Thursday, March 29, 2007

Context + Control + Community = Learning

A couple of weeks ago I noted that I was beginning to learn Mandarin Chinese via ChinesePod. Based in Shanghai, ChinesePod broadcasts daily online audio lessons. These are free of charge. For a fee, however, learners anywhere with an Internet connection can also get access to lesson transcripts, dialogue breakdowns, vocabulary expansion examples, exercises, tone charts, a grammar bank, etc. On top of this, all learners are linked via an interactive online community and can share experiences, ask questions, and learn from each other as well as the experts at ChinesePod.

I generally go on to the ChinesePod site once a day. If the day's lesson is at the "newbie" level, and it interests me, I will have a listen. If it is not, I will go into the lesson archive and search for a topic in my beginner level that appeals to me. After downloading a transcript of the dialogue, I will listen to the lesson, making notes on the dialogue script and sounding out words as I go. I then work through the dialogue breakdowns, expansions, exercises, check the discussion about the lesson to see what other nuances I can pick up, and then I add the new vocabulary to my personalized online vocabulary bank.

I can report that I have progressed in my Chinese more in the past two weeks this way, than I did in many previous efforts that involved taking a course at a local community college and supplementing this with language programs on CD. My previous experiences at learning Chinese followed the old drill and practice memorization approaches that tend to suck all the fun out of learning. This is not the case with ChinesePod, and here are the three main reasons why I think it works so well.

1. Context, Context, Context

Don't believe anyone in the learning business who says that content is king. The world is awash in content. Almost any information you need to find (including Chinese language resources) is available at your fingertips via a quick Google search. What is missing is context. This is what ChinesePod provides. Their audio lessons are always based on a certain common daily-occurring scenario and are delivered in a friendly, informal first-person voice. The lessons provide oodles of cultural references and anecdotes regarding why certain words and phrases are used the way they are and how this is entirely appropriate given that particular cultural context. They also throw in some humour along the way (who said learning had to be a humourless chore?). There is drill and practice if you want it, but only after you experience a realistic and contextual application of the language.

2. The Learner is in Control

I can do the lessons I want to do, when I want to do them, in the order I want to do them, and at the pace I want to do them. I am entirely in control of my own learning. By choosing topics that interest me, or for which I have an immediate application, I am a much more motivated learner. I don't have to sit through endless repetitions of things that mean nothing to me. It is conceivable that two learners, over time, could end up at the same place (competent in basic Chinese), but arriving there from totally different directions. This is not possible in a classroom, but is via self-directed eLearning.

3. Community: Learners Contribute to the Learning

Learners can participate in the learning process in a multitude of ways on ChinesePod. There are discussions attached to each and every lesson where learners ask questions, provide their own anecdotes, provide related vocabulary, etc. Also, there are active discussion forums on specific topics of interest for those looking for more detailed interchanges about grammar, tones, reading, writing, etc. In these ways learners help set the agenda for what ChinesePod covers in their lessons, and learners also help each other with their mutual challenges.

This type of approach need not be limited to language learning. If, for example, you wanted to provide learning resources for a distributed sales force, you could take a similar approach by podcasting short lessons on product knowledge, as well as sales strategies and techniques. Your sales force could choose from archived lessons to listen to when they had specific needs, and they could complete short online exercises to test their understanding of the material. Finally, all sales staff could belong to an online community of practice that shared strategies, tips, and stories of what works best from the field.

I signed up for ChinesePod because I want to learn Chinese. But I also signed up because I don't want to forget what it is like to be a learner. As an eLearning professional, I think by experiencing eLearning yourself, you are in a better position to design good eLearning for others (this is the entire premise behind our Certificate in eLearning Management). This is the same reason that chefs should eat their own cooking, and CEOs of phone and cable companies should be forced to call their own help desks once in a while. It keeps you grounded.


Blogger Unknown said...


I recently started learning Mandarin with ChinesePod and am blogging about it as well(

My past learning experiences have been similar to yours. I studied Chinese at a community college with limited success, and have also tried various CD's and textbooks.

I find that ChinesePod is really working for me. I am finding the time to listen to the daily podcasts, spend time on the website, and I receive a daily 10 minute lesson via Skype.

I hope you will continue to blog about your experience as a learner. I agree that by putting ourselves into the position of learner, we will come up with fresher learning solutions for our clients.

Paul Dillon

11:33 AM  
Blogger Rick Nigol said...

Hi Paul:

I saw your comments about ChinesePod via Ken Carroll's blog.

I'm finding that a lot of the learning solutions that we are providing to clients lately have been moving away from structured curriculum (i.e. courses), to more of a compendium of resources and community links that learners can dive into and draw upon as needed. This is why the ChinesePod approach resonates with me.

I see that you are availing yourself of the real-time tutoring service at ChinesePod. I'm luckier, I have a personal wife is Chinese.



9:31 AM  
Blogger William Smith said...

I am also learning Chinese by a special and innovative service in Beijing Chinese School. I like to learn in live class with teacehrs from Beijing directly. I also like to practice Chinese with volunteers freely everyday. Watching Chinese learning TV on CLTV is also interesting and helpful to practice listening and learn more about Chinese culture.

4:14 AM  
Blogger Rick Nigol said...

Hi William:

Thanks for the reference to Hello Mandarin...I wasn't aware of this service.


9:01 AM  

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