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I am addicted .....

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Wednesday, 27 Apr 2022, 19:34

.... to duolingo.

I started practising Russian and Chinese last year on duolingo last year.  These are both languages I have studied before (in the 1980s) and I lived in China from 1986 to 1988 and Russia from 1989.  Duoloingo provides a good chance to practise for free and I think I do benefit to some extent although the practise is very decontextualised.

For any readers unfamiliar with Duolingo (https://www.duolingo.com/), the basic version is free.  A large number of languages are available but there are several gaps (eg Bulgarian).  There are a large (but finite) number of short "lessons" in each language taught - they are more like tests than lessons, though, in most cases.  The user starts with five "hearts" that are needed to access the lessons.  Each time they make a mistake, they lose a heart and when all are lost, they either have to do a practice lesson or wait for a period of up to four hours.  There are also "gems" that are needed to access some content and they are added as rewards for some achievements.

Users are put into groups who are encouraged to compete.  Users get messages that they might be relegated or that someone has overtaken them.  It is interesting how seriously I take not being relegated although it does not affect my learning at all (I get no change in what is available for me).  My wife and brother who also use the app are also anxious not to get relegated.

There are also frustrations.  Sometimes I write a translation that seems reasonable but the app rejects it.  It is possible to report this with a menu item "My answer should have been accepted" and sometimes I get emails saying my suggestion has been accepted but I still lose "hearts" which means that I cannot continue for a period of time. 

Another problem is sometimes the app crashes and I lose hearts and/or gems through no fault of my own.

I have more or less finished the Chinese course.  I have done the basic lessons and only have some lessons to get "legendary status" (legendary for who? 😀) left to do.  I have done some of these but I have to preserve my gems to access these.  It is interesting that there is some fairly key vocabulary not taught.  Despite several lessons on food, the words "soy sauce", "vinegar" "leek" and garlic" (fundamental ingredients) have not been mentioned.  There is a very difficult lesson on "net slang" that features "otaka" (the app seems to think this is an English word - it seems to mean a person who plays computer games all day).

I am well through the Russian course and I recently started Norweigan as a new language - I decided on this because I am interested in the writer Knausgaard but I imagine it will be a long time before I can read him in the original.

Does any of this give me insights for my own work as a teacher?  I think the ability to do short periods of learning is useful for students and is something I should emphasise to students of language.  My choices of language show that outside factors such as interest in cultures are important.  I do feel frustrated by the lack of context.  Sometimes the sentences taught raise questions it would be interesting to discuss (eg one question taught was "Which presents should not be given to Chinese people".  I know partial answers (eg I have been told clocks are unsuitable for retirement) but it would be interesting to have more.

The example of Duolingo is discussed in L161 so it is useful to have experience of it as a "consumer".

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Successful Adobe Connect tutorials - the student contribution is key

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I had a couple of Adobe Connect tutorials that seemed to work well last week.  This was because students asked questions and these replaced the tutorial slides and plans I had made.  Of course, I always have content prepared and if students stay quiet, I tend to go through the plan but this can seem mechanical and unrelated to what they really need - some students are strangers to me (from different groups, have been to tutorials with other tutors before) so I do not know the "gap" between where they are and where the course would ideally like to be.  Students asking questions based on their own concerns enable me to really address the needs but it demands something of students and some are willing to ask questions, make comments etc.

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An interesting incident in a recent online tutorial

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Last Saturday, I was teaching an online class and one student who had been very engaged was speaking.  She came to an end and I started to respond and she had nor turned her microphone off.  A few seconds later, I heard quite loud talk in the background and gradually it got so loud I was finding it hard to get my message across.  I then said "X, please turn your microphone off" as politely as I could (and I really understand how easy it is to forget to turn the microphone on or off). 

One of her peers initially seemed to write in a blunt way - "X, turn your microphone off" but then softened this with "We can hear your family, darling".  Perhaps she had realised that she was verging on rudeness but then mitigated this by an affectively sensitive explanation. 

I suspect that tone is very important in these kinds of tutorials and it is easy to emphasise speed through very direct interactions but this additional comment was perhaps important in maintaining a good atmosphere - of course, I do not know exactly what the responses are and whether the later comment was helpful or even needed.  It is, however, clear that this was only a comment that could have been made by peers and probably only woman to woman (possibly, but unlikely, woman to man?)

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Online learning and inclusion

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Sunday, 17 May 2020, 13:54

The current situation means that online learning is being discussed more than previously.  This article https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/04/i-cant-get-motivated-the-students-struggling-with-online-learning is one of many that refers to the issues.

One issue that is mentioned is that some disadvantaged students may not have good computer equipment and/or a good internet connection that they need in order to study effectively.  This is presumably a useful reminder that the newest technologies might not be the most appropriate ones.

There is also the slightly surprising comment that "(s)ocial mobility experts are warning that the shift to online learning could severely hold back some students, including those from poorer backgrounds, care leavers, students with caring responsibilities and those with disabilities."  It seems that in many cases online study may be the realistic alternative for students who are from poorer backgrounds as they can combine study with work.  Those with caring responsibilities may have (and need) more flexibility about when they care and when they study.  In terms of disability, online learning seems the best option for many disabilities (eg severe social anxiety or physical disabilities that restrict movement).

Weller's mention of the importance of icebreakers for online learning seems important and the Open University's induction courses, early face to face tutorials (in normal times) and Forum activities seem important.

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Corona virus and online teaching

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I am in contact with several ex students who are university teachers of English in China and they are currently replacing classes that would have been face to face with online classes.  Classes at schools also seem to be interrupted and online teaching is being used through an app called DingTalk - students of mine also refer to Tencent as another platform (Wang 2020).

It will be interesting to see what emerges in terms of a new experience of online learning.  Perhaps there will be new innovative practices or possibly students and teachers will feel that online learning is inferior (if it is used badly, this seems possible).  I wonder whether researchers will use this as a test case.

In informal chats through WeChat, my ex students refer to problems related to poor broadband speeds or other technical problems and, of course, this is a problem we face at the Open University.

Wang XY (2020) "The word from Wuhan" London Review of Books Volume 42, Number 5 Available at https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n05/wang-xiuying/the-word-from-wuhan?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=4205&utm_content=ukrw_subs [Accessed March 4th 2020]

P.S. As I was writing, I got a notification that Italy is closing schools and universities https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2020/mar/04/coronavirus-live-updates-who-global-recession-fears-update-latest-news

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Associate Lecturer Assembly

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Friday, 23 Nov 2018, 10:03

I have been spending the day at the Associate Lecturer Assembly.

There was a brief talk by Mary Keller, the Acting Vice Chancellor, followed by a more extended discussion.  She was persuasive and quite inspiring in some ways.  She seems very committed to the vision of the Open University making a difference to students’ lives.  She also seems flexible about ways of working, including the continuance of face to face as well as online tuition.  I certainly feel more optimistic about the OU’s future than under the previous VC.

We were also updated on the prospect of an AL contract.  There has been discussion of the for nearly two decades but it now looks more likely than at any previous time.  This should make the position of tutors more secure.

In the afternoon, there was an interesting talk by Cath Brown, President of the Open University Students Association.  We discussed the issue of whether we thought we should encourage students to use microphones rather than text chat in online tutorials.  I tend to think it should depend on context but the widespread use of text chat in online tutorials can be useful but is very tiring for the tutor if they need to speak and monitor and in these cases, tutorials should be kept to one hour in length.

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The reality of online tutorials

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I had a tutorial yesterday that I thought was interesting for partly positive and partly negative reasons.

There were two students.  One said she was a "stay at home mum" and had a one year old at home and no microphone and the other said he needed to disappear at times to do answer some questions about his work. 

There were times when one or the other disappeared (they told me when this was happening) and I sometimes had to check that at least one of them was there; otherwise, I would have been speaking to myself. 

However, despite the unexpected nature of the set up, it seemed like a successful tutorial - one student said he understood some key content of the course at last (in an email sent later) and the other student seemed happy with it.  Of course, this might just be politeness but she asked many questions so seemed very engaged.

I suppose this shows how flexible we often have to be when teaching distance students as there are many things they are trying to juggle in their lives.  However, the unpredictability does not preclude opportunities for learning.

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Speaking and listening skills for distance learners

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Monday, 26 Mar 2018, 21:04

My contribution to the BBC "Go the Distance" course is now available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zqfdrwx

An expanded (and probably more useful) version is available at Open Learn at


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BBC course to support Distance Learners

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Edited by Patrick Andrews, Tuesday, 24 Oct 2017, 15:39

The BBC now has a course on being a distance learner and it provides perspectives from distance learners and tutors.  It can be found at


I think I will be appearing in week 3.
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mindmapping app

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I have been writing some materials for an online course and have been experimenting with the online mindmapping tool  http://mindmapfree.com/

So far, I have found it easy to use and think it could be useful for many students.

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Collaborating on materials at a distance

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I have recently been writing materials for L185 Online Tutorials with some colleagues.  It has been an interesting and generally positive experience although there are challenges as well.

We have been able to develop materials in an exploratory way with different writers challenging the logic and also suggesting alternative ways of doing things.  There has also been some checking of relatively minor mistakes.

The biggest challenge has often been in terms of coordination and knowing which is the latest version of each piece of material.


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I recently made a podcast for students on E304 "Exploring English Grammar" (it can be found at http://patrickandrewsuk.podomatic.com/entry/2016-04-05T08_49_43-07_00 but is probably only of interest to my own students).

I have been surprised and pleased by how positive the feedback has been.  Amongst the reasons for liking it have been:

- it is concise

- it is suitable for listening to on the move

- it enables students who could not make tutorials to have access to some of the issues that were covered

I think it is quite low fi but relatively easy to produce and is another way of communicating with students - it seemed to prompt several emails and interaction with students that might not have occured otherwise.

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Online language teaching

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I have just come across a rather negative critique of online language teaching at http://www.teflideas.com/055_The_Drawbacks_of_Online_Language_Learning.html

While there may be some challenges in teaching languages online, it seems to me that the post is unduly negative.  I first address the comments and then state some advantages of online language learning.

1 "only one person can have the mic at any time".  This is not true in OU Live.  The teacher may choose to restrict access to the microphone but it is easy to allow multiple speakers although this might affect sound quality.

2 "Groups tasks - are incredibly hard to initiate and execute".  Again this is not true.  In OU Live, there are Breakout Rooms where students can work together in groups.

3 "Circulating, listening in, praising good language, speaking specifically, demonstrating a point, eliciting errors and answers quietly to a group while others are working is virtually impossible in a virtual classroom".  Again this is not true.  A tutor can be in one of the breakout rooms and address feedback to the learners in that room only.

4 "Instruction gets filtered and convoluted when you put a medium between yourself and the learners. Non verbal gestures are unknown and unnoticed — you can’t point, shrug, nod, or grimace".  Perhaps there is more justice in this comment.  However, there is the option of the text box, which might be more public and allow for another mode for expression.  There is also the possibility of using emoticons.

5 "Teacher led teaching".  This does not need to be the case.  Learners can be asked to work in groups.  Learners also can/should bring their own needs to a class.  Learners can be asked to prepare to lead the session.

6 "whiteboard presentation, which forces all written communication to be typed".  This is not completely true but I am not really sure what the problem is with this.

7 "If a student asks something to the teacher, it’s inevitably typed rather than spoken".  This is not necessarily the case. 

Some other points that seem relevant are the following:

- the OU's online language learning tends to be integrated with the rest of the course (eg online asynchronous discussion forums) so online tutorials should not be seen in isolation.

- online classes allow for learners to be remote from each other and this provides opportunities in that the learners can see and know different things.  The sessions may bring people together who might not otherwise meet.

- sessions can be recorded and in theory, learners might be able to reflect on their performance in a way face to face teachers cannot.

Would anyone care to comment on the original posting or my reply?

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Student views of who distance tutors are

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It occurs to me it would be interesting to know who students think distance tutors are.  This is largely prompted by the fact that a student phoned me up at twenty past midnight last night.  Does he think we are counter cultural bohemians who stay up late or that we are robots who do not need sleep?  Actually I was still awake but I think we often assume that late phone calls are harbingers of bad news rather than extension requests.
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