Thursday, September 22, 2016

Can computers replace teachers? Cambridge "Write and Improve" automated writing assessment - does it work in practice?

It's been well over twenty years since people started debating whether computers would ever replace teachers.  Of course, there will always be a need for teachers and the real human interaction that is part of learning, so the question is not so much about computer replacing teachers, but what kind of relationship will teachers (and their students) form with the emerging artificial intelligent entities to provide enhanced learning opportunities.

In my quest to discover such artificially intelligent entities, I came across the Cambridge Write and Improve site, in BETA, which lets students submit their writing and receive 'feedback' from an algorithm that analyses the student's writing using the knowledge it has acquired by examining millions of words written by other learners of English taking various Cambridge proficiency exams.

I was curious to see how useful AI feedback would be to a students, so I found a writing from one of my students in a pre-intermediate class, and typed it in to the Write and Improve site.  In fact, this was the final draft of a writing task done in class, so the student had gone through two previous drafts.  In the  Cambridge English "Write and Improve" site, there are options to write about pre-defined topics, aligned to the typical types of topics given in the Cambridge exams. Presumably, the feedback would be more focused and detailed for these. However, there is an  ANY OTHER OPTION for writing about any topic, so I used that.   Here is the text of the final draft which the student had written about the similarities between high school and an English preparatory school:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

What should we learn from the Finns about education?

The Finns are well known for their excellence in education - Finland is top of the scales that assess and compare national systems of education.

How do they do it?  Quite simple:
  • Children don't start formal education until the age of seven.
  • The formative years focus on having fun in learning, being physically active and being creative.
  • Any formal examinations are banned until the age of 18
  • “Teaching to the test” is an alien concept. 
  • Free school meals are universally provided.
  • Pay teachers the same as doctors.
  • Forsake streaming by ability.
  • Ensure that all schools have equal funding and staffing, so students simply go to their nearest school
  • Abolish selective grammar schools.
  • Privatization of schools and competition between schools based on league tables do not exist.
  • Outlawing school selection to demonstrate commitment to equality (on both moral and economic grounds)
How does your national education system measure up to these criteria?  Not very well, I suspect.  But the even bigger question is why don't we learn from the Finns???

Wonder why one-third of school children in the US are obese?

Think what an MRI would tell us about their brains!!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

todaysmeet for in-class brainstorming


I'm sure there are many websites, tools and apps that can be used to collaborate one way or another. I first came across this website during a workshop and the presenter asked us to send our questions online via this website so that she could answer them when there was opportunity during the presentation or if not, it would be possible for her to respond to those later on. We could also comment on each other's questions or comments. Thus, while the person was presenting, a kind of online discussion was going on along the presentation.

Every now and then I try to use this tool in my classes. To collect sentences regarding a specific grammar structure, to get their ideas about something specific, etc. Just recently, I've decided to use it for a brainstorming activity before a writing task. The writing handout focuses on writing a problem solution paragraph. Thus, the problem, "culture shock"..... first, we worked on the definition and how we feel when we experience culture shock. I asked the students to do some quick online research using their smart devices in-class (mobile phones, pads, tablets etc.). Then, we came up with some key points like: foreign, abroad, away from home, new, different people, different cultures, difficult etc... and then we tried to decide how we felt; frustrated, lonely, nervous, anxious, afraid, sad etc. . While we were discussing these, I noted these key words on the whiteboard. Now, it was time to talk about the solutions. I asked them to go to the website: "" (this room is now closed because I'm done with the exercise.) Now, here let me explain how it works:

You log in to Then, you pick a name for your room (in my case above it was "cultureshockproblemsolution"). If that name is not taken or not in use at that time, you'll have the room. For instance, I'll just try one for this post: (screenshot below)
And as you can see, you can select how long you want the room to be open. I'll pick one year for this one and let's see if anything comes up in the meantime. You can let anyone, or people with a password and login to send messages. Then you open the room. 

Now, everyone can send a message there. Back to my class activity...After we finished about describing and talking about culture shock, it was time to talk about the possible solutions. I asked them to go to the webpage and send their ideas as messages. I have to say they liked it better than writing on paper or the whiteboard. However, I have to admit that sometimes they can get "naughty-ish" :) but that's ok of course (as long as there's no offense or bad language of somesort...anyways). In a couple of minutes, there were lots of ideas. also gives you the "teacher tools" option but to use some tools you need to purchase an account. Anyways, while the room is on and running you can get the messages as a text file and what I did was to compile similar ideas together. Then, I photocopied them and brought them back to class. Now, students have ideas, vocabulary and major and minor ideas that they can use in their paragraphs. Please find below some examples:

Of course I didn't edit students' responses. Therefore, even if they want to use some of these ideas, they need to come up with the correct word order, part of speech etc.

I just wanted to share one idea that I tried and worked...

All the best,


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Using GIFs Part-2


Just recently I've mentioned a couple of ideas about using GIFs and animation in presentations. While I was thinking about how I could use them to practice responses to different situations, I just decided to give it a try to practice "noun clauses". Well, here's what I did...I found some animated gif images and simply inserted them in slides (you don't have to do that; I could have just shown the images). Anyway, then, I asked students in pairs to build/write sentences which included noun clauses (of course after the presentation of noun clauses) based on the animation image they saw. The sentences could be about what they character was thinking, what had happened, what might happen etc. And I gave them about 2 minutes for each image.

Here are two examples of the animations and students' sentences:

"It is clear that he is disappointed.",
"We all know that he admitted the situation.",
"What you have done is ridiculous."
"It is obvious that he is absolutely sad."
"It was a pity that he didn't know what to do."

"That we're having a double wedding is so surprising."
"That her boyfriend sent her a Valentine's Day gift was surprising."
"It is obvious that she's happy."
"She is surprised by the fact that the dinner is ready."

I think, such animations can be used in practicing lots of other areas as well, like "What's happening? (present continuous), describe the person/character (adjectives, relative clauses, adverbs), What happened? (simple past), What has just happened (present perfect), etc."

All the best,