Literacy through technology: The Sheffield College experience
by Julie Hooper
'I can’t imagine teaching literacy to young people without the computer now,' commented one of the English teachers in a recent department meeting in the Sheffield College. The thirteen-strong English team nodded in general agreement. The Sheffield College is a federally organised tertiary college consisting of three localised colleges. Its city centre College, Castle, has a large team of English teachers who, in addition to regular teaching commitments, work on a number of e-learning projects such as our online GCSE English course.
We are not specialists in technology, but simply recognise its enormous potential for widening participation in English and literacy. The focus of this article is our work in using technology to re-engage disaffected 16-19 year olds in literacy. This work began four years ago with the development of our online GCSE English course. In its pilot year, a minority of the students were disaffected, excluded school-pupils who had "switched off" from the academic curriculum.
The students were given access to the GCSE English online resources and online tutors from the Sheffield College, but were supported in the classroom by learning mentors in their secondary schools. To our surprise, this blend of classroom and online learning re-engaged these learners. Youngsters who were generally disruptive seemed to be able to concentrate when the teaching was put online.
Since then, the GCSE English online course has achieved 100% pass rates (grades A–C), with 61% of its 230 students achieving grades A or A*. In 2003, based on the success of the online GCSE, the team developed an online A-Level English course. We soon recognised the implications of our experiences with online learning for our pre-GCSE English/Literacy classes. 25% of UK school-leavers achieve grade E or lower in GCSE English, and the College annually accepts hundreds of young people with entry level literacy onto vocational and pre-vocational courses. Many are reluctant learners for whom traditional methods of teaching literacy do not work well. They expect to leave behind painful memories of failing English at school, only to find themselves back in literacy classes as part of their core vocational programme. Students can find traditional literacy classes embarrassing: often it reminds of them of primary school and they may develop a defensive, resistant attitude, along with low self esteem and lack of confidence.
The challenge for the team was therefore to develop a literacy curriculum that would motivate these students. The resulting curriculum was called ‘Young People Speak Out’ (YPSO). YPSO uses blended learning as its underpinning pedagogy; technology, popular culture and student experience is foregrounded in a thematic approach. In this way, literacy skills are rigorously taught but contextualised.
The curriculum was made available both online and as hard copy student workbooks. Students can write onto the teaching materials online and can print out their work. The course was piloted in eight basic skills classes held in rooms with computers around the sides, an interactive whiteboard at the front and a large central table. This arrangement enabled students and tutors to choose which
activities would be completed online, and which would be written by hand.
Of the 123 students involved in the pilot, 110 completed the course and 95 achieved a National Adult Literacy qualification. Student retention increased by 23%. The project was externally evaluated and proved to be successful in re-engaging students in literacy and helping them to improve their skills.
1. Students need full access to a computer in the Basic Skills classroom
Many young people have had more positive experiences of using computers than they have had with literacy learning at school. They are generally familiar with the Internet, chat rooms, music and games software, downloading files and so on. Getting students to read text off-screen, and to write on-screen can therefore make a dramatic difference to their willingness to engage in reading and writing activities.
Students associate the computer with privacy and freedom, even when they are completing teacher-directed activities. Working from the screen feels safe and private; the person at the next computer is a comfortable distance away and is focussed upon what they are doing. This enables some of their fear and defensiveness to be removed. The students also perceive that they are working at their own pace on-screen, rather than at a pace determined by the teacher. In addition, the hyperlinked presentation of web pages may appear less daunting than a book to the young student, who may be intimidated by what seems like pages and pages of reading.
2. Online literacy curriculum need not be expensive
Literacy is worth investing in and effective online content does not need to be expensive and is cost effective: it can be widely used with large numbers of students and an online curriculum can make dramatic differences in this area of learning. We developed the resource in-house partly because we felt that there was very little quality literacy content available for 16-19 year olds, and partly because a college’s "home grown" online resources will always feel special to the students.
The YPSO curriculum content is written by skilled English and basic skills tutors – not published authors. The design is developed in a word processor and we are fortunate in having someone within the college who has taken on the role of a web architect. Although none of the team would view themselves as IT specialists, our in-house team of "non-experts" is quite capable of producing high quality online teaching content through inter-dependence on each other’s skills and experience. Any medium- to large-sized Further Education College is likely to have similar skills in-house, and it is a matter of bringing together these skills and finding a way of providing staff with time away from their regular duties to dedicate to content development. If there is a lack of appropriate resources in a particular area then a college might strike up a partnership with other colleges in the region in order to share resources and development costs.
3. Literacy teachers can allow ICT skills to become an equalising factor in the classroom
ICT can bring equality to the student/teacher relationship. Young people are some of the greatest consumers of IT related products, and they are often more knowledgeable about the latest technologies than their tutors. The tutor’s acknowledgement that young people may have IT skills or knowledge that he or she does not, can transform the basic skills classroom into a place where students are the experts and the tutor is a willing learner.
4. Editing tools that make students feel confident should be encouraged
Editing tools such as spelling/grammar checkers and online dictionaries/thesauri should be encouraged; these enable students to draft and edit their work as a matter of course. Students with poor literacy often struggle with alphabetical order, so these students may find the search facility in an online dictionary easier to use than a conventional dictionary.
5. Presentation and graphics tools can enhance student motivation
Some reluctant writers became enthusiastic when encouraged to personalise the presentation of their writing with different fonts, headings and graphics. When students are encouraged to experiment with presentation devices that enhance the look and feel of their work, they are more likely to feel proud of what they have written and may therefore be more motivated to write.
The YPSO course took the English Online team in a new direction in its approach to literacy and English teaching. In addition, engagement, retention and achievement has significantly improved since technology has been the primary medium for teaching literacy.
One of the team, Matt Hine, decided to take this work a step further and investigated whether fusing of literacy, digital media and performance within the specific genre of Hip Hop would offer an avenue back into education that was less threatening to disenfranchised learners than the vocational or academic college curriculum. Matt's experiences are discussed in the associated article: Hip hop - beats, rhymes and life.
English Online Team Manager
The Sheffield College
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