Last week, I attended the CALICO conference on technology use for foreign language teaching. Since foreign languages involve communication skills, it’s always a good conference to see communication tools in action as well as other developments such as gaming.
ESL Homework “Game”
There was only one game element in this English as a Foreign Language class (taught in Thailand), but it really changed the dynamics of doing homework. The students were assigned the usual reading & grammar exercises, but with the following conditions.
* Students earned “money” for completing exercises.
* The money could be used to open up more exercises and gain more money
* Students start at $0, but can continue to earn higher amounts of money to open more advanced exercises. The most “expensive” was $1400.
This simple device turned homework into a “beat the system” competition in which students were asking instructors to grade assignments more quickly so they could earn more money (reminds me of Mafia Wars). Students could see each other scores, but only the top 1/2 liked that feature. The presenter said he might disable scores, but I wonder if it should be a top 5 or top 10 list (like the old arcade games).
Very interesting psychology, and it might be easy to program.
As always, CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) was a major topic with presentations on Twitter, Second Life, blogs, RSS and wikis. Presentations were mixed, but one blog presentation was able to document that using blogs with a second language pen-pal was as effective as e-mail (if not more so) in positively changing student attitudes towards a foreign culture.
The best demo was probably Neverwinter Nights, a system where you can create custom “quest” modules. The instructor made a Neverwinter Nights module with a mystery. The wizard has to go through a village (where everyone speaks in a different language) and determine if a witch has cursed the town. The answer was that it was her chickens who caught the bird flu (and later stolen) that was the problem (interesting plot twist). It also showed the use of both dialogues and “realia” (maps and signs in the target language). The speaker also noted that you can set traps to destroy wizards who refuse to help the town.
Then of course we saw her insert an attack grizzly bear into the module and eat a character. Totally realistic.
Tech Room Design
We got to see some of the computer lab & tech classroom layouts at ASU. First there were lots of electrical outlets for our laptops, many built right into the desk. Clearly the school had a lot of money available in the recent past, and it seems to have been well spent.
But it seems like the designers are thinking about facilitating collaboration. Many labs grouped computers in groups of 3-4 at a round table. It would be pretty easy to swing around to one screen or compare screens. The newer flatscreens also make it much easier to move monitors around, and some were set on special arms (so you could lower the monitors for a compelling lecture).
Another room that was interesting was my seminar room in the Cronkite School of Journalism (yes that would be Walter Cronkite). It had the Macs all along the wall, but a central table in the middle. I think the idea was to do a mini-lecture than have people work on their own machine (maybe research a story). Interesting idea, but awkward for a hands on training session because the students in the back would be have to face me or their monitor. Fortunately, the class was small enough that everyone was on the side and could face both me and the monitor.