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Engaging young language learners with Web2.0 technologies April 23, 2010

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This is the third and final summary piece I’ll be writing for my secondary studies teaching unit, Enhanced Learning in Professional Contexts. It will be more narrative and reflective than my previous efforts, largely because I’ve found the process of investigating emerging trends in ICT-enhanced language learning just as fascinating as the content.

The process began with me eschewing traditional, scholarly research methodology for a colourful, adrenaline-pumping Web2.0 quest for cutting-edge language learning ideas and resources. Hoping to capitalise on the positive collaborative, social and authentic aspects of learning languages in this environment, I was particularly seeking innovative ideas to engage otherwise unmotivated adolescent language students. This was on the proviso that the learning methods were, following on from Australian Scholar Kathryn Moyle’s recent work, cost-free and based on web2.0 technologies. Ultimately, I found imaginative uses of popular games, and avatars in Facebook and twitter to be leading the way in this domain. I also found myself challenging my assumptions about my newfound research approach.

My research adventure began slowly – almost an entire day wasted bumbling around in scholarly journals seeking a departure point for my investigations. Despite the quality and intellectual rigour of the research I encountered, it appeared the scholarly discourse on ICT-enhanced language learning had stagnated around traditional concepts of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). For two decades now, commercial, CD-Rom-delivered CALL programs have been central in progressive approaches to language learning. However, lost in the labyrinth of scholarly search engines and article repositories housing this literature, I began to suspect that the once innovative vanguard of CALL scholars had since become CALL conservers, rather than adopters of new and more pedagogically powerful Web2.0 technologies.

I decided at this point that if I was genuinely searching for cutting edge, Web2.0-inspired learning ideas, then I needed to embrace the Web2.0 knowledge sharing realm. This would double as a practical examination of an idea I’d been contemplating for some time, regarding the vicarious learning potential of blogs as opposed to scholarly publications. Drawing on Bandura’s theories regarding self-efficacy, I’d been postulating that the immediacy and real-world application of well written, experiential blogs and wikis could have a much more rapid effect than scholarly literature on a teacher’s belief in their ability to perform similar or related educational tasks.

Instant results ensued. The next day was a “rich media” whirlwind of immediately useful blogs, wikis, slideshares, podcasts and vodcasts. An early success along this path included uncovering a student wikidot page – Web2.0 / Language Learning – operating in the same language pedagogy domain as I was. This was a clear example of the kind vicarious learning experience I had been imagining. Prior to encountering this wiki, I’d been somewhat unproductively dazzled by the abundance of useful resources out there. But Web2.0/Language Learning helped order my thinking and offered a fresh perspective apparently unburdened by traditional understandings of CALL. Combining Vygotskian social learning theory with Second Language Acquisition research conducted by Egbert et al, the author/s asserted that Web2.0-supported language learning offered authentic, collaborative, social and challenging experiences for students. The site also offered an eloquent, informative and unpretentious overview of modern uses of blogs, wikis, podcasting, social networking and virtual worlds for second language acquisition.

In addition to this wiki, I found further bearings from another Web2.0 hallmark, YouTube. The video introduction to freelanguages.org offered a similarly informative and articulate review of the types of freely available online language learning resources. These resources were invaluable and will now form part of my own learning and teaching toolbox. They ranged from flash card sites and specialised verb conjugators to formal lessons. Most of the products, however, assumed a pre-existing level of interest in language learning and essentially constituted online CALL programs with Web2.0 social networking sometimes ‘added on’.   

Beyond these products exists the emerging field of Machinima, along with ingenious uses of avatars on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Machinima, as described by one of its pioneer groups, Rooster Teeth, is simply the process of writing scripts and then using video games to act them out. Rooster Teeth’s own work grew out of their manipulation of the Artificial Intelligence online versions of The Sims – with entertaining results (See: The Sims Teach German). Rooster Teeth and other self-styled Machinima production teams have expanded into other games and platforms and the number of Facebook followers on their sites suggests the genre now has a committed following. The types of authentic, collaborative, social and challenging language learning experiences available in these environments is limited only by the imagination. Even before trying their hand at Machinima, young learners have the option of simply playing the game in their target language. Although challenging at first, the number of association-forming visual cues available to them makes this a feasible learning opportunity, as do efforts on the part of gaming developers to make playing instructions clear and direct. Games like The Sims are ideal for these types of rich learning tasks, as they unfold in a progressive manner and require the player to make discerning choices about the placement and application of every day items and tools. They also require the student to build their own characters, or avatars, which is a much more engaging way to learn vocabulary about physiology than the standard textbook approach. Incidentally, the use of avatars is central to emerging ideas for taking language interplay to social networking sites. Scholars working in this area argue that the creation of avatars and unique personas on foreign language social networking sites delivers (particularly advanced) students a level of authentic, intercultural language exchange and understanding unparalleled by anything other than in-country immersion.

Returning to the gaming environment and younger learners, and moving beyond the simple use of avatars, developing a foreign language Machinima might then become a higher order learning project. It is particularly appealing as an extended task into which several formative tasks and assessments can be built, perhaps over the course of a school term.Students might begin by preparing script ideas and storyboards, working either directly with, or translating into the target language, before building their animation in the gaming environment. Examples of language learning tasks of this nature are now starting to populate YouTube, as seen in Teenagers, a Machinima produced by Latin students using The Sims gaming architecture.

There appears to be unlimited potential for engaging otherwise unmotivated students with innovative use of Machinima, avatars and Social Networking sites in foreign language learning. Online gaming and social networking environments are already fun and familiar to students, and can be manipulated by teachers to offer rich and authentic collaborative learning experiences for students at different stages of second language acquisition. My research rollercoaster ride did not end with the landmark ‘discovery’ of foreign language Machinima and avatar usage, however. After initially seeing their potential and learning about the fundamentals, I lost far more time searching for feasible, real-world classroom applications than any of the hours ‘wasted’ on my initial forays into CALL literature. This experience reminded me of the value of cumulative knowledge derived from multiple sources in any field. I expect the rapid Web2.0-enabled dissemination and exchange of new knowledge will increasingly provide educators with useful resources and accessible know-how. But perhaps we should not be too eager to shun the considered findings and established practice of leaders in our given disciplines. Mastery of both research domains will produce a far more balanced and better informed educator!        

Resources

Free Language. Available at  http://freelanguage.org/ Accessed 10 April 2010.   

Krause K.L. Bochner, S, Duchesne, S. (2010) Educational Psychology for Learning and Teaching (3rd Edition) Cengage: Melbourne, Australia.

Moyle, K. (2010). Building Innovation: Learning with Technologies. Australian Council for Educational Research: Victoria, Australia.

Rooster Teeth. Available at http://roosterteeth.com/home.php Accessed 12 April 2010.

Teenagers (Latin Project) – A Sims 2 Machinima. Available at http://eclassics.ning.com/video/teenagers-latin-project-a Accessed 20 April 2010.

The Sims Teach German – Video Games for Foreign Language Learning Available at:  http://vodpod.com/watch/207344-the-sims-teach-german-video-games-for-foreign-language-learning Accessed 11 April 2010.

Web2.0 / Language Learning. Available at http://web20andlanguagelearning.wikidot.com/start-here Accessed 10 April 2010.

Publish and Perish – The adventure continues April 23, 2010

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In my previous post I started wondering out loud whether or not the world of scholarly publishing was dead to me as a time-poor pre-service teacher. Having lost a day of my life unsuccessfully stalking cutting edge work on Web2.0-supported language learning in the unforgiving labrynth of scholarly journals, I’m now prepared emotionally to share the rest of my adventure with you…

Day Two – Web2.0land     

After Day One’s debacle, I decided that if I was genuinely searching for cutting edge, Web2.0-inspired learning ideas, then I needed to embrace the world of Web2.0 knowledge sharing. This in fact tied in with an idea I’d been thinking about for some time, regarding the vicarious learning potential of blogs as opposed to scholarly publications. Drawing on Bandura’s theories on self-efficacy, I’d been thinking that the immediacy and real-world application of well written, experiential blogs and wikis could have a much more rapid effect than dry, detached scholarly literature on a teacher’s belief in their ability to perform similar or related educational tasks to those covered by the authors.

Anyway, the results. The next day was a “rich media” whirlwind of immediately useful blogs, wikis, slideshares, podcasts and vodcasts. An early success along this path included uncovering a student wikidot page – Web2.0 / Language Learning – operating in the same language pedagogy domeain as I was. This was a clear example of the kind vicarious learning experience I had been imagining. Prior to encountering this wiki, I’d been somewhat unproductively dazzled by the abundance of useful resources out there. But Web2.0/Language Learning helped order my thinking and offered a fresh perspective apparently unburdended by old-fashioned understandings of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). Combining Vygotskian social learning theory with Second Language Acquisition research by Egbert et al, the author/s asserted that Web2.0-supported language learning offered authentic, collaborative, social and challenging experiences for students. The site also offered an eloquent, informative and unpretentious overview of modern uses of blogs, wikis, podcasting, social networking and virtual worlds for second language acquisition.  In addition to this wiki, I found further bearings for my research from another Web2.0 hallmark, Youtube. In particular, the video introduction to freelanguages.org, to which I’ve referred in a previous post, was simililarly useful in demystifying the world of freely available language learning technologies.

So far, so good.

As my investigations went deeper, however, particularly into the world of machinima, and how I might apply this emerging practice in a meaningful, feasible classroom contexts, my new research direction began to meander. After initially seeing their potential and learning about the fundamentals, I lost far more time searching real-world examples that I could implement into my lesson planning than any of the hours ‘wasted’ on my initial forays into CALL literature.

This experience reminded me of the value of cumulative knowledge derived from multiple sources in any field. I expect the rapid Web2.0-enabled dissemination and exchange of new knowledge will increasingly provide educators with useful resources and accessible know-how. But perhaps we should not be too eager to shun the considered findings and established practice of leaders in our given disciplines. Mastery of both research domains will produce a far more balanced and better informed educator. 

I was starting think we were seeing the beginning of a new era in academia – one characterised not by the term ‘publish or perish’, but rather ‘post or perish’. But about the only thing perishing here though was my faith in the promise of a Web2.0 research quick-fix. For now…         

Publish and perish – are scholarly articles dead to the reflective practioner? April 23, 2010

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I wonder if this story is familiar to any of you budding or experienced educators out there?

You’re planning a program for, let’s say, a four-week block of teaching. You haven’t taught the subject yet – you might have been passionate about this field when you were studying it, but for a few years you’ve been teaching other subjects, or, if you’re a pre-service teacher, researching another field entirely (as has been my case). The point is, you don’t have a ready arsenal of teaching resources in this field to draw upon.

As always, you want to make the next four weeks as rich and engaging and exciting an experience as possible for your students. You are also a convert to the new teaching paradigm of reflective practice – you learn from and reflect upon how you and others have taught before, and you seek to improve upon these performances through planning grounded in research.

So… when it comes to doing this research, when it’s time to gather the tools, ideas and inspiration you need to teach this subject…

…where do you go?

As a time-poor senior teacher do you hit the libraries and head home with an armful of trusty and dusty books filled with material already out of date by the time they hit the shelves? As a novice teacher so intent on engaging your students, building your personal teaching style and fighting your early professional insecurities, do you hit the scholarly journals with which you spent soooo much time in Uni? And what about those of you like me, the pre-service or trainee teacher, with very little frame of reference to begin with, assignments coming out of your ears, tutes and lectures to prepare for, and countless blogs to write – aaaarrrrggghhh!!! Where are we going to go to get all of this great stuff for our classes????   

Well, for my research into Web2.0 technologies and foreign language pedagogy (Yep – four weeks of Indonesian teaching fast approaching!), here’s where I went:

Day One – The well-worn out (?) path of scholarly journals
As I mentioned before, I’ve been researching in an entirely different field for the past few years, East Timorese oral traditions to be exact. I’m quite comfortable in libraries. I love the smell and feel and the spell of old books and documents – particularly those of the jaundiced, crumbling, Portuguese variety!  I’m also quite adept at searching quickly through scholarly journals online with the aid of google scholar and several trusty academic search repositories. Here, I’m unashamed to say, was my first port of call. Let’s face it – I was hardly going to find much cutting edge material on emerging Web2.0 assisted language teaching trends on the shelves of library itself. Even if there were ‘must have books available, often a quick search on the author’s name will produce more recent, related online scholarly articles with more timely content.  Famous last words.

A day later, I’m no closer to my objective. I’ve spent hours wrestling with reverse proxies, counter-intuitive academic search engines, hit-and-miss search terms and abstracts. I’m exhausted. My brain’s fried from skim reading and chasing tangential leads down scholarly bunny holes. Any creativity and imagination I might have brought to the task has dried up in the desert of language that is scholarly detached prose. I’ve achieved nothing, my deadlines are a day closer, and I wasn’t even procrastinating! 

In my next post, I’ll cover what happened when I changed tack on this research journey. I know you’re dying with anticipation to find out what happens next, but please do try to get some sleep tonight 😉