Tech in Language Ed: Reading List

I designed and taught an online Master’s course called Technology in Language Education at Mount Saint Vincent University this summer. It was a great learning experience: it was my first time teaching that particular course and first time taking care of the design, build and delivery of a fully online course myself. It was mostly asynchronous, with synchronous course meetings at the beginning, midterm and end of the course. I have a lot of reflection to share on various aspects of the course, but I’ll start with sharing my reading list. (Well, reading and viewing list, because variety of forms of representation of course material, etc.)

I’ve marked ***with asterisks*** the readings or videos that students in the course really engaged with or which stimulated lots of lively conversation and debate.

Why technology in language education?
• Thornbury, S. (2016). The Mouse that Roared. British Council Armenia 2016 Teacher Development Program. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lg9M45iUAys

CALL, MALL and Beyond: From Past to Present in Ed Tech for Languages Education

  • Lomicka, L., & Lord, G. (2019). Reframing Technology’s Role in Language Teaching: A Retrospective Report. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 39, 8–23. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0267190519000011
  • Rosell-Aguilar, F. (2017). State of the app: A taxonomy and framework for evaluating language learning mobile applications. CALICO Journal, 34(2), 3243–258. https://doi.org/10.1558/cj.27623

Technology and Skills Teaching 1: Listening and Speaking

Technology and Skills Teaching 2: Reading, Writing and Grammar

Gaming and Engagement in Language Education

Frameworks in Tech and Language Education

Are Teachers Obsolete? Tech and Learner Autonomy

The Mobile Learning Revolution

Solving the Access Problem: Online Language Learning

  • White, C. J. (2017). Distance language teaching with technology. In C. A. Chapelle & S. Sauro (Eds.), The Handbook of Technology and Second Language Teaching and Learning (pp. 134–148). Wiley Blackwell.
  • ****Gacs, A., Goertler, S., & Spasova, S. (2020). Planned online language education versus crisis-prompted online language teaching: Lessons for the future. Foreign Language Annals, 53(2), 380–392. https://doi.org/10.1111/flan.12460
  • Bates, A. W. (2015). Chapter 4.3: The ADDIE Model. In Teaching in a Digital Age. Tony Bates Associates Ltd. https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/chapter/6-5-the-addie-model/

Best Practices for Online Design and Delivery

EAP Online: Helpful Resources

Before COVID-19, I will admit I didn’t know a whole lot about teaching EAP or any language online. Using technology to complement face-to-face teaching had long been an interest of mine, but best practices for designing and delivering a 100% online EAP course was a new area for me. But, when the pandemic hit, there was no time to sit around twiddling our thumbs–as a department, we had to proceed with first emergency remote teaching to finish up the winter semester, and then transition of all our English language courses and programs to online mode, as soon as possible.

EAP in higher education institutions falls into this weird space (third space? :), as it draws from pedagogies in higher ed as well as those from more general English language teaching. So in terms of tips, tricks and advice for online teaching and learning, there are two pools of information to be drawn from, which is great. But you have to filter out what’s irrelevant for EAP teaching (i.e. online assessment for biology labs or first-year classes of 200 students; or tips for teaching English online via CLIL to young learners).

So where did I go? I have learned a lot about online education in the last few months from a variety of people and sources:

  • Dalhousie CCE instructional designers Tracy Franz, Saira Akhtar-Alwazeer and my other colleagues at Dal ESL have shared a lot of knowledge and expertise.
  • Twitter, as always has been a great source of professional development and knowledge. In particular, lots of useful stuff has come through via the hashtags #AcademicChatter for general HE, #CdnELTChat for general ELT and #tleap for EAP-specific discussions.
  • There was an amazing #CdnELTChat held on May 12 (summary here) with instructional designer Linda Manimtim where there was a great discussion about applying the principles of instructional design to language teaching.
  • The BALEAP email listserv has a lot of lively discussions, and the BALEAP TELSIG has held several webinars and events around online EAP.
  • For resources on academic integrity in online courses, Sarah Elaine Eaton’s blog and webinars are great.
  • Universities’ Centres for Learning and Teaching/Teaching Excellence, etc. (they seem to be called something different at every institution), such as Dal’s Centre for Learning and Teaching, have great blog posts, Twitter discussions and webinars about online teaching and learning in HE.
  • Nathan Hall’s blog is an amazing resource on individual digital tools and other aspects of online teaching and learning of languages.

I recently did a workshop for teachers at East Coast Language College about teaching English online, where I could share some of this knowledge I’ve gained and discuss the experiences we’ve had at Dalhousie as we’ve transitioned more than 1000 hours of EAP and ESP curriculum to 100% online. Here are the slides from that talk:

Defending your Thesis Remotely

I recently defended my doctoral thesis remotely! This was supposed to be a face-to-face defense (or viva, short for viva voce exam, as they call it in the UK) at the UCL Institute of Education in London, which suddenly had to be turned into a remote viva once travel restrictions prevented me from leaving the country.

I know there are a lot of others out there with defenses/vivas scheduled in the coming weeks and months that may end up having to do them online. Here are some of my tips for defending your thesis remotely.

Think of it as an event, and you’re the producer. With a face-to-face defense, you don’t have a lot of control over the physical aspects of the experience. You show up to a certain room at a certain time, do your defense, and go. But with a remote defense, you can be in control of almost everything–short of the questions that examiners ask you, of course! The room, facilities, technology, etc. are all within your control.

Pretend you’re filming a movie or staging a play and think about all elements of the experience from the point of view of the examiners. Think about every link in the chain, and what is needed for it to function smoothly. And similar to the performing arts, practice makes perfect–make sure you rehearse not just the answers to your viva questions, but rehearse using your whole technical set up. Here’s what I tried to think about before my viva:

  • Staging and composition. I really think that if your image is coming through into the examiners’ computers clearly with minimal distractions, the examiners can better focus on what you’re saying. On the other hand, if the backdrop is chaotic, or you are looking into the camera at a weird angle, or if it’s hard to see or hear you, then it sets a negative tone for the session and will detract from your research. Set up your computer and do a video call to a friend or snap a few photos with your webcam to see the the angle of the camera and also what the backdrop is. Do you have to put your computer up on some books so that you can look straight into the camera rather than down or up your nose? Do you have to shift some furniture in the background or hang a sheet (no really!) to cover up a distracting or unprofessional background? I shifted a few pieces of furniture so a lovely oil painting of the Nova Scotia coast could be the background during my viva.


    And the best part of a viva via webcam is that you can have all sorts of notes, cheat sheets, motivational posters, luck charms, photos of celebrities–whatever you need–around and with you during the viva, just out of frame of the webcam. Even more than what you would take into a F2F defense. So make sure you have a good set up with enough space to spread out what you need.
  • Lighting. Lighting really influences the quality of the image your examiners will be speaking to during the defense. The goal should be a clear image so that the examiners don’t have to strain to see, and therefore focus on you. Don’t have a light source behind you because your face will be dark. Place a light outside the frame of the webcam, perhaps behind your computer, so you’ll be looking into it and it will illuminate your face. The important thing is to test it out beforehand and adjust as needed.
  • Sound. Sound is really important because it’s how you will hear the questions, and how the examiners will hear your responses to them! In most situations you have two options for your microphone: the microphone built into the webcam, or an external microphone, for example, on a headset or cellphone earbuds. (I use something like this.) If you’re in a large, echo-y room, I would recommend using an external mic as it will be closer to your mouth and will make the sound quality better. For the in-coming sound, it’s the same–you can either use your computer speakers, or connect headphones or earbuds to the computer. It’s a good idea to always have headphones/earbuds on hand in case the in-coming sound on your computer is so loud it’s being picked up by the microphone, and will cause the examiners to hear your voice in echo. This is very distracting and unpleasant, so if this starts to happen, you’ll want to plug in your headphones to stop it. Like the camera image, you’ll want to test out the sound aspect of your set up with a friend beforehand.
  • Eye Contact. Remember that you have to look into the webcam to make eye contact with the people on the other end of the video conference, rather than looking at their eyes as they appear in their images on your screen. This is one I always forget, so during my viva I put a bright post-it note with the two examiners’ names right above my webcam, so I’d be reminded to look at it instead of my screen. Others put a pair of googly eyes or some other thing by their webcam lens as a reminder. Just make sure it’s not blocking the camera!

The Tech!

This is the aspect of the remote defense that strikes fear in the heart of most! There are three aspects of the tech related to a remote defense that you have to think about, set up, troubleshoot, and make several back-up plans for: the hardware (your device), the software (the program you’ll be using to make the call) and the internet connection. If you’re less than confident about tech, try to find someone who will help you get a primary set up and a backup ready, and who might be on hand during your defense just in case you need some tech help. That’s another advantage of the remote viva–you can have your whole entourage waiting in the wings to support you and no one will know!

  • For hardware, be it a desktop computer, laptop or phone, make sure it’s all up to date so that it doesn’t randomly shut off to install an update in the middle of your defense. Make sure there aren’t any embarrassing or weird files on your desktop if you’re planning to share your screen. And make sure you know the password to get back into the computer if it does restart just before or during the defense. Make sure you know how to silence or shut off all alerts and notifications for the duration of the viva so that you (and the examiners) aren’t being distracted or interrupted by dings and beeps or notification pop-ups. Have a backup device on hand that you could use in a pinch to do the exam if your primary device dies at the last minute–for example having your phone ready to use if your laptop stops working.
  • For software, the choice of video conferencing program is a big decision. In some cases, the university might dictate which program to use. If personal video-calling software such as Skype is suggested, push back on it. Try to get a more professional option that is made for meetings or online education (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, etc.). They have a more professional interface, and functionality such as screen sharing, the ability to present a Powerpoint, etc. that you will need for your defense. Install the software on your primary device as well as your backup in advance, and have any logins saved in the device (so you’re not scrambling on the day of trying to remember passwords under pressure). It’s important to rehearse using whichever program in advance so you get used to where all the controls and buttons are so that when you’re nervous during the viva, you can still do what you need to do, and don’t accidentally disconnect the call while trying to raise the volume or put your PPT on the screen.
  • For the internet, if you can, connect to your modem via a cable, rather than relying on Wifi. It’s definitely worth buying an inexpensive ethernet cable (and any necessary adapters for your laptop) to do this if possible as it will make your connection much faster. If not, try to find a spot where the Wifi is strong, and be aware that if others are using the internet connection to do bandwidth-heavy tasks such as gaming, streaming videos or making video calls, it will slow down the connection for you. As for backup, if the Wifi gave out, or was inexplicably slow and causing an unreliable video connection, would you consider switching to your phone and using cellphone data for the defense? Video conferencing uses between 270-600MB/hour, depending on the program used. So if you have a good data plan, it might be worth considering it as a backup.

Remember, for the remote viva, you’re in control! Good luck and break a leg, everyone!

Friends don’t let friends use bad dictionaries

There comes a time in every EAP course, usually at the beginning, when you have to have THE TALK with your students–that awkward moment when you address the elephant in the room.

“That crap dictionary/translator you rely heavily upon is making you sound dumb.”

While a crappy bilingual dictionary or online translator can be sufficient for some beginning students, those who have reached intermediate level, and especially those heading into EAP, may be hindered by simplistic or inaccurate dictionaries.

And while dictionary skills are on the curriculum for some EAP courses, they sometimes still focus on paper dictionaries and/or don’t talk about dictionary choice and the limitations of a lot of the translation websites and apps many of our students end up using out of convenience. Many of our students don’t realize that the translator they use like a dictionary is probably machine-driven. For their routine lookups of words they’d be better off with dictionaries compiled by humans.

Below is a handout I prepared for my colleagues with some of my faves. Share yours with me in the comments (especially apps for iOS).

 


TEACHERS FRIENDS DON’T LET STUDENTS FRIENDS USE BAD DICTIONARIES

Encourage students to not just use Google or whatever random dictionary website/app they come across, but to choose a quality dictionary site or app that is associated with a published dictionary brand. This means it should be compiled by lexicographers (and not via an algorithm/crowd-sourcing).

Some recommendations:

English-English Dictionaries Online (Web-based)

Personal Fave: Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary

  • Learner-appropriate level, with simple definitions
  • Usage notes, collocations, etc.
  • Tabs on top of homepage have wordlists, and words groups by topic
  • Free online via web; paid app (see below)

Also:

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Collins: English Dictionary, Thesaurus

 

Bilingual dictionaries Online (Free, web-based)

Many students use Google translate to translate single words. That tool is a powerful one, but I don’t find it very accurate for  single words. It mainly works based on algorithms and crowd-sourcing, and depends heavily on context, so it’s not as accurate as a “real” dictionary, especially for single words.

Collins Chinese , French, German, Italian, Spanish, , Hindi

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On collinsdictionary.com you can select the language pairing you want to the left of the search bar. 

Oxford Dictionaries Arabic (other languages are available, but by subscription only)

Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese, Spanish, German, French, Indonesian, Arabic, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Catalan, Japanese, Malaysian, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese

Capture
Click on the box near the search button on dictionary.cambridge.com to access all the bilingual and semi-bilingual dictionaries.

 

Apps

A lot of the good dictionaries and learner’s dictionaries are only available as paid apps. Despite pointing out to your students that $30 for an app they may use every day of their academic career is a good investment, they may balk at paying for one.

Search for the following in the iTunes/Android app stores:

Paid English-English Dictionary Apps:

Both platforms (iOS and Android):

  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

 

Free English-English Dictionary apps

Android:

  • Oxford Dictionary of English: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular Oxford Dictionary
  • Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Note this is not a learner’s dictionary, but the regular M-W dictionary
  • Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus

Apple iOS:

Bilingual Dictionary Apps: Paid/Free/Free trial

Android:

  • Oxford dictionaries: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian Greek, Thai, (all free)
  • Collins dictionaries: Korean (free trial, ~$10), Arabic (free trial, ~$10), Japanese, German, Norwegian

Apple iOS:

  • Oxford Dictionaries: French, Spanish, German, Italian Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Greek
  • Cambridge Dictionaries: Chinese (paid)

 

 

Code-switching made easy

gboard-1-1200x630One pet peeve of mine related to digital communication via chat or SMS has always been how annoying it is to code-switch. As a result of living in a few different places over the years, I have some friends whom I communicate with in French, others Spanish and some in blends and mixtures of either or both. I have English, French and Spanish keyboards installed on my  Android phone, but I always found it so annoying to have to switch keyboards each time I switched between the various Messenger/What’sApp/GChat/SMS conversations I could have going on at any given time. If I wanted to change languages a few times within one message, I’d either have to switch keyboards, or stay in one language and write in the other without the correct accents or characters (God forbid!).

captureThen suddenly, in mid-December, the GBoard suddenly appeared on my phone. It has all kinds of other features, but what stood out to me is that the predictive text feature searches from the dictionaries of all the language you have installed on your phone at the same time. So no toggling between languages; you can simply start typing a word in the language you desire and it will suggest what you’re looking for. It makes code-switching much easier! (If only they’d introduce a Canadian English dictionary, so I don’t have to set the language on my phone to either UK or US English, and manually add the Canadian spellings that don’t fit with either one-by-one into the phone’s dictionary…)

 

Chatbots and Academic Writing?

astar_playsafe
Astar the Robot could put their arm back on, but can they provide effective feedback on writing?

Today I came across this article on a university teaching assistant who was actually a computer. “Ms. Watson” managed to fool students and fellow TAs alike, as “she” quickly and accurately answered the barrage of questions on the online forum for a computer science course in Georgia.

Many of the questions this robot, and most of us teaching in a university setting, respond to are requests for information that is easily accessible elsewhere–course syllabus, handouts, lecture notes, textbook, etc. What if we extended this information-gathering function that AI is so good at to the regulative rules of English grammar, spelling and structure? Could a robot like this be useful in an EAP or academic writing class?

There already “robots” of sorts being used to correct writing, such as the ETS Criterion Online Writing Evaluation Service, which provides “immediate, detailed feedback on grammar, spelling, mechanics, usage, and organization and development” so that instructors can “can concentrate on the content and style of students’ work and teach higher level writing skills”. I’d love to hear from anyone who uses this or a similar service at their institution. I’ve only ever been exposed to this program in the context of TOEFL practice exams. I wonder, does this division of labour between grammar/mechanics and style/content actually work out this way? I also wonder about the format and nature of the feedback given by this software; there’s certainly no shortage of debate in the academic literature on the issue of written corrective feedback with far from across-the-board consensus on the most effective treatment of errors. .

My students regularly use software like Grammarly and Ginger Grammar, but in some cases, without the guidance of a teacher or someone more proficient in and knowledgeable about the English language, they often have difficulties in correctly applying the suggestions made or stumble on the gap between grammar and style. Chatbots have also been used as a tool for TESOL, mostly for writing practice to improve fluency, but they have their shortcomings as well.

Getting into Academic Corpora

CaptureI really want to use corpora more often in class, I really do. I love the idea so much. But it all comes down to interface. The interfaces of some corpora are so dated and cumbersome to navigate that you’d have to devote hours of class time just to get students to use them in a basic way. (Though I do like Just-the-Word and SkELL, and I just came across this list of corpora resources on Twitter today and am hoping there maybe be a few gems on there.) Corpora are a teaching tool I need to spend some more time with and that I’d like to expand my knowledge of.

With corpora of academic English, things are even more restricted, simply because there are so few of them. In terms of student academic writing, the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus is a great resources, but I can only find the British Council’s Writing with a Purpose collection, and the BAWE collections in Flax  as avenues through which to interact with it not just on the word and phrase level, but on the paper level.  You can access both the BAWE and the British Academic Spoken English (BASE) corpus through Sketch Engine.

The two academic corpora out of Michigan are my favourites. The Michigan Corpus of Upper-Year Student Papers (MICUSP) and the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE) have interfaces that are so easy to use! And you can explore not just words and phrases, but genre, through access to papers and texts in their entirety.

If you use any other corpus-based resources for teaching academic English please share!

Online Resources for Language Exchange

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconTo move from book knowledge to intuitive know-how* as a language learner, opportunities for spoken practice of the language are essential. There are a host of reasons why: moving toward that point where a learner doesn’t having to think about each grammar point, for example, before they use it (automaticity), getting to know the ins and outs of how speakers use the language (pragmatics) and gaining confidence to use the target language, to name just a few.

If you’re learning or teaching English in a country where English is an official or widely used language, it’s not a huge stretch to find conversation opportunities outside the classroom. If someone is learning English in a place where it’s not widely used, or living in an English-dominant country and trying to learn another language, it’s not so easy. While most learners would love to drop everything and move to a country where the language they’re learning (aka target language) is spoken for some real-life practice, reality often dictates otherwise.

Speaking Practice Online

Here are some resources for learners to  practice speaking their target language online. These sites vary widely in interface, type of community, features (and price, in some cases). Anyone planning to get involved in one of these communities should check out a few and find the best one for their needs.

Face-to-Face Practice

If you live in a city with a multicultural population or a community with a large university, you can tap into international networks to try and track down a language exchange partner. It could involve putting up a posters at the university or posting an ad on a service like Craigslist or Kijiji (or your local equivalent), keeping an eye out for programs at the local public library, joining a Meetup group or perhaps getting involved with the local group of Couchsurfers.

What are you recommendation for speaking practice outside the classroom? Have you used any of these online communities?

*…or from learning to acquisition, or input to output, or to gain opportunities for interaction or be posed with problems to solve and thereby learn through, etc…according to whichever theory of second/additional language acquisition you subscribe to…

Linguistics on Lifehacker

imagesLifehacker, one of the web’s most visited productivity blogs, regularly features articles on language learning. Most of them tend to be of the brainhack variety; they focus on how to use technology or other tricks to learn a language faster.

While catching up on the blog today, three articles related to language jumped out at me.

Learn a Foreign Accent By Watching Films With Subtitles

This is something I have always regularly advised my students to do, mostly based on my own language learning experiences, so it’s nice to have some research to back up the anecdotal recommendation. Once you obtain an intermediate level of proficiency, watching films in your target language with the target language subtitles (as opposed to subtitles in your mother tongue) has a positive influence on your acquisition of the target language accent. I also find it does wonders for your listening comprehension, as it closes the gap between the written language and what it sounds like in quick, connected, real-life speech. I’ve found that many of my students are surprised to be told that watching a movie with subtitles is beneficial, as they believe watching a movie in the target language without subtitles is the gold standard they’ve been striving for, even if the percentage of what they understand overall is quite low.

Use Text-to-Speech Functions for Better Proofreading

This is an interesting one that I’ve never tried before. It seems like it would be most useful for picking up on missing punctuation, as TTS engines use punctuation as cues to add pauses and intonation. I do wonder about how well this trick would work for learners who have yet to master the relationship between punctuation and intonation in English sentences. If an expert speaker of English writes a sentence that’s missing a comma and listens to a TTS engine read it, they are going to notice the missing downward intonation and pause before where the comma should be. If a lower-level learner listens to the same sentence, will they “hear” the incorrect sentence contour, and know how to fix it?

Pace your Speech By Slowing Down at the Vowels

This is really great advice. In general, for learners of English, it is rarely problems with the consonants of English that lead to misunderstandings; it is the vowels. (There are a few noteable exceptions to this, for example if someone has trouble with the /r/ vs /l/  or /z/ vs. /Z/ vs. /dZ/, etc., but we’re talking in generalities here.) And it does seem to be making the tense/lax distinction in the vowels of English, as well as fully realizing both tones in diphthongs to their full extent that poses a challenge for learners, so the advice for speakers to slow down, emphasize and draw out certain vowels could be quite helpful. The other advice given in the article for public speaking, is also solid.

Spell Up with Google

CaptureToday I came across a great new game from Google that would be lots of fun for English-language learners: Spell Up. (Attention Firefox or Safari users: it only works with the Chrome browser.)

A sort of game-ified spelling bee, you hear words, you spell them into your microphone, and if you’re correct you build the words into towers. You also may be asked to pronounce the word, unscramble words, or be given a word missing letters, which you must identify and pronounce. An addition to building towers, you have all the usual game-y bells and whistles, such  accumulating points, getting “power ups”, etc.

Some neat features for learners are not only the ability to repeat the word spoken, but to get a translation into another language, or to hear a level-appropriate verbal definition of what the word. There’s also a feature where you can click on any letter of the alphabet and hear how it’s pronounced—a great review for low level and high-level learners alike. When you begin the game, you choose your English level—beginner, intermediate or expert—so learners can play the game at a level appropriate to their language development.

This game draws on Google’s text-to-speech and speech recognition systems, as well as their translation engine and dictionaries. It’s nice to see another useful and educational application of Google’s powerful and wide-ranging technological empire. The speech recognition system is not without its shortcomings, though. You have to spell words out unnaturally slowly, pausing between letters, so that the system can recognize them. On a few occasions I had to repeat letters several times in order to get the system to recognize them, which was very frustrating. Was it my microphone, their system, or was it me? If this happened to me, a native speaker of the North American English I’m assuming their speech recognition engine was modelled after, what will happen in response to my students’ pronunciation?

There’s also the issue of what and whose pronunciation will be recognized, both on the letter level and the word level. Will it recognize a range of regional, social and learner Englishes? When I was asked to pronounce a word, I was told my pronunciation was “pitch perfect”—what will it say to others? Will it judge acceptable a learner English that would be perfectly acceptable in  human-to-human interaction? Or will you be able to say simply anything into the microphone and it will tell you you’re correct? These are important questions that will affect the playability of this game. I’ll have to share this game with some of my students and get their report back on it.