Friday, August 17, 2012

Capacity focus, 55d: A specific application -- could a multimedia seminar room serving as language lab help with English Language remedial studies? What about multimedia-ready Tablet and Notebook or Netbook PCs?

(Two Sigma/Digital learning transformation series 
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 )

All across the nominally Anglophone Caribbean, English Language competence is a bugbear. 

Sometimes, even, among those who have passed their CXC's or the equivalent. 

So much so, that a key institution-based reader of this series has raised the question of using the ideas we have been discussing to address English Language remediation.

I think the key to this will be our confidence that with high interactivity, good feedback and a structured individualised mastery learning approach, we can see dramatically superior outcomes approaching that of the ideal 1:1 interaction Bloom raised in pointing to the two-sigma problem, as we have been discussing since the beginning of this series

Let us remind ourselves again, as the point Bloom brought to our attention is so revolutionary, so counter to our pre-existing notion that we have the "bright," the "average" and the "dunce" that we are prone to let it slip or to dismiss it:

In short, twenty-five years ago, Bloom -- you do not get more eminent than that in education -- and his colleagues showed that by shifting to the highly interactive, individualised, responsive approach that occurs naturally in a 1:1 tutorial setting, learning outcomes are so improved that a C student moves up two-sigma to being an A student and 98% are now passing. So the real challenge is to cost effectively capture the learning effectiveness gains in an affordable way. 

For that, I argue that modern multimedia computer technologies offer us a major opportunity. 

And, that is how I propose to tackle the specific challenge: mastering the artificial but important Standard English dialect, for "typical" reading, writing, listening and speaking tasks.

The main root of this challenge, of course, is that our street and home-level language experience is dominated by local, predominantly oral dialects that emerged over the course of our history. Nor should we neglect the slang and other informal varieties of English that come to us in ever so many ways on the street, including through popular music.

So, we need to start where we are, and find an individualised path to adequacy based on mastery of step by step tasks, each of which must be within reach. Where, obvious key themes include:
a: Understanding how our region's history has led to the various dialects of English that we experience, and how that can interfere with mastery of the Standard one. (And, I insist, Standard English is just another dialect.)

b: Appreciating why Standard English emerged as a reference variety and why it is so important in commerce, media, education, work, service and life. Namely, that standards are in-common.

c: The use of standard English in speaking and listening situations.

d: The use of standard English in text-oriented situations for reading, writing and spelling acceptably.

e: The use of standard English in public speaking, presentations, multimedia and traditional media.

f: Vocabulary, word power, problem-solving effectiveness and intelligence: words are major tools of thought and communication, so if we do not master them we can neither think nor communicate effectively.

g: Life-long learning of English: learning to be our own personal English tutors.

h: Etc.
There are two obvious technological interventions. 

First, the tablet and the netbook or notebook PCs are now routinely multimedia-capable and are capable of wireless web and local network connectivity, so they can serve as miniature language labs.

That potential is important, especially if we have headphones with boom-arm microphones [as we may use for a voice Skype chat session], keyboards and track-pads or mice etc. If the computing device has an SD card slot or the like, that allows for plugging in a module that can host software, creating a miniature "web" right there on the PC, maybe in a game-like environment or with slide show style lessons. (Smart phones will have a somewhat similar capability but will be much less standardised.)

The second possibility is to develop and use a web-connected, multimedia seminar room as a language lab. (I think as well, such a facility can serve as a lab for Mathematics, Technical Drawing and Design, basic Electronics and interfacing-control, basic Multimedia production, etc.)

A suggested layout is:

This suggestion is based on a facility I designed some years ago, and is meant to balance individual work with working together in small groups or as a whole group. Notice, it naturally allows oversight and supervision of work at a glance from the open end of the U. Some consideration should be given to using fairly thin clients for the student work stations on the U (but these should have SD slots that allow personalisation and boost capability). And of course, wireless capacity should be built in.

 The Cambridge GCE 1123 2014 English Language Syllabus -- the CXC syllabi are not accessible online -- gives us some idea of typical objectives for modern High School English courses:
A qualification in this syllabus demonstrates to universities and employers that candidates can communicate effectively in Standard English through:
•   communicative competence: the ability to communicate with clarity, relevance, accuracy and variety
•   creativity: the ability to use language, experience and imagination to respond to new situations, create original ideas and make a positive impact
•   critical skills: the ability to scan, filter and analyse different forms of information
•   cross-cultural awareness: the ability to engage with issues inside and outside own community, dealing with the familiar as well as the unfamiliar.  (This is not an assessment objective but forms the context of writing tasks and reading passages.)
 This is turned into assessment objectives:
R1   Understand explicit meanings, through literal and vocabulary questions.
R2   Understand implicit meanings and nuances of language, through inferential questions and questions on writer’s craft.
R3   Scan and analyse text, by identifying and summarising required information, such as similarities and differences, or advantages and disadvantages, or problems and solutions, or causes and effects, or
actions and consequences.
R4   Identify and respond to main ideas of a text, such as follow a sequence or argument, identify conclusion, distinguish fact from opinion, and give a personal response to a theme in a text. 
W1  Communicate appropriately, with a clear awareness of purpose, audience and register.
W2  Communicate clearly and develop ideas coherently, at word level, at sentence level and at whole text level.
W3  Use accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar.
W4  Communicate creatively, using a varied range of vocabulary, sentence structures and linguistic devices.
It is immediately obvious that listening and speaking (including e.g. on the telephone!), presenting and the like are not being assessed. I understand as well that, say, the CXC syllabus does include an emphasis on typical writing/reading situations such as personal or business letters, a job application, a magazine article, a semi-popular technical article, etc. CXC also includes a basic critical thinking unit. Given the institution in view, I think Bible reading, research and study skills would also be relevant as a build-on extension to critical thinking skills.

Grammar, spelling and the like are not emphasised, but may be important for those struggling with the difference between our regional dialects and the standard one. I am partial to the Reed-Kellogg diagramming approach (cf. also here and software here; [NB here on the subtle complexities in so "simple" a sentence as "See Spot run"] )to learning the structure of sentences and to understanding the various ways words communicate.

For the sheer joy of it, let me bring you (HT: Cecil Adams) a sentence diagram for See Spot Run:

In balance to this, Kitty Burns Florey has a few choice comments in a NYT article:
What does diagramming sentences teach us besides how to diagram sentences? I would answer: It teaches us a lot. First of all, it illuminates points of grammar. When constructing a diagram, we focus on the structures and patterns of language, and this can help us appreciate it as more than just a vehicle for expressing minimal ideas . . . When we unscrew a sentence, figure out what makes it tick and reassemble it, we interact with our old familiar language differently, more deeply, responding to the way its individual components fit together. Once we understand how sentences work (what’s going on? what action is taking place? who is doing it and to whom is it being done?), it’s harder to write an incorrect one. Diagramming is basically a puzzle, and — as we all know in this age of Alzheimer’s awareness — puzzles keep our brains working. An attempt to tame a really complex sentence can oil your brain, twist it into a pretzel and make it do back flips.

(A truly spectacular case in point is given, so do click on the link!)

For key specific instance: in the Caribbean, we often have major problems with subject-verb agreement and with tenses.

Vocabulary building and spelling challenges are important, also. 

This points to a place for vocabulary building reading and writing exercises and the provision of a spelling skills/dictionary access feature. (The utility of the dictionary is an excellent way to teach the value of correct spelling. And, yes, there may be an attitude challenge here. [That brings in the Bloom et al Affective Domain.)

Similarly, there is a major challenge with constructing written compositions and speeches, including the mystery of creating successive paragraphs.

As an aid, I suggest an extension of the classic introduction- body- conclusion format, one informed by the canons and principles of persuasion used in Rhetoric. Here, I of course emphasise Quintillian's ideal for persuasive communication: the good man, speaking well.

Or, writing -- or, presenting - well. (And, it is not just men . . . )

I suggest an extension to the classic 123-IBC approach (more details here):

Lead: The first thing you want to bring to the attention of the audience, to draw and hold attention, winning favourable or at least respectful attention.

Focal point: The main point you want to make or issue you want to address

Bridge to body: moving into how you are going to give supporting details, facts and reasoned argument. This may include an outline of what is to follow.
2 --> BODY:
In the body, the case in the main should be laid out, and anticipated objections countered. The main detailed points, are laid out in paragraphs with connectives that bridge from one to the next forming a smoothly flowing chain. A paragraph, being a unit of thought that starts from the communication situation in view if it is the opening one, or follows on from what preceded in the course of the communication, makes one main point that adds to the communication, and bridges to the next, or else draws the conclusion. (Cf. suggestions for teaching paragraph-writing skills here on.)

Summing up the case and again making the main point, inviting a response explicitly or implicitly.
(I think that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is an excellent case study, from a speech that is also a short newspaper-type opinion piece and essay that is ranked with The Sermon on the Mount for sheer impact. Of course, case study no 2, for the more extensive discourse, would be the famous sermon. And, for the more academic level of writing, I would point to Luke's opening remarks in the first four or so verses of his Gospel (in the context of the first several chapters), as a classic on how to make a thesis in a delicate situation and then begin an argument.)

To develop the content, I strongly suggest a software package that has already been highlighted in the Capacity Focus series as very useful for laying out learning frames in a presentation-style format suitable for education, XERTE.

The Web Language Lab site has a useful illustration of what is possible, even with fairly simple slide type learning frame presentations:

An example of a web-resident, slide-based teaching frame used for teaching language based on integrating text and audio with hyperlinks. Note the navigation panels, the multimedia element and the frame for text. The use of a fill in the blanks exercise for language instruction is particularly interesting. Notice as well, how a screen capture package has been used to turn the original lesson into a second tier of learning.
We could go on and on.

For instance, I strongly believe in the development of electronic course manuals, readers and workbooks, and suggest that something like the Risograph machine allows us to produce effective print materials at relatively low cost for short production runs.

Similarly, I advocate the good old three-ring binder folder and paper based exercises. There is nothing so flexible as pen or pencil and paper.

Speaking of which, I think that learning calligraphy using one of the inexpensive fountain pen based kits, would be an excellent and highly enjoyable way to practice writing and getting spelling right. (How painful it is to have drawn up a wonderfully attractive piece, only to see -- horrors -- it is spoiled because a word has been mis-spelled.)

And so forth.

Obviously, to develop a remedial English unit based on the ideas above would require significant effort and investment, initially. Also, it should be obvious that we are not going to get it perfectly right on the first pass, and across time there will be a desire to adjust and improve it. That points to a spiral development path, where successive versions of the curriculum are to be developed, tested, debugged and put to use then improved.

However, it seems quite feasible to use digital, multimedia approaches to dramatically improve remedial -- or first time through! -- English instruction in our region.

So, can we try? How soon can we start? END

F/N: Critical thinking skills (cf. online book and a discussion on teaching such skills) are a vital focus in an age of info-glut where ever so much rhetorical or outright propagandistic rubbish and misinformation or just plain sloppy thinking or ignorance on public display lie all around. Such materials, which can pose as education or corrections to imagined conspiracies, or exposes of targetted groups or institutions, are unfortunately persuasive- to- those- who- do- not- already- know- what- is- being- conveniently- left- out, but is not sound. We need to underscore that arguments persuade by appealing to our emotions, or to sources or presenters we think credible, or to facts and logic in light of "reasonable" assumptions and methods of inquiry. However, our emotions are no better than the quality of the underlying perceptions and judgements, no authority is better than his facts and reasoning in THIS case, and it is only when the true and decisive facts are in view, and are handled with good reason using reliable methods, that conclusions are trustworthy. And, often the most trustworthy conclusion is, we do not know for sure, though this seems likely. Students need to be given critical thinking primers (cf my example here) and need to be trained in Internet age research skills. They also need to know a bit about fallacies and sound and cogent reasoning in light of basic worldview issues.  For this last, I think a simplified version of the "turtles all the way down" discussion here on may be a point of departure.