Social networking ethics in CALL

This weekend the Japan Association of Language Teachers special interest group Computer Assisted Language Learning (JALTCALL) will be holding their annual conference in Nagoya at Sugiyama Jogakuen University (5min walk from Hoshigaoka Stn on the Higashiama (yellow) subway line). Details: I’ll be presenting my topic of Social networking ethics in CALL. As I’ve been doing additional research for this presentation I’ve come to realise that the main conceptualisation of this topic is about privacy, first and foremost. I’ve also realised how important the maintenance of privacy is for trust and bonds between friends and family, and by extension for classroom dynamics, too. Learn more at the conference, and I hope to see you there. The blurb:

This presentation is a follow up on the article published in ELT Journal by Blyth (2010). It calls for careful consideration in using social networking services (SNS) like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others. Whilst using SNS may facilitate more efficient language acquisition, there are certain risks that have not been discussed. Traditionally, classrooms are closed environments, where the outside world cannot see in, providing students with a private sphere to practice and experiment with their interlanguage. The use of SNS is effectively allowing the outside world to peek in and see students’ attempts at language use, not as a moment in a process, but as like a product. The effect can be negative, and potentially damaging to personal and professional reputations. Particular word choices or sentences may be misconstrued or misinterpreted, and may harm the students’ reputations now, or in the future. Especially when comments are published on long forgotten websites like the future equivalents of Friendster, Geocities, Tripod, or abandoned personal blogs. This presentation will conclude with a discussion, and key points may be published in the conference proceedings.

Currently the presentation is scheduled for room 502 at 3.40 to 4.20pm. I’ll eventually have PowerPoint slides uploaded so you can view them during and after the presentation at Winjeel.Com/research.htm. Hopefully I’ll remember to audio record the presentation so audio would be available via SoundCloud.

Students and work ethic

I’ve had a problem for many years, and it’s one that many university educators are similarly perplexed by, too. Why is it that our students are more willing to work part-time jobs until 1am in the morning, then come to our classes and believe that they can sleep? I tell my students to either be awake and be present, or be marked absent, even if they are physically in the room, though asleep.

The answer came to me in a podcast by Lauri Taylor a sociologist who presents the Thinking Allowed programme on BBC Radio 4. In one of his weekly programmes titled, “Baristas; People’s History” he interviews an American researcher, Yasemin Besen-Cassino, who wondered why on an exceptionally snowy day her class was empty, yet the local franchise café was very well staffed… by the university students. Her subsequent research seemed to explain everything, even though her research was limited to the north-east side of the US, it still seems to apply here in Japan, too.

Young staff in prestigious brand stores are often more loyal than to their uni classes
Young staff in prestigious brand stores are often more loyal than to their uni classes

Brands (or rather, companies), like Starbucks have an exceptional brand image which seems to be the main attraction. The staff are predominately middle-class or aspiring middle-class. Their physical appearance suggests an affluence both financial and cultural. They appear to enjoy their jobs, too. However, the salary is low, there are no benefits like medical, health, maternity leave, and such, the hours are long, and the work is hard (I’ve done this kind of work, and it’s really quite taxing on the body). And did I mention the low salary that these affluent middle-class kids would be getting. They apparently don’t actually need the money, but the company has a preference for such people, despite the lower and working class students actually needing these jobs. So the question remains, why do young affluent people who don’t need the money so much, do this hard work?

The answer is that that’s where their friends are. It’s a social atmosphere for them. They say that they are needed there, unlike in our classrooms. This morning it rang particularly true, when in one such franchise café the staff seemed genuinely happy about their lot in life. They didn’t give me an airline hostess type of smile, but a genuine one. They had energy, and they happily coordinated with each other. They seemed to enjoy their jobs. I’ve had a sense that I’ve been competing against part-time work in my classes, and I think I’ve started to find a winning formula, but I have never really understood why it would be a winning formula. I’ve learnt to make my classes a social atmosphere, and include more pair and group work. And in a Scott Thornbury way of thinking, value the students themselves and their personal contributions to the class. It’s actually quite simple. I get them to do just five minutes of small talk at the start of each lesson. I give them some prompts, some structure, and some ideas of answers and how to proceed with extended answers. I also have students to think about and engage with social issues that they, as future leaders of society, would need to be engaging with. So now, I have a much better idea of what’s happening, why, and so now I can fine tune my approach. What is needed though is specific research here in Japan with our students. However, I wonder if this affects everyone in Japan and other countries, too.

Weather: Sunny today!

It’s going to be Sunny in Nagoya today, with a high of 11°C and a low of 1°C, and it’s currently 7°C. Today’s humidity will be 76%, and the UV index will be 0.0, with Northwest wind at 48km/h. Sunrise on March 14, 2014 at 06:05AM and sunset will be at March 14, 2014 at 05:58PM. Enjoy your day.

This report was automatically generated at 6.45am (+9GMT) from IFTTT. For more information see the Japan Meteorlogical Agency website.

Experimenting with weather

I’m a busy person, and we all need information. This is an information venue, so let’s add a little automation. In the next few days I’ll try coupling this blog and twitter with daily weather reports that will be automatically generated. I’m sure it’s not going to go so well at first, so this will be an experiment. The results will be published here and on twitter, and the aim is to find what works best, where. So, it’ll seem like a sudden burst of weather info, but it’s just for a few days. I hope the end result will be useful especially for my students.

Meteorologists preparing to launch a weather balloon.
Meteorologists preparing to launch a weather balloon. Creative Commons licensed from

5 Things every new teacher needs to know

Unless you’ve just emerged from the cave, or live in other parts of the internet, you’ll know that Buzzfeed loves numbered lists. There are social marketers on the internet who do research on what attracts our attention, and weirdly, people love numbered lists. Of course, new teachers need to know more than just five things, so other than knowing how to unjam a photocopier is and learning where the toilets are, here is a short list. I’ll do more in the future.

1. Be flexible

Life happens, and nobody is a robot. We don’t live in Toyota production lines, and nothing important in life happens according to a schedule. Just go with the flow. If your boss says to you, “I’m sorry I forgot to tell you, there’s a free-talking class and there are eight students. You’ll use this textbook, and it begins in ten minutes”, don’t freak out. Bosses are people who are busy, they have many things going on around them, and they have to deal with a lot of things to deal with. Be tolerant and get on with the job you’re paid to do. I’ve found that some of my favourite ideas occurred when I just had to wing it. I’m not saying my best teaching ideas always came spontaneously in class, but when under pressure, you discover new things. For instance, many, many years ago I discovered that students can just talk. No book, papers, whiteboard, twitter, or topic required. Put them in pairs, demo a small talk situation, and get them to get on with it. Change partners after a few minutes, and repeat. If they finish early, tell them “What?! Do you have such short conversations with your friends at lunch?!!! You must be the boring friend. Ask more questions!” Encourage them to really communicate, beyond what the textbook has trained into them.


2. Smile

A smile goes a long way in smoothing over difficulties. It shows you have patience, and that in the greater scheme of things, it’s not a dire situation; nobody’s going to die. It’s truly the best way of dealing with unexpected things. Also, be nice to the school admin; they’re the ones who build and defend your reputation behind your back. They’re usually under pressure and have a difficult job of it, too. So just be nice to your fellow humans.

A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from
A teacher and student laughing. Creative Commons licensed image from


3. Inspire

Honestly, I hate textbooks. I’ll admit I used them like a crutch when I began teaching, but they are soooooo dry. Textbooks are designed to look great, they have wonderful pictures and great page layout designs, but the actual content isn’t so hot. The topics avoid offending anyone from any culture, and so taboo topics, and other non-mainstream topics are avoided. So, issues like race, human rights, sexual orientations, love, death, and others are never addressed, including key vocabulary and language students might need to deal with related issues. For instance, Japanese students looooooove food. It’s like it’s legally mandated that all Japanese TV channels show 23 hours of people eating food. Yet, when I ask my students what food they like, they reply with “I like お好み焼き”. Who outside of Japan would have a clue what this is? Students should not be trained into an insular belief I see affecting so many. Students and teachers don’t believe they need English, and think that words like shnkansen, kyoumuka, takoyaki, genki, and others can legitimately be used in “English”. Students need to see what real English looks like, and that there is a plethora of ideas out there, that doesn’t exist here in Japan. I’ll admit this is a very Japan-centric post, but I haven’t seen such a mentality when I was in Korea or Taiwan. So, use the internet, and show your students that there’s a huge, huge repository of information and ideas in English, on the internet. There really is much, much more information on the internet in English, than in Japanese. So, inspire them to take full advantage of being bilingual by spending maybe just five to ten minutes a lesson on inspirational things you or they find on the net. Get them to guess what inspirational quotes mean, they’ll use their dictionaries, and learn a new way of thinking about life. You also get to explain some culture specific background that textbooks completely avoid, too. There’s thousands of these pictures being shared on Google+ and Twitter.

Inspire your students to learn new ideas and ways of thinking from English-language inspirational quotes from the net.
Inspire your students to learn new ideas and ways of thinking from English-language inspirational quotes from the net.


 4. Give your students time to think and talk

Some teachers forget that they just need to let go. I’ve seen teachers talk to each student one at a time. If there are nine students, eight students are bored out of their brains waiting for their turn, and the speaking to listening ratio is 10% and 90%. If you have students working in pairs, then the speaking & listening ratio in the lesson is something like 45% & 55% (including 5% is you giving instructions and demos). It’s important to set up a talking or conversation activity, and say, “off you go”. Students will be quiet for a moment. In that time they’re thinking about what they need to do and their first words, and they’ll get started. If not, perhaps you didn’t demonstrate or set up the activity well enough, the level of the activity is too high, or some other problem. The other thing to consider is is that if the room is deathly silent, no one will want to be the first to break that silence. You could consider having the window open to allow the white noise of the traffic to provide some masking noise for the first speakers, or have some classical music playing quietly in the room.

The ideal ratio of language classroom interactions.
The ideal ratio of language classroom interactions, especially for conversation, communication, and free talking classes. To achieve this, have your students talk to each other in pairs.


5. Why not play music in class?

Depending on the class, I’ll play classical music or jazz with no lyrics in a class. Music is beneficial for many reasons. For most people, playing music while studying organises their thoughts and allows them to focus. It also provides a masking noise, so for shy classes, it is easier for the first person to start speaking, and the rest of the class will follow. Depends on the students, it can become an impetus to talking about music and related topics, which is perfect for conversation / communication classes.

Play music in the background of your classes.
Play music in the background of your classes. Not all classes, it depends on the group. Creative Commons license Vasta, at

If you could add a few more things to the list, what would they be?

Listening and Reading Vocabulary at JALT

In less than two weeks my research partner and I will be presenting at the next Japan Associaton of Language Teacher’s annual conference. The topic is Japanese EFL Students’ Listening and Reading Vocabulary, and follow the link for details of time and place. As far as we can tell, we are the first to find a way to directly measure the difference between the lexical access Japanese students have in both visual and aural domains; and there does appear to be a difference. This is a pilot study, and so we are looking forward to hearing from the audience their views about it. So far, we are planning to expand the project and tweek it for another run in  April and later years, too… tbc.

Teaching Listening

I’m glad that I’m able to get out and share my message of “New Ways of Teaching Listening” with people. The JALT2012 conference last year was a short presentation, but allowed me to connect with people. On Saturday the 20th July I presented at Gifu JALT, and this time I had time to more fully explain where I’m coming from. For many teachers in ELT, teaching listening is giving students comprehension questions, playing a CD, and then checking the answers; this is not teaching listening, but testing it. So I feel I’ve become a kind of evangelist for both finding ways to actually teach listening, and then sharing the reasons why. As for the how, that’s slow coming. I don’t want to say too much on what I think is good, our industry had too much of that in the past, but instead I try to be evidence-driven: sharing ideas that have some evidence of positive effect on students. Thanks to Gifu JALT for gaving me the opportunity to start to share that message, the presentation wasn’t as smooth as I’d like it to have been, but it was valuable practice.

New Ways of Teaching Listening icon
New Ways of Teaching Listening

The Teaching Listening web page includes two PowerPoint presentations (in pdf form), audio recordings of the presentation (hosted on SoundCloud), and some resources that can be deployed by teachers on Monday morning. I hope to repeat (and refine) this presentation in the future, so the page is in a state of perpetual “under construction“.

Ethics, privacy, and respect

I think many people have many ‘ah-ha!’ moments in a week. A tweet from Australia’s ABC news with this big data story prompted a little ‘ah-ha! moment’. It’s about big data and the companies that wish to cash in on this. At the moment in Japan, the US, and apparently most African countries, it’s ok for them to sell their customer data to anyone who has the money to buy it.

Many Japanese learnt last night on NHK News that the IC card they use to pay for train fares, the East JR Suica card, has been collecting all manner of customer data including station they board and alight from, vending machine purchases and demographic details, and that data has already been sold on to at least one major company, and is now available for even small businesses to exploit. So Suica card users pay for their card use, and are also products that East JR can make more money from. That is to say, customers are a commodity.

Electronic ticket barriers at a Japanese train station
Electronic ticket barriers at a Japanese train station

FaceBook famously sells their customer data on to even political parties. In the hands of a belligerent extremist party, raises serious ethical issues.

Even though NHK assured Japanese people that Suica customer data is divorced of people’s names, they failed to mention that Japanese companies has a bad reputation for data security. Especially in light of Sony and Nintendo data breaches that have risked credit card information (Computer Weekly, Engadget, and Japan Times). Furthermore, the UFJ Bank has had one of its employees sell, for a personal profit, customer credit card information to gangsters (I can’t find the original story, but here’s another, Data Breaches).

In Taiwan and Korea, they say the ‘customer is king’, or that customers are very prized and ought to be treated with equal respect. However, selling customer data breaches this notion, especially when customers are not 1. Forewarned, 2. Have no opt out option, 3. Informed after the fact, 4. Have the option of buying a single trip tickets at least twice a day (often much more) and no other privacy respecting option.

The ABC story cited above shows that Australia has very strict regulation and respect for people. In contrast the US and Japanese companies and politicians view customers as yet another commodity. I hate to think that someone is making money off of my existence and I don’t have the right to monetize it myself, or I don’t have the right to earn royalties, or I don’t have the option of opting out.


FAB4 (First Annual Brain Day), 2013

The First Annual Brain Day Fourth Annual Conference (FAB4) was good. Robert Murphy stated, rekindled, talked on a number of important info that teachers should know about teaching. Teaching, including ELT, involves humans, and humans are incredibly social animals. That is to say, our students are not robots, and “teaching” is not done best when you teach at students, but when you involve them. Humans have brains and bodies that have limitations. So we can’t be sitting students in chairs for 90minutes and expect them to keep still, silent, and ‘record’ information like a tape recorder. The body needs movement, the brain needs interesting stimulation, and humans need interaction. Marc Helgesen’s morning plenary nicely encapsulated how teachers can do these thing to make learning much more efficient.

Leslie Ito explained about the many, myths Japanese parents unfortunately believe in, which can have serious consequences for children. Basically, don’t stress the child, let the child have fun, and enjoy life. Developing bilinguals is not difficult, just get good advice and information.

There were many great presentations, more than what can be reported here. However there’s one more of note, Japanese EFL Students Listening an Reading Vocabulary, presented by Yoko and I. Details on the Listening & Reading Vocabulary page here. In short, students need far more experience and opportunities in listening to English.

Finally this little guy. He was abandoned and discovered by a conference delegate the day before, and is lucky enough to be taken care of, and we were lucky to have him chirping happily during the presentations. It’s great to know that there are people who will take care of even the smallest of us. Although its a little disconcerting that he is being kept in a food try in a cake box.

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Teaching & researching EFL listening in Japan