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Task-based learning and ICT: creative activities in the context of a European project


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Authors: Manuela Delfino, Giuliana Dettori, Valentina Lupi.
The dissemination of innovation at school may be supported by favouring the exchange of educational materials and reflections, leading teachers to learn from each other’s experiences. This was the main goal of Efelcren, a Comenius 2.1 project which aimed to boost the creation and collection of inventive and effective ICT-based educational materials for all school levels.

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Task-based learning and ICT: creative activities in the context of a European project

  1. 1. Task-based learning and ICT: creative activities in the context of a European project Manuela Delfino & Giuliana Dettori, CNR, Istituto per le Tecnologie Didattiche - Genova, Italia Valentina Lupi Scuola Secondaria di I Grado “Don Milani-Colombo” & Università di Genova, Italia Summary The dissemination of innovation at school may be supported by favouring the exchange of educational materials and reflections, leading teachers to learn from each other’s experiences. This was the main goal of Efelcren, a Comenius 2.1 project which aimed to boost the creation and collection of inventive and effective ICT-based educational materials for all school levels. The project was based on two simple but powerful ideas: 1) helping teachers to exploit the variety of software available in order to develop innovative and creative activities with their students; 2) sharing not only educational materials but also pedagogical competences. In this paper we describe two activities proposed by the Italian team that well illustrate the spirit of this project. Though different in aspects concerning the length of the activities, the content knowledge addressed, the kind of tasks proposed and the ICT tools used, the examples we describe share several qualities. In both cases students were asked to create a particular product according to their interests and experiences and directed to a public outside the classroom, and therefore real. In both cases they were also requested to use creativity and they were totally free to conduct the activity, leading them to feel protagonists and responsible for their own outcomes. Both activities can be easily adapted to different educational situations, because their strength depends on the underlying ideas more than on the products developed. The innovation of these examples is not the methodology nor the technology applied, but rather the way they are used. These examples suggest that working in inventive ways may actually be effective and not difficult nor expensive to implement. To this end, teachers need to use creativity in their pedagogical planning and learn to look at ordinary tools with different eyes. Keywords: pedagogy, ICT tools, task-based learning, creativity at school, Efelcren, Comenius, Italy, open source, educational software, re-use creative material 1 Introduction The diffusion of innovative approaches and ideas in the school can be supported by favouring the sharing of educational materials together with reflections on their use, hence leading teachers to learn from each other’s experience (Busetti et al., 2006). This was the focus and concern of Efelcren 1 , a Comenius 2.1 project which involved researchers and teachers from six European countries 2 , with the aim to boost the construction and collection of creative and innovative ICT-mediated educational materials for all school levels. 1 Educational flexible and creative environments, 226552-CP-1-2005-1-ES-COMENIUS-C21, run from October 2005 to September 2008, see the project website 2 Spain (project leader), Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy and Lithuania. eLearning Papers • • 1 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  2. 2. The project was based on two simple but powerful ideas: 1) helping teachers to exploit the variety of applicative software currently available to develop stimulating activities with their students; 2) sharing not only educational materials but also pedagogical competence and experience, and to do it on a large scale, beyond the limits of one’s own school and country. The focus, hence, was not on educational software, but on the use of technological tools that can play the role of authoring environments. These can allow teachers to implement their ideas without needing to learn programming, as well as to guide their students to build simple learning artefacts, so as to promote their active and creative involvement. Attention was paid, in particular, to free and open source authoring software, in order to favour the re-use of materials and activities, independently of schools’ financial means and without violating copyright constraints. The fact to easily create personalized materials, rather than using educational software, grants teachers greater freedom in the choice of a learning approach, and at the same time highlights the importance to choose a methodology. All the materials proposed within the project were developed or tested with at least one group of students. They range from simple exercises up to long, compound tasks, and belong to five different types: interactive activities (games, simulations, tests, puzzles, etc.); conceptual maps; multimedia presentations; webquests and treasure hunts; creative use of media (graphical projects, animations, etc.). Some materials were developed by the teachers for their students, and are ready to be re-used as such. Some others were developed by the teachers with their students; in this case the material consists in the description of the experience and the idea underlying it, to be possibly replicated and adapted to other school contexts. Each material was completed by a pedagogical guide for teacher and student as well as by an information sheet describing its technical characteristics, pedagogical intentions and use outcomes, together with suggestions to adapt it to different educational contexts. All resources were translated in English (that was used as interchange language), and those that were judged as best practices were translated in all of the project languages. Both originals and translations were collected in an online Resource centre 3 which is freely available to anybody interested in sharing and re-using creative and innovative educational materials. In this paper we describe two of the artefacts proposed by the Italian team that well illustrate the spirit of the project. They differ as concerns length, content knowledge, kinds of activity proposed and ICT tools employed, but share an active approach to learning, the use of non- standard activities, and the incentive to creativity. We discuss their organization and main aspects, and conclude with some reflections on what can be learned from the project’s experience. 2 Two examples of creative materials The two considered materials are addressed to junior high school students and consist in the description of an experience. They can be seen as good examples of task-based learning, a methodology that is widely used in language learning (Ellis, 2003; Willis and Willis, 2007), but has been investigated also in relation to learning in other fields (e.g., van Weet and Pilot, 2004). It consists in actively involving students in joint work on tasks that are relevant to their experience and make sense for them, and therefore contribute to raise intrinsic motivation (Ryan and Deci, 2000; Kawachi, 2003). Its implementation entails the definition of a number of limited, self-consistent tasks (micro-tasks) that contribute to the realization of a wider one (macro-task), which, in turn, motivates the development and increases the significance of the micro-tasks (Guichon, 2006). 3 eLearning Papers • • 2 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  3. 3. The accent on meaning is of primary importance, especially for language learning applications, where it is considered a critical factor to activate linguistic learning (Skehan, 1996). According to Ellis (2003), meaningful tasks are worked out by: − involving learners in pragmatic activities, rather than in exhibitions of knowledge; − setting up activities that are perceived as real; − requiring a definite, concrete, meaningful production; − putting into play more than one ability; − stimulating learners’ cognitive processes by means of operations such as selection, classification, evaluation, problem solving. 2.1 Non-profit advertising The first activity was realized within an optional course on “Multimedia technology” run one hour a week in afternoon hours in a computer lab with the aim to improve students’ competence in the use of ICT tools. It took place in the final part of the school year and lasted about two months. The macro-task planned by the teacher was the design and realization of a set of non-profit advertisements, to be displayed on the school walls, on themes chosen by the students. While commercial advertisements are designed to encourage the purchase or consumption of a particular product or service, social advertising aims to call attention on social issues and attempts to promote positive behavioural changes in relation to those issues. Proposing such activity aimed to avoid making the practice of ICT tools an end in itself by requiring the realization of a concrete and cognitively meaningful product. At the same time, it also aimed to help pursue some wider learning aims: motivating the students to concentrate on work by means of a creative activity; observing the school and out-of-school contexts; becoming aware of personal values; paying attention to multimedia communication; producing a convincing representation of a positive message. These additional aims, besides leading to a better exploitation for the learning time, would lead the students to give meaning to the use of ICT tools, hence possibly inducing a deeper operational understanding. The students were therefore expected to learn by: − developing a product; − applying different technological tools, under teacher guidance; − experimenting different presentation means (images, texts and formats); − selecting tools and means most suitable to express what they had in mind. This overall activity was segmented in various micro-tasks: (a) understanding the concept of social communication; (b) observing and analysing social advertising campaigns 4 ; (c) choosing an issue on which they felt worth calling people’s attention and figuring out related positive contents to sensitize people on; (d) practising and getting acquainted with a presentation software; (e) writing and formatting texts in the form of an advertisement (e.g., aiming at catching the readers’ attention); (f) selecting appropriate images and handling them with the help of graphics and photo editing software; (f) assembling the elaboration. The technological tools used for realization were: a presentation program (i.e., allowing the insertion of text and images in the same page), a digital camera, a scanner to capture drawings and images that were not in digital format, a browser to look for pictures on the web, and a graphic program to edit images. A small group of 10 students (6th and 7th grade) was involved in the course, half of which with cognitive difficulties or socio-cultural problems. It was therefore decided to let the students free to work individually or to collaborate in small groups, according to their preferences and learning needs. Some negotiation within the whole group was carried out in the initial planning phase, so as to grant uniformity to the global output. At the beginning, the teacher directed the 4 eLearning Papers • • 3 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  4. 4. lessons and scaffolded the work; then her intervention progressively faded so as to allow the students to shape their own path and feel directly responsible for their choices and results. For the students this experience was different from a traditional school task and hence accepted it with pleasure, feeling proud to have the chance to suggest personal messages to their school mates and teachers. The outcomes of the activity were very satisfactory. The students learned to use the technological tools provided and managed to choose a suitable issue, creating positive messages and expressive representations to convey them. They appreciated both the freedom to choose themes that were important for them and the chance to work in groups of non- predetermined size. The teacher, on her side, could reap the rewards of her efforts aimed at increasing her students’ skills to collaborate and to manage their learning time. Thanks to the very precise scaffolding that the teacher had applied in the previous months, the backfire dynamics that could have been triggered by the granted freedom did not occur; on the contrary, the students made a good use of the trust gained, and this increased their motivation and self- esteem, with a positive effect on their general attitude towards school. A variety of themes were chosen by the students, according to their sensitivity, interests and personal experiences. For example, the daughter of a smoker with lung cancer made an advertisement against smoke; two students – after the renewal of the classrooms’ doors and the change of their opening side - warned their mates to be careful while walking in the hallway; and a boy who had been reprimanded for swinging on his chair during the morning lessons made a funny poster aiming at discouraging such a practice (see Fig. 1). In this last case, the student arranged to take a picture of a class mate pretending to have tumbled down, which provided an opportunity to reflect on how easy it can be to make constructed situations seem real. Figure 1. Two of the posters realized by the students for the non-profit advertising activity: the one on the left warns to mind the doors (“Mind the doors, or you will lose your chin!”); the one on the right invites the readers not to swing on the chairs (“If you swing you will tumble down”). The ICT tools used were simple and widely diffused, available as free software, hence likely at disposal in all schools. Nevertheless, they appear essential for the good realization of the task: in a traditional setting it would be much more difficult and time consuming to make graphical compositions, and to repeatedly (fast and free) take pictures or try different text styles and colours up to obtain satisfactory outcomes, hence missing the possibility to call students’ attention on multimedia communication and voiding the activity of an important learning aim. This short lab task was one of several steps planned by the teacher to meet specific contextual needs. The described activity, however, is not the only possible way to exploit such a task in a school context: it could, for instance, be carried out as a preliminary step to develop an analysis eLearning Papers • • 4 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  5. 5. of public communication campaigns (Rice and Atkin, 2000), or to reflect on the marketing strategies addressed to teen-agers (Apple, Kenway and Singh, 2005). 2.2 A multimedia laboratory for language learning The second of the considered materials includes a compound set of activities realized in a multimedia lab for language learning over a period of about six months. This was an optional opportunity offered by a junior high school to improve students’ competence in the two foreign languages they were studying (English and French), while practising with the use of ICT tools. This lab had been traditionally run by assigning drill-and-practice, grammatical and lexical exercises on CDs, complemented by shared meta-linguistic reflection under teacher’s guidance. When a new teacher of French got in charge of the lab, she decided to innovate the activity by changing the pedagogical approach and by introducing a meaningful use of the Internet. The chosen approach was task-based learning. Following this line, the teacher planned as macro-task the realization by the students of a bilingual web site for the lab, to be included in the school web site. This would contain linguistic activities of various kinds (micro-tasks) designed and implemented by the students; publication on the web would allow to share them with school mates and potentially with any peer around the world interested in practising with French and English. The students who had volunteered to take part in this bilingual lab were divided into two groups, according to the grade (nine 6-graders in Group 1, ten 7- and 8-graders in Group 2). Within each group, smaller working groups were formed, with 2 or 3 members each, for the execution of the various activities; subgroup composition changed over the time, based on the exercises that the students wished to develop. The two main groups worked usually separately, except for an initial joint brainstorming to spot activities of common interest, and a planning meeting to negotiate the appearance and organization of the web site. The activities were chosen so as to meet students’ interests (games, videos, music) and entail the practice of several language-related skills. The English teacher got involved as well; hence it was possible to realize activities in the two languages in parallel. Skills that received particular attention were: oral production, which usually does not receive enough space in classroom work; written comprehension, by retrieving and using authentic sites in foreign languages; and translation between English and French without passing through Italian, so as to break the expressive dependence from the mother language. The lab was run in parallel to the regular language classes; it involved the same content knowledge but developed independently of them. The CDs used in the previous years became a source of inspiration for contents to be addressed (lexical and grammatical structures) as well as for types of exercises to develop (crossword puzzles, matching, selection and fill the gap exercises, mixed-up texts, etc.). All the exercises were designed by the students, who implemented them by means of some authoring environments 5 . This non-standard way to use the CDs allowed the teachers to avoid some of their limitations for classroom work, (i.e., orientation to individual work, mostly drill-and-practice exercises, frequent technical problems; see Lupi, 2009). The students, moreover, scripted and realized some short videos, where two or three of them were having a conversation in foreign language. These videos also served as basis for listening-comprehension exercises (see, Fig. 2). 5 HotPotatoes,, a commercial software which is granted for free to publicly funded educational institution, and Virtual Training Studio (VTS),, a free multimedia authoring environment. Both programs allow one to save the products created in html format. While HotPotatoes proved very simple and straightforward to use, VTS resulted difficult to understand and source of technical problems. eLearning Papers • • 5 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  6. 6. Figure 2. An exercise realized by the students: a video where they are playing a short conversation, and related listening-comprehension exercises. Other realizations were: the construction of two blogs (in English and French respectively) to exchange opinions with peers around the world (see, Fig.3), some pages presenting their evaluation of game sites (in French or English) retrieved from the web (see, Fig. 4), and sets of questions on well known movies (e.g., Harry Potter’s) and Francophone or Anglophone singers that they liked. Figure 3. An exercise realized by the students: blogs in English and French. eLearning Papers • • 6 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  7. 7. Figure 4. An exercise realized by the students: evaluation page of linguistic games in French. All these productions, together with a self-presentation of the participants, were then assembled in a web site 6 designed by the students (see, Fig. 5). The html for the introductory pages was prepared by the teacher, in order to save time, while the activity pages had been saved by the students in html format and were ready to be linked and used. Figure 5. The home page of the Lab’s web site. The simplification of the implementation phase allowed the students to dedicate almost all the time at disposal to the preparation of the language-related activities, leaving to the site-related tasks (preparation of the figures and assembling of the web site) only the last two classes. The most time consuming activity was, obviously, the preparation of the videos and related exercises, which required about three months, since it entailed scripting the scenes, expressing them in the two languages, preparing to play them by learning the text and practising the correct pronunciation, recording (often more than once, so as to obtain satisfactory videos without editing), preparing the related questions. The grammatical and lexical exercises, which were worked out mainly by Group 1 (the beginners), absorbed a couple of months, as they required the choice of grammatical structures and vocabulary to practise, as well as their appropriation and re-use. Only slightly less time consuming was the evaluation of game sites, which entailed trying the different games; this activity was carried out only by Group 2, as it 6 It is still at disposal in the school web site Unfortunately this lab activity was discontinued from the next school years for bureaucratic reasons. eLearning Papers • • 7 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  8. 8. requires a language knowledge that the beginners did not have yet. Less time consuming (about a month) were the exercises based on sets of questions, since these are conceptually simpler tasks. Non all students worked on everything, but only a choice of activities, as shown in Table 1. Table 1. The activities carried out in the bilingual multimedia lab realizations specific activities working mode Bilingual exercises with Hot - crossword puzzles 4 groups of 2-3 Group 1 Potatoes based on the - quizzes (multiple choice exercises) students previously used CDs - association exercises - filling the gap exercises - mixed-up texts - cloze exercises Short videos with VTS, - 4 short videos in French 4 groups of 2-3 scripted and played by the - 4 short video in English students students with comprehension questions Creation of 2 blogs - blog in French on “Le web 2 groups, one Group 2 Pédagogique”7 for each blog - blog in English on 8 Evaluation documents on - 5 documents commenting web site that 5 groups of 2-3 games and languages offer games for language learning students Various activities with VTS - multiple choice questions on image 5 groups of 2-3 descriptions students - quiz on Harry Potter’s movie - quiz on an American singer and comprehension questions on a French song - videos in French and English with understanding questions All the ICT tools were used to support the execution of operations that otherwise would have been more complicated or impossible. The available educational software was used in non- standard way (i.e., as a source of inspiration for individual production rather than as a study means), hence motivating and stimulating creativity. This is an important point, because creativity is increasingly recognized as an essential life skill that can help us cope with the complexity and uncertainty of our rapidly changing world (Craft et al., 2008). Using the Internet allowed the students to get in touch with authentic documents, which is very important in language learning. Publishing the work on the web, moreover, resulted essential to grant a real audience. Internet is a window on the world that may be useful not only to communicate or to retrieve information, but also to propose one’s work to the outside. Besides motivating the students, this helped them to become aware that languages are tools to communicate with real people, not simply school subjects, with a positive influence on the overall learning. The realization of this task was a success, as the students worked with pleasure and high engagement throughout the months and produced rich, pleasant and varied artefacts. No major difficulties were met. All linguistic skills were put into play as expected, and this led to a steady improvement of students’ language competence. A group was even able to improvise while recording a video, which is quite an achievement for novice language speakers. ICT skills were also improved, as a side effect of using a variety of tools (text and presentation editors, two authoring environments, browser for web surfing and blog creation). This success was certainly favoured by the small size of the work groups, which allowed a wide differentiation of the activities, as well as matching students’ activities and preferences as much as possible. 7 8 eLearning Papers • • 8 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  9. 9. Finally, the whole activity was much valued by other teachers and the students’ families, who posted appreciation sentences in the visitors’ book provided in the web site; for example: “Splendid. Congratulations to you and your teachers” (the school principal); “You are very capable and active; go on like that” (a mother); “I am very proud of the work of these kids, one of which is my grandson” (a grandmother). 3 Discussion and conclusion Though different as concerns length, content knowledge addressed, kinds of activity proposed and ICT tools used, the described examples show several common features. In both cases: − the students were asked to build a concrete product which was meaningful against their interests and experience; − they needed to coordinate with peers for the construction of a joint output; − they had a good amount of freedom in steering the activity, which led them to feel protagonists and responsible for their outcomes; − they were requested to use creativity, but were also helped in it by being suggested meaningful examples as starting points to be re-elaborated and transformed; − they were not working for their teacher, but for an audience larger than their class. This made the tasks real and motivated students’ commitment because a real public was potentially viewing and judging their work; − the products’ realization required creativity; this can be positive for learning in that the creative pleasure appears to support both its cognition and motivation; − several simple and freely available ICT tools were used, not as gadgets to make the activity more pleasant, but instrumentally to accomplish some cognitively meaningful tasks, and were always crucial to realize them; − the designed activities can be easily adapted to different educational situations and become part of a compound learning path, because their strength does not rely on a particular tool or content addressed, but on the educational ideas behind them. The success of the two described activities is mainly due to the fact that a suitable methodology was chosen and carefully implemented. The tasks were meaningful in relation to both students’ interests and content learning; they not only included meaningful activities to carry out, but also entailed a number of choices by the students, which made them feel responsible for the outcomes of their work. The presence of a macro-task proved crucial in giving a unitary meaning to the micro-tasks developed and in keeping up attention and motivation throughout the activities. Moreover, the tasks were engaging because they involved student’s choices, were addressed to a public outside the classroom, entailed the realization of a concrete, meaningful product and put into play important cognitive activities. What is innovative in these examples? Task-based learning is not a novelty, as it has been around for over a decade, and it is widely referred to, especially in the field of language learning. Nor can any of the ICT tools used be considered new and highly innovative. Nevertheless, both described activities show novelty aspects because of the way tools and methodology were used. In both cases, the assigned macro-task was different from the typical examples of ICT-based macro-tasks mentioned in the literature, such as microworlds, webquests, simulations and problem situations (Guichon, 2006; Narcy-Combes, 2005). These examples are well representative of the possible impact of the materials collected in the Efelcren project as source of ideas. Their different lengths highlight that creative tasks can be developed in different ways, and not always it is necessary to have much time at disposal to carry out a rich and stimulating activity. The simplicity of the technological tools used underline that inventive tasks may not require new tools and may not be difficult nor expensive to realize. To this end, it is important that teachers use creativity in their pedagogical planning and look at usual tools with different eyes. eLearning Papers • • 9 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  10. 10. References Apple, M., Kenway, J. & Singh, M. (eds.) (2005). Globalizing education: Policies, pedagogies, and politics, New York: Peter Lang. Busetti, E., Dettori G., Forcheri, P. & Ierardi, M.G., (2006). Promoting Teachers' Collaborative Re-use of Educational Materials. In Nejdl, W. & Tochtermann, K. (eds.), Innovative Approaches for Learning and Knowledge Sharing, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 4227, Berlin: Springer, 61-73. Craft, A., Cremin, T. & Burnard, P. (2008). Creative learning 3-11. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books. Ellis, R. (2003). Task-Based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Guichon, N. (2006). Langues et TICE- Méthodologie de conception multimedia. Paris, Ophrys. Kawachi P. (2003). Initiating Intrinsic Motivation in Online Education: Review of the Current State of the Art. Interactive Learning Environments, 11(1), 59 – 81. Lupi, V. (2009). ICT and new methodologies in language teaching and learning: a contribution from FLE. PhD dissertation, University of Genoa, Italy (in Italian). Narcy-Combes, J-P. (2005). Didactique des langues et TIC. Vers une recherche-action responsable, Paris: Ophrys. Rice, R. E. & Atkin, C. K. (eds.) (2000). Public communication campaigns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Ryan, R. M, & Deci E. L.(2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 55(1), 68-78. Skehan, P. (1996). A Framework for the Implementation of Task-based Instruction. Applied Linguistics, 17(11), 38-62. van Weert, T. J. & Pilot, A. (2003). Task-Based Team Learning with ICT, Design and Development of New Learning. Education and Information Technologies, 8(2), 195-214. Willis, D. & Willis, J. (2007). Doing Task-based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. eLearning Papers • • 10 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542
  11. 11. Authors Manuela Delfino Researcher CNR, Istituto per le Tecnologie Didattiche, Italia Giuliana Dettori Researcher CNR, Istituto per le Tecnologie Didattiche, Italia Valentina Lupi Teacher Scuola Secondaria di I Grado “Don Milani-Colombo” & Università di Genova, Italia Copyrights The texts published in this journal, unless otherwise indicated, are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivativeWorks 3.0 Unported licence. They may be copied, distributed and broadcast provided that the author and the e-journal that publishes them, eLearning Papers, are cited. Commercial use and derivative works are not permitted. The full licence can be consulted on Edition and production Name of the publication: eLearning Papers ISSN: 1887-1542 Publisher: Edited by: P.A.U. Education, S.L. Postal address: C/ Muntaner 262, 3º, 08021 Barcelona, Spain Telephone: +34 933 670 400 Email: Internet: eLearning Papers • • 11 Nº 16 • September 2009 • ISSN 1887-1542