10 April 2012

Decoo's wheel turns again....

I'm always referring to it, but everyone with an interest in language should read Wilfried Decoo's lecture "On The Mortality Of Language Learning Methods".  By his reckoning, the latest "new" popular movement in teaching is long overdue.  (The fact that the communicative approach is still king is probably due to its prevalence in TEFL, and the fact that anything else takes longer to train teachers to do.)
And one candidate is starting to emerge.  There are whispers of "social media" echoing round the classroom.
Not that long ago, the watchword was "web", but what became of that?  Certainly, the web gives us more access to more materials, but what we've seen to date is either simply the existing textbook styles rewrapped as webpages with automatic marking of exercises or a rapackaging of 90s style multimedia packages.
Digitised textbooks have their advantages over the paper textbook (no fiddling with the CD player to find the right track, instant feedback on many errors) at the expense of being something you couldn't just sit down and do on the train.
The multimedia websites, on the other hand, offer very little over the old CD-ROMs, but are a lot slower to use due to constant downloading of materials in between questions.  And I can shove a CD-ROM in my laptop on the train, but I won't be able to get a connection to the internet without running up a fairly hefty 3G bill.

But the "social media" thing is starting to kick in.  LiveMocha is a clone of the overpriced toy courses by Rosetta Stone, but they had the idea to get learners correcting each other's work.  This is not an innovation in any real sense, it's just a poor man's version of paying a tutor.  Of course, Rosetta Stone decided to jump on the social bandwagon too, and started setting up a language buddy/exchange site.  Reports have it that the demographics are heavily skewed and it's difficult to find language buddies for many language combinations.
Steve Kaufmann's Lingq has taken the social approach down a different track.  The website provides a shiny interface that doesn't really do much and gets people to insert screeds and screeds of texts with audio in various languages, and the user is expected to learn by induction from massive exposure.  I don't buy the argument.  The interface doesn't do much to guide me and the quality of the material varies wildly, with some people even just uploading lists of words, contrary to the site's main philosophy.  But this is starting to get away from the notion of "social", and more into the realms of "crowdsourcing".   It's only the credits-based correction system that retains any sort of "social" status, but even that's starting to stretch definitions a bit.

Tatoeba is unashamed crowdsource.  It's a very intriguing idea: a bunch of sentences undergoing unstructured translation from one language to another, and another, and another.  In mathematical terms, they describe it as a "graph" rather than a "table", a concept which probably merits a blog post to itself.  I love it, and I find it a great exercise to translate stuff from various languages into Scottish Gaelic, as it gets me thinking about things I might not otherwise, and helps me identify holes in my abilities.  That said, it's difficult to see what you can actually do with all that data.  It has no concept of grammatical syntagms or paradigms, so you can't search for a structure and see examples of it.

But all these things -- web, social or crowdsource -- have one thing in common: they're outside the classroom.  The internet is a solo phenomenon -- why would anyone work the web in the classroom?  You might as well be at home!
Perhaps the biggest problem with computer-based learning is that it's all independent, so we can all make excuses and slack off.  Maybe we'll start writing a blog post instead of studying, and we'll pretend to ourselves we're doing something productive....

But anyway, all that notwithstanding, there are still people who dream about getting social media into the classroom as an article in today's Guardian shows.
The justification for a focus on social media is, as far as I'm concerned, a non-sequitur:
We are late to the party. Children now default to social media in nearly every aspect of their life. They use it to communicate with their friends, play games and watch TV. Our failure to provide language learning resources must partly be due to teachers and parents who either don't appreciate or don't understand the power of social media.
To paraphrase: kids use it outside the class, so we must use it inside the class.  But what of all the other things kids use outside the classroom?  When I was a child, did the teachers use BMX bikes and Action Man to teach us stuff?  No.  They used TV to an extent, but even then it generally had the goal of making up for the classroom teacher's defiencies -- most primary teachers don't know much science, for example, so we watched a weekly science programme.  So TV wasn't used because it was "what the kids use" but because it was the appropriate tool for the job.  Any attempt to crowbar teaching into social media for its own sake is likely to be as successful as any other attempt adults make to "get down with the kids", and it will just look patronising.
At the end of the article, the author gives "Five ways you can start to engage with your pupils on social media", and if the term "engage with" doesn't immediately turn you off, you'll discover that once again, the "method" is not led by pedagogy, but by technology:
1. Create a Facebook page that your class can 'like'. Start posting updates to your timeline, but not in English. Ask your pupils to translate the text using Facebook's in-line Bing translation tool and ask them to gauge its accuracy.
It looks to me like it's a matter of "it's there so we'll use it" -- correction is an occassional exercise in most classrooms, but here it's being promoted as part of the routing.  Because it's there.
(This may actually be counterproductive -- why draw students' attention to the ubiquity of free translation tools if you're trying to demonstrate to them the value of learning a language?)
2. Create a Twitter account. Start tweeting in a foreign language, keeping in mind that you have a 140 character limit, and see if your pupils can strike up a conversation with you. Impose a non-English only reply and retweet rule.
Nothing of note - nothing groundbreaking.  Write stuff.  But short.  OK.  Understood.  But what stage do you get to in school language before you're able to write over 140 characters anyway.  (See also "idiographic languages"...)
3. Create a YouTube account. Ask each of your pupils to record a video blog, or 'vlog', of their hobbies, thoughts or opinions on topical news stories, but speaking only in a foreign language. Those who want to have their video uploaded should send it to you first.
I'm sorry, but I fail to see any teaching goal that is achieved by putting these on public display on YouTube.  In fact, as a student it would horrify me to think that my errors would be on show, but then I'd probably feel browbeaten into agreeing, seeing as everyone else is doing it.
Why is this any better than setting a spoken homework task that only the teacher and/or the class sees?
4. Create a Pinterest account. Take some pictures of prompt cards, post-it notes or even objects with their description in another language and 'pin' them on your boards. You could even look for photos of the country, or infographics about languages in general, to help your pupils understand more about why they should learn it.
I can't imagine this getting much use.  What is the student's goal in using the pinboard?  Why would I go to it?  What on Earth could you put on it that would grab enough attention to make the endeavour worthwhile?
5. Create a blog or Tumblr. Dedicate it entirely to publishing content in the language you teach. Show your pupils why you love the language and inspire them to do the same. Ask them to write something, however small, and post it for the whole world to admire.
All well and good in a liberal arts atmosphere, but like the videos, where's the innovative step between this and written homework?  Besides, as a learner and a teacher, I prefer much more closely directed work.  Why?  Am I a tyrant?  Hell no.  An open task normally leads to either getting stuck in a rut using the same old "safe" language items over and over again, or frequent overreaching by trying to say something that you haven't been taught yet.
As a learner, that frustrates me.  As a teacher, it makes things harder to mark.  What feedback do you give in the latter case?  Do you write five or six lessons worth of teaching?  Do say just mark it as wrong and say you haven't done that yet?

So I don't think social media's a great answer for the teacher, really.  A fantastic resource for the independent learner, yes.  A great way of maintaining a language in the absence of other contact, yes.  But an important component of the modern classroom, no.

Edit 11/04/2012: Tatoeba's actually better than I thought.  The search engine may not be as flexible or as specific as true corpus concordancing software, but it's pretty powerful, as the docs indicate.  There's a "proximity operator" in there, so you can look for co-occurring words even if you don't have the exact phrase.  Nifty.

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