additional technical support to the School of English & Languages at the University of Surrey.
The Language Study Area
The Language Study Area is based in the University of Surrey Library and provides self-study resources to all students and staff across the University.
AS: So, how do you raise awareness of your online resources?
JK: In the School of English and Languages, we try to combat these problems by raising awareness both face to face and electronically. We offer tours of our facilities and provide our students with guides (both online and hard copy) about all of our software, highlighting for each program the skills focus, the level it is aimed at, and how to access it. We encourage students to become familiar with the resources when they first start and this helps them to focus their studies later on in their course, when time is tighter.
AS: Do you offer language counselling or advice to students?
JK: The variety of materials available has the potential to be overwhelming if students are not given support. So, as well as the online study guides, we provide advice about improving their language skills. We structure our advice to help students identify the areas where they need to make the most progress, and we encourage them to track their progress to ensure they are using the correct resources and are improving.
AS: Is it important to involve teachers in students’ online learning?
JK: Yes, it’s fundamental to the success of the resources that staff are involved. To begin with, I try to include the tutors as much as possible in the process of selecting materials. When I am made aware of an online resource, I share it with the relevant tutors to get their feedback. It’s important to note if a tutor is reluctant to use a program, as it can mean it is not appropriate content-wise or potentially difficult for students too and gives me an idea of the level of support both staff and students will need. Also, involving tutors in the selection process helps them know what is available.
We keep the staff updated about the usage of the software on a regular basis and when we notice that programs are not being used we ask for their assistance in encouraging students to use it. And finally, when deciding whether to renew licenses or discontinue a program, we contact the staff to ask for their input. This means they are involved in every step of the process.
AS: Do you also reach out to students directly? What do you find are the most effective channels for doing this?
JK: We rely heavily on our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). It allows us to directly distribute information to the relevant courses and target particular groups of students. Our VLE allows us to email students, post messages on course homepages (which students see every time they access that course page) and also include our resources directly amongst their other course materials, week by week. This is invaluable when you have materials that fit in with a particular course topic.
We have a tandem language learning social network called LACES, exclusively for University of Surrey students, which we can use to get the word out beyond the School of English and Languages. We have information on the Language Study Area website, and it’s important to note that we combine all this with tours of the area, leaflets and guides, and contact with our teaching staff.
AS: Do you survey your students about your self-study resources and if so, what do they tell you?
JK: Yes, we do survey our students. Last year, at the end of the intensive pre-sessional courses we asked students for suggestions for improvements to our self-study resources. All comments received indicated that they were impressed with our current resources. We also note feedback from students at our designated help desk and this indicates students particularly appreciate flexibility about accessing the materials. For example, with pronunciation resources, the feedback suggests that students prefer being able to access these programs online and from home, rather than in an area where they might be heard by other students. Having the flexibility to access these types of resources elsewhere means that they are more likely to use them to their full potential.
AS: When you contact students through the VLE do you measure the results in terms of the usage levels of your online resources?
JK: Yes. For example, last year we trialled a Clarity program called Practical Writing. At the beginning of the trial, I contacted students through our VLE to notify them of the availability of the software and we found that usage immediately went up. The statistics went down over a holiday period, so once students had returned to campus, I contacted them again asking for any feedback or comments and we witnessed another spike in usage. Even if students are aware of resources, it is definitely worth notifying them more than once to remind them.
AS: What advice would you give to a language centre manager to help improve take-up of online learning resources?
JK: Use a VLE or similar system to promote your materials. This means students can access them quickly and easily. It also helps tutors to engage with the programs, as they can relate them directly to their course content. Make sure you understand the strengths and weaknesses of each resource and make this clear to the students and staff when advising them. Students and staff are more likely to persist if they understand both the difficulties and the benefits of using a program.
Most importantly, make sure students and tutors are involved as much as possible in every step of the process of selecting, analysing and promoting your online resources.
Explore the University of Surrey’s School of English and Languages website here.