Money – I can’t stop thinking about it

If you had $350 to teach kids one word of an Indigenous language, what would you do with it?
• pay a skywriter to write Janapurlalki “eagle” over an Eagles grand final footy match in Tennant Creek?
• pay a cheersquad of 5 people to chant Ja na pu rlal ki at the Eagles footy game?
• buy 35 t-shirts printed with wawarta “clothes” and give them to the kids?
• pay someone to reprogram a Barbie doll to say “Ooooh wawarta!”?
• provide two big loaves of damper bread with, spelled out in raisins, kantirri “bread” or marnukuju jangu “with raisins”, once a week for a year?
• pay a language speaker to work with the children once a week for 4 weeks. And record the classes.
• pay a PhD student a scholarship for three years plus preparation, evaluation and testing expenses to work with speakers on devising a curriculum, lesson plans and teaching materials ( oops – only a very cheap PhD student in a very poor country – thanks Ilan!)
Now you’ve got $80,000 to get the kids using 230 words. Would you spend it on 230 reprogrammed Barbie dolls? Or on weekly school language classes for fifteen years? Or on a multi-media CD?

Would you go for the CD if.. the CD is a black box – done in proprietary software. So that teachers can’t add to it, create new modules, put other words in, and can’t download the pictures to create flash-cards or use them in other resources (they can print out .pdfs of some of the pictures).
Would you do it if.. the CD lacks movement – no cars to chase, no monsters to kill? (You can put eyebrows on faces).
If you would, then check out: Multilocus’ Eight Indigenous Language Multimedia CD-ROMs, a finalist for “Best Indigenous resource” in the 2006 ATOM (Australian Teachers of Media) multimedia awards. The first five of these CDs cost $400,000. That’s yours and my $400,000, if you’re an Australian tax-payer, thanks to the Government’s Telecommunications Action Plan for Remote Indigenous Communities. At $80,000 each, plus a lot of time, unpaid or seconded, from linguists working with communities and language centres, they had better be pretty damn good right? ( Conflict of interest!! I was barracking for an unsuccessful competing tender to produce open source multimedia dictionaries of several thousand words based on the Kirrkirr model)
I haven’t seen the CDs in action in classes yet, and I haven’t heard of any evaluation of their usefulness as a teaching tool. Rumour has it that one is not being used because one of the speakers recorded on the CD died and people are worried about accidentally listening to the voice. And because the CD is a black box there’s no way for anyone to get in and change the sound files.
So, blithely ignoring my conflict of interest, I took a look at the Learn Adnyamathanha CD-ROM. Adnyamathanha is a language which is not spoken fluently by anyone except some old people, and the CD is aimed at language revival. Adnyamathanha people are lucky because the South Australian Education Department has done brilliant work in curriculum design for teaching Indigenous languages, and this CD fits into that framework. Its usefulness owes a lot, not to Multilocus, but to the people they worked with.
The CD contains pretty pics of the Flinders Ranges and drawings by the kids at Augusta Park Primary School. It has 10 activities, things like clicking on syllables and listening to sounds, matching words to pictures, some cloze sentences, and a little story text with a handsome goanna going shopping that you can listen to. The audience is DEFINITELY primary school children. My attention drops sharply after the tongue has floated onto the face – forget clicking on the right word to get the nose and eyes there….
There are some sentences, mostly useful for grammatical points rather than conversation. Yellow-footed rock wallabies live in the hills is charming but not a conversation starter – The CD lacks the helpful structures of Alexander Lipson’s Russian conversation “Tigers live in Asia… We don’t live in Asia” “How come?” “Because we’re not tigers.”).
One good feature which I haven’t tried is a utility allowing students to record themselves and listen to themselves. Another good thing is the .pdf handbook for teachers, written by Guy Tunstill and Christine McKenzie. This gives teachers ideas about how to use the CD in class, as well as word-lists, translations, and a couple of songs (the latter don’t appear on the CD – maybe for copyright reasons?). Use the CD with a printout of this guide handy – one sentence cloze activity is too hard without it.
Kids can play with the CD on the computers at school; they can’t take it home and read it with their families, unless their families own computers. In that respect, picture dictionaries, such as the Institute for Aboriginal Development series, are more useful (and a hell of a lot cheaper to produce). Of course the CD-ROM has sound, and that beats most of the picture dictionaries. But even here the multi-media possibility isn’t exploited enough – it’s just syllables and listening to sounds. Nothing as good as Wendy Baarda’s phonics CD for Warlpiri – which draws the child’s attention to the face and the shape of the mouth as words are pronounced.
Still – it’s only 230 or so words and some simple sentences. It was probably brought in on time and on budget. Is this value for tax-payers’ money? Wait and see if any proper evaluations are done about how effective these CDs are in helping people learn Indigenous languages over a couple of years.
Should the CD be a finalist in a “Best Indigenous Resource” competition before these evaluations are done? I say ‘No’. Just as (another hobbyhorse) buildings shouldn’t win architectural awards until people have lived in them long enough to see if the buildings work and how much the repairs and running costs are.
Postscript: watch this space in a year’s time. See Jane bow her head. Hear Jane confess. Read Jane on what’s wrong with her CD. Well. maybe… maybe we can learn from this and do a better job on our Kaurna CD. Certainly it won’t cost as much…

6 thoughts on “Money – I can’t stop thinking about it”

  1. here’s a free way me n an old lady came up with to teach an Alawa phrase.
    Instead of writing ‘wash me’ on dusty old NT 4wds, you can write ‘gulag-mimbi ngaba’. hehe.
    Here at the Katherine Language Centre, we developed our own little computer games with flash. They’re pretty rudimentary but quite fun. They were free (thanks to a work experience student) and we can adapt them in to any language and put whatever words we like into them (well, any word that can be depicted pictorially).
    So yeah, i was also a bit sceptical of the value of the multilocus cd-roms, especially in view of the amount of work and money that went into them.

  2. Nice about the flash! Someone else told me after going through the Multilocus experience, that, while it had been great working out the games and exercises with speakers, in hindsight teaching people Powerpoint would have been more longterm use in the classroom.
    We really need a site somewhere where we can put up things like the flash games and download them

  3. Urrrrk! Error!
    “Or pay a PhD student a scholarship for three years plus preparation, evaluation and testing expenses to work with speakers on devising a curriculum, lesson plans and teaching materials.”
    is in the $350 list, and not the $80,000 list..
    Sorry all – and THANK YOU Ilan!

  4. I don’t know if you are right or not about Multilocus’s new CDs because I haven’t seen them. But I think that if you are right, it is partly for the wrong reasons. I can’t evaluate the question of cost – I have produced Aboriginal languages CDs for much less, but that was some time ago and of different genres and production values, and these days my development work is not really on a commercial basis. Nevertheless, since the Multilocus project produced 8 CDs, it would be good to know what, if any, economies of scale were involved (making the cost per disc in isolation even higher!), or, on the other hand, how the special, local, tailored aspects of each language and community have shaped each CD differently. But there is an argument that cost depends mainly on their effectiveness – if they turn out to be groundbreakingly effective (at, e.g. language maintenance or revitalisation), then they provide useful models and the grounds for further application for corresponding levels of funding. If this kind of money breaks new ground, we wouldn’t have otherwise found out.
    So we’d better ask what’s on the CDs (you provide some useful description of the Adnyamathanha CD). One value I always felt important in producing materials for Aboriginal languages is that the priority should go to producing language resources (i.e. things that teachers can use), rather than pedagogical materials per se, that attempt to do what teachers do best. As (in general) funding resources are short, what are most needed are these language materials, because typically (Australia being a fourth world country) there are schools, centres, and teachers available who are skilled and enthusiastic about developing class materials and courses. So we should provide them with the language “content” – in this case, with excellent use of interactivity and audio (graphics are not unique to CDs, and are becoming less and less crucial for conveying screen genres). Good teachers can then create lessons, games and even courses. On the other hand, producing pedagogical materials consumes large amounts of development resources (I know, I produced one with Michael Christie and Waymamba Gaykamangu that was a key component of their program that won the Australian University teacher of the year award last year), and may well lead to, as you well describe, covering a much smaller amount of content than might otherwise be included.
    Nevertheless, as you say, without knowing how the CDs serve their intended audiences it’s hard to say much. For some audiences, it is easy to imagine that limited content, with expensively produced graphics and animation, might be effective for some goals.
    Finally, though, I think that trotting out the current favourite catch-all criticism of non-proprietary (i.e. ‘open source’), not only misses the reality that where financial resources, intellectual property, and distribution technologies meet, there is no simple answer in respect to open-source vs proprietary. Unlike the myriad of programmers around the world who would rather improve Open Office than watch TV at night, there are not so many people who are interested in specialist language delivery software. There may be one day, but maybe then it will be too late for languages x, y and x. Another fallacy, I have come to believe, is that an open-source template approach will enable more CDs to be churned out ever faster. Yet the more I am involved in this area, the more I have found that each project is unique, its shape depending on the particular community, language, production team, project host and so on. These factors bring unique perspectives so that the effort involved in each production can only be trivially characterised by template (or code) re-use. A better critique would be to note a frequent correlation between proprietary software and production values, and ask whether how the production values on the new CDs are appropriate to their purpose; or, on the other hand, whether they might be part of a strategy to retain the language CD market for high-profile developers through the expectations they create. Finally, the open-source mantra may give the impression that it is an important desideratum of what constitutes a good language resource for an endangered language – and on this scale, I do not think it comes quite at the top of the list.

  5. A quick response that doesn’t do justice to the issues raised. As a linguist of course I am biassed in favour of language resources. But, once upon a time I spent many hours preparing classroom materials – and found it painfully slow, since I can’t draw. So I can see a lot of advantage in having electronic templates for teaching materials where the teacher can easily plug in new words, new structures, new pictures and new sounds. The problem with black box CDs is that the teacher can’t do that.
    I agree that open source software isn’t always the solution – it often has the problem that the ordinary working teacher can’t create new stuff using it but must call in a programmer. Some proprietary software overcomes this – which is why Filemaker Pro enjoys such success as a cataloguing program in various Indigenous language centres and knowledge centres.
    Open source software’s advantage lies elsewhere – in archiving – people create new language materials as part of creating teaching materials for CDs, and these need to be archivable, not locked up in some proprietary format. I am quite concerned about some uses of FM Pro for storing images for example, where the metadata about the picture and the picture itself may not be kept together securely. And the problem is widespread – I heard a talk from the National Archives about Project Xena – and their concern about how to archive the large amount of textual material which exists only in commercial databases in Government departments.

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