Tuesday, August 26, 2008

CALL Consultancy

It's past time for another blog post (school just started, 5 classes, busy!). I'll make one here from a recent email. It's in reply to someone here in the UAE who asked me if I could make a proposal for a modest computer-based language lab. His company is involved with vocational training of national oil company employees and these companies like to buy a 'package' that they can build to spec and then plug their students into. I used to do this kind of work when I worked for the Military Language Institute here in Abu Dhabi, and we were frequently invited to scout remote locations and propose computer-based facilities for satellite clones of what we had done at the MLI. My feeling at the time was that what we had done in our context was to put tools in the hands of the knowledgeable practitioners we had with us at the MLI in Abu Dhabi, but that if you grafted the same thing onto another location minus the skilled practitioners, you were unlikely to achieve the same results. Not only that but our proposals were frequently warped and sidetracked by the commanders at the bases who had their own ideas of what students should be doing for language training, and these ideas would be best served by purchasing shrink-wrapped software and inflicting that on students, rather than encouraging teachers and students to flourish in the constructivist learning environments we had in mind.

It's been a while since I've been involved in such projects, but the following is in reply to someone who requested that I submit a proposal for such a language learning facility. He was asking that this proposal be comparable to that submitted by a well-known vendor of educational software in the UAE:

"I've worked a lot with [that vendor]. They are good people. Competent too. But they are not teachers. They can sell you a product and support it and display decent command of that product, but they can't really advise you on how to use the product, and in this situation the product you buy might not really be what you had in mind, or what some teacher you've yet to hire has in mind, to accomplish what you had in mind when you bought it.

"I don't sell products commercially. My expertise is as a consultant. I think I know how people learn languages and I know what tools exist online to support my view of how people learn languages, and as most of these are free, I'm surprised when people go for what commercial vendors have to offer without examining their underlying premises. I think this is often through some basic misunderstanding of what is needed and what is available, and such misconceptions can usually be traced to the person in charge who has the money and who is hiring the likes of us to find the products that can be bought that will support what might under fine or perhaps even rough focus be a bogus view of language learning.

"I think it is essential to define what you think the students should be doing in your lab. That's what I might help with, but it would not be to prescribe, but to discuss with the stakeholders what their view is and to try and apprise them of the most current thinking on the topic, and maybe put them in touch with current thinkers. There are several communities of tech savvy educators who are in perpetual discourse on this topic. If I were to have input on this process think it would be to put your practitioners in touch with this community, through its blogs, podcasts, live webcasts, presentations, and seminars etc and get some dialog going as to what you want the students to do. Otherwise THAT crucial aspect is driven by the vendors, which will sidetrack you until someone comes along and sees what you have in hand, and figures out how THAT can be used to instantiate a viable view of language learners and how your students can best learn via technology."

So that's my thought for today. Any other thoughts out there you'd like to share in comments to this post?

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