A Language Learning MOOC

A MOOC course structure seems to usually be centered on topics such as online learning, teaching practices (M-learning), learning about connectivisim, or other such related fields as education and e-learning. Adapting the MOOC structure for some topic not related to the field of education itself would pose some challenges considering the participants would likely not be comprised mainly of educators or even people with an affinity for Distance Education technology and innovation. As others have pointed out, the effectiveness of a MOOC structure is partially dependent on the subject matter; not all subjects lend themselves to this style of information presentation. However, some especially do. Language Learning might be ideal for this type of course design.

Since being introduced to the MOOC earlier this year, I have often thought about how a Language MOOC might play out. This post is an explanation of why I think Language Learning suits the MOOC structure, and this post is potentially a first step in developing such a LMOOC. First, I should clarify quickly that my approach to connectivism and using a MOOC would be different from how they are currently viewed and practiced. My view is that connectivism is structure. It is not a learning theory, but rather an attempt to define the limits and transcribe the potentials of educational learning. Under this structure, learning theories can emerge, effectively be employed and aid intentional learning. I won’t dwell on this point too much here, but I do think it will be important for describing what I see as the benefits of LMOOC, and for future posts on the subject. The main point here being that personally, I would run a MOOC with quite a bit more activity and guidance available for students.

My current context is English Language learning for Japanese students. I will mainly take this angle on the subject, but I anticipate that such a LMOOC could service language learners from anywhere who target the same language. One important aspect of such a context is that often non-Western, and thus non-English speaking cultures do not have as much or the same experience with Distance Learning and Autonomous Learning. A MOOC structure seems to assume a certain level of familiarity with both, so this is one reason why more activity and guidance are a must in an LMOOC.

Two videos that I reference at times are this one that explains briefly and simply what a MOOC is, and this talk by George Siemens, which is full of further explanation about MOOCs, connectivism and education in general (…it also has some other nice points about “collapsing to connections” I hope to talk about in another post). From what I see in these videos, my (limited) experience in MOOCs and from what I have read, Language Learning is a great fit for the MOOC structure.

Information is Everywhere

In language study, language is often both means and content. Language as Content really is everywhere online, and the connections that students make to and with that content can serve as additional, assessable content itself. As students communicate through emails, IM chats, blog posts and commenting, it leaves a conversational footprint that can be used by others in the course as opportunities for learning. Educators and moderators can additionally use these conversational footprints to point out ways that learners can start to assess their own skill levels and connections. For other language learners these footprints can be especially useful as opportunities for students to take on the role of educator themselves, promoting the idea of learning transparency (see the Siemens video starting from11:00 mark). Learning in a MOOC is meant to flow in all directions and with language as both means and content, it has the potential to fill every crack and corner.

Using a language is a high feedback based skill. Language learners benefit from practicing their target language with continually less frequent delays in feedback, until hopefully achieving a type of instant feedback level of use. In a MOOC structure, since language as content can potentially flow in from all directions and is even generated by nearly all the connections made and maintained, students have the luxury of setting the language feedback dial at any frequency that suits their level at any given time, target skill or even mood that day. A LMOOC can focus on teaching students ways to best take hold of this dial. Educating students on the types of connections that they make and what the nature of each connection affords should be an important part of the connectivist approach. Educating in this way empowers students.

Work in Their Own Space

Here own can refer to the physical flexibility of learning in a MOOC. Students can proceed through the course from at home, on the train, at school, at Mos Burger, etc. They can also engage in (internally or externally) structured and connected study more frequently (daily) for shorter duration, rather than in the standard one-hour lesson per week at their local language school. Ideally, own includes a student’s own schedule, being able to drop in and out of the course depending on when their own life is busy or not.

Own can also refer to the learner autonomy aspect of study, including learner’s own skill level and their own reasons for studying. Because of both the Open nature of the MOOC structure, and the language as means and content factor, learners have the ability to bring topics into the course that suit their own interest and skill level. Searching out information, or commenting via their own choice of connective technology about fashion, food, travel, AKB48, Korean Dramas, or even language itself, for examples, is motivating for the student. These topics inherently reach into the prior learning of individuals, naturally generating connections with others inside the course and outside of it. It creates language learning and language practice based on background knowledge of topics, increasing the chances of understood meaning, increasing the number of conversational footprints, increasing the rate of language skill. Not to mention, the student specific topics, along with the distance, can help to decrease anxiety levels in students.

Lifelong Learning

Perhaps the essence of a MOOC is to generate connections that will eventually transcend the instructional and temporal boundaries that it sets…or tries to avoid setting. This fits in with language learning, at least as I experience it, because a lot of learners don’t learn English for accreditation, but as a hobby, as a lifelong learning endeavor. This is the great benefit of a MOOC for language learning; people use language not as an ends in itself, but as a means to connect with more and more knowledge. Used in an educational, intentional way, the Cody Blomberg - artistMOOC can be an amazing scaffolding device: the dotted lines of encapsulation submerge and reemerge the course in and out of the authentic environment, here, of language use. Designed and supported adequately, the student would ultimately control the lever that fades and sharpens that boundary in correlation with their own learning. Students need help in learning how to do this, otherwise there is a danger of language flooding and learning ataxia.

Hopefully, I will be able to put up another post soon outlining my vision of how a LMOOC would run. I think that it would make a nice narrative and would be worthwhile thinking through via the written process. I do know that a LMOOC is not something that I could produce on my own, for 2 or 3 reasons. 1) I don’t have the technical know-how yet for making the process efficient. 2) I don’t think I have the means to bring in a critical mass to make it work. 3) Depending on how it runs, a single person is not enough manpower to moderate such a course. There are solutions to all of these, so I will keep thinking about them.


32 thoughts on “A Language Learning MOOC

  1. A very thoughtful post. The concept of a LMOOC is viable and holds a lot of potential. You’re correct in that the technology required would be quite a bit more elaborate than the existing MOOC format, but nonetheless possible. I look forward to your future thoughts.


    • It’s here: A technology-enabled language MOOC. We’re using an adaptive learning platform (instreamia) to put on possible the first LMOOC, and we’re doing it for Spanish. I’d love to hear what you think of the MOOC and Instreamia (www.spanishmooc.com)


  2. I’ve been thinking about the very same thing as a self paced study group and suspect it could adapt to learning other critical skills / literacies where the learner group varies too much in levels, learning goals, personal learning situations to fit neatly into a standard course format


  3. I’d like to second Susan Bainbridge. Thanks a lot for this thoughtful post.
    I’m preparing a session for BarCamp in Hanover on MOOCs for language learning and happily stumbled on your text. There’s a ot to say. As a start : Shouldn’t we call it “MOOLC” = “Massive Open Online Language Course” rather than “LMOOC” ?


  4. Thanks for the comment, christireuter. (I should say thanks to Susan, as well. She often posts some of my writing on her scoop it page: http://www.scoop.it/t/connectivism )

    I’m interested to hear how your MOOC for Language Learning goes; please post a link to it if you can.

    Maybe the term “MOOC” exists in itself these days, as a noun or a title. Thus, we can refer to different types of MOOCs: Language-MOOC, or a Mobile-MOOC. Also, changing it up might affect the ability for others search for the term and help to build information on the topic.

    I’m still wondering if what I described would be even be a MOOC, as I really would emphasize the part about more involvement and direction. Hopefully MOOCs move in that direction, as well.


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  9. It’s nice to see that others are thinking about the application of MOOCs toward language learning. I am a pre-PhD student and I am sketching out a potential dissertation topic around the topic of teaching LCTL (lesser commonly taught languages) using a MOOC. It would be interesting to find other language educators to hash this out 🙂


    • It’s a great idea, I’d be interested to see what you come up with, or to work together in some way, as this might tie in with my thesis work. With less common languages, though, comes less content available online. A student might not be able to find content on their specific interest, depending on the language and the interest, compared to some of the commonly taught languages.


  10. It seems to me that this approach has many elements that are aligned with a sensible approach to language learning in a digital environment, namely great amounts of learner autonomy (over time, place, task, team, etc). I also like the idea that it provides a structure for learning language in context — and for the first time the learner can have control over that context, rather than an instructor.
    Apostolos — I would love to see a dissertation around the topic of LEARNING LCTLs than around teaching them. Isn’t that one of the fundamental shifts that occurs with a MOOC? It’s about the learning rather than the teaching. (Not saying that there aren’t great amounts of help given along the way, but learning is personalized to the students, where in most teaching situations, the emphasis is on how the student responds to the teaching.


    • Thanks for the comment, Tom. For me the key in the learning/teaching balance here is to put the control in the hands of the learner. It might even be up to the teacher to recognize this and adjust control indirectly in some cases, teaching learners how to control the structure them self, rather than teaching content.


  11. Good to hear someone else in Japan thinking about these issues. I have felt a little lonely at times. Agree with you that an LMOOC, while a massive undertaking, would eventually be a benefit to some language learners in Japan, or on any country. The drawback is SOME. I have serious doubts that full-time students in traditional learning environments like universities would be able to handle a MOOC (and thus your quite correct call for guidance or training). The problem is when to stop the training and enforce autonomy. I am guessing that MOOCs in general are for self-directed learners, ones with internal (rather than external) motivation.

    I’ve been teaching PLLEs (Personal Language Learning Environments) in one class each semester for 3 semesters now, and find it very hard to move from a list of good language learning tools to a philosophy of taking responsibility for your own learning. This is with students at both mid- and top-level universities here in Tokyo. MOOCs are one dimension of a PLE, and in many ways require the same learning philosophy or approach.

    More on this after the new semester starts up next week. I am doing a more workshop-style class where students both cooperate and compete. It is the grades that I find the most difficult to fit into PLEs and MOOCs. Self-guided means outside assessment is nothing more than an annoyance.


    • Thanks Kevin, nice to hear someone in Japan’s perspective. Thanks for the comment. I don’t think a LMOOC would need to be limited to University students. I would even guess that the target would be business men and people who study as a hobby. There’s even the option for more formal students to use the LMOOC as a form of support, as they aren’t bound by any sort of enrollment. I’ll try t get another post out soon, as I think I can explain my vision of how this would work a bit better now.


  12. As a low-advanced learner of Mandarin Chinese, I really like your idea of language learning MOOCs. There is a website livemocha.com that reminds a little of what you’re talking about, but online language learning could be implemented even better in a MOOC type structure (and I also agree about having a bit more structure in a MOOC for different subjects). Live mocha is aimed at beginners, in fact, most language learning websites are, so that at an advanced level, language learning just becomes about using the internet well to connect with native speakers of the language you’re learning. Live mocha has allowed me to connect with people and chat, but it isn’t necessarily providing something that social media websites don’t already provide. However, it’s very difficult for me to figure out what to do with all the Chinese web content, and then how to find support and community for my advanced questions. A MOOC just about learning how to use the web to do language learning that provided content and brought me in contact with experts would be awesome. I’m excited that there are people working on this!


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  14. Hi, I’m new to MOOCs and I am currently waiting for the change11 break to end so I can really get a proper taste of what it’s all about. I’ve been learning Chinese for a while – about intermediate but at work I help create online language learning materials and courses, out of an office that creates LMS software in Shanghai. Even though, my MOOC experience only amounts to setting up a blog with a few posts and VPN to overcome access issues in China, I think it would be exciting to fully explore the potential of a Language MOOC in China. Obviously, the sharing sites and networking channels would be different (wordpress blogs, blogspot, twitter, Facebook, diigo … the list goes on – blocked) but Chinese young people are some of the most active internet uses in the world. Integrating social interaction, personalised and adaptive content are all hot topics in the world of language learning these days I really think that the concept of MOOC could and should be explored.

    Chinese learners, like Japanese learners as far as I’m aware, are largely unfamiliar with the concept of learner autonomy. Adapting to a new methodology as well as a different environment for learning is a difficult transition for many learners and increasing the level of learner autonomy through a MOOC would be a challenge. Learners are used to having an academic authority passing down the knowledge to be remembered. I think for a MOOC to have any success in China, guidance and monitoring would be absolutely necessary as well as a large band of editors on board to approve content put forward for sharing. Sharing learning content for language learning is more complex in that the language is the medium and the message. Creating content that can be shared with learners to enable them to be better skilled at understanding a particular language point is not easy – and in China that’s the point of having a teacher. Peer interaction is becoming more common however and given the popularity of weibo (Chinese twitter) it would be definitely worth trying out, even if it’s an optional extra attached to a learning object/mini lesson – higher level special industry courses perhaps, as the students would generally have similar interests and content shared would require less moderation?

    Anyway, these are my initial thoughts. I’m also very excited by this prospect and wondering if I’ve missed any developments in this area as I’m coming into this late on. Good luck with it


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