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.

Folk Music Blendings

guWe all know that one of the best ways to connect across cultures is through music. Its power to connect and blend cultures is second perhaps only to food. A recent piece on NPR about the Australian singer Gurrumul has led me to reflect on other musical blendings I have encountered recently. Listening to the music of Gurrumul at first gives you the impression that it could be North American folk music. In fact, it’s clear that his work is within a universal folk tradition. But he rarely sings in English. Mostly he sings in the indigenous language of his people, the Yolngu, of northeast Arnhem Land in northern Australia. It’s not just the language that’s distinctive. He sings about the everyday life of the Yolngu. He has written, for example, wonderful songs extoling the orange footed scrubfoul (a strange bird indigenous to the region – see clip below) or about the rainbow python, who in the Yolugu mythology created the world. One of his rare songs in English is “Gurrumul History (I was born blind)” in which talks about himself and his family and about his experiences as a blind man, including traveling to New York City.

Another amazing blend of styles, cultures, and languages is represented by the music of Abigail Washburn, an American claw hammer banjo player and song writer. As she explains in a TED talk, she originated wanted to study law in China, but decided instead to pursue a career in music. She has spent a considerable amount of time in China and sings in both English and Mandarin. Shortly after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Washburn and Dave Liang of the electronic group The Shanghai Restoration Project, went to Sichuan and created Afterquake an album to raise awareness and funds. She recently created a theatrical work entitled Post-American Girl in which she explores her connections to China and to different types of folk music. She also has created a shadow puppet version of her song “Ballad of Treason” with puppeteers from the ancient Muslim quarter of Xi’an:

A final blending is the music of Bostonian Shannon Heaton, who plays Irish style flute, sings, and composes. She also sings in Thai, having studied abroad in Thailand. She does an amazing job combining Irish traditional music and Thai folk styles in a rendition of the Thai song Lao Dueng Duen (By the Light of the Full Moon):

“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.