Welcome to my new (kind of) coursebook series, this one with particular emphasis on test preparation for TOEFL speaking and writing.
Okay, best I 'fess up here and qualify what I meant by the "kind of" in the title for this post!
This is only "kind of" a coursebook. It's more or less a new kind of course format, platform, medium - call it what you will. It's what I believe language coursebooks could become, and how they could be so much more effective. I would go so far as to (humbly, mind) assert that this form of "course" potentially represents (one of many manifestations of) the next stage in coursework evolution.
It's also only "kind of" new. I've been applying this sort of online coursework for around 3-4 years now, both as part of blended coursework options attached to traditional private institute operations and also as my own private project work.
Here's a quick overview of what you are looking at in the image above:
There are three 'windows' in the interface.
One contains actual test materials, accessible through an itemised menu. All sound files for test items are embedded directly into the screens.
Next to that is another window with a menu to access a variety of tutorial materials, consisting of blended text, audio samples, video lectures and screencasts. This equates generally to the core 'content' you might expect to find in a coursebook, only it is delivered through the much richer media of audio and video.
Below the test material and tutorial content windows is an interface for students to record their own responses to the test questions and also listen to hundreds of other recordings from other students from around the world participating in the same coursework. The underlying technology for this part of the platform was provided via an arrangement with the excellent Dean Worth from Voxopop (and coming soon: the exciting Engo.net!).
There are a variety of factors that make this sort of coursework quite interesting, and also really exciting:
- The capacity to build skills, apply actual tasks and record and share speaking efforts with other students is all provided within the one portal.
- The textual element of lesson content is reduced to main points and then delivered in detail through a rich combination of text, video and audio.
- Actual interacting teaching can be facilitated through the platform.
- Test items and skills/strategies content are regularly updated (on a monthly basis, in fact) to keep up with changes in official test content and the needs (and requests) of learners. Entirely new content is added monthly as well, ensuring the course is in a state of constant and ongoing growth.
- Students have options to sign up and pay for only those elements of the coursework they feel they need or which matches their budgets and timeframes. For example, they can access the content and tutorials only for a fraction of the cost involved in buying a coursebook with similar coverage (and nowhere as rich delivery), or they can buy access to the whole package - including the opportunity to record and get feedback on responses - for about the same price of an existing coursebook (which of course does not provide practice or feedback opportunities).
- All of this coursework was developed by a single teacher with content writing experience and moderate web skills. There is no need for a publisher, nor for complicated processes of marketing and distribution. The teacher is the writer and the designer, but can also teach students worldwide through this material. Once enrollment hits a certain critical mass, the system is perfectly set up to bring in a whole teaching team (or even series of teams).
- The example given here is for a course targeting TOEFL speaking skills. There is an accompanying (and very similar) platform for TOEFL writing (including the chance to submit, read and get scores and feedback on essays), and while these are easy to design and present based on the very controlled parameters of a formal test application, it would be very easy to apply a similar format for both more general language learning coursework or highly specific and targeted coursework that is not test-preparation in nature or purpose.
The content and practice represented here in this sample is about the equivalent of what my students might get to cover in a three month TOEFL course in the institutes I used to teach at. Major differences (other than the f2f factor) are that students can re-play and re-apply as much or as little of the content and tasks as they like, they can schedule it and be selective with what they pay more attention to according to their own needs, and they can listen to hundreds of other students (not the dozen they happened to be seated with in a regular classroom).
Of potentially equal importance, my old classroom students would pay about $300-$400 per month to access this sort of test-prep coursework ($900-$1200 over the three month term). Taking the full packages for speaking and writing in this online format would cost about $60 per month - or around $200 over the three months. Coming to an institute, my students would spend about 10 hours per month getting to and from the school (30 hours over a three month term), whereas with the online course it is available to them 24/7 according to their own schedule, and takes as much time to access as it does to turn on one's computer.
Even with these dramatic differences in price and time demands, I actually think the online version of the course is genuinely more effective for individual students than the classroom-based equivalent (for a rich variety of reasons that I don't quite have time to explore in this particular post).
Of interest to me is the fact that, following the publication of my first coursebook series, I seriously thought about approaching publishers to put all my experience and specialisation in TOEFL to work in some sort of exciting new coursebook series. Not long after beginning the design of the online materials you can see above, I realised that a print-based coursebook series was going to be slower to produce and overall of inferior effectiveness as a learning tool for students (not to mention risky: once a test makes a couple of small changes, whole test-prep books become useless and just cannot be updated, amended or added to the way online materials can).
Actually, some discussions with one major publisher did eventuate in terms of having me design speaking and writing sections for a test prep tool they were developing. I had to wait almost 2 years for them to get their act together with the reading and listening sections first, and frankly, I got tired of waiting for them (as did, no doubt, a couple of hundred thousand students worldwide)!
Another interesting aspect of this for me is that I had this sort of design and application ready to go just after my own series was published. I went and met the powers that be at my publishing company and presented this sort of format as an idea for my own or some sort of follow up series. I was told nicely, but somewhat imperiously, that this publishing company - being as mighty and well-resourced as it was - already had its own engines and, well, I just didn't have the technical nouse for this sort of complicated online stuff (but thank you so much for the offer!). In fact, the launch of something very similar to what I was suggesting was right around the corner...
And of course, at the time I thoroughly believed they were right. My web pages and applications are really quite simple. There aren't a lot of bells and whistles and glittering cascading style sheets. Just text, audio, video, and a simple (but reliable) audio recording facility.
But that was in 2007. I'm still waiting to see what was meant to be around that particular publishing centre's corner.
Okay - sorry, actually I'm not waiting.
And, dear ELT publishers, I'm not the only one who isn't waiting. If your horse hasn't bolted yet, it's pretty darned close to doing so.