WikiConference USA

This past weekend was the inaugural WikiConference USA, a New York area conference focused on all things wiki. I presented a summary of our work with PS 9 at a session on Saturday morning and was privileged to share a track with Gabriel Thullen, a Swiss computer and media teacher who helps students contribute to Wikipedia as early as 7th grade. It was wonderful to see others who are working directly in schools and, as always, I was very pleased to talk with language teachers from as far away as San Francisco and Canada.

Every time I meet with people from the Wikipedia community I am struck by how strongly our goals for spreading knowledge and our values of openness, participation, and empowerment align. It is a welcome change of pace from stories about how technology is being used to surveil whole societies and how the tools of education are being used to build profiles of children. Now that we have reached the one year anniversary of Edward Snowden’s revelations I think we can all use a reminder that we can have a voice in how the technologies in our lives develop and whether they are used to support our values or undermine them. For myself, interacting with the other participants at WikiConference was that reminder.

Language exchange launch

Last night we began the second stage of the Last Language Textbook campaign at Brooklyn’s PS 9 elementary school. Fifteen parents and teachers gathered together to start a new language exchange organized around the materials that Wikiotics Fellows Claribel Sanchez and Jarrett Carter spent the summer building.


I am happy to report that everything went very well and the group is scheduled to meet again on December 2nd to continue learning basic Spanish vocabulary and practice their first English/Spanish dialogues. Any Spanish or English speaking parents in the community who would like to participate, please email After December 2nd there will be a more formal schedule for the spring term meetings and we will post about it here.

Learning Bilingually

This September the Last Language Textbook is coming to the Teunis Bergen PS 9 School in Brooklyn. Our Wikiotics Fellows have spent the summer building resources to help parents of the school’s bilingual education students learn along with their children. On September 8th we will be introducing these new materials to the community and showing how parents can get involved by building materials for each other, their children, and by participating in school sponsored language exchanges.

Whether you are a parent, teacher, or just a community member interested in English and Spanish education, everyone is welcome at this free event. Join us September 8th from 1:00-4:00pm in the Info Commons room of the Brooklyn Public Library’s historic main branch location at Grand Army Plaza.

Building for the world

How do you build globally useful teaching materials?

In the first year of our Last Language Textbook (LLT) campaign we have tried a number of approaches, from international workshops to online courses. Our conclusion? Start by building materials that are immediately useful to one community and empower teachers to adapt, rebuild, or share those materials for use in different circumstances. For the second year of the LLT campaign we are taking that lesson to heart and refocusing our international efforts locally on the dual language program at a Brooklyn elementary school.

The PS 9 Teunis Bergen School in Brooklyn is a public school with a young but growing dual language immersion program. Built by talented staff, an engaged community of parents, and a supportive administration, it is an exciting program looking to reach more of the local community. To help support this effort we are launching the Wikiotics Open Education Design Fellowship and selecting Claribel Sanchez, one of the teachers from the program, and Jarrett Carter, a local education technology graduate student, as our first pair of Fellows.

Fellowship support will enable Claribel and Jarrett to spend the summer building free online materials that support the school’s curriculum while also serving as a resource for parents, other teachers, and self-directed students in the wider community. This work will incorporate both the Wikiotics tools and the WikiBook platform, the first of what we hope will be many technological collaborations for our project.

The goal of all this activity is to teach parents of PS9 students enough language skills that they can practice with their children at home and communicate with each other at school events. This work will be available in English and Spanish and we hope will it become a useful resource throughout the New York City school system.

In addition to our fellows I am excited to announce that the New York Wikipedia chapter will be joining us to support this effort. The NY chapter regularly organizes community events that share local voices, pictures, and knowledge with the millions using Wikipedia online. At the end of the summer they will be lending that expertise to organize a local event where anyone in NY can come to help translate, illustrate, or add audio and pictures to enrich these free language materials.

If you are interested in helping some families learn, supporting a local school, or building up the language instruction materials freely available online, keep your calendars open. We will be announcing final dates later this month.

This summer push is just the beginning of our local focus for the LLT campaign. We look forward to continuing to grow our community roots with PS 9 and to planting seeds in other communities. By using online collaboration tools like Wikiotics and WikiBooks to help facilitate local activity, our community work can extend far beyond our community borders. Working together we can build locally and share globally.

Thanks as always to our sponsors the Linux Fund and for their support of the LLT campaign and special thanks to Matt Curinga for all his local outreach work this spring.

The Last Language Textbook – New Delhi workshop

On October 25th and 26th I was in New Delhi running the second workshop in our Last Language Textbook workshop series. A dozen teachers from all over India and I spent two days exploring the capabilities of the Wikiotics tools and building lessons for their students.

You can see all the lessons we built on the Indian workshop page, including our second Panjabi lesson and this great podcast lesson on asking permission, which was written from scratch by two teachers who were completely new to Wikiotics. It was a great two days and I am excited to continue working with the whole group as they build Wikiotics into their classes going forward.

Group of teachers from the Last Language Textbook workshop held at the NIIT offices in New Delhi

Group of teachers from the Last Language Textbook workshop held at the NIIT offices in New Delhi

I want to thank NIIT’s Yuva Jyoti centers for hosting the workshop and our sponsors and the Linux Fund, whose continued support makes this LLT campaign possible. I am particularly grateful to have met all the Yuva Jyoti teachers, who came from half a continent away for the workshop. It was great to meet everyone and I learned a lot about the different challenges and opportunities of teaching in many of India’s regions.

We are looking to run the third LLT workshop over winter break or early in the spring semester. If you are interested in participating in this next workshop, or your school or organization might be interested in hosting that workshop, please send me a note at:

A report from Wiki Workshop One

This past Saturday was the first Wikiotics workshop, an event we have been discussing for many weeks. We had some great participants representing a whole range of New York’s educational organizations, from universities like Adelphi and Columbia, to the Metropolitan College of New York (MCNY), and the informal group Friends of the United Nations English club group organized to support the UN language school.

During a few short hours we designed and created 4 new lessons, brainstormed topics for 11 more, and, while we were at it, recorded audio for all of our Spanish lessons. You can see the results of our work on the workshop’s wiki page.

End of the day at the Wikiotics Workshop

End of the day at the Wikiotics Workshop

There was so much enthusiasm during the workshop that we have decided to expand it into a series.

I am excited to announce that we already have the next workshop lined up for later this month. Our next workshop will be in New Deli, India where I will be working with teachers from the Yuva Jyoti educaiton centers and the Hole in the wall computer project.

Thanks to the support of our sponsors at the Linux Fund and, we are able to start planning the third workshop in this series, back in New York during winter recess. If you want to participate or your school may want to host that workshop, just write to

Many thanks to our great participants, to our hosts at Adelphi university, to our sponsors who made this workshop possible, and to the rest of the community for your great ideas and support. See you this winter!

Building a lesson: Podcasts

What is a Podcast?

Last week we looked at the Picture Choice lesson format, which combines text, audio, and pictures into a type of interactive flash card format. This week the focus is all audio with our Podcast lesson format. A Podcast lesson is what we call any lesson made up entirely of audio.

These can be short dialogues, traditional "repeat after me" courses, or any combination of purely audio elements you can imagine. It is a simple, flexible format that students can easily download to listen to offline on any kind of mp3 player or phone that plays music. Because these lessons are all built on Wikiotics, they have ease of customization and collaboration, and re-use built in. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples and you can see how this built in flexibility makes the Podcast lesson.


Back in the 1970’s and 80’s the US State Department wrote a series of audio language courses for their staff about to leave the country to work at an embassy. Because these are works of the US Federal government, they are part of the public domain and a number of different people have worked to pull those materials together and make them available. We processed some of these for Wikiotics from the Mandarin Chinese and the French language series.

Because these were uploaded in bulk most of the individual elements have not yet been transcribed but this lesson is a great example of the finished product. If you need some examples of how to build a professional series of Podcast lessons, listening to a few of these will give you a feel for the format.

The introductory Mandarin lesson, like most of the FSI materials, focuses on a short dialogue, breaking it up into small pieces for the listening student and explaining each one as it appears. Any time a new phrase is introduced, it is repeated twice before being defined or explained, and as the lesson progresses previous elements of the dialogue are repeated until every part has been covered and then repeated in context. The format is relatively standardized and straightforward. Thanks to the internet, the way you build these lessons doesn’t have to be.

Flexible authoring

FSI lessons were built in a professional recording studio by a group of professional teachers and native speaker voice actors working closely together. On Wikiotics, you can accomplish the same task much more easily. Take a look at this introductory English lesson designed for French speakers. The format is very similar to the FSI but this lesson was built by two people working independently on separate continents. I wrote the original version (available here) but I don’t speak any French so I left the parts of the lesson designed to translate and explain the English for French speakers in English. You can see an example of what this looks like with this lesson. Then another user came along and translated the relevant parts into French and later this week we will get two different users to record the audio bits necessary to complete the lesson.

The ability to work in groups separated by time, distance, and that may not even know each other makes it much easier to produce professional podcasts by sharing the work and resources required. It also makes lessons much more flexible. Because Wikiotics lessons are broken down into individual sentences or other small bits of audio rather than as one large audio file, it is easy to customize and re-use whatever bits you want.

If you want to make that introductory English lesson for Spanish rather than French speakers, you can simply make a new copy of the version that is all in English and translate the explanation bits into Spanish. If you want to learn Mandarin only hearing tenor voices or voices of one particular gender, you can copy the FSI lesson and replace just the few bits of native audio. At the October workshop we will be preparing lessons with multiple different voice options so the Kids on Computers children can choose what voices they want to model when learning English.

To read more about the potential of this flexible authoring, take a look at this piece from last year when we debuted the Podcast format.

Next week

Next week we will take a look at the third of four lesson types supported on Wikiotics: the Phrase Choice lesson.

Building a lesson: Picture Choice

This week we are going to build a picture choice lesson, which is an interactive lesson format that combines simple text, audio, and pictures. As mentioned last week, picture choice lessons are particularly good for building vocabulary and explaining easily picture-able relationships like number, size, location, relative position, color and other physical adjectives, etc. There are two basic ways to build a picture choice lesson: to review material or to lead students through new material. Lets see what each of these look like and when they are useful. I’m going to link to the edit view of all these lessons so you can see how they are put together. If you want to see what they are like as lessons, just remove the “?view=edit” part from the url.

Review Lessons

Review lessons are basically just decks of multimedia flash cards. You can use almost anything you want to review and the elements are put together in any order. Some examples of this include this adjective lesson and this one on irregular plurals. Each row in these lessons has a sentence to be studied and a picture that clearly illustrates the sentence. Those sentences are roughly arranged in the lesson by topic but the order is not very important for the lesson to be effective at review. However, these lessons are unlikely to be effective for new students who will have a hard time picking up all the different things to learn without a guiding structure or a clearer focus.

Teaching Lessons

I call lessons that are designed to lead students through new material “teaching lessons”. These lessons have a clear focus and present new material in a structured way designed to let students build their understanding gradually. Our intro lesson is a short example of this. In the first group, lines 1-4, the basic vocabulary is introduced with simple sentences. The next group builds on that simple vocabulary to introduce slightly more advanced terms. Having learned the terms for “Man” and “Woman” in the first group you are then asked to pick out the pictures “The man is sitting” and “The woman is sitting,” reinforcing the earlier vocabulary while introducing the term “sitting” and its use. In each of the four groups, new material is built on top of the old little by little. This approach is designed to enable students to identify new material contextually, without an explanation or formal introduction from the teacher.

The Structured Approach

For a better look at how the structure of a lesson helps students identify new material, we turn to the Colors and Vehicles lesson. This lesson teaches both color and vehicle vocabulary without ever increasing the complexity of the sentences used. In the first group of pictures, all the vocabulary is introduced at once with four pictures presenting vehicles of different colors. This first group looks much like a review lesson but from here the structure starts to guide things. In Groups 2-5 (lines 5-20), the sentences continue to use both vehicle and color vocabulary with phrases like “This is a green boat” but each group of four focuses on only one type of vehicle so that the only changing element that students have to base their picture choice on are the color words. Then in the rest of the lesson students are asked to choose between groups that always include two items with the same color or of the same vehicle type. This tests their mastery of both sets of vocabulary and provides some diversity of choices and visually appealing pictures.

This kind of lesson structure makes for a very engaging picture choice lesson and a solid foundation for additional, more complex material. Best of all, because this is a wiki, if you have an idea on how to build on this lesson material, you can copy the lesson and make your own version. I built a version that introduces the “and” conjunction after the first two thirds of the lesson. Try making your own version of the original lesson by clicking it here: Colors and Vehicles (copy) and entering a new page name in the title box. Or you can copy my version from here: Colors and Vehicles – Ian (copy).

Later in the week we will take a look at Podcast lesson format and keep building up to this October’s NYC workshop on October 13th.

Building a lesson: The Foundation

This second post in the “Building a lesson” series will give you some general tips for building online teaching materials along with Wikiotics-specific instructions to walk you through building lessons on

Choose a topic

The first step in building a lesson is choosing a topic. Since language covers anything you can express, there are an almost limitless number of potential topics. Honestly it is a bit daunting so we have created a simple curriculum of introductory English topic here on our Last Language Textbook campaign pages (Level 1-Stage 1, Level 1-Stage 2, Level 1-Stage3, Level 2-Stage 1, Level 2-Stage 2, Level 2-Stage 3). If you need some help picking a topic, take a look at those pages for inspiration, or feel free to just use one directly and help out while you build.

Lesson Context

While building a language lesson it is easy to get caught up in what you are building, all the little bits of planning and searching for the right material that will make your lesson effective for students. However, to build a truly effective lesson it is important to remember all the other elements that surround your lesson. One way to do this is by writing a short introduction for your lesson that says who your lesson is written for, what things you assume those students will already know, and what new material you plan to use in your lesson. We call this your lesson’s “context” and writing it out early on is a useful way to focus your lesson building by making sure you’ve considered the basic design decisions and have an idea of who your audience is.

For example, my lesson is an introduction to counting. I am writing for students in their first month or two of English study. I assume students have a small English vocabulary, limited to some basic nouns like man, woman, cat, dog, etc and have some experience with plural nouns. In order to keep my lesson useful to many different students I am going to keep the new vocabulary I introduce limited to common household items, mostly dishes and utensils. Because basic counting is a very simple topic I am also going to use colors to vary the material for my lesson. This will help keep the material more visually interesting, which is very important for keeping students engaged with picture choice lessons.

If I wanted to write for a formal school environment I might consider using something other than household items. For a school setting I could use common school items like writing instruments, books, desks, etc, whereas if I were writing a lesson for adults traveling to the United States I might use US currency or the kind of food and beverages ordered while traveling.

You don’t have to actually write down your lesson context, though that can be very helpful to look back at while you are in the middle of building your lesson, just take a moment and see if you can answer these three questions about your lesson as you begin building it:

1) Who are your students? (Old, young, formal students, or self-directed?)
2) What should they know when starting you lesson? (Vocabulary, other language knowledge, etc)
3) What are you going to introduce in your lesson? (Vocabulary or other language knowledge you will use to illustrate your topic)

Lesson building: step by step

Every lesson on Wikiotics is built with these three steps:

  • Step 1: Go to the new lesson page and click on the type of lesson you want to create.
  • Step 2: Add text, audio, or pictures to your lesson.
  • Step 3: Save your lesson on the wiki.
  • Here I’m going to cheat by pointing you to our detailed “Creating a lesson” page, which goes into more detail on each of these steps.

    Next week we will go over an example of all this as I build a new picture choice lesson and point out some great ones already on the site.

    Building a lesson: The Lesson Types

    On October 13th we will be running our first workshop, “Wikiotics and Dimsum”, where we will be working with a number of first time lesson builders. To help all of them, and all of you reading this who want to help but have never built a language lesson before, I am starting this series of “How To” blog posts giving you an in depth view of how to build each of the four Wikiotics lesson types: Picture Choice, Podcast, Phrase Choice, and Storybook.

    This week I’ll introduce you to the foundation of lesson building on Wikiotics. Today we will look at each of the four lesson types and what their various strengths are. Then tomorrow we will go over how to physically create a lesson and some general lesson building considerations that are useful with any type of lesson.

    Over each of the next four weeks I will devote a blog post to one of the four lesson types until we have covered them all and are ready to get together and eat some dim sum.

    The Lesson Types

    Picture Choice

    In a picture choice lesson students must choose one picture from a group of four based on a text and audio prompt. The other three pictures in each group are the answers for other questions in the group so that eventually the students will identify every picture used in the lesson. Because every element in the lesson ends up being the correct answer at some point it can be useful to think of the material in a Picture Choice lesson as a deck of flash cards.

    As a lesson designer your role is to arrange these flash cards in a way that shows students what each one means as they move through the lesson. Students must correctly answer each question in a group of four before proceeding to the next group. Within each group of four questions are presented to students in a random order and pictures are randomly ordered in the group.

    What are they good for?

    Picture Choice lessons are particularly useful for building vocabulary and explaining easily picture-able relationships like number, size, location, relative position, color and other physical adjectives, etc.


    Podcast lessons are pure audio lessons that students can either stream online or download for use offline or on mobile devices with expensive data connections. Podcast lessons come in many forms, from lectures, to explanations for bits of practice audio, traditional “repeat after me” drill tapes, or any other audio-only lesson format you can imagine.

    A note on editing podcasts

    Non-Wikiotics podcast lessons available online are generally produced as a single audio recording. This makes them difficult and time consuming to edit.

    Our podcasts are composed form a series of short audio snippets that we combine into a single recording for playback. That means that means that lessons can be edited on the site like all our lessons, enabling easy collaboration, reuse of materials, and personalization.

    What are they good for?

    Podcast lessons are particularly good for teaching how to interact conversationally in a new language and for learning how to discuss concepts that are hard to visually illustrate.

    Phrase choice

    In a phrase choice lesson students must choose a text answer from a group of four based on a text prompt. Much like a Picture Choice, the other three answer choices are actually the correct answers to other questions in the group so students will eventually use all answers in the lesson. Students must correctly answer each question in a group of four before proceeding to the next group. Within each group of four questions are presented to students in a random order and individual phrases are randomly arranged in the group of possible answers on the page.

    What are they good for?

    Phrase Choice lessons are particularly useful for issues related to word order, punctuation, and words that have similar written or spoken forms. Because this lesson type does not use pictures or audio illustrations for the phrases it is the most drill-like of the lesson types and also one of the fastest lessons to create.


    Storybook lessons have a picture in the center of the screen with a text and audio element underneath it. Each row in your lesson creates one of these “pages” and students move back and forth through them as if they were navigating a book.

    What are they good for?

    Storybook lessons are particularly good at illustrating concepts that involve movement, a sequence of events, complex mental concepts like emotions, cause and effect, etc. Storybook lessons work very well in conjunction with other lesson types that can reinforce and clarify material presented in a storybook, for example a Phrase Choice lesson might ask students which character in a story book caused a certain event described in the story.