Archive for category Reactions

Should I use a Kindle in class?

An interesting article from the Guardian showed up in my inbox this morning: Kindle’s English language teaching role ‘re-examined’. It’s about how the US State Department cancelled a project to use Kindles with their global English language programs. While neither the State Department nor Amazon stated the reason for the cancelled program, they simply said that they needed to do more research, The Guardian speculated that part of the problem may be some of the problems associated with mobile learning specifically and blended learning in general.

One quote that jumped out at me, “there appeared to have been little focus on exactly how the Kindles would be integrated into current education programmes.” The article goes on to say that focusing on the technology for technology’s sake and not on what and how the students are supposed to learn has caused several other technology-based programs to fail.

This is a problem that I see all the time, on both large-scale, school-wide projects and on a smaller class by class or even activity by activity basis. Many people get so focused on what they can a do with technology that they forget to ask themselves: is using this technology the best way to achieve the curriculum objectives? In my opinion, more often than not, the answer to that question is no.

As stated in the article, the problem with technology is “a lot of people get excited when they see the device” but that excitement does not equal learning. I think that people often mistake excitement for engagement and/or motivation, but excitement wears off quickly and if the technology is not appropriate, than in my experience, students will abandon it.

I do think that there is a place for technology in learning, but I think that it should only be used when appropriate. Just because you can do something with technology, doesn’t mean that you should.

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Another round of testing…

So this weekend is the “Center Exam” in Japan — the largest university entrance exam. This of course has me wondering about what my students are going to be like year and thinking about the state of education in Japanese universities in general.

The Japan Times published a pretty good overview of the problems facing Japanese universities this week. It is well worth the read. A couple of quotes jumped out at me.

“The decline [in academic abilities] is not because Japanese are studying less, but because universities — amid the falling birthrate and greater competition to keep enrollment up- are increasingly accepting youths whose academic levels would have been too low”

This is absolutely true. I’ve seen it firsthand in the last eight years that I’ve been teaching at universities here. My first year teaching one of my biggest concerns was making sure that I was using materials that weren’t too difficult. Now, it’s convincing the students to buy the textbook and to bring it to class.

“Keeping the door open to people who want to go to college is not a bad thing, but universities must make students hit the books harder and make it more difficult to graduate”

I totally agree. I have no problem with so-called open university enrollment — I went to an open enrollment undergraduate university — but the flip side of open enrollment is not only that students actually have to prove themselves, but also that not everyone gets to graduate. I’ve worked at five different tertiary educational institutions here and at every single one of them, I have been pressured to pass students who didn’t deserve it.

Of course changing things is easier said than done. Education is such a complex problem and it is so hard to know where to begin to fix it. If universities were to start kicking students out after their first or second year, than in order to stay financially solvent, they would have to start admitting more and more first year students. Which would mean more faculty, specifically more adjunct faculty. But not just instructors, they would need more administrators. Universities would also need more classrooms, bigger campuses, more facilities. It’s not a simple problem.

“Accepting more foreign students with strong skills and knowledge will improve the overall academic achievement statistics.”

In my experience this usually doesn’t work. Two things generally happen with the international students. First (and this is the most common) international students become just as lazy as the Japanese students. This is human nature. Why should these students study any harder than anyone else? There is no reason to; so they don’t. Second, if they are truly motivated and want to learn, they leave.

It is such a complex problem and one that is way above my pay-grade to fix. I just hope that next year my students are decent kids who approach studying English, and the university experience in general, with an open mind. I hope that they are willing to trust me and are willing to try. But they probably won’t be.

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Students texting in class? I don’t care…

I came across an infographic the other day about university students using cellphones. I won’t embed it, but you can find it HERE. I don’t like infographics because they are basically a list of statistics/facts that are presented without context leaving the reader to make their own inferences/conclusion about what they mean. As a university educator, I didn’t find any of the data that revealing. The fact is that most students use a smartphone and most of them use it all the time. My guess is that if someone were to survey just about any segment of society they would find similar results: business people use cellphones every day, medical professionals use cellphones every day, lawyers use cellphones every day, etc.

I guess that some people might be upset about students using their smartphones in class especially that they are texting in class, but I have a different take on it. First off, I encourage my students to use their smartphones in class; after all they are great resources. I have my students look up words in the dictionary; I have them consult Google/Wikipedia. That’s easy to understand, but what most people would find strange is that I don’t have a problem with my students texting in class.

I guess it is because I have a little bit different take on the purpose of a liberal arts education. The truth of the matter is that few of my students are going to be historians, economists or use literature in a meaningful way. Most of them are going to be white-collar workers in an industry that they know very little about when they start. What a liberal arts education teaches students (and what employers expect from graduates) is the ability to work independently without constant supervision, to be able to handle abstract, hard to understand information. That they can negotiate a bureaucracy; that they have time management and multitasking skills, etc. A student has to be able to do all of these things in order to graduate and if they can do these things, they will be a successful white-collar worker.

How does this relate to texting? Well, I imagine that my students will find themselves in business meetings where they need to pay attention, be actively engaged in the meeting and still be able to receive/reply to texts from clients/customers at the same time. There is a real art to being able to do that and I think it is better for students to learn it on campus instead of at work when it is mission critical. So I don’t mind if my students text in class provided that they are still engaged in the class, still doing their pair/group work, turning in their assignments and still learning what they need to know for the exam. In other words, they can text in class as long as they are getting their work done.

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Three requirements for world-class universities

There’s an interesting article over on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s site that discusses the three things that developing nations need in order to create a world-class university. While Japan is not a developing nation, they are trying to increase the number of world-class universities – and not doing a very good job of it. When the latest world ranking of universities were announced this earlier this year Japan dropped in the rankings. Reading The Chronicle article within the Japanese context is quite telling. Salmi & Altbach lists three items that are needed to create a world-class university.

First, nations need to attract a significant number of non-local talent, in other words: foreign professors, researchers and students. Attracting and keeping non-Japanese human resources is a problem that Japan struggles with in all areas of society, not just academic. Some of these problems for academia are summarized in a Japan Times editorial by Jay Klaphake.

Secondly, world-class universities are expensive and nations need to be realistic about the costs. Of the three this is the area that Japan struggles with the least. Although, the system isn’t perfect, the Japanese do spend a fair amount of money on higher education, even if there are problems. See Sawa for example. 

Lastly, Salmi & Altbach say that nations need  “strategic vision and leadership” to create a world-class institution. This is also an area where Japan struggles. There are often conflicting interests within the government and even within universities themselves, some of these conflicts are summarized by Chris Burgess also in the Japan Times.

Finally, Salmi & Altbach suggest that maybe developing nations would be better off by focusing less on world-class universities and more on universities that better serve the needs of their local populations. Whether or not that is appropriate for Japan is another discussion entirely, but I would urge everyone involved in Japanese higher education to look at Salmi & Altbach’s article and think about how it applies to their situation.


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A cause of plagiarism?

So there is an interesting article over on the Mind Shift blog (part of NPR’s KQED’s website) called What’s behind the culture of academic dishonesty. It’s an interesting article that discusses plagiarism and other types of cheating in education and notes that:

“…it’s time to scrutinize the underlying behaviors and motivation for all this cheating.”

I completely agree. Now, I haven’t done any research myself into the problem of plagiarism and/or cheating, and I have only read a few studies, but I did spend seven years in higher education as a student, and have spent the better part of the last 10 years as an instructor. During that time I have come in contact with students cheating on exams and plagiarizing on papers. Through my (albeit anecdotal) experience, I feel that one of the key factors to blame for an increase in cheating on campus is the open enrollment system.*

Japan doesn’t have an open enrollment system, but because of the low numbers of 18 year olds, there are more spaces available at universities than there are slots to fill them, so if a student has the desire and the money, or more appropriately, if the student’s parents have the desire for their child to go to university and they have the money, then they will be admitted somewhere – usually at a mid or lower ranking school, like where I teach. It is defacto open enrollment.

The problem with open enrollment is that schools end up taking students who lack the motivation, maturity, study skills, social skills, time management skills, self-discipline, self-esteem, and even (dare I say it) the intellectual capacity to be at university. In my experience it is these students who cheat. They cheat not because they are bad people; they are not dishonest, liars or con men. They are not trying to ‘game the system’ as often is the stereotype. They cheat because they are completely in over their heads, are under huge pressure to perform and don’t know what else to do.

It is a very controversial thing to say, largely because I would probably be out of a job, but I think that the open enrollment system needs a serious re-thinking and not just because of the cheating/plagiarism problem.

*For those who don’t know or remember, an open enrollment system is one that, in its most basic form, is simply that institutions of higher learning are required to accept all applicants. For example, back in the 90’s when I was an undergrad, all trade schools, community colleges and four-year colleges in Colorado (in other words, everyone except the four universities) were required by law to admit all students who graduated from a Colorado high school, regardless of their grades, test scores, etc. I don’t know if that is still the case.

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Have you heard about ‘Chat Friends’ UPDATED

So a link to a news article arrived in my inbox this morning about a new English conversation study service from a company called SpeakGlobal. According to the article, students can log onto the company’s website and ‘speak’ with a robot that is programmed to “look and move like a human and speak aloud…” Students also speak into a microphone which uses voice recognition software to analyze their responses. All this for only ¥1,980 a month. What a bargain!

The article made me chuckle because it is so typical of the English study industry in Japan. They spent a lot of time and money to create an admittedly interesting and engaging interface, if you like that typical Japanese style of illustration, (personally, I find it a little immature, but I’m sure that their target market is secondary school students), for what are basically services that already exist and are free (SecondLife, Skype, Yahoo Chat, etc.)

They’ve posted a video on YouTube demonstrating their software (the example conversation starts are around 2:01), which is interesting, but I think is pretty typical of an EIKAIWA style conversation that I would say isn’t really English. For example, it includes the phrase, “how about you?” which is a favorite among students, but I almost never hear fluent speakers use. At one point the robot says, “where in the U.S. are you going to?” which is very stilted. A real person would just say, “where?” or maybe “where are you going?” but would never say “where in the U.S.” because it is redundant and neither would they say “going to?” which I guess is grammatically correct (provided that you think it is okay to end a sentence with a preposition), but awkward.

Also, the conversation is basically a Q and A session. I like to call it the interrogation style of language learning, with one person sitting passively while the other answers questions. Real conversations, in any language — not just English, are not like that. People don’t just sit there waiting to be asked a question.

Anyway, I’d wish them luck, but they don’t need it. At only ¥1,980 a month I’m sure that they will have tens of thousands of people signing up. Which is great. I strongly believe that anything that sparks an interest in language learning is a good thing and I hope that once students outgrow this software, they will be motivated to move on to bigger and better things, like talking with a real person.

UPDATE: I received a very nice response from Roma Testa, the director and V.P. of SpeakGlobal, the company that makes Chat Friends. With her permission, I’ve posted her e-mail here.

Dear Cameron,

Well, it has been interesting watching reactions from foreign English teachers here in Japan on the use of chatbots for learning.

The purpose is not to replace people and live conversation, but to offer method which Japanese learners can study outside of lessons, or for those who cannot afford “eikaiwa” lessons, or for most Japanese who never have an opportunity to speak with foreigners. The chatbots are designed for speaking ‘practice’, not conversation.

Teaching in Japan for the past 5 years, I’ve learned that students cannot always think so quickly to give their responses in the classroom. They get anxious, nervous, feel embarrassed, etc. If they don’t understand, they give an answer that is not grammatically correct, or just a short answer to say ‘something.’ The chatbots offer structure and with a transcript of the dialogue, learners can see the sentence structure and learn from it. You cannot do this in live conversation. The chatbots will wait for a reply, so learners can take their time.

There are so many online sites out there that offer speech recognition for ‘speaking practice’. But what is speaking practice? Repeating given text or expressing oneself with one’s own thoughts. Many online sites have learners read scripted text on the screen. Not forming sentences on their own. With SpeakGlobal, learners will now have this chance. If you’ve ever taught Eiken preparation, you know that interviewees must give answers in full grammatical form. The chatbots help reinforce this.

I’ve seen eikaiwa teachers use chatbots in conversation lessons as discussion points. Reviewing pieces of the dialogue and talking about it. The fun part is that you never know exactly how the chatbot will resond and some answers can be humorous.

SpeakGlobal is developing a curriculum now which will be offered free online and will include different levels of chatfriends to help build speaking confidence.

Roma Testa
Kobe, Japan

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Professors and Social Media

There is an interesting “infographic” floating around the internet about how professors are using Facebook and other social media (SM). I’m not a huge fan of infographics because I think that they don’t quite tell the whole story. They are often missing details and lack context. I think that this infographic has these problems.

The graphic reports the results of a survey of college professors and their use of SM, but I don’t think it quite tells the whole story. For example, in the American context, many universities require that every class use a Learning Management System (LMS) e.g. Moodle or Blackboard. LMS systems are essentially blogs, wikis and asynchronous message boards, in other words, social media. If universities are requiring professors to use LMS, it’s not that big of a leap for them to start using other social media like Facebook.

Several commentators on the infographic have said something to the effect that if professors see the usefulness of SM, then secondary teachers should be using it as well. I don’t disagree with that, but in my opinion this overlooks a huge difference between secondary and tertiary education. Namely that college students (and professors) are not on campus everyday. High school students are (or should be). If a university student has a question, it might be several days to a week before he/she sees their professor. This is the reason why many institutes of higher learning require their instructors to use LMS and why professors are more likely to use social media. It’s not that they are more technologically savvy or that they are ahead of the curve, it’s simply that they have a huge need that is easily filled by technology. Other kinds of teachers don’t necessarily have that need.

Also in the middle of the graphic there is a chart showing various kinds of SM and the percentage of professional use vs. personal use. The problem that I have with this is that professors do two things: 1) they teach and 2) they research. So what does ‘professional’ mean? Does it mean teaching? Or does it mean research? We don’t know. As for myself, I don’t use SM much for teaching (more on that below), but I use it quite a lot to keep up-to-date with the latest trends in my field.

To put this into a Japanese context, I would be surprised if this survey would have similar results. For example, my university has just started using LMS in a very limited way and is far from requiring it for all classes. In terms of other social media, it’s my experience that students don’t like it. I’ve thought a lot about this and I believe that one of the reasons why students don’t want to use SM for learning, even though it is hugely popular here, is because they don’t want to use their real names. Most of my students have at least one SM account and 99% of them use an alias. If their professor starts using social media as part of the class then they will either have to use their real name or reveal what their alias is and that makes them uncomfortable.

It was interesting to see this infographic and even though I have some criticisms, it has made me think about using social media with my students again. I think that I might give it try once again and see what happens. Here is the infographic:

Courtesy of:

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