10 December 2012

Too many cooks spoil the net....

When I first took up English teaching in 2007, the internet was an incredibly useful resource.  If I was stuck for a lesson idea, a quick Google search or a glance at one of my favourite sites would give me the inspiration and ideas I needed to build a useful lesson.

But now, the TEFL world and his dog are all posting their ideas on the internet.  A search that would have brought up a handful of useful links in 2007 now brings up a load of low quality worksheets and seemingly aimless tasks.  The act of searching for material is now arguably more time-consuming than just sitting down and writing your own material from the ground up, leading to the wonderful paradox that publishing more information leads to less reuse of material.  And this potentially snowballs, as all those teachers who're making their own material "because they can't find good stuff" start to publish their stuff too, further exacerbating the problem.

Now this is not to say that the authors of these materials aren't good teachers, but it is clear that the worksheets and activities don't fully encapsulate the spirit and methods of their class.  The warm-ups, the support activities, even the teacher's personality have a transformative effect on the material presented, and to take a list of a dozen questions and divorce them from that context robs them of their meaning and effectiveness.

People often compare the sharing of documents to the open-source software movement (well, it's getting less and less common now that document sharing is getting more and more common) but I've always considered that a falacious comparison.  Open-source is about exposing the underlying logic to the wider world, and allowing them to improve that logic; but a document is merely the conclusions reached by the author, not the logic he followed to make those decisions.

A very well designed learning exercise or test will follow a very strict process to ensure a sufficiently wide coverage of concepts and minimise the influence of luck on obtaining the correct answer, but as soon as you change one question in a set, you can end up breaking the balance of concepts tested and leave out something important.

If we're honest with ourselves, though, most of us will admit that we don't properly balance our tasks.  There will be times when we hand out a worksheet and realise that we've missed an important case, and I know that as soon as I started marking the last grammar test I set, I started spotting gaps where concepts weren't tested while other concepts were tested multiple times.

Which is, of course, why we look to other people to provide us with exercises and tests -- it is far more efficient to have one person spend all the time making a meticulously balanced question set and then have hundreds of teachers reuse those questions.

That's why books are such a great idea in theory -- it's just a shame that in practice a great many language teaching books don't live up to the promise; which is where the internet was supposed to help.  Unfortunately, the online material I've found to date isn't of great help.  There's two major camps: the let's-dump-our-worksheets-and-move-on crowd and the oh-look-what-I-can-do-with-technology crowd.

The first lot is basically what I've already talked about -- problem sets with little or no guidance on how to build a coherent lesson around them.

The second lot is people who have learned how to use some flashy little piece of software, but more often than not they find themselves being controlled by the software, rather than being in control of it.  This leads to a proliferation of pairing exercises (question halves and question-with-answer) and ordering exercises (sentence order or line-by-line conversation) because that's what the author knows how to do with the software.  It's a further weakening of pedagogy.

The last example I saw of this was for revision of conditional sentences (if...).  There was an introductory page that described the four conditional types, and then a selection of revision exercises, but each exercise focused on one type of sentence only, so the learner never needed to choose which type of conditional to use, just remember how to form the given type.  These sort of structurally-focused exercises are usually only recommended when initially teaching the form, with student scaffolding being reduced continually until they are able to make free, independent choices.  But as I said, this was allegedly a revision page... yet they were doing exercises designed for introducing the structure, because that was the type of exercise the author knew how to create.  And it looked nice, too.

So, yes, the internet is slowly becoming more of a problem, not a solution.

A way forward...?

This problem isn't really anything new -- it has been the perennial problem of the internet.  In the early days, the web was a collection of articles written mostly by academics, so it was high quality, low volume.  As more and more people started posting stuff online, the volume went up, and the average quality went down.

"No problem," the academics told us, "the network will self-organise, and the cream will float to the top."

The mechanism by which this self-organisation took place was intelligent linking.  A trusted source recommends other trusted sources, and surfers navigated that way.  It worked -- that's how I found a lot of information online at the turn of the century.

Then came Google, whose algorithm worked on the same principles -- links acted as recommendations, and the value of a link was related to the linking site's rating.  It was very effective.

But this network of links just doesn't exist in the language resource world.  Most resources are what we would technically consider "leaf" nodes in the network -- they are end-points that don't lead anywhere else.  Even when they do, it's normally only to other materials on the same site -- there are very few teachers' resource sites that aren't dedicated to keeping you on their site and their site alone.  Those that do link to other sites are (at least in my experience) pretty unfussy about what they link to, listing far too many resources and in effect simply echoing the results of a Google search in a different format.

This means that Google has very little to go on when trying to rate resources for language teachers, and this leads to a paradox from Google's point of view: Google has become so popular as the way to find resources that people are no longer building up the web of links that Google relies on.  This isn't true in all fields, where forum posts have started to replace traditional websites as the source of recommendations.

However, most fields have a certain sense of simultaneity -- TV programmes, for example, are broadcast at a fixed time, and their importance fades.  Most spheres are subject to such fashions, so people will be talking about the same thing at the same time.  But language points don't come into or go out of fashion.  Every teacher in the world teaches them... but not at the same time.  Although there are forums related to the topic, it's not a topic that is really suited to the medium.

So there's not enough information out there to let Google separate the wheat from the chaff.  It's a mess.

What's needed is for teachers who find genuinely useful material to start cataloguing it selectively, publishing a useful collection of links to a small number of resources that cover the major language points that most teachers need.  Sites that favour quantity over quality.  And we need to start sharing the links to those sites.  And we need to start using those sites, rather than Google.  If you know of any such sites, feel free to add links in the comments section!

Collaborative materials

More than that, though, if we genuinely want to share our materials, we need to make sure that they can be updated and improved upon.  Millions of man-hours are wasted by producing multiple flawed worksheets, when we could make minor modifications to each other's and produce something of lasting value.

I doubt I'm the only teacher who alters the free materials I've downloaded from the internet, but like all the others, I keep my modifications to myself because the author's given me permission to use the material, but not to redistribute it.  This is a shame, because some of the best designed materials I've come across have been from non-natives, and fixing one or two little non-native errors would make them into something valuable... but I refuse to use or recommend anything with even one non-native error in it.

But just permission to republish isn't enough, because that wouldn't stop the proliferation of materials -- it would worsen it.  A dozen different sites with slightly different versions of the same worksheet... that would be a nightmare.  We have to look at the software world again and look at how they control their edits, updates and revision; how they resolve differences of opinion... or not (projects often "fork" into two versions when people can't agree on a single way to progress, and quite often these forks are merged together a few years down the line).


We could stick to the books and materials we've produced ourselves.  Your choice.

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