Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Dunbar’s Number and social networks

I recently came across a reference in an article on social networking to Dunbar’s Number. It’s an intriguing idea. Dunbar’s Number is a concept developed by Professor Robin Dunbar, Head of the ICEA (Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology), University of Oxford. Essentially, the “number” is the suggested limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships, namely 150. Why 150? Apparently, it’s due to the cognitive limit on the number of friends with whom we can maintain such relationships. In other words, our brains are simply not big enough to handle many more than 150 stable social relationships. And this number goes back a very long time – for example to the average population size of villages in early hunter-gatherer times. See the Wikipedia article, Dunbar’s Number.

Professor Dunbar explains the concept in this YouTube video, How many friends does one person need? He refers to the current trend for people to compete in building up huge collections of friends on their Facebook account. This is a trend that I have noticed too, with many of my personal contacts numbering well over 1000 so-called friends. But, of course, they don’t “know” them. As Professor Dunbar puts it, if you have such a huge circle of friends they are mostly "just voyeurs into your life”, many of whom you could, with advantage, do without. In order to maintain a relationship it has to be reciprocated and nurtured - which is much easier to do face-to-face - but I must admit I have found social networks invaluable in maintaining contact with family and friends who are scattered all over the world – some of whom I had lost touch with until the advent of the Web.

Professor Dunbar’s views echo my own. When I joined Facebook and Twitter I had my own figure of 200-250 friends in mind, and so far I have not exceeded 250 on either of these networks. But I have Twitter friends who follow 3000-4000 people and who are followed by similar numbers. How do they cope? I simply do not have the time to deal with such huge numbers – and I am retired. My Facebook account has a core of around 40-50 friends with whom I am in regular contact, and I belong to a small number of special interest groups dealing with topics in which I have a professional or personal interest. Most of my core group on Facebook are family and close friends. The rest of my Facebook friends are mostly people I have met face-to-face or online and whom I find interesting or amusing. My Twitter friends are mostly people with whom I share a professional interest. I admit to being choosey. I turn down lots of friend requests, both on Facebook and on Twitter.

I have touched on this topic before in a blog posting headed Have PLNs been over-hyped? A reaction to Gavin Dudeney's blog,19 March 2011. I wrote:

“I get more out of chatting to half a dozen friends at my local pub on a Saturday night than I do out of a whole week of browsing the Web. Twitter is OK for picking up links and for occasional bits of information, but on the whole I find it confusing. Turn your head for a couple of hours and the interesting threads you were following have got lost in a mass of idle chit-chat. I deliberately avoid accepting lots of new friends on Twitter or Facebook. I can’t handle large numbers of friends or followers, and I don’t want to anyway. Facebook is my fun area. It embraces my family and real friends, and a few people I have met at conferences. Don’t expect too much serious stuff from me on Facebook. Most of my postings have nothing to do with my professional life.”

What do you think?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Conference on Virtual Worlds, Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain

I have just returned from Spain, where I contributed to a two-day conference on virtual worlds at the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), 16-17 December 2011. The conference was organised under the auspices of the CAMILLE Project in the Department of Applied Linguistics at the Polytechnic University of Valencia within the framework of EUROCALL’s programme of regional events, in collaboration with the Inter-University Institute of Applied Modern Languages, supported by the Vice President for Research at the UPV Ministry of Science and Innovation, with sponsorship by Macmillan ELT.

There were five invited guest speakers: Randall Sadler, Luisa Panichi, Heike Philp, Kristi Jauregi, and myself. The main target audience was local secondary school teachers of English, but a number of research students were also in attendance. Each day of the conference was divided into two parts: presentations by the guest speakers in the morning and hands-on workshops in the afternoon.

This was a remarkable event in three different ways. Firstly, the size of the audience was impressive: around 75 participants. Secondly, it was the first time that I have been able to work in Real Life with such a distinguished a group of experts in the use of virtual worlds in language learning and teaching. Thirdly, this is the first occasion on which I have experienced such a large number of participants in hands-on workshops. The computer lab that was provided for the workshops comprised 50 high-end PCs with excellent graphics cards and a fast connection to the Internet. This meant that, with 75 participants in attendance, some people had to share a computer, but everybody was able to join Second Life and learn the basics. The hands-on workshops were led in turn by one of the guest speakers, with the others circulating amongst the participants and troubleshooting where necessary. We experienced surprisingly few technical hiccups, and Second Life behaved itself very well – with very little lag, even when the participants were gathered together on a shopping spree in the boutique holodeck on EduNation I Island.

I wish to offer my personal congratulations to the UPV team who organised this event, especially Ana Gimeno and Rafael Seiz Ortiz, who took care of all our needs, including transporting us to the excellent tapas restaurants in Valencia!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Google Translate: friend or foe?

Are you a language teacher? If so, what are your views on online translation tools?

Google Translate  is probably the most widely used online translation tool, but there are others that will also do the job. Several are listed in ICT4LT Module 3.5, Section 3 (Machine Translation). Such tools have been the bane of language teachers’ lives ever since they became widely available on the Web. The teacher sets a text to be translated for homework and the students use Google Translate to do the job, thus saving themselves work and driving their teacher mad when they turn in a piece of work that is full of mistakes that reveal clearly that an automatic translation tool has been used. Or the teacher may ask the students to produce an original composition in a foreign language - so they type it out in English and paste it into Google Translate. Again, the output is full of mistakes but often of a different kind, for example the students may be using constructions in English that are way beyond what they would be capable of using in the foreign language. And many mistakes made by Google Translate are made solely because the source text is incorrect. If you write "I should of thought" (yes, it's a common mistake!) instead of  "I should have thought" then Google Translate's output is wrong. But it translates "I should have thought" correctly into German as "ich hätte gedacht". Thinking back to my early experiences with Machine Translation (MT) in the 1980s, I remember a company (Perkins Engines) that used the Weidner MT system first training its employees to write correct, unambiguous English so that the system could handle the texts more easily – in other words, anticipating potential errors that could be made.

Right now it's not too difficult to spot that Google Translate has been used to produce a text in a foreign language, but a few years ago Google began using a different translation engine that uses a so-called Statistical Machine Translation (SMT) approach. Now Google Translate begins by examining and comparing massive corpora of texts on the Web that have already been translated by human beings. It looks for matches between source and target texts and works out which translations are likely to be the most accurate. This YouTube video, Inside Google Translate, explains how it works. As more and more corpora are added to the Web this means that Google Translate will keep improving until it reaches a point where it will be very difficult to tell that a machine has done the translation. I remember early MT tools translating "How are you?" into German as "Wie sind Sie?" Now Google Translate gets it right: "Wie geht es Ihnen?" You can also click on the words in the translated text to hear how they are pronounced.
So Google Translate is no longer the crude tool that it used to be. Besides using a much more sophisticated and accurate translation engine, it also offers the possibility of interaction. When the translated text appears you can hover your mouse over the text and ask Google Translate to suggest alternative renderings if you don't accept what it offers as the first choice. These may be different vocabulary items, different tenses, different case endings in German, etc. You can also rearrange the word order. Thus you can edit the text until you are satisfied with it – and then you can copy and paste the text into Microsoft Word and edit it further using the inbuilt foreign-language spell checkers, grammar checkers and thesauruses. Having said that, I am in no doubt that most students would just accept what Google Translate offers as the first choice and hope for the best. But a clever student would investigate Google Translate's new features and produce quite an acceptable translation that does not have the obvious hallmarks of being translated by machine. So what is the solution if students cannot be persuaded not to use Google Translate?
  • Do you punish your students for cheating?
  • Do you hand back their work and tell them to do it again without using Google Translate?
  • Or maybe you warn your students that you have already run the text through Google Translate and that if you find any examples  of the same incorrect phrases being used in their work then they will score zero.
  • You could also exploit the mistakes that Google Translate makes by displaying them on a big screen to the whole class and showing your students how ridiculous they are. At the same time you could use the output of Google Translate to raise your students’ linguistic awareness. Ask your students to spot the mistakes and explain why they have been made – e.g. parsing like as a verb rather than a preposition.
But perhaps the time has come to admit defeat and to set different types of tasks for homework. A blog posting by Naomi Ganin Epstein, headed If Google is translating then I’ll start revamping, is worth looking at. She suggests setting a number of different types of assignments for homework that get round the problem of students using Google Translate.

Let’s face it, automatic translation tools have been around for a long time and they are here to stay. The European Commission makes extensive use of so-called Translation Memory (TM) systems. These produce a rough draft of the text to be translated, which is then corrected by professional translators. It can speed up their output by up to 80%. I know of one university that trains its students to use a TM tool known as TRADOS. They can then slot more easily into jobs as professional translators when they graduate. I often use Google Translate in the same way – but only with languages that I know reasonably well.


Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The French Digital Kitchen

I had a very interesting day yesterday, 24 October 2011, at the French Institute (Institut Français), London. I had been invited by Professor Paul Seedhouse, Newcastle University, to give a short presentation on the History of Computer Assisted Language Learning to lead into his presentation on an exciting new interactive approach to language learning, The French Digital Kitchen. The French Digital Kitchen is a situated language learning environment in which a computer in the kitchen communicates with students, instructing them step-by-step in how to cook French cuisine while teaching aspects of French language at the same time, namely the essential vocabulary and grammar that are used in such an environment. The underlying pedagogy is Task-Based Learning (TBL), an established approach to teaching foreign languages whereby learners are prompted by instructions in the target language to carry out specified tasks.

As a first step, the students are presented with the grammar and vocabulary, and then they practise using what they have learned in the kitchen. Utensils and ingredients that are used in the kitchen are all labelled in French, and motion sensors are embedded in the utensils and the containers for the ingredients, which track the students' actions and prompt the kitchen computer to give them spoken instructions for each step in the process of preparing the food. Students can ask for instructions to be repeated or translations into English simply by touching the computer screen. Students work in pairs and are encouraged to communicate with one another in French.

As well as watching the presentations, we were treated to a demonstration of the portable version of the kitchen, with volunteers from the audience following the instructions in French for preparing a delicious clafoutis aux poires, which was then cooked in the French Institute’s kitchen and presented to us at lunchtime – a “tangible and edible product”, as Professor Paul Seedhouse described it.

The project is now being extended, thanks to European Commission funding, to develop materials in English, Spanish, Italian, German and other languages.

Videos demonstrating the project are available on YouTube:

French Digital Kitchen Dissemination Video

The Talking Kitchen that Teaches you French

Further information is available at the Digital Institute website at Newcastle University.

Monday, 25 July 2011! Useful "curation" tool

I have recently begun using! It's a useful tool that enables you to set up Web pages that gather together links on a specific topic. provides a facility for you to "curate" information on your topics by trawling the Web and finding links that you may wish to add to your topic pages. The links are then laid out attractively like the page of a magazine:

I have set up two pages:

Computer Assisted Language Learning

Virtual World Language Learning

And I follow other people's pages on related topics. As well as being useful for setting up permanent resources, could be used by students for creating one-off magazines.

QR codes in education: Why all the fuss?

The Web is abuzz at the moment with blogs on using QR codes in education. I am not going to give a detailed explanation of what a QR code is if you don’t already know. Suffice it to say that it’s a bit like a barcode but looks different and has a wider range of uses. The Wikipedia article on QR codes gives a good summary of their historical development and how they have been used, particularly in industry. These are examples of a QR code and a barcode that I generated:

QR code of the ICT4LT website. Generated by

Barcode containing information about Graham Davies’s gender, age, weight, height, location
 and value in US$! Generated by

Although QR codes have been around for some time, namely since 1994, it is only recently that they have attracted the attention of educators. Joe Dale’s blog posting (21 July 2011), for example, outlines some of their potential uses in teaching foreign languages. Joe describes using QR codes to:

• launch an mp3 file,
• play a video,
• visit a website and answer comprehension questions,
• engage in a treasure hunt,
• answer questions set by the teacher using QR code voting.

I have to confess that so far I am not too excited by the current interest in using QR codes in education. It’s not a new idea. Back in the 1980s I attended a seminar in Denmark at which Peter Looms of Danmarks Radio demonstrated how a barcode reader could be used to locate resources for language learners on an interactive videodisc and how teachers could create their own lessons by photocopying, cutting and pasting previously prepared barcodes to create activities for students. The barcode reader was used to jump to a particular frame or segment on the videodisc, not unlike the way in which a URL or QR code is now used to jump to a particular website or part of a website. See:

Pinfold C., Fox R. & Looms P. (1994) “Barcoding a Japanese language videodisc for secondary schools”. In McBeath C. & Atkinson R. (eds.) Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January 1994: 436–442. Available at

Using barcodes in education did not catch on. CD-ROMs and DVDs replaced interactive videodiscs and the advent of the Web in 1993 brought about radical changes in storing and accessing educational resources.

The main problem with QR codes is that you need a device and an application that can read and interpret them – in the same way that you need an appropriately programmed barcode reader to read and interpret barcodes. The difference is that devices and applications that can read and interpret QR codes (I use my iPhone and the Qrafter application) are in common use by the general public. But pointing an iPhone at a QR code image – and you may need more than one shot to read it – waiting for your phone to boot up a Web browser and then render the page to which it is pointing seems to need a lot of additional time and effort. And if you wish to create your own QR codes you need to know how use another application. Maybe I am just getting old, cynical and unimaginative. I have been playing around with technology in education since I began using language labs in 1965 – which were not as wonderful as they were cracked up to be – and now I have to see a real need for the use of technology with evidence that it saves teachers time and produces better learning results.

However, I have found a good use for QR codes. My wife Sally was watching one of her favourite cookery programmes on BBC TV last week. I was half-watching with her, but I am mainly interested in the results of cooking and not the process itself. My eyes lit up, however, when the TV chef began cooking a smoked haddock pilaf that looked particularly tasty. Sally thought she would like to try it and wondered where she could get the recipe. At that moment I spotted a QR code flash up, all too briefly, in the corner of the TV screen. As we were watching the programme on our Sky+ Box I was able to rewind and freeze the screen so that I could point my iPhone at the QR code. Bingo! It worked first time and sent me to Using Qrafter on my iPhone, I emailed the URL link to Sally so that she was able to click on it in her email application on her computer and display and print the recipe. We enjoyed an excellent pilaf the following evening. Now that’s what I call a sensible use of technology!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Languages ICT website to close on 25 July 2011

The Languages ICT website, which was set up and maintained by CILT and ALL, is due to close on 25 July 2011. The announcement of its closure appears on the Languages ICT homepage. If there are materials at the site that you find useful grab them while you can! There are many PDF and video files that can be downloaded.

This is another example of a useful site being abandoned as a result of the lack of available funding. We have seen this happening many times, especially since the current government took over. Having said that, websites that depend on national government or EC funding are often short-lived. Once the funding period comes to an end they are unable to sustain themselves, so they get out of date and are finally abandoned. Teachers TV is a typical example, although the videos can now be streamed from other sites where they are archived: and

When the ICT4LT website was initiated with EC funding in 1999-2000, it was made available in four languages: English, Italian, Finnish and Swedish. After the funding period came to an end it was sustained as a labour of love by the five original partners, but the Italian, Finnish and Swedish versions were not kept up to date and have now been abandoned. I took the decision to take over the English-language version and to keep it going. It requires quite a bit of work as links keep changing or disappearing and new developments in ICT take place every day. Nevertheless, the site is reasonably up-to-date and includes information on ICT developments that have taken place since the funding period came to a close, e.g. blogging, podcasting, Web 2.0 applications and virtual worlds. Income from a few discreetly placed advertisements more than covers the costs of paying for the broadband connection and Web space is donated free of charge by my daughter Siân, who is a graphic designer / Web designer. So there are ways and means of keeping a project going. The site receives an average of 12,000 to 13,000 visits per month – “real” visits, not visits from bots and search engines:

So what happens to dead sites? Sometimes their resources are archived on new or existing sites, but there is a huge Web archive, also known as the Wayback Machine, that keeps records of earlier versions of websites. It is not 100% complete, but I have often found it useful in tracking down resources that I thought had disappeared into oblivion.