When we refer to electronic materials creation and use in the context of this chapter, we are talking about informational resources, exercises and activities that you create yourself and which your students use on a computer as web page or CD-ROM content, or even in printed form. The production of these materials may include working with external web pages, using web page design skills, the use of small programs installed on your own computer or more complex CD-ROM production software. The choice of tool will be determined not only by the kinds of materials you want to produce, but also by the time available to you and the resources at your disposal. It is beyond the scope of this book to go into the more complex sides of materials production, so here we will mostly be concentrating on simple web-based materials or materials prepared using web resources.
Here we build on the word processing activities we covered in Chapter 2 and the use of websites in Chapter 3, and look at printable resources as well as on-screen interaction and activities shared over a computer network. To get a good idea of the kinds of materials we're considering in this section, take a look at the teaching resource from the Activities for ESL Students website (http://a4esl.org/) on the opposite page.
There are many reasons why you might want to create and use your own electronic materials in class. Firstly, you will be able to provide extra practice for weaker learners, and consolidation and review exercises for groups. Secondly, as you build up a collection of your own resources with your own learners' needs in mind, you will start to generate a large bank of materials which can be used in class or for self-study at any point in the future. In class these kinds of materials can provide a change of pace and can be highly motivating. Learners often enjoy the chance of competing against the computer with these kinds of discrete answer exercise types. If time is spent on feedback, you can check which language areas learners have had problems with and provide further practice materials if necessary.
A large school (or network of teachers) might even work electronic materials into a more collaborative project, building up a wide range of digital resources which are then shared between group members over a server. These may be adaptations of existing print materials in some cases, or completely new exercises. With the ready availability of web storage, these can be uploaded to a central repository, perhaps a wiki-based solution (see Chapter 7), or a more robust storage platform such as a Virtual Learning Environment In many cases the wiki approach might be the ideal option, as it allows all contributors to work towards a final resource based on the 'rough copies' provided by the contributors, which can be added to and refined until the group is happy with the end result. These can then be downloaded by individuals, and customised to suit their particular teaching needs.
Creating electronic materials online
One of the easiest ways of getting started in this area is to use some of the simple exercise generators which can be found online. These produce a variety of exercises, from printable resources to be taken into class to exercises which can be turned into web pages and made available on the Internet, both for your learners and for other teachers if you decide you want to share them. One of the most popular is the Discovery School Puzzlemaker (http:// puzzlemaker.school.discovery.com/). This features a variety of different exercise types, including traditional ones such as word searches.
In this case you have to print out the page and photocopy it for your class. You could export the content to Word which would allow you to add images of fruit to the task.
Puzzle makers are ideal tools for reviewing vocabulary, and take the hard work out of preparing many different quick quizzes. In addition, you can give your students the opportunity to prepare quizzes themselves using these tools. Another useful tool is Smile (http://smile.clear.msu.edu). This tool allows you to create a free account in which to manage your own online bank of exercises with student tracking and a good variety of exercise types. Here you can choose from multiple choice, true/false, drag and drop,
sentence mix, paragraph mix, cloze and multiple select. Activities are created online and can be done by learners entirely online, although some, such as cloze texts, are suitable for printing out and doing offline. This is an ideal site for exam preparation classes. One of the major advantages of a site like this is that it allows you to build up a manageable collection of exercises, making it easier to address the individual problems of particular learners, but also to make consistent use of web-based exercises throughout the duration of a course. This will help to give your learners an idea of why they are being introduced to these materials, and also give them a good overview of what they are covering online. The subject of learner tracking and Learner Management Systems is dealt with in greater detail in Chapter 11.
What is an authoring tool?
An authoring tool is an installable program that allows you to create materials in electronic format which can then be distributed on a CD-ROM, DVD, USB pen drive, floppy disc or via a web page to your learners. Authoring programs are used to make CD-ROM-based reference tools like Microsoft Encarta (see Chapter 8), but also more simple resources like information leaflets, brochures, handouts and interactive exercises.
Most teachers will perhaps not have a need for the more expensive and professional solutions, although any centre involved in blended learning solutions (see Chapter 11) which use custom-developed materials might be well-advised to look at digital content development as a viable way of making interactive and multimedia-based materials available to its learners. As with a lot of high-end technology, it should be borne in mind that the learning curve for a lot of these packages is steep, and that proficient production will have a significant drain on both financial and staffing resources during the developmental phase.
Authoring tools usually feature a simple design interface, with drag-and-drop elements allowing you to add pictures, sounds and video material to the screen, along with navigational options such as forward and back arrows, and content menus. Some of the more professional authoring tools have complex programming languages allowing you to control what happens in greater detail, but these will require a degree of expert knowledge which most teachers will probably not have the time or inclination to acquire. Therefore you would be well-advised to ensure that any software you choose is going to be useful to you. This can be done by downloading and installing trial versions before making any purchasing decisions.
If you would like to explore the commercial side of multimedia creation, you may like to look at Mediator (http://www.matchware.com/en/products/mediator/edu/why.htm), Macromedia Director (http://www.adobe.com/products/director/) or Neobook (http:// www.neosoftware.com/nbw.html). Here we will be considering free or reasonably-priced resources for content creation, allowing you to experiment without spending any or very much money.