Grassroots language technology: Glenys Hanson, esl-exos.info

“Grassroots entrepreneurship” was listed as one of four characteristics that ELTJam says1 one can use to understand the current so called ed-tech movement and/or revolution. The others being money, disruption, polarisation/controversy.

Amongst the examples they gave of such entrepreneurship initiatives was Marie Goodwin2, a teacher who wanted a platform to help kids with reading3. The grassroots language technology series is trying to show that many teachers are doing similar, probably much smaller and mostly non-commercial, projects.

Our next person in the series is Glenys Hanson,  @GlenysHanson, who I first met on an online pronunciation course. Many thanks to Glenys for sharing her experiences.

1. Can you share a bit about your background?

Glenys: I’m from Wales but I’ve been living in France for nearly 50 years. I was an English as a foreign language teacher at the Centre de linguistique appliqué, Université de Franche-Comté, from 1977 to 2010. I started making sites and interactive exercises while I was there. Starting in 2001, I created what became English Online France, a site of resources for people learning English and their teachers. It still exists with most of the content I created but the presentation has changed.

For the university, I also ran about a dozen distance learning courses on the learning management system, Moodle. These were at “licence” and “masters” level and though they included interactive exercises much of the course work was different kinds of tasks. Half the students were in Africa so they were not blended courses.

I also made a large bilingual site for the association Une Education Pour Demain but their current site is not the one I created. My most recent site is Glenys Hanson’s Blog.

2. What motivated you to set up your online exercises site?

Glenys: I’d originally put my exercises on the English Online France site but by now many of them look very old-fashioned and I feel they need pedagogical updating too. As I’ve retired, I no longer have admin access to my former workplace site so decided to put the revamped versions on my own site: ESL EXOS.

The reason I decided to put learning exercises on line was that I couldn’t find any on the Internet to give my students the kind of practice I felt they needed outside of class. These days it is possible to find a few learning exercises but still not very many. There are, of course, thousands of tests, quizzes and games for English learners but hardly any exercises aiming to help students to discover for themselves how the language functions. Many (?most) teachers don’t even realise that there is a difference between testing and learning exercises.

3. What kind of time commitment is required to design the exercises?

Glenys: People who ask this question seldom go on to make on-line exercises. What great footballer started out by asking “What kind of time commitment is required to learn football?” Either you’re bitten by the bug and just love doing it or you don’t do it at all.

If you want a figure, I’ve read that it takes about 10h of development (pedagogical inspiration, technical realisation plus testing) to create a set of exercises that will take 1h for a student to do. Of course, that hour can be done by hundreds and even thousands of students over and over again.

In fact, learning to use an authoring program such as Hot Potatoes or TexToys is quite quick. It can take less than an hour for a newbie to make a simple MCQ or Cloze exercise. There are other authoring programs, usually Flash based, but they limit you to the question types the creators have determined on. “Out of the box” Hot Potatoes exercises look boring and old-fashioned, but the code can be “hacked” to produce an infinite variety of exercises types and graphic styles.

4. To what extent would you recommend other teachers to try to develop similar language tools?

Glenys: First teachers should determine whether or not they really need to. If they can find exercises that already exist on the Internet that suit the needs of their students, they can simply provide their students with lists of links. There’s no point in duplicating work that exists and is freely available. In the past, I created some listening and reading exercises but I haven’t revised them to put them on ESL EXOS because there’s a lot of good stuff already out there.

Another reason for teachers to create their own exercises is because they need to track and grade their students’ work. Systems like Moodle come with their own built in quiz tools. Moodle’s is very good but if the teacher ever decides to leave Moodle they can’t take the quizzes with them. Hot Potatoes creates web pages which can easily be moved around different types of site. They can also be integrated into Moodle in a way that allows students’ work to be tracked and graded. I’m not sure to what extent this is possible on other LMSs.

The third thing I would recommend is to start on this sort of stuff as young as possible: like learning to drive, it’s a doddle when you’re 15, it’s not when you’re 50. I had no choice – it just wasn’t around when I was young.

5. Do you recommend/know of other non-commercial language tech sites?

Glenys: Not sure what you mean by “language tech sites”. I know of a number of sites created by people who started out as language teachers and who have gone into the technical side of things in different ways.

  • Martin Holmes started out as an English teacher and went on to create Textoys and, with Stewart Arniel, Hot Potatoes. Martin and Stewart are no longer developing Hot Potatoes, but Stan Bogdanov, also an English teacher, is. On his site you can find his Hot Potatoes add-ons. He hosts those created by Michael Rottmeier and Agnès Simonet as well. Stan is also in the process of making versions of Hot Potaotes that will work on mobile devices. At the moment, some do and some don’t.
  • Michael Marzio’s Real English site of videoed street interviews accompanied by interactive exercises is free but funded by ads. A wonderful site!
  • Todd Beuckens’ ELLLO site of short videos of young people discussing a wide range of subjects.
  • Deborah Delin’s Strivney is a Moodle site for children learning English. As well as hundreds of Hot Potatoes exercises, she’s made some amazing Flash ones too. Log in to see, for example: Beginners English – A Rod.
  • Ángel Terán not a language teacher but his LyricsTraining site is a great tool for language learning. It’s a commercial company but free to use on line.
  • Max Bury creates software and has a lot of stimulating blog posts about learning.

References:

1. IATEFL2015 video: An engaged tone: how ELT might handle the ‘EdTech revolution’

2. ELT Entrepreneur – Marie Goodwyn

3. Bright-Stream

Advertisements

Grassroots language technology: Mike Boyle, easytweets.net

Mike Boyle, @heyboyle, talks about why he has decided to learn to code and take on technology projects to help language learners. A huge thanks to Mike for taking the time to respond, you can read about Paul Raine chatting grassroots language tech if you haven’t already. If you are someone or know someone developing their own language technology please do get in touch.

1. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Mike: I’ve been in English education my whole adult life: first as an EFL teacher in Japan and New York, later as an editor at OUP and CUP, then most recently as a freelance editor and author. I’m part of the English File author team and have had a hand in lots of other big coursebooks, as well as cool digital products like Newsmart.

Before I started the Web Development Immersive course at General Assembly, I thought I also had a solid background in technology. I’d been exposed to computers at a young age and had played with Logo and Basic as a kid, and I knew how to use Dropbox and my iPhone, so I was tech-savvy, right? After just a couple of days it was clear that there was a whole universe of tech that I knew nothing about.

2. What initially made you want to get into coding?

Mike: I had felt for a long time that there were a lot of cool things that could be done online to help people learn new languages. I was always surprised or puzzled that a lot of the language-learning tech coming out didn’t take advantage of all of the possibilities out there.

So my initial motivation was to learn the basics of development so that I could start my own language learning company. I wanted to know just enough to be able to hire “real” developers without seeming like a total fool. A few weeks into it, I realized that I actually really really loved coding and wanted to dive much deeper into that world. So although I still want to be an edtech entrepreneur in the future, what I want to do for now is continue learning and building more things myself.

3. What are the ideas you are developing at the moment?

Mike: Right now I’m working on easytweets.net, a site for learners that filters real Tweets based on the user’s interests and ability level. It uses the Cambridge English Profile vocabulary list and a custom algorithm to analyze tweets and group them into three levels: easy (A1/A2), medium (B1/B2), and difficult (C1/C2). The beta is actually working pretty well, and I encourage everyone to check it out and send me suggestions at eesytweets@gmail.com.

4. What ideas do you have for the  future?

Mike: The biggest problem for most learners is that they spend thousands upon thousands of hours in the classroom, but only the tiniest fraction of that time is spent actually using the language to communicate. I think we can do better. We live in a world where almost all of our students have a device in their pocket that could connect them in seconds with someone who not only speaks the language they want to learn, but also has something in common with them. It’s a very complicated challenge but my ultimate goal is to solve it.

5. What kind of time commitment is needed to develop programs?

Mike: Coding is really really REALLY hard. If you want to build a dynamic site that actually allows users to submit, save, and retrieve information, there are many many long hours that go into that. Unexpected problems can crop up anywhere and nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The average consumer is very spoiled and assumes that websites “just work,” when in fact those “simple” sites are the result of dozens or hundreds (or thousands!) of engineers working 12-hour days for years. The course has definitely given me a lot of sympathy for broken sites!

And during the course I also encountered some people who said, “Well, I read ‘HTML for Dummies.’ I know all of that.” Or people who had set up their blog on WordPress and were pretty sure they were already 95% of the way to making websites from scratch. But that’s just not the case.

It’s true that with a little knowledge you can write a little HTML form and view it on your web browser in a few minutes. But how do you put that form on the actual Internet so that other people can fill it out? And then what happens when your user hits submit? How do you capture that input? There’s no HTML for that. It happens on a server, so you have to write a server, and that means you need to learn another language like Ruby or Python, and you need to learn what SQL is so you can save and retrieve that info, and that means you need to learn what a database really is.

I had always assumed that databases were just really big Excel files but they are nothing like that at all. And then how do you make sure that your user doesn’t user your HTML form to inject viruses and malicious code into your site? And what if you want to have more than one page on your site? Or — even more difficult — what if you want your users to do all kinds of actions without ever leaving the current page?

So the list of things to learn is really endless, and the commitment is huge. But it’s amazing fun. There’s a really interesting challenge at every turn.

5. To what extent, if any, would there be positive aspects for people in ELT to seriously consider developing their own digital tools?

Mike: I think that everyone in ELT should get into this. Our students are living their lives online so we need to give them better ways to learn in that world. Knowing a little code or a lot of code can help you build your own things, or work more effectively with the people you hire/work with who build those things. Just knowing what’s easy to do and what’s hard to do is incredibly valuable.

6. What advice would you give for anyone interested in starting to code?

Mike: Definitely dive into it and start trying to build the things you imagine. I made the choice to go to General Assembly and I would definitely recommend that to anyone who is willing to completely give up three months of their life to do it. But you can learn to code on your own. Even at General Assembly the real emphasis was on learning how to learn — teaching yourself and developing your own problem-solving skills.

I would start learning with HTML and CSS, then move to JavaScript and Ruby. There are great free or cheap tutorial sites like codecademy.com, codeschool.com, learncodethehardway.org, and teamtreehouse.com.  But by far, the most important website for people learning code is google. Learning how to read error messages and google them is a vitally important skill. The next most important site is a Q&A site for coders called stackoverflow.com

When you want to build a real website, you’ll need to learn how to use the command line/terminal on your computer, which sounds terrifying but is actually great fun. Spend a day at http://cli.learncodethehardway.org/ and you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll also need a text editor (not MS Word) to write your code in. Two of the most popular free ones are Sublime Text (http://www.sublimetext.com/) and Atom (https://atom.io/). And then finally when you want to actually put your website online, there are free or cheap sites like www.bitballoon.com (for simple HTML/CSS/Javascript sites) and www.heroku.com (for larger more complex sites).

Grassroots language technology: Paul Raine, Apps4Efl

Grassroots language technology is about teachers and students developing digital tools to address classroom needs and situations. It is about the struggle with and resistance to funded commercial parties who are looking to provide their own services and promote their own interests. It is about little data over big data (after Gavin Dudeney1), teacher flexibility over algorithmic adaptivity, and community needs over corporate greed.

Last but not least it is an excuse to blog 🙂

Paul Raine (@paul_sensei) developer of Apps4EFL kindly answered some questions about creating digital tools for use with students. This might turn into a series of such posts so if you are someone or know someone doing this kind of stuff do let me know.

1. Can you tell me a little about your background?

Paul: I was born and raised in the UK, studied Imaginative Writing and then Law at university, then took the CELTA and came to Japan to teach English in 2006. I’ve always been interested in programming and computers since a young age, and first started coding in BASIC, but I’ve never had any formal training or education in programming. After getting an MA in TEFL in 2012, I moved into university English teaching, and currently teach at three universities in the Tokyo area.

2. What was the first tool you developed for students?

Paul: I started with just a list of websites that I thought were useful for teachers and learners of English. However, the first “proper” web-app was Wiki Cloze. I wanted to develop a way for students to pedagogically engage with the vast range of Wikipedia articles, and telling them just to “read” Wikipedia wasn’t really working. They needed a more structured approach. Cloze creation is a relatively straight forward coding task, so this was my initial idea. It later expanded to include other study activities, such as quizzes and vocabulary matching.

3. How did you decide the tools to develop for Apps4EFL?

Paul: Most of the tools on Apps 4 EFL have been driven by freely available creative commons data. The amount of freely available English language learning data on the internet is incredible, but it’s not always served in a way that is easy to digest for learners themselves. So most of the apps have come out of finding a new source of creative commons data – Wikipedia articles for Wiki Cloze, the Tatoeba corpus for Sentence Builder, etc. Once I have acquired the data, I start working on the interface and try to make a game or activity that is engaging and intuitive as well as pedagogically effective.

4. How do you test your tools with students?

Paul: I start with a very basic prototype of the app and just let the students try it out on a limited basis. I fix bugs as and when they are spotted, and add features based on student feedback and my own observations in lessons. Once an app is stable, I open it up to the general public, and hopefully receive further feedback. Wiki Cloze has gone through the most development of all my apps as it has expanded quite a lot from my original idea, and development is still ongoing. Other apps have already reached a natural development plateau, and I hope they serve a useful purpose for what they are.

5. Do you have any new tools in the pipeline?

Paul: My latest app is called Quiz Vid, which is a way for both learners to take and teachers to easily create listening quizzes for any YouTube video. It’s still undergoing further development, but a basic version is available now. I have a couple more ideas lined up for this year. One will hopefully allow students to watch YouTube videos and “speak along”, i.e. say the same lines as the characters or actors in the video, and have their pronunciation checked by the computer. Another idea is an app for multi-path stories, again focusing on speaking. However, the web technologies involved are still very new, so browser compatibility may be limited at first.

6. How can teachers interested in developing their own tools get started?

Paul: I use HTML, PHP, CSS, and JavaScript to create my web-apps. There are a lot of good introductory books on these technologies, and for complete beginners the “The complete idiots guide to..” series may be a good starting point. Lynda.com also features a wide range of (commercial) video tutorials on these technologies, and a vast range of others. YouTube can also be an invaluable resource, as well as a good old-fashioned Google search. For individuals who have some experience with coding or scripting, Stack Overflow is the best place to go to improve your knowledge further, get coding questions answered, and find snippets of code for addressing specific problems.

7. To what extent, if any, would there be positive aspects for teachers to seriously consider developing their own digital tools?

Paul: This is a very important question, I think. For university level teachers, at least, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of academic recognition for developing these kind of tools. Old fashioned ink on paper research articles and books still seem to serve you better on your CV. Having said that, some ELT organizations (such as the British Council) are starting to recognize digital tools in their award programs.

Additionally, there has been a big shift recently toward “blended learning” in ELT curricula. Teachers are at least expected to know how to use existing digital tools, if not create them themselves. My motivation for becoming a creator rather than just a user of such tools was that I could get far more control over the tool, and make it do exactly what I want it to do. I also don’t have to worry about my students suddenly hitting a “pay wall”, which often happens with the other “freemium” or commercial tools out there.

Finally, I think the move toward digital tools over traditional ink and paper / chalk and talk pedagogy is only going to continue in the future. Tech know-how, from maintaining and administering an LMS, to actually creating your own applications, is going to become essential for all educators. Students born and raised with these technologies are going to expect their teachers to know how to exploit them effectively.

8. Do you know of any other teachers doing similar stuff i.e. small scale not commercially?

Paul: I have a few colleagues and acquaintances here in Japan who are involved in similar things. Oliver Rose is behind Phrase Maze, and a number of other language learning apps, several of which you can play for free online. Dr. Charles Browne is one of the minds behind the Online Graded Text Editor , a free web-based app which makes writing graded readers easier. Although I’m not sure if Oliver and Charles are involved in the actual coding of their apps, I do know that Charles Kelly is the main coder behind manythings.org, which features a vast array of free games and activities for language learners.

9. Anything else you would like to add?

Paul: I am always looking for collaboration opportunities, as well as feedback on the site and ideas or suggests for improvements. I hope the Apps 4 EFL user base continues to expand, and both teachers and learners of English across the world find it a useful resource.

Thanks for reading and a huge thanks to Paul and his digital tools.

References:

1. Gavin Dudeney, Of big data and little data

Update:

A nice interview of Paul over on the DML blog (which is very much worth checking for digital tools related writings and teaching).