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Addressing Foreign Language Learning Anxiety with Mobile Technology

by Susana Perez Castillejo, PhD and Philip Thornberry, PhD. on August 24, 2016



App Enables Students to Practice Speaking in Private and Build Their Skills & Confidence

We all have our preferred strategies and our little box of tricks to lower learning anxiety in the classroom. However, despite our best efforts to create a relatively stress-free environment, foreign language instructors may still fail to serve the needs of a particular type of anxious student simply because their type of learning anxiety is not well understood. Individuals acquiring a second language in a classroom setting often experience a specific form of learning apprehension that is easily misinterpreted as low motivation or lack of ability. Because it is a form of what psychologists call context anxiety, foreign language anxiety may be best addressed by altering the context where learning happens rather than trying to alter the way the individual feels about the context. That’s where technology helps.

Communication apprehension is a well-documented cause of foreign language anxiety that affects students’ confidence during spontaneous speaking activities and therefore their chances to practice this skill. These are not necessarily shy or introvert individuals, and they may even excel in other skill areas such as writing or reading. However, their anxiety-related lack of confidence in their own ability inhibits their speaking practice: they may struggle to put sentences together, fail to monitor their errors, or simply stop engaging meaningfully with their conversation partners because they’re too worried about their own performance to listen to what the other has to say. A particularly common symptom of anxiety is task avoidance, which translates into a missed opportunity to practice and improve spontaneous speaking. Once, a student of mine confessed in a survey that she usually let others do the speaking during classroom activities and that she tried to get by with one word answers, just because she was too “shy” to speak in Spanish (her writing ability was excellent, though).

When learners’ unwillingness to fully participate in classroom-based spontaneous speaking activities is related to a form of context anxiety such as foreign language speaking anxiety, our best approach may be to alter the setting in which we ask them to produce spontaneous speech. Rather than making spontaneous speaking practice an exclusively synchronous activity that always happens in front of others (either in the classroom or virtually through video conferencing tools), we can experiment with asynchronous practice where the students interact with imagined interlocutors. Although it may be misjudged as inauthentic or not communicative enough, asynchronous speaking is far from uncommon in the real world. Think of voicemail and self-talk, for example.

Speaking and technology

Up until relatively recently, assigning asynchronous speaking practice was challenging for foreign language instructors. The development of computer and mobile-based language learning technology, especially the communication tools that have been added to most content management systems (Blackboard, Moodle, Brightspace, etc.) and the apps in the Office suite, has made the task easier. We now have presentational and screencasting tools that allow learners to add speech to visual displays. Smartphones and tablets – almost ubiquitous among our students – make sending voice recordings and videos a very simple task.

So, assigning asynchronous speaking activities makes sense and the technology to do so exists. Why is this not a widespread practice among foreign language teachers? Because we often need to trust students not to script their answers before they record their audio or video assignments. Foreign language instructors are more interested in assessing their students’ ability to speak in the target language in a spontaneous situation, that is, without the possibility to think too much about their answers or writing a script ahead of time. Most of the technology available right now, however, doesn’t prevent students from scripting their responses. Anxious students, in particular, prefer to write first (that’s usually their strength) and then read their response as they record.

Extempore, the Speaking Practice App, is a new tool that addresses precisely this issue with technology-based asynchronous speaking practice. Besides controlling how long students’ responses can be, instructors can also determine how long a student has to read or listen to a question before they have to respond. If the instructor chooses to limit the time to review, once a student opens a question, they may have only a few seconds before Extempore’s recorder pops up, forcing them to start speaking or fail to submit their answer.  This innovative feature has proven an invaluable tool to teachers who wish to encourage authentic spontaneous speech outside of the classroom.

Changing the context of spontaneous communication

In my classes, I often ask students to record weekly voice mails at home for an imaginary exchange student that they have been partnered with. Every time, they need to speak for at least 2 to 3 minutes and they only have 15 to 20 seconds to read the question. These activities have been well-received by both the extroverts and the introverts in my classes, because it forces them to speak without the extra anxiety of the “real” interlocutor.

For me, asynchronous monologic speaking tasks such as the voice mails do not replace classroom interaction. On the contrary, they prepare students precisely for that type of practice. My goal is to diversify my repertoire of tasks for oral development, so that I can also address the learning style of the most self-conscious students. By alternating the context in which spontaneous speaking happens, we’re offering different paths to learning and providing an alternative that benefits everybody.

Disclaimer: Extempore has advertised on EmergingEdTech (this is not a paid placement however – they offered to write a new article, and I liked the piece so I published it. – KW)


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Artificial Intelligence and User Testing Empower New App That Can Provide Students Help With Many Academic Subjects

Last month we at Socratic debuted our namesake free education app for high school students. It represents a new model of education apps: Our AI engine combines machine learning with educator expertise to give high school students instant learning help when they are stuck on homework questions. 

Before Socratic, when students needed independent help with their school work, they had two options: either search Google and end up on sites with low quality answers like Yahoo Answers, or pay for tutoring services. They had to either accept low quality or high cost.
We wanted to give high school students a third option: a way for them to get high quality content at no cost that helps them learn the lessons intended and finish their assignments efficiently.
With the app, a student takes a picture of a question, and our AI figures out what concepts are required to answer it. It then shows the student high-quality mobile-native content created by our community of educators that we believe makes learning easier than most textbooks and websites. We supplement that content with videos, definitions, and the best results from the web.
At the heart of the development of our app is the testing we did and continue to do with students, to understand why they get stuck, and how they learn best. This testing took on various forms during the development of the app.

Extensive User Testing 

Beginning in late 2015, we personally user-tested the app with hundreds of high-school students. We set up relationships with local schools and community centers, and through those we had a regular weekly flow of new students visiting our office after school. We showed them various versions of the app, asked them to solve homework problems using it, and asked them questions to reveal what they thought about the app, all while taking detailed notes and discussing findings with the team.
To test the app in more real-world conditions, we released a stealth beta app in the App Store. That app has been used by over 150,000 students, and we tracked various metrics about their usage. We also recorded and tagged various sessions so our product and design teams could observe students using certain features first hand, or could observe how the app failed for users.
We learned many important lessons through user-testing and watching user-sessions. Early on, we saw students taking photos of screens, because their homework was assigned to them online. Our technology to read text from images couldn’t handle screens, so we knew we had to invest more engineering effort in it. We then noticed that many students did not swipe past the first result because they did not realize that there were multiple results. We updated our design to make it more obvious that there are more results to explore. Finally, we’d see students quit the app when results would take too long. To solve this, we invested in speeding up results, prioritizing faster pages, and updated our code to prioritize loading the results the user had swiped to. 

Socratic is Empowered With Artificial Intelligence

The outcome of all this testing and research is that we’re the first education company to use AI to take students from a specific question to the concepts required to answer that question, something a tutor would usually do. So for a question like: “A balloon has a volume of 2.9 L at 320 Kelvin. If the temperature is raised to 343 Kelvin, what will its volume be?”, a tutor would teach the student about “Charles’s Law”, the relevant concept.
Our AI functionality works just like that. Educators and experts poured through thousands of questions submitted by students and categorized them by their core concepts. Then, we fed those questions into our machine learning algorithms and spent months training and refining the system until it could look at a new question and accurately predict which concepts were required to solve the question. That means our users get content that allows for in-depth understanding, not just specific answers to a particular question.
We felt confident that the app would deliver a lot of value to the students that use it, and that belief has been supported by the amazing reactions we’ve gotten from students. In addition to our 5-star rating in the App Store, we’ve received many messages from students telling us that this is the most useful homework app they’ve used.
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