Learning CS while Learning English: Scaffolding ESL CS Learners – Thesis from Yogendra Pal
When I visited Mumbai for LaTICE 2016, I mentioned meeting Yogendra Pal. I was asked to be a reader for his thesis, which I found fascinating. I’m pleased to report that he has now graduated and his thesis, A Framework for Scaffolding to Teach Vernacular Medium Learners, is available here: https://www.cse.iitb.ac.in/~sri/students/#yogendra.
I learned a lot from Yogendra’s thesis, like what “vernacular medium learners” means. Here’s the problem that he’s facing (and that Yogendra faced as a student). Students go through primary and secondary school learning in one language (Hindi, in Yogendra’s personal case and in his thesis), and then come to University to study Computer Science. Do you teach them (what Yogendra calls “Medium of Instruction” or MoI) in English, or in Hindi? Note that English is pervasive in Computer Science, e.g., almost all our programming languages use English keywords.
Here’s Yogendra’s bottomline finding: “We find that self-paced video-based environment is more suitable for vernacular medium students than a classroom environment if English-only MoI are used.” Yogendra uses a design-based research methodology. He measures the students, tries something based on his current hypothesis, then measures them again. He compares what he thought would happen to what he saw, and revises his hypothesis — and then iterate. Some of the scaffolds he tested may seem obvious (like using a slower pace), but a strength of the thesis is that he develops rationale for each of his changes and tests them. Eventually, he came to this surprising (to me) and interesting result: It’s better to teach with Hindi in the classroom, and in English when students are learning from self-paced videos.
The stories at the beginning of the thesis are insightful and moving. I hadn’t realized what a handicap it is to be learning English in a class that uses English. It’s obvious that the learners would be struggling with the language. What I hadn’t realized was how hard it is to raise your hand and ask questions. Maybe you have a question just because you don’t know the language. Maybe you’ll expose yourself to ridicule because you’ll post the question wrong.
Yogendra describes solutions that the Hindi-speaking students tried, and where the solutions didn’t work. The Hindi-speaking students used English-to-English dictionaries. They didn’t want English-Hindi dictionaries, because they wanted to become fluent in English, but they needed help with the complicated (especially technical) words. They tried using online videos for additional explanations of concepts, but most of those were made by American or British speakers. When you’re still learning English, switching from an Indian accent to another accent is a barrier to understanding.
The middle chapters are a detailed description of Yogendra’s attempts to scaffold student learning. He tried to teach in all-Hindi but some English technical terms like “execute” don’t have a direct translation in Hindi. He selected other Hindi words to represent the technical terms, but the words he selected as the Hindi translation were unusual and not well-known to the students. Perhaps the most compelling insight for me in these chapters was how important it was to both the students and the teachers that the students learn English — even when the Hindi materials were measurably better for learning in some conditions.
In the end, he found that Hindi language screencasts led to better learning (statistically significantly) when the learners (who had received primary and secondary school instruction in Hindi) were in a classroom, but that the English language screencasts led to better learning (again, statistically significantly) when the learners were watching the screencasts self-paced. When the students are self-paced, they can rewind and re-watch things that are confusing, so it’s okay to struggle with the English. In the classroom, the lecture just goes on by. It works best if it’s in Hindi for the students who learned in Hindi in school.
Yogendra tells a convincing story. It’s an interesting question of how these lessons transfer to other contexts. For example, what are the issues for Spanish-speaking students learning CS in the United States? In a general form, can we use the lessons from this thesis to make CS learning accessible to more ESL (English as a Second Language) learners?