Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Between Edtech and ELT: Part II

indexPerfectly placed at the epicentre of the two worlds is Nick Robinson, one third of eltjam and eltjamjar, a publishing services, consultancy and training company that specialises in digital product development for the ELT industry. With a background in teaching and EFL materials writing and editing but forging ahead with a start up company, Nick is working with the traditional and the innovative companies and so his insights into extracting what the buzzwords mean for ELT were so comprehensive, I’m splitting them into two posts (part 2 here)


EdTech is the solution to a problem. What that problem is depends on your point of view.

Some argue that the problem is finding something to do with all of this new tech we’re coming up with. Putting it to use in education makes us all feel warm and fuzzy inside.

EdTech evangelists don’t see it that way. For them, the problem is that education is fundamentally broken, failing anyone who comes in contact with it, and in dire need of fixing. Ed needs a saviour and that saviour is Tech.

What drives the fundamentalism and lofty rhetoric that characterises much of the EdTech industry is the sense that the stakes are so high (think of the children!). How can we not act? How can we just stand by and watch?

EdTech is a movement, make no mistake about it. And movements are powerful. Movements carry people along with them. They create equal and opposite forces of support and hostility. And they often change things in ways we weren’t expecting. Sometimes, forever.


Agile isn’t about speed, although that’s certainly a positive benefit in many cases.

Agile also isn’t about lack of substance, although it is about focusing on what substance really means for people.

The key to understanding Agile is to understand the concept of delivering value. People buy stuff because it creates value for them. This can be understood at a very basic level as ‘this product does something for me that I need, and my life is better because of it.’ Agile Product Development is a system designed to make sure that you create something that has value for the people you want to use it. That’s the whole point of things like iteration, MVP, etc. Each stage of Agile development is designed to make sure that what you’re building actually fits the bill. If it doesn’t, the product hasn’t failed; it just needs to be adjusted so that it gets back on track.

Here’s a thought: would Headway ever have got off the ground if it had been developed using an Agile approach? Would English Grammar in Use? No one can deny that both of those books have benefitted millions of learners around the world. But what if they’ve only benefitted learners 50% as much as they could have. What if they could have been iterated in a different way which made them even more effective?

What a waste that would have been.


Traditional ELT publishers rarely think of learners as customers. Even though they’re the end-user of the vast majority of their products – print and digital – in most cases they don’t actually have purchasing power; it’s the teacher, the school, the Ministry of Education that decides what to buy.

This is a massive problem. If the person who decides whether or not to buy your product isn’t the person who it was ultimately built for, then how do you make key decisions about what it should do? Who are you creating value for?

Many EdTech companies are B2C not B2B. That means that their products are aimed directly at learners, not institutions. Obviously EdTech companies want as many users as possible, but they understand that the key to getting those users is to understand them and build something that creates real value for them.

But here’s the rub: most learners find it very hard to discern real value in language-learning products. There’s an expectation that no matter which method you choose – PLS, self-study, online, offline – the process is going to be long, laborious and REALLY SLOW. So can a learner really tell whether this particular EdTech solution is working for them? I’d guess not. Which means that many EdTech companies aren’t getting the customer feedback they need; their customers just don’t know enough.

And who does know enough? Teachers. But they’re not the users. So why ask?

Big data

Here’s the thing about data: it reveals truths about ourselves that we might never reveal otherwise, either because we’re unaware or we’re incapable of expressing them. That’s why it’s valuable: there’s a bare honesty to data.

If I ask you a question, you’ll give me an answer, but your answer will be subjective in some way. That’s human nature. You may be trying to guess what I want to hear. You may be trying to impress me. You may be embarrassed about something and trying to hide it.

Now what if I don’t even ask you a question? What if I just put you in a situation where your behaviour will answer that question for me. Which situation is going to provide me with a truer picture of you?

And why is that picture important? Because the more we know about you, the more we can help you. We can predict what you might want to do next and make that step more intuitive for you. We can figure out why something might have gone wrong and fix it for you. We can know you better than you know yourself. And where’s the harm in that …?

Minimum Viable Product

The objective of an MVP is never to make a profit; it’s always to learn something. And what you’re trying to learn is what your customers really want and need.

Let’s go back to the concept of value. If you’re stranded on a desert island, there is value in me helping you escape from that desert island. If I can provide you with an escape solution, you’ll be pretty grateful. You might even pay for it.

There are 101 ways for me to get you off that island. One would be for me to charter a luxury yacht, load it up with cold champagne and fresh seafood, buy you a new wardrobe of clothes to change into, and have your family waiting to greet you as you board. That would be a pretty amazing way to escape the island. It might even be the way you fantasized about escaping during your months of isolation.

The yacht, the champagne, the clothes, the family. These are all features of your escape plan. But how essential are they? Family? It’d be lovely to see them, but they’ll be waiting for me when I get home. New wardrobe of clothes? Well, I’d love to get changed, but the clothes I’m wearing would be fine for another couple of hours. Champagne? Seafood? Not everyone drinks alcohol and many people are allergic to seafood. It might only appeal to a few people. The yacht? Sure, it bet it’s comfy. But it’s also a bit much. How about a smaller motorboat with just one person to navigate it? Actually, I could probably navigate myself if I had a compass and a map. Actually, does it need to be a motorboat? It’s not that far, is it? The problem’s not the distance; it’s the fact that I need to float on the water. Actually, do I need a boat at all? What about a dingy? Or maybe just a rubber ring.

Rubber ring, map, compass. That’s your MVP.


3 comments on “Between Edtech and ELT: Part II

  1. Laurie Harrison
    April 28, 2014

    Just to follow up on Nick’s reference to English Grammar in Use – in some ways it was developed following the agile/lean approach, and maybe that’s one reason behind its staggering success. Ray Murphy created the whole thing as a set of index cards and worksheets which he was using with his classes before any attempt was made to turn them into a book. The index cards were the MVP.

    • Nicola
      April 28, 2014

      Interesting! That would not only explain a lot but also gives hope to teachers who use their own materials in class.

      And could this mean that, for the first time ever in over a year of blogging and even though it was his idea that I start, that Nick might be compelled to comment in reply?

  2. Pingback: Between Edtech and ELT: Part III | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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This entry was posted on April 28, 2014 by in Edtech, ELT and tagged , , , , , , , .
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