8 Upcoming MOOCs for Educators

I’ve made a mid-year resolution viz. MOOCs that I hope to follow through. Join only one blessed MOOC at a time and stick to it until it ends. Ever since I got into this MOOC craze last year, I’ve become irrationally excited, enrolling in loads and competing just a few. I’m currently enrolled in Brown University’s The Fiction of Relationship on Coursera and faithfully completing all the prescribed reading and assignments (just finished Melville’s Bartleby). I’ve even set up my very first Meetup. But, I’m already on the verge of violating this resolution. I’ve also enrolled in Introduction to Public Speaking which started several days ago. I might just end up “auditing” this course – I’m more interested in how they’ll run a course like this online and I’m already pleasantly surprised at their ingenuity with using makeshift tripods (using a pile of books) to give your laptop webcam a height boost and getting learners to post their assignments as unlisted Youtube videos for peer-review.

If you haven’t already tapped into Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the potential they offer for professional development, here are some upcoming ones to get you started. All are free and some are offered by leading universities.  A few like Introduction to Business Communication and AccountableTalk(R) are directly relevant to what we do. However, I think rather than waiting to find MOOCs that are specifically on ELT, it might be more beneficial to look at topics that are outside our field. I found most of Jun Liu’s IATEFL Liverpool plenary talk dry and dated but I do agree with him about broadening horizons and building breadth of knowledge alongside the depth of expertise we may have in language teaching.

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Communication 

1. Introduction to Public Speaking – from Coursera

2. Introduction to Business Communication – from Canvas.net

Gamification

2. Game Elements for Learning – from Canvas.net

3. Games in Education: Gamification – from Open Learning

Writing

4. Thinking like a Writer – from Michigan State Univ. on Canvas.net

5. Stunt Writing for Personal Growth  – from Canvas.net

Design 

6. Design Thinking Action Lab – from Stanford Univ on Venture Lab

Teaching

7. Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies For Your Classroom – from the Museum of Modern Art on Coursera

8. AccountableTalk(R): Conversation that Works – from Univ of Pittsburg on Coursera

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There’s just no pleasing the native speaker

This is a cover of a popular Hindi song from the early 90s whose title translates into the unwieldy ‘first intoxication’ in English. Perhaps a simpler “first love” captures the sentiment more effectively.  The singer, however, is a Saudi Arabian who does not speak Hindi and sings the song acapella accompanied only by sounds created through his voice and body. Even if you don’t speak Hindi; even if you’re not clued into the cultural context of this song, it’s hard to deny that it is sung in a wonderfully endearing and sweet way. The sort of way that makes you want to listen to the song again and explore Alaa Wardi’s other videos on YouTube.

But I have a confession to make.

When I listened to the song for the first time and indeed whenever I hear the song, amidst Wardi’s astonishing talent, something else rings in my ears. I feel guilty every time I feel a slight cringe coming on when I hear Wardi’s peculiarly un-Indian pronunciation of some Hindi sounds. I can’t, however, deny the feeling …  the unsaid cringe of the native speaker.

It’s intriguing because Wardi gets complex retroflex sounds correct but replaces the following sounds with what I suppose are Arabic equivalents.

  1. थी  (was) /wss/: This is an aspirated dental sound in Hindi but is pronounced as an unaspirated dental sound in the song which happens to be an entirely different Hindi sound – ती.
  2. प्या (love) /ɾ/: This is an alveolar tap in Hindi but becomes a very pronounced velar or uvular sound in the song.
  3. मेरे (my) /ɾ/: Ditto. I suppose Arabic generally articulates /r/ further back in the mouth.
  4. खुमा  (stupor)  /kʰ/: An aspirated velar sound in Hindi is transformed into what sounds like a uvular sound.
  5. बेक़रार  (impatient ) /k/: An unaspirated velar sound in Hindi is articulated further back in throat with a little bit of air in this rendition.

Last year, a Chinese friend introduced me to someone who could help me with conversation practice. This guy was a bored Chinese engineer in a remote Mongolian mining outpost with loads of time on his hands. The idea was that we would help each other with Chinese and English over Skype.  While I understood that the subtleties of feedback and error correction would be lost on him, I was not prepared for the barrage of correction.  Interestingly, he seemed to understand nearly everything I said but he would still correct almost every single word. The feedback was rarely grammatical, seldom about word choice and nearly always on pronunciation. Granted, Chinese pronunciation is a tough nut to crack – but I was making myself understood and getting appropriate responses. It was as if he heard the error first and the word second. It was a doomed relationship from the very start. Later, whenever I tried my Chinese out on unsuspecting acquaintances and strangers (despite their surprised 你的中文很好呀!and other words of praise), I’d wonder what they really heard.  How much effort were they expending to suppress the cringe of the native speaker?

And then my thoughts drifted to learners. A lot of Indians work in knowledge services organizations where they interact directly with overseas clients (usually from the English speaking world) or with overseas colleagues in cross-border teams.  Time and again, in a range of companies, I’ve witnessed a certain type of feedback directed at an employee in India. It will usually arrive in the form of some vague word starting with C such as “Anita lacks – confidence, credibility, conviction, clarity etc”. But, dig a little deeper and ask some incisive questions and you’ll discover that these are just politically correct euphemisms for someone not liking Anita’s accent.

It feels like the odds are stacked against non-native speakers. Regardless of the effort they put into developing their L2 ability, native speaker perceptions may continue to deem them flawed communicators primarily because of their pronunciation. This causes people to believe that speaking with an American accent or a British accent is tantamount to better language skills. I heard that recently from a participant who remarked “why does better have to mean an accent that is less Indian and more firang!”  I can’t dispute that and I myself am probably a poor model to learners with a distinctly un-Indian voice. Mine is the result of a strange globe trotting childhood. A lot of my peers in the field have very affected, almost theatrical RP accents. I wonder what the impact of this is on learners – that your English teacher who is an Indian, has never lived anywhere but India, and has probably never left these shores, speaks like Miss Marples. And yet try as they might … there’s no pleasing the native speaker who experiences the unsaid cringe and voices it in some euphemistic or devious form.

Instead of targeting perfection in pronunciation, should we prepare our learners for the reality of working with native speakers? Explicitly point out that they will always sound different to the native ear and have them instead focus their energies on strategies and techniques that will make their communication more precise, more skilled at communicating complex information and abstract ideas, and better at engaging in productive dialogues.

Back to Alaa Wardi, I reckon this guy is incredible. I am in love with two of his Arabic songs, Risala Ela and a cover of Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram’s Fi Hagat. You definitely don’t need to know a language to hear talent. And when you do know a language – like native speaker type of knowing – it’s hard not to hear the errors. We may not talk about it but maybe it’s something we should confront more openly.

This Exquisite Forest | A writing prompt

The exquisite corpse was invented by French surrealists as a creative exercise where people contribute words to a sentence based on a pre-assigned structure or by reading the end of the what was written by the last contributor.  However, the writer is not supposed to read anything else from what has already been written. This Exquisite Forest extends this concept by allowing users to build an ever-expanding forest of narrative but through trees of animated online drawings. The forest also exists as an installation at the Tate Modern.

Each tree is seeded with an animation and then you can add your own to the original frames to create an animated sequence. Some of them are quite surreal and beautiful like Blink. Others like A Bad Day and The River are loaded with images but are perhaps a little more conventional. I thought it would interesting to transform it from a collaborative visual activity back into a collaborative writing activity.

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Level: A2+

Materials: Ss will need access to laptops, tablets or computers with Internet connectivity.

Duration: 45 min

Pre-work

  • Divide Ss into pairs and as homework, have them to sign up for This Exquisite Forest, explore the site and select a tree they like. They can then extend the animation by contributing additional frames.
  • You don’t need to sign up to explore the forest, only if you want to contribute to the animations or start your own tree.

Procedure 

  • Ask pairs to share their selection with another pair. They should talk about why they chose this tree.
  • Ss now work with their partners to orally construct a story using the elements in the animation. For each significant frame in the animation, ask them to consider the who, what, why, how and what next to build the characters and action.
  • Ss team up with another pair and narrate their story. Encourage Ss to give feedback on things they liked and things they think are missing, for example if the character fell down, then why did he fall down, how did he feel and what happened next.
  • Give pairs a few minutes to discuss changes they might want to make to their story.
  • Now have Ss work individually to write up story on the class blog.
  • Ask Ss to read their partner’s story and compare it with their own. How similar or different is it?  Lead a discussion around perspective, voice, and tone and how these can change the “feel” of a story.

Variations

  • Some trees are more minimalist and may require a lot of out-of-the-box thinking to facilitate storytelling. However, they could be good prompts for poetry.  Give Ss a skeleton structure of a poem (there are loads in Jane Spiro’s Creative Poetry Writing from OUP) and then ask Ss to use their reactions to the images in This Exquisite Forest to fill out the poem.     

This exquisite forest