Use Your Cognitive Surplus to Improve Foreign Language Education

Use Your Cognitive Surplus to Improve Foreign Language Education

When I read the book Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky, a writer and  media studies professor at NYU, I thought of the foreign language educator. Check out Shirky’s TEDTalk on the subject:

Clay Shirky’s TEDTalk: How Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World

Shirky argues that modern life has resulted in unprecedented amounts of leisure time. And today, thanks to the Internet, people are choosing to use their free time to collaborate in new and exciting ways. Here’s an excerpt from the book cover:

For the first time, people are embracing new media that allow them to pool their efforts at vanishingly low cost. The results of this aggregated effort range from mind-expanding reference tools like Wikipedia to life-saving Web sites like, which allows Kenyans to report acts of violence in real time. Cognitive Surplus explores what’s possible  when people unite to use their intellect, energy, and time for the greater good.

His claim is that the Internet is turning consumers into producers. But is this true of language teachers?

Despite Shirky’s enthusiasm, teachers still view themselves as consumers of pedagogical products. And yet, teachers produce pedagogical content all the time: lesson plans, quizzes, worksheets, activities and so on. The problem is that teachers denigrate their materials as amateurish or unprofessional. Because of this pervasive attitude, they rarely share their local materials with other teachers.

Shirky argues that all forms of digital production–from LOLcats to Wikipedia–have an important role to play in Internet culture. So, here is the point: every educational product, no matter how humble, is the result of a creative impulse that has the potential to benefit others.

To participate in the Open Education Movement, you don’t need to be a professional textbook author. But you do need to realize that sharing your materials is a powerful act of intellectual generosity.

Your thoughts?

Carl BlythCarl Blyth is Director of COERLL and Associate Professor of French, UT Austin.  His research includes CMC,  cross-cultural and intercultural pragmatics, interactional sociolinguistics, and pedagogical grammar.  He is project director of eComma, an open-source annotation application to facilitate more “social” forms of reading.

To read more about sharing your educational creations, read Set Them Free: How to Share Your Materials by Georges Detiveaux. 

Also, March 11-15 is Open Education Week — raising awareness of the open education movement and its impact on teaching and learning worldwide. We’ll be participating and sharing the links with you.


  1. First, I have a long way to go…my cognitive surplus leads to information gluttony, so maybe a good 2013 goal is More Production.

    You’re right about teachers denigrating their own materials (although it is also true that teachers can be over-proud of their materials, which also leads to not sharing).

    Even truly incomplete or uneven materials can profitably be shared. George Williams over at the Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog (2/27/13) asked teachers if they share their digital materials with students, and many of them are hesitant to do so because their lecture notes, for example, were not produced for a student audience. Yet many of the lecture notes — text, slides, outlines — posted to MIT OCW can be sparse and unfinished.

    What led those educators to allow those notes to go up under open license? Maybe when you work at MIT, you can actively dare the world to criticize your materials, but I suspect their thinking is more along the lines of “Yes, these notes aren’t complete, but they can serve students as a jumping off point; they give insight into my own thoughts on the topic while inviting readers to actively fill in gaps and re-form the fragments into meaningful prose; they invite improvement and suggest the necessity for critical engagement.”

    Which is to say, producing needn’t be about presenting a finished product to the world, “rounded off and bright and done”, while consuming needn’t be about accepting whole what is presented. Clearly, there is value in being able to find and use ready-made, super-shiny OER, and value in gifting that to the community, but teachers: be generous with your uncertainty, too…shamelessly invite tinkering and improvement by others (even for your ‘darlings’).

    • Carl Blyth says

      Well said, Sean.

      Sometimes I think that high OER production values actually inhibits the collaboration we keep talking about. People admire perfection but they are also put off by it. If you look at those silly LOLcats that Shirkey likes to cite as an example, well…they are easy to replicate. The Internet memes that really catch on are *designed* for sharing. They aren’t scary and perfect. They allow others to tinker and play. So, I agree. Imperfect, incomplete materials leave room for others to participate.

  2. I like what you guys are up too. Such clever work and
    coverage! Keep up the superb works guys I’ve included you guys to our blogroll.

    • Thanks, Freda. Keep spreading the word about Open Education and OER. Open Education is growing fast in the STEM fields. But we still need more foreign language educators to get involved.

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