Sunday, 14 October 2012

Pete Sharma rocks Milan (with a little help from his friends): full report from the PSA Symposium, 2012 (Part 1)

Pete Sharma (left) talking at the PSA Symposium, Milan 2012 with Fabrizio Colombo,
Area Manager Italy, Greece & SEEU at SMART Technologies (centre) and
Cathy Smith, Sales & Marketing Director of Richmond ELT (right)
The theme of this “mini summit”, presented by Pete Sharma Associates at the British Consulate-General in Milan on 5th Ocotber 2012 was “The Impact of New Technology on Language Teaching”. It's almost a law of nature that whenever the subject of a conference is to do with technology, the gremlins will swarm. Such was the case with the Symposium, although to be fair to the people who came Milan to present their sites, materials, equipment and ideas, the technical problems that beset the first part of the proceedings were due rather to the extra-robust security at the British Consulate-General, rather than with any flaws in the technology on display. Indeed, the all the speakers who appeared early on were not only prime examples of British stiff upper lip, but also inadvertently underlined an important  point: while people can manage without technology, technology on its own cannot substitute for real, live humans (especially the redoubtable techies who were on-hand to sort everything out) - at least, not yet.

Vic Annells, the British Consul General in Milan (left), addressing
 the PSA Symposium, with presenter Byron Russell of PSA (right) 
Byron Russell, a PSA director, kicked off the event by welcoming everyone and explaining that Pete Sharma Associates is an international blended learning consultancy that aims to help people get over their fear of technology. In addition to its consultancy activities, PSA runs online courses and helps institutions integrate technology into their learning programmes.

Byron then introduced Vic Annells, the British Consul General in Milan and Director of UK Trade Investment Italy. He apologised for the tech difficulties and reassured everyone that the tight security at the British Consulate General is necessary in these difficult times, a point which everyone present accepted. Having recently completed an online course himself at Cambridge University, Vic was very enthusiastic about the motivating power of technology in the educational sphere.

Paul Rogers, founder and Director of Little Bridge (left)
With the original running order re-jigged, it fell to Paul Rogers of Little Bridge to open the batting, a task which he accepted manfully despite some continuing technical hitches.

Paul introduced us to Little Bridge, which is a virtual world which young learners can explore and learn English in a highly engaging, entertaining and safe environment.  Paul explained that he has a background in school teaching, at both primary and secondary level, as well as in universities. He has taught French, German, Spanish and English. The key to getting children involved in language learning, he feels, is to capture their imagination.

Teaching in the language classroom is somewhat strange. Paul likened it to teaching someone to swim without actually getting into the in water: what’s missing is the reality.

A bird's eye view of Little Bridge (plant not included)
Little Bridge is a small town, with a quintessentially English look and feel (stone buildings nestling among trees and hedges), but with a modern, diverse cast of characters that make it inclusive and accessible for a wide range of learners from around the world. 

The beauty of Little Bridge is that every story, song and activity is related to the Little Bridge world. This gives language learning a context, which is especially important for maintaining interest among young learners.

According to Paul there are two key requirements for language teaching. The first of these is motivation: all learners, not just children, have to want to learn if they are going to succeed. The second requirement is practice. However, given the constraints of school life and the competing demands of other subjects, there just isn’t enough classroom time for children to get the amount of practice they need in order to really develop their language skills: Little Bridge aims to address both of these issues, by providing kids with a highly absorbing and motivating virtual world and also the opportunity to gain extensive language practice both within and outside the classroom.

Little Bridge is matched to the CambridgeEnglish: Young Learners levels (Starters, Movers and Flyers). 

Inside the Little Bridge School
Paul took us into the School, where learners can access activities from familiar-looking drawers in the classroom. Activities include songs, speaking and extras. There is also a range of accompanying materials, including books, audio, worksheets. This is significant and proved to be one of the main themes of the Symposium: how “old media” works both alongside and in conjunction with the brave new digital world. Little Bridge in this context forms an actual bridge linking traditional media with new online resources that together form a continuum. (By the way, Little Bridge takes its name from the hump-backed bridge at the centre of the town.)

Little Bridge caters for a group of people who are for the most part perfectly comfortable with new, interactive forms of digital media: children. They are also some of the most demanding and critical consumers of learning resources. “We have to rise to the expectations of the kids,” says Paul.

One of the main features of Little Bridge is its wealth of different activity types – essential for holding the very limited attention span of its young guests. Interaction is at the heart of the project. For example, you can record yourself  taking part in dialogues and then play them back (normally a relatively simple task which somehow even the Consulate General’s fiendish security managed to thwart on the day).

Little Bridge is multi-sensory. Every unit contains a song, which is played from a cool animated mp3 player.

Learning in Little Bridge is carefully structured: it’s highly enjoyable, but it’s not “just” fun. Of course, learning should be enjoyable and motivating but there also needs to be a pedagogical backbone and logic to the learning that is taking place.

An interactive exercise on Little Bridge - with Domino (left)
There are however, some nice touches that are tailored to a younger audience. For example, Paul demonstrated a gap fill exercise in which the learner has to drag and drop the correct word. In addition adult voice saying either “Yes” or “No”, there is also a dog Domino, Little Bridge's mascot, who sits in the corner of the screen and helpfully nods or shakes his head.

This kind of instant feedback is critical in maintaining interest an attention. It also encourages learners to take more risks and be prepared to make mistakes, which as Paul pointed out, is how we learn, e.g. you learn to walk by falling over. “Mistakes get a bad press,” he said. One of the advantages of interactive, online learning is that you can make your mistakes in private.

However, Little Bridge also has an integrated Learning Management System. All the results from every activity undertaken by learners is sent through to the LMS, where the teacher can analyse an individual student’s progress and keep a check on how the entire group is performing.
Little Bridge supports learning with a naturalistic and engaging enviornment

Another subtle but very powerful feature of Little Bridge is that it uses sophisticated non-verbal – often visual – cues to support learner’s understanding and create a rich, naturalistic context for communication. For example, in a relatively straightforward dialogue between a boy and a girl we discover that the girl has been shopping and as bought a tee-shirt. While the language is fairly simple and well adapted to the learner’s level, the reaction of the boy when he sees the less-than-covetable fashion item the girl has bought is one of exaggerated horror (that would roughly be rendered as “Yeech!” if it were in a US sitcom). In another example, the sentence “I don’t like table tennis” is set in a mini animated drama in which the ping-pong ball glances off the table edge past the bemused player. Reactions, expressions  and “collateral” content that isn’t verbalised tend to provide human depth and naturalness, even though the grammar structures and lexis (vocabulary) employed are pitched at an accessible level.

Manufacturing content: the Grammar Factory in Little Bridge
Another area where Little Bridge can appeal to children is grammar - again, another area of language learning that more often than not is greeted in class with groans rather than grins. Paul suggested that grammar is really a short cut to the underlying concepts of what’s going in the language: it allows us to understand what’s going on behind the scenes. Little Bridge aims to make grammar more engaging and not just treat it as a separate part of learning the language. The Grammar Factory looks like real fun: it attempts to demystify grammar by presenting it as matter-of -fact set of structures and procedures all beautifully animated with industrial machinery, robot arms and conveyor belts. Watching bits of language being transformed in the Little Bridge Grammar Factory induces a strangely calming, almost hypnotic state in which grammatical structures literally appear before your eyes: it’s almost like watching a cognitive process externalised and set in a friendly, non-threatening environment – a grammar factory.

Little Bridge is used in schools worldwide, for example the US, Scandinavia, Turkey, Russia, where it is a mainstay of English teaching in some of the largest schools in St Petersburg). Every school in Mexico has Little Bridge.

The feedback from teachers has been both positive and insightful. ‘Our students talk about the characters as if they are friends’ is a typical comment.

Another important feature for learning English in a global context is that you can switch the whole platform between British and American English. This is significant especially in regions where US English is the preferred variety, such as Asia.

(Chatting to Paul later, I asked him if they had considered making a version of Little Bridge which looks more American – Little Bridge, USA? However, he told me that international students are quite happy with the typically British look and it is the ability to switch between UK / US English that has proved more significant.)

Learners can create their own character and room in the
safe, moderated Little Bridge community environment
As with all the other platforms and products presented at the Symposium, the social element of blended learning is an integral part of the Little Bridge experience. All users can access the online community, which is moderated to ensure safety. All comments on the community have to be in English and there is a messaging system (DigiTalk) that allows children to share their experiences and feelings about learning English in the Little Bridge microcosm. (You can find more discussion of this in the Open Forum section of this report.)

Perhaps the main advantage of Little Bridge is that it can be used both at school and at home, allowing students to maximise practice time away from the classroom but also to benefit from their familiarity with the environment in classroom activities. Teachers can also save valuable time as all results are sent to the LMS, which cuts out the need for endless marking. 


  1. Really comprehensive coverage of a great day, thanks Robert! Looking forward to the rest (nice pics, too...)

  2. Thanks, Byron! Parts 2 and 3 are now online.