27 June 2013

Sustainability - the missing word in language revitalisation?

Since the start of the century, a new watchword has been on the rise in the world of development: sustainability.

The word started its life associated with ecology, with ideas such as "sustainable forestry", meaning only logging as many trees as a forest can grow back and "sustainable fisheries" – only taking as many fish from the sea, lake or river as can be replaced at a natural rate.

Sustainability moved away from the idea of ecology, to an idea of economics – sustainable explotation of natural resources isn't just a matter of caring about nature for its own sake, but rather the basic common sense of not undermining future supplies in the quest for short-term profit.

But economic sustainability is about the availability of all resources, not merely natural ones.  An economically sustainable system requires no ongoing subsidy, even if it needs some initial investment.  You will rarely hear the word "sustainable" used to describe renewable energy, as while it may use natural resources in a sustainable way, it is not an economically self-sustaining system.

Charities the world over are taking on this idea of sustainability within economic development in poorer areas, and rather than providing indiscriminate aid, they are starting to target their aid on providing startup funding for economically and ecologically sustainable businesses, serving local needs and generating local employment while leaving the local environment intact and friendly to continued human habitation.

And here's where we get to language revitalisation, because language revitalisation is increasingly being recognised as being inextricably linked to community development, and yet sustainability is something of a missing element in a lot of decisions surrounding public funding of language development.

This is not to say that sustainability has been excluded – a few years ago Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the Scottish Gaelic development agency, granted a large sum to a private company in order to fund the development of proprietary teaching method, and there was a large bonus written into the contract contingent on reaching a certain number of learners, and crucially completing the course.  But this was limited funding, and the company was expected to make its own profits directly through student fees and sales of supplementary products.  That is sustainable spending, but while it's there at that level, it's missing elsewhere.

The word that Bòrd na Gàidhlig and many other language development agencies worldwide seem to be missing isn't actually "sustainability", but rather "ecosystem", because every project is viewed in isolation, which is a particular problem when you're dealing with projects to produce learner materials.  If we look at many of the materials projects out there, it is very difficult to see how they can be plugged in to wider teaching, and most of this is down to the problems around rights of use arising from copyright.

As an example, I'd point to some of the resources available at learngaelic.net.

First of all, there's a database of excerpts from the daily news programme An Là, from BBC Alba.  The site has various news stories in video format with an interactive transcript, but they are expected to be viewed on the website only.  You are not expected to download the to watch offline and (maddeningly) there is nothing there to clarify to teachers what rights they have (if any) to use this as a classroom resource.  And heck, even if I was permitted to use it in class, I still couldn't, because my policy as a teacher is never ever use streaming in class.  It breaks far too often.  In this case, the problem is compounded by the fact that the video is encoded in high-quality, and the player doesn't maintain a large video cache, meaning that on a slow connection, you just cannot watch it... which is obviously also a problem for the self-teacher at home.

The other video series at learngaelic.net is entitled Look@LearnGaelic, and consists of specially commissioned videos including interviews and short documentary style videos spoken slowly and clearly, with accompanying transcripts and/or subtitling.  These are good quality resources, but they're hemmed into the site, and kept away from teachers.

I mean, the video player doesn't even have a full-screen button, so even if you put it up on a projector, you'd still have a horribly small image – not what you want in a classroom.  (From a technical perspective, it gets worse.  The BBC Alba videos are in standard TV definition, as you'd expect, as BBC Alba isn't an HD channel.  The media player on the website has SD dimensions.  The same player is used for the Look videos, but the ones I examined were in high def, thus meaning I was streaming almost 4x as much data as could be shown on the screen anyway.)

What a waste!  These are materials paid for almost entirely with public money, and they're of value to the public, but the public won't use them, because without a course or a teacher behind them, they're stumbling in the dark looking for something that's appropriate to them.

As I said, it's not only in Scottish Gaelic that this problem arises.  A month or two ago I learned of an Irish "phrase of the week" series free on the net, funded by the Irish language agency (whether fully or in part, I can't be sure).  But it was copyrighted to the people that made it, all rights reserved, so it was only available to the independent learner.  The thing that really irked me was that this was basic beginners' phrases – the sort of thing that everyone would be learning in their lessons or from their books anyway.  It added nothing to the "ecosystem".  When I started writing this post, I went searching for it... and I can't find it, because there are dozens of "beginners' phrases" video serieses on YouTube (not subsidised) so this series adds no value whatsoever.

So what is the sustainable solution?  How do we get the material into the hands of the teachers without disadvantaging the creators?

The way I see it, there are two sides to this, and a distinction has to be made between "individually sustainable" activity and "ecosystem" activity, with distinct models of ownership of intellectual property for each.

Individually sustainable activity

A full language course could and should be individually sustainable in that it makes enough money to fund itself.  In such a system, the ownership should remain with producer of the material, because it is only through control of the material that the course can generate revenue.

Ecosystem activity

When a production house creates an educational resource, they retain full rights to the material.  A great amount of this material is free of charge to the end user, and generates no profits, so is in no way sustainable.  So we should think of it as analogous to an environmental issue.

When an environmental group gets a grant to repair human damage to a local stream, this does not result in them gaining ownership of the stream.  The stream is not a business and cannot be seen as "individually sustainable" divorced from the wider ecosystem of natural and human use.  The end-goal of the environmental work is to the wider public benefit.  Crucially, though, you wouldn't pay for a river cleanup if you knew that the next day, some factory upstream was just going to pollute it all again.

So any activity that cannot be individually financially self-sustaining can only be sustainable if it feeds into and nourishes a wider productive ecosystem, and individual resources should not be under individual control.

Instead, development agencies should be commissioning the materials and taking ownership of them.  These materials can then be made available for exploitation within commercial activity.

In this model, the resources are an indirect subsidy, and crucially a shared subsidy – the agency pays once for something that is used in a dozen courses.  Not only is this cheaper for the development agency, but it would allow much more experimentation and innovation.

I could recut the videos, reorder the videos, recombine the videos; I could optimise their applicability to my students.  This is stuff I cannot afford to do as an individual teacher if I'm starting from zero.  As the material is freely available anyway, I can't pretend it's mine and "sell" it – the only "product" I would be selling is the teaching, and my teaching would be improved.  I would work just as hard, I would charge the same as I would otherwise, and in the end it would be the students that benefited most from it.

A final thought...

People who want to make their materials free often add a condition of "non-commercial" to their license.  But the major publishing houses are not the only commercial entities in language teaching.  Evening class teachers and private tutors are usually self-employed and therefore commercial actors, and in some parts of the world even schools and universities are private sector institutions.  Non-commercial licenses are rarely appropriate to education materials....


Anonymous said...

(1) the video player doesn't even have a full-screen button"

Opera: double-click on video's screen to get into/out of full-screen mode.

Firefox: right-click, click on Full Screen; Escape to return.

Don't know or care about IE or Chrome.

(2) As regards the "non-commercial use" clause, my guess is that the authors are afraid (whether correctly or erroneously is another matter) that if they allow commercial use, somebody else will be able take the material they created and copyright it against others using it without paying to them. So the general public still won't be able to use the material freely, but instead of the authors some smart Alec will get the cash. I don't say this would be legal, I say I suspect people are afraid it might be.

Nìall Beag said...

(1) Great. But the user interface should be clear and obvious, as not all users are going to be aware of this. I'm pretty clued up and I didn't even think to double-click... but then I was on too slow a connection to stream anyway. (Technical problem no. 2: no buffering in the media player)

(2) The problem is in the Creative Commons license as defined by Lawrence Lessig et al. One of Lawrence's goals was "frictionless" licensing -- I.E. keep the number of different licenses down, and keep the, simple, so that things can be used together (multiple licenses means incompatible licenses!).
The end result was a license of such little use to teachers that it deserves a post all of its own....

Anonymous said...

(1) Yeah, I just wanted to tell you so you could do it, not to imply they've done a good job of it :).

(2) Looking forward to the post, IANAL but all the more interested.