Friday, January 29, 2010

One week post conference

It's been a week since the CIT conference where I presented on academic communities of practice and engaging students outside the classroom. I have to say that the experience was pretty enlightening. I do like getting in front of people and sharing what I know with the group, but this particular experience has encouraged me participate in future CIT conferences and in other conferences both at UMass Boston and elsewhere. Now all I have to do is to think of a topic.

The interesting thing about the CIT conference is that presenters can choose to create a written account of their presentation and submit it for publication in a peer reviewed journal -sweeeeet! I've been wanting to do the whole research and publish thing after I graduate, but I've decided that since I already have the subject matter (some in my head, some in slides and some on note cards) I can sit down over the next few months, work on the different sections, edit and submit!

Monday, January 25, 2010

School wants to claim copyright over lesson plans

I came across this article a while back on TechDirt (quite a few comments on the techdirt take!) Now the idea here is that any material or intellectual property created by a district employee, with either indirect or direct support from the district, would belong to the district. This may sound like a good idea, but it is an inherently bad idea - and it's bad on so many levels.

From a philosophical point of view, knowledge should be freely available. Our libraries are here to safeguard that. How one helps others gain knowledge should also be available free of charge. Great ideas come from collaboration, and being able to freely exchange materials with fellow professionals improves the creation and refinement of great products and methods.

Second there is the whole issue of tax-payer dollars. The school, be it K-12 of Higher Education is getting money from the state and probably even the federal government. If the school is private it probably is a not-for-profit and (if I am not mistaken) there are provisions in certain non-profits that require the benefit of all in order to be a non-profit organization. One way to ensure that others are benefiting is the sharing of resources. One such initiative is Open Courseware. If you have open courseware, why would you object to sharing materials? If you don't have OCW, why don't you?

My two cents on the matter are as follows: educational materials created by university and school employees on the clock (or for a specific course) should be available under creative commons licensing. You require attribution so that the work of the original creator is acknowledged, you require share alike so that any changes to the material are shared, and you make them non-commercial so that people looking to leech from other's hard work can't. Simple! :-)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Learning and Theory (part 3)

Welcome back to the last part (for now) of the discussion on learning and theory inspired by a video blog that I saw recently (more on that in part 1).

In the aforementioned video blog, the blogger (Steve Kaufman of "The Linguist on Language") said that Language learning depends on learner, not research. I suppose that when it comes down to it he is correct. Language learning (or any learning for that matter) does depend on the motivation of the learner. That motivation may vary. Some people like the challenge, others want to converse with long lost relatives, and other may want to seek employment opportunities abroad (or one of a myriad of other reasons). Research findings aren't geared toward the learner but rather toward the teacher. If you are one of those lucky teachers that has super-motivated learners in front of them you are very lucky! Your job is much easier!

The fact of the matter is that many people take classes because they have to, not because they want to. My high school 100 and 200 level French classes (intro and advanced intro/beginning intermediate) were all filled with people who could not care less about language - but they had to do it. My 300 and 400 level classes (intermediate and beginner advanced) were motivated people because they did not have to be there (well at least as far as the school is concerned, the parents may have forced them to be in those classes).

Thus, when you have people in your class, that have to be there, but don't want to be there, you need to figure out what makes them tick, how to get through to them, and how to motivate them to achieve. This is where research comes in. There are also hard ways of doing things, and easy way of doing things. People with little motivation will respond to easier things better than hard things. Therefore research can help us determine what is easier and more beneficial for the learners so that language learning doesn't become bootcamp.

Steven commented that research is over-complicating something that is simple: namely language learning. I disagree that language learning is simple. I hated learning languages as a child - as an adult I have more appreciation. Research is not meant to dictate to us "how a teacher should teach" (as steve claims)  but rather how to make the little time spent in class get the most results, and how to structure activities in and out of class to help the learners.

As language teachers we are not required to incorporate every single little theory from every single theoretician out there.  We should read up on the theories and research coming out, we should analyze the conditions that lead to that theory, we should analyze our learners and the context within they operate and see what would be the most beneficial set of recommendations provided by theories for our learners. This isn't a cookie cutter approach - it shouldn't be! If you are using a cookie cutter approach - you are doing it wrong. We need critical and creative teachers. Learning is a complicated process - there are easy ways and hard ways of going about things. Research helps clarify the issues (and sometimes helps to muddle them a bit). The point is that we all do research whether we want to or not (see part 2 on the teacher as researcher). Research taken into context doesn't complicate things - it serves to clarify issues in learning.

And that's all I had to say on that topic - for now.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Learning and Theory (part 2)

Alright, so here is part 2 of my little examination of learning and the role of theory plays on learning and teaching. This was fueled by Steve Kaufmann's semi-recent video blog (see part 1 of this series for link). This part has to do with Research, Politics and the role of linguistics in language learning.

First off the bat, we have a comment that research can project just about anything depending on the parameters of the study. Well, I am not really sure how to approach this other than to look at statistics as a parallel. An old professor of mine used to say that:
there are three types of liars: Liars, Damned Liars and Statisticians.

Of course this was a bit tongue-in-cheek as he was a math professor. The way you determine if a study has any bearing on what you do, or if it indeed is a credible study, is to look at the instrumentation, the methodology, the participants, the sociocultural settings and so on. No study is absolute because they can't test for everything. This is how discovery works: you isolate different features of something and you test to see what element interacts with what other elements and what they accomplish in the end. No study I've read is absolute, they all say "further research is needed". As much as I hate seeing this (as a future practitioner), I would be weary of any study that proclaimed the results to be absolute truth.

The second comment made was that language and politics are intertwined and politics are covered up under the moniker of research. Well d'uh! This isn't just part of language learning. It's part of education in general! This is nothing new, however that does not mean that all research is bogus, or that all research serves political purposes. Again, the onus is on the reader/practitioner/responsible citizen to look at the background, question, and prove or counter-prove. No surprises.

Finally, there have been many comments that people have been learning languages for centuries (well millennia actually) without knowledge of linguistics. I don't know where he is going with this. Does he mean that learners of a language have no knowledge of linguistics? Or that teachers of a language have no knowledge of linguistics?

If he means students had no knowledge of linguistics and they fared well, then I have to say "well d'uh!" As a learner you don't need knowledge of linguistics to learn a language It is not necessary. As a teacher of language I should hope you have some background in Applied Linguistics because then you are making informed decisions about how to teach language as opposed to taking stabs in the dark. According to wikipedia, Applied Linguistics is "an interdisciplinary field of study that identifies, investigates, and offers solutions to language-related real-life problems." and one of these problems/issues is how people best learn a language (first or second)

The research of applied linguists is not divorced from what happens in the classroom (at least it's not supposed to). Every language teacher is a researcher at heart. Learning it in a classroom is research based to some extent - whether some old schoolteacher way-back-when observed some behavior that he wanted reinforced and experimented with ways to reinforce it  (and then passed on that style of teaching to his disciples) or whether some linguistics researcher targeted some language structure in a clinical setting.

There have been some issues with linguistic dictionaries and professional jargon that the lay person does not comprehend (like monitor hypothesis, structured input and so on). Well, each profession has their jargon - it's inevitable. It's language used to explain theories and phenomena that are part of that profession. At the same time this jargon is not meant to be known or comprehended by the layperson who wants to learn a foreign language. This is language and terminology is geared toward professionals who are in the field of teaching language to others. Sure you could have a description of some concept that is a mile long, however jargon serves as short hand for conversations among communities of practice that know it, to save time and to communicate more effectively.

That's my 2 cents for now...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Learning and Theory (part 1)

I guess here's a small blogging arch that deals with linguistics.

I was viewing Kaufman's semi-recent video blog on how theory muddles education and I was getting the vibe that he just doesn't think that we should be doing any research into how people learn languages, or if we do we should keep it to ourselves.

That's just all a bunch of hogwash, because theory divorced from practice is useless, and practice devoid of theory (why we do what we do) is dangerous! (or at the very least bad pedagogy).

I was going to write just one blog post as a response to this video blog, but as I was taking notes to myself on the things that I disagreed with, I saw that there were a lot! So, I've broken them up.

One of the issues was that research on second language acquisition is taking place in English speaking countries (or maybe it's predominantly English speaking countries). OK, I would agree with this to some extent, there is a lot of research done in English but there are many journals and professional associations (like EuroCALL) that are not all done in English Speaking Countries. I guess the criticism here is that people are wasting effort trying to find out how people learn languages in monoglot countries whereas they could be spending time in polyglot countries studying children learning naturally.

Well, if we did that, it wouldn't be called Second Language Acquisition, it would be called First Language Acquisition, or just Language Acquisition (it doesn't matter how many languages you pick up as your first, as far as I am concerned anyway). I think that it's more effective to look at monoglots learning a second language to see what works and what doesn't. Children have a long time to learn a language and they are probably care free. Adults need to learn languages faster, for specific purposes some times, and they don't always have the same amount of time on task that kids do.

Another comment mentioned was that some research contradicting other's research. Well, that's how we learn! We think we know something, we hypothesize, we test, we theorize and we accept a certain theory as truth until someone else comes along and looks at the holes in our theory in conjunction with their observations, then the cycle starts all over. At one point we thought the earth was flat and that we were the center of the universe. Do we think this still? No, we don't, but at one time it was the accepted truth.

Why would one not use accepted truths or theories in their everyday life including teaching? It is our job, as teachers, to look at theories, see if we agree or disagree with what is being said, experiment on our own and reformulate theories (or form our own) from our experiences. Teachers and researchers need not be two separate jobs. We do it subconsciously anyway so why not make a concerted effort?

More to come later :-)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Obsolete Learning Technologies - NOT!

Every year (or at least at the end of a decade) people feel compelled to pronounce certain things obsolete - let's toss them by the way side and move on proclaim the pundits! This year is no different. Recently Inside Higher Ed had their own obsolete learning technologies list - which I obviously completely disagree with.

Here's the bird's eye view:

  1. Scantron Sheets

  2. Overhead Projectors/Transparencies

  3. Classroom VHS/DVD Players

  4. Course Packs & Course Readers

  5. Photocopiers

  6. Microfiche

  7. Language and Computer Labs

  8. Paper Journals and Periodicals

So here's why I disagree:
Scantron sheets are still useful and relevant. Why? Well, if you're teaching a few classes with 60+ students in them (or even if you're not), you don't always have time to take your questions - which your probably formulated into word, copy and paste them into an LMS quiz module, select the correct answers and make an answer tree out of them. It is much, much, simpler to develop a good multiple choice test, have it in word, mark the correct answers on one scantron sheet and let the machine do the rest. Once the machine grading is done you're set. No "my computer froze" excuses from students, no LMS downtime, nothing. Just done.

Overhead Projectors: Personally I would prefer it if some of my PowerPoint wielding professors used overheads and transparencies. Why? Because then they can interact with the content! They can draw, and annotate and point to things, and heck, they can even jot down new notes! PowerPoint is not that easy to work with in that respect,and not every classroom has a smartboard - however for $40 and the cost of an extension cord (if you need it) you've got multimedia - old school!

In class DVD/VHS players: The idea of LMS video streaming is nice. In a perfect world perhaps. However Josh has obviously not thought of all the variables (and probably does not have a lot of contact with faculty teaching realities). Many people tape things off broadcast TV, borrow a film from the library or blockbuster (or netflx), or heck they may even copy it. They don't necessarily have the rights to show a clip or a video in whole. Should they? Of course, but the reality is that they don't always. Second, a lot of videos have never made it to have streaming versions. Some are still on LaserDisc or 16mm (or VHS)! Could they be digitized? Of course! But then you have a cost-benefit of getting a hold of proper licenses. Finally, networks go down and there is a technology requirement. DVD and VHS players are ubiquitous and cheap, whereas streaming (in addition to requiring internet), also require special software. Real Media doesn't play on my iPhone, WMV streaming doesn't either...or flash for that matter. If I can't (for some reason or another) run the software my educational experience is impaired.

Course Packs: Yes, you can put them on an LMS. Again we are coming back to rights management. Personally (working in a library), I would prefer to see better use of e-Reserve. It's a great service, it does provide essentially what are course packs, and best of all: it's free to students. Coursepacks however are not dead, they are reborn.

Photocopiers: Seriously? Photocopiers are not dead, and they won't be any time soon. Why? There are many books that are not digitized, and many journals from before 1980 (I think) that are still only available in paper form! What does that mean? You need photocopiers to get a copy of that article that is only in paper form.

Microfiche: Microfiche, again, is not going anywhere. Why? Because film is archival! You can store a lot of information on microfilm and microfiche and it can be preserved for a very long time. Now digital info is great, but it's not necessarily archival in quality. Again, as with photocopiers, there is A LOT of information locked up in microfiche that has not been digitized yet - therefore - technology is not obsolete.

Paper Journals & Periodicals: Yes, again, things are digital, but your subscription to things like Gale and EBSCO databases does not mean that (1) you've got all journals and (2) it does not mean that you have them forever. You only lease access and once you can't pay any more - that's it! Whereas paper journals you own forever!

Language and Computer Labs: Finally, language labs are gone - but that's because the premise of the language lab is based on an Audiolingual methodology for teaching language, which according to newer research isn't always the best methodology to use all the time (in moderation, depending on the exercise, perhaps). I lament the demise of the language lab because I think that students need access to language resources and linguistic expertise and now there is no place to get it. Language labs and Language librarians/experts need to make a comeback to improve language teaching.
As far as computer labs go...I don't know how things are at Josh's institution, but from what I see in my neck of the woods, there are waiting lines for computer in out public labs. Also, you are assuming that students with laptops are going to always bring them to class. School is expensive. Laptops are expensive and they represent a significant investment to some students - it makes sense that they don't carry them around everywhere.

In closing - I guess it's all down to the eye of the beholder. I just wish that my fellow learning technologists would consider teaching and learning in the classroom (a learner and context analysis if you will) before they prematurely proclaim certain technologies obsolete.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

ROI, IOB, the MBA, the ID, and communication

I think that Thursday might be my Instructional Design day and Monday will be Linguistics Monday - at least for now. It seems like I am devoting a lot of days on ID and not enough on linguistics ;-)

Anyway, a while back there seems to be this big broo-ha-ha over the culture clash between MBAs and Learning Professionals (instructional designers). One post was at Gina's blog - there were many others but I did not really bookmark them since Gina's blog sparked this thought.

One thing that I felt that's going on here is that there is a lack of clarity in speech (man linguistics is ingrained in everything!). Many instructional designers talk about learning and human performance professionals or specialists and they don't generally think twice about it, while in the same breath not really getting the Evil MBA speak of ROI (return on investment) and IOB (impact on business). What I find ironic is that it is the MBA that gave us jargon like "human performance professionals" in the first place, but that irony is lost on instructional designers.

What it boils down to, in a business, is whether or not a certain measure - be it learning incentives, new information technology, new perks, new initiatives, or mandated training (to name a few) have any sort of positive effect on the operation of business. Some things are easy to measure - for instance if you switch from a paper-based accounting & receipt system to an electronic one you can see a tangible ROI. Because you spend less time on writing, tabulating and searching for paper, you can have your staff assist more customers and get more sales - this way your can see more dollars and cents on the bottom line.

Some other gains are soft - for example job perks might mean that you have lower turnover rates, which means that you don't need to spend a ton of time rehiring people, and as such your productivity may increase. In this scenario you may see more money on the bottom line, you may not. There is still an impact on the business - it could be costing you less to offer perks, rather than hire and train new people. Some other measures of impact on business are greater mindshare - it may not necessarily manifest itself in sales - look at apple, it's still not the biggest PC maker, Windows still rules the world, however their sales have increased, and their price per share has gone up by a lot!

So where is this going? I guess we're all working for the same team here. Good MBAs (or a good anything for that matter) opens up the lines of communication, tries not to obfuscate (intentionally or unintentionally) with jargon, and this communication can lead to gains in the organization. It's not just up to the MBAs though. Just as with any act of communication, the participating parties need to enter the conversation and ask for clarification for jargon they do not understand, and they too should attempt to avoid profession-based jargon when working in cross-functional teams.

I guess what it boils down to is this: don't assume that because you understand something that it's not jargon. Each profession has jargon, each profession uses their own lingo, we need to not look at each other antagonistically and not to fall into stereotypes. Use clear speech to communicate.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Krashen - Acquisition v. Learning

The first post of the new year (that's actually academic), is a response to (or rather an addendum to) Steve Kaufmann's recent video blog entry.

While I don't agree with Steve (as always) in everything he says, I did find some of what he said on the ball. For example he said that the brain always learns - I agree. However, I do believe that whether someone learns the language "naturally" (i.e. something like immersion - like babies learning their first language) or something more like a classroom, the processes are quite similar. It is true that kids learning their mother tongue don't have to pass quizzes in vocabulary or grammar in the traditional sense (i.e. sit down and take a pen and paper exam - that would be hilarious though) but they do have tests whether one wants to admit it or not.

When a kid utters something like "DOG!" when the kid really means "cookie!", this impedes the kid's ability to communicate - in essence failing a test. The kid really want a cookie, but the parents bring him the puppy and the kid gets frustrated. Luckily in close communication we've got paralinguistic communications such as pointing to cookies (or pictures of them), making eating sounds, jumping up and down in frustration and so on (as adults some of these might look ridiculous). Parents also pair down their speech to kid-talk to accommodate the kid's growing vocab, so the kid doesn't always have access to full on language - they get it piece meal.

So, back to acquisition and learning. Now the difference between the two (not that I agree 100%) is that acquisition is learning that results in language usage being spontaneous - no thought required. Whereas learning is formal learning where you might monitor your speech or search for that word that you just learned or learned a while back but don't use all that often.

In an L1 setting (L1 = primary language), acquisition is what happens at home, what the kid learns - for example learning that a cookie is a cookie and not a dog, or saying "if I was king...", whereas learning would be what happens in school and where you learn the correct subjunctive: "if I were king..." Learning (in my opinion) can become acquisition if the stuff you learn comes out naturally without much thought. For example if you can say "if I were king, I would eradicate poverty" instead of fumbling and saying "If I was king...eerr.. If I were king I would eradicate poverty"

Personally I am not sure where I stand on Krashen just yet - I disagree with a lot of what he says - but I need to explore some more. I just wanted to offer a devil's advocate on learning versus acquisition.

One last thing on classroom learning - it seems that Steve, and others, really equate classroom learning with the methods that we grew up with - the audio lingual method, the berlitz method, some of the crazy experimental TPR stuff. The classroom need not be stuffy and it need not resemble what we grew up with. As we understand more about human learning we can bring that back into the classroom and improve the learning process. Teaching to the test is bad - but just because we've grown up with that culture doesn't mean we need to perpetuate it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year

2009 is out, 2010 is in!

In the past couple of weeks I've been reading a lot of news relating to Educational Technology, Linguistics, Language Learning and Academia in general - but I was saving it for the new year :-)

Until next week (when I start writing again) - Enjoy a traditional Greek New Year's Carol :-)