The more we get together, the happier we’ll be

The UK-style phd program can lead to an isolating experience with the phd student engaged in solo acts of reading and writing. Having study groups may fill that lonely gap, but how can this be done?

Oh, the more we get together,
Together, together,
Oh, the more we get together,
The happier we’ll be.

For your friends are my friends,
And my friends are your friends.
Oh, the more we get together,
The happier we’ll be!

Being isolated is a common perception of phd studies and it is not an exaggerated one. The UK-style phd program as it is here in New Zealand, does not have any formally taught courses as you would expect in the first two years in a US doctoral program. Learning about theories, concepts, and various other topics is primarily through copious amount of reading. And how does one read? Well, alone, as I’ve experienced. How often would other phd students you personally know be reading the same book or article or even related articles? Not often at all! And if you did find them, would they be interested in discussing the readings? Would they be forthcoming in their interpretations and application of what they’ve read? Of course I would like the answers to those questions to be a resounding yes but I’ve yet to find like-minded individuals who are in the same stage as I am, exploring the same area as I am, to be able to test this notion of study group.


I wonder if self-formed study groups would materialise in the absence of taught classes. I wonder if serendipity would link the right people at the right time to be in the right mood to learn together. I wonder if others feel the same way I do about how learning together is better than learning alone, that two heads are better than one, and that the sociocultural theory of learning is a power in theory as it is in practice.

My Master of Arts in Teaching experience at USC was premised on sociocultural learning. Every course had a compulsory study group component which required members to jointly prepare and present on topics, work on assignments, and in several instances, record the online video conferencing meetings that the group had and send the link to the professor. And we knew the professors watched them because some of them made references to them during our lectures! Peer evaluation among study group members was common and it was important to choose members who had similar levels of commitment toward their studies.

My schooling experience had little group work and the majority of assignments were individually carried out and graded by the teacher. Study groups comprised friends you studied with before exams. So having my Masters program hinged on the success of my study groups was at first disconcerting, but later as I became more comfortable with the idea, and more importantly, had found a group of dependable and hardworking classmates to form groups with, I realised how much less I would have learnt had I not been in study groups.

Four months into my phd studies, I’m reading much more than I ever have, but I wonder if I’m learning just as much. Writing helps to clarify my thinking, chatting with others helps with bits of thinking here and there, but I’m missing the focused and purposeful discussions around common topics from the study group experience I had.

I’ve heard that there are groups at the Faculty of Education that meet monthly to discuss various topics and I’d be keen to find out more. But I think more formally organised groups with specific goals, e.g. jointly present on qualitative methods, would generate high quality discussion and academic work that could benefit the faculty’s phd community.

The phd may appear to be a singular endeavour but it is really the harnessing of multiple resources and the support of others that enable this intellectual pursuit to see fruition.

Are MOOCs the future of learning?

Are MOOCs the future of learning?

With the ongoing discussion of whether MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) is the next revolution in education, I decided to embark on a MOOC myself. My first experience with online courses was not Massive nor Open. It was with the Master of Arts in Teaching program with USC. It was a full-fledged master program conducted via video conferencing which meant real-time interaction with professors and classmates. Having thrived in such an environment, I look to MOOCs with great expectations of lifelong learning without a hefty price tag or any price at all if possible.

My first experience with MOOCs was a shaky one. I can’t really say I fully experienced it since I was never fully engaged with the course. There was one course I did with Open2Study and another with Coursera. Both courses were related to learning and education but somehow there was too much going on in my life in the time I was supposed to complete it. The Open2Study course was conducted at a pace which required almost daily attention that I quickly abandoned it altogether. The pace of the Coursera course was much better but I still couldn’t keep up with the myriad of activities that were going on and felt pretty much a non-student. Without a concerted effort and a “studying” frame of mind, those two MOOCs amounted to a faint memory of videos and catchphrases.

Still hoping for a better outcome with MOOC, I recently enrolled for a Coursera course, History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, offered by Duke University and am now in the fourth week of the six-week course. This time I was more prepared to set aside some time to do the course. The first week, however, went by in the flash and I only caught up with the video lectures in the second week.

What got me hooked was the high quality video production with a friendly and engaging presenter  (Professor Cathy N. Davidson) and useful presentation pointers appearing from the side. It a short period of 10 to 15 minutes, I learned important concepts and got thinking about the implication of technology in education. The videos were stimulating enough for me to anticipate the following week’s materials.

One of the tools used in the course is forums which drive a socially-connected and engaging form of learning. I was not, however, particularly drawn to the forums because I am inundated enough with articles, debates and discussion on Twitter (my daily feed of news and trends). Furthermore, as a non-fee-paying student, I am just not as motivated to devote time and energy to share and exchange ideas with strangers, even if it means learning new things.

Professor Cathy Davidson reviewing guiding principles of the course

To me, the outcome of watching the videos was immediate knowledge. I could watch the videos anytime and in between tasks and gained a lot from a relative short span of focused attention. Forums, on the other hand, required more thoughtful and time-consuming contribution which had a less obvious reward. There was no tangible carrot nor stick to motivate the more socially engaging aspect of the course. I am a full-time working mother with three young children, and this makes me evaluate how worthwhile any pursuit is on an ongoing basis.

 Modes of learning aside, let me move on to what I have been learning so far: 1) We’re teaching like it’s 1992; 2) We need to teach for the future; and 3) Our conception of reality is created through the filter of our own mind and perception.

Pen & paper | Flickr: Loops San

Technology and communication practices have evolved since 1993 but education seems to be largely stuck in the days of pen and paper, individual summative assessments and the like.

1) We’re teaching like it’s 1992.

The significance of 1992 was lost on me until I learnt that the Internet was opened to the world on April 22, 1993. Since then, anyone with an internet connection could communicate with one another, expressing what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted. Technology and communication practices have evolved since 1993 but education seems to be largely stuck in the days of pen and paper, individual summative assessments and the like.

Personally, I find this to be true in Singapore. National examinations are in the traditional vein of individual summative assessment of the highest order, to the extent of determining your lot in life (whether perceived or real). In post-secondary institutions, however, coursework is more prevalent, especially at the polytechnic. There is a mix of individual and group assignments, some more collaborative than others, but not quite exploiting the full potential of our current technologies.

One reason behind this phenomenon of teaching like it’s 1992 is the fact that educators have grown up in the world pre-1993 and were schooled through and through in the ways and sensibilities of the time before the Internet. I certainly was. Some are looking forward to the future but many are comfortable and used to the past. Whatever the arguments are for staying put and not rocking the boat, I think there are more compelling reasons to decide that we have to change and act on it.

Digital literacies | Flickr: dougbelshaw

It’s not about getting students through a course on digital literacies, it’s about practising digital literacies in and out of the classroom.

2) We need to teach for the future.

I believe that we need to teach our students digital literacies. The post-1993 generation was born into an Internet world of instant communication and gratification. Having taught such students for the past 5 years, I’m convinced that I am more digitally savvy that most of them. They may have the latest gadgets and apps, but most of the time they are too trusting of the first few Google search results, think that, in fact, Google is the originator of the information, and pay little attention to issues of privacy and ethics.

I don’t think students are mastering how to evaluate internet sources because there is a (wrong) assumption that they are naturally digitally savvy and so teachers pay scant attention to this aspect of learning. To put another perspective on this issue, if there are no grades or tangible rewards attached to being digitally literate, students will not become literate. It’s not about getting students through a course on digital literacies, it’s about practising digital literacies in and out of the classroom.

We can never teach our students enough content for the future, but we ought to teach them how to navigate the future with greater critical analytical skills.

3) Our conception of reality is created through the filter of our own mind and perception.

One major concept I learnt and find so true in all areas of my life is Immanuel Kant’s concept of how our perception of the world is filtered by our own preconceived notions and ideas. If we see our students as well-oiled machines, responsive to instructions and high in productivity, then our approach to teaching and assessment will follow suit. Standardised testing, orderliness and measurable results become drivers of education.

While I believe that such a filter is outdated today and that a new filter of creative and collaborative learners is more appropriate, I feel trapped in a factory of deadlines where incomplete or faulty products or tossed aside. Most of the teaching my own children are experiencing right now is highly segmented, time-bound, and considered a done deal by way of tests. Creativity is relegated to physical activity and art lessons or specific assignments.

True creativity and collaborative practice can only be achieved if they are part and parcel of everyday learning – something I have never experienced in my own schooling experience but a future I hope for my children and their children.

A traditional classroom | Flickr: young shanahan

A traditional classroom | Flickr: young shanahan

An online course can run like a factory if that’s the vision of the instructors. A traditional classroom can be turned into a laboratory of inquisitive minds if the teachers so wish.

So what about MOOCs?

Will MOOCs then be one of the solutions to instill creativity and collaborative practice in learning? MOOC is merely a vehicle. An online course can run like a factory if that’s the vision of the instructors. A traditional classroom can be turned into a laboratory of inquisitive minds if the teachers so wish. Granted that MOOCs has the potential of reaching out to more by using technologies that are innately collaborative in nature (e.g. forum posting, wikis, etc.), the challenge is to make use of that potential in a sustainable manner for a meaningful learning experience.

My own interaction with the current MOOC has been limited to watching video lectures so far. I have not set my mind on anything collaborative but I may if I find like-minded friends or colleagues who believe that it is a meaningful endeavour for their work or personal growth.

MOOCs can roll out its bells and whistles, but the choice is up to us to ride along with the revolution.

Hearing Bonny Norton: Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Hearing Bonny Norton - Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

UPDATED: May 1, 2014
Watch archived video

Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)

Organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR)


It was a rare opportunity to encounter Dr. Bonny Norton from the comfort and convenience of my study, while I was in Singapore, and she in Vancouver. Thanks to the web seminar organised by Global Conversations in Literacy Research (GCLR), I had the privilege to listen first hand to the pioneer of identity and language learning theory. Dr. Norton has researched and written extensively on how individuals have multiple and changing identities across time and space and how these identities influence their language learning.

I didn’t realize Dr Norton herself was an example of multiple identities. As I was hearing her speak, I couldn’t quite place her accent until she introduced herself as a scholar, a white woman in Canada, with a South African accent. The awareness and acceptance of how we have multiple roles and identities feature prominently in her writing. As she explained in the seminar, having multiple identities empowers learners, instead of restricting them to choosing one identity over the other. For Dr. Norton, that meant that she didn’t have to choose being Canadian over South African.

In the seminar, Dr. Norton focused on her work in Uganda where she and her colleagues  introduced digital literacies to teachers and students. The two technological tools they used were the camera and eGranary, literally, the internet in a box filled with millions of digital resources (e.g. wikipedia, educational websites, multimedia documents). With limited infrastructure and access to the Internet and even electricity, students and teachers seized the opportunities to use these newly discovered tools to become better learners, become more respected, and have more power over their learning.

Nonetheless, the limitation of having few cameras and a single computer in a classroom of over a hundred students continue to present obstacles to empowering each and every student. The challenge to overcome poverty and (im)possibilities continues.

Apart from sharing her work in Uganda, Dr. Norton also responded to a few questions from the audience. I asked about how we can create classroom conditions to foster greater investment among students. While much depends on the classroom context including culture and class size, Dr. Norton suggested two strategies:

#1 Students become ethnographers in their communities.

Students write in journals about their experiences in their day-to-day lives in their communities, and share with fellow classmates in the classroom. Through peer sharing, students may find that their experiences are not unique and teachers find out more about their students’ lives. The key is to create a sense of community in the classroom, making the classroom a vibrant place where the teacher helps to develop meaningful relationships among students.

#2 Students speak from positions of strength.

For quiet students who do not participate, teachers can identify their strengths in other areas such as sports or music, and structure classroom activities so their talents come to the fore. By doing so, the student’s identity shifts from being the quiet student to becoming the music virtuoso, for example. Other students begin to relate to that student in a different way and the student is able to speak from a position of strength, rather than weakness.

As Dr. Norton explained at the beginning of the seminar, both the student and community (of teacher and classmates) are responsible for the student’s learning. Thus literacy is a social practice, and the teacher is responsible for creating conditions for positive learner identity and greater investment in learning.

After hearing

After reading numerous research articles by Dr. Norton, as well as others who have based their research on her theories, the personal encounter with Dr. Norton herself  (albeit mediated by one-way video conferencing) has helped me connect the dots. The theory comes alive when the author articulates it and I look forward to many more of these web seminars which build bridges across continents and time zones.

Not just another App: 4pics1word for English Learners

Not just another app - 4pics1word for English Learners

Apart from making your waiting (or waking) time less monotonous, 4pics1word is also a great vocabulary game.

4pics1word – Four pictures with one word in common

People around me are hooked on this game – the office lady on the train, someone in the checkout line, my colleague, my boss. The addictive word game available on both iPhone and Android appears simple but forces you to think out of the box (or the four boxes for that matter) to figure out the answer. Apart from making your waiting (or waking) time less monotonous, 4pics1word, I have discovered, is also a great vocabulary game.

The basic form of the puzzle is identifying a common word that each of the four pictures (or part thereof) depict. It could be a noun, adjective or adverb, plain words most of the time, but trickier to guess as you move up the levels. The word association exercise teases your mind, making you wonder whether you’ve lost all common sense, but is also a vocabulary builder in disguise, whether you admit it or not.

For English language learners, this game teaches collocation, synonyms, antonyms, word parts, and lots of brainstorming on the go. Here are some suggestions of how to use the game in a teaching context.

#1 Just play it

Learners can be introduced to the app and they can figure out the mechanism of the puzzles on their own. More likely, however, they will grab friends (and very soon, innocent bystanders) to ask them to help them solve the puzzle. The nature of the game cultivates a competitive (or self-improvement) spirit and the desire to outwit a bunch of pictures will soon have players unconsciously devouring dozens of word associations and patterns.

#2 Break the ice

Teachers can use the game as a warm-up activity and use the puzzle as a teaching point. Some puzzles may  have word associations that are too obscure or challenging for learners so explaining the reasoning behind the answer will not only help your students learn, but will also help them to be able to play the game more successfully on their own.

#3 Plan the lesson around it

Teachers can use the game as part of the lesson itself, getting students to explain how they arrived at the puzzles, asking them to keep a journal on new words and their explanations, and perhaps even getting them to compile a list of their favorite puzzles or the hardest ones to crack. Better yet, students could create their own 4pics1word puzzles for both classmates and teacher to solve.

#4 Make it an incentive

If students are already very keen to play the game, teachers could use it as an incentive and reward individuals or groups who solve the most number of puzzles and/or are able to explain their answers. So instead of just receiving virtual old coins, students can be rewarded with something more tangible.

4pics1word is a great example of turning a popular app into a teaching tool where students take to naturally and enthusiastically. While students can easily learn on their own (consciously or subconsciously) through playing the game, bringing their attention to word meanings and clarifying their doubts will help extend and improve their vocabulary.

If you have used the game in class, or if you’re an English learner and have benefitted from the game, please share your experience in the comments.

In the meantime, if you find yourself turning into an addict – skipping meals, losing sleep and ignoring crying children – do what I did – delete the app.


From Zero to Hero – How I Learned Chinese

How I Learned Chinese

I stared at the textbook in front of me, mechanically reading the Chinese characters that appeared on the page, or rather, parroting whatever the tutor said, even instructions on what I was supposed to do. At 7 years old, I started  Chinese tuition, and like many of my peers, stuck to it until I cleared the major exams.

There was no Mandarin speaking environment at home, no social circle which required any knowledge of Chinese, and no inner desire to figure out the language. Tuition was the answer and led to reasonable results for the national exams. While the exams were taken care of, my actual knowledge of Chinese was quite rudimentary. Outside of answering assessment book questions, I was clueless as how to respond to the language. When it was no longer as crucial to pass the Chinese exam, I did away with tuition and my incompetence in the language was further exposed.

The worst period of studying Chinese was in junior college. After getting a B3 for Chinese at O Levels, I did away with tuition; I no longer had a crutch. My foundation in Chinese was so weak I had to attend remedial lessons, all in the hope of salvaging whatever was left in this near empty vessel in the hope of passing the exam. I eventually passed the written exam, but failed the spoken component.

The story of my life learning Chinese culminated in that excruciatingly painful 15 minutes or so where I was assessed on my ability to speak Mandarin. There were two parts to the spoken assessment: one, reading a passage and answering questions, and two, conversing on a topic chosen by the examiner. For part one, I could hardly read the passage set in front of me. The exam strategy of reading whichever part of the character I recognized if I didn’t know how to read the whole character, or skipping the character altogether, blew up in my face as I applied the principle to probably most of the key words that made up the meaning of the passage. I have little recollection of what happened in the Q&A – but probably nothing much since I didn’t understand most of the words.

Part two would seem easier since I only had to speak. Alas, it was not to be. The topic seemed fairly easy to handle – ECAs or extra curricular activities. Except that my ECA was Writer’s Circle – a group of us would contribute poems and short stories to a quarterly in-house publication. What was so difficult about that, you might ask. First, I translated ‘Writer’s Circle’ as literally as I could since I knew no other way.  The examiners looked puzzled and asked what I did in that ECA. In as brief a phrase I could muster, I said, “Write poems.” As luck would have it, my anglicized pronunciation of Mandarin made ‘poems’ (shi) sound like ‘eat’ (chi). Another wave of puzzled looks led to the next question, “Eat? What do you eat?” I repeated ‘shi’ several times, finally blurting out in perfectly crisp English: “Poems, I write poems!”

The next exchange I had with the examiner got personal. “Are you a Canadian?” she asked, “Your pronunciation is strange.” “No! I am Singaporean!” I proudly exclaimed. (When I relate this story to my friends, they remarked that I should have just played along and pretended I was a foreigner with a bad accent. Maybe I would have gained sympathy marks.)


My formal Chinese learning ended in humiliation. My actual Chinese education, however, started when I realized people around me at university were using Mandarin in their day-to-day conversations. I was finally in an environment where the Chinese language was being used in authentic manner! Or perhaps, I was finally in a more realistic representation of society at large?

I decided to improve my Chinese. I listened to Mandarin pop songs. My favourite singer was (and still is) Winnie Hsin (or Hsin Hsiao Chi) from Taiwan. I bought almost all her albums, read the lyrics as I listened to the songs, and soaked in the MTVs. Apart from taking up a hobby, I got out of my comfort zone. I switched from the English service to the Mandarin service in church. But the one thing that decidedly turned me from English speaking, Western cultured to Mandarin speaking and pseudo-Sinophile was living in China.

After getting my CELTA, I got a job teaching English in China and I was there for about two years. In no time at all, I was using Mandarin for most of my daily activities and that got me comfortable and more proficient in using the language. My recognition of Chinese characters improved as well but only as much as it helped me in getting from point A to point B and figuring out how to read food labels. Writing was still a challenge and never really improved since I never had to correspond in that manner. But certainly, listening and speaking the Chinese language notched up several levels and since I came back from China several years ago, I’m still as comfortable with the language.

Not by campaign but by immersion (Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore, circa 1990)
Not by campaign but by immersion
(Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore, circa 1990)

The moral of the story? Language immersion seems the way to go in learning a language. Learning is not forced since it becomes necessary for you to learn the language for survival! When I apply this to my own teaching, in particular for ESL/EFL, I make it a point not to use the student’s native language as a reference point unless it’s absolutely crucial. When the teaching / learning environment forces students to use the language form beginning to end, however uncomfortable it is, it slowly conditions them to think and speak in the language.

It’s kind of like being thrown into the deep end of the pool – sink or swim! Most of us won’t allow ourselves to sink. At the very least we will try to keep our heads above water.


Image credits (in order of images):
Flickr: Learning Chinese by nik (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Flickr: FAIL STAMP by Nima Badiey (CC BY 2.0)
Flickr: Speak Mandarin Campaign by chinnian (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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