More thoughts on distance-education (3): formation, community, and its long-term effects on faculty staffing

Obviously quite a bit of the education I’m involved with is theological. I think some of the concern I express in this post pertain to non-theological contexts and colleges, but mutatis mutandis.

The issue is this: when a student can pursue an entire theological degree online, via distance, you lose a significant part of the embodied formation of that person. They aren’t living in your institutional community, being shaped by daily interaction with faculty and other students. So you don’t know how they’re being shaped as persons, or necessarily what kind of person they are or will turn out at the end to be. This, I think, is one of theological educations big distance problems.

And, sure, I understand the push-back – that people ought and can be involved in other communities, their local church one for instance, and that they can interact online with faculty and students. But, this latter factor is a mediated one, and in my growing experience is inferior for it. It’s not without reason that 2 John 12 says I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” It’s a reflection on technology and mediated presence, and while every NT epistle bears witness to the value of mediated communication, I don’t doubt that each of those authors would prefer to deliver messages themselves.

The more higher education degrees get reduced to content delivery, and also are modularised, the more incohesive that education process becomes. It becomes parcelled and packaged, and its integration in the pastoral and spiritual formation of the individual becomes weakened.

 

At the same time, this ‘package it up and sell it’ approach affects institutions too. Once you have a top-notch scholar produce materials for a course, you’re set – they’ve done the work once and at best you keep paying them a licencing fee. Sure, you will probably want to revisit and update that course every now and again, but it’s certainly a different course-construction dynamic and cost than, say, hiring an assistant professor and letting them develop over the years. Meanwhile, the ground-labour of these courses is mostly done by adjunctified and casualised labour – highly educated workers who have unstable positions, incomes, zero prestige, and receive no ‘credit’ for this grunt work. And since we’re replicating a model in which stars produce courses and adjuncts service them, there’s no path from adjunct to professor, and there’s no motive to create one. You can just run a course with more students, with more adjuncts, and that’s that. I think in the long run that is going to create issues. What does it mean, on either end, that Esteemed Professor XYZ ‘taught’ a student, if they simply followed pre-set materials. There’s no educational relationship on the Professor end. There might be a perceived relationship on the student end, but that’s a mirage. And then the Adjunct side, in which the adjunct has not ‘taught’ anyone either. They’ve oiled a machine.

Not that I have any solutions. I also happen to think that distance/online education is an unstoppable juggernaut in our society. The horse has bolted, and we need to figure out how to catch up and ride that brumby for all its worth. But the one thing we can’t do is uncritically and thoughtlessly embrace technological changes without reflecting on, and deliberately practising, in light of their social and personal effects.

Trying new things: podcasts and youtube

Even though I have negative free time, lately I’ve been trying my hand at new things.

Firstly, I’ve put up a few videos on youtube. They are a ‘talk-through’ of the Greek text of Melito’s On Easter, 1-2. There’s one where I talk through it in English, and one entirely in Greek (the context of my talking is not identical though!). This is similar to what I do with some online classes, and it’s not that far removed from what I do with students more interested in working on a text than entirely communicatively. Later this week there’ll be a similar video on Romans 5:1-5. I hope to do more of these kinds of videos, particularly if people find them helpful.

Secondly, by the time this post goes up, the first episode of my podcast ὁ διὰ νυκτὸς διάλογος should be posted. It’s rough, in so many ways, but I would rather be cutting some rough DIY Greek podcasts in my metaphorical basement, than waiting for perfection. Again, my hope is to do many more, and trust that they’ll improve over time. If you want to improve my dismal album art, by all means help me out!

Are there other things that might be worth giving a go? I’m honestly open to suggestions at the present. Anything that will help people get more Greek in their lives, and will develop my own skills both as a Greek-communicator and as a teacher. And propagandist.

 

 

Language learning as zoology, an extended metaphor

I not-infrequently talk about different types of encountering language with the following schema:

Schoolroom

Is when you’re in a literal classroom with books, and you’re learning ‘about’ foreign language, as something far, far removed from you, as this exotic and abstract ‘other’, that you can hardly imagine. And L2 words exists as ‘things’ that you treat as objects, and manipulate as facts, and you put the right ones in the right order on a test and you get a number and feel good about yourself.

Autopsy Lab

This is when you drag a dead piece of language into the lab and analyse it to death (again, because it’s already dead). You get a sentence or phrase and you cut that sucker open and look at its innards and try to figure out which part does what and how does it work.

At the Zoo

Where you go to see animals, and they’re alive! But they’re in enclosures, and they’re mostly tame (but not domesticated), and there’s a safe distance between you and the language, and you can look and observe but the whole environment is artificial.

Out of Safari

Now things are getting exciting! You’re out in a jeep, and driving really fast, and you’ve got a guide who tells you where to go and what to look for, and is savvy enough not to lead you into any really difficult language that would overwhelm you. So it’s still a curated experience, tailored to your level, but the language is alive and wild.

Dropped in the Jungle

You’re the real Bear Grylls. You get air-dropped into a language immersion environment where everything is in the language, and no-ones curating anything. You might be hitting easy language and its all fun, you might get dropped into some complex discussion of hypothetical worlds based on the latest avant-garde Danish film that everyone watched with Esperanto subtitles at the underground cinema last week.

 

Notes: feel free to add elements, reconfigure, reuse this analogy. Suggestions welcome. Also, I certainly don’t think these are stages to be worked though, just different experiences people can have.

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.