My top 6 tech tools for language learning

First, a quick life update – the reason this blog hasn’t been updated in a little while is that I have started a new job, in a new city, teaching in a school for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Blogging has taken a bit of a back seat as I have been settling in to my new life, but I hope to pick up again as I start exploring how we can use technology in our setting to meet the individual needs of the young people. I will continue to look at overall ed-tech issues, but there will be an increasing focus on how this applies in the setting of a small specialist school.

But I really wanted to talk right now about language learning.  A year ago I finally got the chance to do something about being an embarrassingly monolingual Brit – a few months free to travel in Latin America and learn Spanish along the way. This turned out to also be a great way to explore using new technology for learning. I discovered that there are amazing tools out there that can help you connect with people, keep motivated and take control of your own learning journey, and new ones are appearing at an amazing rate. Here are the tools that have been of the most use to me personally.

  1. Blogs
    I have to give a huge mention to the blog that started me off along this path – Fluent in 3 months. The author, ‘Benny the Irish Polyglot’ has an infectious enthusiasm and belief in the power of getting out there and talking. Reading this blog got me to make the decision to cut out English almost completely for the first three months of my trip. It also led me to pretty much all the other tools and ideas mentioned below. There are other great language learning blogs out there, but simply working your way through the Fluent in 3 Months posts from the beginning will set you well on the path to learning any language.
  2. Social networking
    How do you really learn a language? You talk to people in that language. What the internet can do is connect us to people who are happy to speak to struggling learners. Which social network works best for you may vary depending on where you are and who you want to meet.
    – If you are in the UK and want to find a language exchange group to meet up with in real life, try Meetup
    – If you are travelling, Couchsurfing or similar may work best – you can find people to stay with, but even if that does not appeal there are great meet up events, or you can simply find somebody to have a drink with or show you around the city you are visiting.
    – If you want to find foreign language speakers to talk to online, either as paid teachers or as exchange partners, Italki comes highly recommended. I have not used this one myself, but it is a social networking site designed for finding language learning partners or teachers for online chatting.
    In addition I have used Facebook, Skype and Google Hangouts for keeping in touch with the great people I’ve met. There is nothing like a quick Instant Message chat to keep your reading and writing sharp and keep you in touch with colloquial language. Just learn to stay off these sites in your time set aside for studying!
  3. Duolingo
    For me, Duolingo has been an incredible tool. It is a free online language learning tool/game where you transcribe, translate or repeat sentences to slowly work through increasingly challenging lessons. You can also help translate the internet by contributing to crowd-sourced translations of online documents.
    The main reason Duolingo has worked so well for me is that it is easy to use ‘little and often’. It can be hard to pick up your language books, your flashcards, your pen and paper every single day, but it is easy to do a couple of five minute online exercises to keep things ticking over, and this little by little approach builds to a powerful amount of learning over time.
    This is a brand new tool, but has blown me away. It probably best suits intermediate to advanced language learners who can enjoy reading some texts in the target language. is a browser extension. It begins with basic dictionary type functionality – you can click on a foreign language word and it gives you translations. The clever part is that it saves the words you have looked up, and feeds them back to you, spaced out according to theories of long term memory encoding, as mini flash-card style quizzes. You therefore gradually build up a personal vocabulary learning list while reading whatever interests you.
    This is studying by stealth. I love it. It means you can follow your interests and study at the same time, learning the vocabulary that you need and studying almost effortlessly. I think this type of learning tool could become more and more important for a wider range of applications in the future – imagine a tool that highlighted examples of figurative language in whatever you were reading and saved them for later review. Or a tool that plucked out the real life maths from newspaper articles and gave mini puzzles based on your current learning goals.
  5. Translation Tools / Apps
    An obvious one, but not to be underestimated. The availability of fast improving translation tools is fantastic for language learning. Like Wikipedia, translation tools can lead you astray if you are not careful but with a little knowledge and application they can take you leaps ahead, helping you out with vocabulary and pronunciation and as scaffolding for being able to smoothly communicate and read at a more functional level while learning. Often it is these simple (but very clever) tools that have the biggest impact.
  6. E-reader
    How else would you carry a comprehensive dictionary, language learning textbooks and books with you as you travel the world? Also worth noting is that there are (at least for Spanish) cheap and cheerful stories available for download that are specifically written for language learners. I recommend getting an e-reader that is single purpose (no games or internet) to help you focus.

In short, despite the ominous stories on the lack of language studying in Schools and Universities, there has never been a better time to learn another language. The interesting question is, does this mean we don’t need teachers? I haven’t had a single formal language lesson yet but have learned a huge amount. What is the role for a human teacher among all these options?

I am not a language teacher. I would love to know if there are there any teachers out there using these tools to good effect in the classroom? Can tools that work so well for self-teaching translate to the school environment? Do teachers see learning through technology as an opportunity or a threat?

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Million dollar TED prize goes to Sugata Mitra

Congratulations to Sugata Mitra, who has been awarded the first ever TED prize – a million dollar grant that will go towards piloting the creation of ‘Cloud Schools’. These will be Self Organised Learning Environments (SOLEs) – places where children come to learn, guided by their own curiosity and interest.

This is really exciting news. The Hole in the Wall project and follow up work have offered a truly radical vision for a new model of education driven by children themselves. The trend in education in recent years – more assessment, more testing, more control – has, I feel, moved education in a dangerous direction where the whole underlying reasons for learning are systematically undermined. The idea of child-driven learning and self-organised learning environments being put forward by Sugata could be one way to begin to change this. It also raises possibilities of much greater access to quality education in developing country contexts.

This research does raise a vast number of questions. Hopefully this TED award will draw more ideas and critical voices to this debate and develop, question and test these ideas. Audrey Watters, perhaps the most consistently thoughtful and challenging critical voices in the Ed Tech blogging world, has been already asking some great questions on twitter:

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Kahn Academy Lite

Kahn Academy Lite Website

I’ve just come across this really great project – creating an offline version of the Kahn Academy that can run across a network and gather student data in the same way as the full online version. It looks like a really great idea, and will run even on super cheap hardware like the Raspberry Pi. If you know anyone working in education in poorer countries, or anywhere with internet connection issues and a wish to explore computer based learning, please let them know this exists – it could have a real impact!

I’m working on a longer post about Kahn Academy and it’s detractors, and I think this project is a good example of how some of the criticisms – which tend to focus on the impact of KA in developed countries – miss the wider benefits of the Kahn Academy project providing a high quality set of resources available for free worldwide.

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Embedding Prezi presentations into WordPress

For my last post I embedded a Prezi presentation. This took a little tweaking, as none of the advice on the internet quite worked. I think Prezi have slightly changed the way the site gives the embed code and this has messed up people’s workarounds. So I though I should share what worked for me, which is a tweak of the workaround here (page in french)

My workaround:

  1. Copy and paste the following code into your ‘text’ tab on wordpress:
  1. Go to the prezi ‘share’ page and select the ‘Viewing’ tab.
  2. Copy the text between and the next forwardslash – for my presentation this is 12 characters.
  3. Paste this text into the code on your blog (still on the ‘text’ tab’) in place of YOUR_PREZI_ID_HERE
  4. Don’t worry if the code shows up as text when you switch back to the ‘visual’ tab, it should be recognised correctly once you publish.
  5. Cross your fingers
  6. Publish!

Does this work for you?

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A Better Education Machine

This is a presentation I made to explain my philosophy of technology in education.

I would love any feedback. Is the presentation clear and easy to understand? Do you agree with my ideas? Do you like Prezi as a presentation medium?

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BETT 2013 – Ten things I learned

BETT is the biggest educational technology conference in the UK and took place over the weekend. Here’s a little of what I learned while visiting.

  1. Grannies are key for self-organised learning. The ‘Granny Cloud’ is an army of online grannies recruited by Sugata Mitra to say nice things to children across the world through the internet. The basic premise is that kids in a self-organised learning environment thrive with praise and encouragement, not interference. And Grannies are the best at this!
  2. Scratch is taking over. And with good reason. Scratch is a super easy to use and free programming language from MIT. From the evidence at BETT is seems it is quickly becoming a top choice for schools wanting to dip their toes into programming.
  3. The best primary schools are far more innovative than secondary schools with ICT and different ways to learn. Which means that kids may well be going from creating 3-D models of ancient pyramids and programming their own computer games in year 5 and 6, to tedious tasks with Word and Excel once they hit secondary school.
  4. Free and open beats expensive and locked down almost every time. Almost every example of deeply inspiring work that I saw discussed was done with free or open source technology – Scratch, Google sketch up/apps/earth/art, Class blogging, Voicethread. One big exception, at least for now, is specialist accessibility software such as Proloq2go or Gridmaker.
  5. The days of the learning management system are numbered. It’s all moving to the cloud. Big providers like RM and HP are trying to carve out a new niche – providing a single log in to manage pupil’s access to multiple cloud-based services. Now online learning providers need to make sure they can help schools access usage and progress data in useful ways.
  6. The future must be device independent and cloud based. Whether or not every school goes for ‘Bring your own device’ policies, it seems to me that there is no longer a reason for schools to have to stick to one type of device. Cloud services can do everything that in house servers once did, and different devices will suit different purposes. And more flexibility for schools will lead to more productive competition between suppliers.
  7. Coding is undergoing a renaissance. There’s a few reasons for this – the upcoming addition of Computer Science to the Ebacc, more ways to learn to program online, Scratch (spotting a theme yet?), and perhaps most importantly, the Smartphone revolution. Creating and publishing your own programmes is now more accessible than ever.
  8. US startups/non profits don’t go to British Ed-tech Conferences. No sign of Edmodo, Class Dojo, Kahn Academy or Quizlet even though the British equivalents seem to be a long way behind in the quality of their products. I’m not sure if these companies are not interested in the UK market, biding their time, or just hoping for bottom-up adoption by teachers through word of mouth.
  9. Everybody is using PreziAnd it makes me feel a bit ill.
  10. Making a sarcastic comment about Michael Gove gets a cheap laugh. Every time.

Sugata Mitra’s talk was my highlight, and I’ll discuss it more in a follow up post. A very rough summary is: kids can teach themselves anything (including degree-level biochemistry), and kids that do this enjoy themselves, retain more, and build important social skills and learning habits. Oh, and by the way, schooling as we know it is obsolete.

What did you get out of BETT? Do you agree schooling is obsolete? Do you think Michael Gove is funny? Let me know in the comments below.

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Education is Sharing

"BRAIN HUE Collection by Emilio Garcia" from Lapolab on Flickr

This is my response to the first assignment for the Openness in Education MOOC (more info)

The assignment: Think back to a time when you learned something you really value from someone. Write a blog post in which you tell the story of that learning experience using the language of sharing instead of the language of education. What did the other person share with you? What did you share back with them? How many times did you iterate through this cycle of sharing? How was your relationship with the other person transformed (if at all) as you shared with them?

One of my favourite sharing experiences was a Cognitive Neuropsychology module towards the end of my university degree course in Cognitive Science.  I learned about cutting edge research in different aspects of cognitive neuropsychology, such as attempts to build up models of neural processing at different levels working towards a full model of consciousness, memory and attention. In many ways this course was a culmination of the disparate threads that had made up our course up to that point – elements of psychology, artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind.

What was it that made this a memorable sharing experience for me? I think there were a few things:

  • The course was well structured, with interesting learning materials, and a knowledgable and inspiring facilitator who was skilled in managing discussions.
  • We had time to study alone – go off and read, and work on our essays – which suits me. I need individual time to absorb material at my own pace.
  • The seminars were focused and structured around sharing from all participants, and the small size of this group allowed us to have a say.
  • Being assigned different readings to report on made sure that everybody had something valuable of their own to contribute.
  • Pretty much everybody in the group was highly motivated. We had all made it this two and a half years into a tricky and unusual degree. There was a high rate of attrition of people switching to one of the three specialisms that made up the subject, so those that made it this far tended to have a deep and genuine interest .
  • I got a lot out of the course because I felt confident enough to share. It was a subject I have a passion for, with a group of people that I already knew well. Nearly all the group seemed to feel similarly comfortable in this way.

The structure was simple – we would read around the topics in our own time, and get together for a tutorial to hear input from the course leader and share our own thoughts and understanding. We also shared summaries of research papers that had been assigned to us, as well as our own theories on the wider implications of the findings. The course leader, an inspiring psychologist, also shared some fascinating titbits from his own specialist field – abnormal sexual behaviour (he specialised in research into of the psychology of abnormal sexual behaviour, not in carrying it out…).

We met weekly for twelve weeks. The initial sessions were more based on sharing from the course leader, with our input mainly being to show understanding, but as the weeks progressed our own ideas and responses became more and more important. For many of us, the sharing of ideas would often continue past the allotted time over coffee or a pint in the union bar after the seminars.

I think this course strengthened many relationships within our group. By this point in our degree course the small group of cognitive scientists were working on dissertations in different departments and taking many different modules, so this chance to come together as a smaller group and discuss some of the most fascinating implications of our studies kept us connected, which in turn facilitated sharing in other areas.

A final reflection – I realised when thinking about my response to this question, and beginning to think about learning as sharing, that I don’t share unless I feel pretty confident that what I am sharing is good enough. I don’t think that I am along in this.

Perhaps along with the inner two year old that David mentions in his TEDx talk , many of us also have an inner heckler. Our inner heckler tells us that we don’t have anything worthwhile to add. I think this is a key thing to keep in mind when designing open, sharing based education experiences – how do we reduce the fear of judgement and make people feel comfortable enough to contribute?

Photo by Lapolab on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) Licence

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The new face of online learning – Diving into MOOCs

I am beginning my studies towards a MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course*.  Actually, I’m starting at least two. I’m killing two birds with one stone here – experiencing new forms of online learning as a learner, and learning stuff.

The first is David Wiley’s Canvas course Introduction to Openness in Education, described as a ‘broad but shallow’ introduction to the field of open education. This course will involve me blogging, and perhaps posting videos or other media, as my response to each module. These posts will be tagged with  ioe13. Incidentally, David Wiley’s TEDx talk on why openness is fundamental to education is well worth a look. This course looks to be (as you would expect by the content) very focused on sharing and connecting.

The other is Havard’s CS50 on EdX, an introduction to computer science course that I’m taking to refresh my dormant programming skills and set me up for delving deeper into the skills needed to making my own learning tools. So far I am very impressed – good content, automatic checking of assignments, differentiated tasks. One especially neat feature is the ability to watch lectures at 0.75, 1, 1.5 or 2 times the normal speed, perfect for the attention-challenged and impatient like me. The content seems very well structured too, clear and step-by-step, but with plenty of options to challenge those with more experience.

*  If you haven’t come across MOOCs before, have a read of this for a decent overview. Or, you know, google it.

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Welcome to Edtech Explorer

'Welcome Mat' by alborzshawn on flickr

Hi there. Take a seat, make yourself at home.

Welcome to Edtech Explorer. This is my place to share, reflect and make connections in my journey into the world of educational technology. I will be writing about all aspects of using technology to re-imagine schooling and education.

I’m especially interested in how technology can help those who often get the worst deal from current educational structures, such as:
– Children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
– Learners who for whatever reason don’t have access to great teachers, and teachers who don’t have access to great teacher training.
– Learners with dyslexia, social difficulties or attention problems.
– And all the oddballs, visionaries, creatives, dropouts and obsessives who don’t tend to fit into prescribed boxes and timetables.

I know technology isn’t a magic bullet. It is important that we hold on to what we already do well, and bring in changes in a careful and evaluated well. But I think that education as an industry is (or at certainly should be) on the cusp of a hugely disruptive and exciting change that could make much better use of the internet’s potential to enable sharing knowledge, connecting people and adapting instruction to every learner. There are incredible innovations making waves already – the Kahn Academy, MOOCS, Quizlet, Manga High, Edmodo, to name just a few – but we are still just scratching the surface of what is possible.

So I hope you’ll join me on my adventure as I hack through the jungle of social networking, trek the vast plains of gamification, cross the treacherous river of standardised testing, and scale the snow-capped mountains of personalization before falling headlong into the bottomless canyon of over-stretched metaphors.

Photo by alborzshawn on flickr, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

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