Monthly Archives: February 2013

Interview with Jason Levine, the Fluency MC

I recently had the pleasure of talking to one of the most prolific superstar English teachers on the web, Jason Levine. Known for his flamboyant original rapping of English grammar, Jason has inspired and motivated learners around the world to embrace learning English. In this conversation, we talk about why the merge of entertainment and learning is important; how to balance the two elements and make them work; the role of collocations and why the most basic principles of ‘relax, repeat and remember’ are critical to learning any languages. 

If you think learning a new language is too hard, watch this chat as two teachers committed to making the experience easier and enjoyable share their experiences and thoughts.

Technology Won’t Replace Language Teachers. It Should Empower Them.

As the co-founder of a technology language learning company, I want to say loud and clear that technology can never replace language teachers. And it should not. Teachers provide indispensable value to the learner that no technology will be able to replace: practice, feedback and motivation just to name a few. I think one of the reasons that technology has touched so little in language learning is because technology solutions either try to replace teachers or make them an add-on piece rather than understanding the core value that teachers provide and looking at ways that we can come in to make the process more efficient and effective. We need more voices like the Khan Academy in language learning. 

I’ve always believed that the problem with language classes are not the class or the teacher, but how time is spent in the class. In a traditional language class, a teacher is a lecturer, standing before a class, imparting input, i.e. giving explanations and instructions about the language. Input is crucial as it kicks off language learning, but the other half is output where students are using and producing the language based on the input. However giving input usually becomes what the class is mostly about. In a traditional classroom, at least 70% of the time is spent on input where students passively listen to the teacher and take notes. They are left with so little opportunity to actually use the language. That’s why so many of us fail in language classes or feel we learned more speaking the language in real life than in the class.

Now imagine a flipped language class where students listen to a lesson audio on their way to class; In that audio teacher presenters give a lecture where they explain the language while students browse the lesson text on their phone or tablet. Students don’t need to sit in a classroom to find out what certain words mean or how to use a grammar structure. Instead, they do it in their own pace, whenever they have the time, desire and need. When students go to class, they talk to their teacher using the language they’ve learned on their own; It won’t be perfect and they’ll have lots of questions, but that’s precisely the point. We want them to use the language under the teacher’s guided practice. This way, the teacher would be able to spot problems and give students corrective feedback. It makes learning more efficient, more personalized and more engaging. This simple model should be how technology and teachers work together to help students. In many ways, technology should not be about reinventing learning as it is about making the old more efficient, effective and personalized. Why force students to do everything online when the face to face session provides clear value? In the same sense, why have students sit in a classroom and listen to a lecture if they could do it with the help of technology on their own? 

Each time I talk about the flipped language class, students, teachers and entrepreneurs think it makes so much sense. But that’s not how 99% of language learning takes place. In reality, the traditional classroom and technology are living in parallel universes rather than integrating into a blend to elevate what each other excels at. Granted a lot of language learning incorporate technology and the teacher. But they are mostly clumsily forced together to satisfy the market. Something as simple as using technology to preview and review and spend class time on practice and feedback seems to elude most schools, teachers and entrepreneurs. I think a lot of it is fear, inertia and lack of student empathy. The last thing many schools and teachers want to do is reinventing what they do in the class with technology thrown in to the mix. While many entrepreneurs either have too much faith in technology replacing teachers or get frustrated that the old school doesn’t share their new vision.

As an entrepreneur myself, I am occasionally guilty of it. But the fact is most students need teachers to learn a language. If we are not working with teachers, we are going to fail students. No matter how advanced technology becomes, using sophisticated adaptive learning systems sometime aren’t as good as learning how to say ‘how are you’ from a real person and carry on that conversation. It’s our duty as entrepreneurs to communicate our belief to teachers, working with them, supporting them rather than cutting them out of the picture or making them an add-on piece in our service. That’s why on OpenLanguage, teachers always use it for free. We want to get you using our content and tools to teacher students, manage their studies and help them improve. I am very thankful for all of the invaluable feedback that teachers give us OpenLanguage. Things like multi-media homework and remixing courses were inspired by their requests. At the end of the day, we are all there to help students succeed.

If you are a language teacher, see how OpenLanguage can support your work here. And contact us at for a free teacher’s account.

This Year Mobile Devices will Outnumber Humans

Cisco recently shared some pretty interesting numbers about the growth of mobile devices around the world, how people use them and what this means to the existing infrastructure of the world wide web.

The Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012–2017 predicts that Internet enabled devices like smartphones and tablets will surpass 7 billion devices by the end of this year. The growth is especially strong in Asia, Africa and the Pacific region.

In terms of how people use their devices Cisco shares some pretty astonishing numbers. Over 50% off the worldwide mobile traffic comes from streaming videos and Cisco estimates that this number will go up to about 60% by 2017.

Also, mobile data consumption saw a huge jump in 2012. It rose by 81%, from monthly 189MB in 2011 to 342MB per month in 2012. For 2017 Cisco predicts that every smartphone user is going to consume 2.7GB per month.

The driving factor behind those numbers are smartphones and though they only count for 18% of the Internet enabled devices they make up 92% of the global mobile traffic. In comparison so called “featurephone” owners only make up 2% of the data smartphone owners use per month, about 6.8MB compared to 342MB.

Faster mobile networks like 4G also add to the consumption of larger amounts of mobile data. Although 4G networks only make up 0.9% of all mobile connections they already drive 19% of the total data traffic.

These numbers clearly show that people who have the possibility to own a smartphone and are connected to fast mobile networks make use of the features and benefits that come along with those devices extensively. They are increasingly using their those smart devices for more than making calls, checking email or the weather forecast. They get used to seeing their devices as pocket computers, capable of delivering information, entertainment and (language) learning on the go.

Google Glass could Revolutionize Language Learning…in 10 Years.

Amongst many cool things that Google Glass does is its ability to provide real time, text-based translations of what the people next to you are saying. This could be a game changer for language learning, making the process faster, more responsive or even redundantly for the survival phrase learners. For many language learners, the real time decoding of languages indeed has massive appeal. I am sure that as Google Glass gets perfected, it will start to make deeper impact on language learning. But as many entrepreneurs and innovators jump to find how they can use Google Glass for the next big product idea, I feel it might be healthy to maintain a level of procrastination and pragmatism unless you are Google. If you are a language startup, chances are Google Glass would impact what you do in 10 years.

I’ve come to this realization through hard-learned lessons. When mobile app first emerged in mid 2000’s, we got our team to build one of the earliest apps around, an Android app for learning English. We demoed it using the first generation Google Nexus phone at the Google office in Beijing to a crowd of Googlers without the phone themselves! We also started to pitch our ‘mobile learning’ solution to corporate clients in China. We thought the model made perfect sense. Have your employees learn English on their smartphones on their way to work, practice with a teacher once a week and review on their phone after the class. This way, you cut down work time spent on learning and help your staff learn in more personalized ways. We did some more demos and pitches to bewildered audiences. Back in 2006, you could count the number of smartphones in China with one hand and 3G network was a great 5-year-plan for China Mobile. We built a product when there was no devices and infrastructure to support it. Needless to say it went very well. Many startups do not survive the pursuit of cutting edge technology or get scarred by their first attempt and give up before the timing is right. We were very lucky to have survived and made a comeback with OpenLanguage.

I am often stunned by how little technology has touched language learning. We have medieval classroom models, industrial age textbooks and enduring inertia in academia. As frustrating as it could be for entrepreneurs who are convinced that things could be done a lot better using new technology, the winners (i.e. those who make the biggest impact) are not those who can ‘disrupt’ language learning per say, but those who can make new technology and pedagogy work with the old system. I’ve learned that a new product will always have its niche early adopters, but it’s extremely hard to cross over to the mainstream if you force your new vision on your stakeholders. In language learning, you have to be able to work with teachers, schools not just students. And if you really want to improve the way people learn languages, you really need to work with teachers since they are an indispensable part of the process and also dictate how students learn. The fact is neither the average teacher nor student will think about how Google Glass can change how they teach and learn. (If they need to think how to use it, they are not going to use it).  As an entrepreneur, I find it healthy to restrain myself from pushing boundaries and focus on real and unsexy problems that teachers and students are dealing with, such as how do I assign and mark homework and how do I find my next lesson.

Meanwhile, thank God for the intrepid souls who keep pushing. If it weren’t for them, the iPhone and iPad would have been unthinkable. And then it’s our obligation to build for devices and technologies that people are using.

Habits Hinder Progress in Mobile Learning

In German we have a saying: Der Mensch ist ein Gewohnheitstier – humans are creatures of habit. And while habits are an important part of our daily routine and make us more efficient in the things we have to deal on day in and day out they are also killers of progress and innovation if we don’t challenge them from time to time.

As Mark Twain said “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” and I think it is time for Europe and North America to reflect on our perception of mobility and learning.

Lets take a step back and look on our perception of how and when we access the Internet. In most cases the access point is still fixed at a location, either our home with a personal computer or at our workplace. Sure, we have the mobile access through our smart phones and we use it to check emails, appointments, traffic, weather and the news but how far are we with the idea of learn anything, anytime, anywhere?

We still have the habit of doing “important” tasks on our personal computers or laptops which includes a lot of formal and informal learning. And I think we don’t challenge this habit enough. Why does it need to be this way?

I think it is part of the idea that learning also takes place at a fixed location, the university or college. Attached to this is a certain time window, usually from the morning to afternoon hours. Again, why do we think that learning has to take place at a certain location at a certain time especially when we talk about self paced learning?

Another part of the puzzle is that we have the luxury of choice. By the time the Internet became popular in the mainstream with affordable rates and good connection speed we also saw the rise of mobile phones. But both devices, the computer / laptop at home and the mobile phone got their own tasks attached to them. Not because mobile phones were not capable of displaying ebooks, doing bank transactions, receive weather or traffic data via SMS but because we could “just not do it on such a small screen”.

Interestingly all those services grew rapidly in regions of the world with no access to classic wired Internet. Putting copper or fiber optic cables in the ground were simply no option for India, China or countries in Africa and South America. Mobile Internet was far easier to implement and the result is that today those countries are leapfrogging Europe and North America in terms of mobile usage.

People are used to take their mobile phone and manage all sorts of tasks with them. It’s their personal computer and what we tend to promote as the dawn of the “Post-PC Era” is already reality in those parts of the world.

Countries like Saudi Arabia are investing massively in mobile learning, especially in the higher education sector, in order to build a post-oil knowledge based society. And students who grow up with a mobile mindset will have less cut and dried opinions (if any) when it comes to mobile learning.

This trend also comes with a pedagogic shift away from the teacher centric approach towards a learner centric one which is going to call for more self responsibility from the learner. But thanks to advances in personalized progress tracking, self assessments and adaptive learning solutions students will have far more insights on their performance as they have today in the classroom where the big surprise often comes with the exam notes.

The shift in technology, lifestyle and its impact on learning is what fundamentally driving our approach at OpenLanguage. We feel that mobile learning should not be about forcing learners to use their smartphones and tablets to learn. It’s about responding to changes in how people use technology. It’s also about taking affordances of new devices to reimagine language learning and deliver more to learners. That’s why the OpenLanguage Tablet Textbook app is not just a repurposed PDF. It’s a book with multidmedia support for learning and features that allow users to film themselves speaking the target language and share their work with their teachers. We also want to help language learners understand how and what they learn based on progress tracking and bite sized lessons that fit in a busy and mobile lifestyle anywhere, anytime.