Breaking out of the box (boîte, caja, xiá)

The FrenchPod language-learning site has joined its siblings, ChinesePod and SpanishPod. ChinesePod co-founder Ken Carroll on his blog talks about FrenchPod as a personalized learning system.

Ken make an insightful point about the autonomous learner.

…Real life learners almost certainly want efficiency and convenience. They also expect a learning service to reduce the learning curve for them and provide guidance — learning how to learn is valuable.

I’m inclined to think “effectiveness” rather than “efficiency,” but that may be a distinction without a difference here. In the language learning that tools like FrenchPod facilitate, what constitutes “effectiveness?” I see these elements:

  • Helping people articulate their goals.
  • Helping people choose how to work toward them.
  • Helping people monitor their progress.
  • Helping people decide on what (if anything) to change in that mix.

What’s impressive (or even disconcerting) about FrenchPod and the other Praxis Language sites is the way they center on the learner, rather than the content. If you want to learn one of these languages, you’ve got a database of lessons (learning objects) that you can explore via level of difficulty or by subject. (ChinesePod has nearly a thousand lessons; FrenchPod, being brand-new, is nearly at 50. New lessons appear daily.)

You also have ways to manage your own learning, from subscription levels (starting at “free”) to content options to various tools — including online pronunciation guides, essential for the newcomer.

Does this look like Greek to you?That’s radically different from most people’s picture of how to learn a language — a series of instructional escalators, a linear progression, a tidy department store of content. “Second floor: pronouns, past tense, irregular verbs.”

When I first looked at ChinesePod, more than a year ago, I was impressed with the decision to have two hosts in the podcast, one a native speaker and one a skilled non-native. I think this is an effective way to help the learner experience high-quality use of the language and also to provide a variety of input — helping the learner make increasingly fine discriminations.

This isn’t the language learning of Paris est la capitale de la France, the first line in my French 1 book. With freedom comes responsibility: the independent learner needs to learn how to be independent, how to make her own judgments, how to move ahead.

The online community (which includes other learners and the staff of the FrenchPod site) contributes there, as does Praxis’s use of technology such as RSS and tagging.

Even if you’re not planning to learn a language, a visit to FrenchPod, SpanishPod, or ChinesePod will give a vivid example of, well, “efficiency and convenience” in learning.

Language-box photo by kiwanja / Ken Banks.

7 thoughts on “Breaking out of the box (boîte, caja, xiá)

  1. Dave,

    Great observations. I agree that effectiveness is the better word. You’ve also an important point about making learning goals explicit – we could do a lot more of that, in fact.

    Every time I drop by here I learn something worth while!


  2. Ken, the “efficient/effective” comment takes nothing away from the Praxis approach. (Did you know about Tom Gilbert and Geary Rummler’s former firm, Praxis, an early and strong advocate of the performance-improvement approach to on-the-job performance?)

    I learned a lot (or saw a lot I may need to learn) in your own post. I’m always interested in people applying theory to practice. For instance, just for myself, I’m thinking about (for want of a better word) metacognitive tools — what can I do consciously to reinforce my language learning?

    Sometimes, as a form of discipline, I sit with a news article in French (I subscribe to l’Actualité, a Canadian magazine that just had an issue on China, by the way), and make myself write down and look up each word I’m not 100% sure of.

    That could be tedious assigned as homework from outside. As my own choice, though, it’s like a certain amount of cardio work at the gym. Or, to mix metaphors, even in his 90s, Pablo Casals played scales.

  3. Re:

    What’s impressive (or even disconcerting) about FrenchPod and the other Praxis Language sites is the way they center on the learner, rather than the content.


    I would like to push the conversation around this point a bit. While Ken & I definitely do see the service as a language learning toolkit in the student’s personal learning environment – again, the learning on your terms – we believe the best way to achieve this is to aspire to become an object-centered (think Flickr) social network, as opposed to a social network more focused on connecting people (e.g. Facebook). In our PLS release we have opened up more conversation objects in addition to our lessons (e.g. user posts, grammar points, vocab terms, etc) all of which can be commented on now. We believe that by focusing and improving the object of people’s attention it will make the service more compelling in the long run.

  4. Hank: just to make clear, I said “disconcerting” with tongue partly in cheek — I think the Praxis approach could seriously puzzle some people familiar only with more traditional, classroom-oriented language instruction.

    “Centering on the learner” to me has to do with the individual’s goals and interests. I like your perspective of the object-oriented network (with “language” being the analogue to Flickr’s photos, as I understand you).

    Your comment has stirred a couple of ingredients that were on one of my mental back burners: the realm and role of expertise (e.g., FrenchPod’s writers and presenters); the learner’s need and ability to locate, evaluate, and choose resources; metacognition and goal-setting; and maybe something like “the wisdom of crowds” combined with “the insight of experts.”

  5. Dave,

    I like the sound of:

    “the wisdom of crowds� combined with “the insight of experts.�

    One downside of the multitude of learning options and channels that are being opened up by digital technologies is that it creates ‘search costs’ for the learner in being able to put together a study curriculum, mixing and matching the most suitable learning from various sources. Some kind of guidance is clearly necessary here.

  6. Hank, in return, I like the phrase “search costs.” If you spend lots of time in online communities, you’re probably running into more people who like to go out and find stuff. I think there are lots of people who don’t. They’re no more interested in building their own digital environment than they are in building their own computer.

    I think various reputation markers can help, but only to some extent. Comments at Amazon or ePinion are useful to a point, but for an awful lot of purchases I rely primarily on Consumer Reports.

    A tangent: in skimming some of the comments at French Pod (and to a much smaller extent at Chinese Pod), it seems the site attracts a fair number of people who want to learn several languages. Not to go after any proprietary information, is there anything you can say about that? I’m wondering if such people tend to be (speaking descriptively but not derisively) language hobbyists: learning language is what they like to do.

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