Learning CS while Learning English: Scaffolding ESL CS Learners – Thesis from Yogendra Pal

September 8, 2016 at 5:50 pm 5 comments

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?

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sara  |  September 9, 2016 at 2:51 pm

    Hi Mark —
    I’m Sara Vogel, a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center. It’s so exciting to read your post about Yogendra’s research, which hits right at the intersection of my two core interests — CSed and bilingual education. As you mention, now that CS is going universal at the K-12 level all around the country (including in my home city, NYC), we’re going to have to think about the ways that diverse learners, among them emergent bilinguals, encounter CS, which means fields like bilingual ed and CS ed (more or less silo-ed) are going to start talking to each other. Which is exciting!

    I think about touchpoints between Yogengra’s practice as you describe it, and what we in bilingual ed would call translanguaging pedagogy — the idea that learners should use their full linguistic repertoires fluidly and flexibly to make meaning in multilingual classrooms, and teachers play a role in facilitating that. The goal was deep CS learning, so videos and class materials in the various languages were, from what I can tell from your summary, helpful for different people in different ways. If the word for a certain technical term doesn’t really exist in Hindi, why bother translating into an overcomplicated word that students won’t use, when the one in English works fine and will be new for everyone? I bet walking into that classroom there’d be a range of diverse linguistic practices heard, with students drawing on English, Hindi, maybe even other languages, and programming languages as they negotiated content with each other and the professor. At least I know that’s what happened in my multilingual Scratch after-school program in the South Bronx! All bilinguals are different, exhibiting a range of competencies. Those competencies have to be incorporated, so that their language practices can be tools for meaning-making.

    In my mind, good practice with emergent bilinguals is not just about providing opportunities for students to use their home language to scaffold CS tasks, but to really engage with the strengths of these students and what they bring.

    Students’ linguistic backgrounds, for instance, inform them as they imagine truly original coding projects — my students in East Harlem a couple years back designed and coded a video game with the MIT blocks-based software, TaleBlazer, in which you had to save the principal from turning into a zombie by giving him the traditional Dominican dish, Mangu. We have to welcome all opportunities for kids to draw on their linguistic and cultural backgrounds in and through CS for CS programming to have the most impact.

    Thanks for the post!

    Sara

    Reply
    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  September 10, 2016 at 1:44 am

      Hi Sara,

      Thanks for your comments. I recommend Yogendra’s thesis to you. The issues that he describes in higher education may be different in terms of motivation than some we might see in K-12. For example, his students want to learn English because his students see it as a job skill. Yogendra is measuring learning outcomes, and he balances out the students’ interest in learning English with the better learning that occurs when they get Hindu instruction (when under time constraints). I’d be interested in hearing how you see his issues at IIT-Bombay contrasting with the issues you see in your Scratch classroom.

      – Mark

      Reply
      • 3. Sara  |  September 11, 2016 at 1:03 pm

        Thanks, Mark! Great food for thought — I will definitely check out the thesis!

        Reply
  • 4. The Bilingual Ed Techie  |  September 9, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    […] Ann DeLyser from CSNYC brought this awesome blog post by Mark Guzdial to my attention today. It summarizes the thesis research of Yogendra Pal […]

    Reply
  • 5. Vernacular medium learners – My blog  |  September 10, 2016 at 10:44 am

    […] 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. (Source) […]

    Reply

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