Exploring pedagogies and outcomes in Language Learning Technology

Student engagement via E-Learning

We have just started the first semester of the year here and of course first classes are meant to give an idea of the overall structure of the course.

Increasingly over the years of being a tutor and lecturer at University I have found is that increasing emphasis has been put on structure rather than content. This is of course an effort to increase positive feedback from students on the clarity of the course. Personally, I find this stifling and I dread having to submit the schedule with class details that I am held to somewhat rigidly, or that I later may use subconsciously as an excuse not to think creatively by adapting to what the students need.

Because the CMS of the University I work at has been down at the times I would have uploaded the schedules, I have arrived in some classes without the whole semester set-out. I realized that student engagement was far better when the classes were somewhat improvised. This brings me to the point that I wanted to make which is that student engagement does not seem to be dependent on a water-tight structure; rather the opposite. So we have to make an effort to deconstruct the sometimes heavy structure that we impose on the weekly timetable of classes in order to find the ingredients of spontaneity that capture students’ attention and engagement.

Virtual life is the new surrogate Utopia

Creative Commons Licence

How things change fast, and how fast our perception changes. Back in 2012 Nathan Jurgenson wrote “The IRL Fetish” to consider in a semi-humorous way how we have become Stockholm syndrome victims of our digital devices. Those “glowing rectangles” we take with us, even to defecate, as he rightly observes. He was ambiguously trying to show how the ‘Real’ has become a Retro taste. Thanking tech for creating this thirst for erstwhile, good ol’ reality.

2015; Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram, Novovirus, Ebola, random murders; random attacks prevail, regardless of creed. The outside world is threatening and fears abound. Traveling seems less attractive as planes do fall out of the sky more often due to technological failure or hijack. Deadly explosions and hostage takers are just at the intersections of the wrong place at the wrong time, and all corners are potentially suspect.

Long distance online relationships have become a realistic and even desirable option. They suffer from yearning and are fed by the same, but they cut-out the chances of fall-out. They sustain themselves by their very dynamics: the yearning for the physical, and the relative satisfaction of the sustainable physical absence.

Retreating anywhere is no longer an option, since opportunist recession and austerity driven thieves and madmen might hunt you down in your cabin to steal your laptop and phone, the only option is a town or village, yet preferably a town with amenities such as Carphone Warehouse.

People no longer really talk the way they used to. Meeting strangers and connecting is less frequent. We are all reasonably guarded; there is less commonality since our niche tastes and communities can all be catered for online. Our dreams of tropical and foreign are sensibly replaced by stability and the relatively innocuous presence  we garner and nurture on the World Wide Web. Our siege mentality is kicking-in and we are deciding that it is easier to communicate online and create community online than face the real threat of the outside world, the awkwardness of the ‘Real’, which anyway, let’s face it, is a time-old philosophical debate. Really, I am not even joking.

Most of our jobs depend upon being online, our communication does, our fun does too. In fact it is quite pleasant to overview my newly created Twitter account, curate my blogs, cross the park to work. Of course, at work, I’m also online. I go back after lunch or may go in after lunch if nothing keeps me at work, because I can work in the comfort of my little house, with my cup of tea and my pets; take a break: do the washing-up, hang the washing, go back online. All unthreatened, and with no need to breach anyone’s personal space unnecessarily.

The violence of the world, the boredom of the world with everyone grinning at their phone: the odds stack up against it, little by little; and little by little stack-up against travel too. It is a faint glow of the new surrogate Utopia. The new life, the safe life, is anywhere; a room with internet. It is not ideal nor really seductive, it is not real pleasure nor real communication, but it will do.  Slowly it does become a viable if compromised alternative, we can make do with this, the Real world is just getting a bit too real, the risks a tad too tangible, so I’ll be happy with skimmed milk if the whole milk tuns sour.

Confirming the value of confidence in L2 communication.

Creative Commons License
The project
‘Autocues for Language Learning’  (click on the link for details) aims to prepare students at 3rd year undergraduate level for their end-of-year oral exam, familiarize them with current affairs, and develop research autonomy.

After developing the project for 3 years, a transferable end-product was finally created, integrating and highlighting employability. The feedback for the project emphasized how much confidence the students gained from the methods used. In the pressured environment of a film studio where they are put on the spot,  they had the visual support of autocues to help them accurately convey their initial presentation. Once they had read the presentation from the teleprompter they seemed to transfer the confidence they had acquired to the post-presentation discussion with their  classmates.

The dynamics reflected in their feedback comments was that reading from the teleprompter helped them build confidence prior to ad-libbing questions and answers. It could be inferred that the time spent supported by autocues enabled them to get used to the pressure of the environment, without the fear of making mistakes in a non-native language, and they garnered enough confidence to talk unaided by the support of the autocues when the time came to do so.

As noted by Clement in his article Motivation, Self-Confidence, and Group Cohesion in the Foreign Language Classroom. Language Learning 44:3, September 1994, pp. 417-448,  ” […] a self-confidence process becomes the most important determinant of an attitude and effort expended toward L2 learning.”

Self-confidence is the extroversion of a person’s identity, and leads to communication acts that propose an affective or intellectual binding with the interlocutor. Low self-confidence is the result of  reinforcing existing doubts and compounds introversion into degrees of alienation from the interlocutor.  These factors become exaggerated or amplified by classroom dynamics, and can occur as a result of them. When students are put on the spot in front of their classmates the attributes of confidence are exacerbated. This important paradigm will be examined in more detail in a subsequent analysis and comparison of different classroom settings.

Tied into the improvements of L2 learning and production brought about by increased self-confidence is the increased semantic value of the discourse that a confident L2 learner will produce.  On a purely linguistic level we can turn to Emile Benveniste’s theory of pronominal reciprocity to theorize the basic concept of reciprocity between speaker and interlocutor, as quoted by Brandt in his chapter “Enunciation: Aspects of subjectivity in meaning construction” :

” I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address. It is this condition of dialogue that is constitutive of person, for it implies that reciprocally I becomes you in the address of the one who in turn designates himself as I. Here we see a principle whose consequences are to spread out in all directions. Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse. Because of this, I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me,” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me.”

If the use of ‘I’ invokes a corresponding ‘You’ via the mirroring of the semantic fields of both speaker and interlocutor, we can also infer that the qualities of the speaker’s discourse are responded to by the interlocutor’s semantic field. If the speaker’s enunciation is produced with enthusiasm and confidence, the interlocutor will respond in a similar manner, unless he is being very contrary, in which case he will have to interpret a semantic field influenced by confidence to respond in a uncommitted or introverted way. At any rate the speaker’s confidence will project the message more forcefully, and thereby potentially make the interlocutor reciprocate with similar confidence, whether it be transformed into a negatively charged or contradictory statement guided by prior assertions, or reciprocated into constructive dialectics.

In Manfred Clynes, Emotion: theory, research and experience. Volume 1: Theory of emotions he termed the scientific study of dynamic emotional communication sentics. He goes on to talk about the reciprocal nature of essentic forms:

” The nervous system appears to be programed in such a way as to be able to both produce and recognize these forms precisely (one of these sentics is auditory patterns, see Bentley & Hoy, 1974). . They thus represent windows across the separatin between individuals and allow contagion of emotion to take place, and they provide emotional understanding of one another.”

At a psycholinguistic level it would be relevant and interesting to investigate how neurone pathways are influenced,  from reception by the auditive faculty to the processing of the semantic information, by more or less confident speech. At a very basic level though we can easily construe that self-confidence brings about enunciatory ease in the speaker, and produces a clearer response from the interlocutor, whether it be positive or negative.

At any rate, the following diagram might go some ways into clarifying the cycle of communication between speaker and addressee, and give an idea of the potential impact of self-confidence in speech production:

The constant communication in conversation

As shown in Mass Media & Society, edited by Alan Wells, Ernest A. Hakanen.

 If you imagine that any of the qualities of the field marked ‘Interpreter’ will inevitably be encoded  and transferred to the message that will subsequently be decoded by the addressee, then it is clear that the attribute ‘Interpreter/ Self confidence’ will produce a brighter message. Whilst it may not always be correct in the context of L2, it will have the attribute ‘Communicative’, because the speaker is not being inhibited.

 Whereas the feedback forms and performances from students completing the project ‘Autocues for Language Learning’ indicated that confidence was an important factor in L2 production, the underpinning theory of the cycle of communication and its application to confidence issues has made me think of another important issue. From the above diagram one may also understand that an instructor’s self-confidence will have an effect on the student, and whilst this is most desirable in a traditional classroom setting, the pressure on the instructor to be confident is perhaps coveted less directly in projects that are underpinned by students’ self-motivation and research autonomy.

Integrating employability into Higher Education course outcomes

The revolution occurring in Higher Education in the UK is due to the fact that traditional courses based solely on Traditional Classroom methods do not deliver concrete products to benefit the students’ ’employability’ profile.

The term ’employability’ is of course the latest buzz-word around campus, and whole institutions have hopped onto the bandwagon. This has led to employability-led efforts on a grand scale that have lost the intrinsic direction that was proposed, on a practical level, at the outset.

The idea of employability is to guide students through their academic careers by imparting knowledge of a particular subject’s representation in all of its various manifestations in the professional world. Furthermore, employability has to reinforce the student’s own representation before he goes out to find a job. The idea being that contacts have already been made in the field of interest, online representation is beginning to take shape, and that a reasonable knowledge of the structure of the professional field has been acquired before the student sets-out to find a job that will suit him.

In a Language Department this means developing activities and skills that can incorporate the present and future landscapes of the field. Translation, being a major component of any Language degree, rather than always being based on the traditional printed texts which have no real value as a representative product when full of corrective scribbles, can acquire variety and breadth of register with activities such as subtitling, multimodal descriptions of clips, dubbing, audio description, interpreting, machine-based translation, explanatory blogging, website creation, or Wikipedia article translations.

All of the above activities give students a real product that can feature online and be referred to  in a CV or at an interview. The era of paper-based translation in surely only an indulgence at the present time by those that cannot see beyond the sense of control and coziness of the traditional classroom setting. With sites such as and the help of online dictionaries glossaries and semantic atlases, it can only be the power of habit that would make us stick rigidly to outdated paper dictionaries.

There is still a value in having seminar type classes to discuss various aspects of a translation in a group, though realistically this could only be done after online research.

The Higher Education system in the UK is in a state of revulsion to a far greater extent than that of the US.

The traditional and highly estimed institutions in the UK are still advocating the use of traditional methods___ to such an extent that syllabuses in the Arts have sometimes not been reviewed for some 30-40 years. Similar institutions in the the US (such as Ivy League Universities) are far more forward thinking, or perhaps just more modern in their approach because of the essentially meritocratic and technological slant of the society they are based in.

There is also a vast sociological argument that underpins the relative merits of traditionally-rooted education which does not have a place here, since this article proposes integrating employability into Higher Education in order to further intellectual acuity and an autonomous reliance on available resources.

The problem dealt with here is within the institutions advocating employability, though still thinking about it as a career fair rather than an actual implementation of its principles into every subject and field.

The field of literature is of course one of the most resistant to technological change guided towards the job market, still cherishing the quiet investment of thought and attention via a physical tome. Yet I will use the example of John Beasly-Murray’s Wikipedia article concerning Jose Luis Borges as a counter-example. John produced the article in conjunction with a group of MA students as their assessed piece of work for his course on Latin American Literature. This has been validated  as a level-4 vital articleand would give  relevant initial direction for a student to consider applying for a Ph.D.

Although I have no concrete examples of student produced literature analysis via the creation of texts using descriptive metadata, this could also be a way to further employability of any literature course. It could easily be done using students’ own readings of a text uploaded as a clip to YouTube, whereupon annotations could be placed at given intervals to explain certain historical settings, or a character’s development.

This all leads to the inevitable conclusion that perhaps the much revered term ’employability’ has not been fully digested by Teaching staff and managers in Higher Education. It emphasizes the importance of technology, not per se, though as a pragmatic approach to furthering one’s involvement and impact in a particular field of study, and the duty therefore of those still at a ‘phobic’ level with technology to quickly get over what are just preferences of medium over content and product.

Some foundational ideas for language technology

The skopos of this blog will be to help me, and perhaps those that by chance may visit my page, to brainstorm issues within the field of Technology for Language Learning.

Having worked in this field for a few years now I sometimes find that I develop ideas by necessity and implement them often on a daily basis, and at best on a termly basis, in relation to courses that I am preparing. This blog, rather than reflecting some of the ideas that I have already developed and implemented, will serve as the preparation either for papers, conferences, new ideas, or just generally to focus on and address themes that I can see running through and about pedagogy for learning languages in general, and language learning with the aid of technology.

This blog, I hope, can also serve as a much more open forum for any discussions that might arise between those commenting, as this will be one of is main purposes. It is one thing presenting already made ideas, though they will tend to attract a different type of comment, since they have already been presented at conferences,  are current teaching tools, or have since been replaced by other ideas practically.

The mind and indeed ideas will undergo transformations and adapt in conformity with the rigours of a practical setting,  and whilst a traditional blog that presents a project will not perhaps want to elaborate on changes that could in the long run affect the validity of  the ideas expressed at the outset, this blog will do just that, both a priori and a posteriori.

Teaching is a changing science and has to adapt to its audience. To find the common ground between all participants in language learning is a long process that requires years of practice and it is never identifiable as a neat formula. We have to cater for differences in linguistic levels across a variegated group and often find the technological common ground too, since this fast-moving era is producing lay users of technology that are both above and below the level of the instructor. Whilst it is probably good in terms of employability to inculcate some IT skills to Language Learners in a passive way, one must also be careful not to overburden learners so much that the validity of the language learning experience is impaired. The balance is delicate, though as with anything, ‘where there is a will there is a way’ on both sides of the learning spectrum.

The issues presented in this post, though introductory and general,  are foundational ideas that underpin the practices of Language Learning Technologists and Teachers. There is value in discussing them too, since they should always be at the forefront of our mind whilst organizing  projects in Technology for Language Learning, and indeed for any type of Language Learning technique. It is only through discussion that we can produce an awareness not only of the differences in perception between one instructor and another, but elaborate axioms for Language Learning that we will agree on, and evolve products and methods that will survive the test of time and become permanent solutions.