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

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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.

Motivation

The mere mention of the word motivation can send shivers up the spine of the most seasoned pedagogues. What the heck does it even mean? Are my students motivated? How can I find out?

A recent talk I attended at the TESOL France colloquium by Stephen-Scott Brewer renewed my interest in the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but elaborated it into a spectrum. At one end lay pure amotivation, moving through extrinsic motivation to pure intrinsic motivation. It made me realise that accessing the potential of a student’s intrinsic motivation may be related to the idea of Krashen’s affective learning filter.

Understanding motivation, for me, lies in the distinction between the definition of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic means being motivated for reasons to do exclusively with the self. This could be a desire to succeed for pure self gratification, or even simpler — the desire to survive (food, shelter, etc.). These are the purest forms of motivation; they represent our most basic desires.

Extrinsic motivation comes from factors external to purely selfish needs, for example: making progress in a job; establishing or maintaining a relationship; satisfying a social convention; etc. One key factor here, where the spectrum comes into play, is that all effective extrinsic motivation contains elements of intrinsic motivation. Being promoted through good results at work gives us greater means to satisfy our monetary desires, as well as greater self esteem. Making friends brings us opportunities for the pleasure of socialising, or even help in problem resolution.

Once we reach the other end of the spectrum, where extrinsic motivation dwarfs any intrinsic motivation, for example: a child wishing to perform well in an subject they hate simply because of parental pressure, we close in on amotivation. The less selfish gain we can achieve in something, the less motivated we are to do it.

My previous point sounds terribly misanthropic. The argument that no one does anything without some personal gain is a sore point for people who profess the power of the human spirit to do good in the world, but it is an inescapable truth. Even the most selfless, heroic act leads to feelings of righteousness or heroism, so it is partially intrinsically motivated, whether it’s intended to be or not.

So far so good, but how does this relate to language teaching? Well, surely this provides the ultimate answer to classroom activities’ effectiveness: make them entirely selfish. Throw a student into a pit of snakes until they tell you about their weekend with perfectly conjugated verbs and by God you’ll have effective language acquisition!

Though in reality this isn’t the case. Imagine the student whose passion is vintage cars, so you ask him to prepare a presentation for the class on his favourite model. These students so often produce surprisingly uninspiring work, unable to express themselves and resentful of being asked to do so. Their intrinsic motivation cannot break through their, sometimes intense, psychological issues. Krashen (2003) states that certain negative emotions, such as anxiety, self-doubt, and even boredom interfere with the effectiveness of second language acquisition.

So to access a student’s motivation, we must not only deal with how well we’re satisfying their personal needs, but also how much they are affected in learning by negative emotions. This puts the teacher in an uncomfortable position. Not that we don’t care about our students’ problems, but dealing with psychological issues is a delicate process. Perhaps, with some basic training, we could take on the responsibility of something like a counsellor as well as a trainer — like a language coach — dealing with linguistic, as well as personal, problems. I’m still developing my own views on this, and I would love some input from the blogging community in the comments.

Krashen, S. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heinemann

EFL materials

I’m feeling desperate. Every year, new ESL materials are created to a serve the very unique and arguably biggest market for foreign language learning: adults and ESP. I’m trapped in a world where this decontextualised nonsense is something most of my peers see as perfectly normal, applauding the great advances in materials design as if it’s anything more than polishing an inappropriate, deceitful way to promise students improvement in their foreign language development.

The adult teaching context is, in my experience, complex compared to that of young learners. Though motivation in YLs is a key issue with no shortage of published material, they could be stereotypically described as language sponges — soaking up new language as it is presented to them. Adults, though they still in theory have the ability to soak up new language, more often have a crippling layer of difficulty in the form of inhibition. It seems to me that once YLs reach the age of their first life-defining exams (e.g. A-Levels, Baccalaureate, SATs, etc.) they’ve already been systematically brainwashed into thinking mistakes are shameful, leading to the development of perfectionist beliefs.

This, in my experience, creates a permanent layer of mistake anxiety that continues into adulthood, which affects our ability to freely and easily acquire language as YLs do. This ingrained fear manifests itself as defensiveness, frustration, depression, self-deprecation, the list goes on. These typical side-effects of perfectionist beliefs differ in severity depending on the student’s personal experiences. Error correction leads to shame. Using imagination is rejected for fear of uttering something embarrassing. The lesson becomes a dry, clinical attempt to avoid any meaningful language use. For anyone who’s studied Krashen, this is explained as the affective filter.

In a non-target-language country, this makes learning avoidance almost inevitable in a large part of the population who would otherwise like to acquire it for better job opportunities, holidays, or simply satisfying a passion. An excuse develops that learning is only affective when you spend time in the target language country. This is true, to an extent, as immersive learning helps overcome psychological hang-ups thanks to the basic need to survive and be accepted in one’s community. As most people’s time or budget constraints negate embarking on such an adventure, this becomes the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

So, with such a considerable, fundamental barrier to language learning existing in one of the main markets for the major textbook publishers, you’d imagine this would form a key part of their published content. There are several obvious reasons that this isn’t the case. For starters, each country has its own cultural profile, with its own unique reasons for learning avoidance, so producing country-specific books would be costly and unprofitable. Secondly, it’s much easier to cop out with the excuse that such psychological difficulties are outside the remit of poor, pedestrian, private sector language teachers. Finally, many students use existing learning materials to successfully improved their language competence, despite their neuroses. Classroom-based students often overcome such difficulties unconsciously as they engage in interesting group activities, becoming confident language users without explicit psychological intervention.

So what’s my problem, you may well ask? I’m not satisfied. It feels like if we dared to confront the issue of learning avoidance due to childhood / adult trauma regarding mistake making, there’d be a huge opportunity to extend effective, achievable language learning to those who’d otherwise avoid it, or worse — those who continue paying for frustrating courses or materials that end in an inexplicable lack of progress. I believe these two groups of potential learners can be reached; all they need is guidance and advice concerning coping techniques for the sometimes intense psychological stress of live language production and public performance.

Do I have the answer to this problem? Nope. But I’m tired of seeing the same old rehashed material in every new mainstream course-book, designed for a market of people lucky enough to learn English in an Anglophone environment or a supportive group scenario. With self-help books being all the rage these days, how can no one have written a book with such a focus on self-improvement as well as language improvement. If I’m wrong, and such books exist and have slipped through my net, please let me know in the comments. If not, let’s write one together; think of the adults!

The first of many

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Train Blogger is proud to present… the results from the first Locational Learning experiment!

Experiment

Appendices

To sum it up, too much planning, too little emergent activity. Taking students outside to a local public artwork was fun, and student feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but trying to control students’ interaction with the environment limited the opportunities for language affordances and therefore emergent language. Dogme, and so LL, should be based on spontaneous, unprepared, emergent activities.

For the next excursion I’ll try conducting the experiment blind, then, post-lesson, retrospectively identify experiment objectives and evaluate them. This way I’ll resist the temptation to plan.

Lessons learned, bring on the next excursion!

Authentication required

Last week, for the first time, my colleague and I ventured out into the wild outside our language centre (the concrete jungle of La Défense) to investigate first-hand the kinds of things we’d like to use for class excursions (see my earlier posts).

I marked a few points on the map where the municipal council had installed sculptures and other pieces of public art. We stood first in front of the sculpture below, a metal piece called “La Connaissance”, which means the acquaintance or the knowledge, among other possible definitions.

La Connaissance

We started discussing its form and placement, how it fitted into the different backgrounds of tall buildings, its colours and how the artist intended it to be perceived or considered in its environment, etc. This discussion went on for nearly an hour, until we had to stop ourselves for fear of missing lunch. Realising the potential for emergent language and class discussion, we had a long discussion about how to exploit this opportunity next week with our first guinea-pigs (a small pre-intermediate group of adult professionals).

We decided to start the 4 hour class with an open discussion on examples of street art – what they represent, what purpose they serve, and how to express oneself to describe them. We wanted to put the students at ease, fearing that some may feel incapable of artistic commentary. Once we’ve allayed their fears with useful vocabulary, as well as reinforcing the importance of personal interpretation, we’ll take them outside to put their learning into practice. The teacher’s role will be to fuel discussions, ensuring groups constantly have new perspectives and ideas to discuss, yet leaving the content of the discussion up to the students. Once finished, groups will present their thoughts and opinions to the whole class for further discussion.

Once done, it’ll be back to the classroom to reflect on any emergent vocabulary and communicative skills they practised in their learner journals. We understand that not all vocabulary will be recalled after the event, but I believe that words able to be recalled represent the most meaningful for that student. The teacher can consolidate by role-playing follow-up scenarios, such as imagining a public promotion to increase exposure, or writing a letter to the local council to give advice on long-term protection and conservation.

All of these ideas sprouted from simply getting to know the subject we intended to use in our lesson plan. Célestin Freinet (Nowak-Fabrykowsk 1992) encouraged teachers to find a personal link with the materials they taught, to develop their own interpretation, before imparting it onto students. In my experience with the sculpture, being personally connected to the subject and fostering my own opinion about it made me excited about the prospect of taking students there to expose them also. I’m confident that, even if some of them aren’t particularly interested, my own enthusiasm about it will be enough to create productive, meaningful language affordances and make the trip worthwhile.

This serves to further remind me how little interest I have these days in textbook materials and inauthentic listening activities. It’s very difficult to develop a personal link with fictional, out-of-context characters like the two-dimensional business partners Monique Bresson and James Turner (Taylor et al. 2010). I’ve found myself inventing a whole love story around their suggestive interactions to liven up the gapfills, which tickles my students endlessly.

I’m constantly aware of students’ expectations, especially when coming from institutionalised education to private courses. Grammar filled textbooks are often necessary to avoid discouraging potential customers from joining courses. That being said, with experiences like last week, I feel I’m cheating them by not providing the full, connected, meaningful experience of language use that’s available just outside the door (and up a flight of stairs).

In conclusion, I now seek to test the balance between my new way of developing students’ communicative capacities and their expectations of traditional, grammar-oriented course content. Next Thursday is the big day, and I’ll be excited to share my first observations and feedback here. Wish me luck.

References

Nowak-Fabrykowski, K. 1992. Freinet’s Concept of Teachers and Theory of Teaching. McGill Journal of Education, Vol. 27 No. 1  http://www.reteccp.org/biblioteca/disponibili/letterature/Freinet/freinetconcept.pdf

Taylor, L., Lane, A., Keith Harding, K., Adrian Wallwork, A. 2010. International Express: Pre-Intermediate Student’s Pack, Second Edition. OUP

Franglais and LL

To blog or not to blog thought I, whilst upon the beach I lay. In the end Moby Dick was more attractive.

Living in France, I often wonder if reading English literature is all that keeps me from succumbing to the world of so-called ‘Franglais’. One of the most notable culprits is the word normal. In French, the word normalement can be used in the sense of “supposed / expected to be,” e.g. “Normalement la réunion sera fini avant midi,” which when translated pragmatically means, “The meeting should / is expected to finish by midday.”

To say “Normally the meeting will finish by midday,” is unnatural, and an example of a ‘false friend’. The problem I, and many English expats, have is that we are exposed to these kinds of expressions every day. We often refrain from correcting our conversation partner for fear of offence. This leads to our eventual replication of such false friends in conversations with foreigners, sometimes even with other Anglophones.

Imagining the implications for language learning in general is fascinating. This means that the language centre of the brain, even in the oft considered ‘cemented’ bastion of the ‘mother-tongue’, is open to change, and is influenced by the users immediate environment and what structures or language they hear most frequently.

This reminds me of research presented on TED.com by Patricia Kuhl when she tested babies on how well they can recognise common phonemes in different languages. She found that between 6-8 months and 1 year old, a critical stage in sound recognition occurs, and American babies who before didn’t distinguish between English or Japanese phonemes, suddenly reacted more quickly to the former than the latter, and vice versa for the Japanese babies. She proposed that these babies were taking statistics of the sounds they heard in their immediate environment. If this is already happening at such a young age, what’s to say adults don’t continue this statistical analysis of their environmental language?

This would help explain, for example, why young children can very easily learn and internalise new words (e.g. The Wug Test) but are not so easy to trick into making mistakes. We can imagine us having a statistical record in our brain that creates a ‘feeling of correctness’ that most native speakers claim to have, that is, something is correct or incorrect simply because it feels right or wrong. It follows to my mind that even as adult native speakers, if we are exposed to daily language input in our immediate environment that is technically wrong, it will eventually influence this dichotomy.

If environmental input is so powerful, and seemingly uncontrollable, it makes yet another strong case for the natural approach to language learning. We cannot necessarily control what students learn, so why try to pre-define what we intend to teach them?

A more practical approach could be leaving what the student’s brain picks up from the environmental input to chance, then asking the student themselves to reflect after the class on what they feel they learned. This way, language input is not pre-defined, rather it is identified retrospectively.

I would like to experiment further with the idea of increasing and diversifying environmental input to maximise the chance of language learning. To do this, I’ll conduct some lessons outside the walls of the classroom and have the students make notes on their experience in journals. The principles of Dogme language teaching will be useful here, as its focus on natural learning fits perfectly to this idea of Locational Learning.