PBL Season 1 – What did they Learn?

This is a 5-6 minute read.

This post focuses on some of the learning that took place during the project.


It is all very well and nice to have a component such as PBL as part of the curriculum. However, if the learners do not learn as a result then there is little point in putting time and effort into implementing and developing PBL.

So the question we need to ask is what did PBL bring to the learners? The following comments are based on data from many sources including feedback from learners in the more formal tutorial meetings and less formal chats, feedback from colleagues who also delivered PBL, observations of the learners as they completed the component…etc

This page focuses on learning English with following pages being devoted to the development of hard & soft skills and attitudes.

In order to keep this as brief as possible I will not mention all the linguistic and skill areas developed but will exemplify a few to give  a general idea of the learning that took place.



As learners on an English language preparation course, developing their English in an academic context the first question to ask is “Did the learners improve their English?”

Well, I think the answer overall is yes. As with other parts of our content based syllabus, the daily use of English for a communicative purpose led to an improvement in their overall levels of English. I would suggest that PBL brought an increased need and motivation to communicate whether it be within the team; with the teacher or with the wider audiences of peers (for practice presentations); with members of the university as a whole during the conference presentations; or through the creation of blogs and websites to record their progress and reflections.

But let’s be more specific….


Speaking and Listening

Many learners reported increased confidence in speaking in public and presentations as well as in private conversations.

The practice presentations delivered to their peers in other classes proved challenging and led to a great sense of achievement. This provided a nice foundation for the poster presentations during which the learners not only presented their information but responded to questions from their audience.

The learner’s perception of increased confidence is nice because it was the realistic and motivating need to communicate that provided the learners with the opportunity to use the language and skills they possessed, demonstrating to themselves and others the extent of their knowledge.

One learner, during her end of course feedback, also reported how the experience had given her confidence in delivering presentations in Turkish Language and Literature classes.

Several learners perceived connection between the development of the speaking and listening skills through PBL and increased confidence (and score) in their oral exams.

Whilst much of the work was conducted in groups, and the conversations may have been conducted in Turkish, we did ask for a part teams to record one conversation in English. During which they discussed their research sources, synthesising their information to identify the best ideas to answer their research question.

This was an interesting feature of the project as the learners almost universally took this element very seriously. They approached i t in a variety of ways – some recorded a spontaneous discussion whilst others prepared in detail before the recording. Whilst we can argue that those who prepared and even semi-scripted the conversation were not speaking naturally or spontaneously what was clear is that they had spent a considerable time and effort in thinking about what they wished to say, how to express it and how to structure the conversation – a lot of time thinking about using English.

Several learners chose to interview experts at the university as primary sources to help answer their research question. Again, a challenging experience and one that when completed provided a great deal of confidence when speaking in English.



The project required each learner to identify, summarise 3 or 4 articles on their specific topics and synthesize this information with that of their team members. There are many reading skills here that were developed that I won’t even get into, in order to keep this as brief as possible.

Many learners identified an improvement in their ability to skim and scan the texts in order to identify the information relevant to their topics. These are skills they are familiar with, and one reason they were able to identify it during reflection, but PBL gave them an opportunity to use and develop these skills in realistic and purposeful situation with longer, ungraded texts.

Interestingly, several learners reported that they chose specific articles after reading abstracts or skimming several texts before choosing the most appropriate ones to address their question. Another useful and important academic skill developed through linguistic skills.

The process of summarising the texts also required careful reading of specific passages and note-taking and paraphrasing, another genuine purpose with motivating outcome.

Additionally, the project was complex with many components and stages. The learners needed to read and follow the documentation on the PBL website to complete the project. By the end of the 14 weeks the website had over 10.000 web page visits which indicated that it was used fairly extensively.




The culmination of the project was the communication of the answer to the research question with the poster. The process of arriving at this stage required a variety of writing skills from note-taking to academic reverencing.

Another skill which was developed, yet not explicitly recognised by the learners, came in the synthesising of information from the texts they had read and identifying the best ideas and information to answer their research question. This process of identifying main ideas supported with explanations and examples was appropriate to the selection of information for the presentation but also mirrors the planning stages of an academic essay.

We did not ask the learners to produce and essay or report based on their research (this could be a possible future development but would need to be presented as a meaningful outcome such as a conference proceedings) yet their work paralleled this process and the also the process they undertake as part of their Long Writing Assignment in which they answer a question based on information taken from a variety of texts.

This was the part of the project that we asked the teams to record. Listening to the recordings was fantastic – not just because it was nice to hear the learners speaking in English for an


PBL Season One – The Course Structure

This is a 3 to 4 minute read.

Introduction Poster. Spring 2015. V1

I have written quite a bit about our PBL experience without actually giving much information about the content and organisation of the course. In this post I will provide a brief overview of the cycle which took place over 14 weeks with one class day (Thursday for four 50 minute lessons) per week dedicated to the project.

The project consisted of four distinct phases with clear outcome. Each phase culminated in individual reflection, team reflection and tutorial meeting with the teacher. I will briefly describe the phases below. You can find more information at the SL PBL website which we used to scaffold the project.

*You will notice that there is overlap in the timing of the phases. This allowed teams to start the new phase whilst the team tutorials for the previous phase were taking place. This learner calendar should make it clearer.


Phase 1 (Weeks 1 to 3)*

This phase consisted of:

– Team formation & team building

– Agreement, amending and signing of team contracts

– Introduction of the overriding Driving Question

– Teams identify areas of individual interest to create refined, team specific Driving Questions

– Identification of research sources to answer the DQ – 3 or 4 per team member. The sources could be written, audio/visual or interviews with experts.

– Individual reflection on the phase

– Team reflection on the phase

– Team tutorial meeting with the teacher


Phase 2 (Weeks 3 to 6)*

This stage consisted of:

– Individually reading, listening to or interviewing research sources and making notes specific to the Driving Question.

– Group meeting to synthesize the information collated towards answering the Driving Question. At least 10 minutes of this discussion was to be recorded with the discussion being held in English.

– Individual reflection on the phase

– Team reflection on the phase

– Team tutorial meeting with the teacher


Phase 3 (Weeks 6 to 12)*

This phase consisted of:

– Outlining information required to answer the Driving Question

– Planning and creating a poster to answer the Driving Question

– Planning and rehearsing a presentation to accompany the poster

– Delivering a dress rehearsal poster presentation to learners on the intermediate level course in SL

– Revising poster and presentation following the presentation

– Delivering the final poster presentation at the SL conference.

– Individual reflection on the phase

– Team reflection on the phase

– Team tutorial meeting with the teacher


Phase 4 (Weeks 12 to 14)*

I consider this to be the most important phase. This phase consisted of:

– Providing team advice for future PBL participants / learners

– Providing team suggestions to improve the next PBL course

– Individual reflection on the whole project

– Team reflection on the whole project

-Team (or individual) tutorials with the teacher

Related Posts

PBL Season One – What they said….

Season One – PBL in the School of Languages Context


Season One – PBL in the School of Languages Context

This is a 5-6 minute read.

PBL Poster flame

The context

I teach in the School of Languages at Sabancı University where we prepare learners for their English language medium undergraduate studies. We teach English in an academic context through content based instruction.

As mentioned elsewhere this was a complex project which lasted for 14 weeks of an overall 16 week semester. One day a week (4 class lessons) was dedicated to PBL with learners also expected to complete additional work outside these class hours.


Our purpose in implementing PBL

The PBL strand enabled us to kill several birds with one stone (although no animals were hurt during the project).

Our primary purpose was to provide another, personalised and interesting, context in which to improve the learners English language skills and knowledge as well as building their confidence as productive and meaningful users.

The project also promoted the learning, development and recognition of hard and soft skills (also know as 21st Century skills), competencies, critical thinking and attitudes that foster self-directed and life-long learning.

Additionally, we set a Driving Question (more below) that focused learners on gaining knowledge that they, and those they shared the knowledge with, could use in their university studies and professional careers.

Finally the project had to be motivating for our learners. In fact, this was a crucial element – we had to engage learners, over an extended period of time, in a form of learning they were unused to (our learners come to us after 12 years of exam based education.) If they were not motivated to learn in this way then the whole project would be pointless and the stated aims unachievable.


Our Driving Question

Driving Questions (DQs) provide the focus for the project. A good PBL DQ provides a challenging, relevant, real-world scenario. In our context, preparing learners to use English in an academic context, we set our project as an academic research project with a driving question

How can we develop our skills, knowledge and attitudes to support our university studies and future professional careers?”

We spent time in class helping our learners to identify specific areas to study that may provide answers for the question. Areas the learners identified and chose for team study included: sports psychology, stress management, chess, travel, living away from home, social clubs….etc.

These led to team specific DQs such as

How can learning about stress management develop our skills, knowledge and attitudes to support our university studies and future professional careers?

Teams then worked to research and gain knowledge to answer the question. They ultimately presented their research as a poster presentation at the School of Languages Conference.



Reflection is a key element of PBL, without reflection it remains project work. The DQ focuses reflection in two directions. Firstly on the subject/content knowledge learned – in the case above this would be about stress management and its application to their university studies and their professional careers.

The DQ also focuses reflection on the skills, competencies and attitudes learned or developed through the project. Once learners had identified areas in which they had learned of developed they were also encouraged to consider how they could be used proactively in the future.

Additionally, as the development of English language skills and knowledge was the primary aim of the PBL strand we also asked learners to reflect on language development and their confidence in using English productively.

As reflection is such a key component of PBL we scaffolded* it carefully providing questions to guide individual and team reflection. Teachers also prompted and encouraged deeper reflection in the team tutorials.

We asked each group to make their work and reflections available on a digital platform that was available to their teacher and group members. Here are some examples that have been posted on our PBL website with the permission of the learners.


The public product

The final product of PBL should be a shared, recognised and celebrated publicly with as wide, relevant and interested audience as possible. The learners are aware of this from the start of the project and thus it becomes an important driver of the project, through which the production of high-quality work is encouraged.

Our public product took the form of a School of Languages Conference during which each team displayed and presented their posters for attendees at the conference. The conference was held over two days in a prominent position, during lunch time to enable all members of the university community to attend.

The posters also now form a permanent part of the display on in the SL building.

As a rehearsal and to identify areas to change for the conference teams also gave presentations to their peers in other classes. It was very interesting to hear during their end of project reflections how much they also valued giving these presentations both in terms of practicing for the conference and as providers of knowledge.



One of the areas that many of the learners identified during their reflection was the value of teamwork, how much they had enjoyed working as a member of a team and the ways they had learned from their teammates.

I think this was also an element that the teachers who delivered PBL shared. The project was initially planned and designed by a small team. However, once it we started to deliver the strand all the PBL teachers took ownership and the shared ideas and experiences to make for a richer experience for learners and teachers.

A nice example is the way that as the course progressed teachers prepared and shared new and creative ways to encourage and capture learner’s reflections – more of which in a later post.


Please remember, you can visit the blog created to scaffold the course for learners and teachers here.

Related Posts

PBL Season One – What they said….

The Structure of our course

PBL Season One – What they said…..

This is a 3 to 4 minute read.


Our first Project Based Learning cycle is now complete, fourteen weeks of PBL integrated into our upper level syllabus (my last post here was when we had just begun). There’s obviously a lot to say about the project but for a starter here are some comments from those involved in the PBL experience – the learners, the PBL teachers and other teachers in the School of Languages (SL).

PBL Learners

So let’s start with the most important people, the learners who participated in the PBL project. Here are some of their comments:

“PBL is like a train because it is visiting everywhere its location. It is stopping every place and taking passenger to bring them right place. PBL were taken us where we were and it carried us somewhere that we can realise ourselves.”

“I think this project was a good practice for a lot of things we will face as a student and in the professional career: team work, responsibility, constructive ideas and opinions.”

“I read so much articles and we practice the presentation with my team mates so we speak English a lot so I think it’s improved.”

“It’s percentage should have been more because it includes every type of skill that we need.”

“I loved the presentation day! It was the best memory I got from PBL.”

“I feel good about the presentation because J (a teacher) asked deep questions and we can respond and this gives us confidence. I am proud in doing something practical”

“I wouldn’t change my teammates – because of them I learned so many things.”

“When I saw my poster on the wall [of the SL building] I was very happy”.

“Overall, PBL is a preparation for Proj 102 which is a lesson that we have to pass in next semester (hopefully). I find PBL is very useful. Of course we had face some problems as a group. For example we couldn’t communicate sometimes or we couldn’t reach one person and than we had to postpone our responsibilities. Because of that I felt nervous sometimes, I felt like our task wasn’t going to done until deadline. But we had to find ways to fix these problems and we did it actually. Overall we worked well as a group.I really enjoy the part that we create the poster, finding visuals and putting ideas together was a enjoyable task to do. Also this lesson teached us to how should we find sources or how should we put ideas together. To sum up PBL is a very useful lesson to prepare us to faculty, also now I can use computer more efficiency and I improved my social skills too.”

“Today, we did last lesson of PBL which during the about 10 week. I am happy as well as sad. Firstly, I am happy because PBL finished so, ı feel comfortable. Secondly, ı am sad because every thursday our group work together and we enjoyed it. Sometimes we discuss each other, sometimes we discuss with C*******. I am relaxed by PBL among a lot of stress, exams, PBL gained to me a lot of experiences. I think it is more important than most of lesson.”


SL Teachers

Some of the learners’ comments refer to the conference. This was the culmination and public presentation of the project. It took place in a public location next to the canteen, at lunchtime, so that all members of the university could visit. During the conference the teams presented their research in the form of poster presentations. Here are some comments from teachers (both PBL teachers and non-PBL teachers) on their experience of the conference:

“The PBL Conference was like a beehive, with student bees working and buzzing together. It was great to see students so happy and excited. It was also great to see how they ‘owned’ their work and felt a sense of collective pride.”

“The PBL presentations were like a miracle because students were motivated to talk in English and the affective filter was very low, which hardly happens in traditional language learning.

“The PBL presentations were like a dream come true: just yesterday someone complained to me about the speaking skills of our students and I was able to say please go and see what they can do at the PBL presentations. And the students lived up to my expectations: they were articulate and enthusiastic. Well done to both instructors and students.”

“The PBL conference was like a festival in the east; full of aromatic scents and interesting ambiance.” “The PBL presentations were very inspiring because it was quite surprising to see how controversial ideas could be convincing when successfully presented visually and explained in a logical way. Well done to all.”

“I had some good authentic discussions. With a bit of encouragement, students were able to evaluate their research results in order to draw conclusions applicable to their own lives.”

“It was refreshing to talk to students about their projects and see how they take pride in their work.”

“I was surprised that almost all groups were very keen to talk and seemed very motivated. Only one or two students seemed to have memorised a sales-patter and only one group did not give the impression that they had gelled as a team. Oh the whole they seemed very proud of their work and Most were able to talk about what they had done and answer questions. When asked they all claimed to have learned a lot from the experience and though it was positive (only in one case did I feel I was being told what he thought I wanted to hear!) Even students I remember from last semester who were never very participative or hardworking seemed very animated and to enjoying showing off their work. I even left feeling quite positively affected by their energy and enthusiasm.. it was a pleasant change to be accosted by students wanting them to look at their work. :)”

“I loved how genuinely the students owned the posters and were able to answer all my questions, and encouraged me to ask more 🙂 Good job guys”


PBL Teachers

Finally here are some comments from the teachers who delivered PBL. Interestingly, and pleasingly, there is some nice reflection on the Professional Teacher Development opportunities the course presented:

“PBL has been a wonderful strand to have in our curriculum, giving us and the students a highly useful and desirable process-based learning opportunity. It has promoted both learner and teacher autonomy and fostered creativity, critical thinking and reflection within a relatively flexible framework. It has contributed to personal development and team skills in addition to learners’ academic development and knowledge. I loved it! And I know my students did too. I very much hope it will continue to be a key strand in our curriculum.”

“I liked the energy within our PBL team – it was great to meet and share PBL thoughts and experiences in the break with colleagues in rooms close by”

‘’We really didn’t know how the course was going to unfold and exactly how we were going to present it to the students and manage them.  It necessitated a strong reliance on each other as a team and became a real source of motivation.’’

“As the PBL course progressed, the activities showed me just how much students did or didn’t know, and thus how much they needed the opportunity to gain & practice such knowledge. The poster design & presentations were really enjoyed by students, there was a great energy in these activities. This contrasted with the preparation & reflection activities, which often tested students’ organisation, motivation and teamwork to the max. The aim of the course was to promote soft skill development to support students in their lives beyond FDY, and student comments in their feedback reflected this aim. Personally I went on a massive learning curve, and am really happy I got an opportunity to experience this type of learning as it makes total sense to me”

“What was immediately obvious was the paradigm shift in the way we saw our role as teachers. After the first lesson teaching PBL, we met excitedly in the corridor, each discussing what had happened in our classes; this isn’t something that happens when you teach from a coursebook. Not only had it energized us, it had also had an immediate effect on our learners. Much of our talk about that first lesson focused on how the learners were reacting to this ‘new’ way of doing things, how motivated they were and how this would influence the way we would approach these classes.”

Related Posts

Season One – PBL in the School of Languages Context

Interviewing Thom Markham about PBL.

This is a 1 minute read and a 12 mins 5 seconds view.


In spring 2014 Thom Markham visited Sabancı University School of Languages to advise us on the implementation of PBL.

While he was with us I grabbed a few minutes of his time to ask a few questions. Personally I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch it. Although I was there I can’t remember all we talked about. If you can bare 12 minutes of my hand waving there may be something of interest for you.

This is my text to accompany the video:

Andrew Bosson talks to Thom Markham about the benefits Project Based Learning can bring to teaching and learning and the importance of applying current ideas from the study of psychology to our practice as teachers.

PBL in Action. We have lift off!

This is a 1 to 2 minute read.


A little over a year ago a I  was a member of a small team that started working on a Project Based Learning module at Sabancı University School of Languages. The project is now live with over  around 160 students in about 40 teams. A team of 10 teachers are facilitating the project.

Much of the literature and experience of PBL is based in K12 schools. The context of our PBL project is a university English language program in which we prepare learners for their English language medium undergraduate studies . Our aim is firstly to develop our learners’ language skills. Secondly, through PBL we wish to develop skills and attributes that will equip our learners for their academic life and future careers.

We also wished to try something different, interesting and challenging both for our learners and for ourselves. It has involved pushing us, again teachers and learners, outside our comfort zones.  In the spirit of PBL we, as a teaching team are embarked on a parallel project to enhance and develop our teaching skills, knowledge and attitudes through the creation, delivery and reflection on the PBL module. This can only lead to interesting outcomes.

The Project has clear goals and outcomes for the learners. However the only thing we can be sure of it that we can’t predict what will ultimately arise from the PBL experience and this is exciting.

A blog, aimed at both teachers and learners, to support the project can be found here. Please be aware that parts of the blog still need a bit of work before they are finished.

In this section … well let’s see what happens.

Affordances, Normalisation & Disruptive Innovation – A Principled Approach to Using Technology in ELT

This is a 16-20  minute read. There is a summary towards the bottom of the page.

In this post I look at the concepts of Technology, Affordance, Naturalisation and Disruptive Innovation in looking at how digital technologies can be innovatively integrated into ELT teaching. First of all we begin the journey considering Google glass and SMS Messaging.


Technology & Innovation

Would you spend $1,500 on a device to guide you to the nearest fast food restaurant? Of course it may depend on how hungry you are and how much you crave junk food!

According to a BBC story describing how Google Glasses are being made available to software developers, finding take-away restaurants is one of Google’s suggestions for possible uses of the project. If this is one of the most imaginative uses the people at Google can conceive of for their $1,500 gadget it is a good job they they are giving developers the opportunity to create applications to push the limits of the technology. I’m being disingenuous here as Google understand that people will innovate given a product – and this was their plan all along (and they did have other ideas too!).

The Google people are obviously smart and have learned the lessons of innovation – the developers of a technology are not necessarily the ones to recognise its true potential.

Here are two examples worthy of The Book of Heroic Failures:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876

And here are some more.


Teenagers as Innovators

The first SMS message was sent on 3rd December 1992. However the creators of the SMS messaging system didn’t foresee the phenomenon that SMS messaging would it become. It was only in 1996 when newly introduced pay-as-you-go packages made mobile phone technology affordable to teenagers that SMS messaging started to take off in a big way. Teenagers recognised and adopted a new way to communicate. They made it their own to the point of creatively adapting the  language to meet their communicative needs.

(Before anyone mentions digital natives here let’s remember that teenagers and young people have always been innovators – this may actually be the true digital native message. SMS was another way to communicate, teenagers always had always found ways to communicate with each other in the past, and now it was cheaper than a phone call.)

John Naughton, in this Observer article celebrating 20 years of  SMS, identifies an important truth

“the story of SMS shows that the people who effectively invent a technology – in the sense of determining its use and making it viable – are not so much the engineers who design it as the consumers who discover what it’s really for. The telephone was originally conceived as a broadcast medium, whereas radio was conceived as a point-to-point medium. Exactly the opposite turned out to be true in both cases. And it was teenagers who “invented” SMS.


So what about Teaching & Learning

In the remainder of this post I will suggest an approach to encourage innovative uses of technology in ELT through the investigation of four concepts – Technology, Normalisation, Affordance and Disruptive Innovation (these concepts explain the success of SMS & will determine the future success [or not] of Google Glass). I have chosen these concepts as they suggest, to me, the considerations to keep in mind when deciding If, when and how to integrate a technology into the teaching and learning process.


So let’s start with technology.

The Oxford Dictionary defines technology as

“The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry”


“Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge”

When we talk of using technology in a teaching and learning context we usually assume that technology to be synonymous with the latest available technology, currently digital technology. Google Glass is the latest (for now) in a line of Information Technology (IT) tools stretching back to paints and BRUSHES used to record information on cave walls. But perhaps the most familiar form of IT the book. A book is a form of technology that was developed to store and disseminate information.


Technology in ELT

In the history of language learning many technologies have been employed whether they be chalk and slate, language laboratories, course books, pen and paper, video-conferencing, videos…etc. At one time or another each was considered (by some people at least) to be the latest best technology.

We could have a great debate about which technologies have been the most successful and enduring – if not which are the most useful. But it is undoubted that most have fallen by the wayside and I would suggest that this is because we did not really consider the concepts of affordance and normalisation of technology. This led to the adoption of technology as novelty rather than innovation – which will never have lasting appeal or application (just consider novelty songs – does anyone still listen to this number 1 song for pleasure!)

The instruction manual (in the form of the modern course-book) is perhaps the most enduring technology for teachers and learners in many contexts (certainly mine). In these contexts it is ubiquitous and an accepted part of language learning for teachers and learners – unfortunately to the point that many people equate language learning with learning the book rather than viewing it as an aid to teaching and learning.


What can account for the endurance of the course book?

Let’s consider some of the advantages of the course-book in ELT. For teachers it provides a ready-made syllabus, it provides guidance on delivery for new teachers without easy access to support, it often provides supplementary materials reducing preparation time, it is easily portable, it is reusable, it is relatively cheap, it provides a reference tool for learners, learners can use it to gauge progress and anticipate future learning, it can be used as a paperweight…etc. It also allows for excuses -“we’ve covered it in the book – why haven’t you learned it?” (A negative affordance). Another way of thinking of these reasons for the use of these course-books is to consider them as affordances – the benefits that the book/technology brings to the users.


What are affordances?

North American psychologist, James Gibson’s conceived of an affordance as a property of the environment that has an effect, positive or negative, on another organism in that environment (Van Lier, 2000, pp.252-253) . He gives the example of a leaf in the Amazon rainforest. Leaves exist solely to produce sugars for its plant by absorbing sunlight. However, a leaf has affordance for other organisms

“lt can offer crawling on for a treefrog, cutting for an ant, food for a caterpillar, shade for a spider, medicine for a shaman, and so. In all cases, the leaf is the same: its properties do not change; it is just that different properties are perceived and acted upon by different organisms.”

In a classroom context a Smartphone could be used by a learner to whatsapp  with friends in another class, as a dictionary or to play games – its fundamental nature does not change, just the purpose it is used for. In other words, with reference to technology,

“an affordance is a “can do” statement that does not have to be predefined by a particular functionality, and refers to an application that enables a user to undertake tasks in their environment, whether known or unknown to him / her.” (McLouglin & Lee 2007,p.666)

In many ELT contexts there is an obvious push towards, and excitement around, e-technology including plenty of specifically designed educational apps and websites. As teachers when we are looking at a particular technology we should consider the affordances it can bring to the learning situation:

  • Does it actually add to or extend learning possibilities?
  • Does it allow us to do things we couldn’t do before?
  • Does it do the things we currently do – but more effectively?


Encouraging Learners to recognise the affordances of technologies

Perhaps we should also take a lesson from the story of SMS. Teenagers recognised the affordance it offered to communicate instantly, cheaply and silently with their friends. As teachers we are usually the ones who determine the technology that our learners will use – and more often than not the technologies they cannot use. Just think of all that creativity, imagination and innovation we are missing out on.

A more learner-centred approach would be to set the context and allow learners to use a technology they believe would help them complete a task or activity. For example, we could reframe homework from an activity which is often a solitary reinforcement of classroom learning to active and collaborative learning. We could even try and move away from homework  and it negative connotations to  broaden the boundaries of active learning beyond the classroom.

Classroom based activities may well benefit from technology if we involve learners in the choice of tools to complete activities. Later I will explore how Project Based Learning provides a great context for just this sort of freedom.


What is Normalisation?

As I mentioned earlier, in my experience, the course-book is the most enduring learning technology in ELT. Both teachers and learners, generally, perceive them as a natural, useful and pedagogically sound tool in language learning. It is not a big event or a novelty when they are used in the classroom. This is not to say that they are perfect tools – I am an admirer of the Teaching Unplugged approach – but it is the perception of the course-book’s usefulness, longevity and its pervasiveness that makes them a normalised technology.

In this sense the course-book is at a stage of normalisation where

“the technology is invisible, hardly even recognised as technology, taken for granted in everyday life.” (Bax, 2003, p.23)

For those interested, I recommend a quick read of Bax’s 2003 article “CALL – Past, Present & Future” . Clearly dated by the reference to CALL, it is prescient in predicting that true integration of computers into the classroom will involve computers “probably very different in shape and size from their current manifestation” (2003, p.23).In my teaching context learners, who all have laptops, do not appear to view them as key tools for learning and prefer their smartphones.

He recognised that CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning) had not reached a stage of normalisation by the very nature of it having an acronym CALL. He points out that we do not refer to PALL (Pen Assisted Language Learning) or BALL (Book Assisted Language Learning) because they are normalised. For this reason he argued that “CALL practitioners should be aiming at their own extinction.” (2003, p.239).

11 years later we have yet to reach, or even get within touching-distance of, normalisation when it comes to Digital Technology in teaching and learning – It seems we can’t even reach a consensus on the use of online dictionaries. We may not use the CALL acronym but we still talk of “Teaching with Technology” rather than just “Teaching”.

This reminds me of a scene from the TV show Friends when Joey and Chandler are offering Ross some relationship advice

Joey: He’s right, man. Please. Move on. Go to China. Eat Chinese food.

Chandler: Course there, they just call it food.


In a previous post I discussed how, in my experience, digital technology is frequently used as a novelty to enagage learners rather than as a tool to support learning. We have yet to reach the stage where

“CALL will be normalised when computers are treated as secondary to learning itself, when the needs of the learners will be carefully analysed first of all, and then computers used to serve those needs.” (Bax 2003, p.24).

Or to put it another way – what learning do we wish to take place? What are the affordances of the technologies (digital or otherwise) to promote this learning? Who has the knowledge of the technologies and makes decisions on which to use to promote learning?


Disruptive Innovation, PBL and Normalised Uses of Technology

I believe that Project Based Learning provides a wonderful, naturalised context for the use of technology to enhance teaching and learning. This relationship is symbiotic as it is also the affordances of the technologies that provide deep opportunities for PBL and other Inquiry Based Learning methods to take place.

Of course other learning situations and contexts can benefit from a principled and innovative use of technology and to develop this point I will talk about the concept of “Disruptive Innovation”.

In his article ‘Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education’, Randy Bass applies the economic concept of Disruptive Innovation to learning in Higher Education. The process of disruptive innovation seems to nicely incorporate the concepts of affordances and normalisation.

Clayton Christensen’s concept of Disruptive Innovation in business refers to

“ a process “by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market,’ eventually displacing established competitors” (Bass 2012, p.24)

The story of SMS is a perfect example of disruptive innovation in the business sense – an existing (relatively unused) technology was embraced and became a dominant form of communication. This happened once a genuine affordance was identified by teenagers – cheap, instant (and silent) communication. Its affordances were recognised by teenagers and it is now a completely normalised technology used by all.

Bass applies the concept of disruptive innovation to learning in Higher Education. Echoing Prensky’s acknowledgement that current technologies allow us to undertake Inquiry Based techniques previously considered impractical (Prensky 2010, p.xv), Bass argues that innovation in Higher Education will come from within – with the growing use and influence of experiential learning made possible by the affordances current technology.

“new digital, learning, and analytics tools now make it possible to replicate some features of high‑impact activity inside classrooms, whether through the design of inquiry-based learning or through the ability to access and manipulate data, mount simulations, leverage “the crowd” for collaboration and social learning, or redesign when and how students can engage course content. Indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of today’s technologies is that many of the high-impact features that used to be possible only in small classes can now be experienced not only at a larger scale but, in some cases, to better effect at larger scale” (Bass 2012, p.26)

 And when Bass refers to disruption with reference to technology he does not mean the disruption caused by learners using Facebook or Angry Birds in class (that dates me!). Rather, disruption in this sense is a positive force for motivation and is driven by the affordances of technology. Technologies whose affordances for learning are recognised and used in this way become a normalized part of the learning process

“we are compelled to imagine ways to ask students, early and often, to engage in the practice of thinking in a given domain, often in the context of messy problems. This is perhaps one way to rethink the role of technologies and social media tools—often the cause of that other type of teaching disruption— and re-imagine the ways that discussion boards, wikis, blogs, Twitter, and collaborative writing tools and spaces might facilitate activities that help students learn” (Bass 2012, p.28)

Bass indicates, and I concur, that Inquiry Based Learning (such as PBL) lends itself to complex, constructive, meaningful and challenging learning situations preparing learners for real life situations. He also recognizes the importance of allowing the learners the access to the tools to help them achieve these learning goals. It is also clear that a normalized used of technology enables this.

In this normalized context we as teachers are not the gate-keepers of digital technology. Rather we can set the learning contexts and trust and encourage learners to be the innovative users of technology – finding the affordances of technologies to enhance learning.


So a principled, normalised approach to the use of technology can only be achieved through Project Based Learning?

Certainly not! There are many ways and contexts in which technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning which can, should and have nearly become normalised.

In an upcoming post I will look at current digital technologies identifying their affordances and assessing the extent to which they can, or have, become naturalised within teaching and learning contexts.


In Summary

  • The developers of technology are not necessarily those who find the most innovative uses for it.
  • SMS is an example where a group of people, teenagers, found the innovative use for the technology.
  • If we want to use Digital Technologies innovatively to enhance teaching and learning the concepts of Technology, Affordance, Normalisation and Disruptive Innovation are useful to consider.
  • The concept of technology, the way technologies have been and are used in English Language Teaching.
  • Affordances are the possibilities a technology offers beyond its initial design. I consider the affordances of a common technology – the course book. We should encourage learners to recognise the affordances of technologies to enhance their learning.
  • Normalisation is the process where a technology becomes a natural part of the environment. In the classroom pens and course books are naturalised. A naturalised use of digital technology will potentially redefine the boundaries of learning.
  • Disruptive Innovation is the process where a product or service becomes a market leader (and therefore naturalised) thanks to the recognition of its affordances by innovators. Randy Bass claims Inquiry Based Learning methods (such as PBL) are gaining ground in higher education through their relevance to real-world learning and their facilitation through Digital Technology.
  • Once again, remembering the lesson of SMS we should encourage our learners to be innovators, finding the affordances of digital technologies to enhance their learning.
  • PBL provides a context for a principled and naturalised use of Digital Technology but not the only context.



Bass, R 2012, ‘Disrupting Ourselves. The Problem of Learning in Higher Education’, Educase review, March / April 2012, pp.23-33

Bax, S 2003b, ‘CALL—past, present and future.’, System, vol.31, p.13-28.

Prensky, M 2010, Teaching Digital Natives. Partnering for Real Learning, Corwin, California

Van Lier, L 2000, “From input to affordance” in Lantolf J P (ed), Sociocultural theory and second language learning, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.245-259.


Related Posts

Affordances and Normalisation of Current Digital Technologies in ELT – Coming Soon

Technology as a Cognitive Aid – Coming Soon

PBL & the Affordances of Web 2.0 Technology – Coming Soon

PBL & English Language Teaching

“It was good enough for us, it should be good enough for them.” – Coming Soon

Digital-Media Literacy – Coming Soon

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Affordances, Normalisation & Disruptive Innovation – A Principled Approach to Using Technology in ELT by Andrew Bosson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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