Tag Archives: educational

History For All

roman colliseum

How Earth Made Us is a documentary series produced by the BBC.  Like many BBC programs, the cinematography is spectacular.  But, perhaps more interesting, is the approach the program takes to history.  Instead of only examining human interactions, the program focuses on how natural forces such as geology, geography, and climate have shaped history.  And, the whole series is available on YouTube.

In the first episode, Water, host Iain Stewart explores the effects that extreme conditions have had on human development.  He visits the Sahara Desert, which receives less than a centimeter of rainfall each year, and Tonlé Sap, which swells to become the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia during monsoon season.  The contrast is striking.  One interesting factoid is that the world’s reservoirs now hold 10,000 cubic kilometers of water (2400 cubic miles).  Because most of these reservoirs are in the northern hemisphere, they have actually affected the earth’s rotation very slightly.

The second episode, Deep Earth, begins in a stunning crystal cave in Mexico, in which crystals have grown to several meters long.  The cave, which is five kilometers below the earth’s surface, was discovered by accident when miners broke into it.  I can’t imagine what they thought when they first set foot inside.

The third episode, Wind, explores the tradewinds which spread trade and colonization, which lead to the beginning of globalization.  This brought fortune to some who exploited resources and tragedy to others who were enslaved.  The view from the doorway through which thousands of Africans passed on their way to the Americas is a chilling reminder of this period of history.

Fire, the fourth episode, moves from cultures that held the flame as sacred, to the role of carbon in everything from plants to diamonds to flames.  And carbon is also the basis of petroleum, which has powered the growth of humankind.  Several methods of extracting crude oil around the world are explored.

The final episode, Human Planet, turns the equation around tying the first four episodes together by looking at how humans have had an impact on the earth. One of the most compelling examples is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is the result of ocean currents bringing plastic and other debris from countries around the Pacific rim.  This garbage collects, is broken down by the sun, and eventually settles to the bottom to become part of the earth’s crust.  This is juxtaposed to rock strata in the Grand Canyon, pointing out that eventually, one layer of rock under the garbage patch in the Pacific will be made up of this debris.

In all, there is almost 5 hours of documentary video here.  It is a compelling production with spectacular imagery.  There are any number of ways to use these videos with an ESL class.  And because they are available on YouTube, there are even more options available to an ESL instructor.  Instead of everyone watching together in the classroom, the videos can be posted in an online content management system and students can watch them anywhere, anytime on their laptops and smartphones, if they have access to that kind of technology.  And if the videos are being watched outside of the classroom, there are more options for assigning different groups of students to watch different videos and then have conversations with students who watched different episodes.  The ubiquity of online video can bring learning to students outside of the classroom.

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Mashup Your Theory

The above video applies Bloom’s Taxonomy, a classic theory of learning, to one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  While some of the examples in this video are a bit of a reach, this is an interesting way to explore an educational theory.

This sort of project may be a bit beyond most ESL students, but what about teachers in training?  Demonstrating understanding of a theory by identifying examples of it in a movie would be a lot more fun and creative than writing a paper about it.

When I was in graduate school, we often analyzed student development theory as it played out in The Breakfast Club and its five archetypal characters.  How do Chickering’s seven vectors of personal development explain the actions of John Bender, for example.  Now that digital video editing can be done on a laptop, these kinds of mashups are easy to do.  Are there any other good examples out there?

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Se un perdedor

Part of the chorus in Loser by Beck, above, is soy un perdedor, which translates to I am a loser.  The title of this post is se un perdedor which translates to Be a loser, an important distinction.

After reading 10 Key Principles for Designing Video Games for Foreign Language Learning, I’ve been stuck on the first principle: At least as much thought needs to go into the design of failure states as for success states.

In very robust commercial games, it can be fun to lose.  In fact, sometimes half the fun is trying to break the game just to see what happens.  In racing games, it can be fun to try to crash spectacularly.  In a first person shooter, it might be fun to shoot your teammates or other good guys, just to see what happens.  Sim City has natural disasters that players can trigger because sometimes destroying a city simulation is just as important as building one.

Because making mistakes is a part of learning, it stands to reason that educational and language learning games should be fun to lose at.  But are they?  I can’t think of many examples in which losing is fun.  Simple drill and kill games or hangman variants certainly are not (unless you really like to see the hangman hang, and eventually we all do.)

It’s important to account for this kind of curiosity when designing a game, because players will (presumably) lose, or at least make mistakes, quite often.  If this experience is an enjoyable part of the process, they will want to try again, which is the whole point, isn’t it?  Play the game more to keep learning.

This is taken into account in Blank Or Blank, a concordancer game I’m working on that I’ve written about before.  By giving students control of the search terms and the corpus in which the terms are searched, students can try searching for two grammatically related terms (like go and goes) but also try something fun (such as kill and love) to try to break the game or at least use it in a new way.

In fact, if we view language learning itself as a game, or at least a puzzle, we can clearly see that students will lose (or make mistakes) far more often than they win (communicate comprehensibly), especially in the very beginning.  Later in their learning, as winning is redefined (as making no mistakes or as speaking with a minimal accent, for example), they will still lose occasionally.

One of the promises of computer mediated communication for language learning is the low-stakes, face-saving nature of communicating via a computer instead of face-to-face with a real, live person.  If the process of losing / making mistakes can be made fun and interesting, the game will be more fun and more useful because students will be more likely to learn more by playing the game repeatedly.

Are there many learning games where it’s fun to se un perdedor?

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Augmented Reality Games

augmented reality on iphone

Virtually like the real world.

I’ve been thinking about digital games for language learning quite a bit lately and a number of questions have come up, the biggest of which is:  Why are so many educational games so lame?  I love the idea of learning through play, but many educational games fail to move past drill-and-kill exercises.  When you compare this to commercially available immersive games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto, there is a remarkable gap.

For a while, I thought Second Life held some potential because that virtual environment could be designed and built specifically for a given topic.  But building in Second Life (at least to me) proved to be extremely time-intensive and I didn’t feel like the results were worth the energy I had to invest.

The notion of augmented reality has also been floating around in my subconscious for a while, but it never really stuck; it’s really cool, but how could I work with it?  All of these things coalesced for me today after sitting through a couple of presentations at CALICO.

Julie Sykes, who developed an immersive gaming environment focused on Spanish pragmatics called Croquelandia, has been working on a mobile place-based murder / mystery game for learning Spanish in an historic  neighborhood near the University of New Mexico campus.  The iPod / iPhone-based game, called Mentira, is built on the ARIS platform, which makes it very easy to cut and paste text and other media files into a branching story line to create the game.  To progress through the story, students have to input clues from the real environment (the street address of the old church, for example) to unlock parts of the story.  (An alternative would be to use GPS to unlock the story when students actually visited the location, but this would require iPhones and exclude iPod Touches.)

I was most amazed by the forehead-slappingly simple concept that we don’t need to create a virtual world for students to interact with because there is a pretty robust world right outside the classroom for them to interact with.  And finding a target language-rich environment is even easier if the target language is English (at least for me).

It’s soon to be a cliche (if it isn’t already) but being able to take a computer into the real world so easily is going to be a game changer.  Think of botany students looking up plants on their smartphones.  It’s been said that there are no more arguments about baseball statistics in sportsbars because it’s too easy to get the answers to that information.  Information is literally at our finger tips.  But I digress.

The user experience within a place-based game like Mentira, if well designed, can compete with big commercial games because it can be specifically tailored right down to the details of a given neighborhood.  Instead of taking time to create dazzling multi-media experiences, educators can really focus on the content.  And, being text-based, lowers the barrier even further.  Julie reported that her students were eager to contribute to the story and some had plans to use ARIS to create their own games.  Enabling students to become game-producers, not just players — in their target language — is astounding to me.

I’m not sure that a game that sends students into the real world will be able to lower their affective filters or allow them to have multiple repeat experiences if they want to practice in the same way as a relatively low-risk virtual environment might.  But a game could be designed to be played several times with different outcomes.  There is also a potential risk in sending students out into the world, depending on where they are sent (clearly this is not the time to recreate Grand Theft Auto) but the risk could certainly be minimized.  It’s also important to respect the real residents of the real world into which students are sent.  Having them congregate on someone’s front lawn to solve a mystery likely would not be appreciated.  Julie reported that some residents were eager to talk about their neighborhood with her students and even seemed flattered that their neighborhood was chosen.  This is the ideal to strive for.

Unfortunately, ARIS just updated it’s app and as of today there are only four ARIS games available.  Several others, including Mentira were built on a previous version which means it will take some work to get the game moved onto the new platform.  I will update this post if / when it becomes available.  In the meantime, we have to make due with this trailer which can be downloaded from the ARIS Games website.  The trailer serves as the introduction to the game and does a nice job setting the tone for the game.  Unfortunately, it just makes me want to play the game even more.

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Assessment Blues

Baby Blues Panel #1 11/20/09 - Teacher asks if everyone understands the chapter: "Yes!"

Is this assessment? Click the panel to see the rest of the panel.

I came across this Baby Blues comic one Sunday morning last fall and it made me think about how we assess our students.  The first panel, above, shows a teacher asking her class a pretty typical question: Does everyone understand this chapter?  And the class gives an emphatic YES! in response.  This is great, right?  Click the link or on the panel to read the whole thing.  Go ahead.  I can wait.

Did you read it?  It didn’t turn out the way we expect when we ask this question as teachers.  I think this comic struck a nerve with me because I have looked out at classroom-fulls of students and seen blank facial expressions that can be difficult to interpret.  Is a student totally lost, unsure of how to connect new information to old?  Or are we moving too slowly causing the student to become bored and tune out?  The same blank stare can hide either reaction to my teaching.  And, as this comic points out, our first reaction, asking if everyone understands, may not clarify the situation.

There are technical innovations such as clickers that might allow students to provide honest, anonymous feedback.  (I envision students turning dials as if watching candidates making election speeches and causing a pointer to draw a line somewhere between “I get it – teach faster” and “I don’t get it – slow down”.)  While this might be valuable, and maybe even accurate, feedback, I’m not sure it’s a practical solution.  But it would be nice to know if the instincts we use to pace our teaching are accurate, at least in the students’ opinion.

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MERLOT: Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching

Search MERLOT for online resources.

Search MERLOT for online resources.

I came across MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) in a TELR workshop recently.  I’ve been thinking about how ESL classes could be moved online and MERLOT was suggested as a place I might find some learning objects (reusable components of an online course).

While it wasn’t quite as simple as that, I did find a number of good resources.  One qualification: like many online resources, MERLOT does have some dead links and out-of-date activities, but at least there were plenty to choose from.  Try a search for “English grammar” and you’ll find lots of materials and promising leads.  The bad news is that it all feels a little like Yahoo circa 1996.  Although there are options for users to rate items, this system is not widely used and, in some cases, possibly outdated.  Many of the materials appear the be the work of single teachers doing yeoman’s work to create textbooks from scratch (Net Grammar), clearinghouses for their online materials (Edict Virtual Language Center), and drill-and-kill exerices and quizzes (English Works!, Interactive Quizzes at Capital Community College’s Guide to Grammar and Writing).

Although MERLOT makes an attempt to organize these resources, one still has to do some pretty deep wading to find useful resources.  A search returns a list, like Yahoo once did.  What is needed is something more Google-like: an algorithm-based system for sorting the wheat from the chaff.  Even better would be a proliferation of intelligent CALL (ICALL) materials (like WERTi) that would include tools to create exercises from existing content.  This is more a criticism of ESL CALL materials in general, than it is of MERLOT.  Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

Find something you like on MERLOT?  Leave a comment and share it.

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