The XML project

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The XML project Final Report

Kate Borthwick, Southampton

1 Acknowledgements

This project was part of the HEA programme ‘Digital Literacy in the Disciplines’ and was funded by the HEA. The HEA strand coordinator was Terry McAndrew, who provided valuable support and dissemination activities for all of the projects in this strand. The project was conceived and carried out by Kate Borthwick and Irina Nelson, within Modern Languages at the University of Southampton. Helpful guidance on use of Xerte was provided by Alex Furr, within the Centre for Innovation in Technology and Education, at the University of Southampton, and from JISC. The project was formally evaluated by Miguel Arrebola, Principal Lecturer in Spanish at the University of Portsmouth. The Xerte community website was also a useful source of information and advice.

2 Project Summary

This proposal aimed to develop student digital literacy in Modern Languages. It proposed to pilot a model for innovation in the curriculum by asking students to create Xerte learning objects as an assessed part of their studies in Spanish. These learning objects would fulfil the requirements of an assessed task as part of their course, but once marked and checked, would be available as open resources supporting the learning of Spanish language and content.

The project specifically targeted first-year students, with the aim of beginning a process of embedding and developing their knowledge which would sustain over their whole university career. Students learnt about Xerte and used it in practice as part of their studies. In the next academic year, they will develop their knowledge and become ambassadors and tutors to other staff and students wishing to engage with Xerte throughout the University of Southampton, via the existing successful Digital Champions scheme, which sees students acting as roving mentors/tutors for the use of technology in the institution. This project trialled a model for the production of e-learning resources as part of a language curriculum. Many language tutors teaching at the University of Southampton use online tools and software as part of their teaching, but most do not encourage students to engage with the concept of creating their own learning/teaching resources. This kind of activity is deeply relevant to a group of students of whom many will teach language during their year abroad, and others will go on to teach in schools or universities after graduation.

The project concluded with some interesting results. Xerte seems to have acted as a catalyst for greater creativity in the students, with some students using Xerte and others finding new ways to use familiar software to produce interactive learning materials. Their outputs were impressively creative and demonstrated considerable skill and imagination in their interpretation of the task and its realisation in digital format. Students learnt new digital skills and knowledge through the project and produced a range of language/grammar which moved beyond the task requirements. Their completion of the task showed that they have begun to consider aspects of learning design and reflect on themselves as language learners. The project will continue in the new academic year as students cascade their learning to other staff and students.


(e.g. report, publication, software) Brief Description and URLs (where applicable) Blog The XML project blog Website Official LLAS web page describing the project Presentation on early project findings This presentation about the project was given to an MA Applied Linguistics class by the project manager in May 2014 Student-produced Xerte learning objects Ten Xerte learning objects conveying information related to Spanish exile and grammatical exercises. (At the time of writing, this work is still going through the assessment process and so only screenshots are included – see Appendix B). Marked/checked work will be published on our blog. Student-produced digital learning objects (not Xerte) A selection of digital learning material produced by students using other tools conveying information related to Spanish exile and grammatical exercises. (At the time of writing, this work is still going through the assessment process and so only screenshots are included – see Appendix B). Marked/checked work will be published on our blog. Evaluator’s report External assessor’s report of project (see Appendix A). Project final report The final report offers a case study in how use of Xerte (or the concepts it embodies) can produce innovation in the languages curriculum.

3.2 Project Outcomes

Outcome Type

(e.g. practice change, production method) Brief Description (and URLs where applicable) Enhanced student and staff digital literacy Particularly in the areas of creating interactive resources which could be used for teaching Spanish language or other languages Raised awareness about how the creation of e-learning resources and the production of e-learning resources can usefully contribute to languages curricula The project team have presented about the project at internal meetings and will present at the upcoming conference ‘Reshaping Languages in Higher Education’ A fledgling group of University Xerte champions Establishment of a new group of students with expertise in using Xerte, who can advise and train staff and students across the department and the university A practical model for involving students in the creation of interactive materials The project methodology shows how students can be involved in the creation of interactive materials in assessed tasks. Promotion of innovative teaching in languages beyond the home institution through dissemination activities Dissemination via the blog, the LLAS newsletter, blog and Twitter, and at the above mentioned conference. Foundations laid for learning design champions The project will be taken forward as part of the digital champions scheme

3.3 How did you go about achieving your outputs / outcomes?

Aims and objectives: The aims of this project were to develop student digital literacy in Modern Languages and to pilot a model for innovation in the curriculum by asking students to create Xerte learning objects as an assessed part of their studies in Spanish. We also aimed to introduce new knowledge and skills to a student group who could then cascade that knowledge to other staff and students by acting as ambassadors and mentors in learning design and authoring tools. Our objectives were:

  • To construct an assessed task which involved the use of Xerte to create interactive materials and evaluate the appropriacy of this kind of task for language students within an ML curriculum
  • To train a group of ab initio Spanish students in the use of Xerte and build this knowledge into their course of study
  • To get students to create Xerte learning objects for the study of Spanish
  • To cascade the new knowledge and skills acquired to other staff and students within Modern Languages and within the wider university
  • To expand project work to offer bursaries for other ML students to create learning objects for language study
  • To evaluate the tool Xerte and its ease of use for inclusion into the curriculum

Our aims and objectives did not change over the lifetime of the project, and we achieved what we set out to do. However, we quickly realised that the timing and pressures of the academic year (on staff and students) would mean that some of our activities in sustaining and disseminating the project would have to take place in the next academic year (and therefore beyond the life of the initial project). Luckily, our project methodology anticipated longer-term sustainability, and we see our project activities in the light of ongoing practice change rather than as part of a time-limited project.


The preparatory phase of the project took place in the summer and early autumn of 2013. This involved the checking of the university’s Xerte installation, ensuring it was fully up-to-date and supported centrally ahead of student work with the tool. Key project staff were trained in the use of Xerte by a learning technologist in the university’s CITE team, and embedded this training by extensive personal exploration of the tool’s functions. This preparatory phase included the creation of example Xertes which practised precisely the kind of task that students would be asked to do later including the language and content they would need to produce. This ‘dry-run’ for the Xerte project task enabled the project team to understand where help and extra assistance might be needed for the students themselves when they began using Xerte. A key part of the preparatory phase was the framing of the task that students would be asked to engage with. This needed careful consideration because it would be an assessed task. We proposed to work with first-year students studying on the Accelerated Spanish language course. This is an ‘ab initio’ course, which meant that students would be learning Spanish for the first time. Teaching is intensive and the course is demanding but the students who take this course aim to continue to honours level. Teaching and learning on the course typically involves a wide range of materials and resources and students are highly motivated. In their second semester, students usually work on the production of an assessed oral presentation which combines the presentation, in Spanish, of an historical topic, with a grammatical analysis. The production and presentation of a detailed powerpoint and accompanying written report are integral to this assessment. We hoped that the use of Xerte would transform and expand this existing task by enabling students to be more creative and to include more interactivity. In this respect, we felt that Xerte fitted the existing task well and so represented a clear opportunity to pilot how the tool could fit with module and curriculum aims. Initially, we were inclined to make use of Xerte mandatory, and so we designed the task for students to work in groups so that they could support each other through the process of learning object creation. We strongly felt that as this was a pilot study, students should not be judged on their use of Xerte, but on the content and ideas in their learning object. The project began in earnest in semester 2, February 2014. Students were given a training session in Xerte and the parameters of the task outlined. Two things quickly became clear:

  • They wanted to work individually or in pairs (not in groups)
  • They wanted the option to use a different tool (not Xerte)

We agreed to both requests, reasoning that this was an assessed task and so we needed to be flexible. However, we indicated that if students opted to use a tool other than Xerte, they still had to retain the aspects that Xerte facilitated (i.e. interactivity for learning) in the work that they produced. We also offered incentives for the use of Xerte: access to the XML student bursaries and the opportunity to become part of the digital champions’ network ( within the university. The students created their learning objects over a period of about four weeks. During this time, the project team offered support in content and language (the course tutor) and technical/learning design issues (project manager). Students presented their work in week 7 of semester one. Out of a cohort of 27, 12 students used Xerte. Other students used powerpoint or Prezi. Student work will be made available openly once the full marking and assessment process is complete. Evaluation and promotion of the project The project team carried out pre-activity and post-activity surveys to capture attitudes towards Xerte and to the task, prior to the start of the project and then once project work was completed. We also had face-to-face discussions with two groups of students to find out more detailed information. All of the student work was double marked as part of the university’s standard assessment procedures. The project was more formally evaluated by an external assessor from the University of Portsmouth, and his report is in appendix A. Project activities have been extended beyond the core Xerte group to offer a different perspective on learning design: a small group of students are being funded to produce translations of a selection of LOC learning objects from Italian to French, German or Spanish. This mini-project involves them becoming familiar with the LOC tool ( and its built-in pedagogical model, and then translating content and method to a different language. These students will learn about an authoring tool from a different perspective than the Xerte group. We aim to bring these two groups together in the new academic year to share their knowledge and extend their experience of creating interactive online materials using different tools. In this way, they will begin to understand the pedagogic and technical affordances of different tools, which will enhance their digital literacy. A small number of promotional activities have taken place so far: presentation at internal meetings and a presentation at the LLAS biennial conference ‘Reshaping Languages in Higher Education’ is scheduled for 9th July. Project work will also be presented at EuroCALL, in Groningen, August 18-21st. The bulk of promotional activities, and the dissemination of project knowledge, will now take place in the new academic year. One of the reasons we chose to work with first-year students was that knowledge and skills acquired through the project could be taken forward and deepened throughout the students’ whole university career, particularly during their Year Abroad. In the new year, we plan to integrate the Xerte students into the digital champions’ programme (if they wish) and promote their work/knowledge through internal dissemination mechanisms.

3.4 What did you learn?

General Findings: These data were reflected in responses to the pre-project questionnaire (=6 responses) and during discussion in the Xerte training session prior to work commencing with Xerte. • The students had not used Xerte before and had limited experience of creating multimedia learning material. Some students reported having experience of using powerpoint for presentations. • Some students reported sharing material informally but mostly not through open public spaces. 50% of respondents to the pre-project questionnaire confirmed that they share links/images or other digital information via Facebook (and this was confirmed in discussion with the group), but not via public sharing sites like Youtube, Flickr. • Some students indicated a positive attitude to sharing their work online with others. This notion came out strongly through the questionnaires (67% of respondents agreed they would like to share the resources they create more widely) and in all discussions both before and after project activities were completed.

The following data were collected in responses to the post-project questionnaire (=13 responses) and during discussion with two groups of students who had participated (=10 in each group). • Students responded to the task creatively and imaginatively whether using Xerte or not. 12 out of 27 students chose to use Xerte to create their learning objects, while others used powerpoint or Prezi. Their outputs were impressively creative and demonstrated considerable skill and imagination in their interpretation of the task and its realisation in digital format. Comment from the external assessor: “students’ level of engagement with the task was impressive…”

• Students demonstrated new skills and knowledge. The efforts of most students went beyond the simple parameters of the task (i.e. to prepare some information about Spanish exiles with an interactive grammar activity) and clearly demonstrated the acquisition and practice of new skills (related to technology and also to language). 64% of questionnaire respondents confirmed that they had learnt new skills using Xerte.

• The pedagogy of the task and its realisation through the creation of a learning object was a valuable and interesting activity. When we initially framed the task, we asked students to use Xerte to create learning objects - which would necessarily have interactivity within them. When we altered our instruction to indicate that use of Xerte was not mandatory, we nonetheless insisted that the element of interactivity which a Xerte learning object contains, be reproduced in whatever other means that students chose for their work. As previously described, students used other software to create their digital materials, but retained the notion of interactivity and learning. As students had to present their learning objects and talk about them, they were able to approximate ‘testing’ their interactive tasks with users. This worked very well and students reported a positive impression of this kind of task: e.g. “It was interesting to include an interactive element as it gives an extra dimension to a presentation making it more appealing to the audience and it was fun to learn this new skill.” One reported that the task was useful for learning: “It was good to use interactivity in order to teach others something you have to be sure yourself of the information.” And that including interactivity made the whole task “…less nerve wracking as engaging with the audience made them seem less intimidating!” Another noted that: “It gave me more confidence to know that people were listening and participating…”

• There were mixed reactions to Xerte. Students who used Xerte mostly reported that they enjoyed using it (64% of respondents) and the novelty of learning about a new tool was appealing: “I felt that my presentation became much more interesting because I was able to do so much more with my text/pictures e.g. quizzes warp into other pictures hot spotting an image etc.” And “…it was fun, more than anything…” “I’m bored of powerpoint”. However, they were not uncritical of Xerte: “…it is currently not particularly simple or easy to use especially if you have never used it before - there are many features which I avoided using because I didn't know what they did and also it is not clear how to do simple things such as make the presentation full-screen.” Some students offered suggestions to improve the tool: “I think it needs to be made a bit simpler and/or have some sort of short in-built tutorial to show you how to use all the different features and what they are all useful for…” A significant number of students within the class opted not to use Xerte and a range of reasons were reported for this: a lack of time to engage with the tool and learn about it properly; technical difficulties either in understanding the tool or being able to achieve what they wished to, and others simply preferred to use other tools for the task: “I find it more difficult and less attractive than other tools”.

Findings related to language learning:

• Xerte offers potential for language learning and teaching. 73% of questionnaire respondents felt that Xerte would be good for language teaching and learning, and this notion was borne out in discussion with the group: e.g. “Xerte…could be good for language learning and teaching as the many different options for creating slides and in particular the interactive elements mean there is potentially a lot you could do with it.”

• Interactive digital content, as facilitated by tools such as Xerte, can enable interesting and useful tasks for learning. The class tutor reported that the responses to the task this year were “rich in content, well-researched and referenced.” She was “stunned and impressed” by the new vocabulary and grammar students had demonstrated and by the online sources (in Spanish) that they had found to embed within their digital files. “Many [of the students] produced knowledge and information far beyond my expectations…the task stretched them and they rose to the occasion…” For example, some students found original, relevant links to video materials in Spanish to embed in their work, and two students used powerpoint animations to conduct a ‘Who Wants to be a millionaire’-style grammar quiz show (see Appendix B for more examples). Every student had to learn the appropriate vocabulary to manage interactions with the rest of the class while demonstrating their learning object/presenting it. The tutor noted that as beginners, she was familiar with their level of language knowledge, and she was pleased and surprised to hear several students producing tenses they had not been taught (e.g. the conditional) to convey their information. One student also noted: “I got insights into how to engage the audience.” Understanding and reflecting on presentation and group management are useful transferable skills, and especially relevant for teaching (which many students will do during their Year Abroad). Students also needed to be sure of their own grammatical knowledge to produce questions and (correct) answers in their interactive tasks. Each presentation with its invited class interaction served to repeat and embed the basic grammatical ideas presented in the learning objects, and the diversity of approaches facilitated by the range of media tools used meant that each presentation seemed fresh. The class tutor noted that each student was “consolidating their grammar knowledge in practice,” and one student commented that: “The interactivity was very helpful to engage the audience in language learning as it seemed to be more exciting compared to listening and reading the content presented.” This format served as revision and practice for all, and during the exam period each learning object could be viewed via the University’s Blackboard site for further revision. It should also be remembered that these students did not know any Spanish when they began their classes in October 2013.

• The task was suitable to students planning to teaching during a year abroad. This was an aspect that was behind the conception of the project and was noted by our external assessor: “The task was particularly suitable for students aiming to engage in teaching during their Residence Abroad period as it provided them with opportunities to introduce grammatical and cultural content to their classroom peers and to reflect on, and further explore, the potential that technology has to a) enhance delivery and b) foster classroom interaction.”

Lessons learnt:

• Xerte seems to have acted as a catalyst to inspire creativity. Training students in the use of Xerte and constructing a task which would make use of Xerte’s functionality seemed to inspire creativity both for those students who used Xerte and in those who chose not to. This creativity was manifested in the range of resources and activity-types that students discovered and included in their work, and also how they manipulated more familiar tools like Powerpoint and Prezi to include the interactive element. They clearly learnt new digital skills in the use of tools they were already familiar with, in order to complete the task. This was a surprising outcome for us and a pleasing one because it shows real enhancement of digital literacy.

• The use of Xerte encouraged students to begin to think about learning design. The task and the use of Xerte encouraged students to consider their audience; the language they used (pitch, vocabulary in Spanish); language level that they would use and their audience would hear/understand, and their task design for learning: “Through Xerte I have understood how complex it is to create a functional and enjoyable toolkit…the experience taught me precision any aspect that would not be precisely done would be immediately reflected on the outcome e.g. interactive part not working, font size, etc” These considerations are important for teachers and learning designers, and also transferable skills which are useful in presenting any kind of material.

• Students took a greater degree of control over their learning. As described above, students acquired new skills and knowledge in completing the task, and this new knowledge was driven by their own research and activity. Thus, they became producers of their own language-learning content and they reported a sense of achievement and pride in what they had created. The external assessor noted: “Students’ sense of ownership, and that of engagement with the task, is further supported by the relative complexity and relevance of the topics covered in their presentations.”

• The task is more important than the tool. Although, we focussed heavily on the use of Xerte, we felt we had to be flexible because this would be an assessed task. The retention of the task elements (interactivity, appealing to users, multimedia resources) but the loosening of the restriction on which tool could be used, meant that students could choose the digital tool which worked best for them. Similarly, their evaluation of Xerte as an appropriate tool to achieve their aims, gave insights into the differences between Xerte, ppt and Prezi and how they are best used and for what purpose. This is an important aspect of digital literacy: understanding how different online/digital tools can be used to achieve different digital objectives. We felt vindicated in our choice not to mandate Xerte.

• Innovation in the curriculum can produce novelty which is appealing. The students embraced the novelty of being asked to produce learning objects as part of their language class. By asking students to use a tool which is about creation of content, we were encouraging the acquisition and use of a range of other skills (i.e. related to digital literacy, presentation and learning design) as a by-product of essentially, an oral exam task. The students were also engaged in a useful, real-world task in that the learning objects created were used by the class during revision time, and will continue to be in different contexts, with later cohorts, for language learning.

• Time for learning and ease of use are crucial in introducing new online tools. Some students rejected Xerte because they felt that they could not achieve their desired level of proficiency in time to complete the task. The students naturally wanted to excel, and so chose the tool they felt would help them do this most easily within the time allowed. If we were to run the project again, we would allow more time for training and peer-sharing of technical knowledge.

• Comments on the value of Xerte toolkit approach. It was very useful having a local login onto the Southampton server, and this made the tool seem more integrated into Southampton activities. However, for many students, Xerte was not particularly easy or quick to get to grips with. They reported wanting more onscreen help and information, and guidance on how different functions could be used for learning. Some aspects of the tool were found to be counter-intuitive, e.g. the pressing of ‘publish’ instead of ‘save’ and other aspects were reported as frustrating, e.g. limited ability to alter font size and colour, limited ‘look’ of the final outputs, and difficulties in getting full screen. Some of these confusions were solved by individual students, but they did not share their knowledge with the rest of the group, which would have been useful. Comments from the student discussion groups indicated that the tool was felt to have very good functionality for learning but limited visual appeal. Students learnt most about Xerte (and the other tools they used) through self-discovery of functions. It was much easier to teach the tool’s various characteristics on a one-to-one basis than in plenary (our plenary session descended into individual explorations of Xerte anyway). The project team encouraged the students to be frank about their thoughts on Xerte, as their critical analysis would be an aspect of learning about different digital tools and their use in practice.

• Staff/student digital literacy in the project. As described in detail above, the project enabled developments in student digital literacy. Activities can be mapped onto the JISC framework ( to describe the ‘7 elements of digital literacy:’

Element of DL (as per JISC mapping) How project work fits: ICT literacy The task required students to find appropriate secondary source materials to use in the learning object (appropriate linguistically and for content). Their choice of material involved evaluation and interpretation, and ultimately, they had to manage the presentation of the material effectively so that it was coherent and consistent with their aims. A key part of their aim was to demonstrate capability in Spanish and also to include an interactive task with a learning outcome. The project’s external assessor noted that the project also enabled the enhancement of existing skills and that some students displayed existing digital preferences and skills, and this “…allow[ed] them to critically approach applications and easily transfer existing digital knowledge to new contexts and task requirements.” Students were advised about licensing, but were mostly producing original content. Correct referencing and attribution was taught to them, and mandated as part of their final grade. Information literacy The task required students to adopt a new technology (Xerte). The entire cohort was trained in Xerte, but not every student went on to use it. Those who did not use it made use of other digital tools – and extended their own knowledge of these tools. The staff involved in the project achieved a richer understanding of Xerte’s functionality and utility Learning skills Most students found the technology-rich aspect of this language task to be motivating and novel. Some students found the task more difficult than they might otherwise have done, but the project team put a great deal of support in place for these students. The class tutor noted that the use of technology had resulted in ‘rich, well-researched content.’ Media literacy Students on the project began to think about this area. They considered audience and level (including pitch, level and register of language) in preparation of their learning object, and their selection of material involved a critical reading of how that material related to their topic. Career and identity management Students on the project did not consider this aspect of digital literacy because it was always understood that their personal name would be attached to their work. Many were happy for this to happen and were keen to share their work (the project team pointed out to them that this would be good for their online profile). Development and practice in this area will continue in the next academic year. Communication and collaboration Students involved in the project did not share knowledge widely either within the class or beyond. This is an aspect which would have been useful and will form part of ongoing activities in the next academic year. Digital scholarship This area was not covered within the scope of this project, but maybe an element which comes into ongoing project work.

3.5 Immediate Impact

Impact on students:

• Learnt new digital skills concerning use of new software and learning design which may be useful in future university career • Compounded language knowledge through creation of ‘teaching’ task and delivery to group. Learning objects were also made available on Blackboard for class revision. • Sense of pride and achievement at work produced. • Corpus of learning objects available for future students to use/wider community to use

Impact on staff:

• The tutor involved with the project will use the task again with future cohorts of students and may be used for other types of language class/cohorts of students. Impact on institution: • Raised awareness of use and utility of Xerte • Raised awareness of students working as producers of content in the curriculum

3.6 Future Impact

• Once the assessment procedure is completed, learning objects will be publicly available for other students to use in learning Spanish.

• The ideas and practices seeded by this small pilot project will be taken forward in the next academic year by the project team. We plan to begin the process of cascading knowledge about Xerte, student-produced content and learning design to other staff and students within ML and across the university. We will use existing networks to do this.

• The project team will also start working with a group of ML students who will be preparing to live abroad in their 3rd year (primarily Spanish students who were part of the XML project and will spend time in Mexico, but we will open the plan to other students). This group will receive training in other tools, copyright and open practice, and will create learning materials for use during their year abroad. They will form part of the university’s digital champions network, and will be specialist subset for learning design. This project continuation will give the students new skills and enhance existing knowledge and it will prepare them for the real-world task of teaching. Cascading their knowledge to other staff and students will spread digital knowledge and skills within the institution and we hope that this will lead to effective collaborative working between staff and students and more technology-rich curricula. We plan to track and report on our work, as we feel the model of working will be an interesting and useful one.

4 Conclusions

General conclusions and conclusions for the wider community: • Building the creation of interactive learning objects into language teaching has the potential to offer students ownership in their own learning which is motivating and inspires creativity.

• Creating interactive learning materials is useful for language learning/teaching because it offers a real-world task in teaching, which a large number of language students will do during their Year Abroad (or on graduation).

• Using tools like Xerte within the curriculum offers staff and students an innovative approach to learning, and a range of transferable digital literacy skills. It also offers students the opportunity to expand and build on existing digital skills and knowledge.

• Time is necessary in order to introduce new tools/new concepts to students and staff, especially if used in assessed tasks. The familiarisation and practice process should not be rushed nor underestimated, as staff and students need to feel comfortable that they are producing their best work.

5 Recommendations

• The use of particular tools should not necessarily be mandated in Digital Literacy projects, as a key part of digital literacy is the critical evaluation of tools against the purpose they are to be used for. Choosing the right tool digital for the right digital job and balancing technical function with purpose is a useful and transferable skill. The XML project showed that once flexibility and freedom was allowed, creativity flourished.

6 Implications for the future

Project activity will continue into the next (and subsequent) academic year(s). Training students and staff to use a range of tools and engage with notions of learning design and presentation are valuable transferable skills. If such activities are built into the curriculum and ongoing course work, then staff and students can learn from, and teach each other, and this helps to diffuse digital knowledge and skills throughout the university. The XML project team will continue the project and seek further funds (internal) to support project work. We will update the project blog as work goes on.

7 Appendices (optional)

Appendix A: evaluator’s report Appendix B: screenshots of student work