Context + Control + Community = Learning

Some time ago I was learnnig 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 went on to the ChinesePod site once a day. If the day’s lesson is at the “newbie” level, and it interested me, I would have a listen. If it did not, I would go into the lesson archive and search for a topic in my beginner level that appealed to me. After downloading a transcript of the dialogue, I would listen to the lesson, making notes on the dialogue script and sounding out words as I went along. I then worked through the dialogue breakdowns, expansions, exercises, checked the discussion about the lesson to see what other nuances I could pick up, and then I added the new vocabulary to my personalized online vocabulary bank.

I can report that I progressed in my Chinese more in 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 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.

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