Open Source: A New Paradigm for Language Learning

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"Humans tend to use new technology in the same way they used the old technology," says Cleve Miller, founder and managing director of English360, an online learning and open source model for English language teachers.

"The first television broadcasts were of a man in an armchair with a microphone -- exactly like the radio! It takes a while for things to sink in, for us to realize what the possibilities are."

In partnership with Cambridge University Press, English360 gathers expert-created content and pairs it with authoring and communication tools to allow English teachers to grab what they want, piece it together as they need, and share what they make with others in their field -- all free of charge. If they enroll students for a per-student fee (who are, so far, mostly professionals learning English for business and other specific purposes), the interface helps extend the classroom beyond the school building and the school day with forums, blogs, calendars, assessments, and other tools.

"When it was a Web 1.0 world, English language teaching, especially with education publishers, still followed a top-down instructional model where all the content was created somewhere by a bunch of experts," says Miller, who's taught English to professionals in 11 countries around the world. "The early model was that the Web was just a delivery system. But I was running a language school in Buenos Aires and I thought, now that this stuff is digital, why does it still have to be so rigid? I should be able to repurpose, resequence, an edit it to a certain degree."

Inevitably, Miller says, "The economy of the old model -- mass consumption course books designed for a global audience -- led to a generic content approach." But now, mashups are the norm, or should be, in education.


Why? Because teachers in the classroom have an understanding of a key element in education that no publisher can ever have: their students. "They know what their students needs, strengths, and weaknesses are" and content publishers do not," he says.

Thus, a paradigm shift: When teachers use the resources that work well for them and mix it with their own self-authored content, they can create a truly customized -- and therefore effective -- curriculum. (This is the basic premise behind the open textbook movement).

A blended learning model is useful for language teaching, too, Miller says, because there is a rote element in learning a language and "that's something we can do online, out of the classroom. But those repetitive, fill-in-the-gap grammar exercises are not a good use of classroom time. We need to make sure that precious face-to-face time is used for what it is best for: true communication."

And the customizable curriculum model works for teaching English to professionals, in particular, because English for medicine, law, marketing, and other fields can get incredibly specific (called ESP, or English for Special Purposes).

One English360 client from an amusement park in Paris, for instance, is actually teaching "English for roller coaster maintenance" and "English for dolphin training," Miller says. No traditional textbook will ever be published on that, but this teacher can create mashups of English360 content, author her own content, and, theoretically, connect with other dolphin-trainer-English-teachers in the world (the handful that exist, anyway) and share content.

"The great thing about humans is everyone’s passionate about something," says Miller. "That’s the beauty of 'bottom-up,'" -- the Wikipedia phenomenon that's springing up all over the Web. "If it's open and allows people to contribute, collaborate, and participate," ultimately -- for both teachers and students -- "the Web now represents one of the leading education theories out there."