Has EFL Become ESL?


Years ago as a new teacher in Japan I learned very quickly to avoid materials that were not made specifically for Japan, very much a place where English is taught as a foreign language (EFL),  a context very far removed from the English-speaking world.  After a few painful slogs, I realized that, in particular, ESL (English as a Second Language) materials, or materials made to teach immigrants to England or Canada or the US, just wouldn’t fly in  classrooms in Tokyo. They assumed too much background knowledge. They contained too much content. They were long. They assumed that students would be much more active–in learning, in giving opinions, in communicating. What worked instead was easy-to-memorize dialogs, short, focused worksheet exercises, and zippy little info gap speaking activities. In a system with low expectations for communicative success and  limited opportunities for English use outside the classroom I guess we can say that it worked OK. At the time and for the most part, Japanese students  didn’t especially learn English to communicate with people from other countries and cultures; they learned English to pass exams and to appear more international/educated/cultured to other Japanese.

A lot can change, however, when  millions of people begin to travel overseas every year, record numbers of foreigners begin to visit, and just about everyone gets connected to the Internet. Indeed, the whole world changed. It has become, as this Economist article in 2009 suggested, much more difficult to find parts of the world that are not affected by the global movement of people and ideas. Japan included.


So what does this mean for English teaching in Japan? A lot, though you’d be hard-pressed to find changes in most jr. and sr. high school language classrooms in public education. A few teachers are making use of a few online resources, occasionally showing bits of Youtube videos for example, but most are oblivious to the fact that each student has in their pocket all the tools they need to learn English when they want to. The culture of learning is moving glacially, luckily for these teachers. Textbooks are still reassuringly analog, and teachers can still get away with explaining the content like mathematical formulas removed from wider communicative application. English is still being treated as a culturally distant “other,” needed in a certain way (mostly) for entrance exams, and otherwise put off indefinitely. And despite adding a few TOEIC courses, English conversation schools are still somehow managing to continue with a business model that basically sells access to native speakers, the same as they did in 1986.

But things are changing, make no mistake. Businesses are increasingly feeling the need to procure/cajole staff enough to double the number of people who can really function in English (from the 2012 level of 4.3% to 8.7% by 2017, on average) according to Diamond Weekly. And the larger the company, the higher the percentage. Companies with staff numbering over 2000 are generally aiming for having close to 20% of their workforce at a functional level (TOEIC scores over 730 at least). This is blowing back to public education, where there is increasing pressure to start teaching English earlier, and to start aiming kids at big proficiency tests earlier. In a Japan Times piece the other day, Osaka’s English Reformation Project is described. They are planning to put more emphasis on English, and more emphasis on the TOEFL test, believing that there is a global standard that needs to be accepted, and that Japan can no longer be an island that uses English in its own way for its own limited purposes.

Of course,  real change will only come when certain present mindsets change:  English must be learned in a formal institution; it must be learned from native speakers; you need to gain a certain proficiency level before you can begin using it for real communication; you prepare for entrance exams by cramming discrete vocab and grammar points; etc. Already we can see cracks. As the world continues to shrink, these cracks are likely to grow. Right now, if you can Skype and aren’t bothered by the accent of your conversation partner/teacher, you can begin practicing/learning English with a real live person for as little at 125 yen for 25 minutes. Similar services are sprouting up and there are more than a dozen companies ready to help you learn this way (not that you need a company, BTW), mostly making use of the large number of English speakers in the Philippines. The conversation school mentioned above doesn’t even have the Philippines on their map! But this, too, will change. The interactive multimedia do-it-yourself approach (as opposed to the go-to-the-bookstore-and-buy-a-book-written-mostly-in-Japanese approach, or the join-an established-conversation-school approach) has been slow in developing in Japan. But it is growing. It’s too pedagogically effective and cost effective to keep ignoring. Take a look at how some polyglots are making effective use of free web-based resources to learn any language they want. 


So where is this post going? Well, the point I really wanted to make is that the the shrinking world is also driving a new way of conceptualizing  English as a foreign language (EFL). With English on video, English on the radio, English podcasts, English groups and clubs, MOOCs, easy access to English books, and apps or websites available for any  language  learning  detail  you  can  imagine, does it make sense to assume that our students are really far removed from English-speaking opportunities and cultures? It may make sense to talk about English as foreign language as a starting point, but pedagogy should shift to recognize that English is no longer so, well, foreign. I have begun to think that all English teaching can now be thought of more the way that learning English inside English-speaking countries (ESL) has traditionally been defined. That is, what you learn in class, you can usually try out quite easily outside of class, if you have a mind to. Out of class time in EFL contexts can now be equally considered potential language use/exposure time.


I think this is one reason for the recent popularity of content and language integrated learning (CLIL, or content-based learning) in Europe and other places. This approach recognizes that English exists as a system of content and interaction that learners can plug into and work with. The idea is to create an immersive language learning environment in the classroom, wherever that classroom may be. This involves a rethinking of teaching and learning focus and goals, and more training for learning skills (such as discussion skills, presentation skills, and writing skills). If you are interested in further exploring CLIL or how to use rich tasks to facilitate better learning, I have two books to recommend. The first, on CLIL provides a good overview and rationale for this approach, while Pauline Gibbons’ book gets into the details of how to operationalize that in the ESL classroom, but as an EFL teacher, I found most of it attractive and applicable to the context in which I teach, a reaction I would not have had circa 1994. Click on the images for more information. The real question of what skills/language are most appropriate for the Japanese context is still being worked out, though. Test and test-prep schools have become so established that they cannot be ignored in any new approach. Certainly at the moment they are having a negative impact on learning English, at least for the purpose of enjoyment of communication and development of productive skills. A CLIL approach seems a interesting option, but it will require mindset changes, digital learning literacy; and cram schools and many entrance exams will have to redifine themselves.






EFL Gamification 5: The Whole Hog?

This is the fifth post on gamification in EFL. The first was an attempt to understand motivation. The second considered changing specific behaviors. The third looked at mechanics, or the structure needed to make game-based learning engaging. The fourth was about some of the problems that can happen when gamification (especially just pointsification–the casual addition of points and other game elements) is put to use for manipulative purposes without enough attention to the underlying motivations and personalities of learners. This post will look at  turning your whole class into a game, or put more metaphorically, going the whole hog. There are really two ways of doing this. One is to design the course as a simulation. That means to create an immersive and realistic environment that requires learners to play a role. It  is a kind of extreme content-based form of learning and requires considerable flexibility with curriculum content and probably works best if you are aiming learners at a specific career. An example might be simulating planning and opening a store for business students. The instructor would then need to create all the websites, documents, etc. needed to support the simulation. The second, and the one I’ll focus on in this post, involves re-imagining the present content using a role-playing game structure. Traditional content (including textbooks and teaching modules) are used, but a wider variety of tasks and assignments are used. Game genre details and a  narrative structure are employed to make the progression through the material seem more like a game. This is more possible in institutional EFL courses, but still comes with a few conditions, the first being your familiarity with the genre of games.

Are you a gamer? I’m not talking about a little Angry Birds while commuting. I mean, have you spent huge blocks of your life immersed in World of Warcraft or Halo or The Sims or one of the many other places/pastimes where gamers spend time? Ask yourself how much you know about games and how much you really play. If you play 13 hours a week, you can consider yourself only an average member of the gamer sector of society; if you are up to 20 hours a week, you are officially “hard-core”; and if you can somehow cut your working, sleeping, and social hours down far enough to manage 45 hours a week, you are (by any account) “extreme”  (McGonigal, 2011, p. 3). Of course, you don’t need to be a fanatic about games to turn your classroom into a game, but you do need a certain amount of familiarity with the genre. You will need rather intimate knowledge of the structure and pacing of games–the way items are acquired, the way quests go down, the types of challenges, the way characters interact, the reward systems, etc.–and you will need to be able to retool your classroom and syllabus in a way that mimics this. You will need to know the lingo: guilds, raids, wipes, (point) farming, experience points (XP), etc.  Unsure of yourself? Back away from this idea now. But if you are a gamer and game lover, it is an option to embrace whole hoggedly. I speak as a researcher/observer here. I have not done this myself and so I will be only reporting on what I have read, pointing you to other sources and egging you to go out there and give it your best shot if you are interested.

There is, admittedly, something of a square peg in a round hole fit when taking the immersive multimedia world of a game and using it for a brick ‘n mortar face-to-face classroom. First of all, students are not sitting at computers interacting with audio/visual/narratives made by teams of talented professionals with an average production cost of $10 million (Whitton, 2010, in Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching). But if everyone is up for a bit of pretending, or suspension of disbelief, it can go well. Both Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken, and Lee Sheldon in The Multiplayer Classroom believe that game culture is second nature for the students in our classes. They have grown up playing games and are very comfortable with the way games engineer player progression. Ms. McGonigal states that the members of the gamer generation have more problems with reality–including most school work–because it lacks interesting challenge, the satisfying work, promise of success, and actionable feedback that is usually the norm. In other words, most courses aren’t engaging for many learners and they are likely to be up for a change. Or as Mr. Sheldon optimistically puts it, “we have yet to discover a class that cannot be taught in this way” [as a game] (pg. 9).

Mr. Sheldon’s book is the best resource I’ve been able to find for designing coursework as a game. Indeed, that is the sub-title of the book. In addition to being a trial-and-error account of his attempts to do this with his own university game design courses, the book contains several case studies by different teachers, the closest one among them to a high school language course was Denishia Buchanan’s  high school biology class. If you really have no idea where to begin, this book and in particular Ms. Buchanan’s case history, will help you out.

Mr. Sheldon will help you understand basic class organization and his unique (to the world of institutionalized education) approach to grading. By setting up coursework as a series of group and individual challenges and by creating a point system where students start with “0” and have to climb up through the levels towards their final grades, he manages (albeit not without a lot of tweaking) to make a grading system that mimics that of game progression.

In addition to just renaming groups as guilds and assignment as quests, both these teachers managed to make use of narrative to envelope the course and allowed learners considerable choice and flexibility. Narrative pulls the players/learners forward, making the course a story–their story; it creates in learners the desire to achieve hero goals; and it keeps everyone looking forward to what will happen next (Dansky, 2007). For this to work, however, there must be challenging but achievable things to do. Adoption of an inquiry-based curriculum that provides both variety and flexibility and lets the learners put their creativity to work seems a prerequisite. The balance, however,  of choice and rigorous requirements seems to be a tricky one to manage (Whitton, 2012).

And even if you get that right, you’ll need to spend some time designing to facilitate greater interaction. Though it is often touted as a great feature of online games, the  forming of groups to combine strengths to overcome particularly difficult challenges is not as common as game proponents might suggest. Ducheneaut (2006) studied World of Warcraft and found that players only begin to start grouping at the latter stages of game play at higher levels of the game, after they have found what they cannot do alone. That means that you can’t expect learners to collaborate on their own; you’ll have to design your activities so that group sharing is facilitated. Mr. Sheldon, for example, required both individual and group assignments during his courses, a practical way of ensuring both accountability and collaboration.

But finally, even if you get everything right, you still might not make everyone happy. There is considerable research that suggests that not all students like to experience courses as games, especially as one of those role-playing types of games that can can sound so hokey to the non-fan (Bekebrede et al., 2011).

Well, there you go. It’s obviously a challenge. It’ll take a lot of time to design all the quests and restructure the flow of lessons. But reading the stories of teachers who have done it can help you see the attraction of going whole hog with turning your course into a game. If you think you might like a little help with creating the structure and rule details, there is now a web service to help you. Called World of Classcraft, it provides roles, progressions, and rules of acquiring experience points or taking damage hit points.

And finally, you can read about an attempt to turn a language course into a large-scale alternate reality game (ARG) in Europe in Connolly, Stansfield, and Hainey (2011) linked below.

June 2013 Update: I recently came across a blog post from a teacher who had tried to gamify her class (as in turn the classroom experience into something closer to that of a game). Titled How I Turned My Classroom into a ‘Living Video Game’ and Saw Achievement Soar, the post explains (frustratingly) briefly how Ms Joli Barker, a second year elementary school teacher used technology (Skype, QR codes, GoAnimate, Voki, and Xtranormal), project-based learning narratives (?), and some  international exchanges to boost the scores of her students quite dramatically. She created a  basic structure of tasks and levels, challenges, and avatars, and re-tooled her assessment in a way that matches video games (similar to Mr. Sheldon). Without a little more detail, it is hard to picture what classes were really like, but the idea is very interesting and the results impressive.

Another June, 2013 update: Here is a geography class taught as a zombie survival game.


Bekebede, G., Warmelink, H., and Mayer, I. (2011). Reviewing the need for gaming in education to accommodate the net generation. Computers & Education, 57/2, 1521-1529.

Connolly, T. M., Stansfield, M., & Hainey, T. (2011). An alternate reality game for language learning: ARGuing for multilingual motivation. Computers & Education, 57(1), 1389-1415. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.01.009

Dansky, R. (2007). Introduction to game narrative. In C.M. Bateman (ed.) Game writing: Narrative skills for video games. Boston, MA: Charles River Media.

Whitton, N. (2012). Good game design is good learning design. In N. Whitton and A. Moseley (eds.) Using games to enhance learning and teaching. New York: Routledge.


Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 6: ARGs


Are MOOCs Disruptive? They Are Where I Live

A recent post in the Mind/Shift blog on the dismal completion rates of MOOCs ends with the question of whether or not they are disruptive. For education policy people and trend-watchers this seems to be an important question. But as the article states, and as a little consideration suggests, completion rates may not be the most important thing to think about. I think their very existence is indicative of their disruptive status. From the perspective of an EFL teacher trainer in Japan–and I’m guessing I can speak for many people throughout the world hungry for better-quality education in English–MOOCs are a very significant development.

People in North America (where I hail from) may not be conscious of a few things that we expat English teachers have been noticing for years. The world is getting smaller is one way to describe this major sea change over the last two decades. I can divide my 26 years in Japan into roughly two periods: the age before and after the Internet became available. Yes, before the Internet arrived, I had access to three English newspapers, a dozen or so magazines, lots of  movies, and even taped US television–all of which were precious resources we used to build lesson activities with authentic English. But now, everything seems to be available, only a few clicks away. The problem these days though, is that content is not organized and is often not accessible as it is for people from other cultures or with less-than-native English proficiency. In countries like Japan and China, there are large domestic populations and armies of translators and local businesses all too willing to repackage and charge locals for more comprehensive packages of content. This has often created an artificial barrier to access on of content on the web by individuals.

At the same time, however, it has become easier and more common to travel and study abroad and meet and interact with people from other cultures, both in foreign countries and in Japan. Inbound tourism, mostly a collection of international businessmen and their families twenty years ago, has become more frequent and more diverse. What I want to say is, everyone is aware that the world is getting smaller and will continue to do so in the future. They’re just not sure what to do about it exactly.

What does this have to do with MOOCs? Well, the availability and institutional trust value of schools offering MOOCs means a great deal to a great many people in various corners of the world. Anyone can go on the web and practice writing, but a comprehensive course offered, for example, by Duke University is a completely different thing. MOOCs give access to higher education opportunities that can be trusted to people who normally couldn’t or wouldn’t access such opportunities. And what about completion rates? I just don’t see that as an issue. Many people are trying this system out, taking a few cars for a test drive as it were. They are testing both the courses and themselves and getting a better idea of how the combination of these can work. Schools are becoming more sensitive to the needs of such learners, too. That writing course I mentioned is a relatively recent addition to the catalog and obviously aimed at entry-level students.

The signs I see mostly point to positive improvements. The screenshot above is from Coursera‘s website. More courses in more languages, and the option to get real credit for your work. I think we are moving into a new phase here. I regularly recommend courses to friends, colleagues, and students here in Japan, regardless of their nationality. Not taking advantage of these courses is criminally stupid in my opinion, even if that means just watching the videos and lurking around a little. There is much to learn in many different ways. If you haven’t tried it yet, please go to the website and take a look at the offerings. I guarantee you’ll find something that interests you.

Recently, some courses have begun to offer Signature Track registration. It’s a paid service that allows you to experience courses in a way that allows you to earn a verifiable certificate. It seems MOOCs are moving toward a more standard e-learning model. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but completely free MOOCs may be on their way out. Get ’em while you can.

May 1, 2013 Update: Here is a nice blog article with current stats and comments on MOOC users.


Photo credits: Top, screengrab from NASA video (http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap130331.html ); Bottom two from Coursera’s website (https://www.coursera.org/ )

The Flipped Classroom: Interesting (But Possible in HS EFL Classrooms?)

Flipping a lesson seems to mean different things to different people these days. But here is one definition, via Knewton, that makes a lot of sense. Instead of having the teacher convey information/explanations to the learners during classroom time and then getting the learners to practice it later for homework, the learners watch/listen/read the lecture or explanation or teaching part of a lesson at home and then come to the classroom to try it out, practice it, or get feedback on performance. That makes a lot of sense to me. Many teachers are already doing some form of blended learning these days, usually either parking resources on the web or providing learners with options for web-based self-access learning. Flipping a classroom seems to be the next logical step.

Of course, there are issues that come to mind immediately–Internet access inequality, digital learning literacy problems, motivational differences, and (for many teachers) just adjusting to a new way of approaching teaching. But the idea is interesting, the technology is extant, and I believe most learners are very, very ready for this. And the new official course of study in Japan comes into effect for high school this upcoming April, requiring more English in the classroom, particularly more productive use of English by learners. This may be one way of really achieving the directives.

March 25th update: Recently, Blackboard posted the slides of presentation on the challenges of flipping classrooms.


LET Kyushu-Okinawa Presentation

On June 9th I was lucky enough to be able to go down to Miyazaki for the 42nd Kyushu-Okinawa Chapter LET Conference held at Miyazaki Municipal University. I had a great time there at the small but interesting conference, meeting up with some old friends and colleagues, and meeting some interesting people.

My presentation was titled Crossing Cultures and Aiding Learning: 105 Years of Treasure Hunting. The whole presentation was recorded for Ustream and is available here. The (abridged) slides are available here. And links for all the tools and websites mentioned in the presentation can be found here.

Many thanks to the organizers of the conference for the interesting content and their kind hospitality.

Make Yourself Smarter?

An article in the New York Times on the weekend called Can You Make Yourself Smarter?, mentioned the double n-back training that is being done to increase working memory (formerly known as short-term memory–Susan Gathercole can fill you in if you need an update on working memory). It’s a little long, but quite interesting, and a little controversial, too, it seems, as I found when I visited Larry Ferlazzo’s ESL/EFL Website of the Day blog, where he had posted his comments on this article (which he didn’t like) and another on exercise and the brain (which he did like–link below). I had stumbled across the double n-back a few months ago when I was doing a little research into working memory and the phonological loop, even trying the online version, which I recommend before you read the Times article or Larry Ferlazzo’s critique of it, or even before you read any further into this post.

Here it is, at a site somewhat appropriately labelled Soak Your Head. Go ahead, give it a try. I’ll wait……….

The Times article is more balanced than Mr Ferlazzo’s comments lead you to believe. The author, Dan Hurley (currently writing a book on intelligence, BTW), reports mostly on the finding of Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, now at the University of Maryland, in a paper from 2008. They used the double n-back system to train people to improve their working memory and found improvements in their fluid intelligence as well. The claim that you can improve performance on a specific memory task doing it 25 minutes a day for between 12 to 17 weeks is not controversial. The claim that you can improve general working memory across the board is somewhat controversial. The claim that you can improve intelligence–reasoning, abstract thought, problem-solving intelligence–well, that causes a lot of controversy (see Randall Engle’s Attention and Working Memory Lab site for a truckload of blowback).

Many people agree that working memory capacity, especially phonological loop capacity, is critical to good performance at school, particularly for foreign language learning (see some of the many articles by Gathercole). But whether sitting at a computer screen for 25 minutes a day for what amounts to a semester of colored square and audio letter memory practice in increasing levels of difficulty (remember the last one; remember the one before the last one; remember the one 3 stimuli back) can help you, is questionable. It might help your working memory, but it is without doubt the closest thing to torture that I have ever seen in education. A person might elect to do it themselves, but I would not want to be responsible for imposing it on people, particularly at this time when researchers are finding different things.

But in Chicago they are doing it in a school system. And Torkel Klingberg, who invented the technique that  later modified and did their experiments with, well, he formed a learning company and later sold it to Pearson Education. And all sorts of other researchers are moving ahead with similar projects to stretch working memory and improve intelligence. A lot of people apparently see something there… A lot of people also like the work done by Jaeggi and Buschkuehl, according to the article. They just seem to want to move in a slower and less grandiose way forward I guess.

One researcher mentioned in the article, Adrian Owen, is quoted as saying the following after his attempts to replicate J and B’s study:

No evidence was found for transfer to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related”

Yup, it’s the transfer problem again. You learn what you do in the way that you do it. I can think of a lot of other things I would rather my students be doing for 25 intensely focused minutes per day for 17 weeks. But I have to admit, I really wouldn’t mind if they went home and instead of playing Temple Run for two hours, they played for one and a half hours after they spent half and hour “exercising” their working memories. Or better yet, do aerobics for half and hour, stretch working memory with the double n-back for half an hour, and then run in the game like a madman for the last hour, with malignant demonic monkeys forever hot on your heels.

Jan. 2014 Update: Here is a Guardian article on the same topic. It covers some of the same ground (gaming, computer-based brain training), but also electrical stimulation of the brain, specifically the Fo.us headset. The article ends with advice to take Andrea Kuszewski’s advice and just try to challenge yourself more.

June 2017 Update: This study found no effect when training adults. Here is the reference: Clark CM, Lawlor-Savage L, Goghari VM (2017) Working memory training in healthy young adults: Support for the null from a randomized comparison to active and passive control groups. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0177707. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177707



Steven Thorne at IATEFL 2012: New Media and Language Learning

Steven Thorne’s March 22 plenary is available online (thanks to the British Council).

Here’s the description:

Awareness, appropriacy, and living language use

There has been a great deal of research and pedagogical experimentation relating to technology use within second and foreign language (L2) education. This presentation broadens the scope of inquiry to examine entirely out-of-school L2 digital engagement in environments such as social media, fan fiction communities, and online gaming. The presentation argues first for the efficacy of a usage-based model of second language development and the benefits of explicitly addressing genre awareness and pragmatic appropriateness as core assets in the language learning process. I then present a pedagogical framework designed to increase the relevance of instructed L2 education through the structured juxtaposition of digital vernaculars with more formal ‘classroom’ genres of language use, an approach I and colleagues are calling bridging activities (e.g., Thorne & Reinhardt, 2008). In conclusion, an argument is made for the continued exploration of new media genres of language use and their selective inclusion into instructed L2 pedagogy, processes, and curricula.

Here’s the link.

For me, there’s a lot to like in this presentation. The world of the web provides great (language) learning opportunities for both social and linguistic reasons. Everything is in place: technology, access, digital skills. Bridging learners from the classroom into the real world should be part of any language program, anywhere. For that to happen, real questions about the  “content” of courses needs to happen, and teachers themselves must break out of a very established culture of what language teaching and learning is and what it is for.







Pragamatic Chaos: The Physics of Culture

Sometimes things cluster. They appear close enough together that patterns emerge. Today I would like to introduce a cluster of items that I’ve recently come across courtesy of Yahoo movies, TED, and the BBC.

Let’s start with Yahoo movies, where I regularly go to watch the previews for upcoming movies that I will mostly never see. I feel each chew of my lunch with my headset on as I run through tw0-minute introductions to horror flicks, kid movies, chick flicks, made-to-be blockbusters, and occasionally very interesting movies whose titles I hopefully will recognize in a year or so when they show up for rental here in Japan. Among the few previews I watched a few weeks back was Moneyball, more because it was there than because it stars Brad Pitt, is about baseball, or is the story of Billy Beane–a list with two didn’t-really-cares and one didn’t-know. But to my surprise, the topic and the movie grabbed my interest. Because of this:  Sabermetrics. Sabermetrics is the use of empirical statistical evidence to evaluate past success and predict future success. In my understanding of baseball, it is a game of statistics, and so a movie based on a book based on a  team that uses a new statistical approach to get phenomenal results with fractional investments made me interested in the topic of how someone could effectively use more stats, different stats, in a world driven by stats, and make a big difference. It is a merging of cultural self-awareness and math that allows for the seeing of things that are there but had not been noticed, because people lived with a different culture and because they didn’t do/ read the math. The stats people watched had been based on old thinking about the game, knowledge and norms amassed over generations–prevalent and flawed, or at least incomplete.

And then yesterday a BBC article steered me toward a TED talk. Skim the article but watch every moment of the presentation. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Kevin Slavin begins to explain the physics of culture. The talk is mostly about Wall Street and the algorithms they use to play the market and the infrastructure being built to give those algorithms a few milliseconds headstart to do their job, but his comments about culture and algorithms brought me back to Moneyball and how things people think of as esoteric (and by esoteric I mean knowable only by a select group that does not include many people and all machines) are knowable, convertible into algorithms, and effective on you. Did you know that 70 % of choices made on Netflix are the result of suggestions made by an algorithm, one called Pragmatic Chaos? Or that algorithms are helping to decide what movies get made at all?

This is a challenge to culture and I do not mean big “C” culture, but rather the way we view what culture is, who creates it, and what it means for all of us. The BBC article sounds practically ominous:

…our electronic overlords are already taking control, and they are doing it in a far more subtle way than science fiction would have us believe. Their weapon of choice – the algorithm. Behind every smart web service is some even smarter web code. From the web retailers – calculating what books and films we might be interested in, to Facebook’s friend finding and image tagging services, to the search engines that guide us around the net. It is these invisible computations that increasingly control how we interact with our electronic world.

In typical hyperbolic  fashion this confuses the point with the fear. It is not only about our electronic worlds, and if we have overlords it is by virtue of not understanding ourselves and our own culture(s) very well, not because some new type of insidious new electronic overlords have recently been put in place.

Jesse Schell: Games and Authenticity: When Games Invade Real Life


In the previous post I wrote about Jane McGonigal and her views on how gamers can save the world. Well, Jesse Schell, game designer, teacher, and author, has a slightly different take on the increasingly prominent role that games will play in the future in a spring 2010  DICE talk (available here via TED). He draws a line from the recent spate of reality-fudging games like the Wii Fit, Guitar Hero, and Mafia Wars (indeed he takes Facebook games as his starting point) to a future where game-like point systems are in place for everything from brushing your teeth longer to taking public transport to getting to work on time.

Schell’s vision of the future seems more plausible than McGonigal’s and in that sense it is more frightening. But both actually  see their visions as ultimately leading to improvements–using gamer energy and ideas to solve problems in the case of McGonigal, and using increased monitoring by sensors to improve personal behavior in the case of Schell. Interesting ideas and interesting optimism. Of course, one might succumb to a moment of skepticism and point out the many weapons that were meant to end wars or gifts to mankind that ended up causing more problems than they helped, or refer people to the darker versions of state and/or corporate control contained in books such as 1984. But it’s probably better to be optimistic about the future since we (collectively) don’t exactly have the option of whether to go there or not.

Self-organizing Systems of Education

This video from the ALT-C conference in Nottingham in 2010 shows Sugata Mitra talking about his experiments with self-organizing learning systems , that is, students in small groups doing self-directed learning with computers.  His speculation at the end is interesting: “education is a self-organizing system and learning is emergent.”

For some reason this blog is not allowing me to embed the video, but you can find it here.

Questions come to mind immediately. Would it work in an affluent society with a strong cultural leaning toward teacher-centered education? Would it work with language learning? And would any administration ever be willing to take a chance and try something like this?