Monday, February 18, 2013

Which Language does the Word "Panacea" Come From?

There has been much talk of late about online courses and how they will revolutionize the University Experience. (Yes, I meant to put every word in that sentence exactly in that way)

I say much because, I am notoriously self-selecting when it comes to what I read online.  There was a time when I would read right-wing political blogs (and maybe troll a little..) but I stopped doing so mainly because I stopped browsing the Internet when I set up my RSS feed, which I now update about once a year with a new blog or two.

Anyway, to my feed came a whole bunch of posts critical of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses).  They basically all seem to be in response to this blog post by Clay Shirky.  These responses have been building steam, and over the past few weeks everything has kind of boiled over.  (By the way, I'm explaining this out loud in part because I have no idea who reads my blog anymore, and because you aren't me, I assume that you have not read the same bunch of pieces I have. The links in the previous sentence will get you much more up to speed than my explanation anyway.)

In light of all this, a comment on an another blog, Leiter Reports, struck me.  It's the first comment after the post, and what caught my attention, unsurprisingly, was the comment about how language schools like Berlitz eating into language teaching at Universities was likely a good thing. 

As a language instructor in a university, it's not surprising that this rubbed me the wrong way!  But it got me thinking -  What would be the effect of MOOCs on language courses?  How would something like that work?

I ask this because I can totally see university administrators thinking that language learning might be a great place to try this kind of approach, especially for first year students.  There are already tons of online resources, and it would "solve" the problem of low student/teacher ratios in language courses relative to other disciplines through the magic!  You just turn university language learning into Rosetta Stone and voila! 

It's true that many people think that the way languages are taught in universities is flawed, geared too much toward evaluating grammar and not enough about learning the language as a living means of communication.  In fact,  I think this is what the commenter was getting at.  At the same time, university language courses are still a pretty inexpensive and effective way to start learning a language, and to gauge whether or not one wants to continue learning the language or not.

Anyway, it seems obvious to me that a MOOC-style model for language instruction would be terrible, and it would be terrible in part because in order for it to not be just as (if not more) labour intensive than current language courses, it would essentially have to roll back the past 50 years of science and pedagogy on language learning and focus even more exclusively on grammar and vocab memorization than we already do now.

Why?  Well, it seems to me that if these courses are to be meaningful in the sense that they give someone a grade or a sense that they've learned something, if they're to be more than a list of youtube videos, they're going to have to test them. And the cheapest and easiest way to test people is going to be by designing tests that really entirely on right/wrong answers, like asking about the genders of nouns, or filling in the mission preposition or pronoun.

I mean, this is why math and computer science are seen as great models for online learning - the answers are usually just right/wrong. But you get outside of this incredibly narrow band of topics, and it seems impossible to imagine doing anything even remotely like this with respect to most things that we teach at a university.

In my experience, when it comes to language learning, the Internet is quite good at a few things.  It's pretty easy to find good learning resources (Deutsche Welle springs to mind) for self-study.  It's also easy to find things like anki or memrise, which are basically flashcard programs.  But very, very few people are going to learn a language from flash cards or games. 

However, it has also made things a lot worse when it comes to language instruction.  Google Translate, for example, is the bane of my existence.  Suddenly everyone thinks that the translation problem has been solved because you can simply type whole pages into Google and it will "translate" it for you.  The problem is that these translations are terrible, and it is also really easy to spot fakes from students who think that Google Translate will hide the fact that they didn't want to do the hard work of writing in the language they are learning.

How would an online course address this kind of stuff, beyond eliminating all writing and talking from evaluation, which are basically all the things that make learning a language possible?

Unlike math or computer science, which are taught in a language, language learning is about the medium of thought itself.   They require a kind of intense concentration and discipline that something like an online course simply cannot provide without a huge amount of labour.  And if all that labour is going into supporting an online course, why not make it much easier for everyone and just teach it in a room?

I know that a lot of the arguments for MOOCs have to do also with the idea of having access to the best professors at the best university, but again, I cannot really imagine that anyone taking German at some community college somehow believes that they would be better off learning German via video lectures from an Ive League professor.

Maybe there are world class instructors of German, but they are probably world class because of how they interact with students on a personal basis, and not simply that the words they use or the explanations they give magically have teaching power.  And a lot of their work is probably the constant cajoling and convincing an instructor has to give students in order to keep them from getting discouraged when it dawns on them that learning a language is actually one of the hardest things to do in university, and not a bird course you take to fulfill a breadth requirement,.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more this kind of argument seems to make absolutely no sense to me.  Yes, of course, there are terrible teachers out there, but the reality is that even a terrible teacher is going to provide more of a positive feedback loop to a student than the fill-in the blanks testing that a MOOC would have to depend on in order to justify itself from an economic perspective, and it would only wind up producing people who are even less knowledgeable about communicating in a foreign language than what is currently the norm in higher education!

That being said, if the long-term goal is to just eliminate languages from universities entirely, and leave it up to the private sector, then MOOCs are probably the way to go, because after a few years of teaching them, they can evaluate how well people did and declare that it was the languages themselves that were at fault, and not the technology.  We simply will not be able to afford to teach languages anymore because we have made everything around them so efficient that they look even more old-fashioned than now.

A depressing thought, but not at all inconsistent with the way people who are actually listened to ( as in, not me!) would argue this case.


smartygirl said...

I agree completely. The language I've been trying to learn of late is ASL (sign language), and after a number of (live, in-person) courses, a couple of things are painfully clear:

1. trying to think in a language other than your own is physically exhausting - if you are doing it right, you're wearing out your brain, and the people using google translate aren't getting that;

2. doing well in a testing environment is not the same as doing well in the real world. In my most recent course, after a week of immersion in the language, we were given a week to video & send in our final exam. My YouTube video was great. I got great marks for it. But despite doing well in a muc-rehearsed video with many re-takes, I still stumble and am overwhelmed in an actual conversation with a native speaker, because language is about communication, and communication is about meeting face-to-face. Making a video is not a reliable method of learning or testing at all.

I imagine that most MOOC students will have a bit of a rude awakening if confronted with a real-life situation where they need to use and understnad the language they have "learned."

Andrew W. said...

It's true - there are too many cultural and gestural cues also involved in learning a language that are that much harder to show clearly online.

It's when you reduce language to words and syntax where it gets both easy to test, but stop really resembling actual day to day language use.