Tag Archives: diy

DIY Virtual Language Lab?

ipad typewriter

I heard a story on NPR the other morning that got me thinking about hackers.  Not the type that break into computer systems to steal credit card numbers, but the kind that like to take existing technologies and repurpose them.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you won’t be surprised to learn I consider myself to be a bit of a hacker by this latter definition.

Hackerspaces have opened up in cities across the U.S. and around the world.  Think of these as clubs where like-minded people can share tools and expertise in order to collaborate as well as further their own projects.  Here in Columbus, Ohio, we have the Idea Foundry.  I haven’t been there yet, but the range of projects and classes on the website are intriguing.

So, what is the ESL equivalent?  And, a related question is, could Language Labs serve the same purpose?  I’ve taught in programs that do and don’t have language labs.  And the current trend I’m seeing in our program is that almost every student brings a laptop from home or buys one when she gets here.  Although I know this is a reflection of the demographics of our specific population and is certainly not the case for all ESL students, technology is becoming more and more prevalent.  Could a distributed model of a language lab (i.e. each student has one computer, so the lab is wherever the students are) be a good model?

I’ve always been a big proponent of exploiting Course Management Systems (CMSs) that make it easy for teachers to post supplemental materials online for students to access.  Taken a step further, materials could be made available in a way that students could access them and use them individually in a language-lab-like way.  The difference would be that instead of a whole class marching to a lab to sit together for an hour, students could access “the lab” from the library, a coffee shop, or their own home.  And the motivated ones could do so for more than the prescribed time.

Would this be better for students?  I think it depends on what resources are made available to students and how they are instructed to use them.  Finding some level-appropriate reading would be helpful.  Working through an online workbook might also be useful.  But do those options really allow a student to explore, be creative and become hackers with the language?  Perhaps a bigger question is, have ESL resources really moved forward along with other advances in technology (internet compatibility, web 2.0, connecting users to other users)?  Some of the resources I’ve posted on this blog have potential, but overall, I’m not sure that educational technologies have taken full advantage of these advances.

How would you design your own virtual language lab if each of your students had a computer?  How would you create an environment in which students learn by exploring the language?  Share your ideas in the comments below.

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Edupunk Eye-Tracking = DIY Research

One of my favorite presentations at the 2011 Ohio University CALL Conference was made by Jeff Kuhn who presented a small research study he’d done using the above eye-tracking device that he put together himself.

If you’re not familiar with eye-tracking, it’s a technology that records what an person is looking at and for how long.  In the example video below, which uses the technology to examine the use of a website, the path that the eyes take is represented by a line.  A circle represents each time the eye pauses, with larger circles indicating longer pauses.  This information can be viewed as a session map of all of the circles (0:45) and as a heat map of the areas of concentration (1:15).

This second video shows how this technology can be used in an academic context to study reading.  Notice how the reader’s eyes do not move smoothly and that the pauses occur for different lengths of time.

Jeff’s study examined the noticing of errors.  He tracked the eyes of four ESL students as they read passages with errors and found that they spent an extra 500 milliseconds on errors that they noticed.  (Some learners are not ready to notice some errors.  The participants in the study did not pause on those errors.)

The study was interesting, but the hardware Jeff built to do the study was completely captivating to me.  He started by removing the infrared filter from a web cam and mounting it to a bike helmet using a piece of scrap metal, some rubber bands and zip ties.  Then he made a couple of infrared LED arrays to shine infrared light towards the eyes being tracked.  As that light is reflected by the eyes, it is picked up by the webcam, and translated into data by the free, open-source Ogama Gaze Tracker.

So, instead of acquiring access to a specialized eye-tracking station costing thousands of dollars, Jeff has built a similar device for a little over a hundred bucks, most of which went to the infrared LED arrays.  With a handful of these devices deployed, almost anyone could gather a large volume of eye-tracking data quickly and cheaply.

Incidentally, if you are thinking that there are a few similarities between this project and the wii-based interactive whiteboard, a personal favorite, there are several: Both cut the price of hardware by a factor of at least ten and probably closer to one hundred, both use free open-source software, both use infrared LEDs (though this point is mostly a coincidence), both have ties to gaming (the interactive whiteboard is based on a Nintendo controller; eye-tracking software is being used and refined by gamers to select targets in first-person shooters), and both are excellent examples of the ethos of edupunk, which embraces a DIY approach to education.

Do you know of other interesting edupunk projects?  Leave a comment.


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DIY Gaming Droid

R2D2 gaming console

I’ve posted about several diy projects before including my USB hub and card reader that I made out of an old Nintendo NES controller, but this project takes that idea to the extreme.

Take a lifesize R2D2 cooler and cram it full of every gaming system you own (eight, in total) and a projector and this is what you get.  See complete details on popsci.com.  Educational?  Hardly.  Inspirational?  Totally (at least, to me).

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Edupunk: Lego Printer

It’s a bit random, but this YouTube video of a DIY Lego printer was recommended to me by a friend.  (Thanks, Lorrie!)  It’s not directly related to ESL, but it would probably give your students something to talk about.  I’ve always enjoyed seeing projects like this ever since building a $50 Interactive Whiteboard.  With the rise of Instructables.com and other open source and DIY sites, it’s amazing what people are able to build for themselves.  Having a team of Lego people “controlling” the printer is a really nice touch.


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Making Friends at the Airport

An old extension cord makes new friends.

An old extension cord makes new friends.

Although I’ve kept this technology blog going for a little over a year now, I’m hardly a gadget geek.  Consequently, I’m not that guy at the airport juggling the laptop, cell phones, pda, digital camera, etc.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit of an edupunk: I like the challenge of hacking together affordable technology to wring every last ounce of usability from it.  Or maybe it’s just my lack of disposable income. Either way, I just don’t obsess over all the latest gadgets.

I do have a laptop that I use a lot, though, and I had it open in the airport recently when I found myself sitting next to that guy: He was pulling phone numbers from his laptop which he kept dialing to follow up with sales calls during which he made several references to the various cities and airports he had visited in the past week.

Of course he was talking loud enough for everyone to hear and of course he had two chargers plugged into one of the few electrical outlets in the boarding area for my gate.  I was planning to top up the battery in my laptop for the next leg of my flight, but there was nowhere to plug in.  What to do?  Easy.

A $5 commercial version.

A $5 commercial version.

I had brought along my three-way splitter which I cobbled together from an old three-way extension cord.  (I had used the long cord to make a formerly hard-wired flourescent light plugable and was left with this one foot piece to which I added a $2 replacement plug head.)  Of course, there are plenty of reasonably priced commercial options available, too.

I walked up to that guy, caught his attention, and gestured to my splitter and his chargers.  He gave me a quick be-my-guest wave and kept talking.  I unplugged one of his chargers, and plugged my splitter into the wall.  Into the splitter, I plugged his charger, my laptop charger, and the mp3 player of another passenger.  Instantly, I’m the life of the departure lounge.

If you travel with a laptop, cell phone, or other device that requires charging, bring one of these devices.  You’ll always have a place to plug in your charger and you might even earn some travel karma by helping out a gadget geek in need.

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Edupunks unite!

From “Jargon Watch” in Wired Magazine, October 2008:

Edupunk.  n.  Avoiding mainstream teaching tools like Powerpoint and Blackboard, edupunks bring the rebellious attitude and DIY ehos of '70s bands like the Clash to the classroom.

Edupunk posterboy, Jim Groom.  The next Che Guevara?

Edupunk posterboy, Jim Groom. The next Che Guevara?

This really struck a chord with me. (I associate edupunks more closely with cyberpunks and steampunks than punk rockers, but the attitude is about right.) Recently, I’ve been kicking around the idea of a conference presentation on this theme with a colleague of mine, Matt at KSA.

We’ve been struck both by the variety of great technology that is becoming available to educators and by the cost of distributing it widely.  With this in mind, I present my list of Shiny New Technologies and edupunk workarounds.

Clearly, the cheap / free versions require more work.  But, as Matt pointed out to me, these technologies are much more responsive to user requests for features.  Communities of users exist that work together to make changes and improvements very quickly.  Something that doesn’t happen with larger, corporate versions.

Can you think of other examples?  Leave me a comment.


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