Category Archives: Resources

CoLE: Corpus of Learner English

photo of students taking an exam.

The exam by bitjungle.

So here’s the big project that’s been keeping me away from my blog for the last little while: the Corpus of Learner English (CoLE).  This is a project I have been working on for a couple of years and we are finally ready to start sharing it with the world.  Every step of the way has been an adventure: From designing the corpus, to applying for IRB approval, to compiling the data.  Here are the nitty gritty details.

I’ve always been interested in corpora — more in the idea of them than in any particular research question.  A few years ago, I initiated the American Language Program’s (ALP — Ohio State’s intensive English program) transition from paper-based placement testing to computer-based testing.  Shortly after that, I started thinking about how much easier the 30-minute placement composition components would be to analyze.  Word counts, for example, could be compared with a couple of keystrokes.  And, of course, more complex comparisons were possible such as differences in pronoun use between male and female students.  (One interesting preliminary finding there was that our male students used a lot more first person pronouns while our female students used a lot more third person pronouns.  Was this some sort of cultural artifact?  Not my research question!  But it could be yours…)

A year or two after we moved to computer-based testing in ALP, Ohio State’s ESL Composition Program also moved their testing online, in part as a response to making testing accessible to students before they arrive in the U.S.  Previously, students could not take their placement tests until they arrived.  Because test results were prerequisites for many classes, students often registered late and found many classes had already filled.  Again, I saw some data that could be an interesting corpus.

I talked with my colleague Jack Rouzer about the potential for such a corpus, and he was also very enthusiastic about the project.  We immediately began working out the details and submitted an IRB application.  This was my first experience with our IRB and it was an interesting one.  For one, I don’t think our IRB is as familiar with linguistic corpora (or even “data repositories” as the project was classified) as it is with medical testing or psychological experiments.  Once we were able to create a protocol that would reasonably protect our student participants’ privacy, we were approved.  Here’s what we came up with:

First, obviously, we ask for students’ informed consent.  We describe that we will make their writing available online in a de-identified way with only some demographic information attached.  In the corpus, we include each student’s age range, sex, country of origin, college of study, graduate or undergraduate status, and their placement level (1, 2, or out, which means they are exempt from taking ESL Composition classes.)  We ask for their consent after they have written their essays so that they know exactly what will be included. Second, we read each placement essay to be sure students don’t self-identify in any way within the content of their essays.  Third, we only include essays in the corpus for which we have at least fifty members of every demographic category.  So, for example, we will include an essay if it written by one of 500 students aged 18-21, one of 1000 female students, one of 400 Chinese students, one of 400 College of Arts & Sciences, one of 300 graduate students, and one of 200 students that placed into undergraduate level 2.  It is extremely unlikely that you would be able to identify who wrote this essay based on these demographics.  However, we would not release an essay written by one of 3 Botswanans or one of 20 students over age 25 because it is more likely that you could identify them if, for example, you know a student from Botswana.  The good news is, as we include more and more essays each year, every population will go up and we will be able to include more essays in the corpus as this threshold is reached in different demographics.

In the first semester, we were only able to include male and female, grad and undergrad Chinese students under 25 years old in Business, Arts and Sciences, and Engineering with low and intermediate placements, but subsequent additional semesters have broadened the pool to include more age bands, countries, colleges, and placement levels.

If you are interested in accessing this corpus please contact me for more information.

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More Free Photos

free photo example: hands of people working together on a projectFrom Flickr via OSU Open Photo (License)

OSU Open Photo is a fantastic “collection of high quality, openly licensed photos from around the web” put together by Ashley Miller at Ohio State.  Images include original sources and licenses.  Most of the photos relate to higher education, technology, and people in contemporary educational or work settings.  The photos are tagged and searchable.  There are also links to other resources for finding free photos.  Although there are larger collections out there, this set is useful because it is so nicely curated.

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America’s Secret Slang

If you haven’t seen it yet, America’s Secret Slang, which is produced by the History Channel, is worth checking out.  There are currently 9 episodes available, most of which are 44 minutes long.

I happened to catch this show one day when I was channel surfing and quickly got sucked in.  I haven’t seen all of the episodes, but I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen.  Each episode takes on a general theme and then examines the origin of slang (including idioms) that relate.  Most of the segments include a person-on-the-street segment asking native speakers if they use a slang term (spoiler: they do) and if they know its origin (they usually don’t, but they often try making one up.)  The origin and explanation is then revealed through in an interesting and visual way including animated words and historical re-enactments.

I’ve linked to one episode, above, and the rest are available on the History Channel website and YouTube.  Be aware the the show is rated PG, so you may want to preview episodes before watching them in class or assigning them to your students.  Non-native speakers will appreciate being able to rewind and review the videos online.  They can also turn on captions if they find that helpful.  Overall, the shows are very well made, include a ton of information, and are interesting to native and non-native speakers alike.

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Make a Google Form in 5 Minutes

I was once sitting in an meeting of the Gaming Special Interest Group at a CALICO Conference (I mention these details because this is a great group within a great organization — check them out) when we got to the point in the agenda where we needed to collect the names and email addresses of everyone in the group.

Rather than passing around a pen and a pad of paper, I whipped up a Google Form on my iPad and passed that around instead. Not only was it so quick and easy that I had the form created and the information collected before the end of the 30-minute meeting, but I didn’t have to try to decipher anyone’s handwriting in order to get their email address.

The simplest Google Forms look like online surveys.  As the form is completed, the answers are uploaded to a Google Spreadsheet. And, like all of the different types of Google documents in Google Drive, the form and the spreadsheet can be made public, private, or unlisted and multiple collaborators can be given various levels of access from owning to editing to viewing.  Of course, private information entered into the form is still archived by Google.  If your institution, like mine, has protocols involving what information can and can’t be stored in the cloud, you may want to investigate those before using these tools.

If you’ve never created a Google Form, take a look at the above video for a 5-minute walkthough.  Then open Google Drive, sign up for a free Google account (or sign in if you already have one) and create your form.  It’s easier than you think.

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“Privacy”

fingerprint copyFingerprint (not mine – combination of this image and this image)

Maybe you’ve noticed that Facebook is separating its messenger application from its mobile application. “That’s strange,” you think, “I like things the way they are. They’re integrated, which works well. Why would they change that?” Good question. According to Facebook, there are lots of reasons that your new experience will be richer and better.

But, according to this article on the Huffington Post, users who download the Messenger app agree to terms of service that are “unprecedented and, quite frankly, frightening.” For example, by installing it, you agree that the Facebook Messenger app can:

  • call phone numbers and send text messages without your intervention
  • record audio, take pictures, and take video at any time without your confirmation
  • share data about your contacts,
  • share your phone’s profile information including the phone number, device IDs, whether a call is active, and the remote number you are connected to
  • access a log of your incoming and outgoing calls, emails, and other communication

Some of these are a bit scary — recording me without my confirmation? who are you, the NSA? But maybe you’re not surprised that Facebook is collecting and sharing your information because users get the app for “free,” which basically means you pay for it by giving over your data. And anyone who agrees to those terms and conditions gets what they signed up for, right? Well what if something similar was happening on the World Wide Web? Spoiler alert: it is.

Think turning off cookies keeps websites from tracking you? Take a look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick. Even if you don’t let websites store cookies — small files that websites use to track you — on your machine, it’s likely that the combination of your operating system, browser version, browser plugins, time zone, screen size, fonts downloaded, and a few other configurations are as unique as a fingerprint. And websites recognize you by your device’s fingerprint every time you visit.

In fact, your browser history alone is another giveaway. Think about how links to sites you have visited are purple while links you haven’t are blue, then consider this thought experiment: If a website picked a handful of websites and linked to them on its webpage, it would learn about you when you visited based on your combination of blue and purple links. As the number of links grows, there would be a greater and greater chance that your specific combination would be unique. And, based on your combination of blue and purple, and the demographics of visitors to those sites, some information about you could be predicted. For example, if you have visited Martha Stewart’s website on your computer and I’ve visited Hot Rod Magazine’s website on mine, a website could predict a few ways in which we are different. And, again, the longer the list of links, the more accurate the prediction becomes.

All of this information isn’t intended to cause a panic, but rather to raise awareness. Before you bust out your tinfoil hat, consider other alternatives that are more likely to keep you safe online: Check your browser’s security settings, keep your operating system up to date, and look into antivirus and anti-malware tools. And, be aware that what you are doing online is likely trackable and traceable, so be thoughtful of where you go and what you do there. As a friend of mine recently observed in response to all of this, “It’s a scary world. But also a great one.” Be careful out there.

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Tips and Tricks for DIY Educational Videos

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 11.53.47 AMScreenshot from Wistia.com/learning

Now that we have our $100 studio put together, we have to figure out how to use it. After a little Googling, I came across Wistia.com’s Learning Center, a “hub to teach, learn, and discuss video marketing.” Don’t let the term marketing trip you up. The tips on this site are categorized into video strategy and concepting, video production, and video marketing. The first two certainly apply to creating your own educational materials and parts of the third might also be helpful.

Not surprisingly, all of the tips are presented in well-crafted, short, edutaining videos. The overarching goal is to get you up and running quickly, cheaply and easily, so a wide range of options are presented — from $600 microphones to squeezing decent videos out of a camera you may already have — an iPhone.

Some highlights for me include the Down and Dirty Lighting Kit, which explains how to setup good quality lighting for under $100; Choosing a Microphone, which advocates for a shotgun mic over a lavalier, but anything over what comes with your camera; and Shooting for the Edit, which has lots of great ideas for recording that will make your life easier in post production.

There have been a couple of videos that don’t really apply to what I want or need to do (like Get Creative with Lenses, because we’re not planning to shoot with a DSLR camera) but even those are well crafted and interesting to watch. I’d recommend all of these videos to anyone making their own videos, with or without a studio.

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Serious Games by Lucas Pope

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 10.14.26 AM (2)

Welcome to The Republia Times.  You are the new editor-in-chief.

The war with Antegria is over and the rebellion uprising has been crushed. Order is slowly returning to Republia.

The public is not loyal to the government.

It is your job to increase their loyalty by editing The Republia Times carefully. Pick only stories that highlight the good things about Republia and its government.

You have 3 days to raise the public’s loyalty to 20.

As a precaution against influence, we are keeping your wife and child in a safe location.

So begins this simple, engaging, Flash-based game by Lucas Pope called The Republia Times. The first time I played it, I was charmed by the simple graphics, which reminded me of games I used to play on my Apple IIe. When I learned that the game was created in a 48-hour game-making competition, I was impressed that there were any graphics at all.

As described in the initial instructions, above, the player begins as the editor of The Republia Times, which is pretty clearly the voice of the government’s Ministry of Media. Your task is simple enough; choose from the stories that roll through the news feed and choose how much prominence to give them in the newspaper layout at right. (See the screenshot, above.) You quickly learn from playing the game that your decisions affect the number of readers and their loyalty to the government, both of which are important to your faceless supervisors and, therefore, the well-being of you and your family.

This task is simple enough, but a more complex story of Republia soon bleeds through the game and your decisions quickly become more complicated. I won’t give away the details of the plot — the game is quick and easy (and free!) to play so try it yourself to get the full story — but just when you think you have learned to play the game, it hits you with another twist, which is a nice metaphor for life when you think about it.

The advantage that interactive media like games and simulations have over traditional media like newspapers, magazines, and television is the variety of possible user experiences. Everyone who plays The Republia Times will have a different experience. Some will quickly deduce the effect their editorial choices have whereas others won’t make the connection as easily. Different players will choose different sides and follow their own path to the end. And because the game is replayable, players can try different strategies and make different choices each time they play to test different strategies and hypotheses to explore the entirety of the game. All of this can add another layer of interest to classroom discussions.

I haven’t yet used this game with students in a classroom, but I would like to. Although government manipulation of the press could be a sensitive topic for some international students, this game is based in a clearly fictional country, which can make the topic abstract enough to make conversations more comfortable than, say, news articles about specific countries that students may have personal ties to. Additionally, the game and story are ripe for discussions like What is the author of the game is trying to communicate? Where does he stand on the issues described in the game? and What can you learn from this game, if anything?

The Republia Times is a good, quick, and free introduction to serious or art games. For a deeper dive into the genre, consider some of Lucas Pope’s other games: 6 Degrees of Sabotage (free), a game that explores the concept of six degrees of separation; The Sea Has No Claim (free), like Minesweeper but with more varied and limited resources; and Papers, Please ($9.99), a dystopian document thriller (watch the trailer here). Just because these games are serious, doesn’t mean they aren’t fun ways to begin some challenging conversations.

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