Sunday, May 31, 2009

Vance is interviewed by Doris Molero

On May 22 at the start of the recent Webheads in Action Online Convergence, I had the pleasure to be interviewed by Doris Molero, who had requested an interview as a part of a project for her degree program. Doris was under close time constraints, but with WiAOC09 close on our heels, I was too. The constraints appeared so insurmountable that I suggested Doris conduct the interview as a session of WiAOC. She agreed and set up an event at It happened to be the second event in the 74 hour online conference, and it was recorded here: (link updated Aug 2009)

A minor hiccup however was that Doris had connectivity problems right at that time and did not appear for the interview. Jeff Lebow was there as were some stragglers from Doug Symington's EdTech brainstorm just ended. Afterwards Jeff remarked that I had done a good job at interviewing myself. I can only assume he was being complimentary.

Meanwhile, Doris sent me a pared-down version of her original 30 questions and on a car journey between Abu Dhabi and the dive spots on the east coast of the UAE I managed to address them in writing. Here then is the somewhat delayed interview between me and Doris Molero, a glimpse at how it might have gone on May 22 :-)

Doris: What’s your opinion about teaching English as a foreign language in the university?

Vance: It’s been a great career for me. Lots of travel opportunities and good vacations, pays the bills while allowing me to interact with a great community of online educators. I like working with language learners.

2. What do you think about teaching a second language with the help of the Internet and computers?

Language is about communication. For most people, there is no purpose to learning a language apart from a desire to communicate in it (not counting theoretical linguists who might wish to study a language for other purposes). Since this is most people's goal, it is awkward and inefficient to study a language in a context where communication is not done purposefully. By purposeful, I do not include exercises that a student might do on instructions of a teacher which put the student in communication only with the teacher. Communication with others in the class is also possible but I have been a language learner in classrooms where the teachers did not exploit this potential, dominated the class with student to teacher interaction, and spent class time on exercises with printed materials which were not at all communicative.

Properly used, the internet opens a world of communication to language learners. They can blog and get comments, they can collaborate with others worldwide, they can engage in live voice conversations, and do constructive language play with real people behind avatars in Second Life (just as a few examples). No student needs to study language in isolation any longer. Teachers who have developed skills in productive use of Web 2.0 can model use of appropriate tools with their students and put them in touch with language learners in collaborative projects. Teachers who reflect on the results of such projects report remarkable gains in motivation to write and hone ideas for peer critique. Most importantly language learning becomes FUN and meaningful for all concerned. Communication is clearly restored as the true purpose of learning the language in the first place.

3. How have your students changed compared to the ones you used to have when you first started teaching?

I started teaching in the mid 1970’s and everyone has changed. I would say that the most significant recent changes, apart from going from questioning the efficacy of using computers in language learning to general acceptance of technology in all aspects of life, have to do with the ubiquity of mobile technologies, especially with younger people including students down to the K-12 level, and the integration of social networking into transactions ranging from making purchases on Amazon and eBay through to so many people, especially students, congregating on Facebook and in other socially networked spaces. These developments are poised to make even more significant impacts on our profession. I have suggested that CALL is becoming an outmoded acronym. These days I encourage people to think SMALL (social media assisted language learning).

4. What does it take to be multiliterate? Are you multiliterate? Why do you think so?

Multiliterate means to be conversant with media as it develops in conjunction with technology. It means to be able to communicate appropriately in these media, that is to know what multimedia tools are available and how to use them, as well as to be able to search and access the communications of others in their various forms of technological enhancement. I teach courses in multiliteracies so I feel that I am moderately multiliterate myself and generally aware of the issues (see for a last rendition of the course, and for the Ning).

5. In your opinion, do you think that just using a textbook, a workbook and an audio program is enough to teach a second language at university level these days?

It could be enough depending on the motivation of the students to learn. I have met many people while traveling in foreign countries who had used such materials to achieve some competence in English and were grateful for the opportunity to meet a foreigner and have the chance to put their skills to use. However, as noted in question 2, the ability to learn a language well through communication with other learners and native speakers online increases the scope for language learning.

6. What do you do to teach the following skills: listening, reading, writing, critical thinking and speaking to your EFL students?

I taught EFL for 20 years but switched to computing and software development in 1995, so I can’t speak first hand about teaching EFL in the past decade. I have been working in teacher training since that time (online through webheads and other communities and networks) so I am aware of what others are doing. These people are blogging their experiences so my answer here would be to review their blogs and recorded experiences, but as the question relates to my personal experiences in EFL, I am not currently working specifically in that area.

7. What differences do you find between the traditional paper and pencil class and the class that integrated Web 2.0 tools?

These differences are those noted in my response to question 2.

8. What kind of text do you and your students use in your classes?

We use texts teaching computing written in-house by computing faculty.

9. How does participating in a community of learning help to learn more?

Peers in the community model the most productive behaviors to one another toward reaching the shared goals. They scaffold one another, support one another in collaborative projects, feed back to one another, provide encouragement, answer questions on a just-in-time basis, and provide a context for informal, social learning to take place. More importantly each ‘node’ in the network is connected with its own locus of other nodes, with the result that the knowledge contained in any one node is accessible throughout the connected networks to all the other nodes. In connectivist terms, knowledge can be defined not as what one possesses within one’s mind or the walls of one’s library, but in terms of ‘the pipes’ or how successfully one is able to nurture and access the nodes in the extended network. The knowledge contained in the network is the sum of its parts, and to be knowledgeable in multiliterate terms means to be able to incorporate this knowledge into one’s own Personal Learning Environment or Network.

10. How should we evaluate when we integrate web tools into the class?

This is a very good question, and my instinct is to say NOT how we evaluate traditional learning. To examine how we might evaluate alternatively, I refer to my answer in question 3, think SMALL. Techniques are evolving for measuring trust on the Internet. Examples are found in Google’s predominant algorithm for search, whereby trust is measured by calculating links from other trusted sites. E-bay, Amazon, and Couch Surfing all have trust systems set up whereby users rank each other according to expected performance. A system has been proposed for enhancing internet security whereby users might have a way of seeing who else has installed software that’s about to install on their machines as a means to helping them decide if they should authorize it (the information would come from tracking choices made by users as each made the choice individually). I think that these techniques could be adapted to pedagogical evaluation systems, whereby users were ranked on the quantity and quality of comments on their blog postings, for example, on measures relating to download and feedback on their podcasts, how viral their uploads to YouTube were, and other peer measures utilizing features of these so-called ‘trust’ systems.

11. What do you think about using project based approach as a learning tool to validate what has been learned in class?

Projects are the only valid thing to evaluate in a system described above. There would be little of this kind of feedback generated by user responses to a multiple choice test, these tests being designed solely for student-teacher interactions, nothing more. In a world where we are all connected to one another, peer evaluation, both by peers who knew and those who did not know the student in question, could become part of the evaluation matrix. Project based learning also lends itself to students' creating digital portfolios of inter-related artifacts which could be evaluated as yet another measure. These methods might produce a mindset whereby the answer to a question on history might not necessarily be 1492 (though a student could look that up if the exact date were required; as opposed to having memorized it) but something along the lines of, let’s see, Columbus was sent on a voyage of discovery by Ferdinand and Isabella, who at about that time ejected the Moors from Spain, so this would have been toward the end of the 15th century …

12. What do you think should be the role of the teacher that integrates web 2.0 tools into his or her classes?

I like what I hear from teachers who successfully integrate interactive whiteboards in their classes. What works, I understand, is for the teacher to move to the back of the room and guide the students in turn taking at the IWB. Similarly with Web 2.0 the paradigm of learning has to change. In writing that last sentence I changed what I had originally written to replace ‘teaching' with ‘learning’. The role of the teacher is to not teach, but to become a master learner who is simply the model for how everyone in that class learns. With regard to language teaching, the ‘teacher’ is a language informant in that the teacher ‘knows’ what is accepted as correct language, and the teacher can facilitate the learning process. But the idea that anyone can ‘teach’ a language is a spurious one beyond the most rudimentary levels. Language has to be learned; it can’t be taught. What we still call a teacher is actually someone who is more experienced in learning and who can model tricks and tips for students to apply to their own learning. This is where web 2. 0 fits perfectly with this conception of the role of guide on the side facilitator of learning in a classroom. Web 2.0 tools put control in the power of learners, or anyone who uses them. They enable users to communicate online, to record to online spaces, and to tag their artifacts so that others can find or stumble on them. They are ideal tools for constructivist, connectivist learning environments. The role of the teacher in such an environment is to introduce them to students, model appropriate uses, suggest or help learners conceive of ways the tools might be used in collaborative language development, and then step to the back of the room and let the learners get on with it.

13. What do you think should be added or changed in the EFL class in the university?

What is generally needed is for teachers steeped in traditional ways of learning, who have never had the new tools modeled for them, to become first aware of the tools available, and then to form communities where they can see and experience the tools modeled so that they can learn which ones are effective with each other. Only then will they be tentatively in a position to try some of the tools out on their own students.

The fact that this process is not a straightforward one is its biggest drawback. Some awareness of a number of fundamental paradigm shifts is required. I have elsewhere set out ten or 12 of these and many have been covered here (see Essentially they revolved around a fundamental underpinning of multiliteracies, that the way that people communicate online is becoming less arbitrated and more populist. It comes down to how readily people can accept that people on the Internet will regulate one another, so that it becomes possible for example to produce an encyclopedia (for free!) that anyone can write on that is more comprehensive, more current, and arguably of better quality than a very expensive and ecologically unfriendly one produced through the tradition publishing process. Not until this essential concept is grasped, accepted, and understood, can one make sense of the rest of it.

So the people who need to be reached are those who have not yet grasped a functional conception of the socializing and interconnectivist forces at play in an appropriately configured learning network. This is where the concept of change agency becomes crucial. Teachers already attuned to the role of multiliteracies in 21st century learning have crossed a rubicon and must build bridges to those still on the other side. This is difficult. Those on the left bank, as in the one left behind, are not convinced that there is anything better on the right bank, and think they are being talked down to when those on the right try and explain why this is the ‘right’ place to be. It makes little sense to someone who feels the left bank has been perfectly fine for their entire teaching careers to go to the trouble to move off that spot for something that might be just a passing fad.

There are still people whom I work with who tell me they will never blog, and wonder how anyone could be so self-absorbed. Many (sometimes the same people) will tell you that the blogs they’ve read are just nonsensical journals, not for serious readers. I came upon a post on a mailing list the other day that argued that we should carefully consider how we use computers in teaching because learning is social and computers are isolating. Clearly the author of that post is broadcasting ‘knowingly’ from the ‘left’ bank.

There is also an interesting bit of research that suggests that people who are incompetent are blithely unaware of how incompetent they are (not meaning to question anyone's competence in the present instance, concerning colleagues I don't even know - just that this is an interesting bit of research:

But what I have just written is anathema to change agency. Successful change agents do not belittle the shortcomings of others or, more importantly, appear to (I didn’t mean to just then; I might have appeared to - anyway the incompetent could be me, or any reader of this blog, blissfully unaware of course :-). Change agents need to start by forming cooperative partnerships with peers who want to learn. The change that’s needed in teaching programs is that these partnerships need to be somehow encouraged.

Thank you to Doris Molero for giving me the opportunity to post this interview here and link it from WiAOC09. The tiny url for this post is