Networked Professional Development and Language Learning

Here are the slides for my presentation on Networked Professional Development and Language Learning.

There’s a list of resources and useful links at the end.

Cultural Consideration for Learner Autonomy

Here’s a post for this month’s ELTresearch blog carnival on Learner Autonomyfor info click here.

Article: Dias, J. (2000). Learner Autonomy in Japan: Transforming ‘Help Yourself’ from Threat to Invitation. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 13(1), 49-64.

In the article Joseph Dias reports on an action research project in a speaking/listening class at a Japanese University in 1999. The project was to record the influence that the presence of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) had on students’ attitudes, motivation, and language use. Students were surveyed at the beginning and at the end of the course and the results, although mixed, showed that students who were exposed to ICT “made greater efforts to speak English with their classmates and teacher”.

One of the purposes of the action research project was to encourage self-directed and independent learning in the students. Students in the classes that were studied (apx 300) were likely to not have extensive experience with these types of ICT, nor would they likely have much experience with self-directed and independent learning.

In Japan, as the article states, students are exposed to computers and digital environments at varying points in the educational system. The article notes that because teachers and students in High School are too busy preparing for entrance exams, that unless they are exposed to ICT in Junior High many students will encounter digital environments for educational purposes for the first time when they begin university study. I imagine this has changed considerably since the time of this study.

In Confucian based societies, education systems traditionally do not promote autonomous learning skills, leaving young learners with a gap in abilities of deeper contextual learning and self-directed study skills. From my experience, this is true in Japan, where educational environments (although changing) are highly transmissive and center on the teacher as an authority. This is why I chose this article (despite it not being open access, sorry. I haven’t included the link and don’t recommend paying for it) – autonomy in Asian EFL contexts is such an essential variable to consider when teaching and designing instruction, a variable that doesn’t and can’t fit into Eastern educational systems the same way that it does in Western contexts.

When it comes to Distance Education and Cross-Border Instruction, debates about cultural bias, Western bias and even neo-colonialism are important to have (Note this from last week, aimed at MOOCs) because the matter will play a role in building effective instruction or not. Regardless of which side of the issues one leans, education is embedded in culture. Regardless of what one considers is researched best practice, these values may not transfer over into a different culture with a different educational system. Research conducted in one culture might not be applicable in all cultures.

Dias seems to be aware of this difference, quoting from Healy (1999) about cultural differences and the bias of Western concepts. Dias notes the negative connotations that promoting self-directed learning in Japan will bring with it, thus he tries to design the activities in his course with this in mind – namely with peer-to-peer support. This is the core point of the study, I feel.

The ICT involved in the study included a web browser, a class mailing list, authoring software, email, and word processing software. The class where the ICT was implemented was a ‘functional language’, and the researchers were aware that the use of ICT would reduce the amount time they had to cover all of the material that they normally do. In their eyes, they would be covering less material but at a greater depth. The ICT use was supported in various ways, guiding students to become self-directed with both teacher and peer support.

The surveys administered were intended to measure attitudes, motivation, and English use by the students. Here are some points from the results:

  • more than 25% of students not in the ICT classes received no exposure to computers
  • students asked for additional digital literacy skill training from teachers
  • in low computer use cultures, this may be time consuming on teachers who do use ICT
  • many students had not used email in English prior to the classes
  • using computers to study English ranked last in a list of ICT experience
  • There was a major difference (40-70%) between ICT and non-ICT classes in reported effort to use English with classmates and with teachers
  • Students in ICT classes were instructed to teach classmates on ICT techniques, but they also frequently taught others students (friends) in non-ICT classes

The results were not conclusive in any absolute way – no single research project of this type could be. However, the results were encouraging. As noted, this study dates back to 1999, perhaps a time when the window of testing such things (at least from the computer/digital experience angle) had just opened and was about to close. In less than a decade, students would have much more experience with computers, and mobility would permeate. Although, maybe this only means that the digital skills taught now, a decade and a half later, need to be more specialized. Autonomous skills are now in the spotlight.

I find studies like this fascinating. Autonomy skills have emerged in today’s world-of-access as Essential Skills. Yet, there are the contextual and cultural distinctions to consider. Asian countries and their educational systems are not evolving into western ones (to approach instruction as so would be drastically wrong). Non-English speaking culture educational systems exist as their own, with their own histories, regardless of subject matter and even as they develop autonomous components.


Healey, D. (1999). Autonomy in language learning. In J. Egbert and E. Hanson-Smith (Eds.), CALL environments: Research, practice, and critical issues (pp. 391-402). Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Notes for using Debate in the ESL Classroom

I attended an Alberta TESL Conference session on using debate in the classroom.

View or download my notes here: Using Debate in the ESL Classroom

Notes for Working with Wikis in the ESL Classroom

I attended Bonnie Nicholas’ ATESL presentation on Wikis and the ESL Classroom – a great session.

Download a PDF of my notes here: Working with Wikis in the ESL Classroom

Definite Well-Traveled Paths

These friendships do not go into an ever-widening circle. There are certain definite well-traveled paths in the project, and after a while no new people are met. (p67)

I fear this is an example of where the field of open online learning can end up. Language Learning is a good example –  It’s amazing to think that there are millions of language teachers out there and not all that much variety of language educators online, considering the natural fit between distributed content and language. Even less voice from language learners. I’m sure some natural human factors are at play.

Perhaps many people have opted for that avoidance. And, it’s just a part of social humans.

Everything tends to degenerate into ineffective cliques, as a natural course. (p68)

Internal Images and Popular Images

I found myself at a curious decision point with my daughter’s upbringing yesterday. It might seem like a small thing to be concerned with, and I don’t mean to make it into a bigger decision that it actually was, but I do think it’s an important one because there are probably many ways to consider the situation – I’d be interested in any educators’ opinions out there – here’s the synopsis:

I’ve been reading the Harry Potter books with my daughter. We started this summer, finished book #1 about a month ago and now we’re about half-way into book #2. My daughter is turning 6 next month, and these are the first novel-style books that she has engaged with, and the first books for her that have no illustrations.

When we first started reading I was prepared to cut-bait on them if she wasn’t interested, or couldn’t keep up comprehensively (we’re reading them in English, which isn’t her first language). She was fine, and actually loved the stories from the start, peppering me with question after question which I dutifully answered. Especially at first, many of her questions were about what the characters look like, expressing some frustration about not being able to picture Hagrid or Harry in her head because she didn’t know what she should picture.

This was exactly what I was hoping for, to try to develop her independent thinking and creativity, and it was one of the reasons I decided to start reading the books with her. I walked through this process a bit, and we talked in some detail about “creating images of the character in your head”.  I returned many of her questions about this with questions of my own: “What do you think Hagrid looks like?” “How tall do you want Harry to be?” “How long do you think Harry’s hair should be?” – always, I was sure to mention something like “You’re in charge of your own mind. You can choose what these characters look like in your own head.” She got the hang of it, it was great.

So, along come the Harry Potter movies.

It was a significant decision, I feel, about when to start watching the movies with her. I know that once we watched them, those images that she created in her mind would be forever replaced with the movie interpretations of the Harry, Ron and Hermonie characters.

I was ok with this, for several reasons. One reason being that we exist in a world with both individual interpretation AND mass culture – and, in this world, we all experience each at different times. It is worthwhile to participate in both types of information creation, the matter falls on how to balance the participation. Another reason was that she had already gone through the process of forming these images in her head, which was my main purpose – not the clinging to her created images. And another reason was that conceptually, she was missing out on a lot of the story. Because of her age and her limited vocabulary, there was much she couldn’t understand in the book, and I think having more images to associate with the language will now actually help to improve her conceptual abilities and her language abilities (perhaps at the expense of her creative thinking some…but, learning is always a balance).

So, yeah, yesterday evening we watched the first movie. It was fun and she enjoyed it greatly. There were many points where I could see the light bulb flash in her mind. I only wonder about the timing of it. Would it have been better to wait for a few more books? Or, until the end of the series?

Specialized in One Way or Another

But there is nothing simple about that order itself, or the bewildering number of components that go into it. Most of these components are specialized in one way or another. They unite in their joint effect upon the sidewalk, which is not specialized in the least. That is its strength. (p54)

When I began as a language teacher in Japan, I started to develop my ability to teach within the flow of a conversation. This is photo by Walk Eagle Rock on Flickrwhat my students preferred, and I became very good at it. When it works well it seems very simple. But, whenever I try to break it down into skills, or a what to watch for type of list, it’s complicated, it doesn’t translate into such a list. Perhaps, this is because many of the important items that would be on such a list are actions not taken.

I guess the best way to say it, is that it’s a mindset – all of the smaller specialized tasks that I do within the conversation support the main, unspecialized goal of ‘improving language’. This makes it seem simple, even to myself.

It’s not quite crowdsourcing (‘the bewildering number of components’) in the way that Jacobs uses her chapter ending quote here, but it relates to the complexity of the process, – the two distinct levels of specialized and unspecialized.

Individual Values, Community Relevance