Education During Crisis (Blog #5)

Western companies are donating educational technology to help Syrian children during the refugee crisis. The EduApp4Syria campaign in particular provides smartphones and software for Syrian children who can’t go to school.  In addition to helping them learn to read and write, these apps also help provide some much-needed relaxation during what has to be a very traumatic time in their lives. Another effort is the a partnership between Pearson publishers and Save the Children. Together they are providing educational materials to displaced refugee children.

But NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz found recently that most charitable action aimed at educating Syrian refugee children has come in the way of educational technology donations. She writes, “for every donor funding a soccer ball there are 10 backing tablets, educational games, online courses or learning platforms.” While that might sound generous, she observes that really it seems to be a quick-fix solution that won’t pan out. Refugee camps have less than reliable access to electricity and basic amenities like sewage. Education, Kamenetz correctly argues, is a long-term commitment, and if Western charities don’t take the time to assess what is really going on, then sending a crate of iPads isn’t going to help very much.

As tragic as this entire episode is, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what happened in Los Angeles Unified a few years ago in the iPad scandal. Apart from the issue of fair bidding, there was a general consensus among educators that I knew in the area that the whole imitative was rushed. Politicians are frequently blame for “throwing money” at problems in education, but that seems to sometimes come in the form of educational technology. The assumption, I suppose, is that if students have state-of-the-art devices, they must be receiving a state-of-the-art education. Clearly that is not the case.

As we have been discussing continually throughout this doctoral program, technology should not be a driver but instead help to accelerate the shifts in pedagogical practice that best impact student learning. A systems approach would dictate that better outcomes could be leveraged in looking at everything that contributes to a student’s learning. In the case of LA Unified, that would mean looking at teacher training, a 21st century curriculum, and school policies that would empower students to be self-learners. In the case of these generous Western tech companies, that might mean considering more cost-effective donations and provided expertise that could help students continue their education and better assimilate into the national educational system of their new home.


13 Reasons Why (Blog #4)

13 Reasons Why is a Netflix original TV series based on the novel by Jay Asher. At first I decided to give it a try because it sounded like an interesting drama/thriller: a boy receives a set of 13 cassette tapes from a girl who recently committed suicide that describe in heart-breaking detail why she decided to take her life. However, the further I got into the series the more I realized that there was a larger topic that the show creators were trying to create conversation around: Cyber bullying in 21st century high school.

The US Department of Health & Human Services website defines cyber bullying as any bullying that uses electronic devices and cites some examples: “mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles”. As 13 Reasons illustrates, it is a difficult problem for school officials to address because it doesn’t always happen during school hours or on school grounds, and it is nearly impossible for school officials to witness cyber bullying acts or trace who started the behavior.

In 13 Reasons Why the parents of Hannah, the girl who killed herself, have filed a lawsuit to hold the school district at fault for negligence. Throughout the 13 episodes there are some key moments that show the adults are clearly out of their depth. In one scene with a student named Tyler who has been aggressively and physically bullied throughout the show,  Mr. Porter, the well-meaning but overworked counselor, confesses that he doesn’t even know what pantsing means and goes on to explain that when working in an inner city school, he was usually dealing with more violent behavior like gun violence. The school principal, Mr. Bolan, only seems to have one strategy to deal with the problems that keep happening: put up posters on the hallway walls. All the while, he seems only concerned with proving the school didn’t know about Hannah’s problems, rather than stepping back to honestly assess the “system” that had resulted in a culture of bullying and unnoticed trauma.

Most of the plot deals with the students themselves, though, especially the behavior of the dozen who are described episode by episode as the reasons why Hannah took her life. In almost all cases the students are completely unaware of how their words and deeds contributed to Hannah’s depression. For example, when a “who’s hot, who’s not” list is passed around school, the show’s main protagonist Clay doesn’t understand why Hannah would be upset about being singled out for one of her attractive features. Isn’t this a compliment? he asks her. And when another character is terrified she might be considered gay, Clay asks what she is so worried about since it is the 21st century and coming out is no longer a “big deal”.

The audience is going through this story from the perspective of a naive guy who is slowly starting to understand the unintentional consequences of the “system”.  I think, for me, that’s the biggest takeaway. That those “at fault” are willfully ignorant as opposed to deliberately malicious. And the forces that pull and push them into staying quiet when they shouldn’t are far more complicated than simple “peer pressure”. When some of the jock characters who are incriminated in the tapes decide to physically confront Clay to keep him quiet, he asks one of them, a former friend, why he would be helping to keep all of this quiet. “What else am I going to do?” Alex replies.

13 Reasons Why is a profoundly disturbing but illuminating look at what bullying looks like in the 21st century. I can safely say, I think it should be required viewing for high school administrators.

Innovation in Learning Apps (Blog #3)

Donovan Nagel (@mezzofanti) is a linguist who hosts a popular blog on travel and language learning. On a recent podcast he asks the question of whether or not language learning apps have gone as far as they can go in the way of being innovative. His observation is that a lot of the new Web 2.0 tools, including apps, which are being sold to help people learn foreign languages are not only similar to one another but also haven’t really changed how we learn languages.

Although I don’t agree with all the points he argues, the issues he raises made me wonder how we might consider the extent to which apps have really changed the way we learn anything.


Donovan Nagel on how he learned Arabic

The “Google Effect”

Nagel begins by bemoaning what he sees as clear indicators that society as a whole is undergoing “skill retardation” because of technology. In the same way that an astronaut who lives in zero gravity for some time returns home with muscle atrophy, Nagel describes the Google Effect as people never developing the memory or skills that are now handled by what’s on our smartphones or computers.

This sentiment that technology makes us stupid isn’t new. I remember hearing throughout school older generations complaining about how calculators have resulted in kids who can’t do math. The concern for Nagel, however, is that as we come to rely on these amazingly useful tools, we will never feel the need to learn how to read a map or memorize directions, for example, because Google Maps or Waze can handle that for us.

Nagel sounds almost Luddite with his comments, even going so far as to say that millennials are the “least skilled generation” ever. The blogger seems to also suggest that the reason website design has become simpler (“with big buttons”) is because none of us have the attention span to navigate anything more complicated than “digital toddlers’ toys”. Interestingly, Nagel’s own website has a pretty familiar template and definitely takes advantage of large colorful buttons.

In short, Nagel is arguing that apps, especially those that deal with language learning, “replace responsibility with convenience”. The discipline one used to need to stay on track with a plan of study has now been replaced by our notification centers reminding us to do our lesson of the day.

Language Learning Apps vs Traditional Techniques

Nagel does provide a useful number of categories of the countless language learning apps and websites that exist. There are assisted readers, like LingQ, that allow the user access to translations, dictionaries, and other features that assist the student work through reading material in a target language at an appropriate level and pace. There are similar apps that help learners watch videos, have online conversations, and study vocabulary or grammar through games (e.g., Memrise and Duolingo).

Despite the countless apps out there that come with all sorts of fun bells and whistles, Nagel’s point is that none of this technology is actually innovative. If we didn’t have Anki to keep digital flashcards organized and space out our practice, then we would just be using paper flash cards in a box in the same way. At the end of the day, the most innovative and scientifically valid means of study vocabulary is a technique that has been around for who knows how long, without gamification and big colorful buttons.

Although I can see the important question that Nagel is asking, and would be curious to see how it has been asked in other fields outside of language learning, I think he may have missed the most important point about Web 2.0 and technology in general, which is that technology itself doesn’t innovate anything.

Instead these tools allow innovative behavior to occur when they couldn’t have before. Making a photo album to show family and friends is something we have been doing long before Facebook, but Facebook and similar platforms allow us to engage with multimedia socially both in a larger way but also in a fundamentally different way all together.

In the same way, language learning apps like HelloTalk don’t just remove the inconvenience of having to look up a word in a paper dictionary. They have added a new type of communication that never existed before: live but semi-synchronous conversation, which builds on the innovative pedagogical principle of scaffolding a language skill or task until one is fluently able to interact without the training wheels.

If we want to find how apps make learning innovative, we have to look at how they are being used by teachers and students themselves. I for one would like to think that there are still new and better ways we can learn how to learn, ways which are not imaginable right now until new technologies are developed.

Language Education Administration (Blog #2)

Confession time: if I wasn’t working in education administration, my dream job would probably be working as a language learning coach, someone who helps people learn and teach languages in fun, engaging, and effective ways. I have a polyglot friend who is doing that right now in Japan. He works as a language learning and teaching consultant, helping language learners and language teachers become better at what they do. And he also hosts a website where he posts articles and podcasts on the topic of language teaching.


Check back later to hear my podcast interview.

Earlier this week I was interviewed for the Teaching of Language podcast on the topic of language program administration since I most of my professional experience comes from teaching or administrating English as a second language programs. I imagine that the challenges teachers face when moving from the classroom to the office are largely the same regardless of the context (i.e., higher ed, K-12, language programs).

Our interview revolved around what the responsibilities and requisite skills are for a language education administrator, and we also spent a lot of time discussing the challenges of working with teachers who might not always understand why certain decisions are being made. I found my recent readings for my doctoral program gave me the vocabulary I needed to describe and explain the challenges and successes I experienced.

For example, I explained that the reason there is often such a disconnect between faculty and administration may have to do with a lack of shared, collaborative vision. Even in an intensive English program like those I have worked in, you might assume it is clear to faculty, students, and staff what the purpose of the department is, but when we actually take the time to ask the question, “Why are we here?”, I am always surprised at the variety of answers that come up. If teachers aren’t in agreement with the administration as to what the program is attempting to accomplish, there is bound to be a lack of focus on the things that really matter. In this context that means “improve our students’ English” isn’t clear enough of a vision. Words like “success” need to be qualified to make it clear to faculty and students that it takes the whole system to accomplish something and teachers have to think outside their private classroom practice if student learning really is preeminently important.



Combating Disturbing Trends (Blog #1)

In international education, and especially in the field of enrollment management, which deals with trends in student mobility, we are constantly on the lookout for disruptions and significant trends. The one to get the most attention here in the US lately has been called the “Trump Effect”, but the trend started before the November 2016 election, and there are several factors negatively affecting the number of international students deciding to study in the US.


Recent article from InsideHigherEd

Elizabeth Redden (@ElizRedden), a journalist for Inside Higher Ed who covers international education in particular, presented the findings this week of a survey (n=250) of enrollment managers in US institutions. Around 40% reported a decline in international applications. Interestingly, other institutions reported an increase in applications. There has been some discussion of whether or not we will see an increase in the “blue state” advantage, where California, which is one of the top hosting states, may become an even more popular destination because of its perceived diversity and openness to international visitors and businesses.

Apart from advocating with our local congressional representatives, universities will need to be proactive and make sure that students on their campus already as well as those in the pipeline hear loud and clear that they are welcome on our college campuses. To that end I have recently been involved with a project at my work called the International Student Ally Training program. This 3-4 hour training is for university staff and administrators to understand the cultural, academic, and mental/emotional health issues that international students face as well as to help them hear from the students themselves, thus humanizing a population that all too often is just a statistic quoted at enrollment management meetings.

To make sure that I was “creating” and “sharing” the knowledge I was acquiring, I of course posted this on Twitter. I was happy to see that they were picked up and followed by the national #YouAreWelcomeHere campaign, based in Temple University.