Quick links and resources from BP’s Future of Learning

FutureOfLearningAt the end of November, I flew over to Houston for a two-day internal conference organised by Nick Shackleton-Jones called ‘Future of Learning’. I tweeted a lot throughout the event, using the #BPFOL12 hashtag, and I’ll be writing up some of the key sessions and takeaways in subsequent posts.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to try and pull together some of the really useful links and resources from the backchannel: even though we were a relatively small group tweeting, there were a lot of websites, videos, infographics and tools shared.

I should say that this is almost certainly not a complete list. In my backchannel curation naivety, I didn’t realise that you need to get in there very quickly before Twitter erases all evidence of the hashtag stream! I did manage to find the majority of tweets on Topsy, but I’m fairly sure it was an incomplete record. If you tweeted a link or resource which isn’t mentioned below, let me know and I’ll add it in.

Conference summaries and overviews:

Resources shared or mentioned by Nick Shackleton-Jones

Resources related to Nigel Paine‘s session:

Resources and websites mentioned in or related to Greg Williams‘ session:

Resources and websites mentioned in or related to NeuroSky’s session:

Miscellaneous tools, resources and websites:

Changes in language learning for busy adults

I’ve been learning foreign languages since primary school. I started with an after-school French club, added German and Spanish at GCSE and A-Level, studied French and Spanish at university and last year took up Greek. What’s perhaps unusual these days is that all my language learning has been done through traditional methods. Aside from a couple of Greek vocabulary flashcard-style apps, it’s been classrooms, textbooks and handwritten homework.

So I was really interested to see a ‘changes in language learning’ session on the programme for Learning 2012, facilitated by Jenny Zhu and Hank Horkoff. Several years ago Jenny and Hank created ChinesePod, designed to make language learning easier for adult students by combining modern teaching principles with new technologies. Lessons recorded as podcasts (often by Jenny herself – a native speaker of Mandarin) are accessible via mobile phone as well as online, offering total flexibility for learners to choose the appropriate difficulty level and route through the content depending on their personal interests or needs. Also available are flashcards, exercises, grammar notes and so on. ChinesePod saw huge success and earlier this year, Jenny and Hank sold it and started on their new venture, OpenLanguage. OpenLanguage has a similar aim: to help busy adults learn a new language by making use of the technology they already rely on.

Principles of language learning

Hank began by asking those of us in the room why we’ve chosen to learn second langauges. Responses ranged from the pragmatic (professional or relocation reasons) to the personal (ancestry or in-laws, for example), as well as lifelong interest in some cases. What is more consistent is that achieving competence in a foreign language takes time – years, usually. This is a very different beast from much of the workplace learning that most of us are involved in for our day jobs.

According to Hank, it’s generally agreed that three things are needed in order to achieve that competence:

  1. Level-appropriate input from a native speaker
  2. Review activities
  3. Speaking practice and feedback from a teacher

Problems in language learning

But – as anyone who’s tried to take up a new language as an adult, balancing it alongside other demands of work and family life, will tell you – there are some common and significant challenges.

  • Limited time and access: I’m lucky that I live in London, where it wasn’t too hard to find somewhere I could enrol in a Greek course, and that my work allows me the flexibility to work from home when required to ensure I can get to class on time! Not everyone has these luxuries, and finding courses that can be slotted into an already busy working week can be tough.
  • Lack of relevant and appropriate materials: Whether you sign up for a class, search for online courses, or take a self-study approach it can be very hard to find materials that hit the mark. All too often, the focus is on things like pets or school subjects – fine if you are a school-age learner, but perhaps not as relevant for adult learners who may need more business-focused vocabulary or more natural conversational tools for speaking to family, for example. In other cases, materials might be at the wrong level or even just plain boring.
  • Few practice opportunities: I’ve experienced this myself – in a large class, we do a lot of role play conversations in pairs, but chances to practise speaking with the teacher and get feedback are much more limited. And if you take a self-study approach rather than signing up for a classroom course, those opportunities to practise with a native speaker are even fewer and further between. While it’s possible to develop a very strong grasp of a language through writing, reading and listening, true fluency is incredibly hard – if not impossible – to achieve without that interaction with native speakers. Why else would universities send language students abroad for a year?
  • Varying levels of motivation: Personally, I’m driven to learn Greek because my other half is bilingual and it’s important that I can communicate with his family in Cyprus. I’ve also always enjoyed learning new languages, which helps a lot. But for people who are learning for less personal reasons, perhaps because of their line of work, it can be difficult to remain motivated, especially when you’re on the way to evening class after a long day of work or spending your weekends doing homework at the kitchen table like you did as a teenager!

The OpenLanguage approach

To try and overcome these challenges, OpenLanguage looks at the lifestyle of the typical adult learner and particularly the technology that’s already embedded in that lifestyle, and designs language learning options that fit seamlessly into it. OpenLanguage’s Tablet Textbook can be used on a smartphone, tablet or PC and delivers the core components of the traditional textbook with added multimedia and data benefits. ‘Edutainment’ lesson media is designed to bring the learning to life, combining native-speaker input with engaging delivery and real-life, relevant situations to help learners really get the most from the digital resources.

Hank and Jenny are not saying that classrooms and traditional language-learning approaches are completely redundant. But they do advocate making better use of those resources. In a 60-minute class, a total of about 15 minutes might be devoted to spoken practice with the teacher. The rest of the class is made up of instruction, review exercises and perhaps speaking practice amongst the group. Resources like those offered by OpenLanguage enable a flipped-classroom approach, making much better use of teachers for the things that really benefit from having a human, native-speaker instructor.

Making use of self-study data

One of the things that’s always put me off a self-study approach to language learning is not having any real measure of my progress. Given that my other half is fluent in Greek, I could have bought a few textbooks and worked through them with his help. But he’s not a teacher, he can’t always explain why something is right or wrong, and we’d probably struggle together to work out a sensible course of study and improvement.

Because so much OpenLanguage study is done on network-connected devices, there’s an oppotunity to collect data and use it to help address some of those challenges. For example, previously you might just use digital flashcards for spaced repetition; now your smartphone can record your ability to recall the right meaning or word, and then use an algorithm to intelligently schedule future reviews at appropriate intervals to help move the new vocabulary from short-term to long-term memory. Similarly, as data is logged on exercise or test scores, a recommended course of study can be developed, designed to stretch you to the next level at the right pace. So, rather than being potentially a second-best option, self-study becomes a personalised and adaptive learning experience.

OpenLanguage is also looking ahead to the creation of a ‘language graph’ or similar dashboard as an alternative to traditional language exams. This could provide a simple and accurate way to convey your language abilities – something which may well be far more useful for employers than a traditional language qualification.

Point-of-need language learning

By coincidence, just this morning I read an article by Imogen Casebourne about Google translate, the Babel Fish and the future of language learning. I absolutely agree with Imogen that even the Babel Fish wouldn’t render language learning obsolete, but certainly the ways in which we become multilingual are changing. OpenLanguage seems to offer structured, if more informal and self-directed, options. But I also like Imogen’s references to more point-of-need opportunities using GPS and augmented reality: I could definitely see this kind of thing being incredibly useful to me the next time I’m in Cyprus.

No doubt there are lots of other options out there and different people will inevitably have different preferences as their motivations and circumstances vary. What’s clear, though, is that those options will continue to expand and I for one hope that this will make it easier than ever before for people to take up new languages.

Image: winnond / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A lesson in e-engagement from Magnum’s internet pleasure hunt

I just came across Magnum’s pleasure hunt across the internet and had to share it. Take 10 minutes today to have a go – I guarantee it’ll make you smile (and maybe also hungry!).

This is a great lesson in e-engagement. I was captivated from the start till the end – so captivated in fact that I didn’t even notice the score tracker in the top right corner until halfway through. I particularly love:

  • The layering of computer-generated images over visually interesting websites and videos, and the interaction of the two as she daintily jumps on text boxes and hangs from graphics
  • The beautiful and varied transitions from scene to scene, including diving into swimming pools, gliding across the sky and hopping into a lift
  • The freedom to explore; aside from a very quick navigation introduction and some gentle ‘jump here’ prompts, it’s all down to you to explore what is and isn’t possible

How great would it be to emulate this in an e-learning course?

An e-learning chemistry lesson: how to mix text and audio

I came away from last week’s eLearning Network event on rich media with a long list of takeaway lessons, things to try and topics to explore further. (I wasn’t the only one, as the Twitter backchannel shows.) One of these is the enduring question of how to use text and audio within e-learning, which prompted some debate and some interesting experiment results.

During Clive Shepherd’s session on media chemistry, we were separated into groups, each considering one element of online communication (text, images, audio, animation or video) and establishing its advantages and disadvantages.

We also had to identify the other element that it is most compatible with (simultaneously, as opposed to sequentially throughout an e-learning course). This opened up the discussion about the relationship between text and audio.

From what I could gather, there were three views:

  • Text and audio (speech, as opposed to music or sound effects) should not be used together.

This is the key message from Clive’s handbook on media chemistry, in which he says: ‘As a verbal element, text clashes badly with a second verbal element such as speech. Text plus speech causes all sorts of confusion and overload for the user. The brain cannot process two verbal inputs simultaneously, so the user has to block out one element (usually speech because this is conveyed much more slowly than text) in order to concentrate on the other.’

  • Text and audio can be used together, but only if they present different information – so the text shouldn’t be a verbatim transcript of the audio.

I posted the question on Twitter during the discussion and got a couple of responses from people who are against using audio as a verbatim accompaniment to text – presumably because it doesn’t add anything – but are in favour of using audio alongside text, as long as they don’t say the same thing. For example, you might have three sentences of text, highlighting the three key points from that screen, with an audio narrative that elaborates on those points.

  • Text and audio can be used together, as long as they present the same information verbatim.

This is the approach I’ve used most often myself, but always with the option for the learner to switch the audio off. (This is probably part of the reason why I take this approach in e-learning, but not in live presentations.) People learn in different ways so I like to offer this degree of choice. I’m much happier reading text at my own pace, and find it frustrating if my pace is dictated by the pace of pre-recorded audio. I also don’t respond so well to audio alone. I’ve never been much of a radio-listener, for example, as I find myself tuning out very quickly, even if I switched it on for something particular like a weather forecast or travel news. So while I can see Clive’s point when he says that ‘if the words [from the audio] are replicated on the screen as text, the user stands to be confused and frustrated’, I don’t entirely agree. Yes, maybe they are likely to switch one or the other off, but I would find myself far more frustrated by being forced to rely on audio alone than by being offered the choice.

Some of these views were put to the test in the next session, during which Tony Frascina conducted a little experiment. Tony had prepared three passages, each demonstrating a different text/audio relationship. We were asked to read and listen to each passage in turn, answering a series of questions after each one:

  • A passage on Komodo dragons, with very little text but lots of supporting audio, accompanied by graphics with key words as labels.
  • A passage on the quickstep, where the text and audio made the same point, but with slightly different words and in a slightly different sequence.
  • A passage on violin bows, where the audio script had been written first and the text was a slightly abbreviated version of that script.

Which test do you think we (on average) scored best on? Out of a possible 11 points, the average scores were:

  • 4.5 for the Komodo dragon piece.
  • 5.9 for the quickstep piece.
  • 6.3 for the violin bow piece.

I would have liked to take it a little further, adding two additional passages so we could see average scores for a text-only passage and an audio-only passage. But even these three results provide interesting food for thoughts. For me, the experiment has taught me two lessons:

  • The approach I’ve used in the past is not as bad as some people would have you believe. Providing text with verbatim audio is not detrimental to learning; providing there is an option to switch the audio off (and perhaps also an option to hide the text), it only offers the benefit of giving learners a little more control over their learning experience.
  • I will continue to veer away from providing basic text with more detail or alternative wording in the audio narrative – unless I find evidence to the contrary! Tony’s experiment supports Clive’s assertion that combining two verbal channels (where one can’t simply be switched off without the experience losing something) can be detrimental to learning.

I’d be very interested to hear any alternative views, or further arguments in support of or against any of the ideas mentioned above; I have a feeling that this is a question which will continue to be debated in the e-learning world for some time!

Image:  Renjith Krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net