Got time for a quick MOOC, anyone?

Join [me as I tag along with] Digital Pedagogy Lab and Hybrid Pedagogy from January 25 – February 12, 2016 for a meta-MOOC about instructional design.

Last time I dropped back in at COETAIL was for “Twitter vs Zombies,” but this time it’s a little more directly related to COETAIL. Digital Pedagogy Lab and the associated  Hybrid Pedagogy Journal are just the kind of things this community might be into. They build on all the ideas we looked at in COETAIL, and this meta-MOOC will take everyone on a participatory ride.

I’ve already started Tweeting about the first set of readings. But, please wander by the announcement page and check out the plan; lots of good stuff there.

moocmooc tweet

Remember: you don’t have to “finish” a MOOC to get something out of it. Give it a try. And, if you do, please get in touch on Twitter or leave a comment. Following #moocmooc and just lurking is OK, too. It would be nice to have a group of COETAILers to bounce ideas off of for three weeks.

Twitter vs Zombies Episode 7

I’ve been away for a while but thought I’d stop by again and drop Twitter vs Zombies into the mix of things everyone might be interested in. The game still runs for about another day.  And, despite the name, there are no flesh eating undead involved.

What is it?

From the site: #TvsZ is an apocalyptic simulation game played across Twitter and other digital platforms. It is designed to demonstrate virtual community, to teach new media literacy, and to facilitate a collaborative narrative adventure.

But that doesn’t really give you the full idea. The original took place after the zombpocalypse and tags such as #bite #swipe #dodge determined who was infected or who escaped. After several iterations, it is now much more free form. Rules are co-written by the players. Storytelling challenges emerge. And, get created like this.


And wonderfully weird and fun creations like this Team Dragon Bovine symbol get made by somebody.

dragon bovine

(Webpocryphal: I’ll attribute when I’m sure who made it.)

It’s light-hearted, but also a serious demonstration of the sort of rhizomatic growth of creativity and connection online. It keeps popping up and a culture has grown up around teams that carries over to different events. Just the sort of thing to share with COETAIL, I thought.

Follow #TvsZ to watch or get in on the action.


No rest for the wicked: Starting ocTEL Week 0

For my fellow YIS Cohort 2 COETAILers, the idea of jumping right back in for more professional development with technology and education less than a week after we finished Course 5 might seem crazy, but maybe it’s easier to just keep the momentum going?

In any event, I’m back into another MOOC. This is my second time around with the Association for Learning Technology‘s Open Course on Technology Enhanced Learning, or #ocTEL (tweeps list) Here’s the direct link link to the Week 0 Resources – kind of a “soft open” with time and resources to settle in, find some people, and kick the tires. The linked Handbook has excellent advice for MOOCs, or really any informal learning for professional development. That alone is worth a look, so take five minutes and browse. You might get hooked.


I’ve checked-in, watched the webinar, and now it’s time for Activity 0.1: Big and little questions

Can you identify the most important question about TEL that matters to you?

I’m not sure, but maybe I can use this course as a reflection and synthesis of my recent experience on COETAIL. Right away in the name of this course, I see “enhanced learning”. So, how do we define, create, measure, and evaluate “enhancement”? How does this compare with the SAMR Substitute, Augment, Modify, Redefine model? Is just augmentation, enhancement?

Or alternatively do you have a cluster of issues? Or perhaps you’re ‘just browsing’?

Definitely browsing, but not just browsing. I only stuck with my first round of ocTEL last year for a short time, but was really impressed by the organization, presentation of data, the way the course sucked in activity from all around it, and the network of people. I found ocTEL2013 to be a great example of online collaboration and learning. ocTEL2014 is already giving me new examples with a the first badgification I’ve participated in that actually worked. I’ll be browsing and throwing a few ideas in the shopping cart for the next time I get a chance to implement learning online.

Here’s a direct embed of the Week 0 Webinar which is mainly audio, so you can listen as you clean your office or whatever you need to get done. Future weeks will be more visual with presentation style talks and video discussion.

Course 5 Final Project: Translations, tsunami, and sanma

In COETAIL, I’ve written and talked about the lack of space, time, and support in the compulsory curriculum for integrating technology for improved education. Rab Paterson accurately described tertiary education in Japan as “The Land That Time Forgot.” So, the solution for Course 5 which was somewhat forced upon me, was to just go outside the curriculum. Yes, I asked students to study during their precious vacation.

This had a few benefits:

  • We know students slip back over long breaks, so doing a project over vacation is good educationally.
  • Most students were motivated to work hard. After all, they chose to do this. I will never teach these students again and they already received their grades from last year.
  • We couldn’t meet physically, which created a realistic situation for technology use.
  • We could work on pretty much whatever schedule we liked.
  • I could do it while I was away in Lombok on a vacation of my own.
The view from my "office" as I worked on my project with my students. "Picking fishes @ Kuta beach, Lombok" by Tanti Ruwani CC BY 2.0

The view from my “office” as I worked on my project with my students. “Picking fishes @ Kuta beach, Lombok” by Tanti Ruwani CC BY 2.0

What to do?
I had cast around for a few other ideas, but then the perfect project fell right in my lap. Last November I had attended a conference at Gakushuin University organized by the Learner Development SIG of JALT. Part of that weekend was their Tohoku Outreach project. And, there I met Mr Musashi and his daughter Runa from Rikuzentakata who are working very hard to revitalize their ravaged community. For context, Rikuzentakata was one of the most devastated towns in the March 11 Tsunami with very high loss of life. This town and neighboring Kesennuma were the sites of some of the most horrifying videos of 3.11.

According to the Musashis and many others, the community no longer needs the kind of volunteers that helped so much in the immediate aftermath. They need to maintain their connections with Japan and build new ones outside. Disaster tourism brought many visitors, but little actual benefit to the community. People rode in on buses, saw the miracle pine, and left. Rikuzentakata gained little financially. They are working to setup a new restaurant, train English-speaking guides, and improve understanding about their town.

The LD-SIG was planning a second study and support tour of Kesennuma and Rikuzentakata for the first week of March this year and as part of that, they had a large translation project to work on during February. Perfect! February is school break and this was a project I could involve my students in.

The Project
Kesen Junior High School in Rikuzentakata was incredibly vulnerable to the tsunami, but all of the students survived because of good leadership and a practiced evacuation plan. Students from nearby elementary schools also survived. On 11 March 2012, the students at Kesen JHS all wrote personal essay reflecting on their year after the disaster. These were self-published as book for community members.

Tohoku pics-Mar-8_ Rikuzentakata - 077

Ruins of Kesen Junior High School, 8 March 2014. Ted O’Neill CC BY 3.0

Several members of the LD-SIG planned to work together to get all of the essays translated into English. I joined in and recruited some of my former students. We had hundreds of essays to translate, so it was a big job. I sent out an email to some of my students asking them to volunteer as translators. Six students responded and we were ready to go.

Summary of the Project

What were your goals for your lesson/project (Standards)?
Demonstrate independent mastery of technology tools.
Teach peers how to use these tools/assist them in reaching mastery.
Work on language strategies for translation.
Understand content, voice, genre issues in translation.
Learn about the community of Rikuzentakata and the experience of tsunami survivors.

What tools did you use? Why did you choose this/these tools for this/these task(s)?
The LD-SIG used: to share PDFs of the original handwritten essays.
Google Sheets to track essays, translators, and status.
Email list for communication and questions.

With my students, I used:
Email to organize, send updates, and answer questions.
Google Drive to share scanned PDFs of reproductions of handwritten essays.
Google Docs for transcribing the the essays into text files.
Google Docs for the actual translation
Google Sheets to manage translators, checkers, and status.
Google Docs for open question and comment documents.
Google Forms to collect learner feedback.

How did you go about introducing your lesson/project?

Here is the text of the email I sent out. That was all I did to introduce the project. Once students were on board, I sent short emails with instructions about privacy issues, deadlines, reminders, etc. I also asked each student to sign up to be an editor for one of their peers translations. In the end, everyone just worked on everyone else’s which was much better, but starting off with at least one person responsible for feedback was good.

Dear Students,

I know. School is almost over. Maybe you have some exams and reports to finish but you are looking forward to a nice break.

But, I have a volunteer project that some of you might like to join. This is not for TMDU. It is not for extra points. It is just something good to do.

I am a member of the 全国言語教育学会 and we have a smaller group called 学習者ディベロプメント研究部会.

The 学習者ディベロプメント研究部会 is helping young people in Rikuzentakata to share their stories with the world. In 2012, many junior high school students wrote essays in Japanese titled 「震災のあったこの一年をふり返って」.

They were published in Japanese as a kind of “bunshu”. We want to help them publish these stories in English so everyone in the world can know these stories.

Each essay is about 1,200字 (about 300-400 words in English). If you want to help translate them into English, that would be great. You can work with a friend or with me. I will help you make the translation excellent. It won’t be so hard. I can read most of these essays in Japanese, but I’m too slow.

Students at Gakushuin, Chuo, and other universities are helping. If you want more information, click below.…RM/viewform

Or, send me email

Thank you,


How did the students react? Include actual samples of student reflection

Several volunteered and the project was very valuable to them. Here are a few initial comments:

A-san: I always wish people in Tohoku well and I want to do whatever helps them.

K-san: I thought this translation would be a valuable experience for me to learn 3.11 and to help this project share the essay and the story of 3.11. In addition to this, I wanted to improve my English skills through the translation.

O-san: I didn’t have time or courage to go to Tohoku by myself, but still I would be happy to help the Tohoku people. If my skills would be any help, I thought that was great.

M-san (From a town in Fukushima): Ofcource I want to help, my home town and people who have been hurted by the earthquake. I wiil do my best, so please tell me what can I do for the peope and project.

Outcome? Did you meet your goals?
Yes, and even more than I expected. Here is the breakdown for each.

Demonstrate independent mastery of technology tools.
I had used Google Drive and Docs with three of the six students in class last year. One student (K-san) used them intensively in a writing and presentation class. Three used them less frequently and for less demanding tasks. Two had never used them (A-san and O-san).

Teach peers how to use these tools/assist them in reaching mastery.
Just sending out email and getting everyone signed up for Drive/Docs was easy. Distributing files was simple. Actually doing the project required more. The newbie students used email, LINE, voice calls, and face-to-face communication to get help from the more experienced and techie learners and friends outside the project. They also just looked stuff up online and I sent out a few emails to help. Everyone got up to speed quickly. I think this was an excellent experience on both sides. The trainers learned that they could assist others in using these tools to get something done that they had only used in class before. The Trainees learned that these tools were useful and they could get help learning them.

Learner comments:

A-san: I liked it because I can choose the time to do work. I could do it even in the early morning, late at night, anytime my concentration was good condition!

K-san: I think Google Drive is good and powerful tool for school especially for writing, because many people can work at the same time in same files. We can easily help each other and also we can read others’. The only difficulty is learning how to use this system, but once you can use it there are no more obstacles, I think. “It was as if I was doing my homework (joking). O-san: Since I have never used the system, I had mechanical problems at first, but friends told me how to do it and I gradually got used to it.”

Work on language strategies for translation.
We had some very long discussions about translating certain words such and 悲しい that were difficult.

A-san: “Easy words are not easy for translator. Sometimes there is no English to discribe the same feeling or meaning of Japanese, so I can give up! I had better to think another way to express author’s feeling.”

Understand content, voice, genre issues in translation.
Yes, learners discussed and commented about translating slang, trying to communicate in the style of a 12 or 13 year old, and negotiated standard translations of some terms. They moved from word-by-word dictionary look up type translation to more creative, but still faithful translation.

K-san: Writing should be well organized. Translating should not change the meaning. Both are difficult.

O:sanThe little difference of nuance between the languages were difficult. It was quiet challenging when I couldn’t easily (and “directly”) translate, but I enjoyed it!

Learn about the community of Rikuzentakata and the experience of tsunami survivors.

A-san: Children seem to enjoy the situation by helping each other. The most hopeful thing for human being is children’s pure (innocent) hearts, I thought.

It is true that the earthquake broke lives of many people and made them sad, but it is not anyone’s fault. We should blame no one. All we should do is to keep helping each other and doing whatever small things we can do.

K-san: Surprising and unexpected events happened there at that time. During my translation, I hardly understood the meaning of Japanese sentences which were about sanma brought by tsunami. I could not believe that the tsunami brought sanma until the others found the news about this.

Most of the students realized the value of their family or friends, and also was grateful for the kind help from all over the country. I think these feelings are important for all the people, but it is hard to notice. Thus, I was impressed that these students became strong and humane after the earthquake.

O-san: Even a year have passed after the earthquake (when the students wrote the stories), they didn’t forget about their experience at all! It must have been so influential for them.

The importance of “appreciation to everyday life”

Evidence of learning? 

Here is one learning experience that adds detail to all of the other comments.


sanma email

Email notification of one comment exchange in Google Docs comments for translation improvement.

We did some looking and found the answer.
5・6 ひとまず終了した陸前高田市「腐乱海産物回収」作業現場の今後
2011年5月06日 20時13分



In fact the tsunami had destroyed a frozen fish processing plant and washed 800 tons of sanma and other fish up into the hills and around the town. It wasn’t until May 2011 that the fish were cleared away by volunteers. Until then the stench and possible health dangers were serious problems.

The puzzle of the nonsensical translation led this learner to discover facts none of us had known about the experience of the survivors in Rikuzentakata. Everyone was just amazed at the image of hillsides 15-18 meters above sea level littered with fish, and that that was all the children had to eat immediately after the disaster.

What would you do differently next time? What did you learn? 
We did everything in text: email, documents, and comments. This was mainly because everyone was on such different and unpredicatble schedules. As one learner commented above, this was great for effective use of time when she was ready to work. However, the lack of voice and visual contact seemed a bit isolating, especially for such emotional content. Google Hangouts to discuss and live edit would be ideal if we could work synchronously.

How do/did you plan to share this with your colleagues?

  1. Several of the teachers in the project are collaborating on writing an article for the Tokyo Chapter of JALT’s newsletter.
  2. Five members of the Tohoku Outreach group ( I was one) went to the area and wrote up a report for the LD-SIG. This is about 8,000 words and illustrated with photos and videos we took on the trip. It’s not yet ready for publication though.
  3. We applied to do a presentation about this project at the JALT2014 International Conference in Tsukuba this November. If accepted, we will also invite the students to join in the presentation. Three of my students want to do this.
  4. Finally, we are still working with the local school teachers and parents in Rikuzentakata, but we hope they will give permission for the anonymized essays to be published online in Japanese and English. We plan to start with a PDF and may go to ebook formats later. We still need permission for this.

What was your greatest learning in this course?
I learned a lot about Tohoku. As a teacher I had two realizations.

One, the technology for supporting this kind fo work is just getting easier and easier. I used to use an LMS quite heavily, but at this point just plugging in the tools you need is practical. Also, it was possible to do this “on the fly” with a small group. We did not have a big plan, but worked it out as we went along. This was just fine.

Two, as an EFL instructor, I tend to use Japanese very infrequently in class. I’ve had students in the past who didn’t even realize I could speak Japanese (often to hilarious results). I’ve been using the learners L1 in class a bit more often lately and am still working out some of the best ways to do this, but sharing my language learning failures and successes with learners was important.

I also translated one of the stories. That meant trying to decipher 12 year old boy pencil scratching and type it up and then understand it. One of my students had a wonderful time going through and correcting all of my misreadings at the transcription stage. She also said my Japanese was “not bad” but she didn’t say it was good either. I think giving her the chance to be “the teacher with the red pen” was great for all of us. I have to figure out a way to do this in my already overloaded regular classes.

Did this implementation meet the definition of Redefinition?
Although the task of translation itself was not new, we’ve looked at redefinition in the sense of possibility.

“Redefintion: Computer technology allows for new tasks that were previously inconceivable.”

I knew that some of my learners were motivated to study outside the regular school structure. Continuous learning during school breaks is ideal. I never could have done this project during the school term because of time pressures and departmental requirements for course content and goals.

So, translation is nothing new. Peer feedback is not new. But having the time and environment to do it in was new and would not have been possible without these communication technologies. And, this showed in how the learners themselves changed in their understanding of how to learn.

“Thank you for inviting. It was a really nice experience. Pointing out and making it better by online discussion was effective, I think. I would be glad to help if there is another project like this!”

“Coworkers in this project were so kind and clever. Some of them were like a high school teacher. Even when I had terrible understanding, they explained patiently. So I could ask questions without hesitation.”

Next steps

Pending permission from the school and parents which should come through soon, publishing the dual language book will be a great result. Also, through doing this and visiting the area, we may work on additional dual language publication of other survivors’ stories.


Final slides at Slideshare.



The Sugata Mitra Kerfuffle

In this, one of my last posts for Course 5, I again find myself returning to Course 1 and picking up some of the threads again. This time it’s Sugata Mitra, and his ability to make some teachers’ heads explode. I’ll visit the scene of the crime, return to some of my own thoughts about Mitra’s work, and try to navigate a way out.

The Site
For non-English as an Additional Language or English as Foreign Language teachers, I’ll have to set the scene a little bit. Last week in Harrowgate, England, the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) held their annual international conference. This is a big deal. More than 500 presentations and almost all of the big names in ELT attend at some point. For many EFL teachers, this is the high point of the year as far as networking and professional development go. (Someday, I would love to go.)

The usual plenary speakers are well-regarded professors of applied linguistics, second language acquisition researchers, coursebook authors, and a few consultants. They tend to be on the circuit and hit several conferences a year. If you follow the field, you usually, but not always, know what they are going to say in their plenary talks.

Lighting the fuse

This year IATEFL went beyond the EFL/ELT bubble and brought Sugata Mitra. And, the Twitter/Facebook/Blogosphere angst shows little sign of stopping anytime soon.

Mitra spoke about Schools in the Cloud and his recent project to “beam grannies” into schools without teachers. They volunteer an hour or two a week on Skype with schools in rural India. Lovely!

I would embed his talk, but WordPress doesn’t seem to like it, so you can go watch if you like. It was greeted with a standing ovation, but many walked out halfway through and later the backlash took off. And, I can see why.

Mitra’s describes “beam[ing] [grannies] into schools where good teachers cannot go,” and calls schools  obsolete. That begs the questions, “What happens to teacher motiviation in these schools where an amateur is judged to be ‘better’?” “How does this change the views pupils have of their teachers when the hour with Granny is over?” And, “Why not fix the schools or other social conditions that prevent good teachers from going there?” He’s getting quite close to the Silicon Valley, libertarian, neo-liberal teacher-bashing agenda common in the US, where schools themselves are the problem (just with a smile on his face). Certain kinds of schooling may be a problem, but we’ve known for a very long time what practices can make a good school. Unfortunately they usually incur significant costs.

Then he dropped this one. “If you talk to children, they learn your language. That’s all it takes really.” You could hear a pin drop. This is clearly undermining the professional identity of his audience. And, has the added benefit of being just plain dead wrong. They may learn to speak, but that is not the sum of learning a language. And, it certainly isn’t the total of what learners need. Writing, academic skills, differing registers and genres, reading, language learning strategies anyone?

Mitra is quite good at the self-effacing quip. The sound effect inflected delivery. All the tricks of a great speaker. He deploys the happy faces of young children enjoying something to great effect, but is “It’s all in their faces.” really a good justification for resource, policy, and pedagogical change? Throwing around radical restructuring based on smiles and laughter is not exactly a good way to make sure you get the best outcome.

In one example, he described the OLPC roll out in Uruguay. He said he had no control group because all of the learners have computers. He then cited a report that children in Uruguay read in Spanish better than children in the USA or the UK at the same age because when nine year olds search the Internet sometimes they find Harvard Business School reports and they don’t know that they can’t read them. So, they do.

Umm… what? So what?

Why compare Uruguay with English speaking countries? Why not compare with Spain and Mexico? Could early Spanish literacy be easier to acquire than similar English literacy? What else is different about the curriculum in Uruguay? Do they spend more time reading? Are there many immigrant children in Uruguay learning Spanish as a second language? How about teacher training? And, more fundamentally, how does he know this even has anything to do with the Internet and OLPC? He doesn’t. And, just because kids are young doesn’t mean they are stupid. They know what Disney, Harry Potter and other “kid stuff” looks like and what stodgy old boring adult stuff from Harvard looks like. Even if it is online. At least that’s what I observe. And could my unsupported observations be just as valid as Mitra’s?

If you want more, go crazy and knock yourself out.

The rest of The Explosion

@grahamstanley gives a very fair report in Parts 1 and 2

Jeremy Harmer @harmerj raises several very telling points in “Angel or devil? The strange case of Sugata Mitra” especially this, “Any teacher with experience knows that it is one thing to put educational temptation in a child’s way … quite another for that student to actually be tempted.  Mitra’s claim is that this always works, a kind of learner autonomy nirvana. ”

But then, Wiktor at welcomed the disruption.

David Deubelbeiss @ddeubel hits a point I’ve tried to hammer away at for a long time (and a reason I am in COETAIL) when he wrote about Mitra, “It’s nothing new but somehow in ELT it is now a hot topic. I think this points to our insularity as a profession (and also sensitivity towards the security of our own jobs) than anything else.” Job security in EFL teaching is a concern, but the fact that so many people at IATEFL had never heard of Mitra or engaged with his ideas is symptomatic of the isolation of EFL teaching from the mainstream of general education research and practice.

Then Mitra himself set off a second charge. In the post-plenary interview he doubled down when asked “Do you think teachers are redundant?” He answered, “No. Not now. But, they will be.” He basically said that all professions will become redundant. This kind of post-scarcity economics is a whole other area, but doesn’t appear to be in the offing anytime soon.

This also led me to Donald Clark (who I follow on Twitter but somehow missed this one) and his point by point tear down of Mitra and his Hole in the Wall project.

On the other hand, and getting through

I was quite taken with Mitra a year or so ago when we picked up his ideas in Course 1. But, I was also pretty skeptical. What else is new? I wrote then, “What do I think Mitra really means? ‘I think he just needs a small change. “Children can teach themselves almost anything if given the Internet, given the permission to interact with each other, and given an autonomous teacher outside an industrial institution.’ ”

He is absolutely correct that discovery learning can be powerful, that children can learn well in groups, that teachers can get in the way, that many schools and teachers are not as good as they could be. But all of that seems quite, as he said, “obvious.”

He complained of a lack of a control group in Uruguay and elsewhere. But, he has the funds and the connections to make that happen. Make it happen in places without teachers and in schools where the School in the Cloud is supported by good teachers. Find out if the teacher in the classroom really is an obstacle to learning.

Do these principles apply?

We started off COETAIL Course One with Mimi Ito and her work with Digital Youth, but I’m going to try to wrap up with another Ito, her brother Joi. If you’re not familiar with Joi Ito, you should be. He’s one of those people who constantly pushes at the edges of technology and culture and shares he creates.

His latest is aimed at business, but I wonder how well it applies to education? After all, it seems like education is being driven to be more “businesslike” all the time, so if business is changing this way, maybe we can converge?

9 Principles

What do all of these dichotomies mean? Do they apply to education? To what extent are we already doing thse things?

Ito is prepping to write a book about these principles and is Director at the MIT Media Lab, so you can find loads of stuff about these online, but here’s a quick video.

And here are some statements. Ito in italics, followed by my thoughts.

1. Resilience instead of strength, which means you want to yield and allow failure and you bounce back instead of trying to resist failure.

How to inculcate this attitude in learners and teachers is the question. And, I think especially in teachers. Kids come in with a lot of resilience. I think teachers, myself included, tend to fear failure and shy away from it. Everyone loves to share their best teaching tips, ideas, lessons, practices. It takes a lot of guts to share your worst lesson, poorly designed materials, or practices you now realize were just plain bad. We resist failure, but is always with us.

2. You pull instead of push. That means you pull the resources from the network as you need them, as opposed to centrally stocking them and controlling them.

This seems to be what we’ve been talking about all through the program. I wish higher education in Japan could learn to do this better. We tend to work in isolation. Team-teaching is rare. The idea of something like a technology coach who works with faculty is from another planet. But, we need it.

3. You want to take risk instead of focusing on safety.

As Caleb Gattegno used to say, “communication is a miracle.” EFL instructors in Japan so often struggle to encourage learners to take chances, to try, not to be overly concerned with accuracy, but to focus on communication. Why is it so hard sometimes? Maybe see point 1 above? After all, who introduced “failure” into the educational system? Students seem much more concerned about that kind of failure. Failure to perform rather than failure to communicate.

4. You want to focus on the system instead of objects.

The older (and still current) style of university organization is very much about objects. Get enough credits and you graduate. The university doesn’t really care about all of the other learning that is going on and doesn’t capture it very well.

5. You want to have good compasses not maps.

This. Every coursebook I have ever used for teaching comes with a map in the first couple of pages. First we will learn this, then that, then the next thing. This is usually in a grammatical or functional syllabus. And, the map directs learners to a destination such as TOEIC 760 or CEFR B2. Mapping students’ learning to these test scores doesn’t do them much good. “Yeah! I’ve arrived at the mythic land of TOEIC 80! Now where do I go?” Testing should be part of an ongoing study plan and the tests tell you where to go next, not where you have ended up.

6. You want to work on practice instead of theory. Because sometimes you don’t why it works, but what is important is that it is working, not that you have some theory around it.

Sure, there is a place for theory. There is a place for research. But, at least in ELT, quite a lot of it isn’t that rigorous.

Oops! Apparently embedding viddler doesn’t work well here. Go on and have a look and then come back. You’ll enjoy.

And, much of it that is coherent can’t generalize enough to tell an individual teacher what to do in a certain class or with a certain learner.

I was talking with a friend recently about his research. He and a partner are doing a longterm narrative study of university level English learners. It’s just a few students, and they might not be anything like mine. But, it makes me think about what I am doing and who I am teaching. That works for me. (And, he was really pleased to hear it.)

7. It disobedience instead of compliance. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing what you are told. Too much of school is about obedience, we should really be celebrating disobedience.

Maybe go read MBG Matt Gomez’ Be Brave: The Only Rule In My Kindergarten Class.

On the other hand, as a member of the Student Affairs Committee at work, I spend an inordinate amount of time discussing, enforcing, bending, and thinking about rules. Way too much.

8. It’s the crowd instead of experts.

I’m going to just say “sometimes” here. It may be fine for business. It may be fine for some kinds of inquiry. But until the “crowd” takes enough of an interest in the kind of language my learners use and has enough experience to help them improve, I’ll still say that there is a place for expertise, if not experts.

On the other hand, read the “crowd” are the classmates and the “expert” as the teacher and you might be getting somewhere. Learning language is inherently social or ecological as Van Lier thinks. The “expert” is just another role or niche in the ecology, and there had better be more than one.

9. It’s a focus on learning instead of education.

Focus, yes. But here I have to part ways with Ito. I wonder what his former teachers at Nishimachi International School and ASIJ would say? He sets up the dichotomy this way, “I don’t like the word education. Education is what other people do to me. Learning is what you do to yourself.” But, of course it doesn’t have to be this way. And, just think of the etymology of the word: ex~ out ducere to lead. Education that leads learners out from where they began is not inconsistent with the kind of learning that Ito says he likes.

dewey exp

So, in the end, are we talking about most of the same tried and true principles?


My Not Course 5 Project (But Could Have Been)

I posted recently about my problems with a Course 5 project and one possibility was trialling a paperless writing course using Google Docs. I’ve got a better idea, but it’s still worth sharing some of what happened with Google Docs last year as My Not Course 5 Project.


Most of the courses I teach meet once a week for one semester. On the calendar, that looks like 15 90-minute sessions, but in reality it’s often more like 13. There are required assessments, orientation, etc. I try not to, but sometimes I have to be out for one class. Student attendance is generally very good, but there are always a few students out. So, I have to really consider the overhead in introducing new technology in class. If I’m never going to see the students again, and there is little chance that their next instructor will pick up the technology, I can’t justify spending a lot of class time on set up and learning the tools. But, I managed to get one change introduced and can teach one section of Writing and Presentation for the whole year, not just one term. That made it worthwhile to invest the time to introduce technology I thought helpful.


We have one computer room that I cannot use because it is already booked. First year medical students are required to have a laptop, but many of them arrive with very little experience using a computer other than their phone. So, I just got a regular old chalkboard classroom with just enough wifi and went BYOD.

Going with Google Docs made perfect sense in this situation. I’m on a Mac. Most of my students are on one version of Windows or another, but a few Macs too. They aren’t masters of MS Word. In the past I’ve had to instruct students on very basic functions such as paragraph formatting, “Save” versus “Save as”, and comments and track changes. When they couldn’t find old files in Windows I wasn’t much help. So, I just skipped Word and went straight to GDocs. Since it’s all in the browser, I could demonstrate on any machine for any machine. And, students could too. And, it was just simpler.

Potential problems

When I reviewed the syllabus first class and reminded them that they all had to bring their laptops every week, groans. There were complaints at first, but once they realized how convenient this was, students were fine with it. One of the main problems for students is printing. There is one public printer in the library. That’s it. Once they realized I was never going to ask them to print stuff to hand in and they didn’t have to drop off late work at my office, they were much happier. They started just having their laptops with them all the time, which was a big win. Not sure my fellow profs noticed it. Previous years, I rarely saw students with their laptops.

The network is not very good. Each classroom has one wifi network, but it’s inadequate for 20-25 simultaneous users. This was troublesome at first. On the other hand, it gave people a great incentive to get to class on time, power up, and login first! In the end, the work around was to ask people along one wall to all login to the neighboring classroom’s network (not used) and late arrivals to login to a classroom downstairs.

Sharing and privacy were also worries. I probably could have set up a more sophisticated system of individual work areas and asked students to move finished work into different shared folders. But, this made a lot of extra work, monitoring, and extra hoops for learners to jump through. In the end, I had one read-only folder for me to distribute information, and one shared folder where everyone in the class had edit rights. Sub-folders organized projects. Learners could have tampered or accidentally trashed each others work. They might have been intimidated by having all of their classmates see their work. In fact, these were not really issues.

It’s a small department of 100 students who will study very closely together for 6 years. Many of them will study together more later. Some will work together for decades. The 24 students in the class are going to be sharing much more than five paragraph essays. Many of them are very competitive. I also put it in context for them that in their medical education they will have to make public judgements and perform work that is reviewed by others. I think everybody “got it” and we had a very cooperative class. In some ways maybe this was an early introduction to how they will work in their speciality later.


Having everything out in the open made some things very easy and much better than paper based. It was very easy to set and review class and peer expectations by something as simple as opening a given project folder and sorting by “Last Modified.” Everyone knew who was working frequently and who had slacked of since the last class. Nobody complained about their grades.

It also really improved my monitoring and communication with some students. One students who was very good but had a tendency to slack off at times turned up and apologized for not completing his work on time. In his defense, he said that he’d worked on it late the night before, but fell asleep. A quick view of the file history and a final incoherent squiggle of letters sometime after 2am backed him up. I knew he’d tried. He knew that I believed him.

Monitoring, deadlines, and feedback were much improved. I could comment continuously. Just open the folder and read/review the changes on the handful of docs the students had edited since the day before. By the end of the year, I’d pretty much gotten away from one size fits all deadlines all together and it was manageable for me and for them.

One example

Google Docs also allowed some very different learning tasks. In a paper-based class, things like peer feedback and editing are tough and slow.

Old style: Print two copies of paper. Bring to class. Exchange. Hope you get good comments. Wait.

Now: Sort folder by name. Tell each student to read and comment on the work one line below their own name. When finished. Go on to the next one. And, the next. And, the…

Fast, good peer editors/feedback writers marked up lots of essays. This had two benefits. One, the writers get more and better feedback. Two, those comments and edits were there as models for classmates who struggled with editing and feedback. Not sure yet, I have to construct a better way to measure, but that seemed to improve the quantity and quality of peer feedback.

Another benefit

Since all edits were tracked, it was much easier to identify plagiarism quickly and clearly. Many students fall into close plagiarism. Copy a paragraph, cut one sentence, re-order some phrases and clauses, swap in a few synonyms and voila! New writing that isn’t as easy to Google for copy-pasta. That telltale kerplunk of a whole section of text copied in before crafty editing made it very clear what was going on. And, provided me with very neat examples of plagiarism for next time around. This is all much harder to detect if they do it at home on Word and just submit final copy or even versions in-progress. We had a record of actions, so it also made the plagiarism discussion easier because learners couldn’t really deny what they had done.  I could step through the history and clearly instruct what was and was not OK.

A new assignment and assessment never possible before

Like in most EFL classrooms, sometimes I ask students to work on something in groups. That’s harder with writing but can be done. But, it always runs into a tendency to lapse back into L1 for certain parts of the discussion. So, here was my twist. The Team Essay. Assign three students sitting in different parts of the room to a single shared Google Doc with these instructions at the top.

You will work with classmates on one essay. You will will write at the same time. You can communicate by using comments, making a note in the essay, or making notes at the beginning or end of the essay. The title of your assigned essay is: TMDU’s Two Campuses: Why Kohnodai Is Better Than Yushima.

These students created an organizing section. Others used Chat.

These students created an organizing section. New notes clearly seen by all and replied to quickly. Others used Chat. Revision History let everyone “show their work.”

This accomplished a few things:

  • Students demonstrated mastery of Google Docs tools before moving on to using it for more demanding writing assignments.
  • Learners had to explicitly direct each other in writing on how to do the assigned task. More than just the output, I could assess if they could explain and understand basics like introductions, body paragraphs, and conclusions.
  • It prevented the fallback to L1 since there was a record of the communication. Very hard to actually monitor 7 or 8 groups of students in spoken group work, but a piece of cake on Google Docs.
  • It was fun. Learners commented that they enjoyed it. A big one in an EFL writing class. Writing is hard work.
  • Revision history gave a much better accounting of who did the work in the group. Often a problem with assessing groupwork.
  • They could actually see the benefits of collaborating. The essay got done quickly. They could all demonstrate skills. They could help each other. They could do it all in English and had that accomplishment recorded for them so see. Good for reflection afterwards.

Team Essay with Comments


Things to do differently

Next time, I will create some individual folders simply and quickly using gClassFolders. Which I discovered through the Using Google Apps as a Free LMS which I highly recommend. Also, it would be good to measure some of the things I think I saw happening around peer revisions and comments. Have to track that stuff more carefully. A true double blind study isn’t really possible here though.



Here we go again. It’s ocTEL MOOC time.

I can’t believe it was a year ago that I blithely posted that “I [was] quite confident that I [would] “complete” the Open Course in Technology Enhanced Education.” But it was. And, I didn’t. My confidence was misplaced. But, I did learn a lot from that MOOC, kept in touch with many connections I made there, have used some of what I picked up, and it keeps knocking around.

The good thing about this ocTEL MOOC “Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning” is that it just keeps coming back around. So, I can take another spin. One year later, how different will I be? How will the course have changed? We’ll see. Any COETAILers want to come along?

A few points:

  • The course is shorter this time around.
  • It doesn’t follow a strict syllabus. Drop in drop out. Follow your interest, or try to “complete”.
  • It starts just two days after our cohort finishes. Keep the momentum going!

This is offered by the Association for Learning Technology whose over 900 members work at “improving practice, promoting research, and influencing policy.”

To get an idea of what ALT is and does and who they are, have a look at these three videos. Each opens with the same 35 second bumper, but then they are different.

Using Augmented Reality to Enhance Learning and Teaching

ALT Community Tech Tales – The Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning (ocTEL)

Seeing the Connections: Twitter Community Exploration with TAGSExplorer (Your humble narrator makes a brief cameo appearance at 2:08)

But in all seriousness. This is a very sharp group of people. Very welcoming on Twitter. I really recommend it. Maybe we can form a mini-COETAIL cohort in the MOOC. That might be interesting too.

My Course Five Cautionary Tale

In which your humble COETAILer almost succumbs to defeat, regrets opportunities lost, and narrowly escapes with a final project.

Our cohort’s first (and last before the projects are due) Course Five meeting late January could not have come at a worse possible time. As we looked at past projects, discussed the requirements for our big demonstration of putting it all into practice, and workshopped ideas in groups about what we would do, I realized I was in a lot of trouble.

It was January 25th. Final presentations were due April 26. Blog posts (including the one reflecting on our final project) due April 12. My last day of classes was in two days January 27th and I would set foot in a classroom to teach again until April 16th.

No students. No classes. No nothing. I was well and truly stuck. And, I wasn’t the only one.

let's get down to the real nitty gritty By Attribution Flickr user Darwinbell

let’s get down to the real nitty gritty By Attribution Flickr user Darwinbell

So, what was I going to do? I basically saw two options:

1. I’d been using Google Docs all year with one class of writing and presentation students. This was the first time I’d really used them intensively with students and it did change the way I taught certain things. I do think it worked out well, but some of the requirements for the Course Five project were going to be sticky. Especially these …

How did the students react? Include actual samples of student reflection (video, images, etc)

Evidence of learning? Remember to include student evidence like video, images, reflections.

I hadn’t captured that adequately through the year. I had “talked” about it a lot with students, but talk is cheap as they say, video is forever. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any.

How do/did you plan to share this with your colleagues?

Crickets. My colleagues ranged from uninterested to suspicious of Google.

2. I’d been struggling with the limitations in my classes–especially time available to students. I thought, “Great! I’ll email my most motivated students and conduct an online study group with kinds of whiz bang stuff! Students are always asking how they can improve their English/prep for TOEFL/not forget English over the break/get ready for a trip/etc. I’ll capture some reflections, and done! I’ll work only with the most motivated students because they are the only ones who will participate.”

Then, I got real. I predicted enthusiasm would last about a week or two, even among the students who stayed after class to ask for help prepping for TOEFL. Unassessed work goes to the bottom of the pile. February-March break is awesome for students. Creating self-regulated learning out of thin air just doesn’t work. I could document application of technology that would fail for all but a handful of learners. But, for those learners, it might really succeed.

Neither option looked good.

I could have avoided this by starting my Course Five project during Course 3 or even Course 4. But, I didn’t even know what I wanted to do yet. That might be something to address in future COETAIL cohorts, but here’s the easy answer. It doesn’t matter.

Capturing student responses and feedback more carefully and more formally takes time, but if I had been doing it in a more structured way all along with my Google Docs experimental course, I would have been done by now. A few forms, a few interviews, and a couple of emails, and I would have been all set. It would have been more work than talking with students during class both for me and for them (that is a very real issue and there are university policies about in class questionnaires, research committee approval processes, etc. etc. red tape galore blah-blah-blah) but I could have done it.

So, all you future COETAILERs just start grabbing stuff constantly anytime you try something new. You might not need all of it or even examine all of it that closely, but if you don’t have it, it’s pretty hard to go back and reconstruct it.

And, that narrow escape? Next time.

Using Simple English Wikipedia as a writing project space

building wiki flickr gforsythe 8174197748

cc by 2.0

I’ve experimented with introducing students to writing on Wikis a few times over the years. I used Wikitravel (now Wikivoyage) with some students and Simple English Wikipedia with others when I used to have elective courses in Online Communication.

This semester, I had a course which set summary writing as one of the goals. So, I tried it again with somewhat mixed results, (Just click “contribs” next to a user’s name to see what each student has done.) but I think I’ve finally got it (somewhat) right. Just in time for the end of the semester!

The short time frame and a few other unexpected events mean I have just one more class. Tomorrow.

We are collaborating on improving articles about Tohoku. You can find a short introduction and description of what we are doing on one of my userpages. But, here is an excerpt:

Recently, I saw a father and daughter from Rikuzentakata speak in Tokyo. They are working very hard to rebuild their community. They want people from around Japan and around the world to understand what happened there. And, they want to make connections with those people….

There is lot’s more I can say about this project, but I just wanted to post something quickly before class tomorrow. We’ll be editing Tuesday, 21 January from 9-10:15 am (JST gmt +9). If you want to watch live, just visit the Recent Changes page then.

But, I expect most people will be busy or not know in time. That’s no problem because Wikipedia is an asynchronous writing project. Articles get improved slowly over time and the entire history of every change is there to step through.

For example, here is are the changes in the code that 4 students made. Here is the history of those changes over 45 minutes. And, here is the result. Perfect? No. Better than what was there? Yes. And, they did it all themselves.

Please watch us tomorrow or use the Wikipedia history to watch anytime. Even better, just dip your toe in. You don’t even have to make an account. Just click that “Edit” tab at the top of any page and help my students improve those articles. There is also a School’s Gateway with student and teacher guides.


Finally, we will have a few more chances with this class, I hope. More on that after tomorrow.