Author Archives: Hank Horkoff

New OpenLanguage Design

At OpenLanguage we believe the more time you can spend connected to your studies, the more likely you will achieve your learning goals. Increasingly, a large number of our students are using 3 different devices (tablet, phone & computer) during the day to study. According to a 2013 comScore report, device usage varies heavily throughout the day. Smart phones are most popular in the morning, computers during the day and tablets at night.


To help ensure our students have a consistent study experience with web browsers on their tablets, phones & computers, as well as with our iOS and Android apps, we are implementing ‘responsive web design’ on the website and working towards a consistent design interface within the apps.

New Study Menu

The biggest change students will notice is with regards to the revised study menu.


Of note:

  • the Library of courses and lessons has been moved to a more prominent position
  • the previous ‘Courses’ and ‘Self-Study’ sections have been renamed ‘My Courses’ and ‘Saved Lessons’ to improve clarity

Additionally, many of the administration pages have been moved to a revised Account section.


This update is a work-in-progress so please let us know your comments and suggestions.


Updated Feature – Vocabulary Deck Management

We have updated the management of vocabulary decks and flashcards on both our Android and iOS mobile apps, as well as on the website. The highlights of these changes include: easier deck management, full-screen flashcards, easier vocabulary card management and a new SRS mode.

Deck Management
After you tap ‘Vocabulary’ you will be re-directed to a newly designed Vocabulary section. We have simplified and ‘flattened’ the design to draw more attention to what is important – the vocabulary decks (or ‘stacks’ of vocabulary flashcards). Each deck box displays the deck name and the number of target terms. Options for this view allow you to create a new deck or change the target language that you are studying. If you ‘long-press’ on a deck box, options to rename the deck will appear. If you ‘pull’ the page down, the decks will sync with your cloud account.


After you tap a deck box, you will be immediately be taken to the flashcards. The first thing previous students will notice is that the cards are now much bigger. Tapping the icon in the the top-left will even make them full screen!


You can navigate the cards by swiping left and right to switch between the cards, or tapping to flip the cards. You can choose what to display on the ‘front’ side of the cards in Settings with the source language translation available by default, but also the option to display the target term, the term phonetics and the term audio. On the back side of the card, you will see all the information related to the target term in addition to a green ‘View Sample Sentences’ button that will direct you to the Glossary so that you can browse sample sentences for how the term is actually used in context.


Vocabulary Card Management
In addition to Settings, in the Options section you can Manage the entire deck, Shuffle the cards, Autoplay the cards, Move the active term to another deck, Copy the active term to another deck or Delete the active term from the deck.

SRS Mode
By default the flashcard section is set to Normal Mode. For those students who want to take advantage of spaced-repetition software (SRS) technology, you now have the option to switch to SRS Mode in the Options section.


In SRS Mode, you cannot freely switch between different cards, but instead need to indicate how well you remembered the term, by selecting between Again, Hard, Good or Easy, before proceeding to the next card. This feedback is used by the SRS SM-2 algorithm to ‘smartly’ present this term to you in the future. In layman’s terms, the goal is to use technology to help more these new foreign-language terms from your short, to you medium, to your long-term memory.

Please let us know you questions or ideas below in the comments.


New Feature – Speech Accuracy

A big challenge when learning a new language is knowing whether or not what you are saying could actually be understood by a native speaker.

If you attend a language class, your teacher can quickly give you feedback, but you might have to fight with other students for their time and perhaps you might be a little shy or afraid to make mistakes. If you are studying on your own, then you are likely in a worse situation being not able to even get this minimal feedback.

At OpenLanguage we take pride in our engaging lessons, which provide lesson input, and our software tools, that help provide review opportunities, but we also realize facilitating practice opportunities and providing corrective feedback is critical for developing your new language skills.

To help with this, today we are adding a new ‘Accuracy’ feature to the Sentence and Word Review tools available in our iOS and Android mobile apps.


To take advantage of this feature, simply tap the Accuracy button to get started. To hear a native speaker read the term or sentence press the play button. Then it is your turn to try. Press record and read the term yourself. The app will analyze your recording and give you an Accuracy score.


Now, this feature utilizes speech-recognition technology which is notoriously not 100% perfect. You should approach your score, not as an absolute measure of your performance, but more as an indicator of how likely you would be understood by a native speaker. The higher your score, the more likely you will be able to engage in a conversation with that native speaker.

This feature is simply designed to be a low-risk way for you to get feedback on how well you are pronouncing those foreign-language terms.

From a technical perspective, the app converts the spoken audio to a text string (with Android using the Android SDK and with iOS using Nuance) and then compares the resultant text string with the original for the native speaker. The app then uses a string comparison algorithm (Levenshtein distance) to determine an approximate accuracy score.

If you have any suggestions please let us know in the comments.


New Subscription Types

Our existing Standard Subscription gives you full access to all the learning materials for each language on OpenLanguage. You can use this account on your tablet, smart phone or computer and sync your account across all your devices.

To give you more options with your language studies, today we are adding two new subscription types.

The Friends & Family Subscription
As avid language learners ourselves, we understood maintaining motivation is one of the most difficult parts of learning a new language. Unlike others skills, acquiring a language takes months, if not years, to achieve. To help you stay committed we are launching a ‘Friends & Family Subscription’ which gives you a complimentary account to share with a colleague, language teacher or family member. We believe having someone to push you just a little bit will help you be more successful. Simply choose this subscription type and then invite the lucky study partner of your choice!

The Unlimited Subscription
Next, we are adding an ‘Unlimited Subscription’ which will give you access to all the languages currently available on OpenLanguage and all the new ones we add in the future. This is a great option for the true linguaphile, or as we prefer ‘language nerd’. In fact, if you purchase an Annual Unlimited Subscription we will even throw in one of our cool new t-shirts.


Unlimited Subscriptions also include a complimentary account, like the Friends & Family Subscription, so you have no more excuses not to pick up that language you have been putting off!

Click here to check our the details of these new subscription plans.

Finally, we have special offers available for both K12 and university institutions to help them bring the Tablet Textbook into their classrooms. Contact us for more details.

Feedback powers our future development at OpenLanguage, so don’t be shy about what you want use to develop.

Good luck with your studies!

Hank Horkoff, OpenLanguage Co-Founder

The Future of MOOCs is Vertical

Over the course of 2012, massively open online classrooms, or MOOCs, have started to radically disrupt the foundations of traditional education structures. These MOOCs (such as Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, etc) use videos – independent of time and location – to replace lectures, blowing away the walls of the traditional classroom and potentially bringing the genius of the best teachers to any network-connected student in the world. Beyond just providing lectures or lesson input, these MOOCs are rapidly rounding out their offerings by adding exercises to test comprehension and collecting study data with the long-term vision of designing personalized, learning pathways. In contrast to this innovation, traditional institutions are clinging to their last remaining solid foothold, that of providing credentials.

While the technologists have started the MOOC revolution, teachers and subject matter experts need to consolidate these gains by contributing their real world pedagogical experience. While the teaching of some subjects are in the format of lecture, lecture then test, others are more complicated and require students to do more than just watch videos and take exercises. This gap is exactly where there is an opportunity for vertical MOOCs.

Specialized Review

Some subjects require specialized review activities to reinforce and explore the key concepts presented in the lectures, or lesson input. For instance when learning a new language, after a student is introduced to a new lesson (ideally focused around a real-life dialogue in the target language) they need to examine and start to play with the language. What did that person say? How is that sentence constructed? Can that term be used in other ways? What are other similar wards that can be used with the same sentence? How can I save these terms for future review?

While a video lecture can kick off the learning experience, for some subjects specialized review tools are necessary to facilitate increased student learning and engagement.

Specialized Practice

Some subjects require more than just an intellectual understanding of a concept, they require the student to mimic, apply or recreate the desired skill. While a medical student maybe be able to acquire a perfect intellectual understanding of anatomy, how many patients would consent to the same person performing an operation without hours and hours of practice and coaching?

Specialized Learning Pathways

The big promise of moving learning onto digital platforms is that the underlying study data can be collected and used to help optimize learning environments and pathways. With enough data, the visions contend, it should be possible to customize learning environments (much like you would A/B test a website) to increase the students chances for success. For a similar cohort of students, does the length of a lecture matter? The time of day? The ethnicity of their teacher? There are hundreds of variables that could potentially be optimized.

Once these optimization efforts hit learning materials things become more complicated. Some subjects, like math, rely on pre-requisites when constructing a study plan. With this linear progression, the visions contend, it should be possible to build a ‘funnel’ and then ‘optimize’ the pathways for various student cohorts. But what happens with a subject that doesn’t rely so much on pre-requisites (e.g. history – does it matter if a student learns about the American Revolution before the Second World War?) or where the pre-requisites are more blurry (e.g. language learning – where pre-requisites rely more on bands of difficulty rather than linear progression).

This is the big data problem that MOOCs are looking to solve. It will likely need highly customized algorithms for different subjects.

Specialized Pedagogy

One of the most exciting consequences of using videos to provide lectures to students before class is that class time can be re-purposed to focus more on coaching and helping students overcome their individual problems. This ‘flipped classroom’ approach makes use of the best that both technology and the classroom can offer, hopefully creating a more personalized and effective learning experience for the student.

For many subjects, teachers and face-to-face time are still an important piece of the learning process. MOOCs should be providing integrated support for teachers with lesson plans and student activity streams to help them understand where students are succeeding and failing. Math and languages are not taught the same in a traditional classroom context, nor should they be with a flipped classroom model.

Teachers will have specific needs depending on their subject area and vertical MOOCs will be in the best position to serve them.

Specialized Assessment

Different subjects measure proficiency in different ways. While it may sufficient for some subjects simply to test students with a multiple choice exam, others require additional evaluation lenses to determine learning success. With language acquisition for instance, multiple choice exams can be used for reading and listening comprehension, but written assignments are needed to measure writing ability and oral exams to measure speaking ability.

The difference in how subjects are assessed is just one further example of why there is an opportunity for learning platforms specialized on vertical subjects.

Just the Beginning

After more than 15 years of the Internet, MOOCs are finally starting to disrupt Industrial-era education. While significant innovations have already been made, the next stage will be able about specific subject-matter verticals filling out the offering to finally define the share of new, Internet-era education structures.

OpenLanguage Presentation at UT – Austin

The COERLL (Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning) team at UT – Austin was kind enough to invite Jenny Zhu and myself to introduce what we are doing with OpenLanguage.

The slides for our presentation:

A few days later Slideshare was kind enough to feature our slide deck on their homepage:
Video from our presentation:

OpenLanguage Presentation with Hank Horkoff and Jenny Zhu from Texas Language Center on Vimeo.