Modular Courses for Linguistics

In 2008 I was contacted by a professor who wanted to be able to share various linguistics exercises with fellow professors. He asked for a website to be build so that if a professor were to translate the directions of these exercises that they could in turn put these translated versions back into the “set of exercises”. While in principal this sounds really easy it was in fact rather difficult to get this particular professor to agree on what the role and responsibility levels of website users would be, and also how the various exercises would be categorized or visually navigated toEmphasizing my believe that linguists really do not want to be computer system designers they really want to be computer system users.. So, the project never went anywhere. However, this does no mean that the field of education and computer distribution of content has been silent in the last few years.

In fact I have encountered several very interesting projects which attempt to share curriculum content on various topics. These projects allow professors to revise “text books” and allow students to download “text books” as PDFs or .ebups or to print-on-demand text books. The course content is modular and because there is a community around the curriculum the text are rapidly updated to reflect the current findings in the respective fields of study. I can remember as I was taking my Phonology II course at GIAL with Steve Parker [SIL Bibliography] [CV Page at GIAL]. Steve’s class is partially an overview of the history of phonological theory development and partially an introduction to Optimality theory. He uses several journal articles, some of his own materials and two text books: Phonology in Generative Grammar by Michael Kenstowicz [1] Michael Kenstowicz. 1993. Phonology in Generative Grammar. Wiley-Blackwell. [Link] and Optimality Theory by René Kager [2] René Kager. 1999. Optimality Theory. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. [Link] . The problems that course heads face is that great text books like these become outdated over time and the most relevant theory becomes chronicled in journals and in blog posts. This challenge was acknowledged by Steve as I talked to him after the course and suggested that he work with Kenstowicz and with Wiley to edit a revision and update to the textbook.

As I was saying there are several efforts already underway in other disciplines trying to share and update course content. The following TED talk by Richard Baraniuk introduces a website called Connexions.

The Connexions model of knowledge sharing differs in from the Pennsylvania State University open course sharing model in that it is build on small chunks; more like the wikipeida text books model. The PennState model is more about sharing entire courses. Other models of sharing courses involve video and audio which schools like MIT implement. A growing number of Universities are also making their course recordings available through iTunes U, a way for course participants to download, interact and experience courses through iTunes and the iPad mediums.

The ability (of Shutouts – as Richard Baraniuk calls them or Mother-Tongue Educators as SIL International calls them) to harness this kind of power in the 21st century depends often having the knowledge that these resources exist and sometimes how to use themTwo helpful sites for listing Open Education Resources are:

  1. A list of Institutions which participate in OpenCourseWare and arelisted at the OpenCourseWare consortium website.
  2. A page on the Creative Commons Website listing links to Open Educational Resources.

Russell Hugo, fellow presenter at a CRASSH conference in Cambridge this summer is involved in creating and deploying a system at the University of Washington for supporting indigenous language learning programs. UW’s system has been largely inspired by inspired or directed by successes they have had in supporting a few language programs on campus with online course development and collaboration on the course content. Russell noted to me that in order for full courses to be well supplied that course content must be used by a crucial mass of teaching staff. – A course taught every quarter by a variety of rotating staff develops a lot faster than a single course, taught once or twice by one or two people. I think this is also where the power of smaller components comes in, because components can be used in more than one course. – but it is also a philosophy of the educators involved too – that is do they see themselves as contributing to society by creating open education content.

As educational content becomes more rampant on the web, metadata descriptions of content like the Learning Resource Metadata Initiative become increasingly important. LRMI is a collaboration between search engine giants behind, the Association of Educational Publishers and the Creative Commons group. LRMI adds metadata at several crucial points to help define courses and course content. The LRMI workgroup even has a metadata tagger application to help “curators” walk through the application of this metadata. In some respects this is very much like RAMP [3]Jeremy Nordmoe. 2011. Introducing RAMP: an application for packaging metadata and resources offline for submission to an institutional repository. In Proceedings of Workshop on Language Documentation … Continue reading , a tool SIL International has developed to apply metadata to digital objects before submission to its archive. The one thing that I do not see in the LRMI schema is how to add Project GOLD or ISO 639-3 metadata (which would use pre-defined linguistics terms and language identifiers from a set ontologies) to the subject of learning course elements. This kind of metadata would need to be set by the course authors or the course users for maximum accuracy. (The reason I do not see how to do it is because I have not looked, not because there is some known fault in the LRMI schema.)



1 Michael Kenstowicz. 1993. Phonology in Generative Grammar. Wiley-Blackwell. [Link]
2 René Kager. 1999. Optimality Theory. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. [Link]
3 Jeremy Nordmoe. 2011. Introducing RAMP: an application for packaging metadata and resources offline for submission to an institutional repository. In Proceedings of Workshop on Language Documentation & Archiving 18 November 2011 at SOAS, London. Edited by: David Nathan. p. 27-32. [Preprint PDF]

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