“LernSax” is described as a learning platform designed specifically for schools, based upon a cooperative and community based approach to learning, thereby enabling a more creative and student orientated pedagogy (Sächsisches Bildungsinstitut, p2, 2013). The intention of Lernsax is to provide pre and post class activities, as well as integrated usage within the classroom, using the Webweaver Suite (DigiOnline, 2013) to create a bounded environment which nevertheless provides Web 2.0 tools for the delivery of resources, as well as authoring templates for both teachers and students.
The platform is divided up into four areas with varying access rights. Every teacher and student has access to their own private domain, which focuses on tailored resources and tasks, organisation and user history. The second area spans the school and arranges smaller groupings such as project participants, classes, and special interest groups with a focus on school organisation. The third area connects every participating school into the state-wide network, enabling themed connections, project collaboration and inter-school cooperation. The last area “Magazin” is the in-house professional development resource, providing updates and trouble-shooting information (Sächsisches Bildungsinstitut, p3, 2013). The layout is spacious with a clear structure for ease of user navigation. The use of icons is simple and consistent, with only those displayed which have been requested specifically from the administrator to keep a streamlined look to the pages (Hickfang, 2014, Stevenson and Hedberg, p322, 2011). The clear delineation of working groups facilitates targeted communication for formal and informal learning activities. Furthermore, LernSax can provide a 'resource bargaining channel' at the individual and group levels, the provision of media (via MeSax) and courselets strengthen asynchronous work-flows for the 'coordination channel', teachers and administrators are able to check activity logs, chat transcripts and wiki contributions as part of the 'monitoring channel', and students can organise their learning through the use of notes, calendar, messenger, timetables, learning journals and assessment overviews (Britain and Liber, 2004, Sächsisches Bildungsinstitut, p5, 2013).
Following the task-based, constructivist approach to EFL within a blended learning environment, a closer analysis of selected features of the LernSax platform will be divided into 'Output' and 'Input' possibilities for language learning. Here,'Output' can be understood as the production of spoken or written language with a clear communicative purpose in mind, culminating in the construction of a formal product for a targeted audience. 'Input' shall denote those texts (multimedia or print) which create a rich language environment for the formation of working linguistic hypotheses, essential to the differentiated and deeper learning required for second language acquisition (Willis and Willis, p189, 2007).
Output features of LernSax
Consistent with the 'Present-Practice-Produce upside-down model' (Willis and Willis, p209, 2007), the task-based classroom starts with Output as its focus. The elements of LernSax assessed below are contained within the private, institution and network areas for the purposes of language production. Some products can be considered 'user generated content' whilst others support the process of construction.
Teachers have sole access to the blog feature in the private area, although groups and classes are able to create a blog. (HICKFANG figures forthcoming). Blogs cannot be created at the institutional or network area, although they can be imported for display there. As with Web 2.0 blogs, those who are granted access rights are able to evaluate and comment upon blog posts, which in turn can also be responded to (Sächsisches Bildungsinstitut, pp13-14, 2013). As with online embedding options, text, pictures and audio can be incorporated into a post. The published blogs within LernSax can be sorted thematically as well as according to grouping or class, with the search function filtering those requests according to access protocols. Parent / legal guardians must provide written consent before any blog entry can be accessed by a group, class or network (T. Hickfang, pers. comm., 22nd May 2014). The administrator (either school or region based) can also edit, delete or write-protect blog entries for security or behaviour management. Blogs can support the task-based cycle as a descriptive text type, presenting an account of a project, excursion, or event. Collaboration can be focused around a particular blog entry with role allocation of tasks (Kanselar, et al, 2001), or as a cumulative collaborative task, as comments and evaluations spur an online discussion, where informal and socially mediated responses move towards a formally recognised and assessable product (Lorenz, 2011).
The blog as text type, although relatively new, is authentic and wide spread, provided both creative flexibility and yet some formal features which make it ideal for reflective learning (Ward, 2004, cited in Arsian and Sahin-Kizil, p185, 2010). The blog is written for an audience, enabling a variety of perspectives, driven by a communicative focus in expressing an opinion or providing an explanation (Quinten and Allen, p48, 2013). Willis' cycle of recognition – hypothesis – exploration – rehearsal (2003) enables students to theorise about the elements of a successful blog or comment, with a view to authentic transfer into active language production. The creation of a class or group blog contributes to the understanding of language as a communal product, with reach outside its immediate vicinity possible (Legutke, p82, 2003). An intermediary step of exploring micro-blogging is not supported by LernSax at this time, losing with it the potential of twitter as a pedagogical tool (see for e.g. Ramsden, 2009).
The success of wikis as a collaborative and authoritative resource for information gathered around themes / topics has led to its inclusion in the LernSax platform (Sächsisches Bildungsinstitut, p31, 2013). The importance of process transparency as well as socially negotiated but externally verifiable information brings an analytical dimension to the task-based cycle. Students become the authors of newly constituted knowledge, mediated through the selection of resources available via courselets and MeSax, in keeping with Luckin's Zone of Available Assistance (ZAA). Most standard functions are included on the platform: preview, edit, undo, versions, overviews and media uploads (Sächsisches Bildungsinstitut, p31, 2013). The layout is similar to a Word document format with icons sequenced at the top of the writing frame. Of particular use are the heading and subheading features which help to prioritise and sequence information according to the collective opinion of the working group authoring the page. This forces an internally mediated reality, now socially negotiated and made explicit through the analysis of versions saved. Again, focus is on achieving the communicative goals, appropriately formulated to fit the register and language features of a wiki entry (Bonnet, et al., p178, 2003). The question of audience needs to be negotiated between students and their teacher, with formal permission required for the publication of the wiki outside the class into the school or networked areas (T. Hickfang, pers. Comm., 22nd May 2014).
Enbedding Audio-visual material
Although LernSax is a bounded system, it is able to incorporate open source products such as audio and video production software. These can be developed by laptops with Windows Live Movie Maker (Graf, 2011) for slide-shows or video contributions to be embedded within blogs, wikis, courselets and the website generator feature. For projects requiring subtitles or commentary in English to accompany a visual text, 'Audacity' is supported (Schulen ans Netz, e.V., 2007). An example of integrating open source-ware into LernSax could be the creation of a short introduction to an English or American city for tourists. Students theorise (based on their understanding of the text type and purpose from their L1) about the elements and content of a persuasive presentation. This would be followed by research and decision-making about a target audience to determine an appropriate register. An intermediate or preparatory step could be the creation of subtitles in English of a German video on another city. The need for “prestige' (formal) language use for a quality product drives interactions between the project participants and their teacher (Willis and Willis, pp166-7, 2007), moving the end of the task cycle towards a focus on form. The playback and transcription of audio assists critical reflection upon language use, supported by the visual scaffolding of the accompanying images. With the consistent encouragement of using English as the 'working language' (Doff and Klippel, p206, 2007), this feature could be a very powerful pedagogical tool for EFL.
Across the private, school and network areas, questionnaires can be developed for a variety of functions. Though described here a a management tool for voting on important dates and decisions affecting a whole class (Sächsisches Bildungsinstitut, 2011, p28), students could also design their own questions and result displays as part of class or school based research for a particular topic area. Experimenting with question types and feedback can foster deeper learning as students analyse and select elements that are critical to the gathering of information, whether that be regarding an excursion evaluation, contrasting peer groups pressures in Germany to a case study in an English-speaking country, or considering how surveys can be manipulated or be made more reliable for a social science inquiry. When students are given the tools to create voting based tasks, they are more likely to engage with the results (Beatty, 2004, cited in Martyn, 2007).
As argued above, establishing a rich learning environment is fundamental for the teaching of EFL. It is through the provision of a 'pedagogical corpus' (Willis, p222, 2003, Willis and Willis, pp187-9) that students engage with a critical selection of content or Input, from which they can begin to hypothesize about English as a linguistic system, explore their current communicative repertoire and rehearse new uses of language to meet more sophisticated language demands. Three Input features shall be assessed below.
MeSax is an information and distribution system for educational media, with approximately 80% of public schools registered within Saxony. MeSax is integrated into the LernSax platform (T. Hickfang, pers. comm., 22nd May 2014), although it can also be used as a stand alone application. The basis of this distribution system is the internal portal (www.mesax.de) which contains currently a pool of approximately 17,000 resources (MPZ Leipzig, 2013). These can be ordered online and transmitted overnight to the school based server, where they are catalogued according to topic, subject area, languages available and teacher requests (T. Hickfang, pers. comm., 22nd May 2014). The use of media in the classroom is then possible through mobile mini hard-drives which must be pre-loaded by the teacher where there is no WLAN available. In cases where WLAN is available or for home use, tablets, smartphones or laptops can directly access the intranet-based resources via the application MeSax-mini. This application provides a direct login for students and teachers (MPZ Leipzig, 2013). The rationale behind this distribution system is threefold: first, to provide oversight and accountability for resource licensing; to facilitate automatic downloading including updates to resources, and to provide a central user-interface for teachers and students. This interface lists all available media, possible themes and subject areas, and differentiated access protocols for supporting materials and solutions where relevant (Sächsisches Bildungsinstitute, 2013). In keeping with recommendations for the provision of bilingual resources, the MeSax initiative is also soliciting feedback from teachers regarding its use (Königs, p51, 2013, Sächsisches Bildungsinstitut, pp6-14, 2013).
The importance of authentic and recent material for Input cannot be understated (Bach and Lausevic, p117, 2003). MeSax offers an expanded multimedia pedagogical corpus, which in principle should provide an array of text types with a range of registers, whether treatment is for close analysis or for global understanding. Media can be placed within the individual, group or class areas, enabling personalised Input as well as supporting collaborative tasks. Luckin's ZAA means a pool of selected resources can be allocated for a task cycle, with the ZPA enabling the targeted downloading and distribution of media for particular issues as they arise. (HICKFANG figures forthcoming re use of MeSax resources in schools). While this system does provide resources for EFL classrooms (including those without WLAN), the range of multimedia for English is still limited (T. Hickfang, pers. comm., 22nd May 2014). Authentic materials are relatively difficult to find, with many media sources produced within Germany for EFL being dated and artificial in nature. The use of external media sources via the BBC or from Youtube etc. is discouraged, with no live-streaming generally possible and copyright concerns limiting clips to 3 minutes in length. Teachers seeking more authentic material to supplement the MeSax collection can recommend websites via the bookmark option on LernSax to their students, or through the use of an electronic-white board connected to their own pre-loaded websites. Copyright does not allow screen shots from the whiteboard to be stored in electronic form, although hard copy may be distributed. For MeSax to add significantly to the pedagogical corpus, more material needs to be authorised by the Media Centres responsible for purchasing licenses, along with the inclusion of more open source material.
The courselet feature enables multimedia to be framed within Input templates, providing a simple and clear layout for task descriptions and supporting material (Sächsisches Bildungsinstitut, p15, 2013). While the exercise / practise boxes support a more traditional cognitive approach to language learning, there is room for a Constructivist approach to scaffolding emerging linguistic awareness and rehearsal. Templates can be useful for establishing routines within the task-based cycle. Setting a task such as a sports report could use the audio 'Listenpunkt' feature with samples of general commentary. Students can rank samples in terms of clarity, conciseness, the use of figurative language, or the range of superlatives using check boxes, drag and drop features, or free comments in the 'Eingabefeld'. The teacher can also set internal and external links for other examples or writing tips for specific structural or lexical elements. This courselet activity could be used during the recognition and hypotheses phases of the task-based cycle. The exploration and rehearsal phases could then be integrated into the website generator or blog features.
Ongoing Input Developments
Other features to be integrated from 2014 into LernSax include an e-library with e-books available via MeSax-mini devices (T. Hickfang, pers. comm., 22nd May 2014). With the paucity of English language literature available in school or local libraries in Saxony, this will significantly expand the range of reading opportunities to develop individual exploration and self directed learning. Also in the pipeline is the integration of Langenscheidt's English as a Foreign Language dictionary and Cornelsen's textbooks into the LernSax platform, providing more input integration to expand Luckin's Zone of Available Assistance.