So Distant and yet So Close: Online/Distance education

I noticed recently that when I start talking about using the technological opportunities and software in my teaching practice, I end up talking about how those have affected my learning practice. And as I believe that teaching is nothing else but learning, I¬†think this is a good start for a “beginner educator” ūüôā

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In my previous post I talked about the online courses, the opportunities those provide and how they impact the concept of freedom. Here I will¬†build on whatever has already been discussed with some thoughts on distance education which for me before today was¬†not very different from online courses provided by MOOCs.¬†My short research showed that I am not the only one who tries to solve the dilemma of whether there is any difference between those two as I have noticed that sometimes these words are used interchangeably. I found¬†Kathy Keairns’ blog post on the topic (she is the Director of Web-Based Learning in the Office of Teaching & Learning at the University of Denver (DU)) and I think she has a very nice illustration of the differences between MOOCs and Distant education. You can check it out here.

However, here I would like to tell about my own experience as an “online student” in general not separating MOOCs from Distant courses mostly because my experience with Distant courses is limited to language courses in Livemocha. I love several things about online learning and all of them are connected to the fact that they bring the learner even closer to the learning process. As a distant course or MOOC learner you are the most connected to what you are learning than in any other learning environment. When I talk about ideal learner-centered classrooms, I always cite Nunan and Lamb in whose words “if learners are to learn anything at all, they have to do the learning for themselves.‚ÄĚ (Nunan, Lamb, 1996, p. 9) Thus the online environment somehow becomes the ideal “learner-centered classroom”. Here all the decisions are made and carried out by the learner. Here is where the learner knows that in order to be successful he needs commitment, punctuality, determination, time and energy management skills as he knows best his own learning strategies and is able to monitor his own learning process.

The online courses that I took taught me to the aforementioned skills and both as a learner and a teacher I consider those invaluable for success and advancement.

Another thing that online learning taught me is that being an individual learner doesn’t cut you away from the community. Actually, it brings you closer to people with same interests, however most often it also happens in the virtual world. I consider this to have its own advantages as it teaches to share responsibility and knowledge with people who you don’t know well but who you connect with based on the same interest and on the urge to learn more.

So, I believe, distant (online) education does bring the learner closer to what learning is. I would love to learn you thoughts on this.

Carpe Diem!

Not sure how to motivate your kids? Use their phones!

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????When I was going to school, mobile phones were a rare thing. Not every student had one and however surprising it sounds, it was only 6 years ago. In those days, teachers would get angry if students would look at their phones instead of concentrating on their textbooks. Nowadays almost everybody has a Smartphone, and teachers, who, I assume, were followers of learner-centered approach to teaching. found a way out. They decided that instead of prohibiting students from using their phones, they will actually make the students use their smartphones for learning purposes.

A lot has been written about the usefulness and effectiveness of MALL (Mobile Assisted Language Learning). There are hundreds of free APPs available on APP stores which can be used in EFL practice plus all the in-built functionalities¬†that¬†phones provide. The research has shown that MALL tools allow the learners to become more autonomous, they create more opportunities for collaboration and cooperation among students.¬†Ali Sorayyaei Azar‘s research on “Learners‚Äô Attitudes toward the Effectiveness of Mobile Assisted Language Learning (MALL) in L2 Listening Comprehension”¬†in Iran, which aimed to investigate Iranian EFL learner’s attitudes toward the effectiveness of Mobile Assisted Language Learning on their Listening comprehension indicated, the experimental group receiving instruction through cell-phone based audiobooks outperformed the control group on their listening comprehension. Such studies are numerous and the reasons for these kinds of results also vary.

One very comprehensive research that summarizes most of the important points about MALL as well as talks about its disadvantages and pitfalls is John Traxler’s study “Mobile Learning for Languages:¬†Can The Past Speak to the Future?”.

The study describes the advantages of MALL as “reaching out”, “enriching”, “learning from one another”, “theorizing and defining”, “enthusing and motivating” and “just in time”. I would highly recommend you to check out the paper if you want a profound literature analysis about MALL.

.As for the limitations and challenges of MALL, the author goes further than just discussing the small screen of the mobile devices and the readability issues. He raises the issues of sustainability, embedding and evidence. In terms of sustainability, Traxler talks about the¬†ability of MALL APPs to “generate revenue or meet their costs and an¬†understanding of their impact on human, economic, and social capital in relation to their¬†various costs.” By embedding, he means how MALL is embedded in other learning systems and how it effects MALL’s efficacy. And the last limitation and challenge is, according to Traxler, the lack of evidence “that demonstrates¬†relevance, significance, and impact.”

These limitations need to be addressed in order for Mobile Assisted Language learning to become absolutely effective for the language learners.  But before that I would recommend  using what mobile devices have to offer as their usefulness in the learning process is very obvious.

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.

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.

Doing my part of “flattening” the world…

Before you go on reading this post, consider checking out Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat”.

“When Columbus set sail, he apperently assumed the Earth was round ….” (Freidman, p.4) An American journailst Thomas Freidman, however, after¬†his first trip to India told his wife, “Honey, I think the world is flat.” And in his book he takes us to a histroical journey during which the earth has flattened and like him, most of us were most probably “asleep” while that was happening. (You can listen to Thomas Friedman explaining the flattenng of the world himself here).

Friedman, then describes the 10 forces which¬†according to him flattened the world: 11/9/89, 8/9/95, Work Flow Software, Open-Sourcing, Outsourcing, Offshoring, Supply-chaining, Insourcing, In-forming and the Steroids. I would recommend reading the whole book and about all the flatteners because those do give an insight on where we are now as human beings and how we reached here. The book also begins a pretty comprehensive discussion about “glocalization” and globalization and the advantages and disadvantages of those.

In this post though I would like to focus on two of those flatteners: In-forming and Steroids. As my blog is more about technology in the classroom we will talk today about the flatteners which are affecting how the teaching and learning processes are happening ¬†“in the flat world”. In Friedman’s own words, “in-forming is a new way of collaboration through Google, Yahoo and MSN Web Search”. ¬†Can any of us imagine their life today without these search engines? Most probably, no. Google has answers to almost all of our questions. As teachers and as learners we “inform” ourselves¬†everyday by searching topics on the Internet. Due to this systems almost all the information, world knowledge is now available to anyone with a computer and internet connection in just few seconds. Building on Freidman’s idea, we could say that through the in-forming process teacher-learner, teacher-teacher and learner-learner communications have changed drastically. ¬†“In-forming is about self-collaboration-becoming your own self-directed and self-empowered researcher, editor, and selector of entertainment, without having to go the library…” (Friedman, p. 153) Every day more and more people connect to this flat space of information and knowledge seeking and every day more and more people connect to each other, build communities to learn together, to teach, to collaborate.

Together with all this comes the 10th flattener, The Steroids which are “new technologies that make everything digitial, mobile, virtual and personal”. ¬†How have they flattened the learning process? Virtual classrooms, file sharing possibilities, ebooks, podcasts, artificial intelligence. I myself am¬†a very fond user of many libraries’ digital materials, when creating a lesson plan me and my co-teacher don’t even have to meet: Skype, google drive become our meeting places… Nowadays you can easily have co-teachers or get peer reviews from all over the world. The world has indeed become “flat” and every day everybody who uses the interent technologies to inform themselves¬†or to connect with others, to access the digital and virtual information online ¬†contributes to the creating of even flatter world.

Thus, we all do are part of flattening both as teachers and as learners, we contribute to the process by having new needs and requirements from the technology ¬†and by using those later in our classrooms or study rooms. Almost 70 percent of my life is now online and that’s the case, I assume, with most of the people even if we exclude the social networking websites. Online learning platforms, MOOCs, language learning softwares emerged due to the flat world and they are becoming more and more real as they become part of the traditional classrooms.

And even though I am still dubious about all this (and I will explain the reasons in future posts) I would defiitely recommend everybody to read the book “The World is Flat” and see what’s your role in the flat world.