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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.

Free online language learning aids – Part Two: Gaming and Avatars April 23, 2010

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N.B. This and the previous post  are a work in progress. I’ll continue adding free language learning resources to this page as I encounter them. I’d love to hear from any readers if they know of any similar resources.  

Gaming environments 
Earlier I foreshadowed that online gaming environments were producing the latest trends in truly engaging younger language learners in online learning. Be sure to check out The Sims Teach German, which introduces a lot of great new innovative ideas for using games that were never intended to be used as language learning tools.  Take The Sims, for example. Simply by playing the game in the target language, students can learn and reinforce vocabulary, syntax, grammar and more in a rich learning environment that engages the audio-visual senses in a fun and constructive way.

Machinima
Taking the program further, a group called Rooster Teeth has shown how The Sims’ and other games’ artificial intelligence can be used to create machinima , described by Wikipedia as “the use of real-time three-dimensional (3-D) graphics rendering engines to generate computer animation”. The folks at Rooster Teeth are somewhat more laid back in their description: “We just write scripts and then use videogames to act them out. It’s a new style of animation that some people call machinima. It allows to make weekly pieces of animation with a small group of people.”

There appear to be endless possibilities for practising foreign languages in this fashion appear to be be endless – the following example brings Latin to life:

Social Networking Avatars
Another way to practise languages in an online environment is to use avatars. This can range from visiting your target country in the virtual online world, ‘Second Life’, to creating a fictional profile in the target language environment of social networking sites like facebook (To be continued).

Free online language learning aids – Part One: CALL-inspired sites April 23, 2010

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N.B. This post and the next will be a work in progress. I’ll continue adding free language learning resources to this page as I encounter them. I’d love to hear from any readers if they know of any similar resources.  

Alrighty, so here’s a sample of the kinds of ideas floating about in the cost-free, online language learning world. As I said in my previous post, I’ve tried to focus on imaginative, engaging ideas and particularly those that use Web2.0 technologies (which I guess is a bit of a departure from traditional commercial Computer Assisted Language Learning [CALL] packages – more on this later).

I hope language teachers out there find this post useful. I’ll keep adding resources to it over time. Of course, if anyone out there knows of any new and exciting trends or ideas in the same genre, I’d love to hear from you!

Freelanguage.org
The name says it all, doesn’t it? These guys have almost my job for me. As they say in the introductory video below, they’ve already scoured the web for free, online language teaching resources that are practical and actually work. Most of the big European and Asian languages are covered, and they’ve even got some ideas for teachers of Bahasa Indonesia!

In the must-see introductory video, they cover resources like:
Flashcards
– Word of the day 
Lingro.com, a vocabulary helper that assists learners read authentic texts – this would be a great resource for senior high school/college and university students.
– free online foreign language books (from Project Gutenberg and wikibooks), and
– social language learning sites (from the ‘social’ tab of the freelanguage  site).

Under the final ‘social’ category, which certainly meets my Web2.0 requirement, highlighted sites include busuu.com, babbel.com, myhappyplanet.com and palabea.net. These offer interactive forums as well as free courses, vocabulary trainers and so on. But it’s time to check out the video and have a look for yourself, you won’t be dissapointed:

Despite its obvious value as a language teacher’s online toolbox, Freelanguage.org does not necessarily meet all of my requirements for engaging new, adolescent language learners in the way that I’m seeking. Most of the the resources assume some degree of enthusiasm on the part of the learners in the first instance, and offer opportunities to take that enthusiasm as far as they want without hurting their pockets. We could perhaps call it a free, online CALL compendium, and that’s awesome, but in part Two of this blog, I’ll be looking at more innovative approaches that perhaps offer a greater chance of getting students hooked in the first instance. See you then!

ICT – the language teacher’s secret weapon? April 22, 2010

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We’re a crazy bunch, language teachers. We have to be. In Australia ours is a profession constantly scrambling for space in a crowded curriculum, battling parental and broader public opinion on the very educational value of our discipline, and struggling against physical and human resource constraints (Liddicoat et al 2007; Lo Bianco & Slaughter 2009). On top of all that, we face the challenge of inspiring our students to learn and persist with a subject that – dangerous statement approaching here – by and large, has no immediate relevance to them

Before you reach for the tar and feathers, let’s think about this for a moment from the student’s perspective. Imagine you’re a grade six or seven student in an Australian, middle-class suburban school, and there’s a white man in front of you teaching you to count for the first time in the official language of Indonesia, a country that you’ve probably never heard of before this class. If you have heard of the country, your construct of Indonesia is most likely unflattering, given the associations with terrorism, illegal immigration and so on played out consistently in our media. Unless your parents have some kind of link with the country, or are keen travellers themselves, you’re unlikely to even visit Indonesia until you reach university age (our government currently warns schools and even pre-service teachers against studying in-country). How is the language spoken in this country relevant to you? What is there motivating you to learn it? Not much.

Of course, as language teachers and learned readers, we know that learning any foreign language during adolescence offers great benefits to our students. If the subject is taught well, not only does it help develop intercultural understanding, which will be a key learning area in our new national curriculum, but studies have also indicated that second language learners enjoy enhanced literacy in their mother tongues and tend to become higher achievers academically. This is not to mention the nurturing of the humanist aspects of their personalities, nor their contribution to the broader societal wealth of intercultural understanding, networks and synergies. We know that learning another language is relevant and useful to our students. All we have to do is keep them engaged long and help them enjoy it long enough to see it. 

But learning a language well is a challenging endeavour and requires a long-term commitment. I believe it also requires some degree of effort outside of school on the part of our students. How are we really going to get our budding linguists to put away the PS3, log off Facebook and surgically remove the i-phone for their daily dose of sweet foreign language goodness?

ICT-savvy language teachers around the globe think they have the answer – and it lies in embracing these technologies rather than dragging our students away from them. The argument goes roughly that kids are going to spend time using these fandangled gadgets anyway, so why don’t we turn this to our advantage and bring language learning to the Web2.0/gaming environment? All of a sudden, learning Indonesian, or any other language for that matter, will become far more engaging and relevant to our young students. And maybe even more fun!

This will be the focus of my next four or five blogs. I’ve set myself the mountainous task of finding online language learning resources that are not only fun and engaging, but also – adopting Kathryn Moyle’s call for educators to use ubiquitous, freely available ICTs – FREE!     

I’m really hoping to pull together some exciting and innovative resources. It won’t all be fun and games, though. Along the way, I plan to address some of the important questions raised when terms like language pedagogy and ICT are bandied about together. In the meantime, to get a sense of the kind of ideas I’ll be looking for, check this out (a bit dated now, but the ideas can be applied to so many new products):

Vodpod videos no longer available.
more about “The Sims Teach German — Video Games …“, posted with vodpod

References

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA] Website. (Accessed 5 April 2010)

Liddicoat, A.J., Scarino, A., Curnow, T.J., Kohler, M., Scrimgeour, A., & Morgan, A. (2007). An Investigation of the State and Nature of Languages in Australian Schools.

Lo Bianco, J., & Slaughter, Y. (2009). Second Languages and Australian Schooling. Australian Education Review.

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

Quinn, G. (2010). Crying Wolf over Indonesia. Initially appeared in page 9 of The Canberra Times