Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Online Immersion Project

Goals and Project Context

There are two main goals to this project, one of which can be seen as a practical goal while the other is more idealistic and theoretical.

The practical goal is the easier one to meet, as it is simply to create a hub through which I can share Mandarin Chinese media. The idea behind this is to demonstrate the potential of the internet to aid the field of language education by giving students the opportunity to voluntarily immerse themselves in the language they are learning. This hub, which will likely manifest as a website, will offer direct links to sources of Chinese media and online resources to study grammar and vocabulary while attempting to educate the user in techniques to find new resources on their own.

The second goal is to encourage people who may not be actively learning another language to consider the vast sections of the digital world which aren't built for an English-speaking audience. Mandarin is perhaps one of the most useful languages to illustrate this, given the developmental history of the Chinese internet. Without getting too much into the history behind it, many of the giants of the Western digital world (e.g. Google, Facebook, Amazon) are either banned in China, or failed to penetrate Chinese markets. Chinese alternatives to these exist, some of which have become phenomenally successful (e.g. Baidu, Taobao).

This project borrows from the discipline of Language Education, though does so on a relatively shallow level. The value of language immersion in traditional language education has been studied extensively, but these studies have so far looked at formal immersion programs, such as immersion schools. The internet offers a very different sort of immersion, and it is questionable how much existing research applies to the immersion opportunities highlighted by this project. Unlike traditional structured immersion, the internet allows students to seek out material that interests them. There is certainly no guarantee that this will significantly aid a student attempting to learn a new language, but it is worthwhile to explore the digital world as a means to develop language education.

Similar projects do exist, that much is obvious enough. There are many examples of websites that offer content from other cultures. Netflix is a particularly large example, even though this is not the main focus of their website. Other websites, such as live-radio.net or tunein.com let the user browse radio stations from all over the the globe. I am not aware of any resources that deviate from this internationalist approach and focus on presenting a variety of content from one particular language, but it is more than likely that they exist. Duolingo is an excellent example of bringing digital concepts such as crowdsourcing to language education, but does not currently offer training in either Mandarin or Cantonese. Rosetta Stone is another popular example of language education entering the digital world. It builds itself on the idea of immersive language learning, but does little to encourage its users to find content outside of its software.

Data Acquisition

The focus of this project is primarily to re-arrange existing data (content is perhaps a better word in this context) rather than to create new data. The part of this project aimed at teaching users how to explore the internet from another language is somewhat of an attempt to create new content, but the main focus is to demonstrate that there is already a wealth of data available if one can learn to approach it in different ways.

Most of the resources that this project will introduce have been obtained through search engines, while some are simply resources I have been exposed in the course of my own language training. All featured content will be filtered to make sure it has no obvious malware and lives up to some standard of quality. Learning how to use search engines to find the best quality resources will be a large part of the educational aspect of this project.

Content will be sorted into rough estimates of difficulty (beginner, intermediate, advanced), and divided up into loose types of content such as Audio, Video, and Reading Materials. These are broken down further into smaller categories (such as podcasts, radio stations, and music channels under Audio). The idea is to create a compartmentalized set of resources that the user accesses by starting with a general idea of the content they want to experience, and following a short path that also exposes them to similar options should they want to try something else in the future.

One major challenge with this project is inherent in its reliance on digital sources, given their relative unreliability. Many websites appear to offer content, but are riddled with dead links. This is issue seems especially pronounced when seeking out relatively obscure content. As part of the filtering mentioned above, I have had to either dismiss websites entirely due to broken content, or make special note of what works and what does not work.

Copyright issues are a much smaller issue, but still present. One potentially excellent video resource, kankan.com, is almost entirely non-functional outside of Mainland China. It is certainly possible that one could use a VPN to watch kankan from anywhere in the world, but this is an unreasonable step to ask users to take, and alternatives must be sought, such as 56.com.

Tool Application and Skill Development

From here, this proposal will entertain two ideas, and hopes for feedback on which of these sounds like a more worthwhile endeavour. The first is to use website building software to create this project, the second is to build the website from the ground up. Despite my hesitance regarding the second option in my presentation, I've found some resources in the past couple days that make me confident that I can learn to create a website using HTML5 and CSS quickly enough to make this feasible.

If I were to use website building software, I would look primarily at websites such as wix, webs, or weebly. Some other students used these for their own projects, and came up with some solid demonstrations. Those tools in particular show promise firstly because they are free, but also because they are relatively easy to use. You begin with a fairly solid template, and learn to tailor that template to suit the needs of your website. Photoshop (GIMP, actually...) would be an important tool for creating a unique, cohesive aesthetic. Following this path, tools would be mobilized towards polishing and presenting the content, as the actual mechanics of the website would not take long to lay out.

Building the website from the ground up is a far more ambitious task. From my limited experience building simple websites back when Geocities was cool, constructing a website with basically a bunch of links is not terribly difficult. The challenge here is to come up with a sufficiently ambitious site design, and attempt to learn enough HTML5 and CSS to make that design a reality. It is likely, in this case, that the project will be far less polished than were I to start with a website builder. It will be a continuous effort to try to improve my skill with the languages, and occasionally revisit my initial design as I learn new skills, and come to realize that certain functions are too advanced and I must either rethink them, or scrap them entirely. Codeacademy, and lynda.com would be crucial educational tools for this path, while codepen.io would expose me to creative ways other people are using CSS.

Though it is likely that the first path is far less of a time investment, it is important to note that it is likely the one which will better incorporate my skills as a humanities student. The less time I need to spend making the website work, the more effort I can put into focusing on the educational aspects, and the breadth of content.

Of course, there is an amusing parallel that can be drawn with the second path. Given that, at the time of me writing this I couldn't get much further than header and body tags, I would essentially be building a project about immersing oneself in a foreign language while relying on online resources to relearn web design languages.

My concept for the website I would try to build is attached below. You'll have to forgive the crudeness of it. Essentially, the idea is that the website will exist entirely on one 'plane', and the user navigates by clicking on circles to re-center their perspective. The path back will always be visible. The bar on the right side of the perspective is the difficulty slider, which would change the colour of the foreground from green, to blue, to red. I would like to have the education aspect as a button that appears on the currently centered circle, and pressing that button opens up a hovering dialogue box that gives more information on how to find this kind of content.

I'm totally eager to move ahead with either one of these ideas. I would prefer to see how far I can get with the second idea, but I would like to make sure that it is permissible for me to focus on a project that mostly involves improving web development skills.

Also, here's that short film I was talking about. It's fifteen minutes long.


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