Corpus and the Principles of Good Design

design

Image courtesy of With Associates

It isn’t a secret that I am not enamoured with the use of corpora in the language classroom. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea and I do use them from time to time, but my beef is with how they are designed. It’s as if the people who created it could care less about design and are only concerned with the output. Whenever I gripe about this, there are always a few to defend it saying that they are able to make it work for them. The problem for me is that I don’t want to just ‘make it work’, I want it to be almost seamless starting from the first use. I decided to apply Dieter Rams’ ten principles of good design to the current design of corpora, and then seeing what could be done to instigate change. I am not a programmer, so these ideas are just being put out there as a request to those who are able to make change.

Good design is innovative: Innovation is not just about change. It is more about approaching something from a new angle, envisioning something in the light of things changing around it. As technology advances, we can see a product in the light of new possibilities, new users.

In the case of corpora, not much has changed in the past 15-20 years other than the access (internet) and databases (larger, more nuanced). For most, the interface looks like it hasn’t left the 90s or is so overly complicated that the average user has a difficult time figuring out what to do with it all.

I would love to see some fresh eyes and minds added to the design process here. I have some ideas of where this could go, but if we put our collective minds together, I believe we could really make some serious headway in the area of innovation. Here are some areas I think we could work on:

Data collection. Instead of relying on a static database that needs periodic updates, what about making it more organic, gathering data in real time? Better yet, collection could be done through crowdsourcing.

Input. Right now, a person needs to enter a word or phrase in a text box and then sift through all of the results. We could harness the power of voice recognition, listening for prosody clues and matching that up to audio data instead of plain text. Yes, this would require a great deal more processing power, but this is something that could overcome. Just look at Siri as an example.

Fuzzy logic. This used to be all the rage for a while. I even had a rice cooker with this function. I’m not sure what it meant in that context, but in most, it takes a wider interpretation of the input and uses logic to figure out what you may need from the clues you have given. In this case, you could enter in a partial sentence and it could produce lexical outcomes that generally match your context.

Questions. What if the interface asked you input questions instead of using radio buttons and vague descriptors. It could ask questions such as, “Do you want to find words that describe _[insert word you entered]_?” For English language learners, asking questions of purpose instead of relying on them to understand the descriptors would be much easier for them to comprehend.

Divide things up. Instead of having everything on one page, divide into modules. If you want to get more, you can ask for more information and it will move from module to module. In relation to that, have a different interface for simple entry and more advanced.

Integration with other apps. What if it could harness the power of other apps such as Twitter, Facebook, or Google Drive? You could then access the content directly from your other app instead of having to go to the corpus page to enter it.

Good design makes a product useful: When I hear the word useful, I automatically connect it to the user. In this case, corpora have been so focused on linguistics users, that the broader audience of language students has been almost completely pushed aside. We need to think like a student and what they want out of it. Some of my students have found a corpora useful, but others feel it doesn’t give the information they are looking for. We should sit down with the users and figure out what they want out of it. Dieter also mentioned in this area that nothing in the design should detract from the usefulness. I think there are a number of detractors in the corpora I have used. Let’s remove them or at least keep them out of the way from the average user.

Good design is aesthetic: There is nothing wrong with making something look nice. I believe it shows that you truly care about your product and the people that are using it. It personalizes the product and makes it more comfortable for users. In this case, I would love to see corpora take on a more modern look with a conscious effort to fit in with modern usages such as mobile devices.

Good design makes a product understandable: I don’t remember where I read this, but the mechanisms used on doors are designed in such a way that we know what is required to make it work. A horizontal bar means that we are able to push it open, where as a vertical handle is designed to be pulled. We don’t even need to think about it. As we approach the door, we know what to do and which way the door is going to open even before we reach it. The purpose of the product is self-explanatory.

 This is not the case with corpora. For the most part, we need to show people how to use it and demonstrate its usage. Most students have no idea what it is used for, even after giving them a short introduction. It isn’t until they use it a few times that it starts to make sense. If we could design the corpus to be more intuitive and make its purpose more transparent, I think we will see a major spike in usage.

 It also should borrow design elements from other products that we are familiar with. I use the example of the online classroom app, Edmodo. When a student goes there for the first time, they immediately see it as familiar as it looks and works very much like Facebook. In no time at all, students are able to get done to work focusing on the content instead of the usage. This is where we need to be with corpora.

Good design should be unobtrusive: There should be some room in the design for users to make it their own. They should be able to make it fit their usage instead of the other way around. The interface should be simple, not dominating. It is about the results, not the tool. This sounds contradictory to what I have said earlier, but it isn’t. If you are fighting to work with the interface, your energy is poured into making it work, instead of being a seamless transition from input to result.

Good design is honest: We need to be careful not to oversell the corpora and what is can do. In the end, it still requires a bit of understanding in how to get to the results you need. We need to make sure to strip down the corpus into discrete objectives, making it more honest in what it is able to accomplish.

Good design is long-lasting: The best products stand the test of time. A comparable product to the corpus is the dictionary. The dictionary hasn’t made major changes throughout its life. Any changes have build off of the core product by adapting to the needs of the users and the changes in technology.

 In the case of a corpus, we need to consider the architecture. Building a corpus on a structure that is heavily dependent on one technology is dangerous. An example of that is Adobe Flash. Who could have foreseen the original growth and the subsequent fall in usage? By being platform agnostic, a database can be moved from one architecture to another with relative ease. Flexibility is the key here. Even the database itself needs to allow for a natural evolution in usage and language.

Good design is thorough down to the last detail: Dieter goes on to say that nothing should be left to chance. Don’t assume users will be familiar with the interface. It should provide plenty of assistance and give samples, usage ideas, and possibly testimonials.

Good design is environmentally friendly: While a corpus is not a physical object, there are some ways that it can be eco-friendly through the limit on bandwidth (server energy costs) such as by limiting graphic use and not using power hungry interfaces such as Adobe Flash. Also, if we think about environment in the more general sense of where something is, a corpus should be situated within the network in such as way that it doesn’t impose on others. Tight integration with other programs help situate it within the network as opposed to fighting against it.

Good design is as little design as possible: Once again, a corpus shouldn’t try to do too much. It should divide itself up into focused segments or modules that can be connected or pulled apart depending on the usage.

What do you think? What could be done to make a corpus more user-friendly and practical? How could a corpus be re-envisioned for the modern age? These are just some of my thoughts, it is now your turn.

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Corpora and Collocations

word and phrase

At the last BCTEAL Conference in May, a colleague of mine gave an interesting talk on collocations and made mention of the use of some websites to help students understand what words normally go together. After the session, I was talking with another teacher about the lack of really easy to use corpus tools for students. It appears to me that most corpora are designed for researchers and are way too complex for the average teacher or student to use. There are a few tools that are not too bad, but for the most part, they are a mess visually and in their usage. Maybe corpus designers feel they need to add as many options as possible to satisfy the academic community who typically use it.

I did a little research after the fact and was either directed to or managed to find a few tools that may be useful for students and teachers who are interested in locating collocates of English words. In case you are not sure what any of this means, I thought a little primer on corpora might be in order. For those who understand them better than I do, my apologies for possibly oversimplifying what they are and how they work. My goal here is to provide a simple overview.

What is a corpus?

Simply put, a corpus is a text database. There is no size limit on a corpus, but the larger the corpus, the chances of a more accurate result increases. Large corpora (plural for corpus) usually have millions of words which have been added from hundreds of thousands of documents and transcripts. For example, the British National Corpus (BNC) is made of a incredible amount of documents resulting in a 100 million word database.

What kind of corpora are there?

There are corpora based on spoken speech taken from things such as television, interviews, radio, and other recordings. There are also academic, news, and literature databases just to name a few. It is also possible to create your own using texts, although the sample size is fairly small.

How are they used?

The original corpora were used by publishers and researchers to determine common language usage in publications and language studies. Dictionaries, textbooks, and other coursebooks make heavy use of corpora to determine their content. Researchers have used corpora for cross-cultural language use studies such as comparing essays written by students in one country versus another. This helps in understanding language usage in various contexts to assist others such as teachers in the classroom.

Currently, corpora usage has been extended to the average person such as the teacher in the classroom or even the language student directly. Tools like those listed below help students and teachers to better understand how English is put together in various genres and situations, such as word collocates (words that normally go together) and position in the sentence.

Collocation Tools


COCA

COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English): This is an excellent corpus, but not the easiest to navigate for collocations. Being that it uses current American English, this database sets it apart from most of the others listed here. Here is a simple way to get collocations:

  • Go to Coca and type your word in ‘Word(s)’ box.

COCA 1

  • Click on the ‘Collocates’ link just below the ‘Word(s)’ box.
  • Click on the ‘Search’ button.
  • A list will appear on the right in order of collocation frequency (the number of collocates with your keyword is listed to the right under ‘Freq’). Click on any of the words and a list of sentences will appear below.

COCA 2


Lextutor

Lextutor Concordance: This is not one of the prettiest sites you will ever find, nor is it that easy to navigate, but it is pretty powerful. The collocation function is somewhat limited, but still useful. Here is a simply way to get a list of collocations:

  • Go to Lextutor Concordances and type your word in the box next to ‘Keywords’ and ‘equals’.

Lextutor 1

  • Click on ‘Get concordance’.

Lextutor 2

  • You will get a short list of sentences listed in alphabetical order of the words directly to the left of your keyword. You can change that at the top of the page in the ‘sort’ drop-down menus.

Lextutor 3

  • Scroll to the bottom of the page to get your short list of collocates.

Lextutor 4


JTW

Just the Word (JTW): This is a popular tool with language teachers and students and for good reason. Out of the most used collocation tools, this is one of the easiest to navigate, although it is a bit limiting. It is based on the BNC, so the results are decidedly British (i.e. the collocations may be different than in North American English). Here is how it works:

  • Go to JTW and type your word in the ‘Enter a word or short phrase’ box and click on ‘Combinations’.

JTW 1

  • You will get a list of collocations divided by ‘clusters’. These clusters are related to the meaning of the word and the word type. You will also see a green line showing how often these word combinations are found together.

JTW 2

  • Click on any of the word combinations and you will get a list of the sentences with that combination.

JTW 3


Collection

Corpora Collection: This is a collection of some of the open corpora including the BNC, Brown, and Reuters. You can change which corpus you use and can get a list of words that collocate with your keyword in that database. Here is a simple use of this site:

  • Go to the Corpora Collection site and type your keyword into the box at the top of the page.

Collection 1

  • Click on the button next to ‘Collocations’ about halfway down the page.

Collection 2

  • Click on ‘Submit’ at the top of the page.

Collection 3

  • You will get a list of collocations in order by score from most to least.

Collection 4


Word

Word and Phrase: This site has a number of tools, but I just wanted to focus on collocation tools for students and teachers. This site is another of those that has lots of functions, but the tools are complex or not necessary for students. Here is how you can create a simple collocations list:

  • Go to Word and Phrase and click on ‘Frequency list’.

Word 1

  • Type your word in the ‘Word’ box and click on ‘Search’

Word 2

  • You will get a list on the right-hand side listed by parts of speech (PoS). Click on the PoS that you would like to see and a list of sentences will be displayed below.

Word 3

  • The collocations are listed alphabetically by those to the right of the word.

Word 4


Skell

SkELL: This site is based on the Sketch Engine which is used by a number of other sites. It uses a cross-section of texts. It is also very simple to use and offers something a little different. Here is how it works:

  • Go to SkELL and type your word in the box at the top of the page.

Skell 1

  • Click on ‘Word Sketch’ and a list of words under word type categories appears below. Click on one of the words listed below to get a list of sentences using that word combination.

Skell 2


Flax

Flax Learning Collocation: This is easily one of the simplest and also nicest of all of the collocation sites. Thanks to Mura Nava who kindly pointed me in the direction of this site during one of my corpus rants on Twitter, I now have a site I can comfortably send my students to knowing they won’t need a lot of hand holding through the process. Here is how it works:

  • Go to Flax Learning Collocations and type your word into the box at the top of the page and click on ‘go  (you can also choose a different corpus from the drop-down menu to the left of ‘go’ for clicking on it).

Flax 1

  • You find a nice list of collocation broken down by usage and a number beside each collocation. This is how often it is found in the database.

Flax 2

  • Click on any of the collocation and you will get a new list showing the variations of that collocation. Click on any of those and you will get a list of sample sentences using that combination.

Flax 3

Let me know what you think. Do you have any to add? How do you use corpora in your classroom? Share you ideas, thoughts, and comments below. Thank you!

Video in ELT: Moving from Passive to Active Part 5 – Interacting (Social Asynchronous Webinar)

This is the final instalment of the Social Asynchronous Webinar – Video in ELT: Moving from Passive to Active. If you are interested in watching the previous sections, here are the post:

In this section, we discuss the use of Mozilla Popcorn Maker to remix and edit online videos, photos, and audio with maps, text, and popup items. Here is the video:

Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 1.49.57 PM

I would love to get your feedback on the content of the seminar as well as the idea of the webinar and how it can be improved in the future. Maybe you think this isn’t the best idea or you think it could be done a lot better. If that is the case, please let me know.

If you just want to watch the full webinar (in five sections), here is the YouTube playlist.

Video in ELT: Moving from Passive to Active Part 4 – Annotating (Social Asynchronous Webinar)

Welcome to part 4 of the Social Asynchronous Webinar (SAW) “Video in ELT: Moving from Passive to Active”. You can find all of the posts on this webinar here (from newest to oldest).

In this section, we are discussing the use of videoANT to annotate videos. Watch the video and feel free to add your comments to the video as well.

SAW part 4

Here are links to some of the things I talked about in the video:

I look forward to hearing from each of you as we wind down this first SAW.

Thank you!

 

Video in ELT: Moving from Passive to Active Part 3 – Screencasting (Social Asynchronous Webinar)

Welcome to part three of the first Social Asynchronous Webinar (SAW). Here is where you can find part one and part two along with my initial idea regarding SAWs.

For this section, the focus was on screencasts in the classroom. Below is the link to the videoANT for part three along with links to some of the things mentioned in the video.

Screen Shot 2014-07-18 at 8.24.46 PM

Mentioned in the video:

My post on screencasting using Quicktime Player on a Mac

My post on giving oral feedback for writing assignments

My post on portable apps including CamStudio

Comment from Laura Adele Soracco on using screencasting

Hello everyone!

This SAW idea is incredible. Really like what’s happening here, Nathan 🙂 At the risk of getting a bit off topic, I just wanted to say, since you’ve mention screencast-o-matic, that I find this program really useful to make screencasts of my feedback to students’ first drafts. I do this as an alternative to written feedback when I know the errors are complicated to explain in writing and I want to make sure students can understand me more easily. The nature of your webinar here is making me realize that I could also ask students to use the program to post replies and go over changes with me.

Also, here is a comment this week from Janet McQueen on two teachers who use video and ICT to enhance learning

Hi Nathan

[H]ere are two video clips I think are relevant. They both come from CORE Education EDTALKS series where New Zealand teachers talk about what they are doing especially in ICT.

The first is Amy Park,Engaging parents in transparent classrooms http://edtalks.org/video/engaging-parents-transparent-classrooms.

Amy is actually from Canada and she discusses engaging parents with their children’s learning through the use of technologies. Amy has found that technologies such as blogging and videoing children’s work provides parents with a window to the classroom and helps them feel more connected and better able to be a partner in the learning process. It can be downloaded from http://vimeo.com/50111283.

The second clip follows on from my comments about knowing why you are using a particular tool that you talked about in this weeks video. It is of Claire Amos who is director of eLearning at Epsom Girls’ Grammar. Claire talks about how the school is using a ‘teaching as inquiry’ cycle to inform the eLearning action plans that will be implemented by professional learning groups in each of the school’s curriculum areas. Claire describes the process the teachers are going through in this initiative. Using teaching as inquiry to guide an eLearning action plan you can view it here http://www.edtalks.org/video/using-teaching-inquiry-guide-elearning-action-plan, or download it from http://vimeo.com/50175025.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how you use screencasting and also how you have your students use videos in your classroom.

Video in ELT: Moving from Passive to Active Part 2 – Creation (Social Asynchronous Webinar)

Welcome to part two of the first Social Asynchronous Webinar (SAW). In this section, we look over some of the comments that were given after part one and also recording and sharing videos. Some of the comments were not shared in this section as they are applicable to other upcoming portions of this webinar. For those that commented, thank you so much for your input. I look forward to hearing from all of you on how you have students record and share their videos.

Once again, I am using videoANT for commenting, so feel free to watch and comment. I make a small challenge towards the end of the video and I look forward to seeing (and hearing!) how you do with that. At the bottom of this page, I have included links to all of the things that were mentioned in the video including copies of the comments I referred to.

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 2.22.02 PM

Laura Adele Soracco: “Excited to give a try to some of the tools you’ve mentioned. I can imagine students in an online course using VideoANT to give presentations and get feedback/questions from other classmates. This side bar here is great because it connects to a specific part of the talk.”

“As speaking practice homework, I’ve used YouTube for Ss to record a 2 minute response after watching a video (I’ve given a list of options). Ss then share the link with me. The downside is that it’s a T-S activity as I did it in the past, but I think in the future if I did this, I’d ask students to upload the link to a shared place, like a Wiki or something similar.”

Note: Laura also interviewed me in regards to SAWs. You can read it here.

David Harbinson: “First off, I like the idea of SAW and it looks like you’re off to a good start. I very rarely have my Ss create videos in class, this is mainly because we don’t have access to computers for them to do so (and it’s not possible to set for homework because of the context that I teach in). However, a few times in the past, I have had students use their smartphones to create a video. The one problem I have encountered is that they take many short clips but then don’t know how to stitch them together. I wonder if anyone knows of a good app, preferably free, that Ss can download in class and quickly use to stitch video clips together?”

Janet McQueen: “Thanks for sharing and trialing this new medium for learning. I don’t currently teach so I haven’t used these tools with students but I am interested in the topic. I do write about second language teaching and incorporating the use of technology for school teachers in New Zealand. I think the key to any tool is that we know why we are using it. Is it the best tool to meet our teaching objectives? Also to embed it in our planning to ensure that our teaching is authentic, has academic rigor, uses applied learning, allows for student active exploration and for them to have connections with adults. Of course to do that we first need to know the technological possibilities and be a learner ourselves so we can use the technology as well.”

Mentioned in the video:

Vid.me

VideoShow: Video Editor and Maker (Android)

iMovie (paid) and YouTube Capture (free) (iOS)

YouTube webcam recorder

Edmodo

Blogger

WordPress

Google Drive 

Thank you all for participating. I look forward to hearing what you all have to say!

Portable Apps: A tech toolkit in your pocket


Image courtesy of AmsterdamPrinting

Image courtesy of AmsterdamPrinting


Note: This is for people who want or need to use shared Windows-based computers at work like I do. I personally use a Mac, but I am forced in some situations to work on Windows in my classroom. I will do a post some time on tips for Mac users.

If any of you work in various rooms and offices like I do, you find it frustrating when you move from computer to computer only to find that certain things are not available on one machine or blocked on another. Also, adding programs to computers that are locked-down is a pain. In many of the places I have worked at, it takes days, possibly weeks, to get anything installed on your computer only to have to do it again on a different machine once you move rooms.

My solution has been to make use of online tools, but that isn’t always ideal and if the network is slow or goes down, you are stuck. Many years ago, I came across the website PortableApps.com where legal, open-source / free software has been adapted to run off of a portable drive such as a USB thumb drive. I have made good use of this site over the years and I thought it might be helpful to some of you if I was to give you a rundown of what portable apps are, why they are helpful, and what apps I have found to be especially useful.

How to install an app from PortableApps.com

  1. Go to PortableApps.com and click on ‘Apps’ at the top of the page.
  2. Look through the apps list to find something that you think would be helpful to you. Click on the link on the name.
  3. Read through the description and/or view the screenshot to see if this might be something you would like to install. If you are happy with it, click on the big, green ‘Download Now’ button near the top of the page.
  4. You will be taken to a Sourceforge page and your download should start in about 5 seconds. If it doesn’t start after five seconds, click on the small ‘direct link’ near the top of the page. If you are using a browser that prompts you about a place to download, select a place to download and start the download.
  5. The file you have downloaded is an installer you need to run. Find where the installer was downloaded to and then double-click on the file.
  6. Once the installer starts up, follow these steps:
    1. Click on ‘Next >’
    2. Choose your destination folder (best to select your USB drive or any other external drive) and click on ‘Install
    3. Once it has finished the installation process, click on ‘Finish’
  7. If you have installed it to your portable drive, find the drive on your computer and you will see a new folder labelled by the name of the app. Inside that folder will be the program you can run. Just double-click on it to start it up!

Tips:

  • You can also install to a shared network folder if you have one at your workplace. This makes it easy to access without having to take a portable drive around with you.
  • Save any files you make to the drive as well so you have them with you.
  • Browser plugins such as Adobe Flash can also be installed as per usual.
  • Make sure you eject your drive before removing it.

My favourite portable apps

  • VLC: If there was one program that I think should be installed on every computer, it is this one. VLC is the Swiss Army Knife of media players. It plays basically any type of audio and video files and can even create files as well. You can rip an audio CD to MP3 files to carry with you for class, you can play podcast audio and video files, you can create playlists and bookmarks for your files, you can adjust the volume much higher than most players, and so on. Once day I will do a post on how I use VLC in the classroom. For now, just know that if there is a video or audio file to play, use VLC since it is virtually guaranteed to work.
  • Audacity: This is an audio player, editor, and recorder. This is great for the language classroom. You will need to install a few plugins to make certain files such as MP3 play or record, but that is pretty simple to do.
  • CamStudio: While I tend to use Screencast-O-Matic for screencasting, some schools don’t allow access to Java and with slower internet speeds, it can be a pain. This is a simple tool to make a video of your screen as you work on your computer. It is great for creating video tutorials or mini lessons.
  • Lightscreen: While the Snipping Tool included with Windows 7 and 8 works fairly well, Lightscreen works with older versions and also is a slight step faster than the Snipping Tool. Basically, it allows you to take a screenshot of a section of your screen and automatically saves it as an image.
  • Foxit Reader: While most computers have Adobe Acrobat Reader to read PDF files, Foxit is an alternative. It looks and feels like an Office application and I like the annotation tools better than Reader.
  • PDFTK Builder: This is the PDF Toolkit and it is great for removing pages from a pdf and combine pages as well. If I have a really long PDF and I only want to have a version with a few pages, I use this to pull out the pages I want and then combine them into one document.
  • Gimp: This is a fantastic photo editor along the lines of Adobe Photoshop. I use it to edit photos instead of the standard programs in Windows.
  • Peazip: I have no idea why some computers do not have a file decompressor installed. Windows can handle some files like Zip, but if I come across something else, such as a RAR file, this works wonders.
  • NVU / KompoZer: This is WYSIWYG HTML and CSS editor. I use to to create tables and so forth for blog posts. Works fairly well, but I am not sure how many people would make use of it other than me.
  • VirtualDub: This is a video capture/processing program. It isn’t very user friendly, but if the computer I am using does not have even a basic video editor, this does the trick.
  • Open Office: This is a Microsoft Office compatible office suite to create and view documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. I am not in love with the program since it isn’t the most intuitive, but it does the job.
  • Jarte: This is tabbed word processor that works well for me as a notetaker. It is smaller to open than Open Office and I can keep it running in the background whenever I need to jot something down.
  • Artha: This is portable thesaurus. It works well and doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. I use it lots in my writing classes.
  • Mnemosyne: This is a flashcard creator and player. I have a mixed relationship with flashcards, but it is handy sometimes. I still prefer online versions such as Quizlet, but this works well for something simple.
  • Google Chrome / Firefox: I actually have both on my USB drive since some sites play differently with different browsers. They are portable versions of the popular browsers. Why? Privacy. Everything stays on my drive. I don’t need it as often with cloud-synching, but some computers don’t have anything but Internet Explorer installed (gasp!), so this is my backup plan.
  • Skype: The popular audio and video chat program in a portable app when the computer I am using is without it. Nothing more to say here. Works well.
  • Tweetdeck: Portable version of the popular Twitter client that I use at home. Much better than using the browser based options.
  • Cook Timer: The most simplistic program on this list. Nothing more than a countdown timer. Great for keeping students on task. I often use online versions, but this works well.

I know some of you have other preferences, so feel free to share them in the comment sections below. Feel free to ask questions and I will do my best to answer them for you.