Are you an English educator, a teacher or a trainer? This is a blog which will point you towards my work, discussions and thoughts among other things that you can read and comment on too.You can look at ways of teaching English. You can share your ideas with us and you can spread our ideas to others. This is the basis of this EFL community
As most of you know, I’m a great believer in lexis rather than words and also in corpora, when they are used in a principled way for teaching, so I was very happy to be asked to join the Online Corpus Symposium with Leo Selivan, Jennie Wright and Mura Nava the Virtual Round Table Conference last night. For anyone who wants to watch the videos of our talks here are the links:
The conference is going on today and tomorrow as well so you are still in time to take part :-).
A Quick Overview
Jennie set the ball rolling with a very entertaining, interactive introduction to COCA showing teachers just how easy, fun and useful it is to create materials from a corpus for their class. She included worksheets on collocation work and also “guessing the key term” in a concordance search. What was good about this was that many of those in the audience said that her presentation was taking the “fear” out of corpora, and people felt very enthusiastic and keen to give it a go.
My presentation, I thought, provided a nice contrast to this because I was focusing on encouraging learners to be more independent. I introduced SkeLL, which I have written about before. SkeLL, or the Sketch Engine English Language Learning web interface, differs from many freely available online corpora in that it has been designed specifically for language learners and so it provides examples which are already filtered for different meanings and parts of speech, and it has a wonderful “word sketch” feature, which groups collocations according to grammatical categories related to the word or phrase being searched for. For instance, if you search for “rush” you can see a word sketch for the noun and a different one for the verb. I showed how I use a scaffolded approach to sensitizing my B2 learners to SkeLL to help them become more aware of features of co-text such as verb patterns and collocations, as this enables them to recognise much more quickly which answer is most appropriate in cloze tests etc.
Mura introduced the BYU Wikipedia Corpus, developed by the same Mark Davies of Bringham Young University who developed COCA as well. This is a new corpus which gives you the chance to create your own virtual corpus using Wikipedia texts on any subject you are interested in, and I still haven’t had time to try it out, but it looks great :-).
I promised the participants that I would post my slides so here they are, together with the handout I used with my learners and talked about in my presentation.
Here is my Powerpoint with the screen shots for anyone who is interested 🙂
Since I’m doing a training session next week on using Socrative and Quizlet as part of a BYOD (Bring your own device) approach to teaching, I thought I’d share a little video with you that I made this morning just to illustrate the basics of the teacher dashboard.
Learner reflection, revision quizzes and a whole lot more
I use this tool mainly because I have large groups and it can be used in all kinds of ways. The description says that it has been designed to use quizzes, which might be tests, revision or practice etc. It can also be asked to ask questions, prompting learner reflection at the end of a lesson. I also use it a lot for writing asking, for instance, my advanced learners to summarise a text and then post it in the “Quick Question” function of Socrative, which I set up for them quickly in class. They can then read each other’s work and vote for the version they like best 🙂
Socrative, which was designed by educators for eductaors, also has an inbuilt record keeping feature. This means that any work my learners do, such as summary writing, can then be sent to me by email, or simply accessed from the site. I can look at this for further assessment, feedback or simply for my own reflection. It is a feature which I have also used to run informal impromtpu polls and surveys that can then be very helpful when designing courses, or simply lesson planning.
You can also share the content you create either with colleagues by sharing the number of the quiz etc. or by going to Socrative Share Garden where the community uploads content for everyone to use. You can then edit this content further to adapt it to your own needs if you want to. My colleague, for instance, created a very challenging Christmas quiz, which she then shared with me and my learners.
So, if you want a really versatile tool which is fun and lets your learners use their telephones and tablets in class, why not try it out…
As you probably know I’m a great believer in the lexical dimension of language, particularly at higher levels, and I’ve posted quite a lot recently about the damage I believe an over-preoccupation with the rules of grammar can cause. ( See this post if you are interested). So it was really good today to hear Prof. Mike McCarthy talking about The English Grammar Profile and, in the trailer to this video, reassuring everyone that whilst grammar rules are important, they are important to be able to create meanings.He underlined the fact that grammar rules need to come out of a natural context and that a teaching approach to grammar should probably be cyclical, studying forms and then revisiting them in different ways.
What is the Grammar Profile?
The grammar profile is the new resource created by the Cambridge team, together with other institutions, and follows on the English Vocabulary Profile, which has been available for some time. The English Profile is, I think, a highly innovative resource which provides us with a description of what learners can do at different levels, innovative because it truly tries to put the learners at the centre of the process.When I first heard about the Vocabulary Profile in 2011, I was very excited about it and we started to use it here in Verona as a reference tool for various things such as, for instance, item writing for exams. If we were not sure whether to test a particular word at B2, we could look it up in the Vocabulary Profile and see at what level learners will use that item. If you look up the word “scramble” just to give an example, which we focused on in a text this week at C2 level, you will find that there is an example of a learner who produced that item on a Proficiency exam, so it is classified as a C2 level item:
This is what the screen shot looks like. Care has to be taken with this though as it may still be logical to test comprehension of an item like “scramble” in context in, say, a reading test at a B2 level as the English Vocabulary Profile is only describing productive skills.
One or Two Drawbacks
The project is extremely ambitious and the point is sometimes made that it only describes the language learners production, which causes problems like the one I just mentioned. To do this researchers have been analysing the Cambridge Learner Corpus, which is the language learners produce mainly during exams. This is a very large corpus with more than 50 billion items from written language and about 5 million from spoken language but the fact remains that it is still based on production in exams which may mean that the description is rather limited, and there is a big difference in size between the written and spoken compnents. Because of our own experiences and with an eye to item writing for receptive skills, in fact, I asked Prof. McCarthy if there were plans to develop a description that focused on “understanding” in a similar way and he said that there was enough data to do so, but that what was needed were funds… So, all those billionnaires out there, this is your moment!
The Grammar Profile contines with its learner centred approach and describes the way learners develop an awareness and mastery of what McCarthy terms “grammatical polysemy”. He said that we usually think of lexis as being polysemous but that grammatical forms are as well, in that a grammatical form can have several meanings. I think of this as a layered process, where the more language you are exposed to the more meanings you can see being attached to different forms. In the video McCarthy mentions “imperatives” for instance, saying that initially learners use them to give commands such as “Don’t forget your ticket” or “Please come on time” but as time goes by they notice that imperatives may be used in other ways such as a compnent of conditionals, with the example “Go into any shop in Cambridge and you’ll see clothes made in China.” In this way the more you interact with the language the more meanings you will see. This reminds me of an idea that came up on a Celta course I was observing, and I’m sorry but I forget whose it was originally :-(. The ideas was that learning a language is initially like flying over the countryside at a great height, so that you only notice very prominent features (not in a linguistic sense,, I hasten to add) like mountain ranges, or in grammatical terms, the present simple to talk about general, everyday events etc. As your plane starts to descend though you notice more and more until you are no longer looking at the overall “big picture” but focusing on the details that are closer to the ground: the present simple to tell stories or jokes, for instance. I’ve always liked this idea and I’m sure it’s true of me as a language learner, anyway.
Interacting with Meaningful Texts
The key here, I think, is what I will call the idea of interacting with meaningful texts. By interacting with language directly you can come to the rules by a process of deduction, or maybe you don’t even need the rule, you just remember the form related to the meaning. Many learners spend years grappling with the vagaries of perfect tenses in English and this is definitely true of my C2 level learners. Grammar forms can be explored as chunks in texts, though in just the way that lexical chunks can and perhaps taking the time to stop and look at what is behind an utterance or a sentence will help even more than studying diembodied rules. We were looking at a text I wrote a few years ago where I explained that I had found it very hard to do an MA and the sentence was:
“I’ve been thinking about doing this MA for quite a while now, but it was hard to decide because it was expensive, I wondered whether I wasn’t too old etc.”
Once the learners had heard and understood the message we came back to the form “I’ve been thinking about doing an MA for quite a while now” and I asked them to look at it as a chunk rather than as a rule. We analysed the meaning here, that:
it had not been easy to decide;
it was something that I kept coming back to over a period of time;
I wasn’t sure about whether I wanted to do it or not.
I then asked the learners to think about their own lives and to come up with their own examples. You may think this would be easy for them, but, in fact as I walked round quite a few were just writing notes and not examples and said things like “I can’t think of anything”. I stopped and talked to them at this point about their lives and the things they’d like to do and kept thinking about but maybe couldn’t decide to commit to, because they couldn’t afford to etc. and then the ideas started to flow:
“I’ve been thinking about travelling right round the world”
“I’ve been thinking about takinng up a third language.”
“I’ve been thinking about buying a new car”
Discussing these very real examples then in small cooperative groups made it even more real, so that instead of studying the disembodied rules or asking comprehension check questions after I’d clarified the rules to them, we deduced those concepts from the piece of language itself and then the learners themselves experimented with them, until the grammatical form became part of their own repertoire.
Of course, we will probably need to revisit this again, but I felt that we were on the way.
Goodbye to Disembodied Rules: 3 steps to meaningful development of Grammatical Competence
It’s not the rules themselves that I object to, as rules and explanations can help us to inderstand things, but what I think is essential to understand is that the rule is only the first step, and that if we can deduce that rule from language use in context it will be all the more meaningful rather than studying things like:
“The Present Perfect is often used with “never” followed by an example such as ” I’ve never met the Pope” which may well be natural but is not linked in any way to a real, meaningful context.
The next step after understanding how to shape an idea, is to use it for yourself in a meaningful way, by experimenting, seeing what works and what doesn’t and by using that language yourself.
The third step is to revisit that form because the more you see something the better you will be able to remember it and use it and you can add layers to your mastery of the language. The question of whether vocabulary or grammar is more important, to my mind, misses the point: we need them both to create our own specific meanings.
A couple of years ago I made a Powerpoint Advent Calendar for my students, which would work just as well this year. You can also use the Powerpoint as a template to make your own if you’d like to. 🙂
Last year though I tried something new, although it may be rather complicated, using Smilebox (see below) and this could also be used this year, so take your pick: Powerpoint or Smilebox?
First play the smilebox, after it has loaded, which takes a couple of minutes, and you will see a classic advent calendar with windows and little animations behind each one: excellent for all those teaching young learners. It could be used as a prompt for Christmas vocabulary or a game: guess what is behind the window etc.
But there is even more….
If you click on window 24 and wait you will come to a series of 24 photos (yes, you’ve guessed: one for each day in December). Each photo has a question that can be used for multicultural discussion or even as a warmer at this time of year: so here is it the singing and dancing Advent Calendar 2012 with all its bells and whistles 🙂
So the first day has finished and it seems to have gone by in a whirl or ideas, discussions, meetings with old friends and encounters with new ones. I said in a previous post that a theme tends to emerge during the conference and this year my these is materials, tasks and getting the most out of them, both as a materials designer and teacher.
Demand High Teaching
My first session this morning was with Adrian Underhill who focused on “Demand High Teaching” the meme (they don’t like to think of it as an approach, but rather a cultural notion that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.) Basically, the idea behind this is that many of our classroom routines have become mechanical, and a matter of following the coursebook instructions without really “teaching”. This, as Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener rightly say, leads to lost learning opportunities, and half baked routines that do not benefit learners. The focus today was pronunciation but this may be true for many areas of teaching, and what it means, in a nutshell, is to bring back the skill of teaching, exploiting coursebook tasks or any others to get as much out of them as possible, with the learner and his or her problems and needs right at the centre of the process. By focusing on individuals and helping them to do the very best they can, we bring back teaching in a vocational sense. To see more, visit the Demand High Learning blog.
What do Teachers want from their Coursebooks?
My day moved on seamlessly to a discussion of what teachers want from their coursebooks, where Heather Buchanan from Leeds Metropolitan University and Julie Norton from the University of Leicester presented the results of their questionnaire, which had been circulated among teachers to find out what they want from their coursebooks. As might be expected there were many different answers but one illuminating comment that struck me came from a teacher who had more than 20 years’ teaching experience, and who wanted a coursebook that would be a sort of “store” of various different activities, approaches, images and texts, that could all be accessed and combined in different ways. In fact, this already exists in sites like Onestopenglish and on the English360 platform, to mention only two examples. So what I wondered was whether the problem was lack of information, and marketing of these resources. The question is how to reach teachers to let them know what is out there in a digital world which is often overwhelming including so much information that the pearls are often buried in the mass of data.
Do Materials Writers have Principles?
Jill Hadfield looked at a whole series of theoretical principles and asked whether materials writers have similar principles or not. her conclusion was that there are similarities but that the materials writers’ underlying principles, even when implicit rather than explicit, tend to be more practical but also more complicated, combining a wealth of underlying principles that reflect the learning process and the practical needs of classrooms in a way that is perhaps more difficult for theorists to do. She also talked about what she refers to as “core energies” which are not the writers’ principles but rather the “passions” that drive them and that come through as being their own personal styles or voices. A core energy is what tells us that a material has been written by Raymond Murphy or by Mario Rinvolucri, for instance, even if both are working from the same principle that materials should foster communicative language competence.
Networking and sharing
As I said in a previous post, though, the conference is not only about the presentations. It is also about talking to people and networking, and my focus on materials writing has brought me into contact with a whole group of materials writers yesterday and today. Writing can be a very lonely process, as we all sit behind our computers working away. Nowadays writers can work together across great geographical distances and sometimes never meet their co-writers when everything is filtered through their editors. This was really useful as I found about a whole range of sites for writers including a great Facebook page : eltT2W (Elt teachers to writers) where materials writers can share ideas, and problems with each other, making the whole process just a little more social. 🙂
My final thoughts today are that so much is a matter of communication and keeping channels open. Information is a key word of our times but we need to know how to access and share it so that we can create knowledge together and go on to get the very best out of ourselves as teachers, writers and students. Learning is a lifelong process both for students and teachers, and I forget who said this but it seems to be quite appropriate:
“A great teacher is someone who aims for improvement rather than perfection”
Being open to new ideas and to new opportunities can enrichen your professional experience. Someone told me the other day, that there’s not much call for data driven teaching approaches, and that can be interpreted two ways: either you give up thinking that nobody wants it or you see it as a whole new market who, in the words of Benjamin Zander, see it as “a glorious opportunity” as those people “don’t know yet” how much they can learn from this approach.
So that’s it for today, let’s see what tomorrow will bring. 🙂
I’ve recently been thinking quite a lot about digital literacy and not only because we are studying the concept at the moment on my MA course but what it means to my learners too. So I thought I’d share my conclusions with you. This is a bit more academic than usual but I hope you’ll bear with me.
What digital literacy means to me
I was initially very impressed with Bax’s notions of normalisation, when I heard them in 2010 at the Iatefl conference in Harrogate, and I think this tied in with what Scott Thornbury was saying at the same event where he concentrated on ‘the need to ensure that the technological tail does not wag the pedagogical dog’. What this means to me is that digital literacy is: being able to use online spaces and digital tools to communicate, work, learn and create in a ‘normal’ way so that the tools and competences required are part of everyday life. This, of course, includes all the various key elements of digital literacy that are mentioned in the literature, such as knowing how to use technology to create content which is appropriate for the target online (or otherwise) context, with an awareness of copyright and plagiarism notions and knowing how to publish or share that content safely. It means knowing how to search for and find information, involving filtering skills and critical thinking, and knowing when to switch off and go for a walk instead. Finally, it also means network literacy, including cultural understanding of what sort of environment you are in and what is appropriate behaviour, as well as the implications of what you publish and the digital imprint you are creating for yourself. This is a broad summary of some of the ideas explored in (Hockly, H.( 2012), Dudeney, G. (2012), Poore, M (2013), Payton, S. & Hague, C. (2010)
Implications for Teachers and The Learning Process
(Click on the image to access the Facebook Page)
To come back to the idea of normalisation and Thornbury’s metaphorical technology dog, it is inevitable to some extent that the ‘wow factor’ has a negative impact when teachers (or learners) use technology simply because it is a novelty but without sound pedagogical principles behind that use, and although this does happen, it is also true that there are many teachers who integrate technological tools systemically into their teaching.
Introducing social media, for example, in a principled way is one highly effective way of doing certain things such as using the class Facebook Page to extend a discussion, which was started in class, but there was not enough time to take any further, or to work on language, to encourage learners to read and watch videos by providing sites and tasks and to provide them with an informal space to post their own content and share ideas.
Here is one example of a discussion which university students began in class on the subject of what success means to them. This was then continued outside class on their Facebook page
The initial post:
This morning we discussed “success” in the C1 lesson. What does it mean to you? Money and fame, or…?
The fact that there were only four comments is, in my opinion, not particularly significant, as what is much more important here is the fact that 202 people saw the post and thoughts about it. Lurking, in fact, is a choice, and the fact that someone does not comments does not necessarily mean that they are not learning something from the page. The discussion has effectively been extended beyond the classroom to become a part of our ‘normal’ digital world on Facebook.
There are, however, various issues that my learners need to come to terms with which go beyond the issues of functional digital literacy (using blogs, social media to create content among other things). (Poore 2013). They need to become more aware of what it means to be part of a network and what they are actually publishing. Many learners are not aware of issues of safety and privacy. They do not know what it means to publish their photos on social media, and what rights they are giving the owners of the space by doing so. On the other hand we are living in what is increasingly becoming a ‘remix’ world, where the boundaries between what is real and what is a spoof, are getting more and more blurred every day, so learners need to know what is real and what isn’t. This however, may go beyond the remit of the ELT class. What is essential in my context of the university world, however, is the notion of plagiarism and copyright, which learners are not often aware of particularly when it comes to publishing photos they have found online. All these are areas that need to be explored.
Bax recently wrote, in 2011, however, an article revisiting his view of normalisation, which he defined in 2003 as ‘the stage at which a technology is used in language education without our being consciously aware of its role as a technology, as an effective element in the language learning process (Bax, 2003)’ and in the 2011 article he examines some of the fears and expensive mistakes that are made when institutions, for instance, introduce technology because of the ‘wow’ factor, interactive whiteboards, being a blatant example of this if not support and training is also provided or only occasional access to the tool is allowed. He argues for a constructivist approach to the implementation of technology, and I would agree with this although I can remember a few years ago trying to motivate learners to use Skype to organise “spoken practice” session with a partner who lived in another town. The idea was that they should do a set task together using Skype. This was very unsuccessful, and with hindsight, it was another example of encroachment perhaps, of them not really using Skype for education, but rather for chatting to their friends. Recently, however, a group of my learners were preparing collaborative presentations using Prezi, and when I asked them to give feedback on how they had set about this, they said that they had skyped. To skype, then has become a verb, and is a normalised means of communication for these students who simply used it as the most convenient way to communicate with each other in order to do the task they needed to. The difference is that the technology is not a novelty to them, any more than a pen would be. It is simply a means to an end, and what is perceived as important is the task they are involved in.
Final Thoughts: the magical experience
As a final comment on digital literacy, however, I would like to add that I think true ‘digital citizens’ are in fact fascinated by technology and are curious about exploring the potential various tools can provide, precisely because they are amazed, not by the technology or the devices themselves, but by what they can enable us to do. Too much normalisation can lead to us losing the sense of wonder or the miraculous that is what makes people react to the novelty or the ‘wow factor’ of the tools in the first place. The use of the car, for instance, has been completely normalised in my socioeconomic context of Northern Italy, but sometimes to simply sit in your car and realise how powerful it is and what a wonderful thing it is to be able to travel such distances so easily, or to realise what it means to press a button and find a whole orchestra inside a little box we call a stereo, is a salutary experience. I remember the delight I first felt when I shared a photo of my day out to the seaside on Facebook, and people immediately responded to it. These tools are wonderful things precisely because they extend communication in new ways, and they are part of the miracle of life.
Bax, S. (2003) CALL – past, present and future. System 31 (1) March pp. 13-28
Bax, S. (2011) Normalisation Revisited: The Effective Use of Technology in Language Education. International Journal of Computer-Assisted Language Learning and Teaching 1 (2), April-June. pp. 1-15.
Hi everyone, I’m afraid the magic carpet took off and then had technical trouble in October over West Yorkshire, where I was grounded for some time due to family problems. However… The MA is going on and I’m getting back into it now so I thought I’d share my thoughts on videos, screencasts, blogs and wikis:
Using video, screencasts, blogs and videos
Number One: Using Jing
First of all, here is an example of a Jing screencast I made a few years ago to help students navigate a photocopied worksheet on phrasal verbs which we were using in class. The link will take you to the relevant wiki page. Scroll down until you come to Week Six: Can you use phrasal verbs? and you will see how the screencast comes in between other worksheets that B2 students were using (and still are). The value here, of the video is that those who missed the class, can see it later, as can those who would like to review their work or go at a different pace from the one set in class.
I don’t actually like Jing very much though, as it is quite intrusive on my desktop and limits what you can do to short screencasts, so I tend to use other software such as Camtasia . Follow this link to see a series of screencasts I did with this software to familiarize learners with dictionary skills. This is a different page of the same wiki. Scroll down until you come to Using Dictionaries.
I also use screencasts a lot for my own professional development when I have to give a presentation. I record the presentation so that I can watch it and improve “my performance”. Follow this linkg to see a presentation I was giving at Iatefl Harrogate 2010. (It is actually iin various parts as you could only upload short videos to Youtube at the time. This is Part One of “Breathing Life into E-Learning” . I also teach my university students how to do this so that they can practise for their C2 Oral exam which involves giving a Powerpoint or a Prezi presentation of the main points from a mini research project that they do. So far, the results have been very favourable and the students are generally enthusiastic.
Number Two: Dvolver
This is another site that I played with a few years ago when I was also trying out work with Comic strips and other animations such as Goanimate or Writecomics among others. In the end I decided that this type of activity was more approapriate for High School Students so I abandoned it but follow this link to a page on the wiki with a Dvolver video that was developed for my middle aged adult conversation course :-). The video was used to introduce the idea of the “Awards” ceremony, in which students gave each other awards for things such as “always being a leader” “Knowing how to say the right thing” etc. If you follow this link you can see the photos from the actual ceremony when the “Rabbit Awards” (Lindt rabbits at Easter time rather than Oscars” were presented. This type of activity, as well as working on language and fluency, goes a long way towards the social community forming type of motivation activity that works well with this group. (I mentioned this in one of the posts on learner strategies.)
Blogs and Wikis
1. Student Blog
I’ve always been a fan of blogs and wikis although the way I use them is probably quite personal. My student blog, for instance, is not really a personal “diary” type blog but more of a “diary ” of my courses. If you look at the bar at the top of the page you can select the area you are interested in,
so the Universtiy of Verona students wil do the Verona University, and then they can find their page (and I generally leave the page from the previous year too, for those who want to access it). On their page they find an overview of the weeks lessons, plus work they can do to prepare for the next week and useful documents, worksheets etc. that they can download. On the hoepage of the blog there are notices and in the menu on the right there are useful links in categories such as Exam Practice or Study Skills. If you hover over these links with your mouse, you will see my comments on the resources, such as what is good about a particular dictionary etc.
This is a more traditional idea of a blog in that I post my thoughts, insights, resources etc. and I have not been using it much recently becuase, as they say, “Life is getting in the way” with family problems etc. However, I use it a lot to post things that catch my attention or thoughts I have. It has links to other blogs that I like and often use.
I also set up a wiki on Wikispaces years ago for my colleagues, and it has taken us about 8 years for everyone to learn how to use it and to use it regularly, but now they do and we use it for exam admin etc. I can’t show it to you because it is private but I can show you how I used screencasts on this one: here is an introduction to Teacher Autonomy when it comes to standardization for oral exams:
3. Student Wiki
I have several of these and I used them before I started the blog. This one has a range of activities that I use for different groups and nowadays I generally provide links from the blog to the relevant activity on the wiki. I use Wikispaces, because I have always found it to be very user friendly, and I had been using the university e-learning site, but it didn’t let me do a lot of the activities I wanted to. (It is very similar to Moodle, just to give you an idea).
One of the nice things about Wikispaces is that each page also has a discussion space so students can join in on discussion threads. In the past we used forums, but this is one way of integrating them better. I have also used the Edublogs wikis which are part and parcel of my student blog, to set up simple wikis for students, and we have experimented with students setting up their own English blogs on Blogger too.
Here is a Screencast video I made to show some ways in which the wiki space can become a mutual space which starts with me as the teacher but gradually begins to bring in the learners and their contect too: encouraging peer learning:
4. Social Media Space
Despite all my efforts though I have always found it quite difficult to get students to actually work on Wikispaces. I think there are issues of encroachment because they actually do see this space as “mine” as I created it and I use it a lot in class too. That is why a couple of years ago I decided to overcome my reluctance to use Facebook in class and created a “sister page” for our student blog, which has the same name: EnglishLab Discussions. This has been a great success when used as an integral part of the blended learning approach. Learners can upload, presentations, photos or just interesting things that they read etc. and I send them things such as “the word of the week” or “good things from the written exams” or “irritating errors” or simply fun activities. This is definitely not simply my space and the students are using it more and more, Incidentally, they tend to use it to contact me as well, much more so than the university email, which is much more formal.
All this may look as though it takes a lot of work, and it does take constant monitoring, the Facebook Page in particular, but I find that if I go there once or twce a day for five minutes, I can comment on posts and things, and this constant feedback from me, even if it is something quite small encourages students to take the plunge and not to simply lurk in the background.