December 17, 2017

ChinesePod, the New York Times, and the future


 The subject of online language learning has been in the news, particularly since Live Mocha received funding some weeks ago. Yesterday, my company, Praxis Language  appeared alongside them, in the New York Times (the same story appeared in the International Herald Tribune today). 

There is a deeper undercurrent to this story. It concerns how the future of online language learning is being played out.  After a career in the industry I know change when I see it: After a somewhat slow start, Moore's Law and the internet are starting to rattle its foundations. This will result in change - change in how, where, and with whom we learn languages - and it will reach all corners of the industry, including those who may now feel immune to it, Berlitz, Rosetta Stone, the language schools, and universities.  

I have no idea who will dominate the new landscape, but some things strike me as inevitable. Web 2.0 has yielded  new learning insights and practices that will almost certainly be widely adopted going forward. The whole nature v nurture (technology v pedagogy) debate has been opened up again and it is proving fertile ground for innovation. I cannot imagine, for example, any online learning system that failed to use RSS going forward. On ChinesePod and SpanishPod, that technology has created a whole new conception of  what a lesson is. RSS turns the daily lessons into learning events, something you don't want to miss, rather than a chore you have to do, and a place where your community of learners hang out an work to the same beat.  (This is also described as pull v push by Charlie Gillette in this excellent article.) This type of learning as an event was impossible just a few years ago, but I believe it will prove itself indispensable for any future developers.

And while we're on the subject of community, it's clear that social software, though still in its infancy,  has a huge role to play in learning.  Learning alone from a black box will no longer cut it,  because now there is an alternative: the community of practice, with a clear social object, a purposethat everyone in the learning ecosystem shares. 

Things are going to look different, three years from now. Mark my words!

I also refer you to this excellent overview of some interesting trends/developments by my friend, the excellent  Dr Curt Bonk

Ken Carroll

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  1. FuDaWei says:

    I fully expect to see traditional resources becoming intertwined with online ones (and this isn’t limited to language). Praxis might do well to consider a wholly new cottage industry of helping burgeoning campus programs develop and co-ordinate curricula tailor-made to their specific needs. They already have a foot in the door; their partnership with the Confucius Institute is moving them in that direction. (I should note that the CI is already responsible for setting up and guiding the new programs at my University). Making this model almost inevitable is the high cost of textbooks — it’s getting obscene. I rather like the alternative of essentially assembling my own custom textbook as I go … in the form of electronic .pdfs; worksheets, handouts, vocab lists, grammar guides, etc. Beyond the economic benefit, it’s enormously more flexible and can reflect the language as it is currently spoken, rather than as it was spoken 10 years earlier.

  2. Henning says:

    I still wait for the day when Praxis buys one of the former “major” players in the foreign language market, e.g. Rosetta Stone. That will be fun.

    Nevertheless, I stay with my oldfashioned conclusion, that the revolution on the technical side is purely the transportation medium.

    RSS? I personally don’t use it. And if I would it would, would it make a *qualitative* difference? Beyond some minor gaines in efficiency?

  3. sushan says:

    You left out one question: Why? Why will people learn languages? Technology is changing the way we use language even among native speakers, and increased travel and decreased communication costs are bringing people into more and more contact with other nations and cultures. In this framework what is the motivation for learning another language and how will the acquired language be used?

    One thing I see happening is the learner wanting a very customized experience – learning with a specific, individual goal in mind and wanting the fastest, most convenient point from A to B. Also learners wanting a great deal of control over how they learn and how they are evaluated.

  4. trevelyan says:


    My guess is that more people will be studying/using languages. The weak translator fears that machine translation will make him obsolute. The strong realizes that it greatly expands the scope of the market.

    China hasn’t really started as a service-economy, but when it does and its financial markets develop in particular, there is going to be a need for much greater interaction with the west. Everyone will be learning at some level.

  5. Richard says:

    I think the key to successfully learning a language is to enjoy doing it. No-one realistically wants to sit down and make grammar notes when you could be listening to a fun podcast, then meeting new people while discussing what you’ve learnt.

    This is the area where ChinesePod has got it 100% right. Well done Ken!

  6. chris says:

    @Henning the real wonder of RSS isn’t fully realised on one site, it is when you use it to monitor many feeds and combine feeds that are connected in some way (from anywhere). As a language learner for example what if you find twenty other learners blogs that are sometimes useful or interesting but they post sporadically? Do you waste precious time, keep visiting them to check for updates? forget about the ones that rarely post (even though they maybe good posts)?. Combine their feeds all into one feed via Google Reader or similar and in one feed reader you can check the lot in a glance.

    The same example works across other slices including podcasts, forums (both posting and comments). This blogs feed goes into a combined feed I have to do with education and contains 15 other blogs. I spot updates as they happen (of course I can read them at my leisure).

    With Chinesepod for example, combine the feeds for both Intermediates and Advanced and then a quick glance and I know about new lessons, can read the intro. text (without visiting Cpod) even play the lesson in a flash plugin on the online reader, this is faster than actually using the Cpod site in real time (a typical outcome and not Cpod’s fault, my navigation needs are very specific, as are many other users).

    I work producing Websites for Academic publishing and RSS is big (many readers of Electronic Journals are a bit more RSS savvy the the current norm.) The gain over email alerts or search alerts for updates is enormous.

    1. Check 20 Journals individually for updated content and perform my favorite searches at each one regularly.

    2. Better, subscribe to 20 email alerts and a bunch of search alerts and keep monitoring my email.

    3. Much Much better pull in all the RSS feeds from the above and forget about it just glance at a single place occasionally to see what is new and go and read it if looks interesting.

    The gain via RSS is huge, I also use it to keep my finger on the pulse for technical areas where I work. If you don’t dive in though it is not apparent. I remember way back when we still had memo’s floating about in in boxes etc. and hearing people question whether the new-fangled email was really going to make a difference.

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