Ethnography of HotPotatoes: Alan Hess Hacking for Special Education

For the past ten years that this site has been providing support and ideas, I've been amazed by the wonderfully various contexts and settings in which Hot Potatoes is used.

And while people have been coming and going, I'd like to preserve some of the knowledge in the hope that new users will have access to other peoples' experiences and good practices.

I'm going to feature a series of interviews called Ethnography of HotPotatoes starting with Alan Hess, an EFL teacher in Switzerland who is sharing his 'stories4learning' based on HotPotatoes and JMix in particular, and who has taken a pedagogical approach to hacking HotPotatoes. Welcome, Alan.

1. Tell us a bit about your background.

Alan Hess

Alan: I'm a former IT specialist who originally trained as a music teacher but first side stepped into teaching just 12 years ago. I'm now just about to retire. I'm British by birth but half Polish and I now live and work in Switzerland. Although employed as a music teacher primarily, I'm required to teach English as an additional language purely because I'm a native speaker. This prompted me to complete a Masters Degree in Applied Linguistics with the Open University which also influenced my teaching style to a large degree.

2. Tell us about your students. What students do you teach?

Alan: I work in a small special school near Zurich for learners with learning difficulties and/or behavioural issues. They are generally of normal intelligence and are a mix of Swiss parentage, mixed and those with a migration background. They follow a Swiss county curriculum as far as possible to allow reintegration in mainstream schooling, although we are free to adapt materials and approach as we see fit. We work closely with the local education authority, school psychology service and county councils, who ultimately decide which children should attend our school. We are indeed often able to reintegrate learners in mainstream schools and work with many other schools to allow this. Those learners who remain with us can often find a suitable apprenticeship with our assistance.

3. Do you apply any (and what) special pedagogy related to the nature of your students' difficulties/impairments?

Alan: We have a good mix of specialists on our staff ranging from specialist subject teachers (e.g. music, language, science, speech therapy) together with individual class teachers and assistants. In my own EFL teaching I have adapted many of the concepts pioneered by Prof. M.A.K. Halliday in Australia and in particular much of the "Reading to Learn" framework based on his concepts by Dr David Rose of Sydney University. The multi-dimensional learning mechanisms described by Lev Vygotsky are particularly relevant, rather than the more traditional linear and well known mechanism described by Piaget. Explanation here at stories4learning Moodle ☍

4. How do you adapt/hack into HotPotatoes to cater for these SEN learners' needs to support their learning?

Alan: I've used Hot Potatoes since 2005 but was frustrated that many people seemed to use the software to simply recreate traditional text book learning materials as quizzes or 'identify the verb etc' types of exercises. These were exactly the kind of tasks our learners had previously failed or not understood in mainstream school and it quickly occurred to me that J-Mix could be used effectively with the alternate Functional Grammar System proposed by M.A.K. Halliday. A simple explanation is available on my website ☍. I needed to produce such exercises more or less 'on the fly' whilst teaching and it became a little inconvenient to use the PC based Hot Potatoes software suite to enter texts and generate the HTML files. For that reason I developed S4L 'Stories 4 Learning' to incorporate J-Mix in an online exercise generation system. The original Hot Potatoes code has been heavily modified to display a flippable eBook allowing any individual sentence to be displayed using J-Mix and also the CSS3 Facelift enhancements from this site, HotPotatoes Tutorials and Add-ons. A sample of S4L story books can be seen here - ☍. [1]


5. Do you use any other general purpose or specific educational software?

Alan: We use other Hot Potatoes components such as JQuiz, JCross etc. within the Moodle learning platform as HotPot tests are simpler for our learners to operate and understand in comparison to the Moodle built in quizzes. We have an excellent Mac based school infrastructure and are able to use a good selection of online materials at will. We can also run Windows apps within virtual machines on all our iMacs.

6. What kind of commitment is needed for your web site and what motivates you to keep developing these exercises and your software?

Alan: I have until recently supported the school infrastructure personally but as I will soon retire, we have employed a local IT firm to handle support. The school will continue to use S4L and I will spend much more time developing it in my increased free time. The code was written very hurriedly primarily for my own use until now and retirement will allow me to also track the other users of my software around the world, of which the number is now increasing. I even have a user in a RTL language, Hebrew! In the meantime I have made many friends in the Functional Grammar community world wide and will continue to promote the use of ICT within this framework. There are sadly few others who offer software based on this approach at the moment.

7. What free sites would you recommend for teachers of SEN students using ICT?

Alan: I don't really like the idea of labelled 'SEN' resources as such, rather just those which motivate our learners. After all they are (in our case) just as intelligent as their mainstream peers. It is sadly the 'downside' of so called special schools to effectively stamp the learners as deficient in some way. Unfortunately most of our learners could not cope in the larger size class environment of regular school. Obviously we use many German language resources but here are a few English ones we also use:

Alan, thank you for agreeing to share your 'stories 4 learning'. Good luck and happy hacking!

Notes and References

[1] The stories4learning eBooks use OpenDyslexic ☍, a free and open source Dyslexia typeface created to increase readability for readers with dyslexia. The typeface includes regular, bold, italic, and bold-italic styles. It is being updated continually and improved based on input from dyslexic users. There are no restrictions on using OpenDyslexic outside of attribution.


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