Tag Archives: conference

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
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Learning 2012: the 30 Under Thirty experience

When I attended Learning 2012 last month, I was lucky enough to be there as part of 30 Under Thirty: a group of 30 ‘future leaders’ in learning and development. Actually, there were 32 of us in the end: Elliott explained that he usually expects a few to drop out so overfills the spaces; that didn’t happen this year but contrary to his on-stage threats at the opening session, the audience didn’t vote on which two of us to evict and we all survived the week!

Although 30 is a fairly arbitrary cut-off age, I think the concept is a good one. I thought I’d share some of the 30 Under Thirty experience, as well as what I got from it.

What was the 30 Under Thirty experience?

Our conference started ahead of time, with a private online networking space so we could start talking and planning for the conference. Some of the conversations were just getting-to-know-you chit-chat, but there were also some more professionally-relevant threads about what makes an online community successful or our greatest frustrations about workplace learning, for example. The week before heading to Orlando, we were also given some prep work: three questions to think about and answer (via email) in three words or less. I’m actually saving those questions (and our answers) for a separate blog post, but we used them as a starting point for some discussions on the first day of the conference.

As the hotel and conference suite began filling up with people checking-in, catching up and exploring, our 30 Under Thirty group was kicking things off with a lunchtime welcome session. Bob BakerEmily Fearnside and Nigel Paine introduced themselves and the programme, and went on to be wonderful organisers and guides throughout the week. Over lunch, we each introduced ourselves, our background and our hopes for the conference. And Elliott dropped by to chat to us, opening himself up for a no-holds-barred Q&A and sharing some motivational words to encourage us to get the most from the experience. He later hauled us all up on stage at the opening session so we could collectively introduce ourselves.

See more official photos from the conference at http://emasie.smugmug.com/Learning2012

This lunch-and-learn approach really became the model for our extra conference experiences. Each morning at breakfast, we were joined in our little room by one of the conference speakers, and again at lunchtime. Being able to chat more informally to people like Jenny ZhuRichard Culatta and Lisa Pedrogo was great, in terms of both delving a little deeper into the topics of their sessions and seeking advice for forging successful careers. None of these sessions were mandatory, but we had pretty much a full house for each one, so it’s safe to say that we all felt they were worth the early start every day!

On the first full day of the conference, we became ‘reverse mentors’ for an hour. Anyone at the conference – provided they were over 30 – could turn up to do some speed mentoring with us under-30s. It was fairly fluid and unstructured: apart from the facilitator with a timer telling us when it was time to find a new partner, there weren’t really any ‘rules’. Interesting conversations were had all round, although not necessarily about the things I’d expected. Thinking about the reverse mentoring in advance, I’d anticipated conversations about designing learning for younger generations coming into the workplace, or other learning-focused topics. In fact, the majority of the conversations I had or heard were about young people in the workplace more generally – our drivers, ambitions and ways of working. I had a really interesting conversation about what I look for in a manager, in colleagues and in an organisation and how this might affect or be affected by the move away from a job-for-life culture.

I wasn’t personally involved in any real-time sessions (which I explained in an earlier post), but many of my 30 Under Thirty colleagues helped facilitate these or other, scheduled sessions throughout the conference. And our super-sized badges were designed to be an invitation for anyone to stop and chat to us, so the programme really did run across the entire conference for us. A few of us were called back up on stage on the final morning at the closing session to highlight some of our key takeaways, and the experience is set to continue beyond Orlando with LinkedIn discussions and a series of lunch-and-learn webinars in the pipeline.

What did we – and I – get from it?

Prior to the final closing session, we spent our last breakfast slot together sharing our thoughts and takeaways, and many of the same things came up time and time again:

  • ‘Ask for forgiveness, not permission.’ More than one of our guest speakers offered this advice and, while it’s not necessarily a philosophy to work by all the time, I hope that hearing this from people who are equivalent to our bosses (or our bosses’ bosses!) will encourage us to be a little more adventurous.
  • ‘You are your own CEO.’ We were reminded that we need to drive our own development and take responsibility for our own brand and profile. Hearing this from people such as Lisa Pedrogo and Brian Poland, combined with the inspiring story of what Jenny Zhu has achieved before turning 30, was a powerful message.
  • ‘Understand the business.’ There wasn’t a single sound-bite to summarise it, but this message came through loud and clear in so many ways. In terms of both personal career development and the impact or effectiveness of learning teams, getting under the skin of and understanding different parts of the business was the top tip.
  • ‘If you’d like a mentor, ask.’ Mentoring was another of the hot topics amongst the 30 Under Thirty, endorsed by Nigel, Bob and Emily as well as other guest speakers. The main advice here was to make it happen: if someone seems like a good fit for you, approach them with what you’d like to achieve – don’t wait for someone to come to you!

Being part of 30 Under Thirty was a positive experience for me in another way on a more personal level. There were around 1600 people attending Learning 2012. It was busy, it was crowded and it was loud! I enjoyed having the option of retreating to a group-within-the-group, both at scheduled times and more informally. I’m not sure if this will come across quite as I mean it, but 30 Under Thirty anchored me, and gave me a sense of belonging from day 1, which I probably take for granted now at UK conferences but which I would definitely have otherwise missed at my first US ‘super-conference’.

Of course, the experience isn’t over – and that’s another of the benefits of 30 Under Thirty. We’re all connected on LinkedIn and Twitter, and discussions are already cropping up or continuing from the conference. Plans are being made for coffees and catch-ups as people pass through each other’s cities, and a series of Google Hangouts and lunch-and-learn webinars are being scheduled. This is probably the most valuable thing of all to come out of 30 Under Thirty: the new relationships that were formed and will be cemeted over the coming months.

(Thanks to fellow 30 Under Thirty Jodie Bennett (@alwaysdancin84) for the picture at the top of the page.)

Tweeting from conferences: what and who is it for?

Since I joined Twitter in 2010, I’ve attended and tweeted from quite a few conferences and events, from half-day single-session events to multi-track conferences over a few days. But, if I’m honest, I don’t think I ever gave how and why much thought until attending Learning 2012 last week.

The different environment, a number of conversations from the conference itself, and feedback from Twitter followers in the UK all combined to make me really examine why I tweet from conferences, whose benefit it’s for and what impact it makes.

Thinking back to past events, I suppose my use of Twitter has been a little erratic. I would sometimes tweet quotes or points that might be of interest to others. I’m not sure I gave much thought to whether those ‘others’ were people at the conference attending different sessions, or people following the conference backchannel from further afield. I would sometimes use it to follow tweets from other sessions, if I was either torn between two options or disappointed by the one I’d chosen! Very often, I would retweet other people’s thoughts, if I particularly agred. And, probably more than any of these, I would tweet general feedback on the overall structure, atmosphere and success of the conference.

So what changed at Learning 2012?

First of all, the people. At UK conferences, I’m generally surrounded by people I know and am already connected with on Twitter. Learning 2012 took place in the USA, with a fairly small UK contingent, so it was a whole different group of people contributing to the backchannel. Without really thinking about it, I suppose this just made me hesitate before jumping back into old habits and simply doing what I’d always done before.

Second, I had a few conversations with people during the conference about Twitter, how I use it and how I derive value from it. I was surprised by the number of people who use Twitter as their note-making tool. I’m still very much a pen-and-paper girl – although I increasingly find myself looking back at my own tweets and those of others to supplement my written notes – so I’m clear that, when tweeting from a conference session, it’s not for my own benefit. It follows that I’m tweeting for the benefit of other people, and when I gave it some thought I realised that the people I’m picturing are those who aren’t at the conference in person. I want to give them a taste of the atmosphere and the benefit of the learning. Just going through this thought process made me pay more attention to whether my approach actually delivers on that goal.

Finally, I noticed some feedback on the backchannel from L&D folk back in the UK. There were comments that the tweets coming out of Learning 2012 lacked context and clarity, more stream of consciousness than useful sharing for non-attendees. This may well be, in part, a result of the fact that many attendees were, as mentioned above, tweeting as a way to take notes for themselves and therefore thinking less about what others could take from their tweets. Or it may be partly cultural: perhaps the concept of the backchannel varies in different parts of the world, with contributers and followers having differing expectations. I’m not sure – people like Dave Kelly, Kate Graham and Don Taylor may be able to shed more light. Whatever the reason, this feedback made me sit up and examine my own tweets as well as the backchannel in its entirety.

So, on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the conference, I resolved to really focus hard on my contributions to the Learning 2012 backchannel. These are some of the things I did differently:

  • Started each session with a tweet confirming the name of the session and the speaker, so that anyone following my stream or the hashtag could identify if this was something they might want to keep watching.
  • Tried to send a tweet for each key point of the session, so that both live followers and people reviewing the stream later could see the broad structure and skeleton of the presentation.
  • Took photos of key diagrams or slides provided by the speaker, rather than trying to copy down lots of text or describe graphics in a 140-character tweet!
  • Where relevant, distinguished between points that I was quoting from the speaker and points that were my own additions, opinions or reflections, to avoid misrepresenting any speakers and confusing any followers.
  • Posed questions from the session on Twitter, to invite non-attendees into the discussion sessions; I also made sure to collate and share as many responses as possible from the room on Twitter, and vice versa.
  • Tried to send more tweets about content and learning than about atmosphere, location and new connections; I think both are important but there’s a balance to achieve.

I can’t claim to have affected the conference backchannel to any great degree, but I think that my own tweets out of Learning 2012 became more meaningful and more useful to my intended audience as a result of these changes. And I’ve definitely not mastered it overnight – there are other things I’m planning to do differently or in addition at the next event I attend:

  • Decide on my session choices further in advance, allowing non-attendees to send me questions beforehand that I could bring into the face-to-face discussion.
  • Prepare myself with links to session descriptions or speaker bios and add them to those start-of-session introductory tweets, to provide more context to followers.
  • Consider setting aside some time to blog summaries of or reflections on sessions at the end of each conference day, offering something more substantial to non-attendees more immediately than I’m doing now, for example.

The organisers of conferences can also do their part to really maximise the value of the backchannel, for both attendees and non-attendees. I mentioned in my previous post that this was something of a missed opportunity for Learning 2012 and look forward to seeing if they take a more organised approach to the backchannel next year. I’m also really excited to find out what Don and Kate have planned for Learning Technologies 2013, as I know they’ve been talking extensively about the backchannel and how to build on previous years’ successes in January. And, for anyone else who – like me – wants to start thinking more deeply about the value of what they tweet from a conference, Dave’s blog has some great posts and tips (including this one about what a backchannel actually is and this one curating the Learning 2012 backchannel resources).

Let me know whether you contributed to or followed the Learning 2012 backchannel and what your reactions were, as well as any other suggestions you have that I can take on board at the next event I attend.

Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Learning 2012: what worked, what didn’t, even better if…?

Learning 2012, held in late October in Florida, was my first experience of a non-UK conference (in fact my first trip to the USA!), and it was quite an experience.

The sheer scale of Learning 2012 – 1600 people, attending 200 sessions, over four days – was very different from conferences I’ve attended in the UK, and just being there was a learning opportunity in itself, even before considering the content of the sessions. I’ve been reflecting on some of things that worked, some that didn’t work so well, and some improvements that I think would make it even better in future.

What worked

  • For me, the most significant aspect of this conference in terms of distinguishing it from others was the approach to the keynote sessions. Ordinarily, a keynote consists of a talented speaker standing on a stage and delivering a well-rehearsed speech for an hour, followed by some Q&A if there’s time. Learning 2012 took a different approach, with organiser Elliott Masie adopting a talk-show-host role; each keynote session included several guests, each of whom settled into a comfy armchair for between 15 and 45 minutes to be interviewed by Elliott. I really liked this structure. The shorter slots meant – as Elliott pointed out – that, if one particular slot wasn’t of interest, it wouldn’t be long before the speaker and topic moved on. The interview format kept the pace up and ensured that each conversation was brought back to learning before wrapping up. The conspicuous lack of PowerPoint (replaced by photos, videos or diagrams at key points) and the informal set-up with armchairs instead of a lectern encouraged an atmosphere of conversation and discussion.
  • I also loved the conference guide. It’s available online as a PDF, but the slightly-larger-than-A5, glossy, spiral-bound printed version that we received on arrival really worked for me. The size is much more convenient than the A4 programmes often provided, and the glossy finish meant it was durable and survived in tact despite being shoved in and out of my bag dozens of times every day. The three-day schedule overview at the front combined with a detailed schedule of options for each timeslot was easy to work with and ensured I always knew where I could, or should, be. I’m a thorough note-taker so used a separate notebook rather than the pages provided in the guide, but this was another nice touch. And I just liked the design: the cork-board and Polaroid idea obviously appeals to my more analogue side!

What didn’t work

  • I think the biggest disappointment I had was around the format of sessions. I was excited to see in the conference guide, before the event, that there were 16 different session formats, from ‘360 view’ panel sessions and structured discussions to learning labs and mentoring sessions. The fact that the organisers and facilitators or speakers had taken the time to establish and ensure a spread across these different formats was a really encouraging sign that this would be a change from the more lecture-style sessions that are often the result of practical considerations. Unfortunately, for me Learning 2012 didn’t really deliver on this promising start. I attended three ‘discussion’ sessions which were delivered in rooms set up in the traditional theatre style, with a screen at the front and rows of chairs filling the room. All three of these sessions suffered as a result: two of them were in too-small rooms, which meant those people sitting on the floor struggled to participate in the discussion, and in all three sessions the room set-up meant that things defaulted to an audience-participation Q&A instead of the structured, facilitated small-group discussions that had been promised. I fully appreciate that there are resource limitations for conference organisers to work within, but perhaps Learning 2012 was a tad ambitious in the number of different session formats advertised.
  • The Learning 2012 app was also not as useful as I’d anticipated. I downloaded it before flying to Florida, and took some time to complete my profile and include Twitter, blog and LinkedIn URLs so that people could easily connect with me during or after the event. Unfortunately, very few people did the same – even amongst the speakers (who were highlighted in a separate area of the app) – and after the first five or six people that I tried unsuccessfully to look up, I switched to searching directly in LinkedIn instead. During the conference, I did use the agenda within the app, to identify the sessions I wanted to attend and create a personalised schedule – but I was equally happy to use the printed guide to decide and follow my schedule. And I also completed the single poll that was included in the app, but never found any way to see the results of this poll. I wonder if again this was a victim of over-ambition: in trying to do too many things (and without the organisers pushing people towards the app during the conference itself), the app ended up not really delivering on any of them.

Even better if…?

  • A new feature for this year’s conference was the inclusion of real-time content. About 15% of the schedule was left blank, for conference attendees to suggest, organise, present, facilitate, curate, share and attend. A ‘real-time hub’ was set up in the main networking area of the conference suite, with a large white board for people to suggest topics and a dedicated team to help turn those suggestions into sessions. In theory, I really like this idea. And, although I didn’t attend any of the real-time sessions, I hear that on the whole they worked well and proved valuable. But when I stopped to think about why I hadn’t attended any, I realised it was because I just didn’t really know what was going on. I’d look at my schedule, see there was a real-time option, but wouldn’t have information about the topic – so I’d go to a scheduled session that had a description instead. I think this idea would have been even better had there been a little more thought given to communicating updates. Notes on a whiteboard and sketchy notifications within an app just didn’t keep me updated enough to make me prioritise these sessions. Twitter and the daily general sessions were two forums that could have been used for this purpose, but weren’t.
  • And Twitter itself was a real missed opportunity for Learning 2012, in my opinion. Yes, there was a hashtag and there were a lot of people tweeting from across the sessions. But here’s what I think would have increased the impact of Twitter on the conference. First, the organisers @lrn2012 should have tweeted more: the ‘official’ presence in the backchannel was very small, if there at all. Obviously the organisers are running around keeping things on track during the conference itself, but even a series of automated tweets about the different sessions or speakers would have given them some presence on social media during the event. Second, a coordinated approach to the backchannel (a ‘Twitter team’ like those working at the UK’s Learning Technologies and Learning Live) would have been a big plus point. Admittedly having a designated tweeter in each session would be a challenge at a conference this size, but certainly possible for the general sessions and some of the most popular scheduled sessions. I was part of the 30 Under 30 group who were lucky enough to have ‘extra access’ to many of the keynote speakers at breakfasts and lunches; many of us were tweeting throughout the conference, so perhaps we could have been part of a more coordinated approach to backchannel tweeting. (I’m going to blog more about the backchannel in a separate post, too.)

Overall, it was a good experience and I’m very glad I had the opportunity to attend Learning 2012 – but I always think it’s worth reflecting on possible improvements as well as aspects that made it work. I’d be really interested in any thoughts from other people who attended last week.