28 September 2010

27 September 2010

Further thoughts regarding the Open University.

The Open University, from the day it opened it's doors (pun intended), has resolved around compromise.  In an earlier post, I commented on one of the main compromises they made: restricting the subject to what was in their courses.  I failed to spot one far more important compromise, even though it was perhaps the most obvious: person-to-person contact time.

In the old days, most of this person-to-person contact was face-to-face, with a weekend tutorial once a month or three or four hours. This generally didn't equate to even an hour a week -- I think it only comes to about half an hour per week in many cases.  In a full year at a face-to-face uni, it's not unusual to get 6 hours of face-to-face in a practical subject -- half would be tutorials and half lab sessions. Most students on the OU are effectively half-time, so parity would predict 3 hours of contact per week.

However, the logistics of remote study made this impractical -- doing that monthly would mean having a 12 hour session, and doing 6 hours every second week would involve far too much travel for most students.
Hence the compromise of less hours.

Now there's a new compromise in the mix.  With funding cuts coming in, they're moving all their tutorials on-line to save time, travel and room hire costs.


But they forgot that the low contact hours could only ever be justified by the burden of travelling to tutorials, a burden they have effectively eliminated.

The number of contact hours may have increased slightly with the introduction of on-line tutorials across the board, but if it has, then not by a lot.  It certainly hasn't caught up with the face-to-face unis, even though the OU pitches itself in direct competition with them in its adverts in the press.

The lack of contact hours is particularly vexatious for language students (like myself), where the contact is part and parcel of the subject.  Not only is contact vital to learn the subject, but for us communication is already harder, meaning that any communication problems may be caused by the online environment are compounded.

So they've taken something that was limited by circumstance and removed the circumstance causing the limitation, but not removed the limit.  They've replaced it with something less effective, less useful, on grounds of cost, ignoring the fact that what they have is already a lot cheaper than it would be if they offered the same service as their competitors.

Maybe I'm being too harsh.  What do other distance providers offer?  For the same amount of study credit, the Sabhal Mór Ostaig offers telephone tutorials "weekly or twice-weekly" for learners of Gaelic. They're not 100% clear on the total time, but looking at their application forms, this might be as much as the 3 hours I calculated above.

On the other hand, although the University of London doesn't offer languages at distance, they still make the OU look good -- their courses are entirely self-directed, with no integral tuition.  They even have a staggeringly complicated fee structure, with not only an "exemption fee" for modules that you don't sit, but a separate "exemption application fee", which suggests you're charged for even asking for an exemption.

The London situation is not the norm though; while most universities aren't clear on exact contact time, they are clear that you are supported by a tutor.

I'm inclined to accept that the problem really is specific to languages, and perhaps it's more a problem of categorisation than anything.  We have a tendency to make a distinction between "practical subjects" -- those with labs, experiments, hands-on workshops -- and everything else.  A practical subject can't be done at distance, for obvious reasons, and for this reason the OU's science prospectus is relatively restricted (but less so than you might expect) and very few distance providers offer anything other than the so-called "soft sciences" -- the non-practical ones.

But computing is a practical subject, and we can teach it at distance, because there's no specialist equipment needed.

Perhaps just as there is a split between science, soft science and arts subjects, we need to consider the difference between practical, soft practical and non-practical subjects.  The notion of "soft practical" needs some refining, but it is a tag I would be comfortable placing on languages and computing.

However, even though I invented it today the definition is already getting muddy.  With more and more engineering done on computer, does it qualify as a soft practical subject?  Physics is sometimes derided as "applied maths", and most physics is easily simulated in computers, so can that be considered "soft practical"?

I'd stick to the boundary of if it's a simulation of the subject, the subject is still "hard" practical.

The only border case I'd have a problem with is digital photography. Hard or soft?  The picture only need ever exist in a digital form or as light, so it seems pretty soft, but a particular picture can only be taken in one place.  I would hope to see some hands-on tuition in studio set-up and the like, so I'm veering towards "hard"... but then back to "soft"....

25 September 2010

Great news
Aranese has been granted official status!

For those of you who can't understand Catalan, the article basically says that the Catalan government have made Aranese (Aranés) into the "language of prefered use" in public institutions in the Val d'Aran, on the border with France.  This move alone would have granted Aranese more recognition and support than any of its sister dialects of Occitan in France

However, the bill didn't stop there.  Aranese is now recognised as Catalunya's third official language, after Catalan and Spanish.

Hopefully this move will give confidence to the Occitan community in France, and will bolster attempts at revitalisation there.  There's information (in French) for people wanting to learn Occitan at Aprenem L'Occitan and information about on-line lessons from Téléoc, originally (and still) a telephone lesson provider.

24 September 2010

After writing my post on gap-fills and cloze tests in language lessons, I went back to a blog post that I'd read some time ago, which was part of the Pools project that had introduced me to technology such as Hot Potatoes. I commented about how I had never seen the purpose of fill-in-the-blanks as a learning tool and his response was that it was a test.

Now, it has often been observed that repeated testing aids student retention, so most teachers would assume that anything that is a test is valid as a retention aid. Is this true?

As I said in my earlier post, the cloze test and the gap-fill rely on having a sound internal model of the language under test.  Does doing a cloze or gap-fill help build that knowledge?

In the previous post, I said that doing these tests early appeals to conscious knowledge.  Many of the most successful students will look at a fill-in-the-blanks exercise and reason through it.  If you ask them how they did it, they'll say things like "that's a noun and that's an article, so the thing between them must be an adjective".  As the conscious strategy proves so successful, the learner will continue to apply it and will perhaps never develop the gestalt.  And because any attempt to use gestalt at this time will appeal to the student's first language, the student who approaches the test in the intended way will be penalised.

In effect, the student learns how to pass the test, rather than learning the specific competencies that the test was originally designed to measure.

How much damage does this really do?  In my opinion, a lot.  As students go through their academic career, they will be expected to do more complicated things, and they will be expected to do them quicker.  But there is only so fast that we can conscious churn through these rules.  Sooner or later, we can only succeed by gestalt, but how can we encourage that?  The mechanics of testing militate against going by your gut, because this leaves you with a worse mark.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't use testing as a learning mechanism early on, but that we should look again at what constitutes appropriate testing - what tests the student can carry out in a way that supports, rather than hinders, learning.

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3...
This of course does not only hold for testing with fill-in-the-blanks.  It has been said by a number of academics, with figures to back them up, that testing aids recall.  I'd like to present an argument against that.

"Are you mad?" I hear you cry.  Yes, but that's beside the point.

My point isn't that their figures are wrong, but that the word "test" is something of a red-herring.  What is it we do when we test a student's knowledge?  We check that we can recall accurately what they have been taught.

If we discuss this as "testing", we have in our mind a goal -- scores, marks, grades.  We don't want to focus on that goal when we use testing as a learning aid -- we need to focus on the process.

The process involved in testing is accurate recall and application of learned information.  A task can be designed to require recall and application without being strictly a test.  If the figures say that testing is a successful classroom strategy, might it not be because they are comparing "tests" against other tasks that do not require any recall or genuine sentence construction skills?  I'd like to demostrate how some of the most common exercises fail to rely on these skills.

The problem with drills 
Form drills, pattern drills, substitution drills; these repetitive exercises fail to teach because the core language we expect the student to learn from the task is never subject to recall.  The teacher says it and the student repeats it, changing only a vocabulary item of very small grammatical features.  We cannot learn to recall something without doing it.

The problem with communicative tasks
Anyone who has been at either end of a classroom recently is likely to have come across communicative exercises based on an idea like the "knowledge gap".  Each student has partial information or a partial picture, and the students have to talk to each other in the target language to get the information from each other.  However, being understood by your classmates is different from being understood by a native speaker, and accuracy not only slows down the task but potentially renders you incomprehensible to a classmate of lower ability.

In general, though, regardless of the exact nature of the task, the class starts by presenting or otherwise providing the students with the language that they are going to use.  If we attempt to do this by eliciting the information from the class, we may get one or two to recall it, but most will not -- instead they will end up holding the patterns in working memory, often meaninglessly and mechanically, and parroting the phrases during the class.


We all want to receive or provide the best education possible.  Empirically we know that "testing" aids this, but that statement is an oversimplification of the real situation.  There is nothing magical about "a test" that makes it more effective than "an exercise".  We must examine what the core activity is in what we consider a test to be, and we must find ways to incorporate that into the day-to-day teaching process.

I contend that the distinction implied between "teaching" and "testing" is artificial -- teaching we consider to mean presenting information and going through some kind of repetitive "training" regimen, whereas testing is an unsupported check of recall.

The idea that "testing aids retention" is therefore an obstacle to good practice, because it prevents us from looking at the nature of the tests to identify what really happens.  I believe the real point is that recall practice aids retention.  If so, our task design must always be built around developing recall, or the student will never be able to spontaneously produce language.

21 September 2010

Here's an interesting article I just stumbled across when checking out a couple of details for an earlier post.

David Graddol of the OU, writing in the Guardian back in 2005, suggests that the English teacher may be on the verge of extinction.  He's certainly got a point.  With English continuing to become a bigger deal in primary schools the world over, more and more language instruction is becoming incidental -- English tuition is becoming the domain of subject teachers, not specialist language teachers.  It'll take a while for things to really hit home, but the 21st century boom in the TEFL industry is currently not only burning the candle at both ends, but along its whole length.  TEFL teachers are teaching preschool kids, primary school kids, teenagers at high school, university students, young professionals, older professionals, even the retired.

In 10 years' time, will there be a need for TEFL teachers in many parts of the world?

Certainly in the far east, but closer to home maybe not.  There's already practically no need across Scandinavia and the Low Countries.  Spain's throwing its weight behind English in an effort to catch up. 

But all is not lost for the TEFL teacher hoping to make a living in a comfortable Western European country
Recently an OU coursemate of mine was told by her children's teachers that she had to stop speaking to them in English -- the teachers, not familiar with the literature in bilingualism, thought that speaking English was damaging their French.  So in 10, 20 years time, when Spain, Italy and Germany have no need for the TEFL teacher, there will be a mass migration to France, the promised land flowing with milk, honey, and potential English students....

19 September 2010

This might be worth a watch tomorrow: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11331574
An open letter to an open university

The UK's Open University is perhaps one of the most important universities of the modern era.  It was founded in the late 60s and opened in the early 70s as part of an initiative to make learning more accessible through use of the TV.

They developed a world-leading methodology by coupling televised lectures and demonstrations with well written course-books and self-study exercises.  These were backed up by monthly tutorials in a nearby population centre, and in many cases a week-long summer school on the university's campus in Milton Keynes.

There were compromises to be made, of course.  The logistics and economics of printing these books meant that course choice was limited, and where a traditional university would give students 4-8 modules of their choice each year of study, the OU took a "monolithic" approach, with students typically only taking 2 large modules to cover the same amount of academic study.

The other major compromise was, ironically, learner independence.  While self-study should encourage this, there was the problem of creating a level period.  A student in a traditional university is expected to spend time in the library and investigate beyond the boundaries of the course material, but a student at the OU may not have access to an academic library, so marking has always been strictly against the material supplied by the OU.  A fair and equitable solution.

Even when I started studying with them in 2005, although the internet was getting big, they still maintained this.  Why?  Even if everyone was on the net (which they weren't at that time), there was still the question of the sailor in the nuclear submarine.  He cannot have access to the net, and the OU took pride in being accessible to this level, even (so I was told) having procedures that military officers could receive student assignments that couldn't be posted immediately and sign as witnesses to say it was handed in to the set deadline.

So the OU has necessarily found itself a bit behind the curve on the technology front, but a higher education funding crisis had been expected for some time and was starting to bite even before the wider recession hit.  The OU has been slowly moving towards online delivery, bit by bit.  First of all, email became the principle means of tutor-student interaction outside of tutorials.  This was ideal for all involved -- less intrusive than phone calls, more timely than post.  Less cost to both the student and the university than either.  Next up was the Electronic TMA (tutor-marked assignment) system to submit monthly assignments.  Again, ideal for all involved.  No more "lost in the post", no more worrying about how many days extra to give it to make sure it arrives before the deadline.  Quicker feedback, and scores logged without any additional secretarial or administrative overhead.  Alongside eTMA came the on-line course option.  Don't live close to a tutorial centre?  Chose the on-line version and get your tutorials wherever you are!  More choice for the student, and reduced costs for the university.  Perfect.

But that's where the good news ends.

Courses are now delivered by what is enigmatically titled "blended learning", a mixture of face-to-face and online tutorials.  In reality, that often means 2 face-to-face tutorials in the entire year and everything else on-line.

I can see why this is a good idea for most subjects -- we are all quite used to telephone conversations after all.  However, there's one area most of us are not used to telephone conversations, and that is in a new language.  The telephone is one of the hardest things for a learner to deal with, because we rely on seeing other people to know whether they understand or not, so opening your mouth becomes immediately more scary.  By the same token, we need the tutor to see us to know when we're confused, because we aren't always going to admit to it.
The blanket imposition of online tutorials is merely a cost-saving measure, but the cost of alienating students by applying it inappropriately may be too high.

The removal of face-to-face tutorials is to the detriment of students.  What have they given us in compensation?  Not hellish much, I'm afraid.  The course texts are given as both printed books and as "electronic texts", but live so many places, what they offer as electronic texts is a series of PDFs of the printed material, all utilising layouts that make them slow and awkward on a computer screen, and effectively unusable on a commercial e-book reader.  The video and audio for the courses is being moved from individual CDs and DVDs onto either a single CD-ROM, integrated with the learning tasks, or even onto a website.  We are being increasingly bound to our computers, where my favourite place of study was previously always in a park or halfway up a hill.  To me this is an inconvenience, but for the nuclear submariner it means he's now locked out.  The only bonus we've been given on the language courses is a simple flashcard manager, but even that is limited to the website and there are plenty of flashcard programs for free or for cheap that you can install onto your computer or smartphone to take with you when you can't connect to the web.

The Open University has had its hand forced by changes in public funding, but it cannot afford to let itself lose the openness that it prides itself on.
The move to a more "virtual" way of study must continue to increase access to education, not decrease it.

There are several ways I would suggest this can be achieved.
  1. Officially support open software.  Currently all written assignments must be submitted in Microsoft .DOC format, and every year there are TMAs rejected because the student has been using the wrong version of Word.  AbiWord and OpenOffice.org are free software, so it is no great imposition on students or tutors to ask them to use one of these for essay writing and marking.
  2. Following on from the above, there should be a standard computing environment.  As we rely on more and more computerised tools (browsers, word processors, ebook programs, media players, sound recorders etc), the environment gets harder and harder to manage for the learner and for the support desk.  With the rise in netbooks and tablets, and the availability of "live" Linux distributions (an operating system that can be run from a USB pendrive without installing anything on the computer itself), the OU could have a single master environment that would provide all the software needed for a student to follow a course.
  3. As a consequence of the above, computer-based exams could finally become a reality.  Right now we can't do our exams on computer because of the impracticality of getting that many computers, and the fact that we would be able to cheat if we brought our own.  But if there was a university standard Linux live distribution, the university could make modified versions of this for the exam.  You walk into the exam with your own computer and you are given the exam environment, questions and all, on a memory stick.  You would boot up your computer in the exam environment, do your exam and hand the USB stick to the invigilator as you leave.  Your stick would be tagged with your ID and sent back to Milton Keynes.  Plagiarism checks and marking of certain types of question could be carried out by computer, speeding up the process and saving costs.  Exam questions needing marked by human markers could be sent out electronically rather than by post, saving both money and time.  In fact, different questions could be sent to different specialist markers rather than having to have the whole script for a single student marked by the same person.
  4. Rewrite course books to be suitable for ebook readers.  This means stripping out all the layout and moving them to an open format such as ePUB.  (In the case of the current generation of language materials, this will be impractical, and it can only be done with a complete rewrite of the course at a later date.)
  5. Make more audio available for courses that use it heavily (language, music, literature).  The cost of distribution has dropped, and even the same audio can be reused in many ways if it's not trapped in individual tracks on particular CDs.
But the biggest change I would make is as follows:
With the cost of course material distribution down to zero (no books, no CDs, no DVDs) and with no real need to have a local tutor (very little contact, assignment submission that doesn't rely on the postal service) now is the time to bring the courses into line with face-to-face universities.

Diversify, offer specialisation.
 Let the local tutors deal with only the core subject, reduced to about 30 points, and fill the other 30 points with elective specialist modules with remote tutors.  Once you get to honours year at a traditional university, almost all tutorials are taken by the full-time academic staff, and I would love the chance to do this with the Open University.  Milton Keynes has some incredibly well-respected academics that right now are hidden behind the words in a book.  Use the internet to bring me closer to them.  Let me study a short module in French poetry with Françoise Ugochukwa.  Let me study English in the foreign classroom with David Graddol.

Give me those opportunities and you won't only have made up for the loss of the face-to-face tutorials, you will have produced something even better than what you were offering me in 2005.  It would be a course without compromise, offering everything a traditional university does and more.

18 September 2010

Who wrote Unicode, and just what were they thinking of at the time?

Is it for content or style? ASCII was defined for data value essentially, and the appearance used to be handled by the character set of the host computer.

This carried through to the basic Latin character-handling in Unicode, so that there is no difference in, for example, the Anglophone 7 and the continental 7, with a bar through it; likewise the two forms of Z. That's fine.

But then comes the inconsistency... we hit things like the pre-1950s Irish script and the rules change. Let's say I chose to write in the old Irish script, and I redefined my keyboard to let me do so. Two of the main differences will be the characters & and g.  & is replaced with the Tironian et - ⁊ - and  g is replaced with ᵹ -- "insular g".

Sadly, most software won't realise that the two mean the same thing, so my spell-checker breaks, my sort function stops putting things in alphabetical order, other people can't search or edit my documents properly.  I'm also know unable to code in C anymore, because the logical AND operator is &&, not ⁊⁊.

The end result is that while Unicode appears to give more freedom, it's entirely superficial, because the user must choose between style and function, and no-one wants to limit themselves in terms of function -- which is an issue that I will go into in the near future when considering the translation of software and of web services.
Just a quick link-drop to an article from The Guardian's Comment is Free column: To speak another language isn't just cultured, it's a blow against stupidity.

17 September 2010

What __ this?

I think most _____ will be familiar with this ____ of thing.  At some point in ____ education, you will have ____ across a piece __ paper that looks a ______ like this.  Do you ____ what it's called?

Like some of the gaps in the above there are two answers.  Unlike the gaps above, one of them is wrong.

Some people will call this a "cloze test", others will call it a "gap-fill".  Many teachers will say that these are the same thing.  That is a mistake, because while a cloze test and a gap-fill may look alike, they have different goals, and a learning exercise will not be particularly effective it is written without any thought to its goals.

So what are both these things?

Cloze test

The Cloze test, as I was first taught it, is a measure of reading fluency.  The theory goes that there is enough redundancy in language that you don't need to hear or see every word to make meaning from a passage.  In fact, they go so far as to suggest that your brain will usually be able to automatically pick the word to fill the gap.

This arose from the Gestalt school of psychology.  The idea of "gestalt" is quite simple, but very powerful.  The gestaltists said that the brain isn't quite as literal or as primitive as previous psychology suggested.  The idea behind gestalt is that when the eye sees part of something, the brain understands it in terms of the whole.  If you see half a face through a window, your brain knows full well that there's another half to that face.  If you see a man standing behind a low wall, you won't see his feet but you will not only know that he has feet, but your brain will actually make a good estimate of where they are and what size they are based on your knowledge of other people.

This ability to fill in what isn't there is called "closure", and that's where the name "cloze" test comes from.  A cloze test is therefore suggested as an effective way of verifying whether someone can read -- if they have the proper map of language and a proper connection between written and spoken language, it should be effortless.

The gap fill

The gap-fill exercise was, as I understand it, proposed by the cognitive psychologists as part of a structure of meaningful learning as a means of supported recall.  At its most basic, a gap-fill is a way of avoiding questions. For example, instead of asking a simple science question like "What is the boiling point of water?" You can give a gap-fill of "Water boils at __ degrees Celsius".

But gap-fills are more subtle than that.  When asking questions, you would usually ask them at random.  The special thing about the gap-fills proposed by the psychologists is that they are used in a logical progression that reinforces the structure of the topic at hand.  So the example earlier might continue: "Water boils at __ degrees Celsius. The gas formed is called water _____." This is where the magic happens.  If you simply asked the question "What is the name of the gas formed when water is boiled?" you might get back the (wrong) answer "steam", even though in the class you would have already taught the difference between "steam" and "water vapour".

The problem that the gap-fill is designed to solve is a simple one in theory, but tricky in practice: how do you teach a new fact such that it "overwrites" a previously learned erroneous fact?  A well-designed gap fill presents enough information to provoke the memory that the designer wants to reinforce (water vapour) but also uses the structure of the sentence to supress the wrong answer (the learner can't answer "steam" without producing the phrase"*water steam", which they will automatically realise is wrong).  It takes advantage of both the gestalt of the phrase and conscious thought.

That's the difference, but what difference does it make?

Language lessons will often include something that looks like a gap-fill or a cloze test, but is it either?

First of all, a cloze test is pure gestalt -- it starts with something you know, and takes bits away to make you prove that you know it.
The cloze/gap exercises in the language classroom test new knowledge, before the student has a solid internal model of it.  There is no "gestalt", so there is no process of closure.  It is not a cloze test.

On the other hand, the gap-fill uses the gestalt of the language it is in to assist in the recall of domain knowledge.  The medium should be known to support the learning of the new domain knowledge.

We're now in rather confusing territory because in the language classroom, the domain knowledge and the medium of the gap-fill are both the same thing -- the target language.  So we need the target language to be known in order to support the learning of the target language...!

If it's not a gap-fill or a cloze test, what is it?

I'm not sure how I'd define what we're left with in a short way, so I'll have to do it the long way.

What is it testing?  Well, gestalt thinking is a completely subconscious process, so if we're not using gestalt then we must be looking at conscious reasoning.  In language -- conscious reasoning means only one thing: metalinguistic knowledge.

Is this a bad thing?

Well, the whole point of the cloze/gap exercises in current language teaching is the notion of learning naturally, subconsciously, in the target language only.  The point is that we're supposed to be avoiding the conscious study of grammar, but in the end, many of these gapfills are about mechanically chosing appropriate conjugations or prepositions, the same mechanical metalinguistic tasks that current educational philosophy tries to avoid.

What's the moral of the story?

In essence, we all become the thing we hate most.  Reformers often hate what came before, and try to distance themselves from it.  Unfortunately, as in this case, this leads to a failure to critically evaluate the "old" method and work out what was genuinely wrong with it.  The differences often become superficial and we repeat the same mistakes of the last method but just dress them up in new cloze. (sorry)

When designing a learning exercise, teachers must be scrupulously honest with themselves about what the task is, how it works and how the student will approach it.  It is no use to present an active, conscious task like this if you genuinely feel that conscious study has no place in the language class, and if you accept the need for conscious study, you have to ask yourself why we do not accept the students' first language in the classroom.

After all, if you truly believe in the gap-fill, then you must believe in using a known language as a gestalt to support conscious knowledge of a new subject -- in this case, the target language.