mailVU and the Connected Classroom

We are so pleased to have Warwick University Principal Lecturer Russell Stannard take time from his busy, globe-trotting presentation schedule to write a blog post for us! A longtime mailVU fan, Russell demonstrates to educators all over the world how he uses our video email service to engage his students outside of class.

I present all over the world, often doing whole tours moving from one city to another. I give talks on technology and the way we can use it for language learning. Without a doubt one of the most popular tools I present is mailVU. I talk about it the context of what I call the “Connected Classroom.”

The idea behind the “Connected Classroom” is simple. When I first started teaching more than 20 years ago I used to feel very frustrated with the limited types of homework assignments offered to students. In class I might do pair work, group work, and lots of collaboration and sharing. But for homework, I would ask the students to do an exercise from the book, read a certain passage or study vocabulary. It seemed to me there was a real contrast between what I achieved in class and what I got students to do for homework.

Technology changed all this. Suddenly I could ask the students to watch a video, listen to an interview, create an animation or post ideas to a discussion board. More recently I have been able to get students to record themselves speaking about a topic. For example, I might ask them to talk about their best friend. In class we might do work with vocabulary where we think about word structures we are going to need to describe their friends. The students then go home, turn on mailVU and make a recording where they discuss their best friend. They may even introduce their friend on-screen or show a picture of them. The student then sends the resulting webcam recording directly to me. I can listen to the recordings and provide feedback in subsequent lessons. I might go into the next lesson and play the best examples to the whole class. Other teachers might choose just to provide general feedback on the overall class performance rather than individual feedback. Of course it is quite feasible for teachers to provide feedback via mailVU.

mailVU’s video messaging service totally revolutionizes the types of activities that students can do outside the classroom. Suddenly we can get students to practice speaking outside of class. The key though is the idea of connecting the lesson with the homework, thus the “Connected Classroom.”

It is vital that students are prepared for doing the recordings. It is equally important that they have practiced and covered key elements during the lesson. By covering grammar, vocabulary and doing some actual practice, students will be well prepared for making their video recordings at home. It is also a good idea to produce a sort of guide or framework to help your students. For example, in the lesson you might consider the structure that the students should follow when doing their recordings. It might be a series of instructions or questions such as these:

1. Give some basic information about your friend including their name, age, where he or she lives, etc.

2. Describe your friend.

3. Talk about how you first met.

4. Talk about what you have in common and like doing.

5. Talk about your friend’s qualities.

Some basic structure helps students a lot. You can even rehearse the speaking part in the class. The more support and help they get during the lesson, the better they will do during their recordings.

Task-Based Approach to Learning Using mailVU

The approach I am outlining is quite similar to a task-based approach to learning. The task is to complete and send a recording using mailVU. The idea is to provide the framework and guidance for the students to be able to do the recordings. The recordings don’t have to be done at home. They can be done in the classroom, but it is perhaps more interesting if we ask the students to do the recordings for homework as it allows them more time to complete their video messages and allows us to use the lesson time for preparation.

I have used this approach in various classes and asked students what they felt about it. They generally like it. What I have realized is that they take a lot of pride in the recordings and some of the students will record and re-record the video emails until they’ve got them perfect. This isn’t really the idea, but if it motivates the students to work in English then I am happy. Some students write out a whole script and simply read it. I tell them not to do this as it doesn’t sound natural and the whole idea is for them to speak naturally. Again, providing a framework is key here as the guidance will encourage them not to script the assignment.

You can use this same approach for all sorts of things. In the example above, students  described their best friend. Below is a list of other topics you could try. One thing to think about is exploiting mailVU’s visual component. Activities that include the chance to hold up pictures, introduce people onto the webcam, etc. are particularly interesting:

    1. Students may talk about their favorite place to visit in their country.

    2. Students may talk about a member of their family.

    3. A student may interview someone in English

    4. Students can discuss their typical weekend.

    5. Students may talk about a festival they like and its goings-on.

    6. Students may discuss a person they admire and look up to.

    7. Students can describe a recent holiday or visit.

    8. Students may talk about a sport or activity they are interested in.

With mailVU’s paid Educational Plan, students are able to keep and manage their videos. This can be useful because they will have a record of their recordings that they can use to track their progress. There are many countries that are now introducing the idea of student portfolios (a record of their work) and recorded oral activities are an excellent example to be included.

For students with limited or no access to the Internet, teachers can have students complete video assignments in class, or perhaps suggest that they use computer labs to make their recordings.

For some teachers these activities will just not be possible at the moment, however they may be possible in a few years as more schools extend their use of technology and more people have access to technology outside of the classroom. This happened to me when I did my MA in Multimedia in 1999. Many of the things I learned, I was not able to put into practice for many years. So keep these ideas in mind for future use.

Russell Stannard is a Principal Lecturer at Warwick University in Coventry, United Kingdom. He also runs one of the largest and most successful training sites for language teachers looking to incorporate technology In 2008 Russell won the prestigious “Outstanding Initiative in ICT” from the Times Higher and in 2010 his site was awarded the British Council award for Innovation. Russell also writes a regular column in the English Teaching Professional titled “Webwatcher.”

We thank Russell for not only writing about how he incorporates mailVU in his lessons, but also including some example assignments that other teachers might be able to use. As Russell writes, mailVU’s versatile video platform is a perfect tool for educational outreach beyond the classroom and in addition to our free video messaging service, we do offer an Educational Plan that allows students to upload and manage their videos. Want to know more? Please contact For students and teachers who want practice on the go, mailVU has a very easy to use app available for iPhone and iPad 2 at iTunes.

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