Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Ideas for the design of the "Evidence" study on cross-border use of learning resources

"Psychological tools" helping us explain "Travel well" resources

In the chapter 2, in the subsection called The Third Lineage: From Vygotsky to Leont'ev Engström (1) talks how Vygotsky distinguished between two interrelated types of mediating instruments in human activity: tools and signs. The latter belonged to the broader category of "psychological tools".

Psychological tools
..are directed towards the mastery or control of behavioral processes - someone else's or one's own - just as technical means are directed towards the control of processes of nature. (I guess this is from the same source as the quote above this, this is Vygotsky 1978, 55)
Examples of psychological tools:
various systems for counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps, and technical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs, and so on. (Vygotsky, 1982:137, cited in Cole & Wertsch)
...and folksonomies :)

I was thinking that the concept of psychological tools is a pretty cool way to start looking into the cross-border use of digital learning resources. My definition is: By cross-border use of digital resources we mean that the user comes from a different country than the resource (cross-country) and/or the resource is in a different language than that of the user’s mother tongue (cross-language).

Many people are baffled about the cross-border use, they always ask me "..but how would teachers be able to make any use of a resource that is in a language that they don't understand".

Let me first elaborate on different types of use of cross-border resources, and then I give my theory on it. The plan is to make a study to see whether this holds or not.

We had a workshop with 35 teachers in science and language learning from different European countries. We asked them to bring along a learning resource that they though would be useful for other teachers in other countries. The observations were the following:

1. Resources that contain psychological tools: examples of this type of resources were in science, biology and math. Here are some examples of the characteristics of these resources
  • How chromosomes define characteristics (e.g. eye color, color of rabbit) or how the human heart works (we actually had examples of this in 2 different languages!).
    If you know the concept (as this would be part of the acquired knowledge of a teacher) you can explain it using this type of examples. It's not important that the manipulations are not in their own language, as the user interface is pretty symbolic and self-explanatory. Also, the little texts in other language did not seem to bother teachers.

  • DNA and how it works, another one on chemistry. The intersting thing is that the text is in Estonian and the resource was intended for pupils, but the group of teachers agreed that they would find it useful as a tool to demonstrate the concept by themselves (note: different intended user group). They explained that they would manipulate the resource for demonstrational purposes, not let the pupils to use it.

  • GeoGebra was one of the examples of a math application. They all loved it! Most importantly, it can be translated easily and it has user communities in different languages.
    Besides those points, they said that as math symbols are commonly shared, it is easy even in other languages. Even this type of applet would be useful for a non-Spanish speaker. BTW, they hated when some resources did not use the proper symbols, but wrote out "tiempo"
2. Resources with more text in a foreign language. One could also observe that some teachers were not minding too much about the text in foreign languages, but they used their pedagogical skills to work that into a challenge to learn.
  • One example from another workshop was a history resource about Greco-Persian war. Although this was already harder to navigate in Polish, a Belgian teacher started coming up with ideas where learners have to solve the language as a challenge. An example was given about a "match the words with an image"-type an exercise about the war equipment of a Greek solder.

  • Another innovative usage was this Japanese virtual reality game, where users have to find their way out of the virtual room with a help of a team. This Hungarian teacher had given it as an English exercise for his students to solve as a group and write down the instructions in English. He said that students were completing the exercise on Friday evening working online with their buddies!
3. Resources that are in the languages that the user has competencies in. This is of course the most used case. If you have studies Russian, for example, you can use resources in that language.

4. Language teachers. This is a group a bit apart too. They, of course, find the whole Internet as their resource for learning! But also the language resources that are created, say, in Finland to study Way finding in French, can be useful in any other language teacher somewhere else. Here the important thing is to make the instructions also in the language that is being taught, so that teachers understand (of course best is making interfaces easy enough without any instructions needed)

So, my theory is that the use of cross-border resources plays on a continuum that has two quite distinct extremes: On the one end we have psychological tools (example 1 and 2) and on the other Foreign language as a tool (example 3 and 4).

The acceptance or willingness of using this kind of material is related to the teacher's previous knowledge and understanding on the topic on the one hand, and on the other, it can be the knowledge or previous experience on coping with foreign languages. Additionally, the pedagogical skills set and pedagogical concepts that are preferred by that teacher drive the final decision on using such material.

A study design

In my study of "Finding evidence" I will only focus on the continuum of psychological tools and foreign language skills. I have a huge dataset from at least 3 or 4 different learning resource environments where users (teachers) have bookmarked or made collections of learning resources that exist in multiple languages.

The dataset currently has 440 users who have selected at least one learning resource to bookmark or add into their collection.
  • Calibrate (176 users, number of posts=1742)
  • LeMill (189 users, number of posts 1645, out of which 238 cross-border actions)
  • del.icio.us (16 users, number of posts 1176).
  • MELT
When I look at the titles of these learning resources, there are 3700 of them. 2992 of these resources have been bookmarked only once. The idea is to sort out cross-border resources (using my definition above), and see whether I can classify them on my continuum.

The good thing is that I know the user languages and country of origin in all the cases, the bad this is that I do not know the country of origin or language of all the resources :( That seems like lots of resources starring.

1 Engeström, Y.: Learning by expanding: An activity theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oy (1987) Retrieved August 25, 2008, from http://lchc.ucsd.edu/MCA/Paper/Engestrom/expanding/toc.htm

2 Margaryan, A., & Littlejohn, A.: Repositories and communities at cross-
purposes: Issues in sharing and reuse of digital learning resources. Journal of
Computer Assisted Learning (JCAL), 24(4), 333-347 (2008)

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