Saturday, August 09, 2014

When did metadata become something men thought they knew more about?

[Just a heads up that this post has very little to do with language teaching and learning or e-learning :-) ]

A story in the news this week on ‘metadata’, followed by a program on the radio about 'women coders' reminded me of how far we still have to go with some gender equity issues.

The first was the Australian government's proposal to change the policy on the retention of communication data (see Infographic: Metadata and data retention explained and Attorney-General George Brandis struggles to explain Government's metadata proposal).

The second was this week’s episode of Download This Show on ABC Radio National
Data Retention, women coders, second Second Life? , which discussed the government's proposed scheme, and also a story on encouraging women into software development.

Years ago when I was consulting on a project to develop a portal for government information, one of the things I was responsible for was ‘metadata’.  This was probably the first time I had heard the term, but from what I read about it, it seemed to be the stuff I’d been doing for years as a librarian, but with a specifically IT focus.  I went along to a government workshop on metadata to find out more, and was surprised to find that most of the workshop participants were information ‘technology’ people and not information ‘management’ people.  During the workshop introduction, most of the questions thrown out to the group were answered by either myself or the only other woman there (amongst about 30-40 men), who also turned out to be a librarian.  When it came to the practical session, we all had to share computers.  The blokey-bloke I was paired with, who had until then been hogging the computer, pushed the keyboard across to me and said, “You can do this as it’s obviously librarian’s work”. I am absolutely sure this was intended in a very derogatory way, as in “this is obviously women’s work”, as he and most of the other blokes had mostly lost interest once the group had determined that metadata wasn’t some sexy new IT thing but the stuff that librarians had been doing for years!  I just as quickly slid the keyboard back to him saying, “On the contrary, this is something you need to learn!”  I’m pretty sure that most of those blokes learnt nothing and went back to their offices and decided that some lesser beings (women/librarians/women librarians?) should be doing all the metadata stuff while they focused on something more fitting to their superior skills.

Long before I was in this consulting job, I had worked as a systems analyst/computer programmer.  In my department we had 6 staff developing software (including the manager), and 3 of us were women.  This was a higher percentage of men than in my previous work as a librarian, but I don’t remember feeling it was different or unusual at the time.  I do remember getting odd, possibly sexist, comments from some of the staff at that workplace, but had at the time thought that was also possibly due to fact that I had moved from being a librarian there to the programming job.  But as I reflected on that time following the radio program this morning, I started recalling more instances that made me rethink this analysis.  I remember clearly one comment from when I went out to fix a printer (we did everything in those days IT related: installing cables, backing up the mainframe, training users in the programs we wrote, help desk, etc.) and a bloke asked if I knew what I was doing - I responded by pointing out that I’d been fixing photocopiers in the library for years, “Printer, photocopier, same difference!”  I remember another bloke expressing great surprise seeing me sitting on the floor soldering cables to connect the PC in his office.  I think I stayed quiet that time, hoping he would crawl back into his cave.  I also remember my manager returning from an IT expo and mentioning that one of the vendors had "girlies in fishnet stockings and sailor hats" handing out brochures to the (almost entirely male) customers - blech!

The radio program worried me as I would have hoped that we had moved on from this type of scenario in the intervening 20-25 years, but it seems that women and girls may not even be considering work in IT areas as an option.  I've since changed careers yet again and now work as an English language teacher, which seems to be a profession as heavily female-dominated as librarianship (at least in my workplace, but also judging by the participants at a recent conference I attended) so I haven't given this much thought for a while.

So this week I have been thinking about this and, as I asked at the beginning, "When did metadata become something men thought they knew more about?"  I almost felt sorry for the Attorney-General, except that I feel people in these roles need to make sure they are across all the issues before fronting up to the press, and should take questions on notice when they're not sure of the answers.    On the other hand, I wonder what the media coverage would have been like if the Attorney-General making the comments had been a woman?  Would she have been ridiculed further, possibly with a suggestion that it was too much to expect a woman to know about such 'technical' things?  But then there was another story this week (*) that suggests that another government minister thinks there is a place for women and that place isn't dentistry and law, and probably isn't politics either (sigh!).

I'm not sure this post even belongs on this blog it being so off-topic, but I couldn't help sharing my thoughts on this, even though I suspect no one will read them :-)

(*) Full interview here:

UPDATE: Excellent recent article on similar themes:
What India Can Teach Silicon Valley About Its Gender Problem By Vikram Chandra

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Why attend conferences if you don't want to learn?

Mike Griffin recently posted his reflections on, and apologies for, judging teachers possibly unfairly in the past in Sorry for judging on his excellent ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections blog.  His final apology under the heading 'Going to a conference but not attending sessions from others', touched a nerve in me, or probably more correctly opened a long festering sore :-)
Mike said:
Going to a conference but not attending sessions from others  
I did this a few weeks ago. Yikes. When I saw this move from a few people 5 years ago I thought it was rude, egocentric and telling. I thought it conveyed a message of, “I have learned all I need to know” and don’t need to learn from you people, but come to my session please.” Having been guilty of this sin very recently I can see there are a variety of possible reasons for this and it doesn’t necessarily imply a massive ego or disdain for others in the field.
I immediately wrote a long comment in response, which turned into this blog post of my own once I realised I'd gone beyond the bounds of comment ettiquette in terms of length and off-topicness. 

I could have written Mike's final point myself. My judgement is possibly clouded because I have met people at conferences who have made it quite clear they were there for presenting and not receiving information or even networking.

My worst personal experience of this was when I presented at one of the last sessions on the last day of a 4-day e-learning conference, when it seemed the only people left to attend one of the final sessions were colleagues or friends of the presenters or one of the other presenters in your session. Indeed, at that conference, probably less than a quarter of delegates were present on the final day, even for the morning keynote! I imagine there were "a variety of reasons" (*) why 300-400 people hadn't bothered to stay for the duration, but I did talk to a few people during the conference who said they had only come to the conference present their own paper (some even admitted they were going to present their paper then head to the beach - this was an international conference held in a small coastal city in a south-East Asian country). At this conference there was one person I had been very much looking forward to meeting, as the trials I had been conducting and was presenting on were in the same area he was working in. When I approached him after his presentation and invited him to mine, he told me he was leaving after his second presentation and didn't even show much interest in discussing what I'd been doing. He was very polite, but I certainly got the "I have learned all I need to know and don’t need to learn from you people, but come to my session please.” (*) message from him.

I had a similar earlier experience when I co-presented at a lingusitics seminar with two fellow post-graduate students on a small research project we were conducting. The person whose theory we used as the basis of our research and other academics and PhD students were our audience.  We had some very interesting early results to report on, but we were shut down quickly (I'd say 'shot down' except it may sound a little too dramatic), and the impression certainly was that they felt we weren't worth their valuable time - some of these people weren't even that polite!

I have also heard participants of conferences say they only came to the conference to present on their Masters or PhD project because they had to as one of the requirements of their program, and they had no interest in attending other sessions as they felt they weren't relevant to them.  I felt sorry for some of these people, as they seemed to have been so focused on their own narrow area of study for so long that they had forgotten about other areas of their wider subject that made them pursue study in the first place. 

Mike's post caused me to reflect on these experiences, and I realised as I was rehashing them for this comment that I'm not ready to take off my judgy pants (*) because there are people out there who attend conferences solely to deliver and not to receive.  However, I also reflected on many very positive experiences too, so I don't immediately expect the worst.  I have been to some fantastic conferences where everyone seems to be there to learn.  CamTESOL last year stands out clearly as the best example - I didn't meet any overblown egos there, but I did meet many passionate educators, including @michaelegriffin, and I'm glad I did!

What is your experience of this?  What are some of the "variety of possible reasons" for "going to a conference but not attending sessions from others" (*)?   I'd really like to know!  And I'd like people out there to know how demoralising it is for novice presenters when no one bothers turning up to your session, not because you don't have anything worth hearing, but because most of the rest of the delegates (I can't use the word 'participants') have gone to the beach!

(*) Griffin, M. (2014). Sorry for judging. ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections. 

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Extensive Reading – a summary of an #AusELT chat

EXTENSIVE READING was the chosen topic of the inaugural #AusELT slowburn on Thursday 3rd April 2014.

Unlike the usual one-hour chats, the slowburn was spread out over 12 hours. Participants were free to start and follow whatever conversations they liked on this topic. Read more about the format here:

The chat was kicked off with the question:

Q: What is the value of extensive reading?

  • It allows learners to engage with the text in a meaningful way, which the tiny reading 'bites' in coursebooks don't.
  • I'm a big fan of reading in general so if I can get my students reading in class then I'm all for it!
  • Vocabulary and the unconscious acquisition of language patterns is the biggest plus. Great, convenient exposure to L2.
  • I've done quite bit of exploration on ER with interesting results. One student said " I think in English now" ‏@Ratnavathy
This comment:
  • I think it helps if you are a reader yourself. You understand the need for choice, time, and quiet.
led to a discussion of teacher fears and obsession:
  • I also like the idea of valuing silence in classrooms. Teachers and learners shouldn't see silence as unproductive
  • One of the unintended consequences of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT): fear of silence.
  • I think we touched on this fear before in the chat on writing. Teachers must relax and allow silence to happen.
  • Also a fear of reading 'long' texts, bite-sized things are the norm.
  • It also reflects general obsession with product over process 'comprehension approach' to reading and listening 
Following a statement that, if students are given solid orientation to ER and select appropriate texts, they meet with a lot of success, the question was asked:

Q: What does a "solid orientation" to ER involve? How can we set students up to take advantage of ER?

  • Start with something they've read in their own language.
  • Absolutely need to explain how ER works. Provide research evidence and testimonials from previous students.
Another thread which emerged was around the issue of Classroom management and Scheduling for ER:

Q: At what stage in the lesson would you organise ER?  Better at the end? Or before the break?

  • Different times each day so students can't predict and avoid.
  • I questioned the teacher I observed about her choice to put it at the start. There was 20 minutes ER and the students did not want to put their books down.
  • Once a week, 15 minutes at start of class, student choice. Did it with a CMB (?) class with good student feedback

Q: Should teacher dedicate class time to silent, student-selected ER? How much? Would students complain?

  • They should. Classtime may be the only time students are in an environment which is conducive to ER
    • What is 'conducive'? Not sure lack of opportunity is the issue (bus, breaks, bedtime, bathroom)
    • Time given over to ER, quiet, expected, no judgement because everyone is doing the same thing
  • It's also a good opportunity to develop ER habits that may not have been there before
  • Drop Everything and Read - read texts of personal interest then tell the class what you read
    • Students read what peers had recommended according to their interests
    • Worked so well with reluctant readers because they chose their own texts. Over a few weeks they read a lot.

Q: Day and Bamford say that the teacher needs to be a role model … How can we do this?

  • Read and read and read and love it
  • Let students know you love reading. Read during ER time. Talk about what you read.
  • Show them you are practising what you preach in your own L2 learning
  •  “I've done ER in Japanese along with students. Share my test scores with them too. Why not?” “It's been a while but when I was studying for/taking Japanese LPT we had a kind of team thing going. And sometimes just misery loves company (or empathy if you prefer) after test day. “ @gotanda

Q: What are your views on having students read eBooks in ER time?

  • On one hand might get them reading, but would it need more policing?
  • Depends if they read naturally eBooks or not? Whatever is closest to what they do normally would work best I think

Q: How do you get love for books in English when they hate reading in their first language?

  • Not everyone likes reading even in L1. 'Reading is caught, not taught' (Nutall).
  • Ensure you're not just offering fiction. Pop science, topical writing, bios, etc. can engage where a story might not.
    • “A good mixed diet of junk food, meat and three veges and a sprinkling of quinoa.” @chimponobo
  • I remember seeing a doco where a guy gamified the reading experience with primary kids who hated readings (parents as well). He did like a reading World Cup and each student's reading contributed to team's score. By the end most were engaged. @chimponobo
    • That's a nice idea for competitive classes.
    • I saw that too. He also got students to decide what books the school bought. Mixed success was the outcome if I recall. @trylingual

Q: What are you suggestions for how students should select texts for ER?

  • Have them read 1st 100 words of book. If they don't know more than 3 words, put it back. Then see if they can answer these 2 questions: 1) Do you want to keep reading? 2) Why do you want to keep reading? @kevchanwow
  • Many people like to look at front cover, blurb, get recommendations - we can leverage this in ER programs.
  • Start with something they've read in their own language … and LOVED
  • Students chose own books.
  • Students select their own here. This seems to work well for B2 and upwards.
  • Some of our teachers do excursions to a local 2nd hand bookshop. Students always buy one book, and by choice too!

Coursebook/textbook readings didn't seem to be considered useful as part of an ER program:
  • Textbook readings often don't resemble anything from real life and not motivating to boot.
  • An 'interesting' coursebook text is still nothing like being glued to a thriller.

Q: What types of text students get interested?

  • Genre fiction, such as the thriller, follows rules our students understand, reduces need to build schema.
    • I remember doing an observation once where the teacher started with ER, and one student was completely absorbed in his copy of "Dorian Gray" @Penultimate_K
  • English as it is actually written and not how the coursebook thinks it should be. Natural language patterns.
  • Teachers can influence success of ER by recommending books that work. Not yucky graded classics. Young Adult fiction for example.
  • Graphic novels!
  • Most borrowed from our library = non-fiction. Least borrowed = graded classics (except Sherlock Holmes)
  • Movie tie-ins very popular.
  • Comic books work, but superhero stuff actually riddled with low frequency words.
    • Personally I'd rather read superhero stuff :) Do low frequency words matter less in a visually supported context?
      • Think it depends. Superhero stuff has lots of exposition without visual clues. You know monologuing. That's impenetrable.
      • Visually supported texts sometime interfere with vocabulary acquisition. Had students say, "can't remember the word, can only see the picture"
      • Interesting - at least they remember there WAS a word! Is there research on visuals interfering with word memory?
      • I was always thought visuals enhance memory. Like the usage of mnemonics
    • This was a plenary on using comic books in the classroom  @chimponobo
    • Micky Mouse goes down well.
    • Some students really loved Archie, Betty & Veronica. Longer stories better than strips. Too many idiom gags.
    • There are so many great 'comics' though. Watchmen, Walking Dead, Sandman…Am not thinking of kids, obviously...
    • Persepolis and American Splendor too. Lots to work with there, especially non-explosive movie tie-ins.
  • I have a box set of Roald Dahl books in my classroom for students - fiction & autobiographies. I love Dahl and so do many of my students!
  • I'd love to share more authentic texts that work eg, many texts for "teens" or "YA" are perfect for ER

Q: It sounds like ER is often treated as reading books (or comics) - does it have to be? What else do you include?

  • I love reading short stories, so I often share favourites with students.
  • I find dual language books (first language and second language side by side) in my Thai reading really helpful. @chimponobo

Q: What other types of techniques help students get interested?

  • Giving students time to do book exchanges/recommendations at the beginning of an ER session works well.
  • Also letting students write one line reviews (with 5 star ratings) in the back of books works well
    • I guess now they could do reviews in 140 characters on Twitter as well
  • Used exam as motivation for practising ER in class (to ensure students saw value)
  • Being stubborn? Bring extra books, mags, newspapers, in case students forget
  • Teacher reads what students recommend? Teacher outlines what he/she enjoys and students confer to choose book. Teacher reads during ER and then gives feedback.

Q: "Grading" texts is much touted in ER. Is this really necessary? How do you/your students feel about it?

  • I had a good range of graded Penguin readers at my previous place. We had ER twice a week, with truly fruitful results.
  • I find students enjoy the challenge of straight up natural texts, particularly if they like the book.
  • I feel a bit uncomfortable giving (*) adults heavily graded versions of 'grownup' books. Not convinced it's necessary (*students choose from the publisher’s selection of graded readers).
I came across this after the chat and thought it might be of interest: Graded readers in ELT: the benefits and ways of using them (#ELTchat 30 November 2013)

Q: What type of texts work well for low level learners? ‏

There were questions re this, but no responses during the chat – if you have suggestions, feel free to add via a comment here, a tweet using the #AusELT‏ hashtag, or start a discussion thread on our #AusELT Facebook group.
  • Q: Any suggestions for interesting reading materials for adults who speak well but who are very low level of literacy in L2? @JoHorsburgh1
  • Q: What type of texts work well for low level learners? ‏@trylingual

Suggested resources and websites

Student/Reading resources

Teacher resources

     I thought these summaries of chats on related topics from #ELTchat might be of interest:
     And I heard about this new Lab project from The Round as I was writing this summary:
  • A Community of Readers by Michael McCollister
    Extensive reading (ER) is an approach to language learning that has experienced enormous growth in many parts of the world, though most noticeably in Asia. In contrast to intensive reading, its older, more established brother, ER asks students to read lots and lots of easy material, slowly building up greater understanding and control over one level of linguistic material before moving on to a slightly more challenging level. Slow, but steady.
    The purpose of this collection is not to offer a prescribed set of rules regarding extensive reading as it to ask readers to participate in a discussion of ER theory and practice.

Finally, the quote of the chat from @SophiaKhan4:
  • Reading is about curiosity. EVERYONE is curious about something, we just have to help them find it. 


For ease of summary writing I’ve dropped off who made the various statements – please check the transcript if you need to check the source of various statements:
Transcript: inaugural #AusELT slowburn on extensive reading (Thurs 2rd April, 2014)

Usual disclaimer and apology: I hope I haven’t misrepresented anyone’s views by putting their comment out of context, or left out any comment.  I find doing these difficult, as I have to summarise the chat but I think every comment is important and should be included -  something has to give! If you’re not sure what I mean, put up your hand for the next chat summary ☺  If you do notice any mistakes, errors, omissions, etc. please let me know.