More thoughts on distance education (2 of some)

This week in my meandering series, let me talk variously about other distance education environments I’ve experienced.

I did the mainstay of my Latin studies as an external student at the University of New England (in Australia, not those other New Englands in other former colonies). A four year sequence of 10 subjects, ab initio, right through to Horace and Prose Composition (Not that Horace is the pinnacle of Latin, I am just pretty sure it was one of my final year classes and Horace wasn’t my favourite either). This was the 00s and UNE was well entrenched in DE delivery. Courses consisted of (a) mailed out booklets, (b) mailing assignments back in for marking, (c) an optional residential week in Armidale. So it was more like a self-directed course of study with some external support and feedback. The residential schools made a huge difference though. You’d trip off to Armidale for a week, do a bunch of intensive latin classes, covering the same material but in person, and stand around in the cold while Tesoriero smoked a lot. I went to most of them. I think in the later years, email discussion became a feature!

Anyway, technology has moved on, and so has my Latin. But this worked for what it was worth, primarily because I was a highly motivated and disciplined self-learner.

I took 3 years of online classes in Gaelic with an institution, which was valuable though also frustrating (hence I won’t name them!). The teacher was high-quality, the classes were a group Skype, and 3 hours long, so they involved a great deal of Gaelic input, but the quality of materials was non-optimal. That is, we worked through some deadly boring explicit grammar instruction, were expected to learn contextless series of model sentences, do partner exercises that were “say one line, your partner will correspond with the translation”, which is more like a code-word exchange than language practice. I confess, it did do good things for my Gaelic, but I think with more effective language pedagogy, it could have been much more effective.

Right now I adjunct for another college that is doing theology via DE probably as well as I’ve seen enacted. Courses are high quality, with a structured weekly sequence of video materials by faculty or scholars, set readings, discussion forums, exercises assessed and non-assessed. I’m still not 100% convinced this is optimal for theological-formation of students, but it’s the best I’ve seen in a DE mode. I also haven’t seen their introductory language offerings, but my understanding is that it’s all explicit-grammar driven. Which you know my feelings on.

One-to-one online language tutoring is obviously a thing I’m into. Firstly, just the technological marvel of being in an age where one can connect to a speaker of Latin, Greek, Gaelic, even Mongolian, around the globe, and have a audio-visual conversation in almost real-time, mirabile! I’ve seen both sides of this equation, as student and teacher. I do feel there are drawbacks, notably the loss of physical embodied presence and shared realia. There are a host of things one could do in person that one cannot do when stuck behind a screen and one’s visual field is limited to the scope of the webcam. But the benefits seem to outstrip that. A lot depends on quality of teacher, no doubt. I recall one tutor that I had several years back who was really not good at all. I think I’m still developing in this area, and the dual challenge of developing as a teacher, and developing myself as a Latin and Greek speaker. (current students, no need to comment!)

I’ve also done some shorter group-courses online, on both sides. With mixed feelings. Conversational turn-taking is much harder to manage in a conference call, which means effective group size needs to stay relatively low. But all the groups I’ve been have been relatively small anyway (Greek and Latin being pretty niche markets). It certainly helps to spread the cost, which I think is great (for both sides of the equation). And it creates some communicative possibilities (3rd persons, plural forms) in a conversation that are less easily constructed in a one-to-one. I wouldn’t mind teaching more like this, but the start-up effort of (a) getting a quorum, (b) finding a timeslot suitable to keeping a quorum, (c) looking professional enough and not just a random Australian language hack, all hold me back.

 

 

A meandering series on distance education (1 of some)

Well, semester 2 at various institutions here is under way, and I feel like some reflections upon distance education are in order. This might be part one of several…

I might begin by talking about this semester. Last semester, regular sufferers of his blog will recall, I taught a small greek class in person. “In-person” was exciting, because this is actually how I’d like to teach most of all. But students had the option of being in-person or watching records (or even joining via video conference), so the mixed-modality was a bit… wearying.

This semester I’m teaching a follow-on course, but all my students are distance. Now, let me caveat here and say (i) I fully support distance educaion options, I’ve studied quite a few things by such, and obviously I do a whole bunch of other teaching at distance, (ii) I have no particular issue with these students or this college.

But, it does raise some issues. Now I’m essentially running a fully online, asynchronous course. Which means that I’m recording video lectures, and providing support via an online learning system. This is, hmm, frustrating. Not least because I can’t see anyway to bring my primary language-pedagogical convictions to bear.

We can’t do ‘communicative’ greek if you’re at home watching videos and I am system-constrained to produce powerpoint slides with video+audio. And it calls to mind a whole host of other issues for me. Issues related to the economies of scale, the value of this kind of teaching, the increasing prevalance of both distance-ed and modularisation among, particularly, seminaries, which means a loss of cohesive, integrative, pastorally-minded courses of study that involve spiritual formation of leaders, to piece-meal delivery of content-focused units that assemble into a ‘degree’.

I suspect there *are* ways of doing communicative focused materials with video, indeed I have a friend producing TPRS-esque stories with no-one present and doing it well. But there’s so much lacking in this kind of teaching.

And so then we’re just back to explicit language, aren’t we? Which, of course, I can do, but it’s missing a very soulful piece of me as a language educator.

About playing D&D in Latin

I’m sure I didn’t come up with this idea, and I know we’re not the first, but ever since emails started circulating prior to Rusticatio Australiana, a few of us discussed playing an RPG. In this post, I’m going to write a bit about that experience, and the lead up, and thoughts on its utility for language development. I’ve also included some separate thoughts from our Magistra Ludi, at the end of this post.

Pars Prior (If you don’t know anything about Role Playing Games)

If you don’t really know anything about RPGs of the table-top variety, get thee to Wikipedia. RPGs are a lot of fun, they can be played with various styles, of drama, in various settings, with a focus that leans anywhere from the more tactical, to the more interpersonal and social.

Pars Secunda, getting it organised

Three of us discussed this prior to the Rusticatio, sharing a bit of our experience with gaming, with various systems, etc.. Based on that discussion we reached a rough consensus that we’d play 5th ed. D&D, which was at least known to 2 of us. I’ve never played 5th ed, but I’ve played enough systems, and enough D&D, that I can play almost anything at the drop of a hat.

Logana, one of our number, took on the challenge of translating/writing in Latin a brevarium of rules and providing key terms in Latin. It was excellently done. And indeed, if not for Logana, I think this wouldn’t have come off because I am notiorously busy and work to deadlines.

Pars Tertia, apud Rusticationem

So time was unfortunately short on our end at Rusticatio itself. We had hoped to do an initial session in the first “sessio elegendorum”, but Logana herself was on kitchen duty. eheu. We successfully enticed (?), perhaps invited, 2 others to join us, neither of whom had played D&D before. So then we had a triple challenge – 2 players who’d never played before and had to have both rules and core RPG concepts explained, the challenge of Latin, given that this was the first latin speaking experience for most of us (praeter me, fortasse; res non certa est); and the challenge playing in latin itself.

For the most part, creating character went straightforwardly, with not a few one-word English glosses supplied. So, it really can be done, with minimal English and minimal experience. Though, I will say, that (a) having your more experienced players also (b) be more capable Latin speakers, is incredibly helpful.

Pars Quarta, the actual playing.

So in that first session, well, post cenam huius noctis, we played a very brief set-up encounter, in which we met a priestess of Diana, who tasked us with hunting a monstrous boar in the local region. (The setting, scilicet, was a fantasy version of ancient Rome). But time and the scheduled events defeated our plans to play further.

This left us with playing on the final night (et, iterum vae mihi, est causa quia in QD non intravi. nihil refert, ut intellexi, sine me non tam bene alii ludere possent, sed non quia ego tam necessarius eram). We preceded through about 3 encounters, and killed the boar. That’s the short of it.

I would say this: the Magistra Ludi (GM/DM) bears the heaviest load here, because she has to (i) know the game well, (ii) be apt at description and improvisation, (iii) does the bulk of the talking, (iv) generally needs to be better at speaking latine than the players need to. Not through any fault of their own (don’t mistake me, this is not a criticism), our 2 new players were not the most confident latin speakers. But that gives me hope, because they didn’t need to be either. They understood well enough, and responding to options, engaging in answers to questions, is easier than being the one who ‘sets the parameters’.

So, in this regard, I have to give a lot of credit to Logana, I think she did remarkably well, given that she also said beforehand that she has GM’d, but she is not usually a GM. In my own role-playing career, I’ve had the same person GMing in our group for 20 years. I don’t GM except very, very rarely.

Pars Quinta: reflections

The difficulties

I’ve already mentioned some of the difficulties above. It seems to me that the GM/ST, Magister/rae Ludi bears the major burden, in terms of both game and language. But that’s also heartening, in that if you wanted to use this as a form of language development/acquisition, the person who is ‘leading’ the session probably should be the person with stronger language. They can shape not only the game, but the language, to fit the participants. In our case, the relative non-confidence of some of our speakers gives me confidence that this could be done with other less-confident speakers.

Though, overall I’d say that RPGing in Latin is really an activity for upper intermediate and up users of a language. Though, if the understanding is there, then the output needed from a player can be simplified tremendously to simple responses to direct questions, if needed.

Another difficulty is that most game systems are complex. Core rulebooks run to hundreds of pages, often with complex terminology and plenty of words neither found, nor apt, nor relevant to classical languages. D&D and other ‘historically’ oriented, even if fantasy, games, have some advantage here. Other genres, e.g. Shadowrun, are going to be much harder to pull off. An advanced science cyberpunk genre with magic? In latin? hmmm.

Thirdly, unless you want to rely upon either an English (or other) rule-set, there are copyright issues lurking somewhere in antris tenebrosis. It might, perhaps, be better to pursue a game system with an open-license.

The benefits

One of the greatest benefits to me, it seems, is that an RPG solves the problem that “role playing” a scenario in a classroom has. As BVP often points out, pretending you’re a waiter and a customer, but sitting in a classroom, is not a communicative activity or task. It’s not real.

RPGing is not real either, but there’s a difference. Because you are engaged in ‘being’ your persona, and you (ought to!) care about the game, the world, the characters, the story, and the outcomes. So you are playing for something. Not ‘to win’. Sure, it’s ‘pretend’, but it’s a real kind of pretending, if I can put it that way.

Which means you can explore all sorts of settings and situations and therefore language that you might never do in a meaningful way in the ‘classroom’. A seduction scene, fighting monsters, espionage, diplomacy, bartering, the list goes on an on. And more adept players can drive that too, by directing their characters in various ways to do various things. A good GM will facilitate that and not railroad them to play only and exactly the story prepared.

And, in terms of grammatical forms, it definitely gives a chance to exercise a wide range of them, including those not as frequent in literature, which is itself excellent ‘practice’.

The possibilities

I think RPGing in an L2 has great facility for promoting language proficiency, especially in the upper levels of that. But, it relies on two things – people actually need to enjoy playing! RPGing of the table-top variety is still quite a niche activity. Although, the overlap of nerdiness that enjoys Latin, and enjoys RPGs, is higher than the average population, I’d guess. Secondly, it relies, as I’ve said, on a fair degree of facility in the language by the GM. The more facility the players have, of course, the more complex both the language, and the game, can be; but the GM’s ability is something of a ‘cap’, since so much rests with them.

 

For the future

I’d really like to see more go on with this, and do more myself. I wonder, if due to copyright issues, it might be worth pursuing Latin versions of OGL games, e.g. Pathfinder, OSRIC, Traveller, etc..

I know others have played D&D in Latin before, and I’d love to hear just some general thoughts, feedback, reflections, and suggestion from them as well.

And now, a word from our Magistra Ludi, because I thought it would be quite useful to hear from (a) someone that’s not me, (b) the person who ran the game.

Sententiae Magistrae Ludi Nostrae

 

The experience of running a game of Sepulchra et Serpentes in Latin was definitely very challenging – things that run very smoothly when you’re speaking your first language slow down a lot when there are language barriers all around the table. The whole thing took a lot longer than I expected and I did have to cut some of my planned content, but that was partially due to bad luck with our free time arrangements. But on the other hand, when I first floated the idea months ago it was very much a terrified hypothetical, so it’s pretty great that we managed to pull it off.

I made a few particular decisions which I think kept the whole thing manageable. Firstly, I chose a system that I know very well, and came up with specific translations of all of the key words beforehand. Because of this, I could answer rules questions off the top of my head using my own list of semi-technical terms, which streamlined the process a lot. However, I would probably revise some of those key words now, because some of them proved a little awkward in use.

I picked a setting for which I already had a lot of vocabulary – the countryside, the forest, and the religious sites therein (inspired by my reading of Ovid’s Fasti, actually). That meant that even if I didn’t know all of the words, I wasn’t trying to work out terms for the kinds of things the party would find in a typical ‘dungeon’. Although I couldn’t do the amount of description I would normally want in a game like this, I think I managed a few nice touches with what I had.

I also made the wise decision to keep the story very simple. ‘Religious figure engages the party to slay a beast’ is not exactly highly original material, but it gets the story rolling and gives the players a clear goal. I’m not the most experienced DM either, so the simple storyline made me feel more confident operating in an unfamiliar language.

In future I would like to push for more characterisation and role-playing among both players and NPCs – because the fun of RPGs isn’t just in hitting things with a sword, but in creating characters and relationships. Obviously improvisation is hindered by the language barrier, but I hope that as we all improve at Latin everything will become more fluid.

WAYK observations at Rusticatio

Long-term sufferers of my blog know of my strong interest in Where Are Your Keys and all its applications. I knew that Evan had had a good deal of involvement with our American Latinist friends for a period, and was interested to see how this manifested at Rusticatio.

Here’s a short index of Techniques that were either taught explicitly or evidenced in other ways. With comments from me on how they were used/introduced.

Accent adjustment. This was briefly explained early on, and primarily used by our leaders for a couple of specific adjustments. They would sometimes use it on each other to tweak what someone said. Occasionally, Nancy would slip into ecclesiastical pronunciation, and it could be used to bring her back! And then it was sometimes used to indicate to a participant the need to tweak their pronunciation

Again. Iterum. Incredibly useful. Didn’t catch something, need it again? Iterum is the technique you need. Ubiquitous and with wide up-tak.

Backwards build-up (Rassias). So, I wonder if this didn’t come into WAYK from Nancy, because I know Nancy started off herself in spoken Latin with a lot of Rassias. We did Rassias type stuff in a large group, with Nancy modelling question/answer and then using substitution patterns and drawing on participants. She would very often build a sentence backwards for us. This TQ was never formally discussed.

Full & Full-check. Sat? These were explained early on, up front, explicitly. And that, I think, is tremendously helpful in teaching participants to be aware of their own affective filters and status, and measure both themselves and others for ‘full’.

Full sentences. Another one that wasn’t explained, but certainly in the all-in sessions Nancy would generally model and expect full sentences.

How fascinating. Mirabile! This, like Full, was taught explicitly, early, and modeled by leaders well. I think it’s a hard one to ‘catch on’ to using because people find that although it does dispel awkwardness, it also takes a bit of intentional awkwardness to embrace it.

Let it go. Mitte difficiliora. Probably the third of the main techniques taught explicitly and early. I didn’t see it in use a lot, but it came out from time to time as need.

Mumble. Taught semi-explicitly, but not quite as a technique per se.

Set-up. Explained, but not often utilised and not well reinforced. I feel like that to have seen this in use would have required a bit more explanation of how to do Set-Up and how effective it can be in language hunting/teaching.

Slower. Lentius. Similar in some ways to ‘Again’, and about the same in terms of implementation and uptake.

 

I didn’t notice any other TQs in use, though I did notice some subtle WAYK sign usage at times (and, scilicet, signs are themselves a technique, though each sign is not itself a technique). For example, at one point Annula said sed (‘but’) complemented with the sign for it, but without knowing that that was the sign, you could easily miss it.

Overall, I appreciated the presence and utility of WAYK at Rusticatio and it’s helped reinforce the value of it to me.

 

Everything wrong with focus on forms

I recently had occasion to complete a (modern) language placement test. The test was composed of 20 sections, each asking me to manipulate given sentences and change the forms to other ones (e.g. the equivalents of present to past, one structure to another, and so on). It wasn’t an overly taxing test, though it did take a bit of time, but in terms of assessing my language ability, I would rate the test itself a fail.

Firstly, because I didn’t need to understand the messages in the text in order to manipulate them. Indeed, there was vocab in there that I didn’t recognise. But whether I could or couldn’t understand the texts, was irrelevant to the task, which was transform structure to structure. That only required an explicit grasp of particular grammatical forms.

Secondly, there’s no guarantee I can reproduce this level of grammatical correctness in speech. In fact, I know that when I speak I am producing all sorts of errors in these forms. I would like to ‘fix’ that, but I doubt that explicit instruction in grammar will help that because I explicitly know all this grammar. “You should know this by now”; “we’ve been over this grammar X times, why are you still saying it wrong”; “You can explain this grammar, why can’t you produce it in speech?” – these are all things (some) teachers say, and they are all predicated on wrong beliefs.

like explicit grammar. I love learning about linguistics. I think there’s a small, but non-zero place for it in language education contexts. But I’m pretty convinced that manipulation of forms does not lead to acquisition – not to communicative ability but also not even to real-time correct use of forms.

What if traditional ‘language’ courses came with a disclaimer?

Disclaimer:

The course you are enrolling in is a traditional language course. Almost nothing we do this semester will contribute to language acquisition. This course is focused on language as an artefact, and so we will be discussing grammar, analysing syntax, memorising morphology, rote-learning vocabulary associations with our L1, and translating sentences back and forth as a form of practice, with no attention to the communicative meaning or purpose of those sentences (if they had any).

We will definitely not be using language to communicate, develop any communicative ability, learn to read effectively, to understand or communicate in our target language. In fact, less than 5% of what we do in the course will be useful if that is your hope, and the ability of the other 95% of our explicit teaching to contribute to you acquiring the language is slim to none.

The memorised explicit knowledge you can expect to gain in this course will primarily be useful in taking tests on explicit knowledge, taking further courses of the same kind, or vaguely pursuing linguistics somewhere down the track. Otherwise it will be quickly forgotten.

Time: one reason why seminaries won’t (ever) embrace language acquisition

The problem with an acquisition-based program in a seminary setting is time.

A standard, seminary-type language course represents a 2-semester sequence in which students get drilled through a traditional grammar explanation of the language, with some practice on translating Greek passages to English, and are expected by the end of those 2 semesters to be able to translate easier portions of Greek into English, and explain the grammar of those texts (Mark, John, being likely candidates). Then you let them loose on upper level exegesis courses with the expectation that they’ll manage to translate more difficult texts in the NT corpus, because if you know a finite-grammar, you can translate finite-texts.

I’m critical of this for various reasons, which are not new here: acquisition vs. knowledge, the linguistic validity of a grammar course divorced from modern linguistics, and questions about ultimate attainment and ongoing utility. In my view, if this is really the approach one wishes to take, you should offer a 1 semester course in “The linguistics of NT Koine Greek” and cram it all in there – because if you’re teaching content, you can just teach content. You can stop pretending that this equips students to read the New Testament in Greek in any proficiency-based sense.

But, I do acknowledge that there is a very significant hurdle for adopting a acquisition-driven Comprehensible-Input-based approach. And that is time. The driving determiner of how far a student will get, disregarding learner internal constraint, is basically time. Well, quality and quantity of input. Assuming we can provide quality input, then it becomes a quantity question.

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of the episodes of “Tea with BVP”, a second-language acquisition radio-show/podcast that ran for 3 years. There’s a lot of good content on it, and a lot of pointers to other things. As part of my follow-up, I have been reading “Setting Evidence-Based Language Goals”  (Foreign Language Annals 49 3 (2016):434-454) by Goertler, Kraemer, and Schenker, which examines target benchmarks for the German program at MSU (where Bill VanPatten also is, and which runs on CI-based principles).

The study looked undertook a review of and after review, the benchmarks (using the ACTFL proficiency guidelines) were revised to (after years of college study):

  1. Intermediate Low
  2. Intermediate Mid
  3. Intermediate High
  4. Advanced Low

Correlations with CEFR are difficult, but AL comes out as somewhere between B1 and B2, with IM at A2, and IH at B1. Table 2 of their study also presented different sets of  ‘hours’ recommendation for different levels. MSU classes mean that students receive:

Year Hours Cumulative
1 100  
2 100 200
3 150 350
4 150 500

 

The study reviewed previous benchmarks and outcomes, and then determined the current outcomes of current MSU students.

If you break down the hours in class by semester, that’s 50 hours a semester, raising to 75 in 3rd and 4th year. About 3-4 hours contact across a 12-14 week semester, up to 6 in the upper levels.

No seminary is going to run this. No seminary is going to run a 4hr a week, 4 year Greek program. Not unless they radically change their outlook on language acquisition and goals. Which is basically why I suspect that acquisition of Greek is not going to get very far in seminaries.

It also continues to highlight the problematic nature of 4 contact hours, across a standard semester. You just can’t get a student, ab initio, to very high levels of proficiency in a 4 year course. Which isn’t just a problem for biblical languages programs, it’s a problem for classics courses that want ab initio students reading high-level literature.

There’s only one solution to this: more hours. More hours of comprehensible input. The hours estimate for Advanced Low at MSU was 500 + study abroad. The (probably less reliable) hours estimates of Liskin-Gasparo for Advanced Mid is 720, A-High and Superior is 1320. I don’t think, based on the modern languages data, that you can really get college students beyond Int-High with a few reaching Adv-Low, within a 4-year sequence, and to achieve that in a classical languages program is going to require a committed, and skilled, teaching-team.

I can only imagine 4 solutions at the programmatic level:

  • you teach based on CI-principles at the high school level, allowing you to get 4-600 hours in before your students even reach college.
  • you raise the contact hours for language majors and make it an all-consuming degree (i.e., nothing but language, ‘content’ courses in the upper years taught in language, and no electives, and turn ‘expected’ hours into contact ones. or else you provide enough reading and audio material that all the ‘expected’ hours can be spent on input).
  • you push expectations of higher level proficiencies into the grad-schools.
  • you push for 1-2 week intensives to supplement term-teaching.