November 3, 2009

Study Abroad in Pajamas: The Third Paradigm of Language Learning

I had heard there was a concert at a plaza in Osaka, but I couldn't find the place. I stopped a kind looking fellow on the street and asked, in polite Japanese, if he know where it was. He didn't, but got very interested when I described the event. So we set out together in search of the concert, chatting as we went along, but we couldn't find the location. So we hit our space bars and started flying to get a better view and save time.

This entire interaction happened in a virtual world called Second Life. My avatar, an animated character I created, was conversing with another avatar using Japanese. Imagine what this could mean for your students.

Classroom instruction represents the first paradigm of language learning and study abroad the second. I believe that learners participating directly in another culture through technology shows an emerging third paradigm of learning.

These virtual communities provide learners with something teachers cannot: authentic communication with a large community of target-language speakers. And unlike formal study abroad, these spaces are open to anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection.

We don't know exactly what the future of these technologies will look like, but CASLS' experience with MyChina (an island in Second Life where intermediate Chinese learners collaborated with native-speaking Chinese students on ecology and sustainability projects) revealed some interesting results and issues:

  • Students will find these virtual communities with or without guidance from their teachers. How would you feel about your student hanging out with French gamers online and learning the slang and jargon of that subculture?
  • Just as in the real world, some of those participating virtually in overseas communities will squander the experience. If we assign students to do something in a virtual world, how do we know they have actually done it?
  • Students begin forming a society according to their own rules. Should a teacher encourage these cultural and linguistic interactions or control them?
The big question for language educators is: what is our role in all of this? Should we be threatened by a loss of control or relieved that we are no longer the sole source of linguistic and cultural input?

October 19, 2009

Our Children Isn't Learning: The Problem with Assessment

Almost eight years into No Child Left Behind, it would be difficult to find an American child who has not been tested. Repeatedly. Again and again. To death. The rationale for the high-stakes testing regime was to improve student performance. But scores have improved little or not at all. To paraphrase the architect of NCLB, our children isn’t learning.

The sad thing is that assessment actually CAN improve learning, but not the kind of testing mandated by Congress. Regular progress checks that provide immediate, meaningful, and consistent feedback has been shown in a meta-study of over 75 research papers from around the world to improve student performance by .5 to 1.0 standard deviations (Black and Wiliam, 1998). Sadly, this type of assessment is rarely practiced, having been elbowed out by a wide but shallow curriculum designed to help students attain higher test scores.

Here at CASLS, we developed a summative assessment (STAMP) for the purpose of improving language instruction. By providing affordable, widely available assessment with rich reporting structures, we hoped to encourage teachers to focus on student performance outcomes. We are happy to report that this is often the case. But that "teachable moment" only occurs once a year and, while STAMP provides meaningful feedback to teachers, it does not constitute the "immediate, meaningful, and consistent" feedback to learners that Black and Wiliam found so helpful. Are we part of the solution or part of the problem?

Now, we are working on a formative assessment tool, LinguaFolio Online, that will let learners track and document their progress. With LinguaFolio Online, language teachers will be able to practice what Rick Stiggins has called Balanced Assessment: using a variety of formative and summative measures to improve, as well as document, learning.

What would a classroom look like if students set their own goals and decided for themselves what kinds of evidence would prove they had met that goal? Self-directed learning is universally praised as a good thing. But would it lead to chaos? Are you, as a teacher, willing to give up control of setting goals? Are you willing to trade in your role as judge, jury, and executioner to be a coach?

October 6, 2009

Are Language Teachers Really Better Than Rosetta Stone?

Every language teacher I know hates Rosetta Stone. Some hate the drill-and-kill methodology. Some hate the marketing. Others see it as a threat to their jobs. As for the marketing and methodology, I say let’s pile it on.

Claiming that language learning is “guaranteed” and implying that a Kansas farm boy can score a date with an Italian supermodel if he just purchases that yellow box is simply false advertising. And stating that language learning is easy is an insult to those of us who have worked hard our whole lives to actually learn a language. That same statement, not coincidentally, makes Rosetta Stone users who don’t progress feel too ashamed to call in and demand their guaranteed money back.

But let’s be honest with ourselves. Can we really act shocked – shocked! – that Rosetta Stone does not back up its claims with actual performance data when so few of us do so ourselves? Do we really know that sitting in a class with twenty-five other students doing worksheets is more effective than a distance education program, an online class or – perish the thought – Rosetta Stone?

Rosetta Stone is marketing itself to districts, not just airline passengers, and districts are falling for its claims. We can get the union to stand up for our jobs, but where is the proof that Rosetta Stone is really less effective than we are? Is the idea that a teacher in a face-to-face classroom is always more effective supported by better evidence than Rosetta Stone has?