Just in time teaching ?

What is the language learning (or teacher training) equivalent of a tennis racket that can teach you to play better tennis ? Stephen Downes newsletter this morning mentioned learning embedded in objects.

Stephen Downes 16Feb

Is the tennis racket an example of more personalised learning ? More autonomous learning ? Both ? Neither ?

If you want to play better tennis, you could pay a coach (or in the case of language, a teacher for private lessons). If you got a good one they would look at what you were doing and the plus side of having a one on one coach/teacher would be that you should get lessons tailored specifically to your strengths / interests / lacks. A good coach / teacher of a class can do that a little, but would always have to balance the needs of individuals against those of the group. But there are teachers who teach what the institution says they must (for obvious reasons), or what they are comfortable with, or what they happen to know regardless of the learner they are working with and that is as much possible in one to one situations as it is in group situations (and I’m guessing it happens in tennis classes as well as in language classes), so having the undivided attention of a person is no guarantee of personalised teaching.

The racket isn’t personalised in that will be exactly the same racket that is sold to everyone else, but it can know very specifically what you are doing when you use it. To that extent the technology would make it highly individual or at least would allow an entirely individual record of how the person is using the racket. But you could record someone speaking in English (I often do, most of my learners have never listened to themselves in English and for some it is revelatory and a useful teaching and learning tool). That would give you equally individualised data.

It transpires (in the tennis racket article if you keep following links) that they can measure some things very clearly (speed of hit, where on the racket the ball connects) and some of those things can be shown to lead to ‘better’ tennis. That also feels like a parallel. There are some things someone learning English might do that could be established clearly from a recording (or a sample of their writing), features of their language output that are confusing their message and that you could give them specific techniques to work on in order to avoid (for example pausing in places that make chunks harder to understand). Sometimes it isn’t so clear where problems lie or they are multilayered to the point of being hard to extract and name.

With coaches and teachers and measurable data though, you have still only said what a person should focus on (at best), and perhaps given them ideas about how to do it. For many of the people I teach (and train) they have identified or we have helped them identify things they know they should work on – the problem is making the time to apply the ‘fix’, the practice, the techniques that would result in the changed language or teaching.

The tennis racket article doesn’t explore this. The racket is useful because the person who tried it out went on and found the time to look at what the data was, what it meant and what it showed him he should change and he was able to make all those connections (did the software help with that ? I assume so, or it would be like leaving the language learner with a recording of themselves and telling them to ‘look for things to improve’, which might work for some briefly, but most of us need more pointers / support  than that). Even assuming software that scaffolds the player through what to look for and what to do about it once they have found it, getting better at tennis entails a player with the time to put that into practice.

(I was going to type ‘put what they have learnt into practice’ in that last sentence, then thought, have they learnt it if they only know about it and haven’t automatised it – sounds like a whole other blog post)

So maybe there lies the difference between the tennis racket (which could teach you to do something better in the longer term if you have the motivation to put in the time and effort to avail yourself of that – the context many, many people are learning languages in) and the Allerject pen that started Stephen Downes off. Why use it ? Medical emergency – you have to use it there and then and you need to know how to do so safely. What is the language equivalent of that ? A phrasebook ? The instant translation systems Microsoft and Google have touted lately ? Don’t speak it, let the machine translate it for you ? But in the schools demo videos while that is great fun for kids saying hi, how old are you where do you live, and in this publicity video for Skype translate the woman says lighter green and he says brighter green (though I guess if they send a colour chart that will not be important in the end), demonstrating (I think) that even with simple sentences it is easy to get a cross linguistic miss.

That touches on the bigger question of can you just work with slivers you need for that moment in language ? Maybe the pen is a bad example as you really only do need that pen at that moment (assuming only someone with known and medically established allergy issues would be carrying one and that they do as the pen tells them and get themselves to a hospital straight away). How much more of the rest of the picture do you need to be safe with regard to language ? That’s a question any teacher who has been sent on company contracts bumps up against. If the person you are teaching needs to work with passengers in cafes in the airport, do they need to understand when to use the past perfect ? the vocabulary of naming parts of the body ? can you just set up situational dialogues and get them to do those often enough to remember useful chunks ? how far can that framework hold up if there is no wider body of knowledge underpinning the way the elements in the phrases are glued together ? Or would it be most effective to send them in with the phrases and let them use the ones they need the most and then fit in other things over time (would you eventually build your own version of the framework ?).

Those ideas seem to come back to the digital workbook – I don’t want a workbook at all really. I am not in the business of teaching people digital literacy, but I want them to be safe and not to be overwhelmed or confused by on line elements (as opposed to the more educational elements) of our on line courses and for some that means they need support with some elements of digital literacy. In effect I want instructions like the pen instructions that leap into life if and only if someone needs them. If someone is comfortable enough in an online course to know that right click and save to computer is often more efficient than letting it open on screen then saving it, they can do that, but if they have not done it before there should be a way of delivering that information to them at the moment when they need it and leaving it accessible if they need it again. The little round help circles in Moodle used to work like this to some extent (I used to use them a lot), but they have disappeared and anyway covered only some basics. A workbook would be something extra you were asking people to study (like making the food service workers practice the present perfect when you don’t know to what extent they will ever have need for it). Teachers doing our courses have enough trouble finding time to do the course. Assuming that the workbook in an online environment is a euphemism for place where things are collected (as you would need them to be clickable, online, not things to be read about in a book, but to be seen, tried, done), there is still the problem of how to deliver it to those who need it when they need it. I already populate the site with ‘how to’ visuals and videos as part of instructions or near objects that might require them, but there is always such a list of further things that it would be nice to have them for (and they are not quick to make). I guess I envisage a workbook packed with reasonably sensible things like ‘how to recognise when potentially useful sites are hoping to get you to download and install extra junk you won’t need or want and uncheck boxes accordingly’ so I can embed links to them without having to make them myself.

I have come back to the perennial educators dilemma – even if there was a workbook, would it have precisely the click through activity I need to embed in the course. And actually also there is probably a nearish version out there on the web somewhere (true for a lot of language activities, though not often for training), but then in the time it would take me to search and find just the right one or the time it would take me to copy and alter any of them so they really suited my learners / teachers, I’d probably be better off just making my own from scratch (though the searching and seeing often makes you realise lots of things you could incorporate). On the bright side I guess that is a point to the argument that schools won’t be able to replace us all with interactive textbooks just yet.

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