Super-tech: 5 ideas worth sharing

In 1997 a chess-playing supercomputer named Deep Blue beat the reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov. The following year, Kasparov began an experiment. He paired a computer and a human on the same team, which played a series of matches against different opponents. In every case, the man-machine pairing won, whether against grandmasters or supercomputers. Kasparov’s conclusion was that when he played on the same team as a machine, it allowed him to focus on the “creative texture” of the game. Many Ed-tech (Educational Technology) advocates have come to the same conclusion: machines and man are a potent combination – one is the perfect logician, the other has intuition. One gives control, the other has soul. The ideas chosen here range from Big Research to work done by individual teachers and their students. This is not a representative survey of all recent developments in Ed-tech; it’s a collection of ideas that may interest those involved in teaching, researching, and learning languages.


The World’s Longest Home Movie and What it Tells us about Language Emergence

At the arrival of newborn babies in the family, most people take a few snapshots, put them on facebook, and try to go back to sleep. Not Deb Roy. This MIT professor rigged up his house with cameras and filmed his son’s life. All of it. (Minus the yucky bits.) From 90,000 hours of footage taken over three years, Roy was able to learn exactly which words his son was exposed to, where, by whom, how frequently, and in what contexts. Roy was then able to see how his son’s language went from ‘gaa’ to ‘water’, a dazzling – if gradual – transition. Through this research project, a picture of first language acquisition is emerging that focuses on context, visual input, and the length of caregivers’ utterances. For anyone interested in language and how children acquire it, this is an essential piece of research.


Holes in the Wall: Sugata Saves a SOLE

Sugata Mitra has come under fire for the conclusions he made following his Hole in the Wall experiment. These conclusions include a vastly diminished role for qualified teachers. However, no one can deny the brilliance of the original experiment. Embed a few computers in a stone wall in the middle of an impoverished Indian village, allow children to access them, and see what happens. As a pure idea, it’s as radical as it is simple. From watching these kids teach themselves and one another the basics of computer literacy, Mitra popularized the notion of the Self Organized Learning Environment (SOLE). For those who believe educational technology has a role to play in bridging the enormous divide between the developing and the developed worlds, and for those who don’t, Mitra’s research is a must.


Urban Chronicles

In his Urban Chronicles project, teacher Paul Driver gets his students out of the classroom and into the streets (and shops, factories, homes, cafes, etc.) to interview local people. Using a combination of photos, audio recordings and video, the students put together a portrait of the local community. For classes working in ESL settings, in which the home language is English, this type of project is invaluable. It allows students to practise their English, develop editing and tech skills, and obtain a rich insight into the history and culture of the area and its people. The project, as is, lacks a Freirean emphasis on social change, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable as a way for students to engage in language and community.


Henry the Black Cat: A Feline Philosopher Fathers Foreign Language Films

Greg Kulowiec helped a group of students to make short films on their iPads. The films were in the target language, with subtitles in their own language. The students’ efforts were originally modeled on the clips of youtube star Henri le Chat Noir, a phlegmatic deadpan cat/philosopher who sits on window ledges and contemplates the meaning of life. The students were learning French, and made their movies in that language, but the idea of creating short subtitled films can be easily adapted for English learners, and it allows them to practise scripting, narrating, acting, producing and editing work in the target language. Cats are optional.



TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), now celebrating its thirtieth year, is well-known for the range and quality of its speakers’ presentations, available for free on the internet. These talks have long been used in educational contexts, but now it’s formal. As of January 2014, the group has a mechanism for helping teachers to use TED talks and the TED format, culminating in students giving their own presentations. For relatively advanced language students, this might be an opportunity worth taking.

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