The CALL of the beach

EUROCALL Conference
Limassol, Cyprus
24-27 August, 2016

St Raphael Resort, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

St Raphael Resort, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

This year’s annual EUROCALL Conference, focused on the theme of CALL Communities and Culture, took place at the St Raphael Resort in Limassol, Cyprus. With daily temperatures in the mid-30s, delegates made good use of the beaches and swimming pools before and after the conference sessions. In the conference sessions themselves, meanwhile, key themes emerged around the potential for using digital technologies to support learning in areas which to date have in some ways fallen outside of mainstream conversations about language teaching: in the teaching of less widely spoken languages, in the development of digital literacies and 21st century skills, and in the promotion of multiculturalism and even multilingualism. Running through many of the presentations was a strong sense that it’s time for educators to help students make greater use of digital technologies to shape their own learning environments and experiences.

In my opening keynote, Why mobile devices aren’t enough: Learning languages, building communities and exploring cultures, I spoke about the role to be played by educators in drawing our students’ attention explicitly to the potential inherent in their everyday mobile devices, used in their everyday contexts, to support language learning, community building, and cultural and intercultural exploration. While there is clearly a place for social justice projects which make use of basic technologies and traditional pedagogies in under-resourced contexts, it’s interesting to note that many of the most creative of today’s mobile learning initiatives, at least those located in better-resourced settings, combine the learning of languages with the development of digital literacies and 21st century skills, often in multicultural contexts, and sometimes in multilingual contexts. In such initiatives, students produce their own user-generated content which not only supports their own learning, but can support the learning of peers and even wider communities.

In his keynote on the second day, Let’s play with constructionism, Panayiotis Zaphiris from Cyprus University of Technology began by introducing Seymour Paper’s theory of constructionism which, unlike constructivism, is not so much about learning by discussing, but learning by creating and building artefacts. He then went on to outline the newer idea of social constructionism, which adds social components to the original concept of constructionism. Artefacts, he explained, can be physical or digital constructions. Through a series of case studies based in the Cyprus Interaction Lab, he went on to indicate six key elements of implementing social constructionism:

  • developing physical learning spaces for constructionist learning
  • learners constructing shared/common understanding
  • learners playing and having fun
  • constructing learners’ communities of interest/practice
  • giving learners tools for constructing their knowledge
  • involving learners in designing their learning

The last of these elements, he suggested, is the most innovative. He reported on a study entitled Constructionism, Participatory Design and CALL focusing on a course called Learn Greek Online, where people can learn the Greek language without a teacher necessarily being online. The site was developed using participatory design and distributed social constructionism. A set of old audio lessons were posted online without further guiding materials, but the learning community then began to support each other and to create materials: transcribing audio files, correcting each other’s transcriptions, and so on. By 2002, there were 50,000 students; this was a kind of MOOC before MOOCs.

In her keynote on the third day, Deconstructing digital literacy practices: Identity narratives from the South, Leila Kajee explained that digital technologies provide children with alternative platforms to engage in social interaction, and multiple identities are the norm. The South African Cyber Lives project maps digital practices across generations, contexts and communities, looking at how users construct their identities digitally and what the implications are for teaching and learning English. Often children’s out-of-school digital literacy practices are not recognised inside the classroom, but in fact these out-of-school practices have important implications for the classroom. The New Literacy Studies movement focuses our attention on the shifting landscape of home, community, work and schools, and gives us a set of theoretical lenses to examine the interconnection between these. Digital literacies, she went on to say, have many components from access through information analysis to sharing and safety. Drawing on the work of Stuart Hall and Chris Weedon, she explained the postmodern perspective that a person has no single fixed identity, and that history, language and identity are intertwined. She gave a range of examples of how ordinary individuals are using social media platforms to construct identities, to engage socially, and to develop a voice under sometimes difficult circumstances.

She then looked at three examples of young learners’ use of digital technologies. Firstly, she talked about the use of the children’s game Moshi Monsters by a young girl, Eva, who created a story around her reality and cyberreality, embodying her chosen persona through an avatar, while also creating a second, male avatar. Secondly, she showed a digital video narrative by Khutso, a second language speaker of English, explaining his journey to becoming a teacher; he constructed an identity as poverty-stricken and wearing a mask to school, before reaching a turning point – inspirational teachers – who made him want to become a change agent himself. In another digital video narrative by Watkins, who also chose to become a teacher, the narrator began by characterising himself as a rebel before reaching a Eureka moment when he realised that he himself could be the change he wanted to see in wider society. Thirdly, she discussed a girl, Cassie, who used Facebook as a way of establishing her diasporic identity, having moved from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to South Africa, through mechanisms such as selfies and wall posts, where she sought to establish her own voice.

Exploring digital literacies with students in school, she said, can be a way of reimagining opportunities for connections across institutional and community contexts, and providing permeable boundaries between home and school. In the process, students can develop voice and identity. It is important, she concluded, to reimagine opportunities for identity construction across contexts.

In the first series of parallel sessions, I chaired a strand in which presenters outlined the use of digital technologies in teaching a variety of less commonly taught languages. It was intriguing and inspiring to hear about the uses of new technologies to support languages which, because of smaller numbers of speakers and/or learners, are much less well-resourced than more widely spoken languages.

In her paper, CALL and less commonly taught languages – Still a way to go, Monica Ward spoke about the fact that there is still a distance to go before new technologies become normalised in the practice of teachers of less commonly taught languages (some of which may be quite widely spoken, but not so commonly taught in some geographical areas). Using the examples of Arabic, Irish and Nawat (from El Salvador), she outlined issues with the kinds of access pathways students may have into potential language learning materials. Teachers should learn from others’ practices, and can pick and choose among the options, starting with the ‘low-hanging fruit’, that is, widely available and relatively simple tools that we know to work well.

In their paper, Teaching Turkish in low-tech contexts: Opportunities and challenges, Katerina Antoniou and Antigoni Parmaxi spoke about teaching Turkish in Cyprus, where they introduced Kahoot, with students using internet-connected computers and answers displayed via a projector (since mobile devices could not be used due to a lack of wifi). This allowed all students, who were of different ages, to participate. Students were motivated and involved, and were willing to discuss their answers with the group. At the beginning, however, the adult students thought Kahoot was just a game which was a waste of their time, but over time they came to see its benefits. While older students could help younger students with language, the roles were reversed when it came to helping with technology. Challenges, the presenters suggested, can be opportunities when diverse skills, interests, motivations, goals and abilities complement each other. Despite the challenges, they concluded, a low-tech context can still offer more opportunities than a no-tech context.

In his presentation, A platform and customization toolkit for error-tolerant search of language resources, Anton Rytting described the need for a platform that allows language learners to search for words they have heard in an error-tolerant context so that they can find what they are looking for, even if they have misheard sounds or if they miswrite words. He showcased a ‘Did You Mean’ (DYM) system for a language called Dhivehi, spoken in the Maldives, where possible dictionary entries can be displayed based on their closeness of fit with the word typed by the student. To make such a system, you need a dictionary, a query alphabet, an error model (based on the mistakes you think learners are likely to make), and a way of testing it based on likely queries. There is a DYM Toolkit available, created by researchers at the University of Maryland, that teachers and others can use to create such error-tolerant platforms for different language learners.

In his presentation, An audio-lexicon Spanish-Nahuatl: Using technology to promote and disseminate a native Mexican language, Aurelio López-López described the ALEN application that allows users to enter a word in Nahuatl or Spanish to hear the pronunciation of the word, and to see an illustrative image. The overall goal is to safeguard engendered languages, including by taking advantage of mobile devices which are widely used by young people.

Dealing in some ways with the opposite end of the spectrum, Jack Burston gave a paper entitled The contribution of CALL to advanced level foreign/second language instruction, in which he showed that there have been remarkably few publications in CALL journals about advanced-level instruction using technology. It is notable that advanced-level language barely rates a mention in the published CALL literature, and this research is very limited in terms of the L2 studied, with English the centre of attention followed distantly by German and French. There are four times as many studies about written language as about speaking/listening skills. Above all, these studies are vague about what an advanced level is, and the difficulty of the tasks students are required to undertake. To date, he concluded, CALL has contributed very little to our understanding or practice of advanced foreign/second language instruction. On the positive side, there is great scope for SLA research at the advanced level, with more methodological rigour needed where ‘advanced’ is defined and substantiated; there is a need for a focus on oral as well as written language; and there is room for considering innovative CALL applications such as mobile and/or cloud-based projects.

Another conference theme was digital literacies and 21st century skills seen as an accompaniment to language learning. In their presentation, Preparing Japanese students’ digital literacy for study abroad: How much CALL training is needed?, Travis Cote and Brett Milliner noted that previous research suggests Japanese first year university students lack core computer literacy skills. In surveys, they found that Japanese students assessed their own computer literacy skills as low. Ultimately, the presenters suggested, the students’ lack of ability to use productivity tools is preventing them from using computers effectively for critical thinking and problem solving, since students need to spend time focusing on using the technology itself rather than what the technology should enable them to do. Although smartphone ownership is at 100%, students tend to use these devices only for social and entertainment functions. In the future the presenters plan to encourage blogging to help students develop a range of skills including typing, composition and manipulation of images; provide opportunities to participate in online discussions; provide opportunities that incorporate presentation software; and introduce students to cloud computing as a way to expose them to collaboration.

In their follow-up paper, Tertiary EFL teachers’ digital literacy: Is CALL training still needed?, Brett Milliner, Travis Cote and Ethel Ogane reported on a study of 42 faculty members teaching English at Tamagawa University in Japan, conducted in order to determine their digital literacy levels, whether they could benefit from extra training, and whether they could lead students in using computers for CALL purposes. Teachers were relatively modest in their self-assessment of digital knowledge and skills. Most teachers said they enjoyed using computers and felt comfortable doing so, but also wanted to learn more about computers. Teachers thus believe in the use of digital technologies in the classroom and are open to further professional development in this area. Interestingly, they had often acquired their knowledge and skills independently or through peer-to-peer learning.

In her presentation, Digital literacies for language learning and teaching: Developing a national framework, Françoise Blin reported on a six-institution, nationally funded Irish project, led by the University of Limerick, with two major aims: to develop a national framework for digital literacies for language learning and teaching, and to curate and create a wide range of OERs accessible via an online portal. The first aim focuses on the intertwined strands of language skills and practice; digital literacies; and transitions and contexts. In time, all language courses in Ireland should contain learning outcomes for digital literacies within their descriptors. It is important that there is sustainability of e-learning – it has to meet the needs of present and future teachers and learners – as well as sustainability and normalisation of CALL. Surveys to date have revealed that students feel the need to acquire more digital literacies than are currently covered in their courses, while teachers feel that they are lacking in some digital literacies that their students might need them to teach.

Another strong theme of the conference focused on multilingualism and multiculturalism. In her talk, Multilingual CALL – The good, the bad, and the ugly, from the perspective of teacher training students, Judith Buendgens-Kostens suggested that multilingual CALL could involve participants using all the languages to which they have access, ranging from their native languages through to languages in which they might know only a few words. She spoke about the Erasmus project MElang-E, which takes the form of a serious game where players follow the progress of a young musician across Europe as he seeks to convince former bandmates to join in a music competition. Players are faced with a series of communicative situations in which they can make choices about what languages, or combinations of languages, to use in response to interlocutors. There are also many codeswitching situations presented to players, where they can see similarities and differences between languages. In reporting on students’ reactions to this game, she noted that there is much greater acceptance of widely spoken and taught languages, while there is little appreciation of languages that do not have an obvious market value, though they might in fact have other kinds of value in terms of identity or simply enjoyment. The question is whether stakeholders can be convinced that there is a role for this kind of multilingual game in education.

In their talk, Promoting multilingual communicative competence through multimodal academic learning situations, Anna Kyppö and Teija Natri reported on an interdisciplinary course of multilingual interaction piloted at the University of Jyväskylä Language Centre, focusing on the students’ effective use of their own linguistic repertoires and the enhancement of their agency in multilingual and multicultural settings. The learning environment was a combination of a face-to-face classroom, a web-based platform called Optima, and an educational mobile platform called REAL, all used within a task-based framework where language was the instrument for completing tasks (and students were free to use any languages at their disposal). Students’ multilingual and multicultural awareness grew, they were able to adopt skills for their future working lives, and they came to see their peers as learning resources. In the future, the presenters plan to introduce more multilingual and multimodal courses into subject study, to enhance students’ focus on successful communication rather than accurate language use, to more efficiently employ social media and multimodal interactive online resources, and to employ PLEs (personal learning environments).

In her paper, Preparing students’ mobility through telecollaboration: The I-Tell project, Catherine Jeanneau explained that the better prepared students are for experiences abroad, the more they will gain from the experiences. Students need practical advice, linguistic development, intercultural competence, self-awareness and learner autonomy; and there has been a suggestion that the preparation should be more formative than informative (Gutierrez, Duran & Beltran, 2015). The I-Tell project aimed to develop participants’ intercultural, linguistic and digital skills. Volunteer Irish and Spanish students were paired the semester before they went abroad. Over 8 weeks they completed one task per fortnight, using asynchronous and synchronous modes, multimodal communication, and 50% Spanish and 50% English; for example, they were asked to co-design a document giving advice to students going abroad for study. Students were generally positive about the project, but found that time was an issue. The technological platforms were not dictated to students, who chose to use a mixture of tools including email, VoiceThread, Skype, Facebook, Google+, WhatsApp, Instagram and FaceTime; social media in general were seen as authentic channels of communication. Students identified both similarities and differences between the cultures, and generally obtained a broader perspective on the other culture. They reported developing different language skills with the help of peer learning and peer correction. Students engaged in an exchange of practical information, but there was also a lot of psychological preparation involving emotional support. Lessons learnt include the importance of facilitators who can keep the project moving, getting the timing right, setting collaborative tasks, and considering the developmental needs of students.

A whole range of tool types, platforms, and approaches were mentioned in the presentations. Covering a popular tool in his talk, Quizlet: What the students think – A qualitative data analysis, Bruce Lander mentioned that the use of Quizlet has grown dramatically in recent years, with a number of well-known competitors now also on the market, including the recently popular Kahoot. He reported on a study involving text mining of Japanese students’ comments about Quizlet, showing that they were generally very positive about the vocabulary learning possible through Quizlet. He concluded by mentioning Mark Warschauer’s three main reasons for using technology in education – improving academic achievement, facilitating new kinds of learning, and promoting social equity – and linking these to Puentedura’s SAMR model. He wrapped up with a demonstration of Quizlet Live, suggesting that it can be a great tool to engage students in team competitions in the classroom.

In his presentation, Podcasting in a mobile world: Power, potential and pitfalls, Jaime Selwood, the producer of the English News Weekly and the lower-level English News Monthly podcasts, mentioned that there are now 130,000 English language podcasts available in iTunes, with the Chinese language in second place. Beyond the release of the iPod itself, he said, major game changers for podcasting have been the release of smartphones and the expansion of the mobile internet. He mentioned two key ways in which he uses podcasts with his university level English learners in Japan: as out-of-class assignments 4-6 times a semester where students complete podcast activities and later report back to the class; and as part of a podcast creation course where students make and publish 4 podcasts a semester, having recorded, written and edited all the materials themselves. In a student survey, 83% said they liked using podcasts in the first way, mainly because they had choices about which podcasts to listen to; and 77% liked the second way, again mentioning the freedom to choose their own topics.

In his talk, Enhanced tools for CLIL and Clil4U, Kent Andersen outlined an EU project which has developed a pool of resources to support CLIL, now publicly available on the Clil4U website. He then went on to describe another project, Improved Safety for Electricians, where there is an inbuilt CLIL element, allowing users to quickly and easily click on words in the English instructions for automated translations into many other languages. Teachers are able to make use of the Clilstore resource to develop their own materials of this kind. He suggested that to develop the CLIL element more fully, it is important to also build in exercises for students, and this functionality should eventually be added into Clilstore.

In her presentation, Urban explorations for language learning: A gamified approach to teaching Italian in a university context, Koula Charitonos outlined a pervasive and gamified approach to language teaching and learning. She described an Italian language learning game called ImparApp, created with the TaleBlazer authoring tool from MIT, and developed at Coventry University. There are gamified fictional narratives which involve participants in mixed reality, location-based quests using mobile devices in real-world settings. Players can interact with virtual characters, objects and data. In a pilot study, it was found that students thought this was a good orientation activity, permitting incidental learning and helping them learn about history. There were also challenges, such as students focusing mainly on finding the next location and not interacting with each other, with risks to health and safety as students focused on devices rather than their environment. Students also suggested incorporating more visuals, zoomable maps, and Italian background music, as well as ways of facilitating social interaction.

In his paper, Mobile-assisted language learning and language learner autonomy, Paul Lyddon spoke about the importance of learner autonomy – that is, the right to self-determination, or the “capacity to take control of one’s own learning” (Benson, 2011) – to support lifelong learning. He suggested that there are potential areas of interface between mobile technologies and autonomy: mobile devices allow learning anytime and anywhere; are conduits to rich, multimodal content; and are extensions of our mental and physical faculties in areas like observation, recall, research and communication. He went on to note that there is an incongruence between learner training courses which help students to develop independent goal setting, and to apply that know-how in informal learning contexts and, on the other hand, traditional formal learning contexts with course and programme standards, where times and places are administratively decided, and where there are classroom policies to prevent off-task behaviour. This dramatically constrains the versatility of the devices. In formal settings, students may have the ability and the possibility, but often not the permission, to use their devices as they wish to support their learning. He suggested that we could consider moving towards a model of socially responsible learner autonomy, where students fulfil the requirements of a course in terms of enrolment and assignment completion, with different degrees of autonomy being possible in the process of carrying out course tasks. To remediate the current situation, he concluded, we should explicitly acknowledge the limited nature of autonomy in formal learning contexts; inculcate expectations of learner characteristics aimed at helping students to fulfil assignment requirements in personally meaningful ways; and foster new forms of self-awareness and self-discipline to enable mobile devices to be deployed effectively to support greater autonomy.

The Mediterranean, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The Mediterranean, Limassol, Cyprus. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The last day of the conference wrapped up with a roundtable hosted by Mirjam Hauck, where a number of presenters were asked our opinions on the takeaway messages of the conference. For me, the first takeaway message concerns a changing sense of CALL, which is now extending into areas like lesser-taught languages, digital literacies and 21st century skills, and multilingualism and multiculturalism. This makes CALL as a concept somewhat more amorphous and diffuse, but simultaneously richer, as teachers and researchers who may not traditionally have been part of CALL conversations are drawn into our discussions.

My second takeaway message concerns differences between the CALL conversations (and more general educational technology conversations) in Asia and Europe. Much of the time, I attend and present at conferences in the Asian region, and it is striking to see how different the tone of the conversation is in the European region. In the latter case, there would generally seem to be a more widespread acceptance of the benefits of multilingualism and codeswitching as opposed to immersive target language learning, of communicative competence as opposed to linguistic accuracy, and of student input into learning designs as opposed to the mandating of learning content by ministries of education, institutions or teachers. At the same time, there are important pedagogical and technological developments taking place in Asia, perhaps most notably in the area of contextualisation of learning as a way of dealing with issues around transfer distance, as seen in the development of large, often state- or ministry-backed mobile augmented reality learning projects – but most of these projects seem to be almost unheard-of in Europe. There is clearly much to be gained from more conversation between European and Asian teachers and researchers about the most promising directions for future technology-enhanced language learning.

New devices, new spaces, and new games

eLearning Forum Asia
Shanghai, China
13-15 June, 2016

Zhujiajiao Old Town (朱家角), Shanghai, China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Zhujiajiao Old Town (朱家角), Shanghai, China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The annual eLFA conference moved this year to Shanghai, where as usual it brought together a mixed group of educators and technologists, especially from the Asian region but also from further afield. There was a strong emphasis this year on the need to make room for students’ use of multiple devices, especially mobile devices, for learning. There was considerable discussion of online learning platforms or spaces where students’ learning experiences can be gathered together; these ranged from traditional LMSs through online platforms like Google Classroom to the cutting-edge developments around MOOCs, learning analytics, and the use of xAPI to track, collate and derive insights from students’ various learning devices and platforms. Another key theme to emerge was gamification, including how it can be applied to platforms ranging from apps through to MOOCs.

In his presentation, Reimagining education, Yves Dehouck, the Vice President of Blackboard, listed six key educational trends of the future as identified by Blackboard:

  • Learner-centric education
  • Non-traditional learners
  • Big data
  • Consumer preferences
  • Education is truly global
  • Online and mobile everywhere

He went on to pick up on the last two points. By 2020, four in 10 of the world’s young graduates in higher education will be coming from China and India. This means a need to further develop the educational infrastructure in those countries, as well as opening up opportunities for the educational systems of the surrounding countries. These students will want to learn anytime, anywhere, on any device.

In her presentation, Pedagogical intelligence: A student lens for inquiry into informal digital learning practices, Caroline Steel, also from Blackboard, argued that it is critical for students to understand the impact that their informal digital learning can have on their formal learning. Digital literacies are now essential for students, along with soft skills like critical thinking and creativity. She explained that we need help our students develop pedagogical intelligence, so that they:

  • gain an understanding of learning and teaching theories
  • gain insights into how they learn and how others learn
  • are aware that teaching styles are as diverse as learning styles (and some may not suit them)
  • are empowered to navigate learning and teaching, by developing the capacity to self-teach and self-regulate their learning
  • are better informed as co-partners in education

She gave an example of a Learning Challenge class where she helped students to develop their understanding in this area. Students benefited in terms of making better use of informal learning and setting their own goals, and they appreciated the inbuilt gaming aspects. Looking towards the future, she suggested that elements of pedagogical intelligence could be foregrounded through some kind of wearable mobile device which offers learning analytics, with gamification and social aspects included.

In my keynote, Developing mobile literacy, which tied in with the theme of the move towards multiple mobile devices in education, I outlined a range of ways that we can deepen students’ learning and engagement as we help them to develop the mobile literacy (and the constituent digital literacies which feed into it) that is so crucial in a digitally enabled mobile world.

In her talk, Seeding learning innovations in continuing education and training in Singapore, Zan Chen spoke about the current context of more global demand for innovation, as product life cycles become shorter and shorter, while we are simultaneously seeing a convergence of technologies, and a need for multidisciplinary research. In this context, there is considerable scope for open innovation. She went on to describe iN.LAB, part of the Institute for Adult Learning in Singapore, which focuses on providing a space to foster collaboration around innovation. She described the half-yearly InnovPlus event, a funded competition designed to catalyse innovation by bringing together organisations facing training/learning challenges and potential solution providers, or teams of solution providers.

In his talk, Using Google Classroom and Google Apps for Education (GAFE) as a learning environment to deliver blended learning for a large cohort of students, Yik Sheng Lee reported on a Malaysian action research project involving a study of teachers’ use of Google Classroom and Apps. Despite teachers’ intentions, it was found that the technology was being used overwhelmingly for content delivery rather than to facilitate student collaboration. Drawing on Garrison & Anderson’s Community of Inquiry (CoI) model for online learning, Lee indicated that the affordances of the learning environment – to foster cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence – were thus not being fully utilised, with the current focus being on cognitive presence and students learning individually. This led to two types of interventions: more training, and sharing of teachers’ experiences. This has in turn led to greater adoption of the technology, and the next stage of the research will focus on whether the teachers are using the environment more fully and promoting interactivity.

In her talk, Self-paced learning through co-construction in MOOCs, Betty Hui from CUHK suggested that MOOCs offer a different learning opportunity from traditional classroom learning, with students choosing educators and what courses to take. MOOCs offer flexibility of learning in both self-paced and weekly content. Learning no longer happens in a set or individual context. The possibility for learning in tandem with other learners around the globe is unprecedented. There can be a real opportunity for co-constructing meaning through interactions with global peers.

In his plenary, Developing MOOC-enabled flipped learning courses, Jin-Hyouk Im from UNIST in South Korea suggested that to deal with falling income but higher demands in education, MOOCs and flipped learning are possible strategies worth adopting. He went on to discuss the nature of MOOCs (see figure below). One of the possible limitations of MOOCs is that students may learn passively; the pros include automation and instant feedback. MOOCs can also be used as SPOCs (small private online courses) for one class at a time; this would generally be a paid model, like paying for a textbook.


Nature of MOOCs (Jin-Hyouk Im, 2016)

Traditionally, we have handled the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in class, and the higher levels in after-class activities; but flipped learning allows us to reverse this. Indeed, MOOCs could be used for the lower levels, and flipped learning for the higher levels, with the highest levels being addressed in class as part of an overall flipped approach; this is a kind of MOOC-enabled flipped learning. He gave the example of the Residential MITx programme as a way of realising this. A partly MOOC-based teaching approach can also offer students the advantage of being able to take some components of their courses from a range of international institutions.

In his presentation,  An analysis model and framework design for a MOOC platform, Nien-Lin Hsueh from Feng Chia University, Taiwan, spoke about the information that an instructor can gain from learning analytics regarding learners’ engagement, where difficulties have arisen, and learners’ performance. Researchers, for their part, can learn about behaviour in MOOCs, what is good video design, and behaviour vs performance. He concluded by emphasising the importance of a goal-driven approach to analysis, and a flexible architecture to tailor the analysis. However, data analysis alone, he said, is not enough.

In his talk, Using xAPI and learning analytics in education, Kin Chew Lim from SIM University, Singapore, spoke about the difficulties of the LMS-centric model: the LMS must always be connected to the internet; it can’t consolidate learning from different devices and social media; the teacher is still the knowledge dispenser and content organiser; the content is mostly text-based and linear; and the widely used multiple-choice questions always have single answers. He asked how, when students use many different types of devices and apps – from mobile devices to AR apps – it is possible to capture their learning.

xAPI has been developed to deal with this; the x stands for ‘experience’. SCORM, which is about packaging interoperable content and linking it into an LMS, is now 15 years old. People these days communicate and collaborate more with mobile devices, but they do not necessarily connect their devices to the internet 24 hours a day. People learn differently through texting, desktop learning, iPads or Android phones. Rustici Software was commissioned to come up with a new e-learning platform; this is xAPI, also commonly referred to as Tin Can API. It is a set of open specifications to track learning experiences, and is still evolving. It is commonly regarded as the next generation after SCORM. xAPI comes down to a noun-verb-object statement, e.g., ‘I watch a video on YouTube’, or ‘I practise yoga’, which can capture a learning experience. It uses JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) to specify the API statements. These records go into an LRS, or Learning Record Store; whether you play a game, do a simulation, write a blog, or watch a YouTube video, this can all be stored in the LRS.

In his plenary, Flipped class and xAPI learning data analysis, Lijie Chin from the Chinese e-Learning Association of Taiwan showed how xAPI has been used in the Taiwanese context. He emphasised the importance of problem-solving approaches and creativity. He spoke about using Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy in the context of a flipped approach in such a way as to change the emphasis of learning in the classroom (see figure below).

Bloom's Taxonomy (Lijie Chin, 2016)

Bloom’s Taxonomy (Lijie Chin, 2016)

He then went on to discuss the value of gathering big data from students’ online learning experiences. He outlined the Taipei CooC-Cloud (Taipei CooC-Learning) system, which allows students to use multiple kinds of hardware to access software from diverse companies, all of which conforms to the same technological standard (xAPI) so that students’ learning data can be captured and analysed in a multi-platform database. Insights can be drawn together from all of a student’s learning activities, ranging from their actions in a MOOC to their interactions with an e-book.

Teachers can better understand students’ learning behaviour, allowing them to better support students and modify their teaching as appropriate. Students can also access their own records to gain insight into their learning strengths and weaknesses. More insight is thus available into students’ learning processes, not just the final results. He demonstrated some of the wide range of visualisations of student learning which are available. Students will be able to develop a cloud résumé that they can take away with them at the end of their studies.

In his keynote on Gamification for education, Ping-Cheng (Benson) Yeh from the National Taiwan University spoke about the value of gamification, which should have elements of competition, peer acknowledgement, and smart rules. He gave the example of a probability course where, rather than setting problems for the students, he had students create problems for each other; this meant the students had to understand the content well, and they were able to set complex, creative problems for each other. Students were highly engaged in setting and solving these problems. Gamification, he suggested, pushes students to their limit.

He went on to explain about a second gaming approach he developed, PaGamO, on the Coursera MOOC platform. Students had to complete problems in order to occupy land in a gaming environment, and could purchase monsters from a store to help safeguard the land they had taken over. A worldwide ranking board encouraged students to remain engaged in the game. It was found that there was a high correlation between students’ PaGamO scores and their Coursera grades. When surveyed, students agreed that they could now finish more challenging tasks. PaGamO is currently being used for K12 students in all subjects, for corporate training, and in higher education courses. A variation was also developed for students who, instead of engaging in competition, prefer to develop the land they have occupied in the game.

When it comes to flipped teaching, he suggested it is naïve to simply ask students to start watching lecture videos at home without preparation for this learning style. It is better to have them watch videos together in class to get them used to this kind of approach. When students are asked to watch videos at home, one possibility is to have a poll, for example on Facebook, so students can see that others are watching the videos; another possibility is to have a chat group on WeChat or a similar app where students can post messages as they finish watching the videos. It was found that this peer-to-peer approach increased the percentage of students viewing videos from around 60% to 90%. Those students who have not watched a video can be asked to watch the video at the back of the face-to-face class, while other students participate in the follow-up activities. With the majority of students carrying out these in-class activities, it becomes easy for the teacher to identify learning problems in the group.

MOOCs and gamification, he concluded, are here to stay. Gamification will soon be a must-have for education, and students may find it difficult to concentrate on anything that doesn’t have gaming elements. His ideas are outlined in his book Teach for the Future.

In his presentation, Gamified pedagogy: Examining how gamified educational apps coupled with effective pedagogy support learning, Ronnie Shroff talked about the importance of designing gaming apps in such a way that students can engage with them in a state of flow. Instructional design is important here: gamification should not be an excuse for simplistic learning designs. Points, levels, rewards, leaderboards, quests and customisation are good gamification elements to include. Feedback, including through elements like points and leaderboards, is also critical, and good game design builds in freedom to fail along the way.

In his bilingual presentation on the final day, Smarter education in China: Theoretical efforts and pedagogical practices, Zhiting Zhu from East China Normal University began by outlining international developments in smart learning environments in South Korea, Australia, and around the world. He went on to say that the Chinese translation of ‘smart’ is close to the idea of ‘wisdom’. He indicated that according to Confucius, wisdom can be gained in three ways: reflection (the noblest), imitation (the easiest), and experience (the bitterest). Zhu then gave his own definition of smarter education, which he said involves constructing technology-infused environments and creating a finer ecology of pedagogies, so that higher achievements of teaching, better experiences of learning, and personalised learning services can be enabled. Students should emerge with greater wisdom, including a better value orientation, higher thinking quality, stronger doing ability, and deeper potential for creativity. By contrast, ‘stupid education’ involves: not tailoring teaching strategies individually, solely emphasising book-based knowledge, severing history and culture instead of seeing them as a bridge connecting the past with the future, and countenancing higher costs but lower performance in developing educational informatisation in schools.

We need a technologically enabled smart environment combined with smarter pedagogy to lead to smarter talents. He suggested that the move we have seen from e-learning to m-learning to u-learning needs to proceed now to s-learning (‘smart learning’). He spoke about the importance of students having personal online learning spaces, and the role learning analytics might play in these, and he suggested that flipped classrooms can be a trigger for class-based smart learning. In smart classrooms, it should be possible to provide students with precise feedback based on their learning performance. He mentioned a range of ongoing initiatives, from multimodal e-books to physical makerspaces, and showed examples of school-based projects, from problem-based learning approaches to students acting as micro-learning designers.

Challenges include the need for more research on big data; teacher competency requirements; and the need for systemic changes and innovations to build smart schools. Smart education needs to promote whole person development.

eLFA Banner, Shanghai, China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

eLFA Banner, Shanghai, China. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Participants would certainly have come away from this conference with a clear sense of key directions of development in contemporary educational technologies, notably including MOOCs, xAPI-enabled learning analytics drawing together insights from students’ learning on multiple devices and platforms, and the growing role of gamification. It will be interesting to see how these themes have developed further when the conference reconvenes in Hong Kong in 2017.

The brain, language and technology

Tokyo, Japan
5-6 June, 2016

Street scene, Machida, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Street scene, Machida, Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The JALTCALL Conference this year brought together a sizeable audience at Tamagawa University in Tokyo. For this conference, JALTCALL partnered with the BRAIN SIG (whose full name is the Mind, Brain and Education SIG) to focus on the theme of CALL and the Brain, with various presentations addressing the intersection of knowledge about the brain, language, literacy and educational technologies.

In her virtual plenary, Neuroconstructivism in the modern classroom, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa began with a warning that, although we know more than ever about the human brain, we still know relatively little. She pointed out that no two human brains are the same, because they are shaped by our past experiences, and that prior knowledge influences new learning. Therefore individuals need different amounts of exposure to new knowledge before they ‘know’ it, because it depends on prior experience with similar information. Neuroconstructivism is a framework focusing on the construction of representations of knowledge in the brain. People will interpret information subjectively depending on their past experiences, and it is important how they connect new knowledge with those experiences.

Language processing as a whole is very complex. To be able to read effectively requires the activation of at least 16 neural pathways in the brain. Writing is even more complex. It is easier to say what parts of the brain are not used in language processing, rather than trying to list all the parts that are. However, recent studies suggest that bilingualism and multilingualism lead to functional, rather than structural, changes in the brain. Neurolinguistics shows many benefits of bilingualism, and no disadvantages.

Three key ideas for teachers are:

  • Teachers need to attend to the multiple neutral networks needed to achieve a task, such as speaking a foreign language. More basic pathways must be laid down before more complex pathways can be laid down.
  • The individual brain constructs knowledge based on a combination of genetics and environment (nature vs nurture), so different people have different levels of potential.
  • Each brain will need different amounts of exposure before it learns, leading to the question of how teachers can respond to all learners.

One way of using technology to do this is through virtual bundles of information which can be presented in mini-libraries online. Each bundle for a weekly topic could, for example, consist of a video and slides introducing a topic and priming students to learn things they don’t already know, and a collection of instructor-recommended resources which allow students to gain further and deeper understanding. These virtual bundles allow learners to each approach the topic from their own starting point, thus providing different levels of entry to the topic; creating the opportunity for learners to fill personal gaps as well as to shine in later face-to-face classes; and enhancing the motivation level of learners due the Goldilocks Effect, where nothing is too easy or too hard. This flipped approach also has the benefit of allowing the teacher to work from a common starting point in face-to-face classes. She wrapped up by referencing the TPACK framework as presenting key considerations for teachers, who need subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and technological knowledge to support the first two of these and to help individual students to learn.

In his virtual plenary, Can neuroimaging inform the principles of learning technology?, Paul Howard-Jones discussed the value of uncertain, rather than certain, rewards in education. He outlined a current study entitled Does ‘gamification’ boost engagement and educational learning? which involves uncertain, escalating rewards, as well as competition with a peer. In another study entitled ‘Brain School’, a comparison was made between a study-only condition, a self-quizzing condition, and a game-based condition (with uncertain, escalating rewards and competing with a peer). In self-reported behavioural results, game-based learning was found to be more engaging than self-quizzing, which in turn was more engaging than study-only. In brain scans, there was found to be some default mode network (DMN) deactivation, which may be a useful neural marker for educational engagement. In other words, gamification increased self-reported engagement and learning, and deactivated DMN. More study is needed on various aspects of these experiments, including on how uncertainty, escalation and peer competition in gaming contribute to the brain’s reward response and learning.

In my keynote, Beyond traditional language and literacy: The rise of mobile literacy, which closed the first day of the conference, I gave an overview of key digital literacies which feed into mobile literacy, as well as making some comments on the need to balance up the advantages of mobile devices (for deepening students’ learning and engagement) with the challenges they present (in areas such as culture, socioeconomics, privacy and surveillance, health, and the environment). Facing up to the challenges of mobile learning, I suggested, will best allow us to capitalise on its possible benefits.

In their presentation, Digital literacy: A case of Japanese EFL students, Jeong-Bae Son and Moonyoung Park spoke about the fact that while young people may use technologies in many aspects of their lives, they often need training on how to do so for learning purposes. After considering various definitions, Jeong-Bae Son defined digital literacy as the ability to use digital technologies at an adequate level for creation, communication, and information search and evaluation, in a digital society. It involves the development of knowledge and skills for using technologies for different purposes. He indicated that there are 5 main elements:

  • information search and evaluation
  • creation
  • communication
  • collaboration
  • online safety

Moonyoung Park reported on a study of 70 EFL students at a Japanese university. Even though these were computer science majors, many said they were limited in their ability to create with digital technologies – for example, building webpages or recording digital videos. A considerable percentage did not know virtual worlds like Second Life, or key podcasting or photosharing sites. Students generally perceived their level of digital literacy as moderate to high, but recognised the importance of improving their digital fluency.

In his presentation, Gamification: The future of learning?, Guy Cihi suggested that the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy – remembering and understanding – lend themselves to memorisation through a gaming format. A good game is characterised by successive eustresses (positive stresses) experienced in your brain. Most good games use an element of uncertain reward, which produces consistently higher levels of dopamine than do unexpected rewards or certain rewards. This can be seen for example in the use of dice, and the point was illustrated with reference to the Candy Crush game. Almost any game you play with students can be modified so that certain rewards are treated as uncertain rewards. An app like Zondle, which has paired associate tasks, makes use of user-uploaded content, and allows for certain and uncertain game rewards, is an example of a learning game which applies uncertain rewards. The forthcoming Lexxica app Words & Monsters will work on similar principles.

In their presentation, Smartphones and homework, Douglas Jarrell and Emily Mindog pointed out that smartphones have both receptive and productive capabilities, and can be used for ubiquitous access as well as accommodating different learning styles. They discussed Schoology as a platform that can be used both on computers and on mobile phones, though the iPhone and Android apps are a little different. Speaking of childhood education majors, they emphasised the importance of the students improving their speaking and listening skills. They gave examples of activities where students made an audio recording of their speaking; where students had to draw a picture while listening to an audio recording of instructions by the teacher; and where students had to turn a sequence of activities described by the teacher in a video into written instructions. While most students said that using mobile phones for learning was good, convenient and modern, a number ran into data limit problems, and several Android users had problems.

Dangers of sitting all day, every day. Source: Fearless, J.H. (2015). DIY Desk. Made.

In his presentation, Killing Them Softly with Phone Love, Brian Gallagher spoke about healthy and unhealthy approaches to our use of digital devices. He highlighted issues like bad posture and poor ergonomics (see figure above), and eye strain, including computer vision syndrome, or CVS (see figure below). He spoke about an annual survey conducted with Japanese students over 4 years, where students, over time, reported greater degrees of agreement with statements that they were using computers too much, felt their eyes were tired after using small screens, and felt dizziness or neck pain after using technology. The danger is that we may be harming our students by using too much technology too much of the time. We should employ good practice and teach this to students, with a key message being to use everything in moderation. We should also consider asking students for their opinions after informing them of good practice.

The 20-20-20 rule. Source: Butler, T. (2015). How to avoid computer eye strain. Lenstore Vision Hub.

The 20-20-20 rule. Source: Butler, T. (2015). How to avoid computer eye strain. Lenstore Vision Hub.

On the second afternoon of the conference, an unconference session took place where participants were invited to wander between rooms and dip into the various topics being discussed in each room. I dropped in on a series of discussions on topics ranging from voice recognition to physiological responses to screens, as well as an app exchange session which included a whiteboard sharing of useful apps and websites (see figure below). There is a full list of all the apps and websites mentioned, in alphabetical order, on Paul Raine’s blog.

App exchange, JALTCALL Unconference. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

App exchange, JALTCALL Unconference. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

It’s always interesting to come back to Japan – a country with an astonishingly, but unevenly, high-tech landscape – to see how the educational technology sector is continuing to evolve. There are always plenty of lessons here for the rest of the world.

Regional roundup in Thailand

International Mobile Learning Festival
Bangkok, Thailand
27-28 May, 2016

Sukhumvit Skyline, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Sukhumvit Skyline, Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

It was great to have a chance to attend the International Mobile Learning Festival for the second year in a row. It was transplanted this year from its original Hong Kong base to Bangkok, where it drew together global perspectives on the conceptualisation of mobile learning, interwoven with regional perspectives on the implementation of mobile learning. It was particularly interesting to note the importance of open resources and platforms in developing world contexts which are beginning to explore the possibilities of mobile learning. Fortunately, the proceedings are available online.

In his opening keynote, Empathic technologies and virtual, contextual and mobile learning, Pedro Isaías explained that researchers have concluded that emotional responses play a pivotal role in learning processes. It may be that an intelligent computer which can learn needs to have emotional responses. He gave an overview of recent generations of social robots, from Nexi to the Dragonbots at MIT. He went on to talk about the differences between affective technologies, which are typically robots responding to human emotions within the context of human-machine interaction, and empathic information systems, like online learning platforms which use emotional data in applications to provide a more personalised learner experience. He spoke about the EU Empathic Products research project, now concluded, which set up numerous trial scenarios involving empathic technologies.

Forums are empathic by nature, Pedro suggested, but we can increase the empathic elements. In particular, he demonstrated the Umniverse massive collaboration platform, an empathic online learning environment. Users have to add empathic data to posts and can tag existing posts with such data, in order to make them easier to sort and find later. Users also have access to system statistics allowing data mining on forum activities. Such approaches can help address the absence of face-to-face communication in distance learning, and can transpose interaction into an online context. They can have a positive effect on interest and motivation. He went on to outline the current, ongoing evolution from Umniverse to the 3D immersive environment TAT, and invited interested educators to contact him about possible collaboration in investigating this new platform.

In her keynote which opened the second day, Moving towards a mobile learning landscape: Effective device integration, Helen Crompton suggested that we should be asking what we can do with mobile technologies that we couldn’t do with tethered learning. She cited John Traxler’s list of five key aspects of this learning, which can be:

  • contingent
  • situated
  • authentic
  • personalised
  • context-aware

However, research shows that educators are not currently integrating mobile devices effectively into the curriculum. Educational leaders have many fears around mobile devices. Many educators stick to methods that they are familiar with, thereby using 21st century technologies with 20th century teaching methods. She commented that the TPACK and SAMR frameworks can provide useful supports for educators in incorporating new technologies effectively into their teaching.

Leveraging the insights of TPACK and SAMR, she then went on to describe an m-learning integration framework covering 4 elements as seen from the point of view of the teacher:

  • Beliefs (about the role of the teacher; socio-cultural influences; self-efficacy; past experience as a learner)
  • Resources (including training; technical support; access to technology)
  • Methods (online or face-to-face teaching; teaching philosophy)
  • Purpose (time-filler or meeting objectives; substituting or redefining learning)

M-learning integration framework. Source: Crompton (2016).

She further suggested that there is a nested social and ecological framework for mobile learning integration, with concentric circles leading from the educator (individual) through the microsystem (school), mesosystem and exosystem (school district) to the macrosystem (national scale).

M-learning integration ecological framework. Source: Crompton (2016).

M-learning integration ecological framework. Source: Crompton (2016).

In my own presentation, Mobile literacy: What it is, why it matters, and how it can be developed, I argued that in order for our students to get the most out of their mobile learning experiences, we need to help them develop their  mobile literacy, building on existing literacies like information literacy, multimodal literacy, network literacy and code literacy. I then wrapped up with some comments on critical mobile literacy.

In their talk, Mobilizing the troops: A review of the contested terrain of app-enabled learning, Michael Stevenson and John Hedberg outlined the progression through web 1.0 and web 2.0 and towards cloud computing. Apps, they suggested, have emerged as the key mode of learning with mobile devices. They outlined three key metaphors reflecting the issues that educators have had to face in recent years:

  1. Sending the Troops “Over the Top” Before They’re Ready?
  2. Equipping the Troops with an AAA: Atomized Arsenal of Apps
  3. “Smashing” the Arsenal for More Pedagogical Firepower

When teachers and students are literate enough in the use of apps, they can choose to combine a variety of apps to expand learning possibilities; this approach is known as “app smashing“, as demonstrated in the YouTube App Smash Tutorial by mrshahnscience:

In their presentation, A snapshot of teacher educators’ mobile learning practices, Kevin Burden and Matthew Kearney spoke about the mobile pedagogical practices of teacher educators. They referred to their Mobile Pedagogy Framework, as seen below, where word clouds offer some detail about the three constructs of personalisation, collaboration and authenticity:

‘Word clouds’ relating to the 3 constructs of the Mobile Pedagogy Framework. Source: Burden & Kearney (2016)

‘Word clouds’ relating to the 3 constructs of the Mobile Pedagogy Framework. Source: Burden & Kearney (2016)

They reported on a study which showed that teacher educators have a high focus on authenticity but less of a focus on networking and personalisation in their current use of mobile pedagogies. Teachers reported that the above framework is a useful tool in conceptualising mobile pedagogies, and a toolkit is now being developed to support the professional development needs of teacher educators. This involves a tool to help teachers and students evaluate task design with reference to the above framework, as well as multimedia case scenarios to illustrate best practices. There will also be a dynamic poster showing how certain apps might support the three constructs of personalisation, collaboration and authenticity. A course is being set up, and the presenters invited interested educators to contact them to become involved in shaping or participating in the course.

In his workshop, Do mobile devices have a central role in e-learning?, Spencer Benson focused on the changing landscape, with the move from teacher-centred to learner-centred education, and a parallel move from laptops to mobile devices. To a large extent, he suggested, students don’t discriminate between academic and non-academic uses of mobile devices; all uses are integrated on the same devices. Using Poll Everywhere, he surveyed the audience on numerous topics connected with the use of mobile devices in education.

In his talk, e-Seminar apps: Technology-enhanced learning interventions through “real-time” online interactive experiences, Kumaran Rajaram discussed the creation of the prototype  iSeminar e-learning app developed at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He explained that the app is designed to promote student interactivity and engagement, which is particularly important in a cultural context where students may be reticent to interact verbally. The app also facilitates group work and peer evaluation. A learning analytics component is valuable in giving the instructor an overview of students’ thoughts and understandings. Records of the discussion contents can also be kept for future review. In sum, the question that is really being asked here, he suggested, is how the technology can be of optimal use, so that online interaction can become an organic part of a routine class.

In his presentation, Mobile learning design and computational thinking, Thomas Chiu spoke about Jeannette Wing‘s (2006) claim that computational thinking will be a fundamental skill used worldwide; he suggested that, to obtain good employment in the Hong Kong context, it will soon be as necessary as an ability to speak English.  Computational thinking has three main components: problem formulation; solution expression; and solution execution and evaluation. In K-12 education, he went on to say, computational thinking is not just about technical details for using software, or thinking like a computer, or even necessarily programming. It does not always have to involve a computer. He presented three case studies which showed that problem formulation is fundamentally about collaboration and communication; solution expression is about visualising, modelling and presenting ideas; and solution execution is about implementation, sharing ideas for revisiting, and real-time experiencing of ideas. Mobile devices, he suggested, could have a role to play in supporting all of these.

In his presentation, Using wearable technology to improve the acquisition of new literacies: A new pedagogical approach of situated individual feedback coming from the activity trackers and reflected upon in the ePortfolio, Michele Notari discussed the intersection of new wearable devices with new digital literacies. He then went on to focus on eHealth literacy, which he defined as the ability to seek, find, understand, and appraise health information from electronic sources and to apply the knowledge to address or solve a health issue; it simultaneously draws on other literacies ranging from information to scientific literacy. He reported on a study involving undergraduate students at the University of Hong Kong who wore Xiaomi MiBand fitness trackers over a period of 5 months. Students’ reflections revealed the considerable changes some of them made to their exercise and sleeping behaviour during this time, while a number did further online research to improve their understanding of the statistics being generated, especially in regard to sleep.

A broad regional perspective was offered by Jonghwi Park in her presentation, UNESCO and mobile learning, where she explained that the UNESCO Bangkok office serves a whole range of countries in the Asia Pacific region. She spoke about the successes of the UNESCO Education for All (EfA) goals in the Asia Pacific region, particularly in regard to more children attending school, but she mentioned some unanticipated side effects: these include a shortage of teachers; a global learning crisis centred on the quality of learning; and growing demand for higher education. Following the end of EfA in 2015, new United Nations Sustainable Development goals were set up for the 2015-2030 period. The fourth of these refers to universal quality education. ICTs, she suggested, will be crucial in making this a reality. She mentioned that there will shortly be a new UNESCO report released which examines member countries’ national education policy orientations, and compares the extent to which government policy emphasises opportunity vs risk mitigation and safety. She spoke about UNESCO initiatives to promote teacher training, and to foster gender equality in learning through mobile technologies; in connection with the latter point, she highlighted the 2015 UNESCO report Mobile phones and literacy: Empowerment in women’s hands.

A number of presenters spoke about individual country contexts. In his presentation, Thailand OER, OCW and MOOC: Strategy toward lifelong learning of Thai people, Anuchai Theeraroungchaisri highlighted the open element in all of these platforms: OERs, OCW, and MOOCs. He spoke about the role of the Thailand Cyber University (TCU) in creating an e-learning consortium of all Thai universities, providing online distance education, and engaging in research and development in e-learning including establishing quality assurance guidelines. There are now 9 universities in Thailand serving as e-learning hubs. The TCU open courseware project has led to the TCU-Globe initiative, designed to facilitate the sharing of open resources within and outside Thailand. The latest development is the Thai-MOOC project, which will be launched in 2016 and will tie into the goals of the larger Digital Thailand project, which involves creating a digitally driven knowledge economy.

In her presentation, The growing tendency of mobile-assisted language learning development in Kazakhstan, Damira Jantassova spoke about a whole range of MALL practices  employed in Kazakhstan. Reporting on an interview-based research project with 500 EFL learners at Karaganda State Technical University, she noted that the vast majority of interviewees placed most emphasis on learner mobility (focusing on the anytime/anywhere aspects of learning), a smaller number placed emphasis on device mobility, and a very small number placed emphasis on mobility of learning experiences. Mobile phones were primarily used for vocabulary development, according to students. She suggested that it is important to help students develop an understanding of the potential contextual benefits of mobile learning.

In his talk, Mobile solution for synchronized and offline version of audio-based open educational resources, Reinald Adrian Pugoy spoke about the recent dramatic increase in mobile phone ownership in the Philippines, with many students now preferring to use mobile devices rather than desktop or laptop computers to access educational materials. This is against a background of limited infrastructure and slow internet connections, with many educational institutions located in remote areas with little or no internet access. Offline OERs do not provide a viable solution because materials may quickly become out of date. He reported on a study at the University of the Philippines Open University (UPOP) exploring a mechanism to allow offline use of OERs, with an internet connection only needed to download the most recent updates. It was decided to explore audio OERs, to be stored in a WordPress repository. Offline accessing and syncing of OERs has been successfully achieved in this project, with the next stage being to conduct a usability evaluation among end users.

All in all, this was a conference which offered rich insights both into local contexts as well as into their connection with global themes and trends. It will be interesting to revisit some of these themes when IMLF takes place back in Hong Kong in mid-2017.

From code literacy to robotics


KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Digital Education Show Asia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
18-19 April, 2016

It was good to be back at the Digital Education Show Asia in KL for the second year running, especially given the heavy focus of this year’s event, the fourth in the series, on 21st century skills and digital literacies, including computational thinking and coding. Robotics, perhaps unsurprisingly, was also high on the agenda.

In my own paper on the first morning, Mapping the pathway from m-learning to digital literacies for ASEAN educators, I argued that in order for our students to get the most out of mobile learning, it is important for educators to help them develop their mobile literacy, and the individual literacies of which it is composed, including code literacy.

In his paper, Learning beyond boundaries – How coding shapes systematic problem solvers, Felix Lee suggested that coding and robotics have a role to play within the current context where we have to break down boundaries between subjects, develop creativity through problem-based learning, and let the students determine their learning paths through an interactive technology-enhanced curriculum.

In her talk, Advocacy of STEM education – Introducing computational thinking as the new literacy of the 21st century, Ng Puay San emphasised the importance of applied STEM education to support innovation in a global conceptual economy. She stressed the need for an integrated curriculum where different subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths connect with each other. She talked about computational thinking – which she described as a new literacy – as a framework within which students learn to reason about systems and problems, and which goes well beyond issues of hardware and software. She showcased the 3-year initiative Code for Change under Singapore’s Smart Nation Vision, designed to improve students’ skills in this area, and gave the example of a 4-year-old girl coding with Scratch. She wrapped up with an overview of the need for a quality and integrated curriculum, authentic assessment, leveraging of educational technology, continuous professional development for teachers, and partnership with the community, industries and home.

In a talk focusing on the Malaysian context, Digital.Tech@Schools: Empowering students to become digital innovators, Sumitra Nair opened by noting that 90% of all future jobs will require digital competencies, according to the EU Skills Report 2013. She indicated that there are currently initiatives to encourage digital innovation in Malaysia, but that these exist at the fringes of the formal curriculum; young people, she suggested, need to move from being consumers to creators of technology. The Digital.Tech@Schools initiative, piloted in 24 schools in December 2015, involves revising the ICT curriculum and training teachers; introducing co-curricular clubs; and running national-level competitions. The new curriculum focus is to be on algorithms, decomposition and debugging; coding and sequencing; and digital literacy – searching, analysing and curating content. The approach will involve thematic, activity- and project-based learning (combining unplugged and device-based learning). Co-curricular activities in the pilot included app development, Arduino and Scratch programming, and 3D printing. The initiative has now been endorsed by key decision makers. The focus in 2016 is on educator readiness for the curriculum roll-out.

In the follow-up panel, How do education leaders need to adapt according to a new technology-driven education system?, chaired by Eric Lam, a number of key points were raised, notably about the need to place pedagogy before technology; the centrality of the teacher’s role even within technology-enhanced education; the need to remember the human dimension of education; the importance of teachers employing creativity and design thinking to repurpose technological tools appropriately for learning; the advantages of having students sharing through online platforms; the need to have students use technology for communication and creation rather than just consumption, but to use more traditional tools when appropriate; and the key role played by the surrounding culture and context.

In his presentation, Visual  learning and emerging technologies – Rethinking 21st century literacy for a visual world, Emory Craig indicated, following Ron Bleed, that being visually literate is a must in the contemporary era. He noted the enormous potential of augmented reality (AR) in education, as well as of virtual reality (VR); at 90 frames per second, as in current high-end VR displays, he says, you cannot tell the difference between reality and visual media. He also described Facebook’s experiments in social VR, as well as Microsoft’s Hololens, which allows holographic teleportation. He concluded with some questions:

  • What new tools/vocabulary do we need to analyse visual media?
  • Can new media and VR create new ways of knowing? Can it create empathy? (And is this the final form of media, now that it has become immersive?)
  • What happens when media becomes as ‘real’ as the real world? (And how do we keep our critical distance?)
  • Will it foster new forms of collaborative learning?
  • How should current educational practices and institutions change in a highly visual and virtual world?

He also referred participants to the Digital Bodies site where he and his colleagues write about these kinds of new developments.

The roundtable discussion, Understanding how mobile and ubiquitous access technology can help to enable blended learning in your schools, led by Ian Pittman, began with a discussion of the wide range of possible definitions and interpretations of blended learning.  The topic of learning design arose quickly, as did the issue of the socioeconomic context and how the available technology impacts on learning designs, which always need to be customised to particular groups of learners in particular contexts.

Reflecting on less well-provisioned contexts in his paper, The burden of technology in education: Is there a more painless way?, Eric Lam mentioned that a key infrastructure  challenge is how to achieve e-learning with only short periods of stable internet access. He talked about the importance of downloading materials from the cloud when there is an internet connection, so they can later be used without a connection. E-learning should be afforded, he suggested, without the constant presence of the internet. While this problem may cease to exist in the future, it is a very real problem now. He showed a platform called PageWerkz designed to work under these conditions.

In his presentation, Outlining best practices on how to develop MOOC content, David Asirvatham suggested that the advantage of MOOCs is that they allow for on-demand and networked learning. It is important to begin by deciding whether to set up a cognitive-behaviourist xMOOC or a connectivist cMOOC, or to try to combine the two. MOOCs can be fully online, or used to support blended and/or flipped approaches. Creating a MOOC is a chance to explore new pedagogical approaches as well as new business models. He suggested that it would take 6-12 months to develop a MOOC from scratch, and that the cost might be around US $50,000. Ultimately it is a team effort involving the following roles: subject matter expert, instructional designer, script editor, graphic designer, camera operator, audio/video editor, and reviewer. He noted that learning objects, in the form of videos within a MOOC, should ideally be under 5 minutes long. It’s also important to consider how you will address the typical drop-out rate from MOOCs, which may be up to 80-90%.

In between the many papers, it was interesting to see how many companies are offering robotics hardware and associated programming software for education. Providers included Arduino Robotics (Malaysia), rero (Malaysia) and Pitsco Tetrix (USA), whose products can for example be used in robotics lessons and clubs in schools. There is also a push for the integration of robotics with STEM, such as by Abilix (China) and in the STEM with Robotics programme by CM Asia (Singapore). Meanwhile, the company Robotics Learning (Malaysia) was showcasing its programmes to help children learn to create robots in a problem-solving environment, combining elements of STEM and coding in an integrated learning context (see Figure 1). It was also interesting to learn about Malaysia’s annual National Robotics Competition for school students.


Figure 1: Robots from Robotics Learning, Malaysia (2016)

My strongest impression of this conference is that, within a broader recognition of the importance of 21st century skills and digital literacies, there is a growing appreciation of the need to foreground computational thinking and code literacy, and to understand the role that can be played by robotics and programming in an integrated, STEM-oriented, problem-based approach to the curriculum. It will be interesting to see how these intersecting trends continue to evolve over coming years.

Mobile at home

ACTA/ACAL International Conference
Perth, Australia
7-11 April, 2016

Normally when I present at a conference, there is some combination of planes, trains, busses and taxis involved in getting there. So it’s a rare pleasure to be able to walk to a conference venue from my apartment, as was the case when I presented a keynote session, Yet another literacy? Mobile devices, mobile learning, and mobile literacy, at the well-attended ACTA/ACAL Conference in my hometown of Perth.

The theme of the conference was Diversity: Exchanging Ways of Being. Mobile devices are of course a technology that is opening up increasing diversity in educational approaches, content, and settings. In my keynote, I argued that, in order to help our students gain the most from learning experiences with mobile devices, and at the same time to prepare them for their future lives in a mobile, digitally mediated world, we need to support the development of their mobile literacy. In one way, it’s a newly emerging literacy. But in another way, as a macroliteracy composed of existing literacies – like information literacy, multimodal literacy, network literacy, and code literacy – it is not as new as it seems. It is, however, crucial to ensure that there is a level of critical awareness embedded in students’ mobile literacy, so that they learn to ask critical questions about about our mobile devices and their political, economic, social, health and environmental implications.

One of the disadvantages of attending a conference in your hometown is that, unfortunately, other commitments and obligations continue, so I was only able to participate in the conference for a couple of hours. That was enough, though, to have some interesting conversations with delegates, who were clearly inspired by the whole conference. It was great to see such a successful event taking place in Australia’s most isolated capital city.

Drawing together global insights

30-31 March, 2016

Suntec City, Singapore. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Suntec City, Singapore. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2016. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The biannual iCTLT (International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology) in Singapore is always a great place to hear about contemporary trends drawn together from across the world of educational technology.

In his opening keynote, Coherence: Putting the right drivers in action, Michael Fullan spoke about the importance of whole system change, focusing on pedagogical improvement linked to measurable outcomes, and the need for practice to inform theory. He suggested the right policy drivers are capacity building (rather than accountability), collaborative work (rather than individual teacher and  leadership quality), pedagogy (rather than technology, which is just an accelerator), and ‘systemness’ (rather than fragmented strategies). Collaborative cultures in schools, he noted, have a greater effect on teaching and learning than teacher appraisal or professional development.

There is a need for an integration of  pedagogical knowledge, change knowledge, and technological knowledge to innovate effectively in schools. Exciting new learning should be irresistibly engaging, elegantly efficient, technologically ubiquitous, steeped in real-life problem-solving, and involve deep learning. He went on to speak about the emergence of students, and not just teachers, as change agents. Students can be catalysts for pedagogical change, partners in organisational change, and forces for societal change; they can become citizens of tomorrow, today. The job description for education, he suggested, should be ‘helping humanity’, which involves students in an integral way.

In the second keynote, Connected learning: Learning in an era of abundant connectivity, Mizuko Ito spoke about how learning is different in an era of easily accessible internet-based resources. Students will be sharing in ways many educators regard as positive (such as forming study groups) as well as less desirable ways (such as downloading essays or finding services to take online courses for them). The latter may be due in part to a lack of engagement in formal education, which is very different from the free-flowing ecology of demand-driven learning young people engage in outside the classroom.

One problem with new technologies like MOOCs is that they tend to advantage those who are already educationally and socially advantaged, rather than closing gaps, as Ito pointed out with reference to the work of Hansen and Reich (2015). She went on to present a model of connected learning, involving students’ interests, a peer culture, and opportunities tied to recognition. The last of these may be linked to school, civic engagement, or job opportunities, but it is difficult for young people to find these connections. For most youth, in fact, their learning experiences in and out of school are disconnected, and they have little idea how to connect their interests with career pathways. The challenge today is to build a more connected ecosystem for students’ learning, bringing together their formal and informal learning. While not all learning has to be of this type, and while there is no one size-fits-all model, every learner deserves to have this kind of experience, and to have it recognised by schools, education systems and employers. There is a key role here for ‘learning heroes’ who act as mentors to young people and help them to make these kinds of connections.

In my own spotlight presentation, Deeper learning and deeper engagement through mobile literacy, I argued that there is a pressing need to help students develop the individual literacies that make up the mobile literacy skillset, including information literacy, multimodal literacy, network literacy, code literacy, and critical mobile literacy. I suggested that at the same time, educators can seize the opportunity to deepen students’ learning experiences and deepen their engagement through tasks that simultaneously involve active, constructivist learning, and situated, embodied learning. In a follow-up presentation the next day on Designing mobile learning, I outlined the practical considerations that impact on educators’ creation of mobile learning experiences for students.

In her opening plenary on the second day, Rethinking the profession of teaching as a design science, Diana Laurillard began by stressing the importance of placing pedagogy before technology. She outlined the conversational framework (see figure below) and went on to discuss how technology can improve knowledge acquisition, inquiry, practice, discussion, collaboration, and production, while she constantly emphasised the importance of teachers’ guidance and curation.

The Conversational Framwork (Laurillard, 2016)

Figure 1: The Conversational Framework (Laurillard, 2016)

She explained some techniques for using technology to support collaborative learning in very large classes, involving pyramid discussion groups. The technology can handle the orchestration of large discussions of this kind to make the teacher’s task more manageable.

She then suggested some techniques for improving the use of multiple choice questions, including concealed answer MCQs (where answers to the question are initially concealed and some user-constructed input is required) or open MCQs (where students see responses and facts relevant to the responses, and must link responses to the relevant facts). Using learning analytics from large online classes can help us to improve MCQs, identify common misconceptions, and crowdsource wrong answers.

Teaching is now, more than ever, a design science. It’s more like engineering than performance, art, or science, she stated. It’s important to have a design-test-redesign cycle; and a professional community of practice is useful for innovating, testing, and sharing new ideas for effective pedagogical design. In this way, collaborative innovation can become viable for teachers. Teaching in the 21st century means teachers discovering new digital pedagogies, being supported in innovation, being recognised as design professionals, and engaging in professional development via peer collaboration.

In his presentation, Designing (multimodal) learning, Victor Lim spoke about the importance of teachers seeing themselves as designers of learning. Design starts with the customers, is divergent, is controlled by principles rather than rules, invites invention, and is aimed at transformation. The role of the teacher has evolved from being a transmitter to being a facilitator to being a designer. Design is about the centrality of choice: it involves educators choosing the best strategies for their learners in their context.

Learners also need to become multimodally literate. Referring to a wide range of developments, from digital storytelling to Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening dissertation, Lim discussed the shift towards multimodal representation in contemporary education and culture. He also flagged up the issue of subject-specific literacy, given that different subjects make different use of texts and other evidence types. It is necessary, he suggested, to develop complementary competencies in traditional literacies and multimodal literacy. When designing learning experiences through which students can develop multimodal literacy, teachers might draw on the FAMILY Framework – Form, Audience, Message, Integration, Link, Y (Why?) – in conceptualising their lessons.

All in all, iCTLT has once again proven to be a valuable forum for the exchange of views about new technologies in education, drawing together the perspectives and contributions of educators themselves, as well as government and the commercial sector. The fact that the audience has grown to nearly 2,000 people suggests that others find it valuable too! I’m already looking forward to iCTLT 2018.

More on mobile language learning from a Japanese perspective

Gunma JALT Summer Workshop
Kusatsu, Japan
20-21 August, 2015


Kusatsu Town Centre, Gunma, Japan. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Following on directly from the JACET Summer Seminar, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the Gunma JALT Summer Workshop, which likewise was held in Kusatsu, Japan, and which addressed the theme of Technological trends in education. I repeated my two presentations on Future mobile learning, given originally at the JACET Seminar.

In his presentation, From high-tech to low-tech environment: The challenge of introducing technology to ESL in the high school context, Stephen Howes presented an example of the technological context in a school in Australia as a comparison to those found in some Japanese schools. He showcased an Australian private high school environment with a one-to-one tablet programme where extensive use was made of cloud-based, schoolwide software platforms. Overall it was a blended learning context, but there was no obligation to use technology all the time, and teachers were encouraged to employ it when and where it was appropriate. Teachers, he suggested, need to be learners when it comes to new technologies and their implementation in education.

In his presentation, Handheld video games and English L2 learning, Ben Thanyawatpokin reported on a 2-month study of Japanese English major university students using video games to improve their English, where an experimental group of volunteers was compared with a control group who did not choose to play a video game in English. He found that the video graphics supported students’ text comprehension; that there was considerable incidental learning by students; that the daily conversational English in the game was perceived as useful by students; and that students’  initial motivation to learn English morphed into motivation to play the game. The experimental group also showed improvements on tests of reading speed and word recognition speed after the 2-month period.

In their presentation, The use of audio journals as an outside-of-classroom activity to foster L2 acquisition in college freshmen, Raymond Hoogenboom and Barry Keith spoke about their students’ submission of audio journals. After listening several times to a Voice of America news story of their choice, students record a 2-3 minute listening response journal (LRJ) entry in which they greet the listener, give the title and date of the news story, provide a short summary, give their opinions, and make a connection to their own lives. They are advised not to prepare a written text to read from, though notes are acceptable. The journals are submitted by email as MP3 or MP4 attachments, and the instructor drags them into the students’ iTunes playlists. Instructors can respond individually or collectively, although this is time-consuming. Through this process, the students are exposed to both meaning-focused input and meaning-focused output, and there can be a focus on form as well as fluency.

Overall, the Gunma JALT Workshop was a good opportunity to continue discussing mobile and other new technologies in language teaching with a different group of educators, and to hear their perspectives on the use of these tools in Japanese classrooms.

Conceptualising mobile learning

International Mobile Learning Festival
Hong Kong
22-23 May, 2015

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

I was only able to make it to second day of the International Mobile Learning Festival in Hong Kong, hosted by Hong Kong University at the Admiralty Centre, but it was great to take part in this dynamic event.

I opened the second day with my plenary, Mobile Design: 21st Century Approaches to Learning, where I discussed the importance of teachers seeing themselves as designers of student learning experiences which are aligned with transformative pedagogies and 21st century skills, while always remembering to take their own, and their students’, technological contexts as a starting point.

In his plenary, Designing, Modeling and Constructing: New Learning Paradigms, Michael Spector suggested that learning design must always be accompanied by evaluation at every stage. He went on to say that technologies change, contexts change, interests change, but learning does not change (when it is understood as a naturally occuring process inovlving changes in what a person knows and can do). It is the best and the worst of times at the moment: there are so many technologies available, but it is challenging for learning designers. He gave a detailed example of the work of the US National Technology Leadership Coalition in using 3D printing to support Next Generation Science Standards, with some positive results. He suggested that there is a whole hierarchy of components to support learning and instruction, as seen in the image below.


Designing, Modeling and Constructing (Spector, 2015)

It is important, he noted, not to over-promise on technology. The gains due to technology since 1950 are not that great. We must keep our focus on teaching and learning, with the technology in a supporting role.

In their paper, Authentic Mobile Learning, Kevin Burden and Matthew Kearney noted that we need to interrogate what is meant by ‘authenticity’ when it comes to mobile learning. Authenticity, they suggested, may not just be about the context (which ranges from simulated to participatory), but about planning and design (whether teachers pre-define the learning experience, or give students more agency and allow the learning to be emergent) and personal relevance (whether students are detached from the learning, or engaged in the learning).

In her presentation, Flipping the MOOC Global/Local Collaboration: Understanding the Visual and Verbal Metaphors, Yilin Chen spoke about fostering 21st century skills (like creativity and visual literacy) through a flipped course based on the work of Shakespeare. For example, when studying Romeo and Juliet, the students were asked to look at manga adapations. They were also asked to create visual representations of key images in soliloquys, before considering how these could be represented creatively on the stage. Students later did Skype auditions, following which scenes were rehearsed and staged.

In his presentation, Transforming Outdoor Learning with the Use of Location-based Technology and Rapid Authoring Tool: Singapore Experience, Png Bee Hin gave an update on the work being done by LDR on augmented reality learning trails in Singapore. He outlined the growth of location-based technologies, which are expanding particularly rapidly in the Asian region. Pocket Trips is LDR’s new web-based authoring platform that can allow users to create learning trails anywhere in the world using a variety of triggers (GPS, image recognition or Bluetooth smart technology based on beacons, which now have a battery life of up to 5 years); a simulator allows users to test the app on their mobile devices without going to the actual location.

All in all, I’m beginning to sense a shift in the themes of mobile learning conferences. While there are still plenty of (necessary) case studies being reported, more and more presenters are beginning to tackle conceptual issues. It’s an exciting time, and a sign of the coming-of-age of a field, when foundational theories start to take shape. This is a shift we should keep our eyes on over the next couple of years.

Connecting the digital dots

WUN Understanding Global Digital Cultures Conference
Hong Kong
25-26 April, 2015

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. Photo by Mark Pegrum, 2015. May be reused under CC BY 3.0 licence.

The WUN (Worldwide Universities Network) Understanding Global Digital Cultures Conference took place on 25-26 April at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, bringing together speakers from the WUN network of universities around the world. The local focus on Hong Kong and Chinese digital culture provided a fascinating counterpoint to a range of local and global presentations.

In his opening plenary, Imagining the internet: The politics and poetics of China’s cyberspace, Hu Yong argued that the Chinese internet is a space where the government is not able to interfere completely; its decentralisation and partial anonymity have allowed it to become an arena for citizens to exchange ideas and opinions. The people are increasingly trying to hold the government accountable according to the rights given them in the constitution. The internet has become a stand-in for face-to-face gatherings.

The government is now attempting to exert further control over the freedom of the internet, with a ‘control first, develop later’ strategy. The government considers people with different opinions as imaginary enemies. There have been new laws created and more arrests of verified users. Sometimes local government is sacrificed for the sake of the central government.

In fact, censorship is an intrinsic characteristic of the Chinese internet, as it is in all areas of Chinese life. It is not mentioned officially, but in private people will joke about censorship. The citizens have thus turned the internet into a platform for sarcastic spoofing of the authorities – this can be seen as the ‘poetics’ of Chinese digital culture, much of it based on a play on words and sounds (see image below). Those who lack power have been empowered, and those with power have lost it; the more you try to crack down on spoofing, the more it proliferates. But at the same time, this spoofing operates within a culture of fear. The use of this spoofing and the metaphors that underpin it have also reinforced the doublethink of Chinese culture, which is a culture of public lies and private truths.

The Chinese internet is not monolithic but rather the site of conflict between different levels of government, various departments, and between the impulse to block and the impulse to monitor citizens.

Grass Mud Horse & River Crab. Source: Tactical Technology Collective.

Grass Mud Horse & River Crab. Source: Tactical Technology Collective.

In his presentation, The urban/digital nexus: Participation, belonging and social media in Auckland, New Zealand, Jay Marlowe spoke about superdiversity as a diversification of diversity, which requires an analysis across different kinds of social differentiation. Participants in the reported Auckland study of migrants said that the digital environment augmented their existing social relationships and made new relationships possible. Different digital platforms provided different ‘textures’, with Skype for example allowing synchronous contact, and messaging apps being used in local spaces. Participants reported a gradual normalisation of ‘platformed sociality’, with considerable pressure to participate online. There was also a sense that real-life experiences need to be presented and demonstrated on social media platforms.

Overall, there is a transition from a participatory culture to a culture of connectivity; existing networks are reinforced but relationships may have migrated from face-to-face to online interaction. Greater connectivity does not necessarily mean greater connection – but it can. The landscape of access also matters; digital illiteracy becomes a new kind of poverty. It was clear that the participants were digital learners and digitally distracted at the same time, which has implications for education.

In her presentation, Material-semiotic particularity and the ‘broken’ smart city, Rolien Hoyng used the example of Istanbul and the Gezi Park protests of 2013 to contrast the development of smart cities through digital technologies and the facilitation of protests through those same technologies. There is a struggle over data ownership between the state and protesters.

In the presentation Everydaymaking through Facebook: Young citizens’ political interactions in Australia, UK and USA, Ariadne Vromen spoke about how young people use Facebook to engage in politics. She spoke of Henrik Bang’s  concept of ‘everydaymaking’, suggesting that political engagement is increasingly local, DIY, ad hoc, fun, issues-driven and based on social change, but not necessarily underpinned by traditional conceptions of such change. A study was conducted to compare young people’s usage of Facebook for political engagement in Australia, the UK and the USA. In all three countries, the greatest predictor of using Facebook to engage with politics was that young people were already engaged with politics. Everdaymaking norms were important, but pre-existing engagement was more important.

When asked about discussing politics on Facebook, most young people said they would avoid it in order to avoid conflict. In particular, they were afraid of disagreement, offending someone, or having the facts wrong. On the other hand, a small group of young people were more positive about their political engagement on Facebook. Often, they were comfortable with likes and shares, and obtaining information through political pages.

Overall, social media erodes dutiful citizen relationships with politics, but young people are wary of politics entering their social space. It is interesting to note that young people associate politics with (digital) conflict, while the like button on Facebook creates consensus.

Referring to the same research project, Brian Loader gave a presentation entitled Performing for the young networked citizen? Celebrity politics, social networking and the political engagement of young people, in which he addressed the notion of ‘celebrity politics’, where politicians use social media. There is an increase in both celebrity politicians and political celebrities, and an overall personalisation of politics.

When asked what they thought about politicians using Facebook and Twitter, a minority of young people were negative, but most were open to it, though not uncritically so. It was very clear again, as in the preceding talk, that young people do not like aggression and negativity online. Generally the young people were also positive about celebrities using social media to raise important social issues, though there were concerns that they might lack expertise or unduly influence young fans.

Overall, social media will continue to be an important communication space for democratic politics. Politicians will need to share this space with celebrities who play an important role in opening up discussions. Social media also facilitate emotional evaluation of politicians, so they may need to show more of their human side. There would seem to be an indication that political use of social media is more inclusive for young people from lower SES (socio-economic status) backgrounds.

In her presentation, Affective space, affective politics: Understanding political emotion in cyber China, Yi Liu suggested that political participation in cyber China is highly charged with emotions, especially negative ones. Digital politics in China are extremely ambiguous – people have tactics to cope with constraints; there is a positive influence of commercial forces; there are conflicts within the state authority; and there is politicised but marginalised overseas deliberation alongside a vibrant but constrained local discussion. She is undertaking a study to investigate emotional discourse within the Tianya BBS, Kaidi BBS, and Quiangguo BBS.

On the second morning of the conference, there was a fascinating set of papers about Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement, entitled Social media in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. It was a privilege for the international audience to hear local voices on the events of last year.

In the paper, Social media and mode of participation in a large-scale collective action: The case of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, Francis Lee showed that the number of protests in Hong Kong has been increasing annually, with protests having become somewhat normalised and therefore somewhat less effective. The Occupy Central movement was meant to be a short, disciplined intervention in this context. The Umbrella Movement that emerged in the wake of the police using tear gas against the Occupy Central movement was in many ways a networked movement which made extensive use of digital media, including the changing of social media profiles, dispelling rumours, etc. There were various ways of participating, with some 20% of Hong Kong adults saying they went to an occupied area to support the movement. He reported on an interview-based study of protesters, which revealed both their real-world activities and their digital media activities.

Some of the digital activities were expressive in nature and mainly involved showing support, but others were an important part of the dynamics of the movement in dispelling rumours and so on. Overall, the digital media activities were significant in the Umbrella Movement for extending participation from the physical urban space of the occupied areas to cyberspace. Mobile communication was particularly related to participation in occupied areas. Individuals could thus be selectively engaged in digital media activities and construct their own distinctive forms of participation in the movement.

In their paper, Internet memes in social movement: How the mobilisation effects are facilitated and constrained in Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, Chan Ngai Keung and Su Chris Chao spoke of the three key internet memes associated with the Umbrella Movement: the yellow ribbon (mostly used as a logo, e.g., as a profile picture on Facebook) , the yellow umbrella (suggestive of self-protection), and the slogan ‘I want real universal suffrage’ (which co-occurred with Lion Rock, and was widely reported by the mass media). They reported on a study where they investigated the use of these memes on Facebook (see image). They showed numerous examples of remixes of the three key images with pictures of famous characters, superheros, artists and politicians, and even gay-themed remixes (see image). Eventually there was a commodification of the images, which were available for purchase on clothing, umbrellas, and so on.

Hong Kong Umbrella Movement memes (Chan & Su, 2015)

Hong Kong Umbrella Movement memes (Chan & Su, 2015)

Overall, the memes primarily served the purpose of political persuasion and action. The commodification of internet memes does not necessarily serve political purposes. While Facebook spread these memes, it also constrained them in some ways, because on Facebook it is difficult to use hashtags or search engines to find related materials. Internet memes are often related to humour, but not necessarily – here they were about positive mobilisation.

Hong Kong Umbrella Movement memes: Gay remixes (Chan & Su, 2015)

Hong Kong Umbrella Movement memes: Gay remixes (Chan & Su, 2015)

In her paper, ‘It happens here and now’: Digital media documentation during the Umbrella Movement, Lisa Leung commented on the way in which Hong Kong people found their agency at the time of the tear gassing during Occupy Central. She noted the key role played by social media, not only in facilitating the protests, but crucially also in archiving and remembering. Facebook, she suggested, also functions as a space within which Hong Kong people can imagine a better future.

In the last of the papers in this session, Education, media exposure and political position: Mainlanders in the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, Zhao Mengyang noted that the Hong Kong protests had a spillover effect on the rest of the world. In Mainland China, some were supportive, and others were critical and saw the Hong Kong people as spoiled and disorderly. It was suggested that two crucial factors in the Mainlanders’ acceptance of the Umbrella Movement could be media exposure and education.

She reported on a Qualtrics survey of Mainlanders about the Hong Kong protests, which produced 2,184 valid responses. She found that: older people, males and non-CCP members were more supportive of the protests; more frequent use of newspapers, TV news and news websites was correlated with a lower level of support; more frequent use of social networking sites was correlated with a higher level of support; higher use of foreign media was correlated with a higher level of support; and higher education and full-time study were correlated with a lower level of support.

A few key suggestions emerged. Although overall internet censorship in China is strong, domestic social networking platforms might still allow moderate occurrence of alternative views. Full-time students might be more exposed to state discourse, and Chinese universities are part of the Chinese political apparatus. All in all, the chance of a spillover mobilisation effect might be slim in China.

In a later session entitled Behind the Great Firewall, several papers addressed the nature of the Chinese internet.

In their paper, Citizen attitudes toward China’s maritime territorial disputes: Traditional media and internet usage as distinctive conduits of political views in China, David Denemark and Andrew Chubb reported on a study of Chinese citizens’ attitudes to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, based on a survey of 1,413 adults conducted in five Chinese cities. Television was overwhelmingly the dominant source of information about the maritime disputes, with more than 90% of respondents obtaining information here; print media were used by around 2/3 of respondents; and 46% got their information via online sources; there was also crosscutting influence between different channels. The online sources were used by the young, the middle class, and the university-educated (but many of the last group also used print). This shows that the use of media is not monolithic. Overall, the two traditional media, newspapers and TV, have very similar effects on citizens’ political attitudes; the internet attracts a different audience, but it’s not enough to wash out the effects of the traditional media, which nearly everyone is using to some degree.

In his paper, The predicament of Chinese Internet culture, Gabriele De Seta noted that when we go beyond the anglophone media, it becomes much more complex to analyse the media landscape. He noted that Chinese memes such as the Grass Mud Horse can be interpreted in different ways. Online culture (网络文化) in China is very complex because it has so many layers. He showed that an anglophone concept like ‘trolling’ has many different translations and implications on the Chinese internet, and is highly segmented and differentiated, with differences found between China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. He went on to discuss a study of the Momo dating app, which was found to be used not mainly for dating, but for chatting with other bored people in the same locality, to set up a kind of online diary, or to explore the affordances of the app for self-expression. It is important, therefore, to examine situated media practices: complicating ‘cultures’ behind ‘firewalls’, downsizing the internet into platforms, services and devices; and accounting for content as small data.

On the second afternoon, a series of related papers were grouped together in a session entitled Storytelling individuals and communities.

In her paper, Automated diaries and quantified selves, Jill Walker Rettberg talked about the history of qualitative and quantitative self-representation and how it led up to the present era of self-recording through digital technologies, such as the lifelogging enabled by a device like Narrative Clip. She mentioned the term ‘numerical narratives’, used by Robert Simanowski to describe the sequencing of quantified data to tell the story of our lives. She concluded with a comment about ‘dataism’, the widespread belief in the objective quantification and tracking of human data as being potentially more reliable than our own memories of our life stories.

In our own presentation, Seeking common ground: Experiences of a Chinese-Australian digital storytelling project, Grace Oakley, Xi Bei Xiong and I talked about our experiences of running a digital storytelling project funded by the Australia-China Council from 2013-2014, where middle school students in China and Australia created and exchanged digital multimedia stories about their everyday lives. The key lessons we learned were all associated with the core theme of the need to seek common ground between the wishes and expectations of the project partners. This theme applied in the practical areas of motivation to participate, organisation, and technology (where our experiences reflected the commentary in the telecollaboration literature); and in the cultural areas of educational culture and pedagogy (where our experiences echoed the commentary in the anthropological and sociological literature about cultural differences).

In her presentation, ‘Are you being heard?’ The challenges of listening in the digital age, Tanja Dreher pointed out, with reference to the work of Jean Burgess, that it when it comes to democratic media participation, it doesn’t just matter who gets to speak, it matters who is heard. There is a lot to celebrate around affordances for voice on the internet, but this doesn’t mean that those voices are being heard. She spoke about the ‘listening turn’, where we are beginning to pay more attention to listening and not just speaking. Listening can be active and a form of agency. Key challenges include: overload and filtering (what is filtered in and out, and how does curation occur?); finding audiences; listening as participation (lurking in the sense of a listening presence is required to allow voices to manifest, as noted by Kate Crawford); and architectures of listening (how institutions and organisations might open up to listening more). We may need to think more about listening responsibilities: the proliferation of possibilities for voice online brings new responsibilities for listening.

In the closing plenary, Unstoppable networking: Social and political activism in the digital age, Lee Rainie described the Pew Research Center as a ‘fact tank’ which has no official position on the technological trends on which it reports. He outlined his two main points at the outset: Networked individuals using networked information create networked organisations and movements; and networking is unstoppable because people will always have problems they want to solve, and there are new technologies of social action that help them promote their causes. When the Pew Research Center surveys people, it generally finds that, despite the problems, people think that being networked is positive for their lives.

As individuals’ trust is shifting away from major institutions, their trust is invested more in personal networks. Our personal networks are segmented and layered, and composed largely of weak ties. It may be that, beyond strong and weak ties, we need a layer of ‘audience ties’ – people we don’t necessarily know, but who follow us on social media. There is more personal liberation in networks, but more work involved in rallying people to help you when needed. There is more importance now attached to factors like trust, influence, and awareness: our friends have become the information sentries and gatekeepers in our lives. People also turn to their networks to evaluate information, and meaning-making may start there with the help of friends.

We live in an unusual time in that we have seen three revolutions unfold over recent decades: the arrival of the internet/broadband; the arrival of mobile connectivity; and the arrival of social networking/media (which allow the reification and refinement of social networks). The trend now is to use two or more social networking platforms, making strategic calculations about which platforms to use for which purposes. The fourth revolution is now on our doorstep in the form of the internet of things, and it will have profound implications for our lives. In Western countries, Pew may soon stop asking people whether they use the internet, because it will be so embedded in everyday life.

For networked individuals, information becomes a ‘third skin’ (after our original skin and our clothes); it changes our experience of our selves and others, and how we think and remember. Secondly, ‘birth realities’ are complemented by ‘my tribes’. Thirdly, people participate in the ‘fifth estate’ (referring to social media, going beyond the fourth estate of journalism).

'My tribes'. Source: Rainie (2015)

‘My tribes’. Source: Rainie (2015)

Lee Rainie concluded with three examples of the kinds of social and political activism which are enabled in contemporary networked culture – a dying American boy who was able to obtain experimental drugs from a pharmaceutical company, which led to his recovery; environmental and anti-corruption campaigns in China, which have turned local issues into national issues; and US communities’ responses to Hurricane Sandy, which involved sharing local information on social media platforms. All of these demonstrate that the implications of networking are considerable. They also demonstrate that altruism runs deep in human beings and that new technologies can facilitate it in powerful ways.

All in all, the WUN Global Digital Cultures Conference succeeded in bringing together many ideas and themes from across disciplinary areas. I’ve no doubt that everyone left with their insights into their own areas of study and research enriched with insights from overlapping and parallel areas of study and research.

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