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FLEATing Summer

FLEAT 6 banner

(Originally posted on the Columbia LRC Blog)

What happens when you gather hundreds of professionals in the language education field from multiple continents and give them the run of Harvard’s campus during a few summer days? The FLEAT6 conference.

A number of us from the Columbia Language Resource Center spent the week in Boston participating in this year’s FLEAT conference, which was co-sponsored by the International Association for Language Learning Technology (IALLT) and the Japan Association for Language Education & Technology (J-LET). While the conference program covered a range of topic too wide to summarize here, including everything from how to use Wikipedia as a tool for Academic English instruction to the impact of particular spaced-repetition flash card tools on the study of Mandarin, a single theme did run through the proceedings: what to do with the language lab in a post-language lab era?

Over the past 15 years digital networks have spread the ability to listen to or record audio into computers and phones in every dorm room. This has undermined the traditional role for the language lab as a dedicated space for students to go and either listen to pre-recorded language practice materials or record their own practice sessions. Adapting to this networked reality has freed up significant resources for new types of collaborative and more flexible language education initiatives, many of which were discussed and had their merits debated during FLEAT6. I saw three major approaches to this change, though my view was necessarily limited since there were more sessions running than any one person could have attended. These three approaches each focused on a different aspect of the work done by modern Language Resource Centers: the use of space, the building of materials, and the building of bridges between institutions.

Re-examining the use of space by LRCs was the most common approach I saw to re-examining the role of the LRC, largely because all discussions included some re-purposing of older spaces. The simplest version of this approach suggests converting old lab space into open collaborative space for students to use as they wish. As Steve points out, this leaves open a number of questions about effectiveness. Also, as Jonathan Perkins discussed later in the conference, LRCs are unlikely to win a competition for best open collaboration space when libraries and student centers are already far along in that effort. Most discussions favored a more nuanced approach that incorporates re-purposing old space as part of larger changes to the activity of the LRC.

The most novel of these new approaches I saw was presented by Jonathan Perkins of the University of Kansas, who presented a compelling argument that building Open Educational Resources (OER) is the competitive advantage for LRCs in today’s university environment. He argues that LRCs are ideally positioned to coordinate cross-institution construction projects that can harness the expertise of multiple instructors as well as the pool of talented graduate student workers available on our campuses. Because of the low costs involved, materials can be distributed freely online, saving students in your programs thousands of dollars while increasing the visibility of those institutions building the materials. His case study is Между нами, a freely available Russian language textbook newly released to the world and written by instructors at Brown, the Portland State, and by our own Alla Smyslova at Columbia. I am a big supporter of community-built and freely sharable resources so I was particularly happy to see this approach working on such important resources and doing so through a continent-wide partnership of world-class universities.

These kinds of partnerships are also the focus of the third major strategy for the evolution of the LRC, though the focus here shifts from material production to direct student engagement. In this model, the LRC fosters collaborations between individual language classes, as in the CIRCLE and multiple other projects, or between whole programs and institutions, as in the Shared Course Initiative between Columbia, Cornell, and Yale. As with the construction of OER materials, this strategy builds on the LRC’s position outside of the departmental structure at most universities. Building cross-institutional collaborations can require the investment of time to build relationships around the country, expertise in collaboration tools and strategies, and even specialized spaces like distance learning classrooms or demonstration and workshop rooms. Making these investments in a single LRC can be much more efficient than building parallel capacity in each interested department. I am most familiar with this strategy since it is the foundation of so much of the work we do at Columbia’s LRC, but we were in great company pursuing this strategy at the conference.

Adapting to the challenges and opportunities of the post-language lab era is a large task but that task is made easier by the kinds of open discussions among leaders in the field that took place at FLEAT. I look forward to returning next year to continue discussing that and other areas of shared concern across the field.

WikiConference USA

This past weekend was the inaugural WikiConference USA, a New York area conference focused on all things wiki. I presented a summary of our work with PS 9 at a session on Saturday morning and was privileged to share a track with Gabriel Thullen, a Swiss computer and media teacher who helps students contribute to Wikipedia as early as 7th grade. It was wonderful to see others who are working directly in schools and, as always, I was very pleased to talk with language teachers from as far away as San Francisco and Canada.

Every time I meet with people from the Wikipedia community I am struck by how strongly our goals for spreading knowledge and our values of openness, participation, and empowerment align. It is a welcome change of pace from stories about how technology is being used to surveil whole societies and how the tools of education are being used to build profiles of children. Now that we have reached the one year anniversary of Edward Snowden’s revelations I think we can all use a reminder that we can have a voice in how the technologies in our lives develop and whether they are used to support our values or undermine them. For myself, interacting with the other participants at WikiConference was that reminder.

The Last Language Textbook – New Delhi workshop

On October 25th and 26th I was in New Delhi running the second workshop in our Last Language Textbook workshop series. A dozen teachers from all over India and I spent two days exploring the capabilities of the Wikiotics tools and building lessons for their students.

You can see all the lessons we built on the Indian workshop page, including our second Panjabi lesson and this great podcast lesson on asking permission, which was written from scratch by two teachers who were completely new to Wikiotics. It was a great two days and I am excited to continue working with the whole group as they build Wikiotics into their classes going forward.

Group of teachers from the Last Language Textbook workshop held at the NIIT offices in New Delhi
Group of teachers from the Last Language Textbook workshop held at the NIIT offices in New Delhi

I want to thank NIIT’s Yuva Jyoti centers for hosting the workshop and our sponsors and the Linux Fund, whose continued support makes this LLT campaign possible. I am particularly grateful to have met all the Yuva Jyoti teachers, who came from half a continent away for the workshop. It was great to meet everyone and I learned a lot about the different challenges and opportunities of teaching in many of India’s regions.

We are looking to run the third LLT workshop over winter break or early in the spring semester. If you are interested in participating in this next workshop, or your school or organization might be interested in hosting that workshop, please send me a note at:

Building a lesson: Picture Choice

This week we are going to build a picture choice lesson, which is an interactive lesson format that combines simple text, audio, and pictures. As mentioned last week, picture choice lessons are particularly good for building vocabulary and explaining easily picture-able relationships like number, size, location, relative position, color and other physical adjectives, etc. There are two basic ways to build a picture choice lesson: to review material or to lead students through new material. Lets see what each of these look like and when they are useful. I’m going to link to the edit view of all these lessons so you can see how they are put together. If you want to see what they are like as lessons, just remove the “?view=edit” part from the url.

Review Lessons

Review lessons are basically just decks of multimedia flash cards. You can use almost anything you want to review and the elements are put together in any order. Some examples of this include this adjective lesson and this one on irregular plurals. Each row in these lessons has a sentence to be studied and a picture that clearly illustrates the sentence. Those sentences are roughly arranged in the lesson by topic but the order is not very important for the lesson to be effective at review. However, these lessons are unlikely to be effective for new students who will have a hard time picking up all the different things to learn without a guiding structure or a clearer focus.

Teaching Lessons

I call lessons that are designed to lead students through new material “teaching lessons”. These lessons have a clear focus and present new material in a structured way designed to let students build their understanding gradually. Our intro lesson is a short example of this. In the first group, lines 1-4, the basic vocabulary is introduced with simple sentences. The next group builds on that simple vocabulary to introduce slightly more advanced terms. Having learned the terms for “Man” and “Woman” in the first group you are then asked to pick out the pictures “The man is sitting” and “The woman is sitting,” reinforcing the earlier vocabulary while introducing the term “sitting” and its use. In each of the four groups, new material is built on top of the old little by little. This approach is designed to enable students to identify new material contextually, without an explanation or formal introduction from the teacher.

The Structured Approach

For a better look at how the structure of a lesson helps students identify new material, we turn to the Colors and Vehicles lesson. This lesson teaches both color and vehicle vocabulary without ever increasing the complexity of the sentences used. In the first group of pictures, all the vocabulary is introduced at once with four pictures presenting vehicles of different colors. This first group looks much like a review lesson but from here the structure starts to guide things. In Groups 2-5 (lines 5-20), the sentences continue to use both vehicle and color vocabulary with phrases like “This is a green boat” but each group of four focuses on only one type of vehicle so that the only changing element that students have to base their picture choice on are the color words. Then in the rest of the lesson students are asked to choose between groups that always include two items with the same color or of the same vehicle type. This tests their mastery of both sets of vocabulary and provides some diversity of choices and visually appealing pictures.

This kind of lesson structure makes for a very engaging picture choice lesson and a solid foundation for additional, more complex material. Best of all, because this is a wiki, if you have an idea on how to build on this lesson material, you can copy the lesson and make your own version. I built a version that introduces the “and” conjunction after the first two thirds of the lesson. Try making your own version of the original lesson by clicking it here: Colors and Vehicles (copy) and entering a new page name in the title box. Or you can copy my version from here: Colors and Vehicles – Ian (copy).

Later in the week we will take a look at Podcast lesson format and keep building up to this October’s NYC workshop on October 13th.

Building a lesson: The Foundation

This second post in the “Building a lesson” series will give you some general tips for building online teaching materials along with Wikiotics-specific instructions to walk you through building lessons on

Choose a topic

The first step in building a lesson is choosing a topic. Since language covers anything you can express, there are an almost limitless number of potential topics. Honestly it is a bit daunting so we have created a simple curriculum of introductory English topic here on our Last Language Textbook campaign pages (Level 1-Stage 1, Level 1-Stage 2, Level 1-Stage3, Level 2-Stage 1, Level 2-Stage 2, Level 2-Stage 3). If you need some help picking a topic, take a look at those pages for inspiration, or feel free to just use one directly and help out while you build.

Lesson Context

While building a language lesson it is easy to get caught up in what you are building, all the little bits of planning and searching for the right material that will make your lesson effective for students. However, to build a truly effective lesson it is important to remember all the other elements that surround your lesson. One way to do this is by writing a short introduction for your lesson that says who your lesson is written for, what things you assume those students will already know, and what new material you plan to use in your lesson. We call this your lesson’s “context” and writing it out early on is a useful way to focus your lesson building by making sure you’ve considered the basic design decisions and have an idea of who your audience is.

For example, my lesson is an introduction to counting. I am writing for students in their first month or two of English study. I assume students have a small English vocabulary, limited to some basic nouns like man, woman, cat, dog, etc and have some experience with plural nouns. In order to keep my lesson useful to many different students I am going to keep the new vocabulary I introduce limited to common household items, mostly dishes and utensils. Because basic counting is a very simple topic I am also going to use colors to vary the material for my lesson. This will help keep the material more visually interesting, which is very important for keeping students engaged with picture choice lessons.

If I wanted to write for a formal school environment I might consider using something other than household items. For a school setting I could use common school items like writing instruments, books, desks, etc, whereas if I were writing a lesson for adults traveling to the United States I might use US currency or the kind of food and beverages ordered while traveling.

You don’t have to actually write down your lesson context, though that can be very helpful to look back at while you are in the middle of building your lesson, just take a moment and see if you can answer these three questions about your lesson as you begin building it:

1) Who are your students? (Old, young, formal students, or self-directed?)
2) What should they know when starting you lesson? (Vocabulary, other language knowledge, etc)
3) What are you going to introduce in your lesson? (Vocabulary or other language knowledge you will use to illustrate your topic)

Lesson building: step by step

Every lesson on Wikiotics is built with these three steps:

  • Step 1: Go to the new lesson page and click on the type of lesson you want to create.
  • Step 2: Add text, audio, or pictures to your lesson.
  • Step 3: Save your lesson on the wiki.
  • Here I’m going to cheat by pointing you to our detailed “Creating a lesson” page, which goes into more detail on each of these steps.

    Next week we will go over an example of all this as I build a new picture choice lesson and point out some great ones already on the site.