Learning English Through Digital Media

Dr. Deborah Cohen, associate professor in the Global Education Innovation Center at Gyeongju University in  South Korea, uses three digital media-based practices to encourage her students:

    • YouTube videos such as the inspirational “Never, Ever Give Up” as “digital media artifacts” for teaching English as a second language.
    • In her classes on “Social Media for Social Change,” she assigns her students to follow, analyze, and discuss social media campaigns in political campaigns as they progress.
    • The third practice is “digital storytelling and life writing through digital stories.”

Dr. Cohen started out in South Korea almost five years ago, as a professor of digital media at Sogang University: “I’ve taught at two different universities with radically different student populations and in two different schools within each of the two universities.”  Digital media is a big part of life in South Korea, and according to Dr. Cohen, the country has a big initiative to increase the English speaking skills of their students. One way they’re doing that is by having English professors teach content courses, which is what Dr. Cohen did with “social media for social change” at Sogang University. More recently, she has been teaching English as a second language, which is where YouTube videos come in. 

“I’m amazed at how much better my students’ English becomes through their analysis and discussion of videos and other Internet media artifacts.” Cohen told me. “Korean learners are notorious for being very shy and not wanting to talk in language class because they are worried about their lack of skills. But the experience of analyzing these artifacts is so engaging to them that by the end, nobody is nervous about getting up in front of others and talking.”

Given the reticence of Korean learners, who, according to Cohen, “are mortified at the thought of having to speak English imperfectly,” these practices have been spectacularly successful in not just imparting language skills, but in motivating learners to use them.

Cohen’s courses include “English through Film and Drama,” “English through Pop Music” — “probably the most fun class I’ve taught over the range of my entire career — “English through Myth,” and “English through Festivals.”

“We spend a lot of time looking at YouTube artifacts. I’ll give them guidance about what to look for and what we’re going to discuss afterward. In my last cohort of “English through Film and Drama,” I introduced the concept of plot, how there’s a story and how something happens in the beginning and then something different happens at the end, and how you can tell who the important characters are by watching who has changed. I found one video, a real tear jerker that they all love, about a man who became very fat and disabled as a result of his military experiences, but he started working with a yoga instructor, and at the end of the seven-minute video, he’s running and has completely regained his mobility.”

One of Professor Cohen’s students pointed out that the inspirational  “documentary” was actually a promotion for the yoga instructor who helped rehabilitate the hero of the story. “Of course, that was a very important point to make. Between the analysis of the purpose of the video and the students’ strong emotional reactions, the students are pushing their English speaking skills without even realizing they’re doing it.”

Another one of Dr. Cohen’s practices is digital storytelling: “Doing life writing through digital stories — short films, five minutes or less, text-based, conveyed through images and sounds that are overlaid on the text.” At the next to last class meeting, everybody looks at everybody’s rough cut, everybody gives critiques, and each student has a choice of following suggestions from their peers or not in their final cut. This practice and other kinds of peer learning are different from traditional pedagogy in Korea. “My students and I work to establish learning communities. I think of my classes as learning communities where I present them with objects to discuss, such as YouTube artifacts, but invite them to come up with their own suggestions for videos to watch and discuss.

Dr. Cohen and I discussed her third social media pedagogical practice, of following social media political campaigns as they happen in real time, in this brief video.

Banner image: Deborah Cohen teaching class in South Korea. Photo by Priyanka Chaudhary