Bursting the filter bubble

image by Jordi Boixareu (Flickr)

A recent article in the NY Times addressed the issue of the notorious filter bubble in social media, namely the phenomenon that we tend to be served up by Facebook and other services the stories that contain the same points of views as items we have liked in the past, thus reinforcing the views and beliefs we already hold. In that way, we tend not to be exposed to opposing points of view or alterative takes on issues. This has been much in the news since the US presidential election, with many stories about the viral spread of fake news stories within Facebook and other online communities. Given the media coverage about the filter bubble, interest has developed, at least in some folks, about how one might break out of it, in order to gain some insight into the other side. The Times articles points to tools and sites which let users see to what extent they might be trapped in a filter bubble. The Chrome browser extension, PolitEcho, for example, lets you “find out how polarizing the content on your news feed is”:

PolitEcho shows you the political biases of your Facebook friends and news feed. The app assigns each of your friends a score based on our prediction of their political leanings then displays a graph of your friend list. Then it calculates the political bias in the content of your news feed and compares it with the bias of your friends list to highlight possible differences between the two.

Similarly, NPR has made available a quiz, which purports to show if “you live in a bubble”. The first question is “Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your 50 nearest neighbors did not have college degrees?”. The article also discusses “other tech products invite us to reach out and understand other people without the hassle of actually talking to the”, such as a Twitter plug-in that replaces your regular Twitter feed with “that of a random, anonymous user of a different political persuasion” or an iPhone app which makes a game out of changing color (red or blue) depending on the political bent of the news source you are reading.

A number of other sites and tools are listed in the article. The author points to the irony of many of the suggestions coming from the very sources that are responsible for the filter bubble: “A cynical impulse lies behind many of these kumbaya vibes. The same social media networks that helped build the bubbles are now being framed as the solution, with just a few surface tweaks.” That is especially the case with Faceboook. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, famously claimed after the election that it was a “crazy idea” that the fake news stories on Facebook could have influenced the election. That, despite the fact that a Pew study has shown that 62 percent of Americans get their news from social media, with of course the big player being Facebook. Facebook did subsequently take some measures, using third-party fact-checkers and giving users the ability to manually report fake news. More recently, Zuckerberg has significantly changed his tune, releasing a manifesto, Building Global Community, in which he claims for Facebook a central role in making the world better by exposing us to new ideas and different perspectives. It remains to be seen to what extent that means a change in how Facebook news is delivered.

Alternative facts

Interesting news story in the New York Times today, about the increased sales of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, in which a totalitarian state has absolute control over news dissemination, using “newspeak” to provide the view of reality the state wants to project, in the novel called “reality control”. Apparently, the surge in interest is related to the use by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway of the term “alternative facts”, in defense of the false claim by White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Mr. Trump had attracted the “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration.” This first week of the Trump presidency has brought other “alternative facts”, such as that there were 3 to 5 million fraudulent votes in the presidential election, an explanation the President gives for losing the popular vote.

It might not seem all that important, whether there were more people at the inauguration this time compared to 2008, although clearly it does matter a great deal to Trump. The real problem is not with a president whose ego is so easily bruised. It’s that this refusal to acknowledge facts is likely to be something we will be seeing again, and in situations in which getting the facts right is vitally important (terrorist threats, trade negotiations, legislation). Having a government that puts out false information is clearly a threat to democracy. It risks putting the USA in the company of regimes, past and present, in which information from the government is routinely assumed by the citizens to be false. The media, mainstream and other, needs to be the safeguard, and we, as news consumers need to be more aware than ever of what sources to trust and which to doubt. It will be a sad state of affairs indeed if one of the sources we learn to mistrust is the White House.

Big changes

Here in Richmond, we saw amazing shifts in the weather last week, after 8-9 inches of snow (20-22 cm) on Saturday, the temperature dropped to 0° F. (-18° C.) early in the week, but then went up to 68° F. (20° C.) on Thursday. That big change, however, pales in comparison to the political change we will be experiencing in the US this week, with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. The two men could hardly be more different in temperament, bearing, and convictions. As many have commented, the big concern many have voiced in the Trump presidency is not only in the kinds of new laws which may emerge, but also in the example that he represents in terms of acceptance of people different from himself, in race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, or ableness. In my classes on intercultural communication, we talk about the importance of having leaders who are tolerant and counter-act stereotyping. Given the high profile and influence of the US President, the danger is that the attitudes in evidence in the White House may shape the views of the young and impressionable. In a country on its way to becoming minority white, that development is troublesome.

A big change is coming to the press in the US as well. That was clearly in evidence in the Trump press conference last week, which was highly adversarial. As he has done in the past, Trump deflected questions on topics that put him in a bad light, while using props (in this case stacks of folders) to assert the reality of his positions. He is not someone who is bothered by fact-checking – he simply makes up his own facts and ignores stories which expose his twisting of the truth. He exemplifies our post-factual political world. This makes the job of the press during the Trump presidency both more difficult and more important. It was announced today that the White House press corps may be moved outside the White House, allowing for additional kinds of press to be represented, including bloggers and reality show hosts. We are likely in the next four years to be bombarded with greatly contrasting press reports on what’s going on in Washington, D.C., making it all the more important for US citizens to engage in critical assessment of information sources.

Last night my wife and I attended a concert by folk singer Greg Brown, a terrific song writer and story teller. He ended with a song about the transition, with the refrain “Trump you won’t get this” after listing the things important to him such as love, music, and family. It may be that many Americans will respond to developments out of Washington with a turn inward. That’s understandable, but it’s good to remember President Obama’s comments in his farewell speech last week, namely that in a democracy the most important position is not the leader of the government but the citizen.

As we grow older, it’s more difficult for a lot of us to accept big changes. Part of that may be physical, as Greg Brown sang in the concert last night in relation to bones:

Apps or paper

Looking back at 2016, the news story that overwhelms all others (at least in the USA) is the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. The surprise and shock was universal, due to the near certainty in national polls that Hillary Clinton would be the winner. And, in fact, she was in the popular vote, by nearly 3 million votes. Maybe it should not have been such a surprise, given the similar upset win in the Brexit vote, which in showed the similar growing momentum of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments as evinced in the Trump campaign. That same movement is evident in other countries as well, such as Italy (upset loss of constitutional referendum), France (rise of LePen and the Front National), and Germany (electoral victories in regional elections by the “Alternative for Germany”). These movements have gained through electoral victories a kind of legitimacy that would have seemed impossible in the recent past. Along with that new political power comes a sense of empowerment to voice openly anti-immigrant, racist, and misogynous views – after all, if the President–elect has made similar pronouncements, doesn’t that put such talk and tweets into the main stream of public speech?

It will be interesting to see if Twitter – used in such a mean-spirited way by Trump –will lose any of its luster as an instrument of personal outreach and self-promotion through such an example. Of course the other significant influence on the election through technology was on the other side – Clinton’s email debacle. In point of fact, neither candidate can be considered digitally literate: Trump is said to have never used a computer, while Clinton is a notorious technophobe. Both camps, however, did include highly competent tech folks, who took care of promotion through social media and the use of data analysis to guide internal polling, advertising spending, and the get out the vote ground game. The conventional wisdom was that the Clinton campaign had in these areas an overwhelming advantage, with data analysis expertise much better than that on the other side. Since the Trump win, the media have been revising that view.

While the Clinton campaign’s decisions on where to spend time and money were based on models of likely voters based on voter-registration files, supplemented by tracking polls, the Trump camp used a different, more flexible strategy, based on evidence from local canvassers and early voter trends. According to Ed Kilgore, the Clinton approach “tends to create a more static view of the electorate and its views, and probably builds in a bias for thinking of campaigns as mechanical devices for hitting numerical ‘targets’ of communications with voters who are already in your column.” The Trump camp approach was more nimble and more technically up-to-date, at least as described in an interview on NPR by Brad Parscale, the data guru for Trump:

If you had an app on your iPhone or Android, you could go knock doors. And when you knock that door, you push a button on your iPhone – you talked and communicated with this person. It would immediately send back to our database, so now we know we don’t have to communicate with that person in another method, where Democrats still use pieces of paper that have to be scanned in and then databased later. So they weren’t getting real-time information on their door-knocking program. That’s a huge advantage for us into our ground game.

In the days leading up to the election, I was surprised that Trump was spending money and putting in time in “safe” Clinton states like Wisconsin and Michigan, which polls showed were securely Democratic, at least as far as the presidential race was concerned. But Parscale and his team were seeing shifts in local preferences and voting trends that weren’t being picked up by others. In the end, it was those Americans who were dismissed as unlikely to vote who made the difference. The next electoral go-around will see the application of lessons learned from 2016, not least of which will be in the area of technology: 1) It’s great to have a state-of-the-art data-driven model for guiding the direction of the campaign, but that model better be able to note and take into account subtle and last minute changes in trends and voter behavior; and 2) Speed in some instances is key, and apps feeding directly and instantly into a central data base in the cloud beat the pants off “pieces of paper”.

I’m in the process of writing a column for Language Learning & Technology on “big data” and learning analytics. In education, too, good decisions in technology use can have a profound influence on success. These days, that means increasingly looking to data-driven evidence of what works and what doesn’t.

Trump President “because of me”

Example of fake news spread by social media

Example of fake news spread by social media: Pope endorses Trump

An article today in the Washington Post features Paul Horner, who apparently makes a good living off of posting fake news on Facebook and other online services. Of the many posts, some appeared as news on Google, such as the Amish committing to vote for Trump. In the interview, he prided himself on the effect his fake stories had on the election:

My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.

The irony is that Horner asserts in the interview that he “hates Trump” – he assumed, he says, that his stories would be fact-checked, but clearly that didn’t happen. Since the election there have been a number of stories on the influence of fake news on the outcome, particular on Facebook, although similar comments could be make about Twitter. A BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories actually generated more likes and total engagement than real news stories.

It’s not just that people are misled by fake news, it’s also the case that the skepticism that fake news has engendered has led to distrust of news media in general, something that was quite apparent in the presidential election campaign, as discussed in an article in the New York Times today. As President Obama commented in a press conference in Berlin yesterday, the high volume of “active misinformation” makes it difficult to know what to believe, and, in the long run, can endanger democracy.

Many folks were shocked by the election of Donald Trump, in part because of social media reinforcing their already-held convictions that Hillary Clinton was certain to win. The “echo chamber” of the Internet seems to be particularly strong when it comes to politics, feeding user stories that online clicking and browsing habits and algorithmic analysis has indicated you want to see. A story in the Wall Street Journal, “Blue Feed, Red Feed” shows how different the information provided was for those Facebook users identified as Democrat (blue) from those profiled as Republican (red).

It seem that it’s more important than ever for us all to become informed and critical consumers of news and to try to seek out ways to break out of our personal bubbles and get different perspectives on what’s happening in our world. It’s also important to be engaged enough in what’s going on to vote in elections. A story today in the local media here in Richmond reported that, ironically, 5 of the 12 students arrested last week for blocking a highway while protesting the election of Trump had not voted.

The perils of digital illiteracy

Photo: REUTERS

Photo: REUTERS

The strange twists of the US presidential campaign continue. On Friday, the FBI notified members of the US Congress that the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails would be re-opened. It seems that the Bureau found through an unrelated investigation emails on a laptop which may be related to the Clinton case. In another bizarre twist, that laptop was shared between Clinton top aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, notorious sexting enthusiast Anthony Weiner. The incident raises a host of questions, beginning with why the FBI would release this information 11 days before the election, therefore at a time when such a bombshell could affect the outcome. For me, one of the intriguing questions is why would the couple have been sharing a laptop. These are well-to-do folks who are likely heavy users of the Internet and social media. Couldn’t they manage to have their own laptops? Given Weiner’s unsavory use of online media, wouldn’t he want to keep his partner from having access to his messages? And given his history, wouldn’t she want that as well? It could be that, although using the same laptop, they may have had separate user accounts, requiring individual logins – but that is not really a foolproof way to secure privacy.

There has been speculation that Abedin may have had Clinton emails on the shared laptop because Clinton wanted her aide to print them for her to read. A number of media reports have indicated that Clinton is far from tech savvy. In some cases, it may be that Clinton has asserted ignorance of tech in order to protect herself, for example, when she took literally the “wiping” of her hard drive. But other stories seem to indicate a woeful ignorance of tech-related issues. Abedin apparently had a quite difficult time, for example, getting Clinton to understand how to use the telephone for faxing. Printing emails is a bad idea on a number of counts, not least of which is the possibility of having print copies of sensitive information lying around. In fact, the whole email controversy which has so dogged her campaign has been execrated by Clinton’s failure to explain clearly how her email was set up. That failure may derive from Clinton’s tendency to want to keep her affairs private, but it’s even more likely to be related to her not taking the time and effort to understand.

When I teach courses in intercultural communication, one of the reasons I list for having students become sensitive to issues of how to communicate effectively with representatives of other cultures is that we want potential leaders to have those skills and knowledge. I would argue as well that we want our future leaders to be digitally literate – that’s important not only so as to avoid snafus like the Clinton email problem, but also to serve as role models. President Obama participated in a coding workshop in which he learned to write JavaScript. We probably don’t want the US President spending a lot of time writing code, but knowing what’s involved in that process can lead to more informed decisions involving technology.

Character amnesia

MairChineseTypewriter2

Typing Chinese characters in the 1970’2

I’m at the LEARN Conference on autonomous language learning and have just had the pleasure of hearing the keynote today from Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania (I gave the opening keynote yesterday). Mair is a sinologist and regular contributor to the LanguageLog, a wonderful resource for informed comments on issues related to language. He is an entertaining speaker as well as an excellent blogger – his posts are both informative and entertaining. He had a lot to say both about how the Internet is changing the Chinese language and about his views on teaching Chinese.

He talked about the different ways that Chinese characters have been typed over the years, which given the number of characters in Chinese (over 50,000), is a challenge. Early solutions featured elaborate typewriters (see image above), huge keyboards, or keys on a rotating drum. The early keyboards required use of a stylus, as there were so many characters to fit in. Today, Chinese is typed by using Pinyin, the romanized writing of characters. This has led to a de-emphasis on the ability to write characters, which has been a concern in China in recent years, similar to the issues in the US on cursive writing no longer being taught in primary schools. Mair has coined the term “character amnesia” to describe this phenomenon. In his talk, he showed an example of a grocery list by a native speaker of Mandarin in which there was a mixture of characters and pinyin, with some of the words having been begun to be written in characters, then scratched out and written in pinyin, indicating that how to write the characters had been forgotten. Mair calls this “creeping romanization” or “emerging digraphia”. One consequence of the concern over this loss of character literacy is the emergence of Chinese versions of spelling bees, with the contestants having to write the characters that had been read aloud.

Mair says that with the availability of tools for working with Chinese characters, this is a great time to learn the language. He has little good to say about traditional teaching methods, which rely on memorization and writing. He advocates (at least for speakers of European languages) learning to speak first, then learning the characters. He describes the typical four skills approach to beginning Chinese as “inhumane”. He sees no point in teaching characters early.

One of the most interesting remarks from Mair’s talk was his take on his contribution to the Languagelog blog. He writes regularly and estimates that it takes about a third of his professional time. In addition to writing the blog posts, he responds to the many emails he receives asking Chinese language related questions. This “public teaching” activity points to the changing role of language teachers today. For many teachers, this kind of extracurricular work has become a major regular activity. In fact, Mair stated today that he sees this as the most important work he does – more so than classroom instruction or scholarly research and publication. This corresponds to the trends of more and more people learning language outside of formal classroom settings. Internet technology enables this in many different ways.

Barbie Computer Engineer

barbie1-250x266Over the last few years, there have been a number of calls for more people to learn computer programming. President Obama made such an appeal last year, and last week Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, called for politicians themselves to learn to code. Not, he said, because we want them to spend their time writing software code, but because we want them to be able to make informed decisions about laws involving technology. This is the primary mover behind the “learn to code” movement, namely that networked computers have become such a central and vital part of contemporary society that it it’s not enough just to know how to use them, we need as well some insight into how they work. This is important in being able to conceptualize how technology can be applied to problem-solving and to understand what might be involved in programming computers or creating apps to deal with issues as they arise in the future. Giving children an early experience with coding puts them into a position to understand that side of their future lives, not to mention, providing possible job opportunities in a rapidly developing field. England in 2015 will be initiated computer programming in the school curriculum for all children from ages 5 to 16. Estonia is already teaching programming in the early years of primary schools.

The new book, Barbie: I can be a computer engineer, seems like it would reinforce this message. If even Barbie can learn to code, then it must be possible for lots of others to do the same. After all, Barbie has the glamor and the looks, but is not known for her intellect. In the opening pages we see Barbie working on developing a game:

“I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work,” explains Barbie. “You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks!”

That sounds great, but when Barbie’s sister asks to play the game, here is Barbie’s response:

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

That’s right, Barbie of course can’t actually write the code – she needs boys to do that. As a blog post from Pamela Ribon details, things get worse from there. It turns out that Barbie has infected her own and her sister’s computers with a computer virus and that she has little clue what to do, or other basics of how to work with computers.

Clearly, this is not the model we’re looking for our young people to emulate. Given the outcry over the overt sexism on display here, Mattel today apologized and announced it is pulling the book from circulation. How in the world it ever got published in the first place is something I hope Mattel will explain.

Functional chaos: A model for learning?

trafficeI’m been in Gujarat, India for the past 4 days, visiting VCU’s partner university in Vadodora (The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda) and attending the conference on “Globalization and Localization in Computer-Aided Language Learning” (GloCALL) in Ahmedabad. Yesterday, one of the speakers, Vance Stevens (founder of Webheads in Action, an ESL community of practice), spoke about MOOCs and language learning. He cited George Siemens’ views on the ineffectiveness of structured learning, with the idea that learners should be finding their own learning paths, not following in someone else’s footsteps. Rather than swallowing down pre-digested information, the learner assembles a unique, individually designed dish, assembled from ingredients gathered from a variety of sources. In a sense, connectivist learning follows the model of how things tend to work in India: functional chaos. This is how traffic flows in India – there seems to be little rhyme or reason and few rules (most traffic lights remain on flashing yellow). Everyone has the freedom to find an individual path through the mass of cars, buses, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, and cows. Instead of disorder, the chaos works. When I took a taxi to Vadodora (2 hours away from Ahmedabad), the driver often had to slow to maneuver around other vehicles or to weave through incoming traffic to make a right turn (driving is on the left in India), but he never had to stop, just kept moving.

As is the case for outsiders encountering the traffic chaos of India, new learners in a connected learning environment, it seems to me, are likely to wonder how to make sense of what they encounter, seeking order in a seemingly random array of blog posts, tweets, and videos. There’s no doubt that successfully navigating one’s way provides a sense of accomplishment and builds learner autonomy, central to real engagement in learning. Vance pointed out in his talk that real language is complex and chaotic – there are rules but no one follows them. Rather, there are patterns that are used to create new utterances, each unique and suitable to the context of use. Language learners pull together into new combinations what they encounter in terms of sentence patterns, word usage, stock phrases, and their interlocutor’s speech, creating each time something unique and personal. In that sense, language is also functional chaos. However, the learner needs to have available some basic building blocks for creating language. If that it a first language, those are absorbed transparently. For second language learners (as adults), I continue to think that there is in fact a role for structured learning. This is particularly the case for a highly inflected language such as German or Russian, not to mention languages such as Mandarin or Arabic (for native speakers of English). It is true, though, that at some point in the learning process, the training wheels come off, and into the traffic you go.

Later today, I’m off to Kolkata and from there to visit another partner university, the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. I’ll be leaving the clean living environment of Gujarat: a dry state (knowing that, one of the conference participants from Japan brought a case of beer with him on the plane) where I have yet to see anyone smoke and where vegetarianism is wide-spread (as it is throughout India). Added to that is the spiritual side – the large number of temples I’ve walked by, as well the numerous figures in religious robes I’ve seen. Let’s hope I’ve experienced some physical and spiritual cleansing through my visit here.

One model only for online learning?

mooc1The explosion in MOOCs in recent years has led to renewed attention given to online learning and to approaches to structuring online courses. The emphasis on “connected learning” emanating from our new “ALT Lab” at VCU is shared by many universities in North America and elsewhere. The open learning community has been advocating for some time an approach that emphasizes peer networking, digital literacy, and open publishing. It seems self-evident that we would want our students to have this type of “digital engagement”. The connected courses project, in which VCU faculty have been invited to participate, is exploring the hows and whys of how that can work. This first unit is focusing on “why we need a why”, emphasizing the concept of purpose-driven course design. Coming at course design from the perspective of language learning, it seems evident that there is a built-in expectation for anyone signing up for a language course – namely the desire to learn to function in a new language. I would argue that in today’s internationally intertwined world, and given the volatility of the job market, we need to keep in mind an additional purpose – to have students gain the meta skills and knowledge involved in the process of language learning. The students may not need German in their future but they may need to know what’s involved and how to go about learning a different language they need for work or for personal enrichment.

Providing that knowledge in online language courses seems to me to be a universal necessity. Central to the experience of an online language course is of course the opportunity for actual use of the language among course participants, along with communicating with learners and/or native speakers online. That can happen in a wide variety of ways today, through both text and video exchanges. Language faculty have been active for quite some time in engaging in telecommunication projects, whether they be group exchanges or individually based through tandem learning. Building relationships that go beyond a course structure is crucial in finding partners for long-term language maintenance, especially important for less commonly taught languages, for which local conversation partners are unavailable. Being able to document ones language ability and achievements has also been an integral component of language learning in recent years, principally through the use of online portfolios, the best known of which is the European Language Portfolio.

Also needed in a online language learning environment are opportunities to provide some of the basic elements of learning a new language (grammar explanations, sample dialogues, vocabulary development, pronunciation guides, etc.), whether they be supplied through a textbook or through the Web site. I have been advocating for a while the use of open educational resources (OER) whenever possible, such as those available from the University of Texas (Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning) or Carnegie-Mellon University (Open Learning Initiative). In that sense, I would argue that for language learning, and likely for other disciplines as well, the connected learning, C-MOOC course design model needs to be supplemented by the content delivery that is central to the so-called x-MOOC model, represented by mainstream MOOC aggregators such as Coursera or Udacity. This is articulated in a recent column I wrote for Language Learning & Technology, Global Reach and Local Practice: The Promise of MOOCs. I would argue that when it comes to online learning we should not be using a one size fits all mindset, but rather be eclectic in our approach, taking from different models what makes sense for the discipline, for the level of instruction, and for the needs and desires of our students.

“Frozen” goes international

frozenThe Disney film “Frozen” has been a big hit, and not only in the U.S. It’s been dubbed into 41 languages and has played to audiences throughout the world. Interestingly, Disney made an unusual decision with the Arabic translation, dubbing it into Modern Standard Arabic. As pointed out in a story on NPR, in the past Disney dubbed movies such as Snow White into Egyptian Arabic, the dialect with the most number of speakers in the region. While native speakers of Arabic understand Modern Standard Arabic, it’s not the language they speak daily. Rather they speak their own dialect such as Moroccan Arabic – which like other versions of the language is very different from Modern Standard Arabic (and from one another). Apparently, Disney has awarded distribution rights to its films to Al Jazeera, which has a policy of using Standard Arabic. According to the NPR story, the reaction to the dubbed version in the Arabic-speaking world has been mixed.

Versions of the song “Let it go” sung in numerous languages have gained interest in the media. Disney has responded to that interest by putting together a clip which splices in 25 different languages being sung:

There has been an interesting discussion on the Language Log about the Chinese version of the song (ràng tā qù 讓它去 in the most literal translation. There are three different Chinese sets of subtitles for the song (and the entire film), in Mainland Mandarin, Taiwan Mandarin and Taiwanese. Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania) points out in the post that contrary to the popular view, it’s not true that the written language is used to render all the different Sinitic languages (those spoken in China):

If anyone ever tries to tell you that Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and dozens of other Sinitic topolects are “all the same when written down”, you can politely inform them that they simply don’t know the grammar, lexicon, and syntax of these different languages. As has been pointed out again and again on Language Log, especially with regard to Cantonese, normally what gets written down is Mandarin, not Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and so forth. In other words, native speakers of Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, etc. must learn a second language, Mandarin, if they are to become literate according to the standards of educational authorities.

To write spoken Cantonese or Taiwanese in Chinese characters is to give an approximation based on coming close to the meaning and the sounds but not giving a precise equivalent. Victor Mair has another interesting post on the mutual intelligibility of Sinitic languages – a short summary: they’re not.

Making MOOCs truly open

sorry-we're-open-signMassive open online courses (MOOCs) have become a worldwide phenomenon, as  interested folks from anywhere in the world can participate. Some MOOCs attract huge numbers of students, many coming from countries where access to higher education may be difficult or not available at all.  In some cases, students completing a MOOC are able to earn a certificate of completion or mastery that can be professionally useful.  Others participate purely for personal growth.  Almost all MOOCs are taught in English, although increasingly we are seeing such courses originate outside the English-speaking world. One of the recent trends are hybrid offerings, which combine the content and course structure from MOOCs with instructor-led local courses.

There have been plenty of critics of MOOCs, with some pointing to the high drop-out rate and others to the impersonal nature of how the courses taught or the lack of interactivity.  Increasingly, the consortia or companies offering MOOCs, such as Coursera, Edx, or Udacity, are working towards more peer-to-peer networking and more interactivity through self and peer assessments and more frequent learning tasks. One area that continues to lag in terms of online pedagogy is the limited amount of student-content interactivity.  Content is typically presented through videos, with minimal interactions – usually in the form of pausing the video for true-false or multiple choice questions. The content presentation is separate from the online discussions, with few options for participants to interact with the presenter, although sometimes a small sub-section of the course can actively comment or raise questions. The other limited aspect of MOOC pedagogy is the use of commercial textbooks, often an integral part of the course.  Sometimes the texts are supplied at low cost, but they tend to be static learning materials and are not normally available outside the course structure. The “open” in MOOCs doesn’t usually extend to content.

Recently, however, there have been developments in the MOOC space which offer a more open content model. One of those is the consortium of universities, mostly from the UK, FutureLearn, which features the Open University, long a leader not only in distance learning, but also in sharing course content.  Along with founder MIT and a host of other universities, the Open University is a member of the OpenCourseware Consortium, which makes content available in standard exchange formats such as the IMS Common Cartridge.  Many developments in open content sharing are occurring outside the U.S. Recently, for example, an online university has been created, based in New Zealand, OERu, that features open educational resources (OER).  One of the big advantages of using open content is the ability to customize course content, assembling OERs from different sources into a course, or starting with a piece of open courseware, then editing it as needed. For this to be possible, content needs to be made available in standard formats.  Today that usually means using HTML5 and could include as well the packaging format for e-book readers, EPUB 3. I recently published a piece in Language Learning & Technology which discusses how that can do done with examples for language learning.

Facts: irrelevant!

just-the-factsHow hard is it to get people to change their beliefs? Really hard, even if facts are provided that refute those beliefs.  And even if those facts are accepted as true!  A recent study in Scientific American points to this conclusion. The study, by Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College, dealt with the now-debunked idea that a vaccine for childhood diseases like measles causes autism.  The researchers were able to bring the parents who were vaccine-skeptics to the point that they believed the scientific research which showed no link existed.  However, they found surprisingly that after accepting the scientific evidence as fact, the parents indicated that they were even less likely to have their children vaccinated.   According to Nyham, “The first message of our study is that the messaging we use to promote childhood vaccines may not be effective, and in some cases may be counterproductive.” The explanation for this behavior is not completely clear, but Nyham speculates, based on previous studies, that the vaccine doubters likely recalled other objections or concerns: “We suggest that people are motivated to defend their more skeptical or less favorable attitudes towards vaccines.”  The takeaway:  changing people’s minds takes more than presenting facts, and may call for messages with a variety of arguments to counter misinformation and myths.

The recent debate about evolution between Bill Nye (the “science guy”) and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum may send an even more disturbing message.  It was widely acknowledged (including by Christian Today) that Bill Nye, basing his arguments on radiometric dating, the fossil record, and common sense, clearly won the debate.  Of course, whether the debate convinced evolution doubters to accept scientific evidence is uncertain.  What seems, however, to be an outcome of the debate is that it has led to a flood of contributions to a proposed theme park addition to Kentucky’s Creation Museum.  In fact, a number of scientists were leery of having such a debate, as it gives an aura of believability to creationism.  It’s a sad thought that just talking about such issues can be problematic and can reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs.

 

Periods? No.

dotInteresting piece in the New Republic about the use of periods in text messages and online chats.  It’s not something I’ve thought about or even noticed.  In text messages I rarely see any punctuation. The period in short-form electronic communication plays a quite different role than it does normally in writing. According to the article, “people use the period not simply to conclude a sentence, but to announce ‘I am not happy about the sentence I just concluded.’”

According to Ben Crair, the author of the article,

This is an unlikely heel turn in linguistics. In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive. “Not long ago, my 17-year-old son noted that many of my texts to him seemed excessively assertive or even harsh, because I routinely used a period at the end,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me by email.

It’s not just the period that’s being used differently today.  A recent piece in Slate examined “Why everyone and your mother started using ellipses … everywhere”.  The article speculates that ellipses are being used to simulate spoken language, namely in place of pause words like um and uh.  He cites writer Clay Schirky on that idea: “People are communicating like they are talking, but encoding that talk in writing.” This is the same trend seen in the use of the period, namely an attempt to put into written texts the features of spoken language, to make up for the lack of paralanguage (tones, intonation, expressive gestures, non-word utterances).  A recent thread on the Language Log explores the “new semiotics of punctuation.”

There have been of course for some time conventions in online writing to compensate for the this absence such as emoticons (sad face), netspeak (lol) or typing in all caps (I’M SHOUTING). These efforts go some ways towards adding more expressivity to written texts, but miss the ability to identify one of the modes of speaking that isn’t conveyed easily by these traditional techniques: sarcasm.  But never fear, a company called Sarcasm, Inc., is marketing a “Sarcasm punctuation mark” called SacrMark.  But maybe that’s not really needed, as John Gruber commented:  “What a great idea. I’m sure it’ll be a huge hit.”  Sometimes all you need are words.

Talk to Cavemen!

cavemenThat title is used in a Washington Post article this week about a recent article in the field of historical linguistics published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which claims to trace a group of words back through seven different language families to a common ancestor language spoken some 15,000 years ago. Historical linguists use cognates (words with similar sounds and meanings) to trace language evolution and are able to compare cognates that appear to be related in a variety of language back to common ancestral languages.  The best-known example is Proto-Indo-European, an ancestor of a number of language families in contemporary Europe and India.

Mark Pagel (University of Reading) and collaborators built a sophisticated statistical model to try to identify specific words across language families that are similar enough, they believe, to have had a common origin. They found 23 “ultraconserved” words. Some which one might expect, including hand, give, I, thou, old and mother, but some which may be surprising such as spit, worm, and bark (of a tree).  The original Washington Post article imagines what might have been said with these words:

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying. That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age.

As intriguing as this theory is, many linguists are skeptical, as nicely explained by Sally Tompson on the Language Log. So maybe don’t count on being able to communicate with a caveman if you encounter one.