Monday, October 30, 2006

Artificial Intelligence - an oxymoron???

From somewhere, perhaps a newspaper article, a magazine article or on the Internet, I first heard about Chatbots. Wow! Artificial Intelligence utilized to create meaningful small talk!

I recommend that you take a look at the BBC and ABC newsclips first, to get a quick overview.

Today I introduced the concept to my class. Imagine an ideal conversation assistant, I told them, who was available 24/7, who didn't mind your mistakes, who never grew tired and could chat with you in your own home.

Well, everyone logged on and accessed and started chatting. Amazing! The students couldn't believe that there wasn't a real person on the other end of the line. I found it difficult to believe myself.

I've been in touch with Rollo Carpenter, mentioning my intent to explore the site with the class. Rollo replied:

Let me know how it goes. I expect it will be almost too useful (in
terms of visitors) if George starts speaking aloud in a good voice. He is
already able to, but it's server-based and costly in terms of hardware and
licences. If it was pay-to-speak, how much do you think might be feasible
in the ESOL market?

There is talk, not all tongue-in-cheek I trust, of 'George' finding employment in a call centre. I also see George as a conversation assistant for ESOL students. Were George able to speak out aloud, I wonder about his (its?) tolerance to accent and pronunciation. You would not want George to be too good at interpreting mumbles and misspronunciations, and you would want George to encourage self-correction when students spoke too far off the beaten track as it were.

As a side note, we checked to see if George could answer factual questions. We asked what the capital of New Zealand was. He said he didn't know, and so we 'taught' him. I got the class to repeatedly ask the question in various ways, and after 10 minutes he was asking us the question, and telling us that we were right when we answered.

Not sure what this means in terms of learning. All very exciting . . . and weird!

Watch this space!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Conversation Hour

In class yesterday, I asked my students to write for ten or 15 minutes on the topic:

How I Plan to Get the Most from Conversation Hour

I have been telling them that the assistants who volunteer to spend an hour or two every week talking with them could be considered a resource as much as dictionaries, books, computers, libraries, newspapers etc. And to get the most of a resource you need to 'use' it wisely.

Anyway, I am posting a summary of everyone's ideas for them to read on my blog today. Perhaps they will think of some things that may have been missed. Certainly they will benefit from reading other people's.

George said that conversation hour is one of his favorite times at school. He says there are many reasons. It isn't only a lesson for him, but a relaxing time. He can practise pronunciation, listening and speaking. He can repeat things and ask about what he is unsure of. He sees it as the opportunity to gain confidence in speaking with Kiwis, and that this is the best time to practise it. He feels the hour is too short!

Eun Sook read aloud from a Reader's Digest magazine and her assistant checked her pronunciation. After that he read a few lines as dictation for her to write down. Even though he read slowly and clearly it was very hard for her to catch the words.

"I found it was easy to miss out [words] such as the, a, an"

Eun Sook will try hard to speak more during conversation hour.

Mikyung is also new to our class. She was impressed with her conversation mate's interesting questions about local knowledge for example where to play tennis, and how to join the yacht club. She thinks it is a good idea to prepare some questions herself so that she can ask about living in Dunedin because the conversation assistants are "all experts".

Fauzia thinks it is best to focus on one topic at a time instead of speaking on too wide a spectrum of subjects. Perhaps she could bring such a list. She thinks it is important to be corrected so that she doesn't repeat her mistakes. She pointed out that sometimes assistants do too much of the talking and that it would be better for the students to take a more active role.

As for Carol, she finds it very useful to focus on pronunciation. She really wants to get more practice with pronunciation and speaking. I agree with her that that would be a good idea.

Hedi really enjoyed her conversation hour yesterday. She was very happy that she could understand almost everything that her group talked about. She appreciated it when her assistant asked the students to explain their understanding about various words and expressions. The hour was a very useful one for her.

Jason and Kyung Hee have obviously thought hard about the topic together. Both make some great suggestions. Kyung wrote that group members could or should prepare a topic before the hour. She really wishes that we mximize the time. Students could practise talking with each other berforehand and then repeat that discussionwith the assistant, who could then correct the grammar and pronunciation.

Jason agrees and adds that students sometimes don't prepare. If the teacher gives out a sheet to follow, students may not actually read it. He also wrote - and please correct me if I didn't fully understand - that if students are able to catch the meaning of new words then they will have a "comfortable time". Perhaps a 'profitable time' is a better way to say that.

David and and Alice have also written their thoughts.

David thinks that it depends on the student as to how he or she can get the most from conversation, and he thinks the first thing for each person to do is find out their shortages. He thinks that all assistants may not be all the same, and may be better at giving advice in different areas. Possibly the most important thing to do is be active; you improve in proportion to the work you put in.

Alice repeats the points that others have made, such as preparing questions beforehand, asking directly for pronunciation feedback, and speaking as much as she can herself. An interesting point she raises is that it could be good to speak with the same assistant each week so that that person can more deeply understand the needs of the student(s) in their group.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Be prepared

random 'email' picture stolen from Flickr
Just a rapid-fire post - 10 minutes' worth . . .

Took the class up to a computer suite this morning, our second session. I've now figured out how the demo computer up on screen works, together with its fancy laser pointer.

Again, we fooled around with emails. Boy, does it take a long time to sort everyone out, especially when the one who is in charge is only half sure about what he is doing ! You've just gotta be prepared to 'waste' half of your time just floundering.

So . . . everyone is now finally on line - three new studewnts had trouble logging on, requiring me to log a job with I.T. And I've also immediately had the students create gmail accounts on account of the fact that their Polytech accounts will expire at the end of the year.

That isn't much good as far as establishing an ongoing on-line presence, now, is it?

Anyway, it was fun for the students to watch as their email messages to me popped up on the screen, and I typed a quick reply. People well-clued up emailed each other, and also visited to view and comment on ESOL students' blogs from the USA.

The trick with that is that you often need to be a blogger yourself before you can post comments, and that means another username and password to remember!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Not just chatting

We're getting there.

Today - tomorrow rather - Tuesday that is - we welcome back our conversation assistants. Let's see if Joan, Audrey, Richard, Lance, Jon, John, Jane, Lynette and any others that may have slipped my mind turn up.

Yesterday I mentioned that people are a resource, and that as people we can help each other reach our goals. That goes most especially for conversation assistants.

Yesterday I also introduced the term language planning, where the teachers give the students sufficient time to produce a good response.

Today before the conversation assistants arrive, I would like you to think about how you can best make use of them as a resource. What would you like their help with mostly. Please don't say, "I am happy with anything," or "I would like their help with everything," because that isn't helpful for them! Students have different needs. Every student needs more help in certain areas.

If you don't ask for what you want, you may not get what you need, and therefore not be making the best use of a resource. If you don't know what you need, then that is the first thing to find out.

AM4 and AM3 have conversation at the same time - 11-12 - every Tuesday. I would like our classes to pool our assistants. There is a key that allows us to merge our two classrooms. I've tried it but it doesn't work, but perhaps by tomorrow . . . In addition, we shall have other classrooms at our disposal, so that there will not be too many people all speaking at once.

I am going to form you into groups based on similar need which will stay together. Each week you will work with a different assistant. In this way I hope that you will make the best improvements.

Other things we'll cover on Tuesday:

  1. Write a log, letter, or keep an audio journal

  2. Tell me which Topic you've chosen

  3. Start on 'Required Tasks' (email, topic, log)

Treasure Hunt

You are in a new environment. The best way to grow comfortable in your new surroundings is to have an orientation. One way of doing that is to take part in a treasure hunt. Check off the following items by exploring the neighbourhood. I suggest that you work with a partner who has a different first language from yours. Have fun!

1 How many floors has the building we’re in? (Take the lift to the top and then walk back down the stairs.)

2 If you came by car, where is it parked and how early did you leave home?

3 How far away from our classroom is the Bill Robertson Library?

4 Can you find a female toilet? A male toilet? A unisex toilet?

5 Find where smokers may smoke.

6 Where is the nearest nicest place to sit outside?

7 Find two places where you could buy food. Does anything tempt your fancy?

8 Does your picture appear on any of the photos displayed?

9 Where is William’s desk?

10 Where is our students’ library?

11 What is the earliest issue Reader’s Digest magazine in our classroom?

12 Discover where your two common rooms are.

13 Is it possible to check your email in our classroom?

14 Look in at Wanphen’s and Barbara’s offices.

15 Find the car parks reserved for people who share.

16 Replace one of the names (people not in our class) on the Dunedin map with your own.

17 Can you find a good place to refill your water bottle?

18 In which direction is North?

19 Where do the cyclists park their bicycles?

20 Where are there four microwaves that students may use to heat up their lunches?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Welcome (back)!

Welcome, or welcome back as the case may be. It’s been three weeks since we saw each other or, for four of you, it’s your first time in this class.

This first day, then, it will be important to do a group activity – something that helps us get to know and feel more comfortable with one another. Other people are a useful resource, you see. Use them and allow others to use you! People can help one another achieve what they want to achieve. You might be shy and that’s okay – I am too. But we need not act shy, even if that is our nature. If we act as if we are confident and unconcerned then that will have the same effect as actually being a confident and relaxed person.

Some teachers write their class letters. I have too, but only for today. After this, I will write to you via a Blog which you will need to access on the computer. Go to and you will find it. If in the future you wish to avoid having to type in such a long address, save my site as a favorite. The trouble is, you will need to do that on every computer that you use. Later I will show you a way around that. I will show you how to save the addresses of all your favorite sites in a way that allows you to access them from any computer. I will also show you how you can know whenever I have written anything new, so that you don’t waste time looking and finding that I haven’t written anything new.

Have you had a good holiday? I haven’t! No, it’s true! For the first two weeks I was involved in moving our school – exciting but tiring. Around the class you will see one or two unpacked boxes still, and we need to put some posters on the wall. Let’s make this room ours.

As well as moving schools, I had to prepare a presentation that Susan, Lindsey and I gave at a conference at Napier at the end of September. Sure, flying up was fun, and I met a lot of interesting ESOL teachers and heard a lot of interesting ideas about how and what to teach. I’ll tell you about that during the term. As I say, it was fun, but very busy. Our accommodation was not the best and some of us found it hard to sleep. Barbara and I each became sick when we returned. I believe that we caught a virus called the New York ’flu. I’ve had a bad cough and a runny nose for the past week, and I’m still not fully over it. It’s only because of my dedication that I’ve come to class!

Look, I don’t want to overwhelm you on your first day. Little by little we’ll settle into our new routine. Today, after reading this letter and doing whatever group activity I select from a textbook I shall set some sort of orienteering exercise – perhaps a Treasure Hunt.

You may feel that your English has slipped and feel nervous about being ‘caught out’. Well, don’t worry, I won’t put anyone on the spot. To tell the truth, every teacher feels that he or she has lost the ability to teach after a long break too!

One very good concept that I heard about at the conference was language planning. Language planning means that the teacher gives the student enough time to prepare a response so that the language produced is richer and fuller. I shall ask you to think about what topic you might present at the end of this term (remember, you are working towards giving a 5-min oral presentation for your assessment. I’ll give you approximately five questions about your topic to prepare answers for after which you will, as if by magic, have traveled 20% of the way towards your goal!

Trust me – I know what I’m doing.

Trust yourself.

Trust each other.