Tag Archives: MOOCs

Mellon DH Fund supports Innovation in Foreign Language Learning @ The Mixxer


The Mixxer, a Web application developed at Dickinson College by language technologist Todd Bryant, is a free educational resource allowing language learners around the world to schedule Skype sessions to fit their schedules, and helping Dickinson’s language departments harness technology to provide students regular conversations with native speakers. Having grown over the years to include 100,000+ international participants, The Mixxer enables Dickinson’s faculty to provide students the kind of experience that was once impossible in the classroom.

Last year, The Mixxer offered a MOOC to English speakers learning Spanish and paired the participants with a partner course of Spanish speakers learning English. Using open educational resources from COERLL, Colby College, Voice for America and the BBC among others, the language learners were introduced to new vocabulary and grammar points through texts and audio and then given activities to complete with their language partner from the other course. If you have ever taught or taken a language course, you can think of the language exchange as a replacement for the partner activities done most every day in class.

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Explanation of The Mixxer (1:57 minutes)

With support from the Mellon Digital Humanities Fund, The Mixxer was able to build on its successes this summer, hiring three Dickinson education and language students to create free, online courses in German, French, and Chinese. The lessons are structured in much the same way as a traditional language class, with learners first being introduced to new content, given examples, asked to practice, and then finishing with some form of written assessment.

The German and French lessons, created by Ezra Sassaman and Caitlin DeFazio, respectively, assume some knowledge of the language – roughly one semester. The lessons in Chinese, created by Betsy Vuchinich, have been designed for beginning learners of the language, and use content primarily from the Confucius Institute and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. All three courses are complete, free to use, and currently available on The Mixxer site.

Additionally, Bryant and his team were able to hire a computer science major, Santiago Princ, to help with technical additions to The Mixxer. By using jQuery, Princ helped Bryant write a module that allows native speakers to quickly view, edit, and resubmit corrections to their partner’s written work. The language learner can then reply to the native speaker with further questions.

The module that Princ helped create extends the open-source Drupal platform, and has been published on Drupal.org along with an acknowledgement to Princ. It is viewable here.

Benefits to Students

Sassaman, DeFazio, and Vuchinich received training from Dickinson College associate professors Sarah Bair (Education) and Sarah McGaughey (German) on the basics of language pedagogy and the structure of language lessons. They then learned how to apply these principles to an online learning environment. They were also required to participate in the language exchanges themselves to gain an understanding of the lessons work in practice from a language learner’s perspective. The lessons are published under their name to which they will be able to refer if they decide to pursue a career or further education in language pedagogy.

By working with Bryant to create the module, Princ gained a solid and fundamental understanding of jQuery, a very common web developing language. More importantly, he now has experience working with open-source software along with the process of using community resources to diagnose and solve errors.

Bryant and Vuchinich also had the opportunity to showcase these resources at the CALICO / IALLT conference in Athens, Ohio (May 6 – 10), where they received praise from educators. Of particular interest was the news that they would use these lessons as part of three MOOCs to be offered on The Mixxer site (starting July 1, 2014). As before, learners from each course are able to connect with partners via Skype to complete the language exchange activities provided within each lesson.

For more information on The Mixxer, or foreign language learning with technology in general, you can contact Bryant by email here.

The Future Possibilities for Technology in Higher Education

A website called “Evolllution” (Illuminating the Life Long Learning Movement) has published a fine podcast interview with ed. tech. futurist and NITLE stalwart Bryan Alexander, who was on campus at Dickinson in the summer of 2012 to consult about the successful proposal we put together for the Mellon Foundation. In the interview he addresses a number of pressing current concerns, and urges those in higher ed. to think more about the medium to long term future. Here are a few choice bits:

On the coming “MOOC hype crash”:

When we look at MOOCs, what we’re beginning to see is that hype builds to really extraordinary levels; New York Times op-eds, discussions on the radio, discussions on TV news. Just in my own work, talking with campus leaders, talking with presidents, trustees, deans over the past year, I heard MOOCs come up just almost everywhere I go. And so we have to watch out for the possibility that at some point, perhaps this very year, all of that could just collapse. The faith could just dissipate or the interest could go away. And again that feeds in itself. Once people see other people leaving something, that may provoke them to leave as well — a pretty vicious circle — so MOOC providers need to really watch out for that.

I know that following the dot-com bust in 2000-01, many campuses backed away from aggressive plans for doing things with technology. They just felt, “Ah, well maybe this isn’t going to be a big deal after all.” It’s possible that if we see a MOOC hype crash, that we might see something similar to the rest of online technology. It could impact other fields like digitization of materials. It could impact the move of classes to course management systems. It could even impact the digital humanities movement.

On challenges and obstacles to the creative use of technology:

One is, especially since 2008, financial stresses. We’ve been living in the shadows of the financial crash of 2008 and it’s impacted all kinds of institutions in different ways. . . .The cuts are so large that it becomes really challenging to say, “As a campus planner, we’d like to ask for money to do this brand new thing.” That’s not always going to fly.

The second problem is that we have a huge crisis in higher education, … [with] public faith in the value of higher education. I’ve never experienced this in my lifetime, this kind of skepticism. They say that colleges costs too much, that universities deliver too little for the price, and when I talk to a campus leaders right now, they say they’ve never seen such pressure exerted by parents and students on them. “Am I really getting a good value for all of the money that we’re going into loan for?” That makes a lot of campuses want to draw in to return to their strengths, which for them are often historical strengths, rather than futuristic strengths.

Another challenge is … sociological challenges. Most faculty are trained in graduate school to be researchers in their specific field … and that’s their main focus. And when they leave graduate school and they head into a profession, their main job is to succeed at that and get tenured in that field. They are usually not trained very much in pedagogy and teaching and learning. Some are, some develop a passion for it, but most are not trained. … Their experiences in technology are often rapidly outdated, if you think about someone who got their doctorate in the year 1990. Surfing the web didn’t exist; the internet was barely on anybody’s radar at the time. What kind of training do they have to be able to teach students through social media? Through augmented reality? That’s a huge, huge gap to cross. For professional development, faculty didn’t cross that gap. But professional development has been hit very, very hard by the recession and the professional development now occurs through new technologies, through video conferencing or social media, again, which a lot of these faculty weren’t ready for. We’ve seen a huge generational divide.

Now there are all kinds of exceptions to this. There are younger faculty who don’t want to do anything with this [and] there are older faculty who are very innovative. But broadly speaking, the generational gap is very, very large. The Pew Internet American Life Project, which is a tremendous research project for how Americans actually use technology, keeps finding a substantial general gap where people over 55 are much less likely to use just any technology that they look at, from mobile devices to social media.

Check out the whole thing, in downloadable audio and in transcript, here.