Should our Learners Talk to Robots. AI and TEFL

When I first started to talk to him, it felt strange, very strange I would say. The intelligent responses, thoughts and ideas that he had were amazing and unbelievable at the same time. He seemed so real that I was not able to close the tab of the browser without saying bye first. And then I thought-that’s how you get attached to imaginary things.

His name is Elbot, a robot with a beautiful personality, nice, smart interesting, communicative, from time to time his speech is not really to the point, but, let’s be honest, it is even rare with humans.

I started talking to him because I was to understand how robots like him with Artificial intelligence (AI) can, if at all, be useful in EFL classrooms. Despite the fact that many say these chatbots could be useful for TEFL purposes as they provide opportunities for communication, especially to the learners who  don’t have chance to communicate with native speakers, I have to disagree by basing my views on the research conducted by Luke Fryer and Kaori Nakao, who in their paper “Assessing chatbots for EFL learner use” explain the problems the chatbots have.

The researchers looked specifically at Jabberwacky  trying to see what aspects of it cause obstacles for effective communication in English, what barriers are being created by the learners themselves and how the use of chatbots can be made more effective. One of the obstacles found was that chatbots are generally unable to “stay on topic” during the conversation and the other one is that the beginner level learners make lexico-grammatical mistakes which create miscommunication between the chatbot and the learner. Even though the research focused on Jaberwacky only and specifically was for Chinese EFL setting, my own experience with chatbots show that the problem is general. Even my favorite Elbot has the problem of not staying on topic and moreover, he may use very difficult words and grammatical constructions which beginner or intermediate level students won’t understand.

Thus I need to cite Fryer’s and Nakao’s research again to say how the chatbots should be improved to make them more useful for TEFL purposes. I agree with the researchers that the first thing should be the programming of chatbots to make them stay on topic maybe by suggesting topics that chatbots are trained to talk about, and these topics could be TEFL specific and change with the level of the learners. The second improvement could be, as researchers point out, the including of the spell and grammar check and via this tool the learners would be able to see their mistakes, maybe they will also have to correct those until the chatbot continues talking to them.

If you would like to read the whole article, get registered in researchgate.net. As for chatbots, they are fun and insteresting to use but need serious improvements, I believe, until they become really useful for TEFL purposes.

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Some thoughts on virtual teaching and learning: 3D Virtual Worlds

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Second identity…  your own virtual self…  realization of your not so realistic dreams… your dream house…. your dream “everything”… and eventually your virtual school with virtual students and virtual teachers. Only in the last few years it became possible to have everything the way you want and the way you dream, go and visit wherever you want at almost no cost… virtually. Whether it is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of another discussion; here I want to concentrate only on the concept of “virtual teaching and learning experiences”. The research comes to prove that at least the gained knowledge in those virtual classrooms is real! However there still remains the question whether it is always realistic and plausible to teach virtually.

If I were to answer that question from my own personal and very short experience, I would definitely say no. But theoretically I have to disagree with my own personal experience. What I learnt during the last few weeks of investigation of 3D virtual worlds, they have many educational advantages if used in a correct way (as almost everything).  Teaching with a virtual world gives more  collaboration opportunities to the learners, becomes a platform for creation of a community and networking, it also develops social experiences, creativity and critical thinking.

As noted in one of the articles I have read, 3D virtual worlds bring the distance education closer to face to face communication as they become a place where people can actually communicate by seeing each other, only in this case via their avatars. Students who participated in various research experiments with education in 3D worlds, talked about how they felt less nervous when communicating in target language in the imaginary world, how they were not afraid to fail anymore as they would approach all of that from the perspective of a game.

However, as a teacher-to-be, accepting all the advantages cited in virtual teaching research, I strongly believe that there need to be some serious considerations if you decide to use a 3D world to achieve your teaching and learning goals. First of all the choice of the 3D world is very important. A platform which will be created specifically for educational purposes or will allow creating your own virtual space where you will be alone with your learners is more preferable, than the ones that have many worlds, many spaces, where students may get distracted. I would recommend to check out http://www.meshmoon.com as a very good example of a virtual teaching/and learning experience provider.

Another consideration should be the strict monitoring. As teachers we always talk about engaging the learners in the classroom, keeping them all at task, doing everything for them to be concentrated and less distracted by outside forces. When taking the classroom and making it virtual, this becomes a more serious issue. Internet has everything your learners love, virtual worlds with their endless opportunities can easily change the direction of the learners’ concentration. Thus the teacher has to be more careful with her monitoring, with making sure that the whole process is guided. Especially this is true when you deal with younger learners.

SO, even though I may hardly find the 3d Virtual worlds useful for the contexts I am or will be teaching in, as noted by one of my professors, I shouldn’t be rejecting a good learning tool entirely. I would forward my professor’s piece of advice to all the teachers: it is important to always evaluate all the tools we may consider using in our classrooms, see how well they target our teaching and learning goals, investigate all the risks and only after make considerations.

Have fun teaching and learning everybody 🙂

Digital Storytelling and Digital Video: Some Concerns

question3multiI was planning to write this post earlier but because of certain factors I have decided to leave it for later.

In my previous posts I have mostly talked about the positive sides of technology use in the classroom. All the technology tools discussed earlier were highlighted with their advantages. In this post, however, I have to talk about some of my concerns about digital storytelling and digital videos.

I adore storytelling, I may listen to a good storyteller for hours, I consider storytelling as a great tool to develop learners’ speaking and presentation skills, but when it comes to digitizing it, I have some issues with that. Even though the whole process of creating digital stories and videos is fun, engaging and exciting,  in order to assign your learners to create one, you have to make sure that all your learners have access to computers and know exactly how to use it. If we talk from the perspective of developing country teachers and learners, then we have to admit that this is not always the case. However “technologized” the world has become, there are still kids who don’t have the luxury of having computers or being taught how to use them.

My other concern is the time that the learners need to dedicate on preparing digital stories and videos and the training that has to go with it. For public school EFL classrooms, particularly in Armenia, which are governed by state educational policies, time restrictions and expected deliverables, it becomes highly impossible for a teacher to be able to use these tools in their teaching process.

These concerns and some others that I have are mostly related to the teaching context and I have to admit that if these tools are viewed from the perspective of a “technologically and digitally ideal” classroom, where all the learners are digital natives, and have computers and the curriculum is flexible enough for tools like digital storytelling and digital videos, then they become invaluable tools which target the needs of both the learners and the teacher.

Games vs teachers? NOT Any More

image-for-3The more I read about and explore the world of technology for teaching purposes, the more I realize how much digital skills I lack. I can’t consider myself a digital native as I had my first computer only when I was 14-15. And to tell the truth, I couldn’t do a lot much with it. And even though as a kid I didn’t need technology to learn (or at least I didn’t know that I could use it to learn), I can’t reject its effectiveness and significance now.

When it comes to video games, I have to say that I haven’t played a single video game in my entire life. I have never been fond of them, never enjoyed even the idea. But the literature I have read about it recently and conversations I had with people who are “video-gamers”  have presented me with a different reality.

A while ago I was talking to a friend who loves video games (he was actually playing one while talking to me), and I asked him what he finds great about those. He answered that he loves playing video games as they allow him to make strategic decisions, give solutions to the problems, collaborate and reach a specific goal. In simple words he explained to me what the whole science of DGBL (Digital game-based learning) is. As Richard Van Eck writes in his article “Digital game-based learning: It is not just the digital natives who are restless”, DGBL allows the learning process to happen in an authentic environment. There is always a specific context for the game, players have certain goals and have to implement certain strategy to reach the goal. Video games as learning tools have also proved to be a very effective way of learning to collaborate and work in groups and they also make the assessment a fun process. James Paul Gee in one of his interviews states that video games have become a great teaching tool as they have inbuilt assessment. “It is actually an assessment in itself, as every moment of a game is an assessment”. When playing, the student always has to perform well to get better results, to unlock new worlds and to eventually win. We could say that video games actually make the acquiring of new knowledge or of a new skill a “win-or-lose”  issue. This becomes a huge motivator for kids to learn something new as it equals to winning.

I would highly recommend that you check out these two articles published on CBSNews and The World Street Journal, where the teachers who have used video games in their classrooms tell their success stories and advise on how to do that effectively.

Scott Jackson, for example, who is an American History teacher at the the Brooklyn International High School, says, “I think the game is a real good kind of leveler for all students. Everyone can access it, it doesn’t put anyone in a certain position, it’s an easy jumping off point for the content, for the topic.” Joey J. Lee, an assistant professor who runs the Games Research Lab at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, says “video games allow students to explore, be curious and persist through negative outcomes.”

Psychological and learning benefits of DGBL have been researched and tested over and over again, but one thing that is certain for me due to my teaching and learning experience, is that kids learn when they enjoy it and if kids enjoy video games the teacher should be able to use them for her own and her learners’ benefit.

Collaboration through wikis-Creating a community

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“Coming together is a beginning; Keeping together is progress; Working together is success!”

Henry Ford

My first experience with collaborative writing process was few years ago when we were writing a project description with my freind who was in the U.S. while I was already in Armenia. We used Google docs to  write together and sometimes we would also talk on Skype discussing what we were writing at the same moment, going back and editing, revising already written sections. I have since then loved the online collaboration especially at times when I had to put together a document which was then supposed to be approved and shared by many other people. But what I never realy reflected on was that all the people I ever since have done collaborative writing with were people I knew really well, people who I would talk to during the day many times on various issues. We had shared vision, we knew how we work individually and in a group and that’s why the collaboration has almost always been successful.

A week ago, however, I was assigned to use wikis for collaborative writing with my MA program peers. The assignemnt was for everybody to write together a 400 word essay about a topic that was specified. The essay turned to be an 8 pages long narrative which had many smal essays in it 🙂 Why was the assignment a failure? Very simple: there was no conversation between the writers, there was no discussion at all about what should be written and how and who is responsible for what. The reason? 32 people were trying to write a 400 word essay without communicating. Everybody wrote what we considered our part of the essay which in simple words translates: we didn’t act as a community.

As Susan Loudermilk Garza and Tommy Hern put in their article Wiki as a collaborative writing tool, “social construction theory has been influential in developing an understanding of the complex process of collaboration, because the essence of social construction is also the essence of collaboration. ” They further cite Thralls and Blyer (1993), who  explain, “To summarize, the social constructionist approach focuses on community” (p. 13). The conclusion is obvious: “If social construction and collaboration are about community, then wikis are about building constructive communities.” (loc.cit.)

 And as every community, wikis as collaborative writing online spaces, should require shared responsibilities, communication, negotiation of meaning and conflicts, mutual respect and solutions achieved together. The outcome of a wiki is a shared outcome whether it is a failure or success. This means, thus, that using wikis as collaborative writing tools in a classroom is not just a very effective writiting task but also a tool which can create the environemnt of community in the classroom, can bring peers together, can make the teaching/learning process a shared one.

If you wonder which wiki to use, consider checking out this link. 

Have a great day everybody!

An hour a week of teaching inspiration: podcasts

inspiration_signWhen it comes to ebooks or podcasts, I am not a good listener. I am a better reader. I can easily get distracted when listening to an ebook in public or I can fall asleep when listening to a podcast despite of how interesting an episode may be. On the other hand, I absolutely forget the world when I am reading. Nothing can take away from me the words that are written on paper.

I have, however, started listening to podcasts as it was an assignment for one of my classes of my MA TEFL program. The experiment will definitely be benefiting especially if I decide to use podcasts in my teaching experience. And as somebody who is on her path to learn to educate, what I need the most is inspiration 🙂 Saying that, I hope that it won’t be surprising for you to know that the first podcast episode I have listened to was about Inspiring educators. You can browse their website for very interesting articles or listen to their podcasts on iTunes. You can also download The Podcast Source (Inspiring educators are available here too) which is also a great APP to find various podcasts of your interest.

I hope you will enjoy the few minutes of inspiration every week and in the comments please share with me what you think of using podcasts when teaching a foreign language.

Have a beautiful day and Carpe Diem!