Back in 2015 I embarked on a journey to Vietnam and South Korea to visit a number of primary schools. Accompanying me was Dr Julie Choi from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.
The aim of our investigation was to provide a descriptive and interpretive account of a primary level blended learning program within the context of English language education in Vietnam and South Korea.
Introducing the SMARTree Project
The blended learning program – known as the SMARTree project, is a comprehensive five-year primary course which integrates the four skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking. It has both online and offline components, incorporating tablets, textbooks and a Learning Management System (LMS) with engaging features such as voice and video recording functions.
The program, which draws on SMART Learning principles, is designed to strengthen the capabilities of 21st century learners by providing them with intelligent and customized learning solutions.
Motivational and engaging
Adaptive to a range of aptitudes, abilities and learning styles
Resource rich and abundant learning materials
Our research centered around five schools. Two urban public schools in Hanoi, two private schools in Seoul, and a dedicated SMARTree centre in rural South Korea. At each school we observed young learners from grades 1 to 4 both face-to-face and using Gopros. We also reviewed policies and documents and interviewed various stakeholders including school directors, teachers, parents and students.
Each classroom had a different setup and came with its own advantages and challenges. There were pod-style classrooms which saw students in individual workstations. Each learner had a tablet which could be monitored by the teacher from their master computer. Classes were also supplemented with traditional textbooks, whiteboards, video clips from YouTube and other teaching aids such as hand puppets. Then there were SMARTree classrooms, which used a mix of individual pod work and teacher-fronted classes.
One of the private schools also had non-SMARTree classrooms where students could do research, writing, make collages through both digital and non-digital means, drawing, taking playful self-photos, creating storyboards etc.
What did we learn?
The first thing which was clear was how blended learning solutions like SMARTree make English more accessible to students, especially in rural areas. One teacher at a rural after-school centre told us “In Seoul, they have many chances to use English. Here they don’t have any chances, so this center is really important.”
Another advantage of a blended approach is that it allows students to improve their English skills for practical purposes in a fun and natural way. This is something which both parents and teachers seem to value more than simply studying a language to pass a test. They believe that learning to communicate successfully in English will give their children more opportunities in the future.
Something to consider, however, when relying on technology in your classes – is the potential for things to go wrong. We observed on numerous occasions where tablets failed to load, needed to be rebooted or changed, or the audio stopped working. This became extremely time consuming and distracting for learners. In essence, the teacher stopped being a teacher and became a technician.
That being said, we noticed how resilient and resourceful the children were, being able to use the technology to take control of their own learning. One child we observed (who we shall call ‘multitasking kid’) was able to actively construct his own learning, not only in the self-paced tablet based segments of the lesson, but also in the teacher-fronted activities. He moved seamlessly between both modes, interacting with his peers, engaging with the material, flipping between apps and answering the teacher’s questions.
Although blended learning has many advantages, you should be aware of the limitations of relying too much on technology. Before switching to a blended approach, consider what the technology can and can’t do. Use it to enhance your teaching capabilities and not replace them. SMARTree for example was great for pronunciation. Students could record themselves, listen back, compare with others and then get feedback. In large classes, this would be impossible without technology.
Talk to your students and find out what they like and don’t like. Often we forget to ask young learners for feedback – and that’s a mistake. During our investigation we learned that the students like things that are simple and easy to use. They prefer tablets to computers and games to songs. They want things to be personalized and relate to their interests and they think that grammar is important (that last one was a surprise!).
You should also consider a greater focus on digital games that help stimulate learning. Not only are they engaging, they help students interact with others and develop a sense of community.
I’d like to thank Dr. Julie Choi who was an equal partner in this research; the administrators, teachers, parents and kids who gave their time so generously; and Patrick Hwang and Ian Bosiak at efuture – without their help this work would not have been possible.
Blended learning with Poptropica English
Poptropica English is a 6-level blended learning course aimed at Primary students. The program is ideal for teachers who are looking for a Blended Learning Primary ELT course for learners aged between 6 and 12 years old.
Designed to make learning English stimulating, exciting and engaging, Poptropica English is a truly innovative Blended Learning course that delivers a curriculum packed full of stories and quests, and features its own online game.
Providing evidence of pupil progress and extending learning beyond the classroom, its unique methodology follows five ‘P’s that underpin the course program; Presentation, Practice, Production, Personalization and Pronunciation.
Download a sample now and learn more about how you can start using blended learning in your primary classroom.