The Paperless Classroom

Mr. Deji Akala found us through our Internet pages. He told us an interesting story of how he had become a leader of a discussion group for EFL teachers in Central and Eastern Europe. He suggested four subjects about computers which we thought would be interesting for our readers. Here is the fourth part.

Thanks to the World Wide Web and the Internet, methodologists and technophiles are now talking about 'paperless' classrooms. Let me quickly say at the outset that this does not mean a total annihilation of books from EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classes. The idea is that teachers and students can rely less and less on paper - textbooks, notebooks, handouts etc.- by using computer and Internet technology. Even without believing in the doctrine of a classroom without paper, there is no denying the fact that information technology is here to stay and the earlier teachers of EFL catch the vision the better. One of the goals of the communicative approach is the need to create an information gap. Students are then required to bridge this gap by interacting communicatively. Most practitioners of this approach concentrate on speaking and listening skills, forgetting about reading and writing. One of the most authentic ways of teaching the latter skills is through letter writing. With the WWW and the Internet, such an exchange takes seconds.

Submitting assignments electronically is very convenient. The teacher can ask students to submit work on properly-labelled floppies. Students can e-mail assignments to the teacher. Popular software (like Microsoft Outlook Express, Outlook, Netscape Communicator and Sylaba Komunikator) have a filter function. The teacher can configure her software to save students' work into a particular folder. This is equally relevant if you receive a lot of e-mail and you' d like to sort messages automatically.

With Microsoft products - Outlook, Outlook Express v4.0 or 5.0 - you create a new folder and write rules. In your e-mail software, click 'File' , then 'Folder' . The submenu has 'New' . This takes you to a dialog box where you name your new folder - call it Bill Clinton, Class 2B or Architecture Group 2, or whatever. The box asks you where you want to create this folder. It' s better to choose 'Inbox' , but you can create it anywhere. The OK button finishes the first stage. Next, you write the rules. Under the 'Tools' menu, you' ve got 'Inbox Assistant' (v4.0), 'Message Rules' (v5.0) or 'Rules Wizard (Outlook). This leads to a dialog box. Writing rules is as simple as ABC because you' ve got to do only three things.

1. Specify the conditions. From whom are you expecting the messages? What' s likely to be in the subject line? The teacher may write the e-mail addresses of the students. She may instruct the class to write 'Assignment 12' , 'Essay 204' or the like in the 'Subject' box of their messages.

2. State the actions to be taken if a message fulfils any of your conditions. Perhaps the most important action is to move the message to the new folder that you have created.

3. Check your rules. To help refine them you' ll see the descriptions, with the conditions and actions underlined in blue. You may edit them. Simply click on the ones you' d like to modify. Your messages will be neatly sorted into as many new folders as you create and according to your rules. Netscape is very similar but the terminologies are different. (Contact me through The World of English if you'd like to do the same with your Netscape Communicator).

The teacher checks the assignments and gives them back. The process of checking is the same for both e-mail and floppy submissions. Marking is done systematically according to a scheme, which the teacher should have introduced to the class. Firstly, he can make interlinear comments in another font, colour and size. Also he can use advanced word processing features like annotation. A graphical way of correcting students' work is a colour-coding scheme. The teacher designs a code, for example word order = blue, grammar = red, wrong word = green, punctuation = yellow etc. The teacher highlights errors according to the scheme and the students can correct their work. On the other hand, he might simply add comments at the bottom of the page and create hyperlinks to them. When the student gets his essay back, he can see his errors underlined. Clicking on the underlined words takes him to the comments. In Microsoft Word look for 'Hyperlink' in the 'Insert' menu.

If the teacher is a technophile, he can introduce his students to advanced word-processing skills. In Microsoft Word, if you check the 'View' menu, and the 'Toolbars' submenu, you' ll see 'Reviewing' . Clicking on it reveals a toolbar, which can be creatively used by the teacher. Apart from highlighting text, he can insert comments. When the student moves his cursor to where the comment is, a small window showing the teacher' s comment appears. For the adventurous, it' s possible for the student to correct his work and annotate it (using track changes). The teacher only re-checks the changes. He knows where to look because his student' s initials and a different highlight colour show where changes have been made.

There are two main problems. Students might use different e-mail and word-processing software. I' m not particularly a Bill Gates fan, but Microsoft products are perhaps the most widely used in Poland. The applications discussed in this article are not unique to EFL teaching. It' s only a question of using what we' ve got in a more creative way. Remember that most people do not realize the full potential of the software they' ve got on their machines. Therefore, they only use a tiny proportion of what the program can do. I don' t have any statistics, but most schools that have computer labs use Windows, so this isn' t too much of a problem in our situation. The second problem is related to the above: some people still use monochrome monitors and colour coding can't help them. However, these days fewer and fewer people buy black and white monitors.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. The adventurous teacher with a pioneer spirit will always find much better ways of reducing the weight of his bag when leaving school after work. Definitely, computer technology is one of the ways.

Deji Akala