Monday, April 29, 2013

Week 15 Class activity: Social sites for language learning

Today we looked at several social sites for language learning and decided to sign up for and explore xLingo.  Alan was kind enough to type up our observations!  Here they are:

xLingo Review

    xLingo allows users to create a profile in order to connect with speakers of other languages. You can present the languages that you speak and the types of communicative activities in which you’re interested in participating like email penpal, skype partner, etc. The website matches users up with people who have reciprocal language learning goals. That is, you can say you want to learn Arabic and you speak English, and the site will find someone who speaks Arabic and wants to learn English. Users can select their proficiency level. The site is free, but there is a premium account for $20/year.

  • Site has built-in messaging abilities, chatrooms, blogs, avatars, and flashcards.
  • There appear to be speakers of a wide variety of languages beyond English.
  • You can select communication partners that fit a specific profile (i.e., if you want to talk to a woman, you can specify that criteria.)
  • You can select whether or not you want to communicate with a teacher or a learner.
  • Site seems to have fake profiles created by commercial companies for spamming.
  • There seem to be few users online.
  • The site may be trying to do too much (see the first advantage).
  • It might be difficult to learn a language; that is, the site may be better for general communication in a conversation partner capacity.
  • The platform language is only in English.

  • If a person says they speak all the languages that start with A and are from, say, Berlin, it might be a spammer.
  • If you were planning on moving to another country, you might use this site to learn the language beforehand.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Week 13: Assessment and CALL

We began our Monday discussion on assessment and CALL by comparing general assessment terms (e.g., validity, reliability, practicality, and washback) with those specific to CALL (e.g., computerized fixed tests and computer-adaptive tests).  In thinking about how CALL impacts those "general" assessment basics, my group and I felt that practicality is the element of testing most affected by CALL.  In our context as grad students, most of us have taken the computer-adaptive GRE and outside-of-class BBLearn tests and quizzes.  We have also submitted numerous papers and projects electronically (our most recent paper full of hyperlinks to "chapters" and appendices).  Using computers for assessment can save time, clutter, and trees-- and possibly even diseases from spreading (I heard one writing teacher at AZ-TESOL say she stopped requiring hard copies of papers in her classroom after the bird flu epidemic a few years ago). I personally find computer-adaptive tests to be one of the best uses of computers for testing.  I administered hundreds of oral interview exams while working at a non-profit before starting my M.A.  Some students who came through our doors had just arrived in the U.S., had never been to school before, and did not know any English yet.  Others wanted help with their English in order to apply for advanced degrees at U.S. universities.  You can imagine, then, that it was painful for learners on both ends of the spectrum to take the same test.  The community college in my town used an adaptive test to administer this oral interview exam.  That way, more advanced students would not be forced to answer a bunch of questions that were much too easy, and beginner students would not have to shake their heads or shrug over and over while questions became more difficult.  Overall, adaptive tests are very practical when administering a test to a large group of test-takers or a diverse group of test-takers.

In addition to practicality, we also discussed the notion of construct validity and whether or not the construct of, say, reading changes when words are read on a screen.  Alan brought up the context of reading something on a small window on a screen, where test-takers must scroll down to read the entire passage.  In this example, technology may change the way we go back to find information.  When I read something on paper, I often remember, spatially, where that information is. When I read something on a smaller screen, such as a friend's tablet, I cannot always retrieve that information in the same way as I do on paper.

Finally, I think another important consideration in assessment and CALL is affective factors.  We know that technology has the potential to both motivate students and cause anxiety.  If we are working in a university setting, I think it's a good idea to use computerized tests for low-stakes assessments in order to help students who may have anxiety towards using computers become more comfortable with them.  Additionally, taking computerized tests may require test-takers to do some planning, so students should have some experience with this before entering the university.  If students have 24 hours to take a test on BBLearn, they will need to plan ahead and make sure they understand how to access the test, when they have an hour-long block in their day to take the test, and where they can go to get reliable internet access and a quiet atmosphere to take the test.  Planning ahead is the student's responsibility, so teachers in EAP programs may consider preparing their students for this.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Week 12: Culture

Our very first activity this week was to define the term culture in our Google Groups.  Naturally, we all wrote different definitions-- some of us turning to the 3 Ps and other ideas from our CALICO reading, and others turning to the criteria we use to define our own culture.  Wrestling with a definition can be a good place to start.  Everyone knows what culture is, yet we need to address the fact that people's thoughts may run in different directions when they hear this word.  Our students, as well, are likely to have different notions of what culture entails.

In one sense, we should embrace the differing notions of culture and the different levels of the definition, but in another sense, a definition is practical in order to move onto other things.  For example, when creating activities to teach culture (see previous post), one comment in class was that we cannot define a cultural activity without a clear definition of culture.  Similarly, we cannot assess students' learning outcomes regarding culture without defining what they should be learning (and therefore defining culture).  Even after defining the term and the construct of cultural knowledge, we still need to consider in what contexts and situations learners will need this knowledge, and after this, we'll need to make sure our assessments (formal or informal) of cultural knowledge do not support essentialist views.

Recognizing the challenge of defining culture and using caution before putting forth its definition points to the reality that culture is an umbrella term that often means different things to different people.  However, I think it must be defined contextually, for the purposes of a language program, so that other terms and objectives may be articulated.  Culture is contextual in the sense that people's knowledge of it is often due to experience (even when we are part of the culture), and culture itself is shaped by experience.  Therefore, I think our definitions of and discussions about culture in the classroom should be as contextualized as possible.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In-class CALL activity: Culture

The link below will take you to my group's activity created at the end of our class on culture in CALL.  The challenge in creating an activity to teach culture from a non-essentialist view is the need to create a task that has an outcome yet is still open-ended.  Food culture in the American southwest cannot be defined in a short class activity, nor should it be.  Rather, students should have an opportunity to explore a particular culture, articulate their observations, and hopefully come up with more questions of their own.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Week 11: Writing and Grammar

I was particularly interested in the presentations on this week's topic, writing and grammar.  Since I'm currently teaching writing, it's nice to be able to consider the literature in light of my current teaching context.

I was a little skeptical when Nour said he would be presenting on Wordle.  When I think of Wordle, I think of people making word clouds with their social media posts to see what they talk about most.  It's a cool fun little tool, but it doesn't actually give too much information.  However, as Nour presented the example Wordle and explained that it could be used to point out when students are overusing a word, I thought about how Wordle, though possibly simple, can help students "see" what otherwise might be hard for a teacher to explain.  Occasionally I point out words that are used too frequently in students' papers during conferences, but Wordle may allow students to carry out their own investigations and start thinking about whether or not they are using a variety of words.  It's also something they can do on their own in their other classes.  It was brought up in class that there is no data on the exact ratio of frequency to size.  I'm also curious if this type of activity would put forth the idea that there is a way a Wordle "should" look.  Isn't it natural for some words to be larger than others?  Is it possible that students could look for synonyms that are not appropriate for the genre?

Katie's presentation about using blogs, as well as our reading for this week on blogs' potential to help learners become regular readers and writers, made me think about ways to successfully incorporate blogs into the classroom.  Katie said using blogs instead of BBLearn submissions has drastically improved the reading responses in her writing class.   While a blog is "published" and public, it still allows for a lot of freedom, depending on how the teacher structures the assignment.  For me, this blog serves as a place to list and reflect on the ideas that stood out to me from the week.  I usually do not have a plan for writing before I sit down and write.  I think, at the end of the semester, I'll appreciate having a few thoughts from each week to look back on and think about the semester as a whole.  I also like to see what catches my classmates' attention throughout the week.  However, I'm a grad student studying something I enjoy, so I'm already motivated.  If blogs are to give students freedom of expression, then they must have parameters that are wide enough to allow them freedom to explore ideas and topics that are interesting to them.  If students are to blog about class content, then perhaps teachers should model how to connect class content to other areas of life.