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.

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.