Ethnography of HotPotatoes: NZ Sign language online with Rachel McKee and Edith Paillat

Another wonderfully innovative application of HotPotatoes many of us don't even think of on a daily basis - sign language.

Dr. Rachel McKee ☍, Senior Lecturer at Deaf Studies and Research Unit at the School of Linguistics and Applied Languages, and Edith Paillat ☍, Language Technology Specialist of the Language Learning Centre at Victoria University of Wellington share the challenges and rewards of creating courseware to teach New Zealand Sign Language. Welcome, Rachel and Edith! And many thanks for taking the time to be interviewed.


1. Tell us a bit about your background

Rachel: I teach New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) Studies at Victoria University, Wellington. NZSL was legally made an official language in 2006, after an earlier history of being an 'underground' language. Teaching and researching NZSL has raised awareness that it is indeed a real language, that the Deaf community now uses openly and proudly. I'm a hearing person fluent in NZSL, and I work with a small team of Deaf teachers who are the main language models for learners.

Edith: I originally started my career in education as teacher of EFL in Vietnam then qualified as a teacher of French FL, and worked as a teacher trainer in Japan. I started my position as Language Technology Specialist at Victoria University of Wellington soon after my arrival in New Zealand. My role is to provide adequate facilities and tools for language learning and teaching at the language centre of the university. I provide ideas and support related to the integration of technology in the 12 languages taught at Victoria University.

2. Tell us about your students. What students do you teach?

Rachel: Our four NZSL courses[1] are aimed at hearing, undergraduate students, who choose to include NZSL as a 'foreign' language in their various degree majors. They are mostly young and enthusiastic about learning to communicate in a visual, kinesthetic mode.

3. Tell us about the NZSL Project

Rachel: Teaching a recently 'emerged' language guarantees that there are few or no commercial resources that teachers and learners can turn to for practice and study. When that language is a signed language, learning materials MUST be produced in a visual medium. Our projects created suites of online NZSL practice exercises for students to use independently to supplement in-class instruction. The materials reinforce their comprehension of NZSL vocabulary and grammar and extend their exposure to different NZSL texts and signers. Hot Potatoes was perfect for enabling students to get instant feedback, so they can see their achievement and feel motivated to review errors and carry on.


4. What were some challenges of the NZSL project?

Edith: The NZSL project is one of the many projects we are working on. The aim of the NZSLwebsites (and other language courseware created with HotPotatoes) is to provide easy access to students following our courses, but also to people willing to practise Sign Language from the comfort of their own home.

Rachel: From the point of view of Instructional Design, NZSL is only used in two modes: signing (speaking) and watching (listening) - there is no natural 'written' mode that allows students to use expressive NZSL in a website. So the online NZSL exercises are limited to receptive skills - comprehension only. It's tricky (we think) to build self-video-recording function into an interactive language website. It was also a bit challenging to work with video assets in the Hot Potatoes templates - there were issues of layout, and ensuring video file format and player compatibility across browsers and student hardware.

5. How successful is the project? How do you measure and judge the students' attainment?

Edith: We have received a lot of positive feedback by users who have requested more levels and more exercises. People tend to like these exercises as they can review the videos over and over again, and mimic the signing.

Rachel: Yes, student feedback about the online material has been positive. We know they are using it well when they report minor glitches or errors they have spotted! But really, current students have no idea how much better this interactive digital medium is than the previous era of DVD-with-pen-&-paper-workbook practice. We don't measure student attainment based on using the online material, as it's designed as independent practice alongside course learning. As the websites are open access, we've heard that learners all over New Zealand are using the material to learn NZ Sign Language, which is a great bonus in promoting wider knowledge of the language.

6. If you were to redo the sites, what would you change, what would you improve on?

Rachel: Film material - i.e. the NZSL texts - always needs updating, and expanding. Unlike the printed word, the 'look and feel' of video dates (e.g. signer hairstyles, backdrops - undergrad students notice that stuff!). Some of the Hot Potatoes activity types work better than others with video: we found that cloze (gap fill) is not ideal because there are often many options for translating a sign or phrase from NZSL to English text. The layout of 'Match' (drag and drop) tasks can be difficult when several video clips (eg, phrases) are needed on a single page as match items. Video clips and images can't be too small in size, as the signs need to be easily seen, so this can create cumbersome scrolling up and down a long page for users. We hope to find ways around this 'space/ design' limitation.

Edith: For drilling, HotPotatoes is the perfect tool. I still need to get around the embedding the videos and packaging the site as an app to allow usage on tablets. Not smartphones though as the video needs to be large enough for viewing while remaining on the exercise page (not flick from Youtube app to the web page).


7. Edith, what have you learned while creating exercises for these learners?

Edith: I have learnt since 2002 that what is on paper needs some pedagogical rethinking to fit the online environment. There is nothing worth than endless gap fill exercises with no clear goal or change between the exercises. I am currently refurbishing old websites (originally made with HotPotatoes) that worked at the time online material was scarce. The way we use the Internet has changed in the last 10 years and we need to rethink user's participation to the courseware we propose, especially if it is integrated in the curriculum.

8. Edith, what motivates you as an Educational technologist?

Edith: I love exploring the affordances of technology but I also see the barriers or hindrance to an adequate integration with the limitation imposed by our standards (assessment, contact hours, learning spaces). Technology constantly changes and we are forced (either naturally or not) to reconsider how we teach along with how students best learn. Educational technology is a fascinating ever-changing domain that demands trial and errors. That is what keeps me alert!

9. Rachel, what kind of commitment is needed for such students and what motivates you to keep developing such exercises?

Rachel: Our students seem to be keen users of these materials - but we do actually require them to show evidence of using the online practice exercises through the courses. Students are enthusiastic, but sometimes busy and need incentive. We use a weekly homework diary for this purpose, which asks them to briefly note what they've done, which tasks were most/least useful and any problems encountered. This gives us useful feedback about any bugs, and what language they practised. The main thing that motivates these projects is NEED! ("Necessity is the mother of invention"). Language learners need lots of practice and exposure to the target language - and they are motivated by anything interactive. We're happy that Hot Potatoes offers an accessible way to achieve this, at minimal cost.

10. Anything else you would like to add?

Rachel: Another site that our students use extensively is our Online Dictionary of NZ Sign Language ☍, which is a linguistically based, multimedia dictionary that can be searched through English, Māori, or features of signs.

Notes and References



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