Adding spokes to the wheel

March 4th, 2010
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Here are some new features which have recently been released to help you develop and deliver your blended learning courses.

  • You can create tests by enabling or disabling the “clear answers” function – this means learners can only submit their work once and the activity you create can be a test. Note that you can choose this setting at page or course level simply select “Allow” or “Do not allow” multiple attempts on course settings or when you publish a page. Do you allow learners to resubmit work or do an exercise again? What do you think is the best balance for self-study activities?

Save as draft or Clear Saved answers

  • You can now hide a folder if you are developing learning material within it and you are not ready to use the tasks or exercises with learners. If a folder contains only draft pages (i.e. there are no published items) then the folder will not show up for your learners – learners can happily get on with the activities that you have published while you prepare the upcoming tasks in private. Note: any co-moderators of the course will still be able to view the folder.  Do you find that most of your courses are designed as you go along,  to allow for a more flexible training program?

Folders containing draft pages are hidden from learners

  • The “open essay” item now has a toolbar! The rich text editor allows learners to add colour and different font types. Learners can also highlight words, or add an audio or image file from their hard disk. They can also add hyperlinks or videos, making essay submissions much richer, and appealing to a wider range of learning styles.  Here’s an example:

New toolbar for essay submissions adds colour and extra media

There are many other small enhancements we have made, to make your experience smoother, and we will be rolling out some additional features soon. Hope you are enjoying the platform.

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Excellent perspective on the future of “books”

April 22nd, 2009
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This made me think about the “Future of Coursebooks” thread on the IATEFL Cardiff forums. Steven Johnson outlines where he sees e-book technology taking us, and how it will change some of our most basic ideas about reading and reading behaviors. I think his analysis shows clearly the limits of the “one content – many media” re-purposing, where an ELT publisher takes print content, or CD-ROM content, and puts it on the web: while it’s often OK, the content wasn’t developed to take advantage of the social and collaborative nature of the web. Thus, opportunity lost; it’s like turning off the picture on the TV and using it as a radio.

Anyway, Johnson outlines where ebook technology will take us. In bullets:

1) Reading will change from solitary to social:

As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.

2) Book-length content will become granular:

Readers will have the option to purchase a chapter for 99 cents, the same way they now buy an individual song on iTunes. The marketplace will start to reward modular books that can be intelligibly split into standalone chapters. This fragmentation sounds unnerving — yet another blow to the deep-focus linearity of the print-book tradition.

3) Google PageRank will fuel sales:

Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google’s results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.

Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.

Fascinating stuff. The “social” and “granular” themes are what English360 is all about, and I think that this will bring us a step closer to the goal of radically personalized learning learning content.

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Explanation of Web 2.0

August 15th, 2008
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There are many definitions including the O’Reilly one, and much debate on whether the phrase “web 2.0″ actually has meaning, or is nothing but useless hype.

But here’s the best definition I’ve seen in a while, from the brilliant Jessica Hagy:

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New machine translation model

June 29th, 2008
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Here’s a fascinating post about Chris Anderson’s much-discussed “End of Theory” article for Wired, with some interesting examples for the translation industry.

I just discovered Kevin Kelly’s site, and his Technium blog, which is actually a book in progress (perfect example of transparency and the web).

Kelly’s posts are like Paul Graham‘s – every one a gem.

[Edit 6/30: an interesting rebuttal to Kelly’s post here.)

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Nice essay on web “architecture of participation”

April 30th, 2008
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Actually a transcript of a speech by Clay Shirky, this might be useful input for some students. The concept of cognitive surplus is fascinating. In this excerpt an interviewer was asking Shirky about Wikipedia and how users actually write the articles themselves:

I think, “Okay, we’re going to have a conversation about authority or social construction or whatever.” That wasn’t her question. She heard this story and she shook her head and said, “Where do people find the time?” That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, “No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you’ve been masking for 50 years.”

So how big is that surplus? So if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

I also highly recommend Shirky’s new book Here Comes Everybody.

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Teacher training vids

March 17th, 2008
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Via the always-useful blog by Nik Peachey, here’s a link to a site with an extensive collection of teacher training videos, many about using web 2.0 tools.

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Change Gap

March 10th, 2008
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From Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed News, an all-too-familiar description of an education conference. Money quote:

First, am I a snob? Out to lunch? I mean it. I feel like it sometimes when I go to an education conference with 6,000 attendees and virtually no Internet access where almost no one who is presenting is modeling anything close to great pedagogy with technology. (That doesn’t mean, btw, that they are not great teachers or thinkers.) Where just about the only technologies represented on the vendor floor deal with assessment or classroom displays. I mean, I know I’m a one-trick pony in terms of what my frame of reference is (so no need to remind me again), but shouldn’t I be at least getting some sense that the people who are making the decisions understand on some level what we here are jammering about every day, the transformation that’s occurring, the amazing potentials of this? I feel like I have to be missing something here, that it must be me.

It’s not just you Will: we’ve all had that sensation, and it’s scary.
What we’re starting to see now is a new type of “wealth gap”, but where wealth is defined as “ability to adapt to change”. Today* it’s technology that’s driving this change, and as a whole the teaching community is woefully behind.

And the folks we’re behind are the ones we are supposed to be teaching. We’re about to slip into perceived irrelevance.

And since the rate of change is accelerating, a small gap now will only get bigger unless something dramatic happens. William Gibson points out that “The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed”…so how do we teach young people who are in that future, when we’re living in the past?

I don’t have much hope for teachers enmeshed in the government-run, bureaucratic, union-led morass that passes for public education these days. I feel woefully behind and I’m an independent free market freelancer guy designing web-based learning software, so how can teachers shackled within the public system manage? They are trying to keep their head above water with a big lead ball chained to their ankle.

(Yeah, I know, this sounds a little apocalyptic…to balance things out, later this week I’ll post some possible solutions.)

* or…as always?

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Extremely cool “education board game”

March 3rd, 2008
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From the TED blog:

Ben Kaufman, founder of Kluster, goes on stage to tell what he and his team have been doing — with the help of TED attendees and 1200 people around the world — since the beginning of the conference. Kluster is an online collaboration and decision-making platform. Klustergame They set out Wednesday morning to develop a product, with some basic guidelines but “we didn’t know what it would be”. They set up a studio in the conference’s venue, and got 208 ideas submitted in 24 hours. Collaboratively, it was decided that it would be an education board game; the content for it was developed; a name chosen (“OverThere” — the logo was submitted by a participant online); the rules set; a tagline developed; a full prototype developed (photo). 72 hours, 1200 participants, a board game “of social awareness” collectively invented, developed and prototyped: a pretty awesome piece of work.

Check out the Kluster site.

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Online language learning review

February 18th, 2008
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Here’s a nice survey post by Curt Bonk of a variety of online language learning solutions out there, with short explanations and reviews. There’s a bit of buzz right now prompted by the NY Times article that came out Sunday (reg required).

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BESIG Conference in Berlin

December 6th, 2007
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Fortunately I was able to attend the BESIG conference in Berlin in November – there were many very useful workshops and presentations, and it was great to be able to finally meet many of the folks I’m in contact with online.

Probably the most interesting session for me was David Graddol’s plenary talk on the future of business English. He made some intriguing points:

  • according to his research, 74% of business conversations take place among non-native speakers
  • as a result, there is a growing recognition that “intelligibility” is as important as accuracy
  • employers are now less interested in exam scores and more interested in what the employee can do with English
  • the number of people learning will English will peak globally at around 2 billion in the year 2010
  • after 2010, the number of English learners will start to drop off, because national curriculums are starting English much earlier in primary school, and then moving into content classes (i.e. history class, but the language of instruction is English). Thus learners are reaching an advanced level (say, C1) by the time they enter university.

Much of this will be familiar to anyone who has read Graddol’s latest research, English Next, which was commissioned by the British Council. You can download the .pdf here.

Karen Richardson has a nice write-up of the conference for One Stop English.

I was also a speaker, and gave a presentation on “Web 2.0 as a Business English catalyst”. Lots of excellent questions after the talk. I spent some time pointing out how the new approaches to the web (“web 2.0″) correspond strongly with the principles of social constructivist learning theory, and how this relates to teaching business English. I then gave the audience a sneak peak of the English360 platform and showed how we have pulled those new approaches into a collaborative, web-based teaching tool.

(photo below) Here I was doing a brief overview to be sure everyone in the audience was on the same page regarding “social constructivist” approaches. It was interesting that many in the mostly European audience were unfamiliar with the “sage on stage” vs “guide on side” terms…maybe these terms are more common in the US?

(Photo below) Here I was showing the relationships between different approaches. The inner circle is the more traditional “teacher lecturer” model, which focuses on what happens cognitively in the brain (mostly remember and reproduce). The second, larger circle represents the communicative approach with a social constructivist foundation: the focus moves from the individual to the group, which works together on tasks involving info exchange. A key point is that the second circle doesn’t negate the first, it expands it…people can and do learn through “passively” absorbing a lecture (I also discussed this here, maybe a bit too aggressively!). But, then working with that new knowledge with others, to produce a result, will usually solidify that learning.

But much of this is classroom based. The third circle represents how web 2.0 approaches can pull this classroom-based activity into the real world, which is, after all, the whole point.

You can get the slides here off the BESIG site (I’m J4, way at the bottom, and -warning- it’s a heavy file download.)

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