The Future is eLearning

It’s official – my eLearning platform is alive and online:

Osborne House

I had a vision of creating courses where excursions are the foundation stones as opposed to ‘extra-curricular’ treats. I wanted to liberate the learner (and trainer) completely from the artificial shackles of the four-walled classroom. I found my solution this past Christmas in Moodle, and have been learning and experimenting with it ever since. What you see on the platform now is the product of that work – a fully blended eLearning solution.

The reading, writing and listening practice is covered through fully online activities based solely on real articles and videos from the internet. The speaking practice occurs in video conference lessons and excursions, again where materials and objectives are strictly real. In paid courses, one excursion underpins the selection of materials and activities for the rest of the course. For example, the “Cooking in English” course is based on a live cooking class with an American chef. In that course, lesson themes are all around cuisine, recipes and cultural habits, with each part focussing on vocabulary or sub-skills that will be practised and consolidated in the penultimate task – the excursion itself.

The key to this whole experiment is the approach to the online method. Up to now most online ELT platforms are essentially static stores of information and activities – the digital equivalent of just giving the learner and textbook then leaving them in a room for an hour. I’ve learned two key things from my experience of the industry of successful online learning:

  • Instructor participation at every level dramatically increases attendance and motivation.
  • Gameification, that is, adding game elements to activities, taking cues from video and board games, also has a dramatic different on learners’ motivation to progress in a course

The first point makes it sound like the learner would be better off in a classroom. Surely online learning is there to allow more independence and autonomy, not to still have the teacher peering over their shoulder? It is true that online learning can offer the student immense freedom thanks to the vastness of the internet in terms of content, and there are many apps at their disposal to engage them with online content. The problem is that leaving a student to their own devices without live trainer feedback has been shown consistently to reduce motivation and attendance dramatically within the first stages of the course.

The key is to have some regular participation from a live trainer – as simple as a short private message on your platform saying “Hey, good job on lesson 2!” or “Hey, it’s been a while since lesson 3, is everything ok?” This kind of supportive nudge keeps learners conscious that their platform is not a static resource store, but a live community which is constantly monitored. It’s as close as we can get to compensating for the loss of face-to-face interaction.

In my courses, each self-study part has at least one production task associated with it, and that only becomes available to students after completion of the self-study tasks. This not only embeds trainer interaction into every activity, but adds a gaming element to completion of the isolated study part. I believe this will drive students’ motivation to complete otherwise impersonal activities with the reward of real interaction with a trainer.

Further gameification exists on the platform in the form of badges. This simple reward system is an integrated Moodle plugin that can programme specific, pictorial awards to be given upon meeting certain conditions, for example completing an activity or course. I want this system to reinforce students’ feelings of achievement after completing a speaking activity, for example, and to make a bigger deal about overcoming live communication anxiety.

The excursion courses are only available in France at the moment, but I’m constantly seeking out new partners to supply the excursion part of future international courses. If you feel that this approach speaks to you, please get in contact and give me your ideas and feedback at contact@osbornehouse.net

Things to AVOID when learning a foreign language

So our brains are constantly trying to take shortcuts when learning a new language. Even a glimpse of a familiar cultural image can affect our fluency in our new language.

I feel like this is a call for experiments with classrooms in the dark, or possibly blindfolding… might need to get the lawyers in on this one.

AIYSHAH'S ENGLISH PAGE

….Just to warn you listeners first, this guy has some VERY interesting points to make, but does speak really fast, so replay it if you need to.

elit laugh 1

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THINK OUTSIDE the BOX to learn English faster

I love a good call to break out of the traditional boring classroom lesson!

AIYSHAH'S ENGLISH PAGE

box

(Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1aUlNCw)

Whenever I hear someone say to me to think outside the box I always imagine myself going outside and standing on my head.  It’s a great place to start. It shakes down all those ideas that were blocking the top of your head to the bottom and the ones that were stuck at the bottom can trickle up to the top.

Nice way to look at it.

But basically this title of ‘thinking outside the box’ is really all about being creative, trying something new and not being afraid to fail.

So let’s first look at what is ‘thinking inside the box’:

  • Taking a course
  • Doing your homework
  • Getting a one to one teacher

As you can see I have only written 3 and that is because ‘thinking inside the box’ is incredibly limited. … That’s why we recommend thinking outside the box.

So…

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7 GENIUS ways to help your English for FREE in your ENVIRONMENT

Love it, get some English in your life!

AIYSHAH'S ENGLISH PAGE

gen

(Photo credit: http://bit.ly/1aU8QIF)

Here are some great ideas to just add that extra something to your English learning. I thought they were genius!

  1. Label things in your house

This is such a good idea as every time you pass that label you will remember it, every time you turn on the light, you will remember the words ‘light switch’, every time you get hungry and go to the kitchen you will remember ‘fridge’ every time you put your clothes away you will remember ‘wardrobe’, and so on….

  1. Keep a notebook in every room

Every time you remember something in English or have a question, just go to the notebook and write it down. Then when you go off to school take the notebooks with you and ask your teacher or practice the words.  Don’t forget to put them back in your rooms when you get home.

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Assertiveness

What is it about having self confidence issues, social anxiety or perfectionism that makes some of us inefficient language learners? I used to think this was related to introverted or extrovertedness, but now I’m not so sure. I think the measure of how strong, clear and assertive someone is in their first language may give us clues concerning other languages.

I said in my previous post how I was perplexed by the fact that many people are extremely motivated to learn or improve another language, but can’t seem to break through that invisible barrier blocking them from engaging in the kinds of activities that would lead to strong and rapid acquisition, such as language exchanges online or face to face. I know myself that I’ve had problems with social anxiety in the past, and although my self confidence is now strong and I consider myself quite assertive, there are still communicative scenarios that cause me serious anxiety. I don’t consider myself an introvert, as I’ve always needed to bounce new ideas off others before putting them into action (hence this blog…). I’ve never been good at working on projects alone, and I’m often compelled to seek out collaborators. This may come from growing up with the aforementioned anxiety, in the sense of worrying that I was unfit to judge the quality or success of my own exploits without someone else’s reassurance. Although today I do most of my personal projects alone, I still have difficulty suppressing that little voice in my head saying, “Is this really any good?”

As a language learner, this makes me avoid situations where my language competence will be obviously lacking compared to others. I remember how long it took me to really get over this phobia with French, and how illogically resistant I was to doing any live practice in front of people whose opinions I valued. Now, however, with my level approaching fluent, I feel pride when able to demonstrate my ability, especially to others less competent than myself when they ask for my help. As good as that is, it still sounds scarily like looking to others for validation. I’m starting to wonder how much this accounts for my similar present aversion to German practice.

So I’m brought back to my own point from ‘EFL Materials,’ that there simply isn’t enough support for language learners to cope with the very specific anxiety created by live language practice. We need to develop a student’s voice, that is, the embodiment of how they express their thoughts, feelings and beliefs. As language trainers, we dare not delve into the realm of psychological evaluation, but perhaps we can focus on this one specific idea: assertiveness of the student’s ‘voice.’ We will cannot claim to provide relief from social anxiety in general, but perhaps localised relief for scenarios demanding live performance of the target language. If done through the target language, great, but it could also be done in the students first language for low level learners. With simple, clear instructions on how to identify negative beliefs related to language performance, as well as how to design activities and experiments to expose students to their fears in a controlled way, we might be able to slowly diminish their anxiety.

I’d love comments from peers on this (obviously, if you’ve been reading what I said above!) and I look forward to sharing results from my own students in this project.

My Voice

I have a question to answer – the kind of serious scientific issue that can only be answered by rambling in a blog post. My question is this: How can someone learn a foreign language which they consciously want to speak, if they cannot find the internal drive that pushes them to do so?

Self-study

First, I’d like to ponder to autodidact route. Surely, if you have a real affinity for a language, you should be able to avail of the multitude of different means of self-study to achieve this goal. Just a few examples:

— Text books with carefully organised language explanation and practice, often with accompanying audio materials
— eLearning sites offering audio, video and interactive language explanation and practice
— Face-to-face group language exchanges in local bars, often low price or free.
— One-on-one language exchange partners, through webcam or live meetings
— General free material online: news sites, music, YouTube teachers, Duolingo, etc.

Apart from the first two examples, these sources are free and easy to use. So why are multilingual hopefuls all over the world not jumping up and down with joy, finally able to realise their dream? Is it as simple as laziness, or a lack of free time?

My Experience

I’ll confess something: I am one of these seemingly lazy students. I’ve grappled with this question for a long time as a language learner. I started 5 years ago when I first arrived in Paris. At first my partner (now my wife) was very supportive and helpful with the process of learning French, but I experienced an intense psychological aversion to language learning and practice — even though it was at the time essential for things like setting up bank accounts and insurance. It took me over one year in my new environment before I actually started learning and practising its language. Even then, my preference was to leave the text book and classroom lessons to one side in favour of live, intense practice with genuine conversation partners — struggling to push out simple jokes and social expressions to fit in at the dinner table or in the pub. This was where my progress rocketed, despite my persistent yet dwindling feeling of aversion.

My second, and equally long, language experience is the one which leads me to today’s blog post: my partner is German. Although we started and developed our relationship in English, I expressed interest from the beginning in learning German. I wanted to be able to communicate with her family in Berlin when we visited. I took private lessons, bought a grammar book, tried eLearning programs like Duolingo, Livemocha and Deutschewelle, audio courses like Pimsleur and Assimil, nothing inspired me beyond a handful of short practice sessions and neglegable progress.

When the time came for live practice, most of my wife Caroline’s friends and relations either spoke English, therefore negating the need to try my pidgin German, or tried one or two simple expressions out on me before of course launching into fully native conversations with the other Germans present. Again, little was actually produced on my side, and progress was minimal.

This situations has been repeated about once a year over a period of about 5 years now, and my disinterest in the learning materials persists. So, you may ask, your wife is clearly bilingual, why not practise with her? She has been kind enough to try, but anyone reading this who’s had a similar experience will know that once you’ve established which language will be used in a relationship it is very hard to switch later on. This includes platonic ones; my French neighbours for example sometimes squeeze the odd English sentence out to me, but the idea of uttering something in English to them in reply thoroughly gives me the willies.

So, the self-study route hasn’t helped, what has? Strangely, my listening comprehension in German is much better than my spoken ability. This uncountably comes from years of eavesdropping on Caroline’s conversations with her mum or dad. I experience a strange sensation where I hear linguistic hints that she’s telling them a story about our life together, and my brain deduces bits of the German terms from what I remember her saying in English. It’s a very strange phenomenon, and the more it happens the more I can suss out new conversations with words I haven’t heard before, or at least ones I couldn’t repeat if I wanted to use them myself.

Geeks and Sponges

So what does all this mean? The answer to the problem has become imperative, as we’re now expecting our first baby. This summer, therefore, my wife will be speaking to our child exclusively in German, and I in English, making my need to understand what she says immensely personal. Yet, even with such a compelling intrinsic motivation, I find myself imagining going back to the learning materials I talked about earlier and wince in boredom. So, I need to find that miracle solution, that answer to the ultimate question: how can someone disinterested by classic self study learn a language without being forced through a professionally taught language course that he doesn’t have time for?

I want to start my search by making a distinction between two types of language students: geeks and sponges. There are learners who are genuinely interested in the language itself, that is its sounds, texts and patterns, as well as how it works. These students find their voice through this empirical and methodical study method. Then, there are the learners who are interested in what can be achieved through use of the language. These students find their voice through immersion in situations where the language is ubiquitous, but accessible, and communicative successes can be realised at each level of their development to spur on their practice. I’d say this isn’t a dichotomy, more like a bell curve. The average student is as interested in the words and workings of the language itself as in its uses, forming the peak of the bell, then you get decreasing numbers of students on each side who prefer one to the other. Everyone in the curve is capable of learning and becoming a user of the language, but of course being predominantly concerned with its grammar and patterns will retard progress, as will simply throwing yourself into a group with no regard for the former at all. The ideal is probably the average — a healthy mix of the two.

So, leaving aside the geeks to another blog post, what can be done to inspire those sponge learners like myself into faster progress? Thankfully, having survived this experience with French, I have examples to draw upon. A key factor is that living in the country makes language encounters a daily occurrence whether you’re making an effort or not – even when just picking up a croissant and a coffee on your way to work. These pure-use kind of situations suited me very well as a sponge and, although my aversion to technical language study definitely slowed my progress, I’m now a master coffee-orderer — ready for anything they throw at me. I don’t have this possibility with German.

My German Voice

I could start making big promises like getting off my ass and finding a language exchange friend like I did before in French, but I know I won’t go through with it. I also know that anyone living here who speaks German probably already speaks English pretty fluently. Yes, that’s a stereotype, but it’s very often true.

Perhaps it’s the approach that’s wrong. As a sponge learner, I don’t see language production as a methodical process at all. I believe very strongly in humanity’s purely emergent language learning abilities, realised through meaningful practice (cue Dogmetists). When I speak French, it’s not a skill to me as would be dancing or typing, its another voice –coming from somewhere subconscious, basic and natural. My French voice is what I developed in speaking with real conversation partners; it represents my ability to be me in French. This may be what caused such resistance at the beginning. If my ability in French is so intimately linked to my concept of self, it was intensely uncomfortable to be able to say so little and be so frequently at a loss for words to advance the conversation. It’s like having the language part of your brain cut out and suddenly becoming powerlessly mute. This concept of voice in types of learner like myself may hold the key.

If my German voice is still muted, yet comprehension is increasing, I need to find a way to use it in a meaningful way that can confirm its value as a way to express my self, despite its limited capacity. I don’t have the answer yet, but comments would be both welcomed and appreciated.