Digital is Ecological

Written by Bob Cole, Digital Learning Commons

The reader is encouraged to look up a lithograph of Maurits [Cornelis] Escher called “Three Worlds.” This depicts the surface of a body of water upon which leaves float. Above the surface, we see reflected in the water the sky and trees. Below the surface we can just make out a big catfish. – Leo vanLier, 2010*

Naoko Matsuo, Assistant Professor of Japanese here at the Institute in Monterey and I recently web conferenced with Jeremy Dean, Education Director for the open source digital annotation platform, to talk about language learning, digital tools, and pedagogy. Naoko and I have been collaborating as a follow up to an excellent digital reading and social annotation workshop co-facilitated by Jeremy and Middlebury instructional designer Sean Michael Morris. Our conversation with Jeremy was an opportunity to share findings from our teacher – technologist partnership, offer feedback, and ask questions.

Naoko and I recounted how we had met to discuss what she hoped to accomplish this term. Her Japanese Studies course, JALA 8392 “Current Topics Up Close”, helps students bridge the gap between high 300-level (Advanced Low) and low 400-level (Advanced Mid) with a focus on engaging with authentic materials from Japanese sources so that they are comfortable at the more advanced 400 level. Naoko explained, “…the students have studied the language for three or four years. They are advanced level and they have no problem with the day to day interactions and conversation, but when the topic is more specific such as current international events, they often need the vocabulary, precision, and structure to help them express their thoughts and opinions in a cohesive and coherent way.” Her course description states, “…students will choose an aspect of current Japanese society including politics, business, or international relations between Japan and its neighboring countries and conduct background research on the topic prior to coming to class. Students will be given the opportunity to lead the class on their chosen topic, view relevant media, and facilitate the class discussion.” As a former ESL teacher myself, I appreciated her desire to cultivate student autonomy. One of her main goals is to shift students’ relationship with the language from decoding/forced listening to intentional reading and listening for the purposes of getting new information, for excitement and pleasure, and ultimately for the joy of communicating new insights with others. With Naoko’s guidance and feedback, students develop their capacity to research their academic interests in the language while supporting one another’s linguistic development.

In previous iterations Naoko managed course resources (e.g. readings, links to Japanese websites and media, and discussion forums for student initiated projects) in Moodle.  With the start of the new term we agreed on a plan to, as she described, “lightly introduce” social annotation technology to her students. It would be an informal trial, a no strings attached exploration, and perhaps a useful alternative to the familiar and somewhat predictable post and reply interactions that grow out of the LMS discussion forum.

As the semester has developed, Naoko reports that she has seen that with digital annotation, a multimodal interaction begins to form right in the margins of a selected text. Searchable, taggable, and shareable hypertext annotations of words, phrases, or entire sentences can be shared with group members. The digital in this case affords what Leo vanLier describes in his writing about ecology and language learning a dynamic “layered simultaneity”. A group’s annotations offer evidence of active learning patterns like noticing, negotiating meaning, curiosity, and social interaction that are so important in successful language acquisition. This relational and multi-layered quality of learners’ voices, vanLier suggested, creates a unique potential for learning (an affordance). The learning environment is enriched by diversifying the types of possible interactions beyond teacher prepared reading materials, vocabulary lists and comprehension questions. Here’s what it looks like in Naoko’s class: The semester is not yet over and Naoko and I continue to check-in with one another on how students are reacting and engaging with social annotation as a learning practice.  Naoko reports some interesting changes since the course began in the attitudes of her students use of the new technology and their engagement in new methods. Since my first visit to class we’ve continued to troubleshoot technological issues, but what I’ve especially appreciated is the times we’ve been able to talk collegially about her class. In a recent conversation Naoko said, “We can’t ignore the digital, students are using it. As a teacher, you don’t know what you don’t know, and we have a tendency to teach in the same old way that we’ve been teaching. Trying to bring new ideas into the classroom is exciting, but not easy. It’s time consuming and we are uncertain of the outcome or students’ reaction.” When we talk about what she is noticing about her students, she registers some excitement and surprise about the social aspects of reading. She says, “I think it’s emerging but not in a really obvious way…it’s something I hope to inquire about when the class comes to an end…”

Until recently, I would not have thought twice about M.C. Escher but for the popular works I’ve seen from time to time in bookstore merchandise depicting a mind bending house of circular staircases, fish mathematically tessellating into birds, or the infinite loop of a pair of hands drawn in the act of co-creating themselves. I stumbled upon Escher’s “Three Worlds” with Jeremy Dean after our discussion with Naoko. I had been reminded of how Leo spoke and wrote about the dynamism of language, learning, and the possibilities of computer mediated interaction, and shared his article with Jeremy. Jeremy turned it into an annotatable text and it came to life in the margins bringing new perspectives and connections to the surface. I recently emailed Jeremy to express how much I enjoyed re-discovering Leo’s ecological perspective on language learning, as if he were present with us reflected in the text. I still haven’t met Jeremy in person, and I know Naoko and I miss Leo. Perhaps that’s one of the best promises of the digital: to explore worlds and perspectives together no matter where we might be in space and time.


*Van Lier, L. (2010). The ecology of language learning: Practice to theory, theory to practice. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 3, 2-6. Accessed April 14, 2017 Featured Image: “Ghosts of the Reflection” Jonas Wisser CC by sa 2.0: