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A markup language for language teachers

August 22, 2014

HTML rules the world. If you want to produce content for the broadest audience, content that lives across media, HTML is increasingly the format you need.

Yet, writing HTML by hand is a pain. To create this little bit of web content:


Listen to me

My ideas are important and emphatic.


You would need to write the following in HTML:

<h2>Listen to me</h2>
My ideas are <strong>important</strong> and <i>emphatic</i>.

For that reason, Markdown has arisen as a simplified markup for writing in HTML. Markdown essentially turns HTML into punctuation. Here’s the same content written in Markdown:

### Listen to me
My ideas are **important** and *emphatic*.

The text above can be put into Markdown editors like Mou, or in online text editors provided by Github and other platforms, and will result in fully-formed HTML.

Markdown supports more HTML features than I’ve shown here (adding links, images, etc.). An even more powerful markup language, Asciidoc, has arisen for books, allowing you to spin up the chapter titles, section titles, etc. for a book, through simple-to-type punctuation.

Read more…

Learning on Rails

August 16, 2014

Maybe this is a personal thing, but I never found those CD-ROMs you’d buy at the store, Rosetta Stone, or any of the other programs effective for learning a language. To me, they always felt like putting on blinders. I’d follow them from point A to point B, and my interest always lagged behind me. It lagged even when I had convinced myself that since the digital people who lived at point B spoke a certain way, I could speak like them and I’d become one of them.

The earliest approaches to computer assisted language learning (CALL) were brutally sequential. We still see that legacy in the some of the most prominent CALL products. This approach is not dissimilar from that of rail shooters like Area 51, in which gamers are carried through a sequence of scenes.


Area 51, an early rail shooter.

Read more…

The gathering of the edtechies

February 5, 2013

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of attending LearnLaunch’s first conference in Boston. The conference was a venue for entrepreneurs, educators, and investors to meet and discuss edtech in K12 and higher ed. There were two keynotes that I found particularly interesting.



Powerful image.


Anat Agarwal, President of EDx, gave a presentation about MOOCs, touching on:

  • the advantages of scale: MITx’s Circuits course had more students than MIT has graduated over the course of its history
  • quality control
  • learning analytics

From an instructional design perspective, the main takeaways were EDx’s focus on rapid feedback as well as self-paced learning. The delivery of EDx’s lectures is multimodal; learners may listen, they may watch at different speeds, or they may only read the transcript (which is to the right of the videos). Allowing learners to click “Continue” has been proven to greatly improve learning outcomes.

The audience asked typical questions about MOOCs:

  • Are some topics better for this mode of delivery than others? EDx’s flagship, the circuits course, is well-suited to the lecture, reading, and online lab format, while humanities is a different beast entirely. In response, Agarwal mentioned that, in the case of a humanities MOOC, a lot can be done with machine learning and peer-review.
  • What was the rationale for choosing the types of topics that you did? Agarwal emphasises that EDx is a non-profit, and that, if he really wanted to make money, he would focus entirely on comp sci, like the for-profit Udacity.
  • How do we prevent cheating? Especially when we are providing a certificate. For some certificates, EDx is partnering with Pearson VUE to provide formalized assessment within actual test centres.



The publishers are that tiny sliver in the top right.


After Agarwal, Seth Reynolds of Parthenon Group provided a slightly skeptical view of edtech. He’s seen utopian promises for IT in education come and go throughout his entire career. In particular, he’s concerned about the sorts of “schlock” we sometimes end up giving to schools. What’s schlock? IT without context, without pedagogical rationale. Think “Here are your iPads, now do something!”

Alot of his presentation was geared towards entrepreneurs. He emphasized that education, in the States at least, is an institutional market, and there are many barriers to to innovation. Purchasers are innovation resistant, and new products can often require changes to ages-old professional practice.

One reason for optimism, on the other hand, is that the infrastructure is greatly improved (IT is cheaper), and user comfort is increasing (IT is more ubiquitous).

In agreement with Agarwal, Reynolds says that environments like MOOCs expose the quality of teaching, and allow us a renewed focus. Often in higher ed, professors have a pedagogical approach that, for lack of a euphemism, could just be called “exposure of brilliance”. We are now in a position to ask “What is quality in higher education?” and we have the “high n’s” (thousands of students and associated big data) to start defining quality.

Here are the positive examples in the K12 space that Reynolds mentioned:

There were some other interesting moments (in particular, a panel in which two of the participants’ organizations were in active litigation against another’s) but I thought I’d share the two keynotes.

A lingua franca for edtech

December 8, 2012

tin can phone by K!T on flickr

Hot off the presses at TechCrunch is a piece about OnTract, a new startup billed as a “” for data analytics. It’s not alone; we’ve also got alwaysprepped and, I’m sure, countless other start-ups trying to alleviate the hassle that teachers have in finding, using, and assessing educational technology.

We’ve also got the recent development of Tin Can API, a more flexible version of SCORM that allows LMSs and other online platforms to talk to each other, and can turn any online event into a report of informal learning. (here‘s a nice introduction)

It strikes me that most edtech startups are trying to do it all, particularly ones that are offering a discrete service. Everyone has to create their own LMS, their own front-end, their own marketing, and the arduous process of fitting into the purchasing schedules of educational institutions.

As this space matures, we’re starting to see a global framework developing.

If this trend continues, the barrier to adopting an edtech service for a classroom will decrease, since it will ‘plug and play’ directly into your data reporting. This further suggests online marketplaces in the mold of iTunes or Steam: publisher agnostic, offering front-end ease-of-use and a single place where edtech services compete on merit.

For edtech providers, this will mean that they can tighten their focus on the service, the back-end, with the goal of occupying a strong position in the online learning ecosystem. For content providers, this can mean a renewed focus on content — a “digital-first” strategy — and less of a focus on developing their own platforms. A lingua franca for edtech is really going to clarify everyone’s roles.

These heavy beasts

October 31, 2012

Two years ago I did the hippie thing of giving away / selling most of my possessions. I had been living abroad and slowly whittling down the things I considered essential, and the monthly cost of storage of things I clearly didn’t need was starting to drag me down. So, I gave away my kitchen items, a lot of clothes, sold my car, and gave away my books.

What a poignant moment. I remember my last glance at all my print books. They looked like empty jewel cases; artifacts of an earlier, blockier time.

Do you feel the same?

Somehow, language education publishing has resisted this. Lucky for the print publishers, you can’t put a language textbook on the Kindle.

Am I just old fashioned? In my head I’ve silently mocked people who ‘just like the feel of the paper book’. Like, get with the times, man. The singularity’s coming, just jump right in. Yet when it’s time to study languages I have no choice but to carry these around.

Just moved to Boston for a new job. Besides my bag of clothes, all I’ve got is my laptop, my kindle, and these heavy beasts.

I’ll admit it. I ‘just like the feel of the paper book’.

  • First off, just like with any reference work, language learning books require jumping around from page to page, something that is clunky on the Kindle.
  • There’s also the matter of writing on the margins. There’s the muscle-memory boost you get from writing it down. The more ways you experience the word (even in a crudely physical sense of passing it from your head, to your tongue, to your hands) the stronger the connections, and the more durable the word is in your head.
  • Then there’s the matter of interactivity — our old standbys: multiple choice, fill in the gaps, matching, reordering. While these lend themselves very well to online environments, there’s still the fact that your finished work, as a language learner, is itself a reference item, an artifact of your learning. In well-designed textbooks, the activities are designed with this in mind.

In fact, activities I’ve completed myself are often more important for me, upon reflection, than the standard grammar presentations in the books. There’s the flexibility of navigation that online platforms have yet to achieve.

This flexibility is essential, and, paradoxically, best achieved with print books. Every learner takes a different path through the material, and uses each activity in different ways. One reason I’m such a big fan of the Teach Yourself series of books is that the learning, for me at least, often occurs in the activities; i.e., there’s a sense of exploration in the activities, which themselves are not just ‘practice’ of ‘presented’ language (in our hoary PPP model) but rather an opportunity to see jarring new words and grammatical forms in an interactive context.

Online environments often reduce the language learning material to one use case, and strip the learners of any metacognitive agency in their own learning.

Snake oil.

All this said, I work in educational technology and I use technology to help my language study. SRS plays a strong role in my vocab work, Evernote and Instapaper are essential for finding authentic texts, and Learning with Texts (or its more friendly online alternative, Lingq) is sometimes a great way to incorporate vocabulary work with reading. Pleco has found novel ways of teaching Chinese writing and even brings augmented reality into the app. I’m curious to see how, in the near future, we’ll create interfaces that provide more flexibility and connectivity, and allow each learner to create their own path through authentic materials, so that they learn, in that complete and bodily sense, with the same strength as if they were scribbling on the margins of a pulped dead tree with a pen.

What are some other benefits of print textbooks? And how are we learning to replicate that online?

Best quote about learning languages?

April 12, 2012

‘You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbrush will grow the pine tree,
and instead of briars the myrtle will grow.’

(Isaiah, 53: 12-13, quoted in Dörnyei, ‘The Psychology of the Language Learner’.)


Altyn Arashan mountains, Kyrgyzstan

The language learning teacher

March 19, 2012

It’s a bittersweet time for language education these days.

On one hand, new ways of communicating, organizing data, and interacting with learning content offer a lot of promise for learners looking for more intensive and efficient language study as well as ways to save money. The internet offers a lot of promise for rapid, relevant materials development.

On the other hand, publishers are having a difficult time adapting to this new marketplace. We are seeing what looks like a slow-motion collapse of higher education in the U.S., with online solutions offering non-competitive economies of scale and the value of the college degree itself being called into question. Teachers are caught in the middle of this, given millions of digital tools but no methodology for using them.

The upcoming age of massive online enrollment (Khan Academy, Udemy, MITx, etc.) and high-volume analytics could push aside time-trusted pedagogy, the same way that 3D movies result in piss-poor writing by abandoning storytelling for the enchantment of a new form.

For those working in edtech, for publishers or start-ups, there’s the incessant stream of RSS, platform developments, Apple announcements + a constant sputter of tweets and hashtags that create both an atmosphere of revolutionary excitement and the sense that at any moment the world could leave you behind.

Yangshuo, Guangxi, China

For that reason, it was a welcome vacation from my edtech career to spend two weeks at Omeida Academy. It’s located in a village called Yangshuo, smack dab in the middle of the iconic karst landscape of Guangxi. The school teaches Mandarin Chinese to foreigners as well as English to Chinese students, so it’s a great center of learning. Bonus: the town’s culinary specialties are snails and beer fish.

All students have lunch and dinner together. It fosters a sort of ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling between the foreign students and the Chinese students, who talk to each other over lunch and over ping pong. I liked the sense that I was digging towards them and they were digging towards me.

As an educator and learner (in which order, I’m not sure) this trip served multiple purposes. I was a double-agent, attempting to learn Chinese while also immersing myself in the language learning classroom as a student. This provoked a few thoughts about language education and technology.

  1. People sometimes ask me how to get started learning a language. My immediate answer now is that they should do a weeklong intensive course. It will help them get started with pronunciation, which is the base from which all other study should follow. You don’t want to start consolidating vocabulary until you’ve got the pronunciation down. (That is, if you can afford it! Otherwise, I’d recommend an audio course like Teach Yourself, Pimsleur, Assimil, or Michel Thomas, with the caveat that you will learn much more in an intensive course in a week than you would learn in the ~90 hours of a Pimsleur course. Still, it’s better than nothing.) A week or two of intensive study lays a solid foundation for solo study. Particularly w/r/t pronunciation and common beginner mistakes.
  2. The classroom is itself a ‘memory palace’ – it needs to be full of cues and useful information. Omeida does this well by labeling objects – light switch, window, classroom, etc. but there’s much more that could be done, particularly with displays and augmented reality applications.
  3. Emphasis on L2-language-only should be instituted ASAP. This means having a handy reference to common classroom phrases listed somewhere in plain view in the classroom. (“What does it mean?” “Which tone is that?” “How do I say …” “I don’t understand” “I forgot” “I haven’t had my coffee yet, be easy on me.”)
  4. 1-1 lets you go your own pace, but group classes can be better, if you have a good partner. Especially if you are a little competitive. For me, this makes the Michel Thomas audio series such a uniquely useful resource. You’re in a class with two other students, and one of them seems to constantly make mistakes. The Michel Thomas audio method, while designed for solo use, takes advantage of those affective, social elements of learning.
  5. Comprehensible input exposure is best. This is where the language teacher is best seen as ‘sage on the side’, or a curator of comprehensible input. ‘Materials’ in themselves are not the be-all-end-all, if you have a proper teacher. Materials are useful as an arbitrary guidepost that helps maintain flow. They are catalysts / prompts / stimuli. The experienced teacher knows how to guide you through topics and knows the general order by which you should learn.
  6. The paradox of language learning, however, is that anything that makes language learning easier might also make it harder. The nature of automated assessment often entails an over-reliance on simple metrics plus a very short time-span. Short term retention is often at odds with longer-term retention. I.e., the struggle to remember helps you remember.
  7. The more that students have an active say in the type of content being discussed, the more they are motivated and the more they will learn. Connectivist approaches to education suggest that the more we lay out a learning path for a student, the less they learn. Better to have students form their own path through material based on what speaks to them the most.
  8. One important innovation is allowing students to frictionlessly push any classroom-produced language into an SRS (spaced repetition software) workflow. I’ve seen that with one student who uses Pleco (an iOS app that combines Chinese dictionaries with SRS) in the classroom, and doesn’t even use a pen and paper anymore. Every new word or phrase brought up in classroom is immediately placed into his SRS.
  9. Language learning methods that take you away from the bare bones of language learning – communication, experimentation – will ultimately fail. This is true for many of the first generation CALL applications – they often treat language as a discrete set of knowledge to be downloaded by the learner (think grammatical rules, vocabulary lists, etc.) I shudder to think what my Chinese would be like if I did Rosetta Stone for those 60 hours instead of going to Omeida.
  10. For that reason, technology is best seen as catalysing the organic process of learning languages, rendering frictionless the ways we manage information (i.e. vocabulary) that before were ungainly to maintain (i.e. involving flashcards, notebooks, blackboards).

Moving forward: technological innovation in language education should involve on-the-ground studies of language learners, with two goals:

  1. Taking the ways that learners learn language (in the most traditional sense!) and finding interface solutions that render the most useful parts of this as frictionless as possible. Examples: vocabulary management, note-taking, managing classroom-produced language, finding related content, looking up language information.
  2. THEN using best-language-learner studies to also promote a sort of ‘language learner best practice’ through, again, interface design on a particular platform. Examples: metacognitive skills like prioritization and self-assessment, intrinsic motivation, multimedia exposure.

This is nothing new under the sun. Technology should not ignore the role of the teacher; rather we should find ways of rendering concrete the pragmatic and conceptual methods that excellent teachers use in the classroom. Ways of controlling a learning path, presenting language, and motivating learners in the classroom context might just translate over to interface design. This means abandoning a content-based approach to educational software design for a behavioral one.