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One of the most enjoyable and inspiring books I have read this year has been Sir Ken Robinson's "Out of our Minds"  and my ref...

Friday, 5 December 2014

Toneless CMC? I don't think so...

I spend a good deal of time communicating with people through computers these days, as I suspect do most of us. Exchanging hurried emails as we fight to cram in more hours of work each day than is possibly feasible. Sometimes the fact that we can access such messages anywhere, on our phones, on the train etc. means that we feel we are taking part in several ongoing conversations rather that writing a specific message in reply to a clear written communication. I have been accused from time to time of writing rather blunt emails, short and to the point. Equally I have recieved emails which have no more than one word, be it "yes" or "no". 

Such exchanges have been vairously reported as faulty because the medium of email doesn't communicate tone of voice. Of course, any written medium doesn't carry the sound of the voice of the writer. The voice in our head re-interprets the written words in front of us and we reconstruct an impression from that as to how it was written and the feelings it conveys. Although, as a lover of poetry and literature, I think great writers are very clear in their self expression, one has to bear in mind that they may spend days or months crafting their writing and considering how it is to be recieved. Spoken messages are very much clearer, carrying lots of information above and beyond the simple communication of facts. Voice is an amazingly poserful communication tool, something babies learn within moments of birth.

There are of course ways in modern computer mediated communication (CMC) to add tone to your message although some may be frowned upon or ridiculed depending on yrou audience! The emoticon, a small collection of characters on the keyboard that generate an icon or emblem such as :) are designed to help others understand the tone of your message. Whe we get to the stage where we are communicating with somone in a frequent, ongoing way, the tool of choice would have to be either text messaging or instant messaging where use of emoticons is commonplace. Business gurus recognise the scope for miscommunication that can occur through email and have some good advice. 

However as we get more multimodal, using a range of CMC tools for different purposes perhaps we should bear in mind the appropriate ways of communication they require and facilitate. When the telephone was first invented we needed to be taught the protocols for its use. I was taught as a child to answer the phone by saying my phone number and name and then asking "who's speaking please" (my parents ran a business, I knew it was important to give the right impression). We could learn much from younger folk about which technologies are best for which interactions, and they from us can learn how captured, traceable computer-mediated communication is not always our friend. So think before you type :)

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Clicks and cliques

I suppose there is a human tendency to cluster around shared interests or passions. We form tribes, we are influenced by those we admire. We like connecting. We wear our group badges with pride, be they football team colours, fashions, preferred technologies, book clubs, sporting activities, on the whole we like to be one of a group or indeed several groups.Birds of a feather, flock together.

Thanks to the internet it has never been easier to seek out those who share interests. As #warcler #clerwar gets underway again the ease of # to find new friends is being put to good use. And so I have been reflecting on connectedness. 

I will be presenting next month on the many benefits of open practice and becoming a connected educator at the Global Education Conference #globaledcon14. There are so many great things that have happened in my life, so many new friends, new connections, new opportunities since I first "lurked" in online teaching spaces and I will be sharing those soon. One that is worth mentioning "en passant" is that, even when you need to down tools and take a break, someone out there is looking at your work and developing it further. Just such an event became apparent to me recently when a friend of a friend shared an image in a tweet:

Maha's diagram is a lovely re-hacking of a blog post I had written, she was quite dismissive of it, to me it was like a gift out of the blue. A connection with Egypt that I had never made before.

But do clicks make cliques? Does our participation in online groups lead to us shunning others or being dismissive of those who are outside our connections, our PLN? Do we start to use language that distances us from others, making it awkward for them to penetrate our circle? I think we must always remain aware of this danger and willing to engage widely.  

This morning I felt the need to be alone, to wander through the beautiful autumn sunshine with my thoughts. I had come across Dunbar's number a theory which maintains that humans are limited in the number of others they can connect with. I admit to feeling at times overwhelmed by the possibilities for connection and collaboration presented by the web, but I also believe that the brain is not fixed and limiting, it is flexible and complex and I wonder if this theory will stand given the new ways of working and socialising that we are witnessing online. 

As I captured some of the colour of the trees in the park I spotted chestnuts blown down by the wind, carpeting the ground and I wondered what my friends in Clermont would make of the waste of these lovely "marrons" so I will share them here. Just a few more clicks, no cliques, lots of connections.

Monday, 8 September 2014

ALT-C 2014 post conference reflections.

I always look forward to this conference and this year it was held at Warwick so it was a lovely opportunity to bring this brilliant community right to the heart of my work context. The keynotes were inspiring, the connections and presentations helpful, the sheer amount of experience and expertise in educational technology awesome. (and that's not a word I use lightly!) Since the conference finished on Wednesday however I have been mulling over my contributions. I spoke about #oie and #clavier on wed morning and Languages@Warwick development on the wed afternoon. I thought it might be helpful to summarise what I have learnt about using technologies for international interaction in a simple 5 point way for anyone who is thinking of taking this on in their own context. So here goes: 

 1. Choose your technologies carefully but choose your partners even more so! It may be almost impossible to find tech that everyone likes, but this matters not a jot if your collaborators don't trust each other. You will inevitably need to compromise on timings, activities, objectives - play the long game, agree to make progress gradually and take your teachers and students with you. If you're unhappy or resentful don't pretend everything's fine, establish clear communication right from the start and respect the opinions of others. 

 2. Connections precede collaboration. Allow time to let all participants get to know each other. Our experience shows that this is best done by proxy, that is to say carry out some tasks (profile writing,photo sharing etc) which allow the participants to discover each other without the pressure to work together immediately. If you are meeting in an online space each participant will want to build an identity in the space. Remember how you felt on arriving at the school disco or a party in a new house? You probably spent a while thinking about how to dress and then had a few drinks in the kitchen or chatted with familiar people first. 

 3. Ensure a good level of presence. There's little worse than entering an online space expecting to meet people and finding an empty space. Worse still if no-one replies to your messages. Tumbleweed moments! Plan to have sufficient "animators" in the space to welcome each new arrival and facilitate the mingling. Lead by example.

 4. Be open to ideas. Resist the urge to control everything. If people are to engage they must be given the space to make a contribution. They may want to do something you had not planned, you will not know how that will turn out unless you try it. Be flexible and generous with your time and support. 

 5. Celebrate every small win. It is important to growing the activities that you surface the impact of the activities you do. Use hard data as well as participant narratives to ensure that you have a clear picture. Communicate the findings openly and creatively so as to engage onlookers. Careful: Don't make unsubstantiated statements, that will come back to bite you! 

Collaboration is complex, see below the waterline!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

#clavier research for Eurocall 2014

Interactive representation of the data collected in the #clavier interviews

Interviews with #clavier participants aimed to establish whether there were shared understandings of the purpose of connecting tutors and students internationally. There were indeed themes that recurred. The extracts in the presentation below present the participants own voices and the image above illustrates the main themes for each question asked.

Q1: How did #clavier come about for you?
Q2: What unexpected outcomes have arisen from informal connections through social media?
Q3: Has this had a positive or negative impact on your working life?
Q4: How do you see this sort of informal network fitting into teacher development in the future?
Q5: What are the threats/opportunities/risks in your context?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

going global

Post inspired by @mrkempnz a fellow tweep and inspiring edtech educator.

Working as a teacher can be a lonely and somewhat insular occupation if you are not careful.  Whether you work in a school, a university, full time, part time or freelance you are assuming a role that puts you under the spotlight and your learners have expectations of you. Over a 30 year career I have worked in a variety of contexts with different age groups from under 10's to over 50's, one to one to one to many, responsible at some periods for the language learning of over 1,000 learners a year. I think I have a reasonable understanding of a range of learner expectations. I have definitely not "seen it all" and I learn more each year from my learners who now tend to be international students following an accelerated learning pathway to French in Higher Education. I am a co-learner with them as we explore the world of resources available to us thanks to the internet and computer-mediated communication (CMC). I try to contribute to my communities, both local and global. 

My PLN, (here's a Top Trumps I did a while back) gathered gradually over more than 5 years through interaction online, lots or reading and great networks of professionals, have broadened my outlook, inspired me to examine my assumptions more closely, to engage with debates central to my chosen career path, and to grow as an educator. Blogging and micro-blogging have helped make explicit the ruminations and half thought through ideas, reflecting and connecting in order to better understand where I stand (split infinitives are OK BTW) . Participating in synchronous and asynchronous CMC has taken me beyond the boundaries of my classroom experiences and those of my immediate colleagues into global interactions and contexts, beyond the UK and Europe. I collaborate with teachers in Australia,the US and around the world in #globalclassroom chats, extend my student connections through the #clavier virtual exchange, and explore the potential for language learning CPD through informal online networks. I have developed my use of technology for teaching, gaining a professional qualification in learning technology through the ALT CMALT scheme and now I research and publish in CMC for language learning and the emerging area of Online Intercultural Exchange (#OIE). 

I had no idea where my early tweets would lead. I followed my head and my heart and found a world of inspiration digitally enabled just a keyboard away. My students and I are the richer for it, my CPD is constant and relevant, my learning lifelong and lifewide. Connecting globally allows us to rise above the immediate, often political nature of our national context and focus on the real issues in education. We need to support the next generation as they discover the realities of sharing the planet and meeting the needs of humanity in challenging times. We promote mutual understanding, communication skills, empathy, openness and creativity. Going global has helped to reignite my passion for education.  

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Speaking up!

The point at which I fell in love with the French language is a difficult one to pin down. Undoubtedly I was influenced by the trips my parents encouraged and the role of interpreter which they bestowed on me at just 12 years old. I was terrified of my French teacher but recently took my family to see her home town of Aix-les-Bains because I surely recognise her impact on my life. I went to Oxford Poly to study for a French degree, determined not to "do" literature but within a year I had negotiated more literary study and still have a passion for the works of Mauriac, Camus, Baudelaire, Voltaire and Prévert. (read, discussed and analysed in both my languages). I created a drama project during my PGCE around the theatre of the absurd and the works of Ionesco. Working as an assistante during the 2nd year of my first degree was no doubt a turning point though - I began to understand that language learning is not just intellectually challenging, it is fundamentally transformative - it changes the way you understand others and yourself through interaction. I continue my language learning journey through interaction largely but not exclusively online using #cmc computer-mediated communication.

My community (language teachers/experts in a variety of guises and contexts) are struggling with the realisation that young people are increasingly not choosing to continue language study for single honours degrees, numbers on such courses have been in freefall. It is very upsetting for all of us to see that the qualification we so treasure is not featuring on more wish lists and this has been the subject of countless reports, discussions and soul searching. However, the very opposite trend has been seen in university-wide language study provision so clearly young people do still enjoy the thrill of interaction across cultures. Many of them have done so all their lives but have had little or no state recognition of their linguistic heritage. At a recent school event at my university I asked a group of 14 year olds why they thought languages were useful (expecting the usual list that pointed to employability). This insight came back immediately from a young Sikh - "you can tell someone something without the others knowing what you said". Out of the mouth of babes! Language encodes, linguists decode. That is a human skill, still unmatched by google translate, requiring sophistication, knowledge and skills way beyond those which can begin to be awakened at A level, that is just the beginning. In the UK we have to send a clear message from our community that the journey may be long but it is worthwhile. In schools we need to have the freedom to inspire, in H.E. we must be relevant and move with the times.  Most importantly our community must pull together, for the losses we will sustain otherwise are too terrifying to contemplate. Valuing language skills is valuing human diversity in all its richness, and respect for life gives hope in an era of instability and war.
This post was written to relate to UCML's support for A level Content Advisory Board's recommendations. 

Saturday, 19 July 2014

It's good to talk!

This morning I moderated a twitter chat for #globalclassroom, something I participate in as often as I am able. The topic and questions are shared beforehand and I always try to collect some resources and reflect prior to the session to make it easier to keep up. When the time comes we have just one hour, lots of new people to meet and engage with and you never quite know how it will play out. 

Today's session was a subject close to my heart: how do we ensure that our learners have opportunities to develop attitudes to learning (or "habits of mind") that prepare them for the future as best we can. This is part of the role of an educator that I think is more complex than any other - the opportunity to support the acquisition of skills for life compared with simple transmission of information to pass exams. I'm not saying we don't have to do the latter, we do but it should not be at the expense of the development of the whole person. The amazing truth is we can do both well if we capitalise on the affordances of our technologies and our human creativity. 

I need to take a short digression on this topic. I didn't have time to share these during the chat. Take a look at these recent examples of discussions around this in the UK:
Tom Bennett @tombennett71 wrote this in the Guardian. I agree with his conclusion but I wish it were not framed in the usual dichotomy of facts vs skills, this is not a helpful distinction, I have blogged about before. Also this week, shared via twitter was a fabulous letter written to young learners at the end of their Primary school years showing how we can help to frame our need (parents?employers? politicians?) for measurable short term results in a wider context, that of becoming rather than being. (Interesting eh?)

Anyway, back to our #globalclassroom chat this morning. We wanted to draw out a set of global habits of mind, qualities that are necessary to interact effectively (whether as a young person or an adult) with others across national boundaries and contexts. The 16 identified here (p11) are all relevant but I would say from my experience of virtual exchanges and international telecollaboration that when languages, other cultures and technology are involved you have to take each of these to greater depths to succeed. Believe me, this is extreme HoM and deserves recognition and time to achieve within our existing educational frameworks. I await the #globalclassroom archives to see if we identify or describe others that are not simply other ways of saying what has been said already. Meanwhile I remain grateful to my international PLN and the #cmc that supports my learning for my ever expanding, rhizomatic learning happening in my home over a cup of tea and tweet deck :)

Sunday, 22 June 2014

The e word.

I chose to look at enhancement and watched the video about xMOOC models. There are several viewpoints shown in the clip but the main focus is on the Stamford experience of Udacity co founder Sebastian Thrun and his stated aim was to democratise access to learning arising from his belief that "education is a basic human right". Whilst I fully support this premise (who wouldn't ?) I felt that some of the statements made rather simplified the success of this model and at times tried to compare it to a way of teaching that would be recognised by most teachers as failing learners . Traditional teaching was presented as students sitting in ranks, not allowed to talk to each other, lecturers transmitting knowledge from the front - surely these are clichés and any institution who maintains them is already on the road to obsolescence? Sadly in HE old habits (and business plans) die hard.

The elements of the MOOC model applicable in my context:
(I prefer cMooc to xMooc personally, as I see the latter more as an institutional marketing model to support business as usual) were:

  • online delivery makes learning more accessible especially to those unable to take time away from work/life in order to study
  • greater availability of content for replay/review
  • more problem based learning, explanations afterwards, "flipped" delivery
  • increased emphasis on interaction, making best use of technology, use of quiz 
  • more economical, reach more students, make teaching a first class discipline again
  • education a lifelong issue - more relevant to modern world, flexible and continuous 
Of course all these things also apply to good blended learning. The question here is how does one scale up the tutor time in order to deliver a personalised experience to thousands of participants? It would seem from the participants interviewed that they expected to get that interaction from each other. Possibly accepted as a trade off for not having to pay to learn? One interviewee commented that we "underestimate how powerful interaction can be online". I believe that to be the case having experienced several cMoocs now since 2011. If you invest the time in online learning, getting to know your fellow learners, if the course is aligned with your personal learning needs you can indeed make useful and productive connections which can foster deep learning. Thrun's experience must be quite chilling for the established order, as it questions whether the "best" universities really select the best potential graduates, his online students outperformed those turning up on campus according to his analysis. So as I have long suspected, there is much wasted potential as a result of our industrial schooling model. 

  • problems anticipated
the business model: as soon as money is exchanged for learning a set of expectations arise which have to be met. Thrun's model implies that business as usual is required in order to fund this open free course model. Clearly new costing models would have to be established, I am sure the technology used isn't free and I guess he also expects payment for his work? This is at the heart of the issue and we need some suggestions more creative than simply trying to sell videos of experts in order to raise funds and draw attention to the institution. 

Ultimately, what is judged by learners to be "enhanced" learning opportunities will depend upon their experience of learning, not simply the content they have had access to. Interaction lies at the heart of that. Quality has never really been about institutional reputation, it is more personal than that.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Conducting a VLE review

A post for #octel week 5 based on reviewing Julie Voce's VLE review presentation. 

Julie's detailed and clear project report captured though audio and slides is extremely clear and well articulated. The complexity of the task is obvious, this was a large scale review and re planning of online provision for the teaching in a multi-site institution. I can fully appreciate the steps that were taken, there is a clear logic to the process and, despite some pain along the way the outcome was largely successful. I am very interested in the "failures" and "lessons learnt" slides as they hold useful messages for reflection.

Our language learning online environment Languages@Warwick was created three years ago to meet the needs of a small (by comparison) group of about 3,700 users engaged in a very specific activity: blended language learning. It was informed by my research into language teaching methodologies and learner requirements and developed through a piloting process with our teachers and learners. The aim was provide technologies that could facilitate best practice on language teaching and support innovative teaching. So the scale of our project was different. However, I do wonder if there is something else that can be learnt from our experience that may help those looking to implement institution wide VLE provision. Some of the details are presented in more detail on my CMALT e-portfolio. 

  • Who were your stakeholders?
our learners (from across all degree programmes), our teaching staff, our institutional managers, our IT staff. 

  • What resources were used?
our teaching staff (esp. those already using technology for teaching), our internal finance (income generating unit), an additional technical staff member recruited to help implement the project, external moodle hosting partner, technology advice using channels such as Jisc, ALT and listserves with other language centre contacts. 

  • How clear/achievable was the project plan?
  • What fallback position, if any, did you build into your plan in the event of full or partial project failure?
Given the narrow nature of the brief and the fact that existing online arrangements were not conducive to the best use of our resources (human or financial) the project plan was very clear and was monitored and reported on at regular intervals. It was also flexible and shaped by our stakeholders. The fallback position was to rely on institutional development which would have had a significant impact on our ability to compete for students so failure was not really an option!

  • What methods did you use to evaluate your project?
We use both quantitative and qualitative data on an annual basis to review our project implementation. This is then shared with stakeholders in a variety of ways including papers/presentations to conferences, presentations at internal showcase events, and reports and documentation to managers. 

  • How did you measure project success?
Success criteria include:
-the amount of engagement from our user base through the Languages@Warwick VLE (course resource counts, usage patterns, student feedback)
-the capacity for innovative language teaching (activity in research for Computer Mediated Communication, virtual exchanges)
-the developing digital skill set of our teaching staff
-addressing through suitable technical choices the relative advantage of digital teaching so that we maximise the engagement for all stakeholders.

  • Did you celebrate your success and did this encourage further developments?
Celebrating success was a key part of the strategy adopted. From the pilot stage on, we encouraged tutors to share their experienced with their teams and the Centre. We used a youtube channel and a twitter feed to disseminate successes and these were aggregated back in to a core" Using moodle for language teaching" course to which all users were subscribed. 

As Julie identifies from her experience and we certainly found in ours, even when you plan everything meticulously and execute with as much support as can be mustered there are still some major barriers that can emerge during such projects that can really take a toll on those charged with implementing them.

Communication: never as simple as it seems. As a language educator I was aware of the complexities of human communication, the close connection between communication and power dynamics. Too often we interpret the need to communicate effectively as simply providing a "push channel" - a space through which we broadcast decisions and information. This ignores the importance of "pull" communication channels, the means for interested parties to get the information that is relevant to them, giving them control and helping to enlist participation. If people do not wish to engage with your message you have to rely on hierarchical support which may or may not be there. If others are suspicious of the project agenda and feel it may effect their way of working, again there is a good deal of advanced communication to do! Our project was clearly aligned with our institutional Senior management vision and yet that was not enough to make the path to realisation smooth. Finding out what others need and listening to them is importantly and I think this was rightly prioritised in Julie's project even if it caused the time frame to slip. We need to remember we are all colleagues working together for an over aching aim and as such everyone is entitled to their opinion, concerns and input. Any project plan or gant chart that fails to take into account the complexities of implementing change in an institutional context ignores the vital ingredient - people. Great project management qualities include humility, patience and compassion as well as the steely determination to make things happen Such qualities ensure the project will not just succeed but it will last because others will want to help you make it so. 

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Authenticity in language learning

What does authentic mean in language learning terms? Back in the 1980s when I was newly qualified, authentic was one of our buzz words. The rise in importance of communicative language teaching included a focus on incorporating "real" language sources taken from French newspapers and the like. These would be more recent than our ageing course books with their carefully chosen screened language, selected to highlight the grammar we had to teach. All very worthy really, and it meant frequent trips to France to bring back useful authentc resources - Carrefour fliers, tickets, fiches. Probably seems crazy now that "autheticity" lies a mouseclick or finger swipe away!

Jump forward 30 years and the notion of authenticity needs to come under scrutiny again. For two reasons:

  • how we deal with/expose learners to "authentic" language use on social media
  • how we devise activities for learning and assessment for learners use of language

Here's an example of the first:

A French teacher uses twitter for advice. He demonstrates in a very real, conversational way (unknown to him) how useful the French word "truc" (thingy) can be whilst using some fairly complex constructions (en, ne..que). This is the kind of authentic language use that my students can learn from, alongside a discussion  about register (appropriate language in different situations). Yet students are rarely using twitter to see how the language they are learning is used by native speakers. If they were they would see that, just like in English, it is full of typos too!

On the second point, authenticity (by which I mean real world) in language teaching offers an opportunity to engage learners in real experiences. Far more real thanks to new technologies than I could manage in the 80's. We use shopping websites to compare and choose provisions for a picnic, the ANPE site to find out about skills necessary for jobs in France, connect directly with French students to find out more about their hobbies and interests. (We could connect with those even further afield without difficulty too). So this tweet jumped out at me:

Given just how much more authentic - lifelike - we can be in 2014, why are our tasks and our assessments still paper based versions of those we used in the 1980's? The current generation of young people have found us out, they want real world skills and preparation for a future we don't even understand. I feel an authenticity crisis is at large, we are rapidly becoming irrelevant. Language study becoming the preserve of a small elite who wish to work amongst the privileged few.

Here is my last hope.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Implementing e-portfolio assessment.

I have written extensively about the e-portfolio project for language learning which I introduced 3 year's ago so please forgive me for the use of the most wonderful of affordances we have in digital reality - hyperlinks - in order to offer greater detail to those who may be interested to look into them. 

This blog post is very deliberately big picture, and I think the reason for that will soon become obvious. Language learning is a long term undertaking if you wish to get to a reasonable level of mastery. The outcomes of a course are likely to be simply way stages on a longer journey, summative assessments are just snapshots of your proficiency at a point in time. Their predictive validity of these will depend on many factors (course design, assessment design, appropriacy of language study to the context of usage to name but a few). Even those of us who have studied languages for many years generally consider ourselves language learners rather than experts, the beauty and challenge of getting to grips with a second (or additional) language is that you have to apply your skills to keep up with a constantly changing body of usage. Language constantly evolves, it is a complex expression of the human mind and has to reflect the realities of the human context. As fast as course books and teaching resources are published, the language and culture moves on. The language teacher has a responsibility to acculturate the learner to the reality of this domain, making them aware of effective learning strategies and coping mechanisms. After all, you can hardly stop a native speaker and tell them to only use the language covered up to p35 of your course book when they interact with you, even if the content of your final exam may be more predictable! 
Given that this engagement with the learning process, which can be a transformative one, is a vital part of the skill set acquired during good teaching, it needs to be recognised, embedded, recognised and rewarded alongside the summative achievement of your final "level" at the end of a course. The e-portfolio project was based on literature available through JISC's e-portfolio project  and a narrative creation informed by Helen Barrett's insights into the value of e-portfolios for deep learning.  Documentation sharing the detail is available here, short summaries of the technologies and process used were recently published by ALT and Mahara. 

We use the e-portfolio to force learners to reflect on their learning approaches, make their processes explicit, analyse and reflect upon them. Ultimately the learner has to take ownership of their part of the learning process. This is sometimes uncomfortable, we would all prefer to blame someone/something else for a lack of progress. Initial reactions can be quite negative, tutors and learners have to be shown the value of this approach. We emphasise the importance of connecting to peers whether you are a student or a tutor, supporting each other. The final artefact is an individual narrative of your learning journey and it provides really useful insights from students to their tutors, useful feed forward for our learning design. Ironically, embedding reward for reflection on the minutiae of the individual's learning has helped our learners discover more about themselves and see the bigger picture. It has also helped to equip them for the reality of using and extending their learning in the future, beyond the immediate goal of the final summative course exam. Should the language they have acquired turn out to be not that which they need in subsequent employment, they have the tools to embark on learning another language. They will also be equipped as effective, self regulating learners who can adapt to a new challenge. 

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Opening doors

There is no open unless there's closed, so I will start my reflection on openness with some thoughts about the locks that exist and can impede access to learning opportunities. 

If you have children you will have no doubt at times ensured that some "learning opportunities" presented by power tools, scissors, staircases were locked away, only accessible when and how you judged suitable. Such judgements are part of parental responsibility (although many would say that we have become over protective at times and limit experiences that were more freely available in times gone by). I see a parallel here with educators wishing to control access to resources to ensure their learners are not overwhelmed or faced with content that may confuse. This is a difficult balance to get right, especially in an age where access to content (irrespective of its quality) has never been more open. Each of us is a filter and maybe we should take a more active part in curating resources and encouraging the development of learner's critical and evaluative skills to empower their selection of resources. Timeliness is of course important, but the learner may be best equipped to decide on a suitable time to access a resource. Failing to acknowledge this creates dependant learners who assume that only experts can lead their learning. Surely we need to support learner autonomy and a more open discourse around learning in order to prepare for an uncertain future. 

Another reason for closing doors is that which signals ownership. "My room", "my office" closed spaces delineating roles, relationships and the observation of personal space. Again, this is not always a bad thing (my son is responsible for the state of his room, I am glad I can close the door on that!) but we have to acknowledge the reasons behind these social conventions and the possible impact of perhaps unintended consequences. Just today, following up on a paper that was part of a US conference and appears from the abstract to be relevant to my research I was frustrated to find that none of my "keys" fit the lock to access it. The link demanded payment for access and my various memberships did not enable me to read the work. Personally I prefer to publish through open channels as I value being part of a wide community of practitioners, learning from each other. 
Creative commons licencing allows me to claim my authorship, acknowledging my part in the process of contributing to a wider knowledge gathering society whilst making my preferences for usage clear. I hear more academics agreeing that openness is a principle they value.

Finally let's think about open source development and commercial providers. It has become rather "in" to recommend open source technologies over commercial vendors. I use both and have had good and bad experiences which lead me to the conclusion that "open source" does not always equate to better, more ethical, more sustainable solutions for learning technology. I use tools drawn from both sectors based on their suitability for purpose. My overriding concern is to avoid "lock in" which leaves users hostages to fortune and to establish that technology providers have an ethical way of working that ensures that my learners get a good user experience. I check out LTI compliance in order to keep the doors open. In some cases the best tool for the job requires significant financial investment in research and development that can only be achieved if the provider has access to sufficient resource. Rules of openness related to the management of digital resources are still evolving though. As part of Mozilla's webmaker course last year I created some remixes using their Popcorn maker, it was disappointing to see that French video content had been blocked when, as a language teacher, I was easily covered by "reasonable use" allowances.

So to sum up, open vs closed are not in fact simple opposites, it is much more complex than that. Far from being an open and shut case, we must continue to strive towards operationalising openness in ways that are:

  • appropriate
  • understandable
  • facilitating
  • fair

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

#ocTEL task 3.1 Creating your own materials.

I love to create resources for learning, have done ever since I first started teaching some 30 years ago. The digital revolution has made the creation process more empowering as it provides opportunities to create a more satisfying end product than my poor art skills could otherwise allow. Memorable breakthoughs came for me with the discovery on Microsoft Publisher many years ago, my worksheets became works of art :) These days I like to mix media using #popcorn and encourage students to create visual or audio resources to share with others.

Even in those early days of exploration I would carefully weigh up the relative advantage of producing a resource in a digital format compared with analogue equivalents - and there were many of those! Laminated project cards and images remain under my bed and in my office filing cabinets and, now and again, are used as more practical alternatives when the rooming is unsuitable or the hardware unavailable. After all, has any student ever said "how do you open this" when presented with a physical handout?! However, now it is the norm for me to start any resource creation with a digital focus and I have a virtual armoury which thankfully doesn't require dusting. Other benefits include:

  • easier editing and tweaking once the resource has been tried out
  • a large bank of possible starting points with hyperlinks to additional content making tasks extendible in any direction
  • colourful, interactive and innovative resources to stimulate learner interest
So this week's #ocTEL focus on experimentation and materials creation really appeals to me. I was already familiar with most of the tools on the suggestions list and I favour tools which are platform agnostic so I am not interested in formats that require a particular hardware (such as Apple products) but I dived in to a screencasting tool I had not heard of before only to be surprised by what I found out! Here's the very brief recording.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Lifelong learning

My classroom days of language teaching in secondary schools date back to the days before league tables and SAT targets, back to the 1980's. My objective as a language teacher, whether my students were high flying enthusiasts or reluctant "I 'ate French" types, was to find whatever ignited their interest and engage them in the sort of activities that allowed them to experience the power of using the language of another culture. For some that meant song, others written word, drama, cookery. In one year 8 class where I was teaching modal verbs the students had to decide what I could or couldn't do - amazing how quickly you can find infinitives with that incentive :) We used GRASS databases to report and record lost property and used the CD-ROM package Granville to visit France for an hour or so in our rural Warwickshire IT suite. All a long time before the internet was available almost everywhere.

Without the pressure of producing a fixed number of A-C grades, I would reflect daily, weekly, annually on the nature of the progress of my 1,000 or so students (several of whom remain in touch to this day). I learned from my mistakes, their mistakes and their triumphs as all teachers can. I saw that those who were motivated only by the grade could nonetheless be won over to the intrinsic reward of self improvement by finding their own connection to the language. Not all of them became French enthusiasts of course, but many became more open to foreign culture and more still had a better understanding of their own language and identity. That, I have always considered to be my role : to light the blue touchpaper of their interest, even if the urge to take off only happens years later. 

In my current blended learning context, it is clear to me that the same varied diet, the same crafted combination of experiences informed by student interest and enquiry can ignite engagement and passion. Our Institution Wide Language Programme welcomes students from all disciplines and they are undertaking language learning for many and varied reasons - they may be motivated by the need to amass credit, the desire to build on school language learning, the awareness of language as a useful skill in a competitive jobs market... Our VLE facilitates the provision of resources giving instant feedback such as quizzes and online games, consolidation and extension can be provided through video, slides and more. I can to some extent use the reporting to see how these are used by individuals and use that to inform my planning for our face to face sessions. Using these tools I can reach further beyond the classroom walls, connect my students with native speakers of the language they are learning and they can access these opportunities from their room or even on the bus! 

It is my role and my responsibility to offer a range of "ways in" to my students. I ensure they have a chance to find the experiences that will move them from a focus on grade or badge in the short term to a deeper approach through fostering autonomy and control of their learning. Ultimately how they respond and connect will be their decision, conscious or otherwise. It will be influenced by all sorts of factors, some of which are beyond my control. I can provide the conditions for learning and encourage intrinsically motivated exploration of my subject area, ultimately the learning is up to the learner. 

In my online courses I try to close the psychological distance between us through a series of activities which provide immediate feedback and encouragement. After all, they are my guests in the online space, I need to acknowledge their presence and make them feel at home. I found Gilly Salmon's 5 stage model is a very useful tool for designing effective online communities:

5 stage model of online development. Gilly Salmon, 2001.

As a co-learner working alongside my students with access to a wide range of real language use, I must ensure that they venture in, gradually moving beyond their comfort zone if they are to experience the many opportunities for learning that await them. 


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Reflecting on my practice

So here I am again, my head stuck in the waters of my practice whilst at the same time having an out of body experience trying to better understand what I do and why. I found this week's webinar really helpful even though it overlapped with another important one for me (on eportfolio practice). This meant participating live for the first 30 mins then reviewing the rest of the session from the archive. A little disjointed but it is great to be able to return to the recording.

#ocTEL is just one of several online communities (or are they really collectives as defined by Thomas and Seely Brown in A new culture of learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, 2011) and I discover and experience a great richness of discussion and debate around education and learning in online communities through these. So compelling sometimes that it is really difficult to stop and look around above the water level! This week I have been struck by the similarities in the 4 way diagram shared by Sally Chapelle (and others) as they reflect upon their teaching and course design and the one provided by Ernesto Macaro in 2003 representing the polarisation of theories of language acquisition, crucial to my M.A. a few year's ago:

The horizontal axis represents the polarisation between theories of language input. Implicit input arises from natural exposure and sub-conscious processing, explicit from teaching and conscious processing. The vertical axis represents the concept of how language input is processed. Nativist implies that language learning is an innate skill, interactionist that language is a specialised form of knowledge that is acquired through interaction with the environment. This goes to the very heart of what it means to be a language teacher. Thinking through all these quandrants and realising that learning can and does happen best when we have the opportunity to activate all the areas - the informal learning that happens through social interaction as well as the formal directed space, the autonomous self directed activities we do alone or with others - only then do we optimise our learning potential. This has huge implications for the role of the tutor and in my own practice I have been working to support language tutors in considering their place in the learning of their students, facilitating the adoption of technologies for interaction to help redress the balance in favour of the social and the interactionist, the self directed and the personal . 
In #ocTEL it was good to come across other language teachers with similar concerns such as @dustinaced in the language teachers group  and we have produced a couple of shared docs together, a work one shared in my last post and this #eurovision themed one for fun-It remains open, hispanists welcome :)
My reflections lead me to remind myself of the importance of play in learning. We're born to learn, we can potentially learn desirable and undesirable things from the world around us. One of my other communities (or collectives) twitter, reminded me of this today and I shared the source (RSA):

We are all actors in our learning and the learning of others. Taking everything else away (yes, including the technology) what matters are the relationships we build together and the nature of the interactions we have. This I believe needs to be central in our learning design, we need to connect and collaborate with our students and each other with open minds if we are to grow together if we are to be ready for the challenges of the future. The models have lines and limitations, human interactions can transcend these and create truly inspirational learning. 

BTW, had such a good time on twitter with my PLN during #Eurovision last night !


Macaro, E., (2003). Teaching and Learning a Second Language. London: Continuum.

Thomas, D. and Seely Brown, J., (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. (Downloaded to my kindle http://www.amazon.com/New-Culture-Learning-Cultivating-Imagination/dp/1456458884/)


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Reflection on collaboration.

When I looked at the small group reflection task set in week 0 I knew it would not be a quick activity to sort out. I have been connecting and collaborating with international networks for some years now, and during past 4 years I have been building up an international virtual exchange network #clavier which has completely transformed my teaching practice and the experiences I can offer our students - but it took time...

  • time to find people with shared interests
  • time to find overlapping interests and shared purpose
  • time to build a relationship of trust and mutuality
  • time to locate preferred tech communication channels
  • all of the above in the virtual dark of computer mediated communication

I knew very few people in the #ocTEL course so first came the challenge of finding people with an interest in language education. I was delighted to find that a group already existed on the ocTEL site. I used the groups function of the wordpress site but my lack of familiarity with the interface meant that my first post was incorrectly placed in the the status update for the group. Schoolgirl error! Scanning my twitter feed (much more familiar with this channel) for #ocTEL participants was helpful though and soon I had found a few connections. I made a forum post suggestion and thanks to the encouragement from new connection @damon_tokyo who is based in Japan we decided to set up a shared document to edit asynchronously:
shared doc

Now we are under way but a further issue is apparent, a familiar one in my context. The google doc I set up was deliberately planned to be as open and available as possible in order to reduce any barriers to collaboration. There have been several edits and contributions but none of them signed in with google accounts so the revision history just shows anonymous contributions. It would be much easier to move this asynchronous document into a proxy for making further connections and more in depth reflection if, on arrive, contributors would sign in. I don't want to force this by changing the permissions though so we will see how it goes. In my context we have a similar situation when our students of French write collaborative stories with their virtual exchange partners in Clermont Ferrand. A really interesting and engaging activity that could be even more useful if we shared connections through google apps for education accounts. Preserving the student identity to be managed as they feel is appropriate and providing a real life opportunity to interact internationally and acquire the many transversal skills they will need in their future. A wasted opportunity. 

Groups who are experienced in international collaboration such as #globalclassroom, soliya  classroom 2.0 and many more are familiar with the barriers presented by time and schedule differences, different technology preferences, language and intercultural barriers etc., they achieve a great deal because their shared passion drives them on, they are resilient, flexible and most importantly willing to put in the time.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Big and little questions #ocTEL

I get the feeling that this cMOOC organised by ALT could be a good opportunity for me to reflect and engage with the wider learning technology community, learn new things and clarify my priorities as a new CMALT holder. The process will probably require writing a blog post every week for the next few weeks, that level of discipline is something I will be exploring but I make no promises that it will last. I don't think the wider world is ready to hear from me that often!

So what are my big and little questions relating to the use of technology enhanced learning? The main one is of course related to my research into computer-mediated communication and the technologies used to facilitate it. The context here has changed enormously in recent years. When I first wrote my M.A. dissertation and identified challenges in the adoption of voip for language teaching it was unusual for institutional computers to have sound cards at all. I was told that using headsets would be unhygienic and that speaking into a computer would be distracting for others. Now of course I regularly pass students sitting in corridors having skype chats from their laptops free from wired internet connections and institutional machines, or overhear snippets of their conversations on mobile phones as they stand in the queue at the café. My son's generation (he's 20 btw) are always interacting through some gadget or another, by voice, text, exchanging images and sharing youtube clips. 

The big question? When are educators (particularly language educators) going to accept that CMC is a vital area of investigation which has direct relevance to our young people? Not just a curiosity to be dismissed by those who are "not into computers" but a vital realm already inhabited by others. 

The little questions - which are as important to the growth of CMC include:

  • how do we share the existing growing body of knowledge around engagement in CMC?
  • how do we mainstream the many great ideas for CMC which could help to address so many issues such as student mobility, transversal skills acquisition, intercultural awareness, the need for constant CPD for educators?
  • how do we ensure that technical infrastructures provided by institutions give best value by prioritising effective ways of supporting CMC? 

Looking at the questions here, maybe they are not so little but I do at least have some directions and clues for answering some of these. If you are also interested in these questions please connect with me in the #ocTEL site or through twitter @warwicklanguage
and maybe together we can make a difference?

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Labelled and dismissed.

"Generalisations are always dangerous" said my English teacher to our class when I was about 12 year's old. The joke was not wasted on me, I have often had call to remind myself of this in the past 40 years or so...

The recent reporting of comments from Sir Michael Wilshaw have sent shockwaves through the education community. You can read them here.

So let's do some amateur discourse analysis on the oft repeated soundbite from Sir Michael's pronouncements as reported by the press and tweeted:

"lefty"  adj, leaning to the party political left. Overtones of insult.

"child-centred" adj., refers to an approach to teaching that prioritises the needs of the recipient. 

"idealogue" n., someone who theorises. 

So, he felt the need to refute the labelling of Ofsted inspectors against these stereotypical perceptions of the profession and yet:

What has someone's political choice to do with their employment? To cast someone as a "lefty" comes from the perspective of someone who does not respect that individual's party political choices. 

We are learning more each day about teaching and learning thanks to the emerging work of cognitive neuroscience. What is rapidly becoming clear is that learning happens despite our best efforts, probably through a process that attaches emotional information to experiences being processed by our memory systems. As communicated recently by Dr. Terry Lamb, Professor of Languages and Pedagogy at the University of Sheffield:

If the child isn't at the centre of education, who should be? Is the individual less important than their ability to generate statistics for analysis by others? Seems to me that learner centric learning is all that exists. Should teachers not want a child to learn? Should lesson planning not prioritise the learning needs of individuals ?

Finally, does Sir Michael really believe that those tasked with inspecting the delivery of education should be incapable of engaging with theory and connecting this to their practice? An intellectual idealogue is someone who can think creatively, a quality we know is important in order to function in a rapidly changing world and imagine the raft of skills that will be necessary for a future we are as yet unable to see. 

So I am at a loss to see Sir Michael's rationale for wishing to dismiss these terms in relation to his office. Surely, they are labels which could be considered badges of distinction for educators. 

A "lefty" must be an individual who knows their own mind and has made political choices which best represent their experience. As professionals, these would be part of a range of personal preferences that remain private in the sphere of work.

The rest is all about an approach to the teaching profession which is to be applauded. I am proud to be involved in learner centric teaching, my students tell me it works for them. It is demanding for them and for me, pushes their boundaries and engages them in new and important experiences. I engage with educational theory in order to better understand how the anecdotal experiences I have as an educator relate to wider conclusions based upon empirical observations. In order to do this I have to use reasoning, critical and analytical skills often referred to as higher order thinking. 

Labelling is a neat way of dismissing someone, it can be used as part of a polemic discourse to support a particular agenda. Sir Wilshaw's defence is worrying, I wonder if he has the metal to stand up for what matters in education?