In January, I signed on to the Coventry University FutureLearn MOOC Understanding Dictionaries just as the corona storm started to develop. It has been an enriching experience to me as a teacher and a student of the language. The course was excellent and informative, but added to this, I gained first-hand experience of acquiring knowledge and developing my own skills through this mode of learning. As departments and staff join the rush to put courses online, this was a timely reminder of the potential value of online study, from a student perspective. Despite having researched, developed and delivered a range of online courses over my teaching career, I realised I had never actually undertaken a course of online study myself!
I signed up to this course because the lexical approach (Lewis, 1993), which enables students to acquire and use vocabulary appropriately, has always been at the heart of my teaching. In line with this approach, I encouraged students to critically evaluate their own bilingual dictionaries alongside advanced learner dictionaries such as those produced by Collins, Macmillan, Cambridge, Longman and Oxford. I was delighted to discover that the educators behind the MOOC included Hilary Nesi (co-developer of the BAWE corpus) and Michael Rundell (editor of the Macmillan Dictionary – a leader in exploiting the corpus-based approach) as well as Barbara McGillivray (a Cambridge lexicographer) and Sharon Creese (a researcher in neologisms).
This course started with a fairly general introduction to what dictionaries are for and how they have developed over the centuries, while adhering to the initial concept that they should be descriptive rather than prescriptive. This is a point that a number of language teachers (together with language mavens everywhere) still find it hard to accept. The core of the course was developing our understanding of the role corpora and corpus linguistics have played in recent years in expanding the descriptive power and authenticity of dictionaries. At the end I was left with a clear understanding of how the interaction of expert lexicographers with corpus material and online tools to analyse big data can continuously refine our understanding of how language is used at the present time.
Completing this course has helped to secure the foundations of my teaching approach. For instance, I have always been disturbed at the misuse of thesauruses by both students and language teachers as a tool for paraphrasing and, therefore, some sort of remedy for plagiarism. The content of the course clarified for me what is wrong with this notion – a thesaurus is not a list of synonyms and was never meant to be. It is simply a list of words that have similar meanings. So, of course they are not interchangeable – the whole point of having lots of words is to express many shades of meaning in different contexts, not to provide some sort of quick fix for paraphrasing the words of others. I gained many other insights and much useful information from the wide array of papers and other texts that were available as further reading to support the course.
I also gained a pedagogically useful experience in interacting with the other course participants. They were a diverse set of people, studying for reasons from being engaged in lexicography themselves to working as language teachers and editors, with a few who were studying for recreation because they were fascinated by language. We gradually developed the ability to deal with each other at our preferred level of study – some wanted to delve deeply into the more technical aspects of corpus studies, and read the provided material in depth, while others were happy to gain a more general understanding of the topics.
The comments on each unit, which were part of the task structure, reflected the development of our skills at communicating with each other and accepting the different perspectives in the group. These were judiciously supported by interventions from the educators and some of their comments on the participants’ contributions or questions were as valuable as the original task material and input. For those of in the group who were teachers, it was a good learning experience in terms of generating pedagogical reflective skills.
This raised the question: why aren’t teachers on teaching-oriented courses such as Masters in Applied Linguistic or TESOL required to complete a MOOC for credit on their programmes? I would thoroughly recommend this MOOC as an initial candidate (it is already certificated, so would fit in to a masters programme). The rush to online delivery has certainly made this a really critical issue in EAP at the present time. Like many others, I suspect EAP teaching will never be the same after Covid19. We need course developers and language teachers to have experience of this mode of learning and be aware of how it feels from a student perspective before they are involved in developing and delivering online courses themselves.
Don’t preach what you haven’t practised and don’t teach in modes of learning you haven’t tried yourself!
Lewis, Michael (1993) The Lexical Approach. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications