Friday, July 11, 2008

Website Review: Grammar Advisor

Grammar Advisor bannerIn the internet era, when an almost unlimited number of free teaching resources exist in cyberspace, is there a place for a pay-to-join online grammar instruction/advisor program?

I was recently contacted by a representative who works for an organization that has designed and created Grammar Advisor. He e-mailed me for the purpose of requesting that I look at the program and potentially write a review on Tefl Spin. As someone who is constantly looking for fresh material and topics to write about, I agreed.

I think it is important to note that there was no quid pro quo of any kind for my agreeing to review this service. I have received no payment and would not accept any type of remuneration to favourably mention or endorse a product or service on this blog. On the other hand, I may at some point in the future accept banner advertising from those who are interested. Some people may question such a decision but that's a discussion that will take place another time.

The Audience

I looked at Grammar Advisor with some pre-conceived notions. First, it's not the type of service I would ever sign up for. I am one of those rare individuals who actually enjoys reading grammar books, essays on linguistics and other articles and websites related to language. There is so much free material out there that I would never be moved to pay for what I would have assumed would be relatively redundant information. The site is marketed as a support service for those who need help with grammar. So it probably won't appeal to those who are already comfortable with the subject or simply have the time and/or enjoy clarifying, through research, any questions or concerns they may have.

In fact, I have some doubts that it will even successfully reach the intended audience. My experience has been that those who are lacking in their knowledge of English grammar and have limited ability to teach it will shun any resources and avoid the necessary effort to improve. Unfortunately, it is possible to fake your way through many teaching contracts, especially in Asia. The laziest and most shamelessly bad teachers will be unlikely to make attempts to get better.

Most people have certain subject areas that, for them, contain no interest, inspire no sense of joy and fail to motivate them in any way. A grey, hazy blandness surrounds the very mention of anything to do with their most dreaded and avoided topic.

Content and Presentation

The site is slick and professional and the material is generally presented in an interesting and logical way. The program is broken down into various sections, including: words, sentences, tenses and teaching. Within each section there is a fair amount of content. There was obviously a huge effort made in producing the site and on first glance, the results are impressive.

The course goes over the basics and also includes, at least in some sections, more difficult material for those who might be interested in eventually studying applied linguistics. Some of the explanations are made in a conversational way using simple analogies and memory aids that avoid the language of deductive grammar and the accompanying jargon. Of course, the deductive explanations and all related terms are also included. The likely goal was to include traditional illustrations while also coming at things in different ways so as to cater to those whose eyes glaze over at the very mention of grammar.

I found some of the explanations a bit convoluted. For example:

One way to see if a word is a noun is to place a word in front of it that should go in front of a noun (an article and/or adjective) and check the sound. For example, try saying “the awesome” before any on the nouns previously used: the awesome dog, the awesome juice, the awesome beauty, the awesome belief, the awesome Marianne Rains, the awesome RiverCityCollege. Contrast the correct sound of this pattern (article-adjective-noun) with the wrong sound made by the awesome eaten (verb) or the awesome rapidly (adverb). The words that sound right and familiar in this pattern are nouns, so the pattern, article-adjective-noun, can help in labeling.
Others passages were more succinct and effective.

A nice touch is the inclusion of two sound clips on each page. They are delivered by clicking on a Miss Takesplay button that activates the voice and movement of animated characters. More than just a gimmick, each short blurb offers an interesting tidbit that gives some context to the other information as well as providing a nice break from the reading.

Another part of the site that I found quite enjoyable and useful was the "teaching" section. There are some very helpful articles that contain advice on integrating grammar points into lesson plans.

However, though there was in-depth material regarding some points throughout the website, I found many sections fairly lean in terms of the amount of information provided. It's true that that is usually all that is needed when covering a single grammar point. Many grammar books similarly offer up direct and to-the-point explanations that avoid complicating matters. But most of those books are padded out with numerous exercises. And many of them contain clarification regarding the niggling little exceptions to the rules that can prove to be the stumbling blocks for both language teachers and their students.

Grammar Advisor does include quizzes for most topics but they are very short and limited in scope.

While all major points are detailed in the various sections, I felt that they often didn't go beyond the basics. For example, while the present perfect verb tense was explained in a perfectly acceptable way, it didn't go into many of the subtleties and forms that are possible such as the use of "yet" and "just". In the sentences section, the subject-verb-object concept is introduced but I failed to find the intricacies and problems that arise regarding subject-verb agreement. That's an issue that plagues all learners of English as a second language.

In fact, many grammar books omit and gloss over certain elements while succeeding in other areas. And that is my major concern with a one-stop concept for learning grammar. My experience has always been an exercise in comparison. Various sources are consulted and they end up complementing each other. One website focuses on a detail that you happened to be looking for and another book outlines something in a way that makes it perfectly clear while yet another highlights an exception that you were trying to articulate.

This brings us to the one big intangible about Grammar Advisor. The "Ask the Advisor" feature is supposed to overcome any shortcomings and fulfill the tacit claim that no other sources are necessary.

Ask the Advisor

The nature of teaching English as a second language is that you will never be able to anticipate the myriad of questions and conundrums that arise. This is mainly due to the fact that your students are seeing English through the prism of their native language. Because of the nuances and differences from their language, you would probably never be able to anticipate the various angles and problems that will crop up. That's one of the intriguing and fun parts of teaching the English language. The old maxim is true that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

I see a number of possible pitfalls regarding "Ask the Advisor." Those who have signed up for full access are urged to first search the archives for the answer to their queries. Together with all the instructional content, there are a number of submissions and answers already provided though they have a certain canned feel to them.

The questions that actually come from students and stump the teachers, who will subsequently submit them to Grammar Advisor, are the types of queries that could be very challenging. Even explaining certain questions correctly takes a special touch. And then the response must avoid assumptions and express the information in a clear and concise way. The answer itself could very well create a new batch of dilemmas. I anticipate many frustrating exchanges with e-mails that begin along the lines of, "No, what I really mean is," "Yes, I understand that part but I actually wanted to know..."

Will these questions be dealt with in a timely manner? Will chronic question askers eventually start to get the brush off? Can those considering Grammar Advisor as an option be certain that all advisors on staff are going to give them thorough and accurate information? These and many more concerns surround this important element of the service. I suppose I could have sent in a tricky and obscure grammar query and gauged their response but, again, it wouldn't really replicate a real-life situation.

For me, the effectiveness and worth of Grammar Advisor as a paid service really hinge on many of these questions.

The Verdict

Grammar Advisor isn't for everyone. For the price of joining, a new teacher could purchase a few solid grammar books and supplement that information with dozens of free online sites. If the advisor feature proves to be timely, effective and something that is honoured throughout the duration of the membership, then the overall value is much higher. The hours saved in not searching numerous volumes and different websites for the answer to a question could make it just what many are looking for.

Also, as a fairly comprehensive stand-alone online instructional guide for those who want a very complete introduction to English grammar, it well may be an option worth considering. And to be fair, websites can be modified with little effort. In other words, more content may be added and certain things tweaked once they have received feedback.

Overall, Grammar Advisor is a fairly impressive entry in the still young and burgeoning world of online learning.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Volunteer to be a Sucker

Following on the heels of the discovery that the TEFL certificate course I completed six years ago is essentially worthless, I'm in a nasty mood regarding all things related to TEFL training.


If the ostensible motive for any action is to help out those in need, basically anything goes. Even if the end result is huge profit for those making the supposedly altrusitic effort.

Take a look at this ad dressed up as a "news story." An outfit called i-to-i, a self-proclaimed "volunteer travel operator," will hook you up with schools in Cambodia, where you can teach without receiving any remuneration and feel as if you're making a difference.

The catch, of course, is that you cough up $1425 U.S. dollars for the privilege of doing this for three weeks. Curiously, the dollar figure has an asterisk next to it but nowhere is there an indication what the qualifier is. The payout covers a 40 hour online TEFL course, accommodation, meals and miscellaneous things like "24/7 emergency support."

I've always found that such hand-holding set-ups always play on any newbie's sense of fear when making their sales pitch. It would be interesting to know what this emergency support consists of.

Much of what is stated in the ad strikes me as disingenuous, misleading or just plain out of line.

This kind of arrangement takes away jobs from those who are working as English teachers. Someone might respond by claiming that isn't the case since extremely under-funded schools wouldn't be able to afford foreign teachers anyway. There may be something to that logic but if so, then no one should be reaping a profit from such an undertaking.

For anyone really interested in working with poor children in third world countries, there are numerous NGOs that could help to organize a similar experience. Or, you could simply contact schools online and offer your time or show up in person. Either way, many would welcome volunteers with open arms.

i-to-i (what does that stand for anyway, "ignorance to insipidness"?) should also answer a simple question: are they double dipping? In other words, together with the fees from the volunteers, are they paid by the schools or given government grants for performing such an honourable and selfless service?

They continue on with their misuse of punctuation and other language conventions at the end of the ad when a quote is provided: "The beauty of these projects is that the rewards are mutual..."

The problem is, the words are attributed to no one (presumably they are from the mouth of the individual mentioned five paragraphs previously.) It simply stands alone as if the fact that someone somewhere made the statement lends it credence.

I have no problem with an organization offering such a service and trying to make a buck. But I also feel it is my duty to point out the spin and absurdity.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

TEFL Fly By Night

4-6 week TEFL courses don't have the best reputation. No regulations, reams of horror stories and a "give us your money and fuck off to Asia ya schlepp" kind of feel have contributed to the less than stellar distinction.

My own TEFL certificate has been rendered almost worthless as of late by the discovery that the place went tits up a few years after I completed the course. This fact came to light as I recently sought new employment opportunities and went through the usual dusting off of references and other contacts that goes along with such an exercise. I was surprised to find the school's website now non-existent. My guts dropped even further when I realized the most unlikely of situations: not a single hit when I plugged their name into a search engine.

Thankfully, the woman who owned the school at the time has a unique name and has remained in the industry. I tracked her down at a university in the middle east where she occupies a respected position that no doubt validates the years she spent acquiring post-graduate degrees in the field. I sent her an e-mail seeking assistance in proving the legitimacy of my certificate should anyone want evidence beyond the institution's (former) name and location. She promptly responded and assured me that I could provide her e-mail address to anyone who would like confirmation that I had completed the course.

Better than nothing I suppose. Though the whiff of dodginess will remain for many who learn of the demise of the school. In fact, this is one of the oldest ploys pulled by the under-educated and marginalized who have few opportunities and decide there is nothing to lose. They find the name of a school that has gone under and claim to hold a degree from them. So people who truly are faced with this situation may be doubted somewhat.

My trust in the former school owner to come through if any verification is required was shaken recently. An opportunity came up and fairly detailed information regarding the TEFL course was requested. Because of the friendly and agreeable response to my my initial e-mail, I assumed she would be willing to provide a breakdown of all the material we had studied. There was no indication of topics or courses covered on the final grade mail-out nor can this information be checked anywhere as the school no longer exists. My memory of the course is a bit hazy so I blasted off another message asking for her help.

But there was no response this time. Which now makes me wonder if her first e-mail to me was just an attempt to get rid of an annoyance that has probably plagued her periodically since she sold the school. I'm now concerned that I can't trust her to follow through if any potential employer e-mails her for details. I blithely accepted her story that the school was sold and that the new owners quickly rode it into the ground. She also stated that the government institution that monitors private education institutions in British Columbia cannot locate the school's records nor confirm which students studied there.

As I look back at the time I studied there, I realize there were warning signs. It was clear that she was in a marriage that was on the rocks. In the small waiting room and adjoining office outside the first floor classroom, she was often there with her sullen, middle-eastern-looking husband. The mutual contempt was palpable. They were likely winding down their business affairs and looking for potential buyers.

She also hinted cryptically at competitors who were trying to undermine her credibility. Knowing more about the whole TEFL industry, I now realize those people who were making problems for her were probably justified.

When you are given reason to doubt someone, every little thing takes on significance and the nasty tendency to fill in the blanks and ascribe motives takes over.

At the very least, I would like to find out what happened and have some assurance that there is some way to prove that I in fact paid a thousand dollars, received four weeks of training and successfully completed the course. If no agency or person is able to vouch for that, then I can take appropriate measures (i.e. not put it on a resume again or heavily qualify its mention.)

I urge anyone in a similar situation to determine if there is any kind of watchdog organization in your area that oversees private training institutes. Another step that might be worthwhile is to contact other people you studied with. You can at least alert them to what is going on and together your collective voice may succeed in securing some kind of official document indicating that the school was not a figment of your imagination.

I will try to provide an update in the near future regarding the final outcome of my investigation.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Book Review: Disrupting Class by Clayton M. Christensen

Despite years in the classroom, many teachers are constantly plagued by the creeping sense that they haven't got a clue what the hell they're doing. This feeling is offset somewhat by the number of theories, methodologies and exciting new ideas out there. They fill you with the hope that, finally, someone is going to distill all the vague notions into something effective and accessible.

But after years in the game, you inevitably come to the realization that every teacher has to develop their own synthesis from hours of practice, study and development. And yet it all still remains fuzzy and nebulous at times.

The ubiquitous nature of computers and the rapid development of new programs, software and ideas offer yet more possibilities and are especially tantalizing to the average language teacher. There must be some way to harness this technology, you repeatedly tell yourself. Maybe you create a blog for a class, have students submit assignments by e-mail or try to initiate an online discussion outside of class hours.

But in the end, your students end up using computers for little more than word processing and research.

The role of computers in the classroom and their potential for changing how people learn is the focus of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson.

The book uses the theory of disruptive innovation as an analogy for discussing the introduction and changing nature of technology in the U.S. education system. Disruptive innovation is an idea articulated and named by one of the same authors (Christensen) of this book. In contrast to sustaining innovation, which improves and builds on existing technology and caters to a current population of consumers, disruptive innovation is represented by new ideas whose only alternative is non-consumption.

One of the many examples presented in Disrupting Class is the advent of personal computers. When they first came on the scene, they were expensive, the technology was poor and the companies who manufactured mainframe super computers had no interest in diversifying. There was no short-term incentive and shifting their focus would have watered down their commitment to their existing customer base. And so, just as in numerous other examples, with few exceptions the start-up companies were the only ones to invest the necessary time and money. When the technology reached a tipping point, the "flip" seemed almost sudden and the companies that had not gotten involved in the early stages were wiped out.

Christensen and his coauthors use this premise to discuss the state of technology in the classroom and claim that the same type of flip will take place at some point in the future. They argue that numerous factors will conspire to make individual computer instruction tailored to each student's aptitudes the wave of learning within the next ten to fifteen years.

There are, of course, numerous differences between the worlds of business and education. However, the application of the disruptive innovation theory to the U.S. education system is very compelling. Just as non-consumption is one of the criteria that is present when disruptive innovation takes hold in the business world, so too it is evident in the areas where computer based learning is now gaining a foothold. For example, many special interest elective courses have been swept aside by various country-wide initiatives in the U.S. Computer learning is an ideal way to make up for this shortfall.

A less in-depth look at the issue would probably have left the future role of computers in schools as unspecific and claimed it was simply inevitable. But here there is a fairly detailed roadmap of how the authors believe the next few years will play out:

Within a few more years, however, two factors that were absent in stage 1 that are critical to the emergence of stage 2 will have fallen into place. The first will be the platforms that generate the creation of user-generated content. The second will be the emergence of a user network, whose analogues in other industries would include eBay, YouTube and dLife (for patients with diabetes and their families). The tools of the software platform will make it so simple to develop online learning products that students will be able to build products that help them teach other students. Parents will be able to assemble tools to tutor their children. And teachers will be able to create tools to help the different types of learners in their classrooms. These instructional tools will look more like tutorial products than courseware. But rather than being "pushed" into classrooms through a centralized selection process, they will be pulled in into use through self-diagnosis--by teachers, parents and students. User networks, not value-chain businesses, will be the business models of distribution. This will allow parents, teachers and students to offer these teaching tools to other parents, teachers and students.
Pointing to the businesses who failed to recognize the looming impact of new technology (for example, traditional camera makers Polaroid and Agfa, who were obliterated by the digital switchover) Christensen urges those working in the education field to recognize and prepare for changes. The final third of the book is prescriptive in nature and offers practical strategies for embracing the growing influence of computers in schools.

The book has a lot of good content and works on a few different levels. I believe that it succeeds in making a valid argument regarding the effect that technology will have on traditional schools and learning in the near future. While the focus is on the U.S. education system, the influence will apply to the wider world as well. For example, another area of non-consumption where online learning is already making a difference is for those who have neither the time nor finances to study for a Master's degree in a traditional setting.

The book also provides a good overview of the theory of disruptive innovation together with numerous historic examples. Also, for readers without a business background, there are straightforward explanations of concepts that are relevant to understanding other points being made.

The writing here is lean and to the point and results in a book that is readable and accessible. There isn't a strong or distinctive style that comes through nor is there any humour to speak of. Not requisites in a non-fiction book though those elements can sometimes create a more memorable final outcome. The ideas are what drive this book forward and it's clear that the authors have genuine enthusiasm and truly believe what they have written.

I could have done without a running fictional narrative that appeared at the beginning of each chapter and which was meant to illustrate many of the ideas being discussed. I found it fairly contrived though some may appreciate the attempt to dramatize the real world effects of the authors' predictions and hypotheses.

This is a relevant book for all teachers and those who have any kind of stake in the future of education systems throughout the world. While the timeframes and specific details of how computers will change the schools of tomorrow may vary, I have little doubt that much of what is stated in this book will come to pass.