The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, April 24, 2020

New ways of teaching and learning

A recent tweet by Tyson Seburn sent me scurrying off to check out what a monitor corpus has to say about the way we're describing new ways of teaching and learning.

I used the Timestamped JSI web corpus (via SketchEngine) which is, as its name suggests, a corpus of data collected from a range of online sources and which is added to daily. That means it can be used to track usage over time. I looked specifically at the new data added for just March and April 2020 to try and capture the language that's being used about the current coronavirus situation in which schools, universities and other institutions have been closed to students attending in person and have had to start using the internet instead.

I looked at collocates of the words 'teaching' and 'learning' and in particular words used as modifiers directly before them, effectively adjective + noun combos. The graphs below show which combinations were most frequent (just based on raw frequency statistics) and relevant to the question above (so I ignored things like machine learning and religious teachings). It's not a detailed analysis and I'm sure there are all kinds of factors I could take into account if this was an academic study, but I think it gives a useful first impression.

Important note: the graphs aren't directly comparable at a glance because the numbers vary quite a bit (look at the bottom axis) and the number of collocates shown on each graph changes the size of the bars. The order of frequency within each set though should be clear and the relative frequency of each collocate.

What was also really interesting were the terms of comparision, so ways of talking about non-online teaching and learning. We could perhaps call these a type of retronym; a new term created to differentiate what used to be a generic thing from a new type, in the way we now talk about landlines to distinguish them from mobile phones. I didn't dig into the examples here, so not all of these will be used in opposition to online teaching (especially those with *) , but I'm guessing a lot of them will be.

I did also look into the word class for which there turned out to be a much smaller range of relevant collocates, with online classes being by far the most common, followed by virtual classes and gaining ground in April, Zoom classes. Those were in opposition to in-person classes and face-to-face classes.  Then there were live classes, which when I checked were mostly synchronous online classes.

Of course, this doesn't quite answer Tyson's original question which was more about the terms being used by different HE institutions - this data includes all kinds of much more general contexts. I think it shows some interesting patterns though.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, April 17, 2020


I've mostly been avoiding getting caught up in commenting on the language of the current coronavirus crisis, although I've enjoyed reading posts by the likes of Leo Selivan and Prof Susan Hunston on different aspects of what's going on linguistically. One new usage that does seem to have struck a chord with me though and which I couldn't resist investigating is hibernate.

There's been a lot of talk about businesses hibernating, i.e. stopping work temporarily and going into a kind of suspended animation, with workplaces closed and employees furloughed, keeping costs at a minimum and hoping to wake up and spring back to life when all this is over. The choice of the word hibernation piqued my interest on a couple of levels.

A natural pause
I think for most people, the idea of hibernation probably conjures up images of cute sleeping animals curled up safe and warm, waiting for spring. It's a safe, cosy sort of a word which suggests a natural pause.  

a hedgehog curled into a ball
Photo by George Kendall on Unsplash

The only direct alternative I could come up with is mothball, which has much less pleasant connotations. If a business operation is mothballed, it makes you think of something sitting musty and unused (and so prone to moths) for a long, indefinite period of time, perhaps never to be reopened.

Shifting usage
A quick corpus search (using the Timestamped JSI web corpus) shows that up until the start of this year, the collocates of hibernate were overwhelming animal-related (bears, bats, hedgehogs and squirrels), apart from a few specific references to computers which can go into 'hibernation mode', a kind of standby. However, looking at the latest data for March and April 2020, a flurry of new collocates appear:

Businesses aren't just hibernating, they are closing down.

The industry won't be able to hibernate during the pandemic without government support.

To tackle the virus, the economy must hibernate.

These are, arguably, all fairly straightforward metaphorical uses though. What's really intrigued me is the new use of hibernate as a transitive verb:

The Australian Government are seeking to hibernate businesses so they can bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic.

Spanish government "hibernates" economy to counter Covid-19

They really did do as much as they could to hibernate the economy.

the team has taken the decision to hibernate the project until the pandemic has passed

AirAsia Group is temporarily hibernating most of its fleet across the network in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There's quite a bit of parallel use of the noun hibernation, with some novel collocations there too:

our priority should be putting the global economy into controlled hibernation while quarantine measures are in place

It's why many car dealers are going into temporary hibernation

As cricket, along with the rest of sport, goes into enforced hibernation

with the Philippine economy put in forced hibernation

keep workers on the books for a hibernation period during the pandemic

The whole hibernation strategy is built to buy time for that recovery to happen

It'll be interesting to see which new words come into use when the global economy starts to wake up, scratch itself and emerge from hibernation. I suspect the metaphor may get extended.

Labels: , , ,