Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Re-visiting Old Thoughts about Language and Language Learning


Back in 1998, I started writing down ideas for an Advanced Spanish Composition/Conversation "book" to accompany the courses I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma. I haven't thought about that project in more than a decade, but a comment by a co-worker on the limits of language made me go back and dig out the introduction I wrote back then.

For the most part, I hold the same thoughts about language as I did back then. Naturally, here has been some evolution. I am probably less influenced by complexity theory than I was back then, and my thinking is more influenced by non-verbal communication theories.

Introduction

Learning is the accrual and evolution of human wisdom through cultural patterns of spoken, written, and lived symbols.  It takes place over time and occurs ideally in environments where real change and interaction are permitted.

Language, in this context, is defined as the symbolic expression of self or communal awareness. The greater a learner's awareness of her/his self and environment the greater will be his/her desire to master the symbols of communication.  Most second language textbooks assume such self-knowledge and its accompanying motivation.  This e-text/environment centers first on the learner's need to know self before the desire to know symbols.

Oral proficiency in a language is only achieved through the repeated use of that language in uncontrolled/uncontrollable contexts.  El Camino (the book project) leads the learner through a rich variety of such contexts by placing the learner and her/his evolving interests at the center of all learning activities.  Through improvisational and extemporaneous speaking and writing, learners overcome the obstacles of spontaneity and self-doubt, and develop a wide comfort zone for use of the target language.

Composition proficiency in a language is developed and achieved via the acquisition of vocabulary, the study of model written texts in that language, and the practice of different writing modes both in rehearsed and non-rehearsed settings. El Camino provides the learner with a wealth of authentic, written texts for study and stimulated composition.  The many samples of texts included in El Camino, available in both written and audio formats, are augmented by a vast library of stored Internet texts and electronic newspapers and journals.

Ideal and efficient second language acquisition involves the following learning environment assumptions/components:

  • Information is dynamic.  It is fluid and ever-changing as opposed to being static content that is easily encoded, packaged, sent, decoded, and digested without variation.

  • Architecture of the environment is open.  Evolution is built-in.  There is no attempt to pre-determine what final outcomes will be or what final form of the system will emerge.

  • Change (in any direction) must be possible.  Positive feedback (in which small effects are reinforced and produce evolution to the next stage(s) of development) is essential.  As the learning community develops particular interests and skills, a unique character for the community emerges and emphases must adapt to match that evolving character.

  • Emphasis of the learning environment is entirely on doing (the use/misuse of the language by the learners).

  • Objectives for any community of learners can only be defined after the completion a particular stage/chapter.  As such, these objectives serve as markers to show where the community of learners has been as opposed to where it might be headed.

  • Process of second language acquisition is clear to all learners and its discussion is part of the learning environment and community.

  • Inquiry and investigation are the active processes of all learning in the community.

  • Creativity, both in terms of target language use and personal development, is essential.

  • Learners are inevitably heterogeneous with distinct interests, motivations, and learning styles.

  • Learners as community and learners as individuals receive equal attention.  In this way learners can learn from other learners as well as self with the language serving as the only real classroom authority.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Week 1 Assignment -- DALMOOC

I had planned to join the course from the very beginning and attend all the introductory sessions synchronously. Unfortunately, the best laid plans and all that... Between travel and some unexpected projects at work, I have found myself catching up asynchronously over the weekend.

First I want to say thanks to all the instructors and participating experts who have worked so hard and with such thoughtfulness in putting this course together. I had the benefit of joining Prosolo after other intrepid souls had wandered about and asked questions about how to accomplish various tasks, so my experience there was not as confusing as it may have been for some. I think the tool has much potential and it is definitely they type of environment required for more open-ended learning. I have also appreciated the "dual" nature of the course design, which makes it a bit easier for people who haven't either the time/inclination to participate in a fully networked manner. Finally, I have found the recorded video presentations and discussions helpful.

I liked the idea of the tools matrix as well. I think this is particularly valuable as I am certain most of us taking the course have some experience with data analysis but often in areas other than learning analytics. In my case, for example, I have spent the past four years working on various projects related to price and sales analysis related to e-commerce and, in particular, textbooks. We have used a variety of database/analysis tools, ranging from MarkLogic to Tableau. We have also worked with Google Analytics, and used these tools to mine usage data related to e-textbook reading and resource access.

When I think about learning analytics, I must admit that what really interests me is learning. How can we understand the process more deeply? How can we use that understanding to improve the learning efficacy and overall experience of individual learners?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Where Has All the Learning Gone?

EDUCAUSE 2014 Exhibit HallAnother year, another EDUCAUSE.

Meetings. Meetings. Ah yes, a few more meetings.

Meetings and plenty of pitches from intrepid sales and marketing people eager to explain how their product is unique and will actually transform Higher Education, or at least some small portion of it.

This year, leading up to the big event, we had a long online discussion about the LMS and the ills and possible futures of learning platforms in general. For a fairly quick recap, I would suggest these posts by Brian Lamb, Tim Klapdor, and Jonathan Rees.In addition to these discussions, we also had big lead-up announcements like the one from Unizin and its founding institutional members.

Exciting times, healthy skepticism, and some potential disruption. What's not to like, right?

And speaking of disruption, Clayton Christitensen delivered the opening keynote with the message that online learning could fundamentally change the role of universities. The rest of the conference highlights/buzz, which parallel the prevailing trends and business models in Higher Education, were summarized quite nicely by Steven Mintz in his post on the future of Higher Education. His list includes: learning analytics, microcredentialing, competency-based education, personalized learning, curricular optimization, open educational resources, shared services, articulation agreements,  flipped classrooms, and one-stop student services.

On the floor of the exhibit hall, the vendor booths underscored these opportunities clearly.

EDUCAUSE 2014 Analytics 4

And more analytics.

EDUCAUSE 2014 Analytics

And if you want some variety...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Analytics 3

Of course, there was also a healthy dose of...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Flatworld

And a heaping portions of...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Difference Engine

Naturally, there were also many smaller companies with worthy products and messages, such as...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Lumen Learning

and...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Higher Quality Ed

and...

EDUCAUSE 2014 MyEducator

Then, somewhere in the midst of this...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Floor View

I stumbled across this ...

EDUCAUSE 2014 Analytics 2

And I paused to ask myself, "What's wrong with this picture?"

The answer, at least for me, was clear. So many companies, so many products, and so many institutional solutions (almost all endorsed by institutions embracing or investing in them), all driven by the business of education. All driven by that most fundamental of business school questions -- What problem are we trying to solve?

At EDUCAUSE, it seemed evident that the problem we are trying to solve is that of making our businesses -- our institutions, companies, products -- more successful. Paraphrasing and linking the multitude of signs and signifiers on display in the Exhibit Hall, we want our businesses to be more successful in terms of user-friendliness, user retention, and user satisfaction. Judging from the many displays and demonstrations, it certainly seems that we have the technology to do these things and are devoting impressive amounts of money and human intelligence to reach our goals for success.

What problem are we trying to solve?

The question was being asked explicitly and implicitly at every presentation, booth, and meeting. It seemed that everyone had come ready to pitch their solution -- big or small -- for Higher Education, and could elucidate nicely how their solution solved an important problem in education and how it could help the bottom line (for institutions or investors).

But what problem are we trying to solve?

The question is a good one, but I felt it was being asked in the wrong context (at least for me). Instead of "What problem are we trying to solve in Higher Education?" I was wanting to hear, "What problem are we trying to solve in learning?"

That's because Higher Education, like education is general, is only a conduit for what really matters -- learning. Education, for all its temporal grandeur, is but an evolving symptom of a more important, and more fundamental human requirement -- learning. It is a container while learning is the elemental sustenance it is designed to hold.

Education is a cultural or civilizational artefact. It is tactical, linear, and concerned with corporate outcomes.  It is about external achievement and measurement.

By contrast, learning is an inside-out proposition. It is about ongoing personal growth and is owned entirely by the individual learner. It can be facilitated by other learners but cannot be forced from the outside.

Education is about tangible measurements and standard outcomes, while learning resists measurement and delivers outcomes that are entirely unique for each learner.

Education is an institution and a market. It is something that can be quantified and managed. As a result, it condenses nicely into pitch decks and products that can be sold.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Education is a good thing and everyone I talked to at EDUCAUSE 2014 -- educators, administrators, publishers, educational technologists (institutional and corporate) -- seemed genuinely committed to and concerned about education. They were trying hard to create better containers for this thing that is learning.

But education is only a container, while learning is THE ACTUAL THING. No, learning may not lend itself to pitch-deck paradigms, but it is, ultimately, what really matters.

So I went to EDUCAUSE again and, as always, had fascinating discussions about educational technology, met really smart people with intriguing ideas, and was mesmerized by innovative products and marketing.

I also went to EDUCAUSE looking for ideas, for insights, for solutions that target the heart of our our mission, solutions that will help learners grow up and grow out.

I found much that was interesting and promising for education, but I'll admit, I left Orlando asking myself where all the talk about learning had gone.

Friday, September 26, 2014

More Mobile Means More Learning Opportunities

Photo courtesy of phonerebel.com
With Apple’s release of the iPhone, selling more than 9 million in the first three days, it’s hard not to think about the mobile lives of teenagers. After all, this is just further fuel for a mobile fire that already has 74% of teens (ages 12-17) accessing the Internet using mobile phones.

The good news, at least for teachers, is that the growing percentage of teens with smartphones and tablets creates all kinds of opportunities for learning. Here are three ways that mobile devices can broaden the learning potential at your school.

  • Create more distributed learning opportunities -- Before the Digital Age, distributed learning meant the occasional organized field trip or sending kids home with assignments from their textbook. Today, most every young learner has the entire Internet in his or her pocket. They can access information, record their experiences, and communicate in a variety of ways -- all while they are going about their daily activities outside the traditional classroom. This means that learning can be truly centrigugal and persistent -- it can go with students wherever they go. We can extend the learning environment to include the whole world of information and experience! Of course, it doesn't happen automatically. We have to prompt or help students in their use of mobile devices for learning. One easy way to do this, for any subject, is to create an optional/alternative mobile (distributed learning) activity for every lesson or learning unit.
  • Design more opportunities for creation -- Mobile devices also open up an incredible world of creation for our students. Photos, audio, and video are all easy to create and edit. Mobile devices afford our learners new tools for creating new learning stories. If you want to be inspired on this front, just look at this post from Wes Fryer about teaching iPad videography to kids in Alaska via videoconference.
Videoconference to Alaskahttp://audio.speedofcreativity.org/wp-content/uploads/quick-edit-videoconference-sept2014.mp3



  • Introduce new forms of content -- Mobile devices are made for audio, video and photos. They are designed for interactivity and touch. This opens up exciting new content opportunities for our classes. And the great news is that there are so many fantastic learning resources that are already perfect for mobile learning. Now is the time to make sure that you are providing mobile-ready content to go along with every lesson.


Creating Learning Communities with Individuals

I've been sampling a number of xMOOC courses lately, with a particular interest in their approach(es) to community-based activities. Most feature a fairly common template, one which is also popular in traditional online courses.

In this approach the instructor/course treats the class community as a homogeneous element -- trying to move it in lock step from Point A to Point B. Community-based assignments, then tend to be discussion prompts in which homogeneous community members provide an answer to a homogeneous question set based on a collection of homogeneous information. After each member of the homogeneous class community has posted their fairly homogeneous response to this homogeneous question based on a homogeneous set of information, individual students are then asked to reply to the homogeneous responses. It is at this point, I believe, that the community connections are supposed to occur. In reality, by this time, all posts are pretty much the same so students just pick a couple and write their homogeneous replies without needing to give much thought given to the original posts. Occasionally, some student who either doesn't understand the instructions or doesn't understand that they are supposed to be acting homogeneously, will fly off the rails and disrupt the whole enterprise. The homogeneous structure of the course is generally so strong, however, that this type of insensitive behavior is quashed rather effectively.

I contrast this with the Storybook Project that my friend Laura Gibbs employs in her Mythology and Folklore online course. In this course design models, students are treated as heterogeneous community members who are allowed to select and write heterogeneous stories/posts based on heterogeneous information sets tied together by a common set of ideas. As a result of the individualization of the information and the topics, students write creatively and passionately. Other students, when asked to comment on the storybooks created by other students, often do so with equal interest and passion, which leads to legitimate connections and a vibrant community.

In case I haven't made the contrast clear, ere is a simple visual of the two models.



Homogeneous_Community
Heterogeneous_Community


Monday, September 22, 2014

Teaching Matters More than Ever in a Digital Age

Thirty years ago, I traveled to Argentina to study at the National University of La Plata for a year. It was a transformative experience, one full of café con leche and facturas in local confiterías, haunting book shops in Buenos Aires and La PLata, and incredible learning experiences in a country experiencing democracy for the first time in almost a decade.

Naturally, as my teaching career evolved, my experiences in Argentina (from that and future trips), played a significant role in the courses I taught on language and literature. The allowed me to give detail and weave narratives. They enabled me to provide a meaningful, added dimension to the information my students were processing.

I was reminded again of the importance of that added dimension as I read about the latest virtual reality (VR) headset from from Oculus Rift, the company purchased by Facebook this past summer. The company's latest prototype allows users to "explore the virtual environment as you would in real life." The reviewer comments that he found himself "regularly crouching down and moving around to examine the digital objects surrounding me me from all angles." All of which translates into a more immersive experience, and one that moves closer to capturing "the feeling presence."
I did come close to the feeling of presence, I think, during one portion of the demo that had me moving slowly forward through a giant disintegrating orb. I was stationary, of course, but my brain definitely thought I should be moving, and I found myself actively trying to balance myself as a result. It is the first time that I truly felt like the digital world had begun to take over more than just my visual perception. That sensation was fleeting, but Oculus' latest dose of virtual reality gave me a glimpse of presence.
 I have experimented with VR headsets in the past, and have long believed that, at some point in the future, VR will allow our students to experience the presence of relevant locations as part of their learning.They will be able to don headsets (or glasses) that will allow them to tour the landscape of the literature they are reading, or to walk through the streets of Buenos Aires as they learn Spanish, all without ever having to leave their actual time and space.

Of course, immediate questions arise when I talk about such technology trends with educators. "What will my role be?" "Will this kind of technology replace me?"

My answer to such questions is the same one I've been giving since I presented a series of lectures on technology in education to high school teachers around Oklahoma in 1998. "If your only purpose is to oversee the processing of information then, yes, technology will replace you (and be an improvement). If, however, your role is more than that, if it is about connections, understanding, and to facilitate the accrual of wisdom, you are providing a unique service that will always be in demand."

In fact, I would argue that teachers and teaching matter more in the the 21st century and the digital age than they ever have. In this era, every day in a course is much like the study abroad experiences I have enjoyed with my students. As we traveled along with me, they were seeing the same objects and had access to the same information I did. I didn't need to describe the Amazon ecosystem to them because they are experiencing it for themselves in real time and incredible technicolor. In spite of that, however, they still lacked the necessary context to really "see" it completely, to experience it meaningfully.

In the digital age, teachers and teaching matter more than ever because information/learning context is more important than ever. Today, students have access to incredible information resources, virtual experiences, and easy "answers," but what they need most is context and understanding.

This is what teachers do. They are the meaningful ligaments that make possible a true learning motion.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Key Trends in Educational Technology -- Preliminary View

The image below is a visual representation of my recent thinking about educational technology and the important trends that I see emerging, particularly within the world of Higher Education. I will put up a complete post with explanations later in the week, but wanted to share this today.