The brain, language and technology

JALTCALL
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. www.custommade.com/blog/diy-desk/

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. eyecare.lenstore.co.uk/how-avoid-computer-eye-strain

The 20-20-20 rule. Source: Butler, T. (2015). How to avoid computer eye strain. Lenstore Vision Hub. eyecare.lenstore.co.uk/how-avoid-computer-eye-strain

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.

M-learning comes of age in SE Asia (II)

MobiLearnAsia Conference
Singapore
24-26 October, 2012

[Continued from Day 1 blog post]

In his plenary which opened the second day, Harnessing Magic: The Mlearning Opportunity, Clark Quinn suggested that it is time to find new uses for mobile technologies. Past technologies have successfully augmented our bodies; the question now is how we might augment our brains. Of course, we do have a history of using technology to augment our brains. Books are one example. This has limitations if the knowledge changes and the books don’t. He quoted Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. The limitations on how we use new technologies, he suggested, are between our ears.

Learning in the past was social, but as the volume of knowledge increased, we moved into a transmission model. In the 2009 US Dept of Education study of e-learning, which found that it was superior to face-to-face learning, the researchers suggested that the improvement was not due to the medium but the chance to step back and think about how we do education. Formal learning methods are important for novices; they become less important vis-à-vis informal learning for practitioners; and for experts, informal learning is much more important.

There are four Cs of mobile learning: content, compute, communicate and capture. The first three are not unique to mobile, but the last is. It’s about capturing in context. We’re beginning to see ways in which virtual worlds connect to mobile technologies. System-generated content is also becoming important as we move towards web 3.0. Web 2.0 was about user-generated content; web 3.0 is about system-generated content, where content is pulled together on the fly. This allows us to customise the online experience and online learning. Thanks to sensors of different kinds, the technology can work with the context.

He concluded by asking what’s on the horizon. Games will be important – learning should be ‘hard fun’. Social media will be important. So will augmented reality, where information relevant to the learner can be presented in a visual interface. The fact that a device knows ‘when’ we are (as well as ‘where’) means that key information can be provided before and during a performance, and then afterwards learners can be prompted to reflect, thereby turning real-world performance into a learning opportunity. Personalisation will be increasingly possible; different people need different information flowing to them in real-world contexts. He suggested, finally, that we should consider moving away from an event-based model of learning towards slow learning. We need to develop people at the rate their brains can handle.

In the panel discussion on the second morning, a number of key points were made. Gary Woodill noted that e-learning is just the classroom placed on the screen, whereas m-learning is about learning in context. Clark Quinn suggested that there is a need for teachers to show students 21st century skills so students can learn to search for themselves and, to some extent, bypass educational institutions. We’re not yet very good at delivering chunked, distributed content. He also suggested that mobile learning designers should be asking: “What is the least assistance I can provide?” though, as Woodill pointed out, the assistance must be sufficient to help the learner achieve learning goals. Gary noted, further, that we need a design science of mobile learning.

Woodill suggested that there is a subtle shift underway from competency-based to task-based education. What matters is not what you know (there’s just too much to know nowadays) but whether you can do a task. Mobile may be about learning something quickly when you need it, and then forgetting it and moving on to the next thing. Jawahar Kanjilal asked a very important question about learners in less privileged situations: what if you don’t have a teacher, but you have a mobile phone? It becomes your teacher. Gary suggested that a mobile device can be like a faucet which filters the firehose of the internet, bringing you what you need, when you need it. The next ten years, he argued, will be the age of the algorithm, to sort out all this information. Predictive analysis will be important (e.g., see: Recorded Future, Sweden).

In his presentation, Mobile Learning Case Studies: Examples of Effective Mobile Learning, Gary Woodill outlined a number of case studies of mobile learning solutions. The audience was then asked to analyse these in terms of the design patterns. One strategy for instructional designers may be to take case studies and reverse engineer them. On design patterns, he recommended the books: Technology-Enhanced Learning edited by Peter Goodyear and Symeon Retalis, and Diana Laurillard’s Teaching as a Design Science. He also recommended the Float Mobile Learning Primer app, which contains 63 case studies.

Singapore River Trail from LDR (http://www.ldr.sg/trail_catalog.html)

In his presentation, Create the Future of Mobile Learning, Png Bee Hin explained that the future will see a big shift from ‘e’ to ‘m’-learning. He described the development of interactive trails by LDR using the LOTM authoring tool, which allows multimedia content and interactive activities to be delivered to smartphones (Android or iOS) using location-based technologies and a geofencing approach. The delivery of materials can be triggered using GPS, IR (image recognition) and Bluetooth. To date, they have created 42 location-based mobile trails for Singapore. The Battle for Singapore app, set up as a game, is available as a free download.

Working with the MOE, they have created trails where teachers can track students’ progress, location, activity results, and multimedia submissions (which typically include photos and videos, but can also include oral interviews and even re-enactments of historical events). It can work like a treasure hunt; students are instructed to take pictures using an IR camera at some points, and a code is pushed to them so that they can complete part of a puzzle. Students can be of all levels from primary upwards. The Singapore River Trail (see above), which was originally in English, has now been converted into Mandarin as well.

Teachers can keep track of their students, and communicate with them, from a central location. Teachers are essential to the learning process: they need to re-enter their students’ learning spaces at the appropriate moments to guide their learning. They can also create customised trails for their students, by dragging/dropping and cutting/pasting within the LOTM tool, without any need for programming knowledge. Teachers and students have even worked together to create mobile trails that map their own environment.

He concluded that location-based technologies (GPS, IR, AR) have great potential to enhance field-based learning. Having an authoring tool simplifies and speeds up deployment. The most exciting result of all, he suggested, is the finding that user-generated trails are possible.

At the other end of the technology scale, but in a project with enormous potential to make a difference around the world, Jawahar Kanjilal and Bhanu Potta gave a presentation entitled Mobile-Based Lifelong Learning for the Millions: Nokia Life.  In it, they looked at how mobile learning can reach under-served populations in emerging markets.  This is a mobile-only paradigm for those who do not have access to the internet. Only a minority of people in the world have data connected smartphones; then there are feature phones which are data connectable; and then finally feature phones with no data, and SMS only. The projection for 2015 is that 2 billion people will have data connected smartphones; 3 billion will have feature phones (with or without data); and 2 billion will have no phone.

For many people who have mobile phones in emerging markets, it is their first phone, their first camera, and so on. They expect it can deliver many things. Information can be a great leveller for those who currently have no access to it. At every life stage there is an opportunity for informal learning. It is possible to provide content about education, health and agriculture, for example. It can’t be something which is broadcast to everyone, because it needs to be relevant to individuals and should ideally be local, even hyperlocal (how to you start saving in India as opposed to Indonesia?); it needs to be personalised.

The philosophy behind Nokia Life is: “Inform. Involve. Empower” (see: Life Tools is Now Nokia Life on YouTube). It is about “designing for personalization at scales of millions”. Emerging markets have the largest number of first generation school attendees. Parents who have a small income can pay for this service to support their children’s education. The messages can be a trigger for further offline learning. There are currently nearly 80 million users across India, Indonesia, China and Nigeria. Around 40% of subscribers overall are teachers rather than students, so teachers can use the messages as a resource in their classrooms. More than 10 million unique updates are sent out on a daily basis. SMS is used as the vehicle. It is embedded in the menu of the phone, rather than being a downloadable app. The creators considered voice at the beginning, but they were told the written word is more powerful. The users can refer to and show the written words to others.

The biggest problem was to get the content in the right format to distribute through the mobile system. Curation of content and knowledge was a major task. There are four categeories: Education (including Life Skills, Learn English, Exam Tips, General Knowledge,  Dictionary), Health, Agriculture, and Entertainment. Potta gave the example of the Learn English service in China, set up with the collaboration of the British Council, where a word of the day might be given, with pronunciation, an example, and a translation. In some messages, there is a button to call a hotline for more information. Since it is too early in these markets for user-generated content, which might conflict with users’ sense of the credibility of the information, the social – or web 2.0 – aspect involves a call button, a polling function, and/or a share function.

There is a variation of Nokia Life called Nokia Life+, a web app which is designed for those who have smartphones, or feature phones with data connectability. This may be the direction in which things evolve in the future. It’s a scalable platform to reach and engage the next billion. All in all, it’s about developing an ecosystem of partners: governments, NGOs, knowledge creators. The ecosystem is beginning to build up. Nokia Life can directly support six of the eight UN Millennium Goals.

In his presentation, Cross-Platform App Development: Going Native the Easy Way, Graeme Salter listed a number of reasons for setting up educational apps, including the following:

  • Improve learning outcomes
  • Improve student satisfaction (e.g., convenience)
  • Improve student or teacher productivity

There are, however, alternatives to having an app. One is to have a mobile optimised website (m.domainname.com). As a business, you can tap into existing apps and have your company advertised there. Another alternative is an iBook. If, on the other hand, you need an app, you should ask yourself whether it needs to be a native app. Android apps are catching up very quickly to iOS apps. Native apps have these advantages:

  • Operate fast
  • Can access all device features
  • Don’t necessarily require an internet connection
  • Have access to global marketplaces (including direct sales, in-app purchases, and advertising revenue)

On the negative side are these factors:

  • Royalty fee to marketplaces
  • Marketplace controls the customer information (for this reason, the Financial Times changed to a web app)
  • Approval delays (even for modifications)
  • Complexity of development

He suggested some solutions to these problems:

  • Step 1: Create a web app
    • Outsource development (e.g., Kenotopia – design an app in PowerPoint or Keynote, then outsource the coding to someone else; fiverr – will design an icon for $5; a company like oDesk or Vworker will do the whole thing. The big rewards are for ideas, not development.)
    • Use tools that don’t need coding (e.g., Tumult Hype, which allows you to write HMTL5 with no coding required; you can then use JQuery Mobile, Wink, etc, to add a mobile framework so you have mobile functionality like touch, swipe, and gestures)
    • Write in HTML5 (make some simple modifications to old HTML – there are few differences)
  • Step 2: Convert to a native app (e.g., with PhoneGap, Appcelerator, PhoneGapBuild – you can create native apps for multiple OSs)

For an inaugural conference, MobiLearnAsia 2012 did a superb job of pulling together a great deal of national, regional and international expertise, and provided a rich forum for interactions between participants from a wide range of countries. It has also filled a gap in bringing an annual m-learning conference to the Asia-Pacific region. I look forward to seeing how things have developed when the second MobiLearnAsia conference takes place in October, 2013.

New media, new spaces

1st ICODEL Conference
Manila, Philippines
23-24 February, 2012

The first International Conference on Open and Distance E-learning (ICODEL), was held at the Century Park Hotel in Manila from 23-24 February 2012, with the pre-conference workshops having taken place on 22 February. It was great to be back in the Philippines only months after the GloCALL Conference was held here in October last year – a sign, it seems, of increased interest in the field of e-learning in this country.

In her opening plenary, entitled The State of the Art in Open and Distance E-learning, Denise Kirkpatrick spoke about the 2012 Horizon Report, mentioning currently influential technologies such as mobile computing, electronic books, and Open Education Resources, and indicating the future potential of augmented reality, game-based learning, learning analytics, and gesture-based computing. Major contemporary challenges, she suggested, include:

  • Digital literacies
  • Metrics of evaluation for new forms of publishing
  • New forms of education and competition (universities’ roles are changing in view of competition from other institutions, and in face of the need to prepare students for lives in an increasingly complex world)
  • Keeping up

Open and Distance Learning, she suggested, must be about:

  • Connectedness
  • Community
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Convenience
  • Connections

Today’s students are mobile and connected socially and technologically.  Social media platforms are becoming an important part of learners’ lives and we need to think about how we can leverage them in the service of education.

Schools and universities, she argued, need to be learner-centric digital environments. There should be a focus on problem-solving and helping students to think creatively.  Collaborative learning is important, involving students in formal learning in teams and projects, informal learning with buddies and mentors, and multiple learning environments. Collaboration is also important for educators, who are increasingly engaging in interdisciplinary and cross faculty learning, and internationally distributed research.

She gave examples of current uses of augmented reality, e-books, virtual worlds like Second Life, and social networking sites like Facebook. There can be a link, she observed, between social networking sites and open educational resources, with the latter becoming much more powerful when we focus on the social interaction around them. It’s important to enhance the power of the social and investigate ways of learning together.

Learning analytics is an area that will grow quickly, she predicted, as a way of increasing the quality of student learning and achievement, thanks to interventions derived from looking at the learning analytics. This will also allow us to personalise learning materials to a greater extent, and help students take control of their learning by allowing them to visualise their own learning.

In short, she suggested, we are in a period of major change and growth in the provision of education.

In his talk, Integrating Media and Information Literacy in Open and Distance E-learning, Jose Algaran described the importance of providing guidelines to students on the use and value of materials in multiple media and on multiple platforms. Media and information literacy competencies are an important indicator of students’ readiness to take courses online, and should also inform instructional design. Given that the media and the internet are the key sources of information in the contemporary world, media and information literacy are absolutely crucial skills and are essential to enabling lifelong learning.

In his talk, An International Survey on Media Use for Learning, Michael Grosch opened with a reminder that books are in fact a form of media. Text, he suggested, will still be the most essential medium for learning in the future, even if it is presented in electronic formats.

He went on to say that learners don’t accept all media equally, and that the media offered by teachers are often rejected by learners. External, self-searched and web 2.0 media are becoming more and more important for learning.

Inspired by the ECAR surveys, he developed his own survey instrument to get an overview of students’ use of 48 different media services (print, online, web 2.0, e-learning). Surveys were conducted at about 15 universities, predominantly in Germany and Thailand. Wikipedia, Google and email, he found, were the three most used media services by students, with some commonly discussed web 2.0 tools like blogs, wikis and Twitter being ranked relatively low. Teachers, he found, read more books than students, while they use social media on a very low level.

He concluded that students use a broad variety of media for learning, but this is self-controlled, with students making up their own minds about which media to use, rather than doing what teachers tell them to do. Text media, he reiterated, play a key role in the learning environment, with electronic texts set to become very important in the future. Interestingly, his data suggest that the most intense media users may also be the better students.

In his talk, Open-source and Free Software for In-class Online Surveys and Data Analysis, Enrique Frio spoke about the value of conducting surveys online, recommending the use of free software such as Kwiksurveys and PSPP (a free alternative to the proprietary SPSS). This cuts down enormously on many of the manual aspects of survey writing, data collection, and data analysis and display.

The second plenary involved three speakers addressing the topic of Issues, Challenges, Reforms and Solutions in Open and Distance E-learning. The first speaker, Tian Belawati, Rector of Universitas Terbuka, Indonesia, spoke about the role of the Universitas Terbuka (Open University) in bringing opportunities for equal access to higher education to the whole of Indonesia. Its student base shows that it is having success in “reaching the un-reached”. Because of the lack of penetration of the internet in parts of the country, the UT works through 37 regional centres. The UT is currently in the process of developing tablet-based materials, and, given a mobile phone penetration of around 73% in Indonesia, it is exploring the use of mobile phones in education, including the use of personalised SMS messaging.

The second speaker, Grace Javier Alfonso, Chancellor of the University of the Philippines Open University, talked about the different domains of distance learning (where teachers and students are physically separated), open learning (which focuses on access for all), and ODL, or open and distance learning (which fuses both concepts). She indicated that e-learning (teaching with new technologies) shares common ground with ODL, but is not the same, since much ODL delivery worldwide still makes little use of new technologies. ODEL, or open and distance e-learning, fuses all three notions.

ODL has been affected by a number of factors in recent years:

  • Transnational education (possibly leading to a need for international accreditation)
  • Quality assurance (which does not yet exist for ODL in the same way as face-to-face education)
  • Digitization of distance education (which is quite varied across institutions)
  • Changing profile of students (with a greater range of students wanting to update their qualifications)
  • Open Educational Resources (with more and more institutions openly sharing their resources at no cost)

The University of the Philippines Open University (UPOU) was established in 1995 as the fifth component institution of the University of the Philippines (UP), with the aim of opening up education to all those who are unable to access it in traditional ways. It is currently exploring ways of integrating ODL with e-learning. Because its inception coincided with the inception of the internet in the Philippines, the UPOU did not invest very much in older ODL infrastructure. The rapid increase in internet usage in the Philippines bodes well for e-learning.

ODEL, she concluded, is a world view and an expression of values.  It is a construction of how DL, OL, and EL are enacted in the context of the ‘Universitas’.  The interweaving of these components can bring about social transformation, but there are some issues here:

  • There is a need for a plurality of ideas, which should come from the developing as well as the developed world.
  • There is a need for academics to disseminate knowledge in multimedia formats to reach audiences more familiar with the grammars of audio-visual language.
  • There is a need to recognise the non-linearity of the medium, with hypermedia allowing for the expansion of the democratic space.
  • There is a need to instil the ‘Universitas’ ethos, which is traditionally propagated in physical spaces, in the electronic environment, and to consider how, for example, social networking services can function as scholarly platforms.
  • There is a need to consider the digital divide to avoid the marginalization of the disadvantaged, perhaps by combining EL with more traditional ODL technologies (like television and radio).

The third speaker, Eing-Ming Wu, President of the Open University of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, argued that we are living in the time of the city defining the nation, advancing the state, and enriching the citizens. Lifelong learning, he suggested, enables urban life.  The city should become the most resourceful lifelong learning platform, and public schools (at all levels) should become the most accessible lifelong learning centres. Learning, he suggested, enables a better quality of “living, loving and earning”. Drawing on the EU definition of a learning city, he suggested it should promote “city prosperity”, “society security” and “individual fulfilment”.

The Kaohsiung Open University is the only Taiwanese open university founded by a city. Its key characteristics are that the learning it provides is affordable, accessible, achievable and amplifying. The city, he said, becomes the campus of the university – and the university becomes the city’s universe.

Although I had to leave the conference early to get to the CamTESOL Conference in Cambodia, it was clear from the first day that there are many interesting developments occurring in ODEL, both in the Philippines and the wider region. No doubt there will be many future conferences expanding on the themes broached in the 1st ICODEL Conference in Manila.

Technology bridging the world

WorldCALL
Fukuoka International Congress Center, Fukuoka, Japan, 6-8 August 2008

The theme of WorldCALL 2008, the five-yearly conference now being held for the third time, was “CALL bridges the world”.  With participants from over 50 countries, and presentations on every aspect of language teaching through technology, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Key themes

Key themes of the conference included the need for a sophisticated understanding of our technologies and their affordances; the importance of teacher involvement and task design in maximising collaboration and online community; the potential for intercultural interaction; the role of cultural and sociocultural issues; the need for reflection on the part of both teachers and students on all of the above; and, in particular, the need for much more extensive teacher training.

There was a wide swathe of technologies, tools and approaches covered, including:

  • email;
  • VLEs, in particular, Moodle;
  • web 2.0 tools, especially blogs and m-learning/mobile phones, but also microblogging, wikis, social networking, and VoIP/Skype;
  • borderline web 2.0/web 3.0 tools like virtual worlds and avatars;
  • ICALL, speech recognition and TTS software;
  • blended learning;
  • e-portfolios.

With up to 8 concurrent sessions running at any given moment, it was impossible to keep up with everything, but here’s a brief selection of themes and ideas …

Communication & collaboration

In her paper “Mediation, materiality and affordances”, Regine Hampel considered the contrasting views that the new media have the advantage of quantitatively increasing communication but the disadvantage of creating reduced-cue communication environments.  She concluded that there are many advantages to using computer-mediated communication with language learners, but that we need to focus on areas such as:

  • multimodal communication: we need to bear in mind that while new media offer new ways of interacting and negotiating meaning, dealing with multiple modes as well as a new language at the same time may lead to overload for students;
  • collaboration: task design is essential to scaffolding collaboration, with different tools supporting collaborative learning in very different ways; there is also a need to make collaboration integral to course outcomes;
  • cultural and institutional issues: this includes the value placed on collaboration;
  • student/teacher roles: online environments can be democratic but students need to be autonomous learners to exploit this potential;
  • the development of community and social presence at a distance;
  • teacher training.

Intercultural interaction

Karin Vogt and Keiko Miyake, discussing “Telecollaborative learning with interaction journals”, showed the great potential for intercultural learning which is present in cross-cultural educational collaborations.  Their work showed that the greatest value could be drawn from such interactions by asking the students to keep detailed reflective journals, where intercultural themes and insights could emerge, and/or could be picked up and developed by the teacher.  They added that their own results, based on a content analysis of such journals from a German-Japanese intercultural email exchange programme, confirmed the results of previous studies that the teacher has a very demanding role in initiating, planning and monitoring intercultural learning.

Marie-Noëlle Lamy also stressed the intercultural angle in her paper “We Argentines are not as other people”, in which she explained her experience with designing an online course for Argentine teachers.  After explaining the teaching methodology and obstacles faced, she went on to argue that we are in need of a model of culture to use in researching courses such as this one – but not an essentialist model based on national boundaries.  She is currently addressing this important lack (something which Stephen Bax and I are also dealing with in our work on third spaces in online discussion) by developing a model of the formation of an online culture.

Teacher (and learner) training

In their paper “CALL strategy training for learners and teachers”, Howard Pomann and Phil Hubbard offered the following list of five principles to guide teachers in the area of CALL:

  • Experience CALL yourself (so teachers can understand what it feels like to be a student using this technology);
  • Give learners teacher training (so they know what teachers know about the goals and value of CALL);
  • Use a cyclical approach;
  • Use collaborative debriefings (to share reflections and insights);
  • Teach general exploitation strategies (so users can make the most of the technologies).

In conclusion, they found that learner strategy training was essential to maximise the benefits of CALL and could be achieved in part through the keeping of reflective journals (for example as blogs), which would form a basis for collaborative debriefings.  As in many other papers, it was stressed that teacher training should be very much a part of this process.

In presenting the work carried out so far by the US-based TESOL Technology Standards Taskforce, Phil Hubbard and Greg Kessler demonstrated the value of developing a set of broad, inclusive standards for teachers and students, concluding that:

  • bad teaching won’t disappear with the addition of technology;
  • good teaching can often be enhanced by the addition of technology;
  • the ultimate interpretation of the TESOL New Technology standards needs to be pedagogical, not technical.

In line with the views of many other presenters, Phil added that we need to stop churning out language teachers who learn about technology on the job; newer teachers need to acquire these skills on their pre-service and in-service education programmes.

Important warnings and caveats about technology use emerged in a session entitled “Moving learning materials from paper to online and beyond”, in which Thomas Robb, Toshiko Koyama and Judy Naguchi shared their experience of two projects in whose establishment Tom had acted as mentor.  While both projects were ultimately successful, Tom explained that mentoring at a distance is difficult, with face-to-face contact required from time to time, as a mentor can’t necessarily anticipate the knowledge gaps which may make some instructions unfathomable.  At the moment, it seems there is no easy way to move pre-existing paper-based materials online in anything other than a manual and time-consuming manner.  This may improve with time but until then we may still need to look to enthusiastic early adopters for guidance; technological innovation, he concluded, is not for the faint of heart and it may well be a slow process towards normalisation …

Normalisation, nevertheless, must be our goal, argued Stephen Bax in his plenary “Bridges, chopsticks and shoelaces”, in which he expanded on his well-known theory of normalisation.  Pointing out that there are different kinds of normalisation, ranging from the social and institutional to the individual, Stephen argued that:

A technology has arguably reached its fullest possible effectiveness only when it has arrived at the stage of ‘genesis amnesia’ (Bourdieu) or what I call ‘normalisation’.

Normalised technologies, he suggested, offer their users social and cultural capital, so that if students do not learn about technologies, they will be disadvantaged.  In other words, if teachers decide not to use technology because they personally don’t like it, they may be doing their students a great disservice in the long run.

At the same time, he stressed, it is important to remember that pedagogy and learners’ needs come first – technology must be the servant and not the master. Referring to the work of Kumaravadivelu and Tudor, he suggested that we must always respect context, with technology becoming part of a wider ecological approach to teaching.

There were interesting connections between the ecological approach proposed by Stephen and Gary Motteram’s thought-provoking paper, “Towards a cultural history of CALL”, in which he advocated the use of third generation activity theory to describe the overall interactions in CALL systems.  There was also a link with my own paper, “Four visions of CALL”, which argued for the expansion of our vision of technology in education to encompass not just technological and pedagogical issues, but also broader social and sociopolitical issues which have a bearing on this area.

Specific web 2.0 technologies

In “Learner training through online community”, Rachel Lange demonstrated a very successful discussion-board based venture at a college in the UAE, where, despite certain restrictions – such as the need to separate the genders in online forums – the students themselves have used the tools provided to build their own communities, where more advanced students mentor and support those with a lower level of English proficiency.

In Engaging collaborative writing through social networking, Vance Stevens and Nelba Quintana outlined their Writingmatrix project, designed to help students form online writing partnerships.  Operating within a larger context of paradigm shift – including pedagogy (didactic to constructivist), transfer (bringing social technologies from outside the classroom into the classroom), and trepidation (it’s OK not to know everything about technology and work it out in collaboration with your students) – they effectively illustrated the value of a range of aggregation tools to facilitate collaboration between educators and students; these included Technorati, del.icio.us, Crowd status, Twemes, FriendFeed, Dipity and Swurl.

Claire Kennedy and Mike Levy’s paper “Mobile learning for Italian” focused on the very successful use of mobile phone ‘push’ technology at Griffith University in Queensland.  In the context of a discussion of the horizontal and vertical integration of CALL, Mike commented on the irony that many teachers and schools break the horizontal continuity of technology use by insisting that mobile phones are switched off as soon as students arrive at school.  Potentially these are very valuable tools which, according to Mellow (2005), can be used in at least three ways:

  • push (where information is sent to students);
  • pull (where students request messages);
  • interactive (push & pull, including responses).

Despite some doubts in the literature about the invasion of students’ social spaces by push technologies, Mike and Claire showed that their programme of sending lexical and other language-related as well as cultural material to Italian students has been a resounding success, with extremely positive feedback overall.

Other successful demonstrations of technology being used in language classrooms ranged from Alex Ludewig’s presentation on “Enriching the students’ learning experience while ‘enriching’ the budget”, in which she showed the impressive multimedia work done by students of German in Simulation Builder, to Salomi  Papadima-Sophocleous’s work with “CALL e-portfolios”, where she showed the value of e-portfolios in preparing future EFL teachers as reflective, autonomous learners.

Beyond web 2.0 – to web 3.0?

As Trude Heift explained in her plenary, “Errors and intelligence in CALL”, CALL ranges from web 2.0 to speech technologies, virtual worlds, corpus studies, and ICALL.  While most of the current educational focus is on web 2.0, there are interesting developments in other areas.  It seems to me that, to the extent that web 3.0 involves the development of the intelligent web and/or the geospatial web, some of these developments may point the way to the emergence of web 3.0 applications in education.

Trude’s own paper focused on ICALL and natural language processing research, whose aim is to enable people to communicate with machines in natural language.  We have come a long way from the early Eliza programme to Intelliwise‘s web 3.0 conversational agent, which is capable of holding much more natural conversations.  While ICALL is still a young discipline and there are major challenges to be overcome in the processing of natural language – particularly the error-prone language of learners – it holds out the promise of automated systems which can create learner-centred, individualised learning environments thanks to modelling techniques which address learner variability and offer unique responses and interactions.  This is certainly an area to watch in years to come.

On a simpler level, text to speech and voice processing software is already being used in numerous classrooms around the world.   Ian Wilson, for example, presented an effective model of “Using Praat and Moodle for teaching segmental and suprasegmental pronunciation”.

Another topic raised in some papers was virtual worlds, which some would argue are incipient web 3.0 spaces.  Due to time limitations and timetable clashes, I didn’t catch these papers, but it’s certainly an area of growing interest – and in the final panel discussion, Ana Gimeno-Sanz, the President of EuroCALL, suggested that this might become a dominant theme at CALL conferences in the next year or so.

The final plenary panel summed up the key themes of the conference as follows:

  • the importance of pedagogy over technology (Osamu Takeuchi);
  • the need to consider differing contexts (OT);
  • the ongoing need for conferences like this one to consider best practice, even if the process of normalisation is proceeding apace (Thomas Robb);
  • the need to reach out to non-users of technology (TR);
  • the need for CALL representation in more general organisations (TR);
  • the professionalisation of CALL (Bob Fischer);
  • the need to consider psycholinguistic as well as sociolinguistic dimensions of CALL (BF);
  • the shift in focus from the technology (the means) to its application (the end) (Ana Gimeno-Sanz);
  • the need to extend our focus to under-served regions of the world (AG-S).

The last point was picked up on by numerous participants and a long discussion ensued on how to overcome the digital divide in its many aspects.  A desire to share the benefits of the technology was strongly expressed – both by those with technology to share and those who would like to share in that technology. That, I suspect, will be a major theme of our discussions in years to come: how to spread  pedagogically appropriate, contextually sensitive uses of technology to ever wider groups of teachers and learners.

Tag: WorldCALL08

Beyond web 2.0? Teaching in virtual worlds

Conference: SLanguages 2008
EduNation II & III, Second Life, 23-24 May 2008

This year’s SLanguages Conference, the second in the annual series, shows just how far we’ve come – technologically and pedagogically – since the first conference in 2007. With an extensive programme, sessions were split across two venues in EduNation II and EduNation III.

On the technological side, many of the limitations of 2007 had disappeared. In 2008 there were far more presenters (over 20 as compared to 5 in 2007), far more attendees (over 300 registered as compared to 50 in 2007), and there was almost unimpeded voice chat between participants before and after each session. (For more on the numbers, see the comment posted by Gavin Dudeney, Conference organiser, at the end of this blog entry).

On the pedagogical side: the degree to which our pedagogical understanding of SL has advanced can be seen in the range of topics addressed in the different papers, and the wealth of perspectives and practices outlined there. There are some incredibly innovative uses of SL underway in educational institutions stretched across the globe.

And something has to be said about multitasking as well: this blog was being written and published piece by piece during the conference itself, and Gavin’s comment on it appeared during this process (i.e., during the conference, as will be obvious if you read it). Email announcements of starting times for talks were sent out regularly, so that checking your inbox was a good way of making sure you didn’t miss anything. It was also only a few minutes after watching Paul Preibisch’s talk on EduNation that I messaged him in Facebook – and received a reply within minutes. This is a great illustration of the multichannel communication which is increasingly becoming the norm in this area!

Given international time differences, I couldn’t see nearly as many papers as I would have liked, but I was able to be present at a selection of very informative sessions.

In her talk “Teaching Training: Second Life vs. Online/Blended Courses” (see image at top of posting), Dafne Gonzalez (SL: Daf Smirnov) contrasted what is now seen as ‘more traditional’ web-based teacher training with newer forms of teacher training in virtual worlds. She presented an elegant series of Venn diagrams showing some points of similarity alongside numerous areas of contrast.

In his talk “Bots for Educators!” (image above), Paul Preibisch (SL: Fire Centaur) explained the role that could be played by bots in language teaching and learning areas of SL. Bots are automated avatars which can give simple responses to visitors, illustrating language usage in the process. They are already being used to give students grammar guidance by reformulating erroneous questions.

In the plenary talk “Motivated Interactions in Second Life” (image above), Chris Surridge (SL: Christopher Flow) presented a whole range of tasks – or “missions” – which can be set for student avatars in SL. Students reported that the more challenging missions, which were more game-like, were also more interesting. Chris pointed out that even when they were ‘cheating’ to complete the missions, students were in fact learning.

In his talk “Second Life in Conservative Societies: Considerations from the Middle East” (images above & below), Mark Karstad (SL: Buy Short) used the example of Dubai Women’s College to illustrate the importance of balancing technology and cultural values. There is a requirement, for example, that teachers avoid taking students to places where there are ‘skin’ images – though in fact students in many cases choose NOT to be covered in SL. Even conservative students feel quite free, he suggested, in how they are willing to represent themselves through their avatars, often dressing more as they would in their homes. Interestingly, one student was admonished by another avatar when she appeared, uncovered, at the model of Mecca in Islam Online.

There was a sense at the colloquium that in some ways virtual worlds, which have been at the cutting edge of web technology for some time, are now pushing beyond the boundaries of what we can reasonably call web 2.0. Are we in fact witnessing the emergence of web 3.0? I guess we’ll need to watch this space … and turn up for SLanguages 2009!

Tags: SLanguages2008, virtual world, Second Life, education, TESOL, language teaching, language learning

Language teaching in Second Life

Colloquium: SLanguages
EduNation, Second Life, 23 June 2007

Organised by Gavin Dudeney of the Consultants-E, the First Annual Second Life Language Teaching Colloquium took place on EduNation last Saturday. With a little over 50 registered participants from around the globe, it was a chance for educators to share their experience of teaching in SL – and was, in itself, a great advertisement for the educational potential of virtual worlds.

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During his opening speech, Gavin warned of the limitations and dangers of both old functional (teaching) models and new business models applied to language learning in SL. However, there are some interesting developments underway, as this colloquium amply illustrated.

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The first presentation of the day was from Paul Preibisch and Kip Boahn (see image above), who described their innovative work on the English Village Project, the largest languages group in SL. The pros and cons of a number of teaching formats were discussed:

  • 1:1 (relatively problem-free, allowing teachers to move around with students);
  • small group + 1 teacher (where the ideal number may be 2-3 students);
  • large group + more than 1 teacher (where matching teaching styles may be an issue);
  • team teaching (where students benefit from the experience of different teachers);
  • guided self-study (a promising development; Sloodle seems to be moving this way).

Kip concluded with a series of suggestions aimed at the “Aufmotzen” (dolling up) of SL. He suggested that SL shouldn’t be seen as a solution for everything but as part of a suite of tools. Some aspects of SL still require improvement and more interesting in-world tools are needed. Meanwhile, Sloodle may represent a way forward, and many other web 2.0 tools can be integrated into SL. He also stressed that there is a real need for community – that both teachers and students need to bond around the educational process – and that location is key to creating a sense of community.

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Hugh O’Donnell (see image above) then spoke about the Scottish Secondary Sector, stressing that virtual worlds have a great deal to offer in connecting students in remote locations, without necessitating long hours of travel. There are many educational possibilities – from an avatar of Keats posing questions on his own poems to involving living artists who could interact with students – and ideally there would be in-world travel between schools on the teen grid. However, he acknowledged that there are many problems to overcome, not least of all problems of image: it’s necessary to explode the myths of SL (like those of the internet before it) which suggest that it’s just the province of unsalubrious characters …

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Nik Peachey, who spoke on Designing a Language Course for SL, began by asking what theory might underpin learning through gaming. His answer was 1960s flow theory, which suggests that certain key elements – such as concentration on clearly articulated goals, availability of feedback, deep but effortless involvement, a loss of self-consciousness and the development of an altered sense of time – can contribute to learning in an optimal way. He referred also to Prensky’s work on digital natives, but argued that the old ways of teaching (notably lectures) had actually never been effective. Now, however, we have the tools to easily change these old modes of education.

Although SL is not a game, he suggested that it can be used like one, with tasks designed with the principles of flow theory in mind. In a partial echo of Preibisch and Boahn’s presentation, he indicated that one of the major reasons for the success of games, and the learning that takes place within them, is the presence of community. It’s important that we design tasks with collaborative principles in mind. A residential distance learning course, where students could “live” and socialise in a communal space outside of class time, might be ideal.

Many standard communicative activities lend themselves to use in language teaching in SL, most notably roleplays since, after all, SL is a roleplay. However, we should beware of imposing too many layers; to have a student playing an avatar playing a character might be too much. Roleplays, Peachey advised, should be more like jazz improvisation than Wagnerian opera, with students allowed a degree of control and flexibility.

Some of the problems he outlined at the conclusion of his talk include:

  • presenting language in-world is difficult;
  • the teacher’s paralinguistic cues are absent;
  • there is a loss of student reaction;
  • we are building on quicksand in the sense that the SL environment is constantly changing.

For more information, see the Tips for language learning materials design in Second Life on Nik’s own blog.

By the time these talks were over and the poster session began, to be followed by virtual lunch, it was rather late on the west coast of Australia so I took my leave. However, there’s no doubt that there are plenty of inspiring educational developments in SL being driven by real enthusiasts. It’s a case of watch this space – closely – in the weeks, months and years to come. Indeed, as Gavin mentioned in a summary talk, it’s not unthinkable that the day will arrive when the internet as a whole comes to resemble a virtual world which we navigate with the help of avatars. It’s good to get a sense of just how much educational potential there may be in such a development.

Tag: slanguages2007

The unevenly distributed future

Conference: Best Practices in Education
Second Life, 25 May 2007

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“The future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.” This quote from William Gibson was amply illustrated by the first Best Practices in Education Conference to be held in the virtual world Second Life. This international event – presenters and participants were located all around the world – took place on 25 May from 12.00 to 23.00 SLT (Second Life Time), which is equivalent to PDT (Pacific Daylight Time).

There were a number of venues, including the welcome center, the main presentation area (provided by Hyperstring), a second presentation area (Edulsland), a space for vendors and exhibits, and a poster area (Rockcliffe University). The main conference website contains links to the presentation schedule and the conference blog.

I caught parts of Melissa de Zwart’s (SL name – Bramwell Writer) presentation on IP and virtual worlds and Suku Sinnappan’s (SL – Study Writer) presentation entitled Virtual identity and representation. Both were delivered very effectively in live audio, with follow-up questions typed in by audience members. These were followed by the informative Australian Educators’ Panel, in which the panel discussed a variety of issues pertinent to virtual worlds. There seems to be very widespread interest in legal and IP issues, naturally enough given the new terrain that is being broken in virtual worlds – and its uncertain relationship to the legal terrain of the real world.

It was fascinating to be surrounded by a large crowd of delegates whose avatars ranged from those you wouldn’t blink at if you passed them in the street to those at the more striking end of the spectrum, arranged on a continuum from animals to angels. While most delegates sat in the chairs provided during the presentations, there was considerable coming and going – new avatars materialising, others vanishing, still others wandering the rooms – which was entertaining but ultimately also distracting. Clearly, the relationship between RL and SL conference etiquette is also new ground which will need some exploring!

Overall, this conference was a captivating experience. I left with the feeling that those of us lucky enough to attend had been offered a glimpse of Gibson’s unevenly distributed future. See more pix below …

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Vendor displays in the Outreach Center

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Presentation IP and virtual worlds (de Zwart)

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Presentation Virtual identity and representation (Sinnappan)

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