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Monday, July 7, 2008

Watch to Learn Chinese, a YouTube-Powered Learning Site

Together with Yinxue I’ve been working on a new site lately and it goes live today: Watch to Learn Chinese. Originally the idea was spawned when I saw Totlol, a YouTube API powered site aimed at parents who watch videos with their kids. Using the YouTube API in such custom ways looked extremely interesting. At Watch to Learn Chinese, we’ve used it to compile a help site for language learning. Here are some of the things the YouTube “Chromeless Player” JavaScript API enables you to do:

One of the problems we were facing with the API though is that it seems to have “hiccups” if you try to do things to fast. For instance, I wasn’t able to use the “loadVideoById” function and also pass it the seconds parameter of where to start (perhaps I did something wrong, but there wasn’t any error message, so it’s hard to tell). Right now as a workaround, I’m using a short delay in the beginning before these actions are triggered.
Also, it is not possible to precisely jump to a specific point... rather, when you seek a position in the video you’ll end up at the closest near-by keyframe the video supports. Google says this will create offset of usually only up to 2 seconds, but I experienced much longer offsets in some videos.

Another more general problem is that YouTube videos may be taken down, or the original uploader may suddenly disable the option to embed the video. For such cases, there’s now a regular job on the server which checks the videos for such problems, and puts them on hold if a problem is spotted, adding a notice to the system so we can manually check upon it.

Other than that, we also had a lot of fun creating a game for the site. We recorded Yinxue’s voice where she read loads of phrases and words. These phrases had all been translated by Click2Translate, a neat paid service I’ve been using for a couple of sites now (note co-editor Tony Ruscoe works for them). We then cut the recordings into little MP3 files using the free Audacity editor, to be played with the nice Flash-based JW Player. With all that in place, the different language pairs in audio and text format can now be shuffled to make for a multiple-choice game.

PS: Just wanted to add we’re not looking at the site as a replacement for a course, book, online teacher or whatever people may be working with... rather, we hope it may be a fun additional tool for learning!


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