Best time ever to learn languages?

MinorMynas app for language learning

The BBC recently ran a story, “Is this the best time in history to learn a foreign language?”, with the subtitle, “Today’s youngest generation is more multilingual and wired than ever. Could the tech they’re using breed a global army of polyglots?”. I would say that depends. Certainly, the opportunities are there now for language learning through resources on the Internet, most available on mobile phones as well. The article provides an example, through this combination of collaboration and smartphones, with a profile of Hillary Yip, a 13-year-old student from Hong Kong, who created a smartphone app (MinorMynas) for enabling young people to connect with one another for the explicit goal of language learning. The article cites the increase in migration patterns worldwide that increases the multicultural make-up of the population in many countries as one of the developments that is leading to greater interest in language learning: “This increased migration, especially in cities, brings people with a wide variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds into close contact. Could a more multicultural world lead to a more multilingual generation?”. Yes, that could be the case, certainly among the younger generation, as the article points out. Unfortunately, in older populations, the influx of newcomers from different cultures may lead to discrimination and nativist political views, as we’ve seen in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

The article references the idea of “translanguaging”, the informal mixing of languages common today on the Internet, as well as in many multicultural classrooms. The opportunities for encountering other languages online are increasing, as social media enables contact with people from around the globe. One of the new options is the availability of streaming videos–especially in English– in the target language (with native language subtitles) now available in many countries through Netflix and other services. In many countries, TV shows and movies, shown on TV networks, are dubbed. However, in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, videos are shown in the original audio soundtrack. It’s no coincidence that citizens of those countries have typically had better English language skills. The availability of target language videos on commercial services as well as on YouTube offers the possibility of learning or refreshing a language through entertainment. This is, as the article discusses, a way to learn without having the goal to learn, or even without the realization that one is learning.

Several recent studies document this process for learners in Europe and in Brazil. The study from Brazil found that “fully autonomous self-instructed learners” of English gained a high level of proficiency without formal instruction, revealing “how the new affordances for naturalistic learning through the Internet have transformed informal language learning, enabling significant numbers of independent, informal learners in foreign language contexts to achieve very high levels of proficiency” (Cole & Vanderplank, 2016, p. 31). In fact, the study showed that the autonomous learners studied had fewer “fossilized errors” than classroom-based learners at a similar proficiency level, that is, fewer persistent, baked-in errors in grammar or word usage. This may be a wake-up call for instructed language learning, to look at more ways to encourage students to make use of online language resources.

Cole, Jason, and Robert Vanderplank. 2016. “Comparing autonomous and class-based learners in Brazil: Evidence for the present-day advantages of informal, out-of-class learning.” System 61: 31-42.

Tech addictions

The Yondr device for locking up smartphones

The current episode of “On the media” discusses the recent breach of privacy at Facebook and the backlash against the company, which has led to calls to delete the application altogether (#deletefacebook). This is difficult for a variety of reasons. For many people, particular Facebook-based communities have become centrally important in their lives. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal describes leaving Facebook as “socially messy and psychologically fraught”. Many users have gotten so habituated to use of Facebook as a way to connect with friends and families that the idea of leaving would likely mean a loss of meaningful human contact. In some cases, I imagine it may lead to withdrawal-like reactions. There is also a practical problem leaving: People have used their Facebook login as a way to authenticate themselves to different online sites and services and will have to do a lot of new registrations and password resettings.

The problem for Facebook to solve is not an easy one: how to protect users’ privacy when their entire business model is based on being able to supply personal data to advertisers. In other words, how Facebook does business flies in the face of the company’s claim that they “put privacy first.” Somehow, Facebook needs to figure out how to be a viable company (i.e. to make money) while still keeping user data private. Facebook has become a public utility – in that role, being at the same time a profit machine is problematic.

If Facebook is additive, so are smartphones. Giving up or restricting smartphone use is a topic that’s been trending lately, as in the recent piece in The Atlantic, The Case for Locking Up Your Smartphone. It highlights the use of Yondr devices, small fabric pouches, which close with a proprietary lock that can be opened only with a Yondr-­supplied gadget. They have been in use at concerts, as well as in hospitals and law courts, to prevent use of smartphones in those environments. The article also discusses education-related initiatives, such the proposal by French President Macron, to ban student phone use in public schools.

Banning phones from schools, to my mind, is misguided. I made that argument recently in a white paper for Cambridge University Press: Using mobile devices in the language classroom. I argue that for language learning in particular, having access to smartphones in class can bring significant benefits, both in terms of language learning resources and communicative/collaborative opportunities. Banning mobile devices can have undesirable results:

  • A good number of students will likely continue to use their phones, but surreptitiously, possibly resulting in classroom conflict.
  • Prohibiting phones leads students to view what happens in their language classroom as separate from their ‘real’ lives.
  • Students don’t see their devices as potential learning tools, in particular for language study.
  • Classroom instruction does not take advantage of the wealth of tools and resources available for language practice on mobile devices.

The white paper outlines a number of specific activities using smartphones that can enhance student learning in the classroom. I also point out that having a class full of distracted students may tell us something about the dynamics in the classroom:

In a classroom in which students are fully engaged in the learning at hand, there are likely to be fewer bored or distracted students. In communicative language learning, we expect students to be using the language actively as much as possible, collaborating and communicating among themselves, not listening to the teacher lecture. In that sense, introducing mobile devices as a new teaching and learning tool follows this instructional pattern, with the teacher as guide and facilitator.

I advise in the paper steps for creating a productive environment for mopbile use in  the classroom: Discussing the issue with all stakeholders – teachers, students, administrators, families – is a recommended first step. Studies have shown that students are very much aware of the distraction factor and are amenable to finding and adhering to a workable set of guidelines.

Leaders of state and language

A recent article in the NY Times discussed the influence that Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, has had on the development of a new alphabet for the Kazakh language, which is currently written using a modified version of Cyrillic. Nazarbayev announced in May that the Russian alphabet would be replaced by a new script based on the Latin alphabet. However, there is a problem with representing some sounds in Kazakh. The President has decided, according to the article, “to ignore the advice of specialists and announce a system that uses apostrophes to designate Kazakh sounds that don’t exist in other languages written in the standard Latin script. The Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, will be written in Kazakh as Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy.” Apparently, linguists had recommended that the new system follow Turkish, which uses umlauts and other phonetic markers, not apostrophes, but the President has insisted on his system. According to the article, this has led to intense debate in the country, with the President’s views being widely mocked:

“Nobody knows where he got this terrible idea from,” said Timur Kocaoglu, a professor of international relations and Turkish studies at Michigan State, who visited Kazakhstan last year. “Kazakh intellectuals are all laughing and asking: How can you read anything written like this?” The proposed script, he said, “makes your eyes hurt.”

Another President, Donald Trump, has made waves with his use of language as well, as in his re-interpretation of “fake news” to mean any reporting critical of him or his actions, his use of vulgar language to describe African countries, or his habit of using insults and abusive language in his tweets. In an interview with the Deutsche Welle recently, well-known linguist, George Lakoff, commented on Trump’s use of language. Lakoff laments how the wide-spread reporting of the President’s tweets tends to cite the texts. According to Lakoff, just having that language repeated – even if within an article attacking what was said in the tweet – tends, through repetition, to plant Trump’s ideas in our heads. He points out that this is the strategy used by Russia propagandists and the Islamic State in their online messaging. The twitter bots used by Russian hackers repeat tweets over and over again, with slightly different texts, but always using hashtags that support divisiveness in the US population and electorate. This was done in the 2016 election, and is continuing, as in the recent bots’ activity in spreading the #releasethememo hashtag, in reference to the controversial classified memo that some Republicans say shows bias in the FBI’s Trump-Russian probe. This is in an effort to discredit both the FBI and the investigation into the Russian electoral interference, in the desire to undermine the US people’s faith in their government, and thus weaken US democracy.

Lakoff’s advice to the media on reporting on Trump tweets:

Don’t retweet him and don’t use the language he uses. Use the language that conveys the truth. Truths are complicated. And seasoned reporters in every news outlet know that truths have the following structure: They have a history, a certain structure and if it is an important truth, there is a moral reason why it is important. And you need to tell what that moral reason is, with all its moral consequences. That is what a truth is.

He’s not advocating stopping news reports on the tweets, but rather to put them into a proper context, and point to factual discrepancies, when they exist – and in the reporting, to forego inadvertently spreading messaging through textual repetitions. The way that politicians use language can make a big difference in how policies and actions are viewed by the public, especially if a term is repeated frequently. We are seeing that currently in the US in relation to immigration. Trump and Republicans use the term “chain migration“, which has negative connotations rather than the term preferred by Democrats, “family reunification”, which makes the process sound much more positive.

“Too much technology”

The disabled USS John S. McCain being tugged to shore

That’s the quote from an article in the Navy Times, expressing the author’s take on the root cause for the surprising series of incidents recently involving the U.S. Navy. There were two fatal collisions of Navy warships with commercial vessels, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. The culprit, according to the article, and other reports, is the transition from face-to-face training in ship navigation from SWOS (the Surface Warfare Officers School Command) to the use of computer-based training. The article describes the process:

After 2003, each young officer was issued a set of 21 CD-ROMs for computer-based training — jokingly called “SWOS in a Box” — to take with them to sea and learn. Young officers were required to complete this instructor-less course in between earning their shipboard qualifications, management of their divisions and collateral duties.

The article asserts that those navigating the ships which suffered the collisions were trained under this system and concludes that “the Navy’s growing reliance on technology has eroded basic seamanship skills”. A story on National Public Radio last week echoes this view, with the commentator describing the change in the approach to training in this way: “They’ve been given a load of CDs. That’s right – online learning”.

The dismissive tone used here is something one hears often in connection with online learning, with the implication being that of course it cannot be as effective as face-to-face instruction. The problem here, as is often the case, is that this assessment does not consider the nature of the computer-based learning environment. It’s entirely possible to have such instruction be ineffective. Self-paced learning materials which center around static content presentation through presentations and documents are not likely to foster effective learning. But a slew of studies have shown that computer-based learning can be effective – if done right, with dynamic, media-rich, and interactive content. It’s particularly effective if incorporated into a socially connected and collaborative online learning environment. I have no idea how well the Navy’s training materials were designed, but neither did the commentators cited above. This kind of undifferentiated assessment of the use of technology in education and training gives a distorted picture of the reality of online learning.

Smartphones & language learning

The Apple Developer Conference is coming up next week and there is a lot of speculation about what Apple will announce, especially in the area of hardware. Most likely there will be new iPad models and new laptops, but probably not the new iPhone model, which is said to be coming later this year. This is the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, which represented a radical re-invention of the mobile phone, soon followed by similar Android phones. I just published a piece in Language Learning & Technology on what the smartphone has meant for literacy training and language learning.

Here are some quotes from the column, slightly edited (references removed):

The most successful mobile apps and services feature contextualized learning through an ecological approach. Apps can place language and culture learning into a localized setting, while also leveraging the resources of the global network. That makes available both social connectivity and worldwide information sources. In the process, learning content is customized and personalized, allowing the user to integrate new knowledge and skills into a real-world setting. This approach brings into play three major affordances of the mobile complex, which will be discussed here: situated learning, local and global integration, and personal empowerment.

Situated learning
One of the most powerful affordances of smartphones is situated learning.  Embedding activities and language in real-world environments holds the potential to make learning more meaningful and memorable. The built-in GPS, mapping, and touch control graphics of smartphones allow mobile apps and services to be location-aware and to provide continuous updates as a user moves from place to place.

[Many examples provided, such as a mobile app helping immigrants to Great Britain and mobile games for language learning]

Incidental language learning [is] more easily implemented through the smartphone environment. As users go about their daily lives, a learning companion is always available—a kind of personal tutor, available for consultations on demand, somewhat like the companion in Rousseau’s Émile (1762). Rousseau postulated that Emile’s curiosity would not only prompt the child to ask questions, but that information provided in response, since given in a particular context and location, would be retained longer. A series of contextualized learning experiences is the kind of “cognitive apprenticeship” smartphones may help develop.  Learning through concrete, lived experiences, integrated into everyday life, can provide a powerful instrument for more effective language acquisition

Local Agency and Global Reach
Smartphones are uniquely equipped to support localized use, while making available all the resources of a global network. One of the seemingly minor but, for linguistic purposes, highly useful innovations of the iPhone was the elimination of the physical keyboard, using instead an on-screen keyboard. While there were initial complaints over the difficulty of typing accurately with fingers, now that screen sizes have grown, and auto-correct algorithms have improved, users have gotten used to this form of text entry. The major benefit has been to make it much easier to support different writing systems.

Having mobile devices support a local language makes them into powerful tools for teaching literacy. In many developing economies, where there is not a fully developed landline phone and Internet system, mobile phones provide voice telephony, text messaging, and Internet access. This is particularly the case in isolated and rural areas, where solar and other alternative power sources can be used. In such environments, or among scattered urban groups, there may be limited access to schools or libraries, so that mobile devices offer a unique opportunity for the delivery of education.

[Examples discussed include support for endangered languages and for literacy projects worldwide]

Smartphone users, from virtually any connected location, have the power to connect interactively to a wide array of educational opportunities. This is an invaluable tool for enabling educational services in far-flung locations and supporting distance learning, but it also offers face-to-face instruction a means for students to learn on the go wherever they may be.

Personal Empowerment
Every smartphone is configured differently, customized as to language and locale, and loaded with apps of the user’s choosing. One of the difficulties in being able to measure the efficacy of MALL projects [mobile assisted language learning] is that the typical student will have access to and be using daily a variety of online tools and services. Some may be in the target language (foreign newspapers or TV stations) or be designed for language study, ranging from basic tools such as dual-language dictionaries to sophisticated services such as Babbel or Duolingo. The extent to which language learners take advantage of such resources will vary with the individual and the context of learning.

While language learning may not be an issue of central importance in the lives of many of our students, learning a second language, along with the cultural framework that comes with it, is a matter of crucial importance to one population: migrants and refugees. For these groups, mobile phones are a powerful instrument in potentially life-changing (or life-threatening) situations.

[Examples given of NGO’s and government agencies which have created apps to help immigrants with areas such as language learning and enculturation into the new country]

The column concludes:
Smartphones do not seem likely to be going away anytime in the foreseeable future. While the pace of innovation has slowed, new features will continue to be added as the devices become thinner but more powerful. As inexpensive smartphone models proliferate, feature phones have been forced to add features formally found only on expensive smartphones. This should enable the spread of smartphone-like capabilities to more communities. This, in turn, will encourage further development of mobile-enabled literacy projects and language learning applications. Language learners will continue to use regular commercial apps for socially based or incidental language learning, while taking advantage of utility apps for translation and dictionary look-ups.

While smartphones have clearly moved from the category of fun toys to that of powerful pocket computers, it is no easy task to harness the computing, communication, and collaboration capabilities for the purpose of serious learning. For instructed language learning, the mobile complex, developed around the smartphone, provides both challenges and opportunities. The main challenge is to provide to students the skills and knowledge to be informed and engaged online learners. Important in that process is presenting persuasive illustrations of learning connected to students’ lives (present and future) and to bring those experiences into the classroom. The most effective way to do that may be through the smartphone they likely all own. The opportunity is to leverage those digital devices and online experiences to enable and encourage in our students life-long learning, learner autonomy, and critical digital literacy.

Apps for refugees

The “Ankommen” app from the Goethe Institute

A newly created app, “Finding Home”, created by the advertising firm Grey Malaysia, together with the United Nations, gives some insight into what refugees experience, allowing users, according to the AP, to “walk a mile in a refugee’s shoes” by simulating the daily struggles of a fictional Rohingya Muslim, 16-year old “Kathijah,” forced to flee her home in Myanmar and striving to set up a new life in Malaysia. Through the app, users simulate her experience by peeking in on Kathijah’s phone conversations.

For real-life refugees, using phones for communication and for cultural integration can be a real lifeline. I’m currently writing a piece for Language Learning & Technology on smartphones (given the 10th anniversary this year of the iPhone) in which I discuss this topic:

While language learning may not be an issue of central importance in the lives of many of our students, learning a second language, along with the cultural framework that comes with it, is a matter of crucial importance to one population – migrants and refugees. For these groups, mobile phones are a powerful instrument in potentially life-changing (or life-threatening) situations, as reported by the European Union Institute for Security Studies:

Migrants are linking up online to cross borders and meet their basic needs. They are using smartphones to share tips and geo-positional data as they cross North Africa. They rank and rate Afghan people-smugglers, trying to hold the criminals accountable for the safe transport of family members. On Google they share tips, such as to avoid exploitative Istanbul taxi drivers or evade new EU border controls.

The kind of device migrants use will vary with the individual and place of origin. One account has shown that among young Syrian refugees, 86% owned a smartphone. A number of mobile apps have been developed by NGOs and government agencies to help migrants in a variety of areas, including language learning, cultural integration, and practical day-to-day living. Some apps aid in the process of migrants making their way through intermediate countries to their final destination. InfoAid helps refugees in Hungary, while Gherbtna is aimed at Syrians newly arrived in Turkey. The Mobile Legal Info Source helps navigate Turkey’s legal system. The Crisis Info Hub offers support for new arrivals in Greece.

In Germany, the hoped-for destination of many refugees, a number of apps have been created targeting the immigrant population. The Goethe Institute, along with federal agencies dealing with immigration and employment, have created “Ankommen” (Arrival), available in Arabic, English, Farsi, French, and German. As do other such apps, it is designed with minimal technical requirements, so as to be usable on older phones. It features three branched areas: German language study, German asylum procedures, and tips on living in Germany. Integreate offers a similar service for refugees in Germany. It’s available in five languages and features information specific to one of the 80 German cities targeted. Daheim (At Home) offers a meeting platform for new arrivals and German natives, designed for language learning and intercultural exchange. The ReDi School of Digital Integration in Berlin is developing “Bureaucrazy” to help refugees make their way through German bureaucracy, featuring language help and practical information on filling out forms in German. The school also has started a program teaching refugees how to code and create mobile apps.

Of course, not all refugees have smartphones, but we are seeing costs coming down dramatically for Android phones. At the same time, feature phones are becoming “smarter”, with features that used to be reserved for expensive smartphones. As those developments continue, it is likely that phones will represent an ever greater lifeline for those finding their way to a new home and for those seeking resources to help them establish a footing linguistically and culturally in their new homes. Vice news has a recent story on this topic.

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.