Sunday, January 20, 2019

Introducing ALTopedia by Jake Whiton

by Jake Whiton

Bio: Jake is an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) working in Nagano prefecture. He has taught junior high school for 6 years as well as some high school classes.

He's from Washington state in the US. In his free time, he learns about web design, tries to get some exercise, and eats tonkatsu.

If there’s one thing an ALT needs, it’s ideas. ALTs are expected to bring fun, relevant, and accessible activities into their classes. Coming up with new games and activities on top of all of the day-to-day tasks of teaching can be a challenge - fortunately ALTopedia is here to help!

ALTopedia is a new site designed to help English teachers find activities tailored to their unique circumstances. I've worked hard to develop it in my spare time. There have been thousands of ALTs working in countless Japanese schools over several decades, and we think it would be to everyone’s benefit to have a place to gather their accumulated wisdom and ideas.

Whether it’s a warm-up game that requires very little explanation but energizes the class, or an in-depth speaking and writing activity to make a tricky grammar point relatable and interesting - we’re hoping ALTopedia will be the best place to find the ideas that have worked well for other teachers in the past.

You might be familiar with another site called Englipedia which was set up for the same purpose, and indeed, ALTopedia is its successor.

How is ALTopedia any different from its predecessor or several other sites which do something similar? I’ll start out by giving a brief history of Englipedia and how the new site has come about.

Englipedia was originally started in 2007 and grew to house over a thousand activities for elementary, junior high, and high school classes. I first came across the site when I was starting out in 2012.

It was recommended to me as the best source to find activities for class.

I remember that it was really helpful to be able to look up which page I was on in our school’s textbook and finding activities based on what that part of the textbook I was covering.

But I also remember that the site was a little creaky even back then. I would suddenly stumble across another corner of the site with a couple dozen activities that would have been really useful to me if I’d found them a month or two earlier.

I noticed that textbook listings or activities sometimes referred to previous versions of the textbook. I remember trying to contribute my own activities, but the submission form was broken. I noticed that no new warm-ups ever made their way into the listings, and new activities only trickled in in bursts.

It seemed like whoever was running the Englipedia site wasn’t keeping up with it by the time I’d found it.

A couple years later I met Al, another ALT here in Nagano. I was surprised to hear that he was the person running Englipedia. He wasn’t the original creator, but he was managing the site and looking for volunteers to help modernize it.

To hear him tell it, the site was originally built using some particular web software called Sharepoint. As the site grew larger and larger, it only became more difficult to manage.

If a user submitted a new activity, Al said it took him about 30 minutes to add it to the site. He had to copy and paste all of the information, upload files, and then go through the site and manually add links to it on any page that might be relevant. To make matters worse, the platform that the site was running on was being shut down, so there was no choice but to seriously rebuild and redesign it.

My understanding is that Al and the site’s original owner had different ideas about where to take the site in the future. Al decided it would be better to make a new site using the lessons he’d learned from managing Englipedia. I got in touch with him about a year ago to start outlining ideas for what would become ALTopedia, and we launched it in the spring of 2018.

The big advancement of ALTopedia is that it’s a modern web application designed to do its job right from the site’s code.

Englipedia, and other sites that function on a wiki-style model, can suffer from one big weakness as they grow larger - they were designed to be static web pages where users manually create links between them.

On a small site where one administrator can keep track of everything, this can be manageable, but a site the size of Englipedia ran into problems with discoverability.

Should this board game be linked under “Junior High School - General”? It uses mostly past tense questions, but also “can” - should it be linked under both grammar points? Maybe a teacher has discovered that the game works well for a small class of elementary-aged students, but there may not be any effective way to communicate this alongside dozens of other small tasks the site’s administrator needs to perform. And how much time is it going to take to rebuild textbook listings when they get revised?

ALTopedia addresses these issues of categorization and discoverability using tags.

You’ve probably seen them on sites like blogs. They’re similar to hashtags from different social media services. An activity has a big list of tags on it - things like its grammar point, the appropriate school level, which parts of learning it uses, and even if it applies to a particular textbook.

If you want to find more activities using that grammar point, you can click on the tag and go to a listing of all activities that use it. The listing will always be up to date, and since the site’s database was designed with them in mind, they’re updated automatically.

Submitting an activity is as simple as signing up and filling in a standard web form. There’s a list of grammar points and other information, which will become tags that help users find the activity.

We have a moderator check activities really quick to make sure that they aren’t spam, but all they have to do is click a button and it’s up on the site.

If you realized you forgot to add something or want to edit it, it’s no problem - you can revise your activities as many times as you want.

If you really like an activity (including your own) you can give it a thumbs up, which will make it show up higher in search results.

I’ve tried to design the site so it can be an effective vault for a huge number of activities, while still being easy to search and use.

The design is lightweight and works with mobile devices and tablets, so even if you’re stuck using your school’s ancient computer (or your smartphone), you can still use the site. I’m still coding and adding features to the site, so you can always drop a line and I’ll see what I can do.

Having operated the site for a little while, I’ve developed an appreciation for the large community that developed in Englipedia’s early days.

A lot of people went to considerable effort to share their activities and games with other teachers. In its last few years the community seemed to shrink a lot, but we’re hoping we can build something even better.

I’ve uploaded a lot of my activities that I’ve come up with over the years, but the site won’t be a great resource until it has contributions from a wide variety of people.

We’d be happy to see yours!

-          A note from ALT training online’s David Hayter

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