Support Where It’s Needed: Helping Language Professionals to Develop Online Teaching Skills for the 21st Century Classroom

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The DOTS (Developing Online Teaching Skills) workshop provides modular, flexible, clearly structured and immediately implementable activities in different languages designed to help language teaching professionals develop their online teaching skills. The use of a Moodle-based workspace as a central resource serves not only as a repository of teaching materials but also ensures that participants are able to exchange opinions and experiences after the workshop has ended, allowing for a gradual development of a sustainable online community of language professionals.

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The mission of the Council of Europe’s European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML) is to “encourage excellence and innovation in language teaching” in its member states.[1] As part of its 2012-2015 programme “Learning through languages: promoting inclusive, plurilingual and intercultural education”, it is supporting 15 projects and a number of targeted support activities. The projects seek to develop new tools facilitating the application and mediation of the ECML long-term vision[2] in a way which can benefit all member states, while the targeted support activities focus on the needs of a particular country within a number of areas identified as significant by the ECML member states.

Developing Online Teaching Skills (DOTS) is one of the targeted support activities, led by a team of experts from the UK, Germany, Spain, Croatia and the USA. It offers awareness raising and training workshops for teachers, teacher trainers and language mediators. These workshops emphasize the pedagogical considerations behind the use of a particular online technology to learn languages, aiming to maximize its benefits in a particular teaching context. Currently, the DOTS targeted support workshops are in the piloting stage (2012-2013), and one of the first countries where they will be piloted is Poland, during the conference entitled “ICTs and Social Media in Language Education”,  programmed as part of the European Day of Languages.[3]

In this paper we present the rationale behind the DOTS targeted support activity and an outline of the workshop. We believe that online teaching skills are essential in the 21st century language classroom, but they need to be based on an approach where language learning pedagogy is supported by technology. We argue that the best way to achieve this is through socio-cultural and constructivist theories of learning, which naturally translates into using a blended approach to our workshops, where the online element is presented through the DOTS workspace constructed on the Moodle platform.

Rationale for the DOTS targeted support

There are a variety of European strategic documents which declare the importance of foreign languages and online technologies. For instance, the key competences of all citizens of the knowledge society include communication in the mother tongue and in foreign languages, digital and technological competence, etc. (European Commission 2004). Teachers educating citizens of the knowledge society should be qualified to use new technologies (cf. the so-called Lisbon Strategy; European Council 2000), and this is recognized in strategies adopted by specific European countries (cf. the Polish National Strategic Reference Framework 2007-2013 which mentions e-learning and self-training; Narodowe strategiczne ramy odniesienia 2007-2013 2007:66).

Training of language teachers to use online tools and create online materials tends to be relatively well supported all over Europe: a recent survey has shown that over half of the respondents from throughout Europe have attended some sort of formal training (Beaven et al. 2010:15). Alongside their existing training, teachers are willing to receive additional training on tools they are not familiar with (Beaven et al. 2010:16).

In spite of teachers’ willingness to learn to use ICTs, they do not tend to integrate ICTs in their teaching unless they believe that ICTs will be more effective than traditional methods and will not disrupt their teaching, and unless they believe they have sufficient ability and resources to use the technology (Zhao and Cziko 2001:27). In order for teachers to achieve a level where they can comfortably hold these beliefs, there are a variety of issues to be taken into account (for an overview cf. Beaven et al. 2010:9-11), one being that teacher training should integrate both pedagogy and technology (Hubbard and Levy 2006:ix). In other words, teachers must be aware of the affordances of a particular technology to be able to use it successfully, in line with pedagogical principles (Hampel 2012).

It seems that a lack of effective integration of ICTs into teaching may also be felt by students, at least in some contexts. A recent survey of secondary school students on the use of new technologies in Polish schools has shown that students perceive teachers as not having sufficient competences in the use of ICTs in the classroom, as seen for example, via infrequent use of email or Skype to communicate with their students (Kwiatkowska and Dąbrowski 2012:13-14).

We believe that using ICTs in the classroom provides a crucial opportunity to employ a student-centred approach (cf. e.g. Zhao and Cziko 2001). Therefore, our approach in the DOTS targeted support activity is informed by socio-cultural and constructivist theories, in terms of pedagogy (Arnold and Schüßler 2003) as well as technology (Dougiamas 1998). We consider learning to be a constructive activity: we see it as a constant process of striking a balance between perceptions of the environment and our internal representations (Glasersfeld 2007), rather than the transmission of knowledge. In this process collaboration is crucial – a learner’s developmental potential in collaboration with his/her more capable peers is greater than when learning alone (cf. e.g. Vygotsky 1978:86).

Therefore, training for online teaching ideally needs to be an experiential process of learning: by trying out online environments and tools, by being placed in the position of a learner, language teachers can fully appreciate the difficulties entailed and develop coping and compensation strategies for technology-mediated teaching. The experiential and collaborative approach is particularly useful in online environments, with web 2.0 tools facilitating collaboration in online settings. In order for teachers to be able to foster a student-centred and collaborative approach in their teaching, teacher training is of paramount importance (Hampel 2009).