Interview: Chris Jones and Marc Siskin (CMU)

 

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Pat Mosele: My name is Pat Mosele and I’m interviewing Chris Jones and Marc Siskin from Carnegie Mellon University. Would you two please introduce yourselves and just say a few words about what you do?

Chris Jones: Marc, go ahead.

Marc Siskin: Ok. As past said, I am Marc Siskin, I am the manager of the Modern Language Resource Center here at Carnegie Mellon. I am also the technical technician [laughs] for all the language online courses. My responsibilities include: making sure that the content is put into the courses correctly, troubleshooting any problems and making sure that all the people using the courses such as instructors, are aware of any updates that we make.

Pat Mosele: Ok. That sounds good. What about you, Chris?

Chris Jones: I am Chris Jones, Teaching Professor of French and Computer Assisted Language Learning at Carnegie Mellon, and I was the initial designer of French online and I participated in the creation of the other courses as well, with varied levels of involvement: everything from creating content to supervising video shoots and working with Marc on technical issues that come up and so forth.

Pat Mosele: That sounds great. So, could you just then tell us a little about the first online language courses that you have developed and how they came about? What kind of learning levels you targeted, maybe, and why?

Chris Jones: I think probably I’ll just speak briefly, and this is before Marc came to work at Carnegie Mellon. We initially created four semesters of French and four semesters of Spanish, with Mellon grants starting in 1998. Those courses were created with the intention of responding to scheduling problems in basic language courses. They were conceived immediately as hybrid courses, in other words, to diminish classroom meeting times, and allow for students who are not available because of lab, studios and so forth, to do those kind of meeting times. We set a single classroom meeting in the evening and instituted the similar structure that we continue to use now, with students assistance, peer assistance for individual meeting, and lots of online activities. Now, those were, sort of first generation courses built on HTML, Java Script enhancements, and Hot Potatoes exercises. So, they did not have the data capacities and many of the design improvement that we did with version 2.0. 2.0 is not quite accurate, since it’s not web 2.0 that we’re talking about. The new versions that you are familiar with.

Pat Mosele:  So Marc, how did you come to get involved in the project?

Marc Siskin: Well, back in 2005, Chris was looking for someone who could assist in both managing the center here and also providing support for the programs that were being done and fortunately Chris and I have known each other for many years through CALICO (Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium), and he reached out to me and said “Would you be interested?” and I said “Of course.” So I was hired to manage the center and with my other skills, I just stepped into the role of the Technical Coordinator for the update from the original version of French online to the version that was a precursor of what we’re doing now, with the early version of the OLI software.

Pat Mosele: So, how’s the project funded? It’s kind of complicated isn’t it?

Chris Jones: Well, we’ve spent a lot of grant funding in the creation of these courses. Now, there was funding originally from Mellon funding, which got us going. Then, there was funding through the Open Learning Initiative, which is Hewlett foundation, then Lumina, Gates and so forth, a bunch of different foundations. Then, these was an NSF grant to Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh to found a Science of Learning Center. I was able to arrange for some additional funding for French, and then some funding for a Chinese course, through that initiative and this was really to use the courses as research environments for various sorts of research, including the people from psychology and Human Computer Interaction and so forth. So, that’s one, the primary funding for the creation of these courses is thus grants. Now there’s ongoing funding, and we may talk about that a little later, but in terms of how the courses were rebuilt and redesigned from the ground up, that came with the Open Learning Initiative collaboration. We were exposed to people who were talking about learning theory, especially online learning design, instructional design, iterative development, a whole bunch of concepts which were not terribly common necessarily in the language learning area, but which have since merged with our field as well. So, when we started looking at redoing the French course, we looked at the old one and said: “I don’t think we can use this,” so we really pretty much started from scratch, myself and Sophie Queuniet who is now at Columbia, she was my colleague at the time. We really sort of rethought the design from the ground up. That’s when we decided to use the video as the basis for the entire course, and then started scripting video and then built everything from grammar to pronunciation, to communicative aspects of the course around the video itself.

Pat Mosele: I think that is a very innovative approach to take. Can you talk a little bit about what you mean when you say Open Learning Initiative? What’s open about these French courses, for example?

Chris Jones: Well, the open part, this was a condition of funding in this larger initiative that includes other courses such as biology, psychology and physics and so forth. So one of the conditions of funding was that there would be a version of the course open to students who are independent learners on the internet. They would have access to these materials without payment. Also, of course without instructor guidance unfortunately, -there is a kind of corollary B to this condition. And that we would then, also, have a version which we would use in a structured way with classes of enrolled students. So, anybody can use these courses as you know, but we don’t really know how many students use this open courses but upwards of 100,000 students.

Pat Mosele: Really?!

Chris Jones: As it is an open and free environment, people use it to a greater or lesser degree. There is certainly no doubt that they encounter some of the issues that people find in the MOOC environments, although in MOOCS you have free access with some guidance, and even so, you may only have 5% who come close to finishing the course. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who have used the courses extensively, but as far as what percentage…

Pat Mosele: Hard to know?

Chris Jones: There is no way of knowing without really doing a lot of data mining, which we haven’t been motivated to do on that side of things, anyway.

Pat Mosele: You’ve been more motivated to do data mining for the fee-based course, where that’s used in universities, mainly?

Chris Jones: Yes. To the extent that there you have mostly students who finish the entire course.

Pat Mosele: Oh ok. I see.

Chris Jones: A much more meaningful collection of data. Now, with that data mining there is still much to be done needless to say, but at least we are getting started.

Pat Mosele: That’s great to have the data, right?

Chris Jones: Yeah.

Pat Mosele: Ok. So, for both of you, I’m wondering what have been the sort of big challenges that you faced? In mounting the courses, and in carrying them out, and their continuation?

Chris Jones: Well, Marc, you might want to address some of the technical challenges, and the evolution of the environments and all that kind of stuff.

Marc Siskin: Yeah, since I started with the French course, there have been approximately three generations of improvements to the OLI software, all of which have required some refactoring of the code that we provide so that we can take advantage of these improvements. Some of the changes can be relatively simple, done with a parser. Others require complete rethinking of the page because things that we did to work around limitations of the old software, break under the new software. Another issue that we had was, as robust as the delivery mechanism, as far as design and the technical service of it, as an authoring platform, it has a fairly steep learning curve. So, a lot of what we’ve done is hiring student workers to help with the actual coding, and taking what has worked in the past, and saying “Here’s the template, follow the template and repeat it.” So, yes it works, we have a new worker this summer and she is doing great, adding to our Spanish courses. But in previous years, it had taken weeks if not months, to get the workers comfortable enough with this non-intuitive, non WYSIWYG authoring system, so that they are productive workers.

Pat Mosele: Mhm. Did you want to add anything Chris?

Chris Jones: Sure, in other words, there were like all software-based projects. We’re subject to market forces and market evolution, completely beyond our control, as are the technical team from OLI. So for example, when Apple decides that Flash isn’t going to work in the IOS, and when our entire course is based on Flash, as a technical choice made by the Open Learning Initiative project, then that’s the problem, you know? It’s a big problem.

Pat Mosele: Of course.

Chris Jones: So, those conversions are not easy. So, we’re still in the middle of that, as a matter of fact. That’s something that is not going to change, in the cyberworld as long as it goes, it’s incredibly dynamic and things change, and created things break, and have to be redone. That’ll be a constant, so we can’t really complain about that, but it has to be recognized as an issue. In terms of the content, the challenges, there were probably 50 people or more involved in French alone, much less Spanish, Chinese and Arabic and so forth. So, there is a very large number of people involved in the content creation of the course. I mentioned my co-authors Sophie Queunier and Bonnie Youngs, and then others, such as Heather Allen, who was at the University of Pittsburgh at the time. And then many graduate students who have  written lots of tests and exercises. So, there’s lots of room for variability in terms of quality and thoroughness, and then an endless need to proof and upgrade, and that has turned into one of the constants of the project. Virtually every year, we attempt to improve the courses, in some fashion, greater or lesser. And that is also not likely to change, and as we go along, we realize that certain things about the course are better than others, and we have to identify what might be low hanging fruit or what we can focus a little bit more on this year and so forth. So that is another constant along with the technological change.

Pat Mosele: Marc, did you want to add something?

Marc Siskin: Yeah, I mean the biggest thing that I am doing, is making sure that, we find the bugs, fix them and add the new content.

Pat Mosele: So it’s a constant and ongoing process?

Marc Siskin: Yeah.

Pat Mosele: So the materials are updated every year, and now you’re taking on additional courses. That is, you’ve created some additional courses in languages other than French. To be specific, you have French 1 and 2, and what are your plans? What’s coming down the line here?

Chris Jones: Well, there will be two semesters of Spanish, two semesters of Chinese and Chinese has actually been taught consistently for several years, but not in a completed OLI format. But it’s not far off and there will be a Chinese 1 available in the fall of 2014 and a Spanish 1 in the fall of 2014. We have a mini-course called “Arabic for Global Exchange” which is available now. It’s not really a full language course, it has what I would call some survival arabic. And then a fairly extensive cultural suite of texts, divided into the history of Islam to governance issues in the Middle East and brief discussions of the arabs praying habits and so forth. So it’s intended to prepare people, professionals, students, and others, who are heading to the Middle East and who really have no clue. That corresponds to a lot of us, who may not have been exposed to issues or languages in the Arab world. It’s intended to fulfill a rather narrow niche. But the others are full fledge college program courses like the French.

Pat Mosele: Are these going to be be similar in content, in the sense of design? Video-based?

Chris Jones: Chinese was developed quite specifically taking French as a model. Spanish is however more of an update of the prior Mellon grant course. So we didn’t have the resources necessary to really go back and completely redo the Spanish course, but we still managed to go down to Guadalajara and shoot some video, which enhances the course, rather than forms the foundation for it. But it will be the first iteration of this OLI delivered course and will undoubtedly improve as the years go by. But it will certainly be viable when it’s released.

Pat Mosele: So Marc did you get to go down to Guadalajara too?

Marc Siskin:  I wish I could, but I had to stay here and actually work. [LAUGH] I was the editor for the videos, so I got to see everything.

Pat Mosele: Ok. That’s nice. So I’m just wondering, in terms of moving forward, what are some of the plans you have in the far future? Additional courses you might want to create? Or additional levels of courses you might want to create?

Chris Jones: Yes, I have started thinking about this and shared a few ideas with various people, about the possibility of creating an intermediate level French course, or a second year, depending on the context of instruction. But something which would have different characteristics to the extent that would be less structured. In Higher Ed, we go through most of the grammar, within the first year, not that it’s acquired, but it’s at least touched upon, so that in the second year, it would be possible to have a much more modular approach to assembling a course for each instructor, so that the modules can be created separately and then assembled according to instructor preference. And that kind of approach is something that I am interested in investigating, not on my own, but in a collaborative way, in a much more open kind of environment, where there will be a core group of authors, and then others would be invited to contribute, with some guidelines that would be collectively established in terms of “What are we looking for in a cultural unit?”, “What are we really looking for in a grammar unit, or in a communicatively-oriented sort of discourse based unit or topic and so forth. So it would continue to have the same delivery system which would allow for management by an instructor, allow for some automated assessment, as well as an instructor-graded assessment. So, and then possibly it’s an enormous amount of work, but integrating learning objectives in ways that the data would also be available for the new courses. Knowing the work that we needed to do for the last versions, I shudder to think of what it’s going to be, but to the extent that we can distribute the load and work in a larger group,  it might be possible to do something good without anyone tearing out all their air.

Pat Mosele: [laughs] That’s always a good thing, right?

Chris Jones: Yeah.

Pat Mosele: That sounds also like a very innovative, sort of cutting edge approach, which is interesting, because you’re combining the innovation of the technology with innovative pedagogical principles as well. So that’s, I would think, would be very exciting work to be doing.

Chris Jones: I think, well, it’s certainly has kept my interest, let’s put it this way.

Pat Mosele: Well that’s good! [laughs]

Chris Jones: And it’s kept Marc fruitfully engaged for the last year.

Marc Siskin:  Yes.

Pat Mosele: That’s cool! Alright, so I’m wondering now then, for the modular approach, would you envision these modules as being based on target culture information? On videos again? Or a combination of texts and video? What would be your dream module?

Chris Jones: Well, I have notions of what a dream module would be, but once again, I am hesitant to get too far out front in this process, because there’s a certain number of people that I have spoken to already about this. Others will be coming shortly, and I’m anxious to kind of harvest ideas from an extended group, but certainly to use video, of course at the second year level, the notion of interview format, becomes a little more viable. But depending on the area of instruction that we are focusing on, this sort of simulated communicative approach still might be viable but with a more cultural focus: interview, especially expanding the diversity and include for example, North Africa and West Africa as potential sources for material, the Caribbean, as well as different foci, both texts and media, of all sorts. We may want to integrate authentic media, to the extent that permissions are possible. That has been something we have completely avoided up to now, by creating all of our own media. It gives us enormous flexibility and has some limitations as you move forward. We may want to include a short story or a newspaper article and beyond relying on link to materials, which can go away rather quickly. We did confront that issue with the Arabic course, we did a lot of permission seeking and integrated materials written by us, so we may go that way, but yeah.

Marc Siskin:  So when dealing with media permission, we also have to take into account the fact that the delivery message may change, so when we got permission, we also asked for the permission to make our own copies of the material so that we can be the ones that are distributing it, other than relying on YouTube or other services like that.

Chris Jones: Although, the new courses may be YouTube delivery videos, because even OLI is talking about Youtube delivery, so who knows?!

Pat Mosele: Yeah.

Chris Jones: You can put media up on commercial servers and then integrate it into a pedagogical context, with which you know adds value much beyond the media itself. Then it may serve multiple times.

Pat Mosele: That’s true. Very valuable. So anything you’d like to add about your involvement from the personal or professional satisfaction point of view? Anything you’d like to say about your involvement in the project overall?

Chris Jones: Well, I’ll let Marc speak for himself, but for me the whole video creation is extremely satisfying, and of course seeing the final course and getting good feedback by people who are using it, is extremely satisfying. In between of that sort of beginning point and the end point, there’s a lot, of what I call “a lot of hard slog”

Marc Siskin: Yes.

Chris Jones: And that can be nice in small pieces, in other words you can get satisfaction and you just put in a lot of work. But I think that’s true of most of what we do. Designing a course is a lot of hard slog and then the students give good feedback, whether it’s online or otherwise. Same thing with writing an article or compiling a book, that is sort of what we do. With satisfaction as an endpoints and the conception points, where it’s all ideas and happy thoughts, and you just have to realize that between conception and realization, there is a lot of sweat.

Pat Mosele: Many long hours.

Chris Jones: Many long hours, yes.

Pat Mosele: [laughs] Marc what did you want to say?

Marc Siskin: Well, I guess there is a lot of satisfaction in that. One of the things that sort of kept me going is the people I’m dealing with at the Open Learning Initiative. Many are non-humanities people, they are definitely people who have had few interactions with languages.  I’ve had recently, the opportunity to show them the difference between a chemistry course, where there are a lot of discrete facts, and a language course where things like “definitions” have more than one meaning. At one point, when we use the definition format within the Open Learning Initiative, we can only have one word or phrase and one definition and in a meeting with the programmers, they asked “Well, why do you need more than one definition?” and I gave them a couple of words: “Ok, define run.” And they gave me  “To run a program”, and I said “You’re a runner, what do you do?” and you can see the lightbulb going off, and it’s interesting going from a humanities-based perspective into this hard science-based perspective and exchanging the ideas. I learned a lot from them. I hope they’ve learned a lot from me, and I know they’ve learned a lot from Chris, because a lot of what we have been doing, are things that were requested in the original format of the OLI platform. We used video so we need the ability to deal with video clips and screenshots, things that weren’t quite obvious to those using the short lecture, and then answer questions format.

Pat Mosele: Yeah, the most traditional approach.

Marc Siskin: Yeah.

Pat Mosele: Yeah, that’s true. Well thank you both for meeting with me today and for participating  in the interview. It’s been delightful. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we sign off?

Chris Jones: No, that’s good! I was glad to be here, and glad to be able to shed our tiny little light on this large subject.

Pat Mosele: I think viewers are going to be very interested in hearing what you have to say. So thank you both, thanks Chris and thanks Marc.

Chris Jones: Thank you Pat, bye bye.

Pat Mosele: Bye bye.

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