Saturday, June 09, 2007

Example of e-learning

As a contributing member of the Learning Circuits Blog I thought it my duty to respond to Dave Lee's appeal this month to point to some examples of e-learning. I expect that his intention is to use a bottom-up approach to help resolve the nagging issue of what e-learning is (i.e. how we can define it) and how whatever we think it is can actually solve practical learning problems. And we shouldn't forget the complementary issue of whether it will attract and maintain learners' attention to the point that they actually spend the time to get the results.

Below are some examples of e-learning that my team produced as part of a vast course of business English for non-English speakers. The focus is on the acquisition of language and communication skills in English, rather than what I call "knowledge about the language". The entire cycle of learning, starting at a fairly low level, is based on a film, with a main plot, multiple subplots and a wide range of communication-focused activities, that we authored and produced as interactive video specifically for this purpose. The main story is resolutely cross-cultural, the "star" of the film being an American consultant arriving in the UK and grappling with his own version of culture shock. This problem of adapting to a different context highlights the fact that learners are constantly working on three different levels:
  1. Language acquisition (vocabulary, syntax, grammar... but all of it channeled through communication problems and stylistics, i.e. rhetorical strategy and choices in observable contexts),
  2. Communication skills: the art of getting one's point across to others and reacting appropriately (interpreting and dialoguing) to theirs,
  3. Adapting to a foreign culture, where even if the language is comprehensible the behavioral codes are different and permanent sources of misunderstanding.
The implicit strategy of this extended experience of e-learning is one of community dialogue, since each development (plot, relationships in the video, context, etc.) or set of activities is meant to create a shared experience that provides a base for reflection, discussion and creative development. In other words, the e-learning is there only to get the process going, not to account for the learning, which -- and this is particularly appropriate to the learning of language and communication skills -- can only be social.

For that reason, the material is accessed uniquely through a collaborative platform in which dialogue in the community (including learners and trainers) provides the true basis of a learning process that aims, under the coach or trainer's guidance, at achieving balance between programmed and unprogrammed input, on the one hand, and creative output, on the other. The mechanical output provoked by the programmed activities (quizzes, games, simulations) we consider as fundamentally trivial, serving the unique purpose of consolidating input and creating a common frame of reference facilitating social communication.

The first three examples offered here are part of a series of activities taken from the more advanced levels of the course. The final one comes from the first part of the course (a lower level), where learners are not expected to have achieved a basic comfort level in expression and communication. Quite noticeably, the more advanced examples are concerned with strategy and style, the less advanced with problems of basic recognition of meaning.

Word of warning: because everything turns around the video scenes, this will only work correctly with a reasonably fast connection.

Here are the advanced sequences:

Last minute preparations

Imperfect communication

Getting even

In the following lower level activity, the language is simpler and the challenge is focused first on identifying voices (a specific listening but also a social skill) and only later on the actual language. At the end of the activity (and only at the end), the learner can "study" the text through the Storyboard, which is only accessible after the final game in the series, in this case a multimedia crossword puzzle.

Fred arrives in London from Heathrow aiport

In the full set of resources, the types of activity are extremely varied, designed to address questions ranging from perception (visual, auditive) to negotiating strategy. But the basic rule is context first. It may be seen from these examples that the design of activities contains a specific strategy of inciting learners to go back to a context they have already discovered and even explored in various ways, to milk it further. This may seem to be superficially repetitive, but with a new learning objective it leads to the kind of creative redundancy that we all require to learn our native language or even particular professional skills.

Those interested in the methodology or in other aspects of this product are invited to contact me. We will be shortly launching a new course specifically aimed at intercultural business skills (nothing directly to do with language learning, though the two are always intimately related).

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