Motivation (and MOOCs)

I’ve got to admit, it’s just after a bank holiday Monday, at the arse end of a below average kind of academic year, so probably not the best time to be looking up another MOOC to have a go at. Still, I got a little prod from Twitter and thought I’d have a little look at the OCTEL MOOC. it’s here, in case you were wondering: http://octel.alt.ac.uk/2014/course-materials/week-0/

I was looking over the first couple of pages of the course, happy to note that there didn’t seem to be any kind of formal sign up, and while I was looking I worked out what the issue was. It wasn’t the course design, as such. It was more the question of commitment, and in particular commitment to the content. I was probably just mildly intrigued at what the course was about, and sort of found myself thinking well, I’ll have a look tomorrow, maybe.

Of course, this means I probably won’t, which is a shame because it would probably be good for me to do something like this. I have a dust covered level 3 e-learning qual from about seven years ago, which could do with a little updating. Unfortunately, however, “it’s good for you” is rarely a tremendous motivating force. See also: eating more cabbage and fewer biscuits, giving up smoking and doing more exercise. These things are all good for you but not always enjoyable, at least not immediately, and thus will never be all that motivating.

Certainly motivation needs more than simply being necessary or useful. This is one of the issues for ESOLlearners, of course, particularly when they reach the intermediate plateau when the language level achieved is generally enough to do most things they need to do, and the extrinsic motivation has to become more focussed. The motivating focus for some ESOL learners at Level 1and Level 2 is usually very directed: a specific aim or goal is often there, for example to gain a higher qualification or better employment prospects. But that doesn’t account for all the learners at that level, of course, and for some the motivation to learn is nothing so simple as “to get a job”. To find out about their motivation needs more careful digging, and sometimes motivation can come from something else.

In some respects, there’s not a lot us ESOL teachers can do to get people to learn better. Of most of the factors affecting language acquisition (I refer you to chapter 3 of “How Languages Are Learned” by Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada.) teachers can only really directly affect motivation. And even then, the only way teachers can influence motivation is to help learners work out what they actually do want out of learning English.

Or is it?

Most people are familiar with the idea of extrinsic motivation (i.e. From some external pressure, like needing a job) and intrinsic motivation (i.e. From an interest in English and learning English). Extrinsic motivation alone, as you can tell from my inability to do things “because they are good for me” is not enough, and neither is the level of intrinsic motivation high enough for this. As teachers, it’s probably more often the absence of these which cause problems, and we are presented with the challenge of motivating learners who just are bothered about being there.

I first came across the idea of instrumental motivation in the same chapter in Lightbown and Spada, but have since encountered in other places. It’s the idea that this is the only motivation that a teacher can have any effect on: making the manner and the content of the teaching process motivating. That is, we have to make our lessons as interesting as we can. This could be through choosing interesting contexts for language teaching, based on what we know about the learners. And no, I don’t mean contexts linked to the extrinsic motivation: the functional “Mrs Khan goes to the Post Office” type of lesson may be motivating at Entry 1, but less so at Level 2, even if it is “Mrs Khan writes a formal letter of complaint to the local council about the closure of vital local services like the Post Office.” There’s nothing wrong here, but it’s not enough on its own. It needs to be delivered in an interesting way: perhaps, if you are up to it, a touch of humour or silliness, or structuring lessons so that the main teaching point appears as a surprise. Basically, I think ESOL can get a bit po-faced and serious, and sometimes we need a bit of flair and humour to make lessons more interesting.

So anyway, back to the MOOC. Having dipped my toe in one before, I’m a bit wary of having another dip. There’s a bit more of an expectation to go and participate in some of the interactive stuff, which is good, pedagogically speaking, but part of me wants to just read and watch and not bother if I get bored. But without going and getting in involved somehow I can’t find out, really, if I’m not interested. So. I will dip my toe in again and see how it pans out. I’m a week late, but hey, I can find some space. Or maybe I can at least somehow game the first week, and catch up….

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