Saturday, June 03, 2006

Tunghai symposium on distance language learning

This afternoon I attended a symposium at Tunghai on the topic of "Issues in Distance Language Learning." It was run by the MOE-sponsored Distance Language Learning project at Tunghai. There two speakers: Professors Herng Yow Chen (陳恒佑) of National Chi Nan University and Michael Jacques of Tunghai University.

Professor Chen, of the Computer Science and Information Engineering department, was the first to talk. He introduced us to Chi Nan's impressive multimedia language program infrastructure. He explained how the multimedia language learning program was making use of kiosks and the wireless net to allow students to make use of language learning programs from all over campus, not only through computers, but also via cell phones and PDAs. He emphasized that the advantage of online learning is reusability, and explained how the multimedia system makes use of live and recorded versions of "English Corner" activities to provide students with Video on Demand (VoD) and Audio on Demand (AoD). He demonstrated some of the resources to which the Chi Nan students had access.

Most interesting to me was the student-produced materials located at NCNU's Mountain Media site. With Prof. Chen's assistance, students write the news items and record and edit audio and video presentations for this site. Prof. Chen mentioned that participating students are paid part-time workers. In answer to a question I asked, he said that students have to be recruited for these jobs--and they're not exactly knocking down the doors to participate--and don't get paid a great deal, but that they receive a lot of training and practical experience in producing online multimedia content in English. One of the challenges that the program has to face is the difficulty of paying teachers (and students) to stay active in these kinds of activities. Although the program is part of an MOE Teaching Excellence project, the money isn't coming in very regularly to help pay for things and people. (Also, as I understand it, full-time faculty cannot be paid out of the MOE grant money.)

Prof. Chen also introduced an online English writing program that Chi Nan is using to require students to write more in English and get feedback from their teachers (or TAs) regarding grammar, spelling, and other formal issues. Right now only first-year students are making use of this online program, but he hopes that in the future all students from the first to the third year are required to participate.

During the break, I was talking with Prof. Chen and he mentioned that the school is thinking of phasing out the Freshman English program (大一英文) in favor of requiring students to study English during their first, second, and third years of attendance. This would require some major changes in staffing, however, and the logistical issues haven't been completely worked out. The idea is intriguing, though.

The next speaker, Michael Jacques, demonstrated the FLLD Online materials that he has developed for the students and teachers at Tunghai. He also discussed three key questions related to online language learning:
  1. Who should be the audience for online language learning materials?
    This is a huge issue, he said, because users can be added for "free" (in terms of the costs to the school of providing the materials online to other users). While this doesn't affect the technical details of the online project, it does affect how producers of the materials should view their pedagogical aims and approaches.
  2. Who is going to do all the work?
    Here he mentioned the need for language teachers, computer scientists, and computational linguists to work together on the project. All these parties have expertise in certain important areas, but they do not have enough expertise in other areas--so, for instance, a language teacher might have ideas about how to teach, but not know how to write a program to do what he or she wants to do.
  3. How and when do you compensate people?
    Prof. Jacques, who has a JD, emphasized that producing these online materials does not exactly seem to fall under the umbrella of "work for hire", which isn't really a concept often used among academics. Since creating these materials is not explicitly part of anyone's job description, he said, this work "challenges the boundaries" between academic work and work for hire. Also, it appears that the laws and university policies governing producing distance learning materials are not very well developed in Taiwan (this might be my own observation).

This was an informative and interesting symposium. Unfortunately, Michael Jacques is leaving Tunghai at the end of this semester to return to the U.S., so he won't be able to continue working on the Distance Language Learning project for Tunghai. (By the way, he has a list of items for sale in case you're looking for furniture or other equipment.)

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