Critical Literacies and the Challenge of Online Learning with Stephen Downes #tesl15

1 pm on Friday, October 30

This is a liveblog, so I am hoping that what I am writing here will make sense. Also, this is my first time liveblogging, therefore I ask for your patience :)

I am in Stephen’s Downes session on critical literacies. The session happens to be during lunchtime so the audience is relatively small. Perhaps the #cdnelt community is not familiar with Stephen’s work and research in the area od educational technology and online learning and teaching, or perhaps it’s the lunchtime effect.

Aside from edtech and online learning, Stephen used to live in Manitoba, so another connection there. Currently, he works with the National Research Council.

Glen Cochrane introduced the featured speaker and mentioned that Stephen brings edtech and multidisciplinary approach to the conference.

Stephen started the session with a reference to LOLcats, images containg cats, or other animals, and grammaticaly incorrect text.

the MOOC – designed in such a way that can be taken by thousands of people. The first MOOC launched in 2008 had 2200 learners. After that Coursera, Udacity, edX, FutureLearn came about. There are thousands of MOOCs available now. xMOOC created by Standford focuses on content delivery, based on Khan Academy. Even though the first videos on Youtube were awful, they were immensely popular.

THere was no formal curriculum for the first MOOC. The designers created a network, where learners were assumed to create knowledge and learn from one another. On the other hand xMOOC provide the content.

Crticisms of MOOCs multifold

MOOC pedagogy was bad, is bad. The software created for them was awful. MOOC are mechanistic, do not egnage students. People are islotated, just looking at the computer. Types of participants, Stephen often falls into the observer category, like me. Event though a percentage of actual completions is small, it is a huge success to have those participants complete a course. *** Stephen is asking for a wider understanding of what a course is and what a participantion means. A wider conception of learning. He mentioend the morning breakfast buffet. Were we asked to start at the beginning and go step-by-step through to the end? No, you begin by finding your fork. Are they placed at the beginning of the table? soemtimes not. Newspapers – are we obliged to read every single article? No, we pick and choose. Excellent point!

In learning, the idea that you begin at a certain point and you move in a linear manner is irrational.

Common COre – bad idea, well executed. The importnat things is to understand whats going on, rahter then the formulas and principles. Language, all languages have a different approach to the verb to be. We want to go beyond the principles and rules.

What does it mean to be literate?

We need to get past the basci idea about meaning, comprehension and understanding.

Snow is white if and only snow is white. the search engine for emojis Stephen doesn’t know why people use them [laugh].

Meaning defined by what the word doesnt mean. Meaning is performative. Meaning is use.

The Critical Literacies

a heuristic device for understanding meaning, knowledge, science…see slides for the table

  • syntax – not just rules and grammar
  • semantics – purpose, goal, different ways of understanding meaning
  • pragmatics – use, actions, impact
  • cognition – what counrts as an inference, reasoning, explanation
  • context – placement, location, environment
  • change

Knowldege as recognition. Our knowledge itself is insufficient to account for these various dimensions of literacy. When we see our grandmother, we recognize her automatically.

To know something is to rezognize it.


Notes added after the session:

quite a mental task to listen to the presenter and try to write in an understandable prose

A colleague was looking for a link to my liveblog, and I am about to publish it now, so I might have misunderstood what a liveblog is :) Was I just taking notes? Next time I will try a google doc and share it.

Apologies for typos. Will not use WordPress on iPad again for this type of exercise.

Learner Analysis #deuloe assignment

Learner Analysis: Pre-Arrival Adult Immigrants to Canada Whose First Language is not English

My Role Within the Learner Group

The members of my learner group are pre-arrival adult immigrants to Manitoba, Canada, whose first language is not English. They have been pre-approved for permanent residency but currently reside in their home countries. This report will provide details of the needs and characteristics of the group, based on my experience working with similar groups.

I work for a subsidized non-profit organization, and all the services are free to eligible learners. I oversee the Learner Services department and the development of the learner support system in an online self-directed learning environment. I am also actively engaged in the learning design and facilitation of learning options, reflected in the chart below.

learning options chart

Learning options accessible by the learner cohort (click the image to enlarge it)

Client intake is ongoing, and currently we have approximately 600 learners registered, 10% of whom are pre-arrivals; the whole group is supported by two eFacilitators.

Learner Group

Since my task here is a speculative analysis, I decided to employ the personas technique, which helped me create a group of fictitious learners (see Appendix) to represent my learners. The group, consisting of three women, two men and one couple, is heterogeneous in professional and educational backgrounds, language abilities, motivation to immigrate, personal goals, computer skills, strengths and possible obstacles to their success in Canada. The three commonalities I established are maturity, the goal of immigrating to Canada, and isolation from the destination culture. I will discuss the learners’ characteristics and needs in three categories: online learning environment, metacognition, and survival.

  • Online Learning Environment

My learners access the services from locations spread across the globe. In a synchronous workshop I may facilitate individuals from six time zones. This presents me with scheduling challenges and requires repeats on different days at different times to provide access for all. Further, a full spectrum of computer skills can be seen, ranging from first-time users to avid online game players. Self-access tutorials are available, but even then for learners unfamiliar with computers, following instructions from a screen capture constitutes a learning barrier. Some persevere and contact eFacilitators for help; some drop out. Moreover, computer access is inconsistent for the learners, from library access, to the variety in operating systems and device sizes; this creates compatibility issues. Since our live workshops are planned for virtual classroom environments and incorporate chats, document sharing, watching videos, and browsing websites, mobile users are disadvantaged. Nonetheless, developing mobile-friendly versions is considered a lower priority as funding restrictions and the majority needs dictate the delivery outputs.

  • Metacognition

Given that they are mature learners, they most likely grew up in a traditional face-to-face educational model, and so for many learning online is a first-time experience. Learners entering our online self-directed learning environment are expected to take ownership of their learning, i.e. to formulate goals, select learning options matching their availability and needs, and reflect, monitor, and self-assess their own progress. In reality the group displays a spiky profile in terms of metacognitive skills and attitudes towards self-directed learning; some learners expect the eFacilitator to direct their learning, while others expect access to content anytime to engage in activities independently. This clash of expectations presents an emotional rollercoaster of stretching comfort zones for all involved. With varied autonomy levels, there is a strong need for study materials to raise awareness of metacognition involved in learning online. Additionally, the learning options must be diversified to address different interaction preferences shown in the chart above. It is a challenge to meet all learners’ expectations and needs, and occasionally learners drop out from the program. I have recently discovered instances where proficient language learners have chosen to not contact an eFacilitator because they are not used to taking the initiative to seek assistance for their learning. This could be a personal choice, or a cultural factor, such as high power distance. What frustrates me is that frequently I do not know why a learner drops out as they rarely notify me of their departure.

  • Survival

As future residents of Canada, learners need information about local services to address their family needs, such as applying for jobs, finding housing, or bringing pets. They also need familiarity with the particulars of the Canadian culture, or soft skills. One such soft skill is the ability to communicate in one of the official languages of Canada. Consequently, learners need opportunities to improve their language skills. The better they communicate on arrival, the higher their chances are of finding a job. One of the learners speaks English at a native level; however her accent might be perceived negatively and pose a challenge in her successfully landing a job.

One of the common denominators for pre-arrival immigrants is their isolation from the destination culture. Learners may be engaged with our services for three years prior to landing in Canada. In that case, the transfer of skills learned through engagement with the learning options in the chart above is delayed, while focus on the retention of skills prevails. Learners cannot contact employers to apply their interview skills as employers are disinterested in talking to a person with an unspecified arrival date. However, I encourage learners to use this time to build community networks with fellow immigrants living in Canada. Once the learners arrive in Manitoba, these new acquaintances will serve as a support system to help them with culture shock and nostalgia. To enable those connections I moderate a forum and virtual coffee chats where clients can exchange experiences and contact information.

The need for information and language practice juxtaposed with varied dates of arrival constitutes a learning design challenge. Learners arriving in a month needs quick access to information, while others arriving in two years’ time have the luxury of time to gather facts about their future home. I find myself constantly questioning and modifying the current learner support system and its effectiveness to satisfy the learners’ needs.


The learners I have described are highly diverse in their individual needs. Funding restrictions create a learning design challenge to offer inclusive services that will address the wide range of individual needs. As a teacher, ideally I want to see that every individual goal is achieved; as a learning designer I need to generate scalable and sustainable solutions to accommodate the majority and provide access for all. I feel that a self-directed learning environment is one that can best fulfill the needs of the group, but such an environment requires a considerable amount of time and resources to develop wide-ranging options to meet varied metacognitive, technical, and survival needs.

Appendix with personas can be viewed here.

My learning plan for the summer 2015

In my previous post, Mandarin Learning Challenge, I admitted to not having set goals for the learning challenge. I didn’t want to disrupt my informal learning process. I also wanted to see how far I could get without goals, so I went day-by-day and allowed the learning to happen organically, or not at all. It was a great adventure!

As I started writing this post, I looked for my unpublished notes on last summer’s learning goals. Here they are:

My Learning Plan for the Summer 2014

  1. Transcribe/review/translate two TED videos
  2. Practise blogging by posting an article weekly
  3. Learn French and Russian daily, 30 min each
  4. Get ready for 10K walk in September
  5. Participate in 2 MOOCs: Understanding Research Methods and Developing a Research Project

Out of the five goals, I achieved one: #4. Having practised weekly throughout the summer, in September last year, two colleagues and I went to Tres Herne, MB, and walked 10K.

So, one goal out of five equals 20%; 20% achieved of the set goals. I’m thinking to myself ‘not bad’ :)

What do I do this summer? Do I also go for five goals and hope or aim to achieve one? Let’s see.

  1. Transcribe/review/translate one TED video – love doing that and 1 video is quite doable in two months. I’ve done 4 videos so far
  2. Blog weekly (?) – I’d like to share my professional learning journey. There are so many interesting developments happening at work that I simply must find time to share with you here on my blog.
  3. Learn French and Mandarin – so this year I’m replacing Russian with Mandarin. To learn French I’m planning to use Duolingo and Speaky; for Mandarin – Memrise and Speaky. Nothing specific here, just learn a bit every day.
  4. Enjoy nature – I’ve joined a cycling group and will do weekly rides. I’m planning on taking my dogs for walks too. Summertime is so short in Manitoba!
  5. Write a paper with @mbjamieson Perhaps something to do with design patterns for diverse needs in an online environment.

OK, I’ll stop here at six goals; one more than last year. Perhaps I’ll achieve two this time :)

Mandarin Learning Challenge

In the spirit of openness and visible learning, here is my report on the Mandarin learning challenge I did for Understanding Learning in the Online Environment (#deuloe).

Submitted March 29, 2015.  Word count 1095.


Kolb and Kolb posit that “learning identity is strongly influenced by one’s important relationships” (2009, p 3). My identity as a language learner began forming when I was six years old. I remember visiting my paternal grandfather and spending hours leafing through his dictionaries; he spoke ten languages. While other kids played games, I pretended to sound out Italian, French or German words, and dreamed of speaking all of them one day. My first English textbook came from my grandfather. I strongly believe that his encouragement awoke my life-long fascination with language learning, which led me to become a language teacher.

When I realized that for the learning challenge I was tasked to choose a motor skill, I knew it could only be another language; I chose to learn Mandarin Chinese. One could argue that speaking two languages I was simply adding a third to my language repertoire, where I could draw on an established facility with language learning. However, since Mandarin belongs to an utterly unfamiliar language family for me – Sino Tibetan – I expected it to constitute a considerable, yet stimulating learning challenge. In this report, I will justify my choice as well as explore my approach and barriers to learning, where I will specifically look at motivation as the most significant driver of my learning process.

I chose to learn Mandarin for a number of reasons. Firstly, learning a foreign language constitutes the best professional development one can undertake. Gaining an ability to make analogies between languages aids in understanding learners’ needs. Secondly, I work for a settlement agency, so knowing the basics of a language spoken by a learner helps break down barriers and build trust. As a result, learners are frequently encouraged to tackle English with greater enthusiasm. Thirdly, by embarking on this challenge, I wanted to increase my understanding of why Mandarin speakers experience difficulty pronouncing the ‘ey’ diphthong in English, as in the word plain. Finally, since Mandarin has more speakers than any other language, I want to be one of them.

My reasons for embarking on this challenge illustrate that motivation is multidimensional and complicated (Ellis 2015). Deci and Ryan (cited in Ellis 2015) concluded that people are motivated both intrinsically and extrinsically. On the one hand, I activated choice motivation (Dörnyei cited in Lightbown and Spada 2013) by being intrinsically motivated out of life-long curiosity for languages. On the other hand, my choice was externally enabled by this ULOE assignment, as it gave me ‘a push’ to make it happen. Furthermore, by wanting to learn Mandarin for professional and belonging purposes, I exercised integrative motivation, which represents “language learning for personal growth and cultural enrichment through contact with” Mandarin speakers (Gardner and Lambert cited in Lightbown and Spada 2013, p 87).

For this learning challenge, just do it was my approach. Even though Bruning et al (1999) claimed that establishing specific, measurable and time-bound goals fuels intrinsic motivation, I decided against structuring my journey, as it disagreed with my beliefs about self-directed learning. I believe that self-directed learning is arborescent. Each branch is potential to learn something, and so are the leaves. Arborescence represents a multiple-path opportunity to learn.

I began my challenge by curating free online learning materials. Afterwards, I engaged in vicarious and enactive learning (Bandura cited in Bruning et al 2004). Krashen (1989) proposed Input Hypothesis by asserting that input is crucial and output simply happens. Image 1 illustrates my perfect output scores, which happened after repeated cycles of input-output, scaffolded by a teacher who listened to my recordings and provided feedback, an interaction referred to as Zone of Proximal Development by Vygotsky (cited in Ellis 2015). After all, language speaking is connected to the motor skills of the mouth and facial muscles; Scott claimed that to learn a new language one needs to “get one’s tongue around new sound combinations” (1994, p 90). To achieve this, one needs a considerable amount of practice; muscle memory does not happen by default as Krashen postulated.


Image 1. Pronunciation practice using the Waichinese app

Dörnyei’s (cited in Lightbown and Spada 2013) model of motivation also entails executive motivation, which is responsible for engagement in activities that fuel the maintenance of motivation. As a self-directed learner, I was able to modify my approach when my motivation was dissipating, or after non-study periods. To maintain my motivation, I switched between learning resources. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, practised handwriting, and recorded myself.

My engagement in a variety of activities was aimed at aiding motivation and fostering the retention of new vocabulary. The vocabulary that ‘stuck’ with me was one that related to my real-life, e.g. dog commands or the word bread (Image 2). Caine and Caine (1994) elaborated on the importance of the connection between learning and real-world, and referred to it as brain-based learning. Unfortunately, my strategies to maintain motivation and increase vocabulary did not guarantee barrier-free learning.


Image 2. Making bread

My belief in having high self-efficacy to learn Mandarin clashed with the reality of learning without a plan and outside of a Mandarin-speaking environment. Although the informal approach to learning was fun and diminished any anxiety related to striving for a goal, it presented a barrier in maintaining motivation for regular practice. In addition, learning Mandarin as a foreign language constituted a barrier as I had to make an effort to learn; Mandarin did not exist in my environment by default to support latent learning, one that happens involuntarily (Wikipedia). Another barrier which affected my motivation was slow retention. For example, practising pronunciation using the WaiChinese app was stimulating, but did not result in an increase of my language skills. Even though I spent time on scoring a match between my pronunciation pattern and the provided recordings (Image 1: upper pattern – model, bottom pattern – mine), I was unable to either retain any of the vocabulary, or to pronounce them out of context.

Language learning progress requires exposure to target language and regular practice. Due to my inconsistent engagement, I was only able to learn some basic vocabulary. Still, I managed to impress two learners by greeting them in Mandarin and give my dogs a mental exercise to understand ‘shake paw’ in four languages. All in all, the learning challenge was an enriching project, which helped me realize that I am a social learner. Opportunities that involved exposure and interactions with others, be it people or animals, were the most successful factors in my language progress. This discovery will help me select future learning pathways.


Bruning, R. H., Schraw G. J. and Ronning R. R. (1999). Cognitive psychology and instruction. Chapter 6; Beliefs about self. Upper Saddle River, N.J., Merrill.

Caine, R. N. and G. Caine (1994). Making connections: teaching and the human brain. Chapter 1; Making connections (3 – 12). Menlo Park, Calif., Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Ellis, R. (2015). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press.

Kolb, A and Kolb, D. (2009) On Becoming a Learner: The Concept of Learning Identity. In Bamford-Rees et al. (eds) Essays on Adult Learning Inspired by the Life and Work of David O. Justice. Learning Never Ends. CAEL Forum and News 2009. P. 5-13.

Krashen, S. (1989). We Acquire Vocabulary and Spelling by Reading: Additional Evidence for the Input Hypothesis. The Modern Language Journal, 4, p. 440, JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost, viewed 29 March 2015.

Lightbown, P.M. and Spada, N. (2013). How Language are Learned. Fourth Edition. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press.

Scott, M. (1994). Reflections on Language Learning. Chapter 9: Metaphors and Language Awareness.

#DEULOE Learning Challenge: Mandarin Chinese

Understanding Learning in the Online Environment (ULOE) is my second course of the MSc in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. One of the tasks that compelled me to sign up for this course was a learning challenge. For the learning challenge I was tasked to choose a motor skill, one that I’ve never done before. I’ve chosen to learn Mandarin. Although 10 weeks might not be enough for me to make significant progress on this learning journey, I’m hoping to be productive, and most of all enjoy the process.

my 1st attempt to write Chinese characters

my 1st attempt to write Chinese characters

Why Chinese?

First of all, it’s for the purpose of completing the learning challenge assignment. Additionally, I cannot hide the fact that I love learning languages and I could do it all day long. I’ve picked Chinese because I’ve never tried learning a language from the Sino-Tibetan family. I’m expecting that the tonal and written systems will pose a major challenge for me. Luckily, I have a colleague who hails from Taiwan, and who promised to help me iron out difficulties. By taking on this challenge of learning some Chinese, I‘d also like to gain an understanding of why Chinese speakers seem to have difficulty pronouncing the ‘ey’ diphthong in English. Finally, Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world and this alone is a good enough reason to study the language and its culture.


I’m not going to set a specific goal of learning 1000 words, or something like that. Goals are good to have, but at the same time they may pose obstacles and add pressure, which may hinder my progress. I used to set SMART goals for everything, but this time the day-to-day process of exploring Mandarin is going to be my focus. Nowadays there seems to be a spotlight on the product goals in education, and not enough on the process ones. Can a SMART goal guarantee its achievement? This is one of the topics I’ll be exploring alongside my Chinese journey.


For the past couple of weeks I’ve spent a considerable amount of time researching and collecting self-study resources to learn Chinese. I’ll be participating in two MOOCs (Chinese for Beginners and Chinese Language and Culture), watching YouTube videos, e.g. Fiona Tan’s channel, and using FluentU, just to name a few.

My collections of resources are accessible on Pearltrees and Pinterest.

Voice Journal

Aside from this blog, I plan to keep a voice record of my learning :) I’m too shy to show my face on YouTube, so I’ve decided to start a podcasting channel on SoundCloud. Here we go…

digital footprint, digital tattoo, or digital immortality…

* re-blogged from my IDEL blog 

Immortality is the ability to live forever.  Biologically, humans are unable to live forever, although cloning might give us an opportunity to preserve our genes and create an eternal line of live: I could be cloned, and then my clone could be cloned, etc. In nature immortality is not unprecedented, one jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii is capable of transforming itself into a younger self and cloning itself.

In his TED Talk Juan Fernandez refers to online tracks and traces as electronic tattoos. He claims that death is no longer the greatest threat for a human being, it’s outweighed by the immortality threat – the immortal threat of an electronic tattoo.

A digital tattoo seems like a more relevant metaphor to describe online presence than a digital footprint. Digital footprint seems too ephemeral; one can easily cover its tracks in RL: footprints can be covered with surrounding material or blown away by wind. Online presence is more permanent than that. However, a tattoo is visible as long as the human body it’s part of lives. This means neither a digital footprint nor a digital tattoo are permanent. Immortality sounds more appropriate to describe the longevity of the tracks and traces we leave behind. One advantage of the online immortality that comes to mind is family tracking, great-great-great-grand children won’t have problems finding out what their ancestors were up to.

I’ve created a little infographic to visualize the tracks and traces we leave and are left of us by others. I think the brick and mortar image is quite appropriate for the notion of immortality; the tracks and traces are there out in the open for all to see, permanent or until something intentional is done to delete them, e.g. the right to be forgotten in EU. The venn diagram shows the duality of online presence, it’s not just us who create our online presence. Once we enter online, we have audience, followers who share, mention, add their own two cents…Further, the CC license is sort of a permission, that’s the deal we make with ‘online’ when we are “born” into it. Our artifacts will be shared, modified, used, maybe even sold. We are in control of what we leave behind; we are not in control of what others leave of us, ‘the uncontainable self’ (Barbour and Marshall 2012).

 Tracks and Traces infographic(1)

To protect one’s digital immortality, one needs to keep track of one’s online presence on a regular basis. Below are some tips I collected mostly from the IDEL14 participants on Twitter.

Click Tips for Online Identity Protection (storified)

rEALize 2015 in tweets #realize15


rEALize is a Canadian national forum for teachers of adult ESL learners. It happens in January each year, when days are short and some, if not most of Canadians, experience some degree of the winter blues.  It is then that the forum helps ESL teachers connect and have some fun, learning from the comfort of their own homes without the necessity of perhaps flying to remote locations or find parking, as described in this TESL London blog post.

The 2015 rEALize forum took place last weekend, January 23 and 24. Here’s the forum story in tweets:

Day 1

Day 2