Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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

Between Edtech and ELT: Part III

Nick Robinson’s second half of his post explaining his take on some ELT buzzwords is so good it took him about two months to hand in. I am sure it feels like longer than that to him as I am somewhat of a champion nagger. (It comes from always meeting deadlines early for my own part – smug 🙂 )

Anyway, it was worth the wait. And thanks, Nick.



What’s the difference between a target and an objective? Is it just semantic? We don’t talk about learner targets, but we do talk about their objectives. A salesperson might not talk about her objectives, but that’s what her sales targets are: something to aim for, something to try and achieve.

We don’t like talk of targets in education because they imply measurement, and that implies assessment, which implies testing, which implies the end of the world as we know.

You know which group does often like targets? Learners. We all know that at some level. That’s what we discuss our learners’ objectives with them. That’s why we publish lists of lesson aims on the opening pages of our coursebook units.

You know what else learners like? Seeing progress. And one way in which to do that is to measure their progress. And one way in which to do that is to assess them, often through a test.

Now learners may have got this totally wrong. They may in fact be acting against their own best interests. And, if that’s the case, shouldn’t someone step in and take control so that they don’t do themselves any more harm …? Suddenly sounds a but Big Brotherish, doesn’t it?

Content Creator

An experiment:

Try to get hold of a PDF of your favourite coursebook. Copy and paste all of the text from a lesson into a Word document. Strip out all of the formatting, all of the images, all of the design. Just leave the text. Now look at it closely, in its naked state. What do you see? Some headings. Some rubrics. Some discussion questions. A reading text. Some gap-fills. Maybe some matching questions. ELT content, in its rawest form, is basic. It always has been.

Here’s what’s not basic: methodology and design. ELT authors have never had much responsibility for design. They may feed into the design of their books, but they don’t originate it. They can’t. Good design is an artform; you need to know what you’re doing. But ELT authors have typically shaped the methodology of the books they write. That’s what’s changed.

First up, everyone who’s written a coursebook in the last 10 years is pretty much using the same method. The details differ, but we’re all coming from more or less the same place. That’s why it’s been so easy for publishers to take control of that part of the process and start to spec courses in-house rather than rely on authors. It’s easy because it’s become cookie-cutter.

Second up, how many print coursebook authors are as up-to-speed as they should be with key features of online or mobile learning design: user experience, motivational issues, etc. Not many.

If you take those elements away, what are you left with in terms of content? What’s left for the author to do? Go back and have a look at that Word document again. Look at those gap-fills, those basic conversation questions. Now tell me they’re worth 10%.

Disruptive Innovation

The Disruptive Innovation Quiz.

Choose the correct answers (a or b) to complete the sentences.

1. Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses _____ .

a) succeed

b) fail

2. Disruption in an industry is often characterized by new entrants using innovative technology to offer products that are ______ to what is already available from established industry players.

a) cheaper and inferior

b) more expensive and better

3. Which means that those criticizing new ELT EdTech entrants such as DuoLingo and Buusu for employing poor methodology and for not ‘getting’ ELT are _____ .

a) totally right

b) missing the point

4. When disruption is happening, established firms often remain financially robust while the disruptive element exists on the peripheries of their industry. However, at some point, that innovation goes mainstream. When what happens, the established firms should _____ .

a) panic

b) relax

5. However, disruptive innovation _____ come from aggressive startups. It can come from established players within the industry itself.

a) doesn’t have to

b) has to

6. Which means that ELT publishers should be looking to _____ themselves rather than waiting for someone else to do it.

a) protect

b) disrupt the industry

Answers: 1b 2a 3b 4a 5a 6b

Adaptive Learning

The NEXT BIG THING in ELT, for sure, and greeted with predictable screams of horror. The major player at the moment is Knewton, who’ve partnered with Cambridge University Press and Macmillan “to incorporate recommendations and analytics into both self-paced and instructor-led blended learning materials to help educators monitor student performance in real-time.”

What might that mean in practice? Well, at the moment, the student data that pulls through to teachers from whatever LMS they’re using usually shows what learners are getting right and wrong, but offers no suggestion as to why. How about this for an example? A learner enters the following answer in a gap-fill: I not see him since last week (the correct answer being I haven’t seen him since last week.). What an adaptive system would do is attempt to make predictions about why the learner made this mistake, and then channel their learning path accordingly so that they’d learn how to avoid making it again. So, in this case, does the learner have problems with present perfect vs. past simple? Or is it an issue with auxiliary verbs? Are they struggling with negative formations? Do they just not know how to use the word since?

An adaptive system such as Knewton’s works on the basis of prerequisites: it asks what a learner would need to know in order to be able to achieve a certain objective. So let’s imagine that the objective is to be able to talk about when you last saw someone or did something. What language prerequisites are there for that? Potentially, loads! So the prerequisites have to be categorised as strong or weak, depending on how essential they are. The system then looks at the learner’s past performance – and, importantly, the past performance of other, similar learners – and tries to work out which of those prerequisites the learner might be struggling with. Based on that information, recommendations are made for what to do next.

It’s powerful-sounding stuff and, if it works, has the potential to change, well, nearly everything: syllabus and course design, learner feedback, the role of the teacher, to name but a few. But there’s a big ‘if’ here: ‘if’ it works. Because no Knewton-powered ELT product exists yet, and it probably won’t for a while. Which makes some of the highly charged rhetoric around the company and what they’re trying to do a little surreal, to put it kindly …


NOT: the use of games in education; that’s game-based learning you’re looking for. Gamification refers to the appropriation of features common to games into the learning process. Have you noticed how nearly every language-learning app you buy these days has points, badges and a leaderboard? That’s gamification in action.

So what’s the point? Very simply: it’s a motivation tool. Think back to the last class of teenagers you taught. Did you notice how much more engaged they were during that dry gap-fill exercise when you ran it as a competition? What about awarding or deducting points for good behavior with a class of primary kids? It works, doesn’t it? And giving a student a gold star: that’s a proto-badge! Teachers have been using techniques like these for years, with much success, and all we’re seeing now is an appropriation of those some techniques into digital learning products.

And does it work? Also, importantly, does it work with adult learners as well as kids? I must admit that this is an area I’ve been skeptical about in the past. That’s until I worked on a product that incorporates gamification elements well: Newsmart. Does an app aimed at business people really benefit from awarding its users with points and badges? It absolutely does. Having seen how users battle to climb that leaderboard, I’m a complete convert.


19 comments on “Between Edtech and ELT: Part III

  1. Pingback: Between Edtech and ELT: Part II | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

  2. Rachael Roberts
    July 11, 2014

    Can’t agree with what you say about writing course books, Nick. It’s certainly true that methodology has become more generally agreed- though there are still innovations and variations, see the series I’m working on now for example, all to be revealed soon. Briefs are definitely tighter..and that can be uncomfortable 😉 However, having started course book writing when briefs were looser, or non existent in my case, I can tell you that it is actually much harder to write to a tight brief where every spread must contain, for example, a text for input, a vocabulary focus, a grammar focus, controlled practice, personalised speaking opportunities throughout and a final communicative task with a concrete outcome that uses all the language naturally. Within 1000 words tops. Oh, and the topic and activities must be engaging, heads up, not offend anyone, never have been seen before in an ELT book… It’s not easy at all.
    Your suggestion of removing all the design features and seeing what’s left misses the point, I think. It’s like looking at the list of ingredients used by a chef and saying what they cost and wondering why on earth they cost more when turned into a dish.
    I’d agree that we print authors need to become more aware of digital issues as the shift from print takes place. However, I can assure you that motivation and user experience are already absolutely top of our list when we start writing.

  3. I’d agree with Rachael that being a good writer now (whether print or digital) is becoming even more challenging, not less. Similarly, I’ve just been working on a project with an incredibly tight brief – that, to be honest, at first sight seemed almost impossible to fulfil in a way that was meaningful and fitted in with what I know (because I do read up and keep up-to-date!) about language acquisition. It would have been easy (especially given the paltry fee) to just bang something out that fitted the brief, but taught rather meaningless language in a way that really wasn’t ultimately going to help the learner. Instead, I worked incredibly hard to figure out how I could still come up with something pedagogically sound and intelligent and engaging, but keeping within the very tight restraints I’d been given.

    It’s all very well focusing on factors like motivation and adaptive learning and all that stuff (i’m not knocking it), but if the basic content, the actual language you’re teaching is artificial, contrived or just downright obscure, it’s not going to help your end user to reach their real objective, which is not to have fun or earn points or even rack up ‘correct’ grammar rules, but to actually communicate effectively in English. That takes someone really skilled in coming up with quality content, not just swish delivery.

  4. Nicola
    July 11, 2014

    Isn’t it the case though, that most of the course books all look pretty much the same? From text types to activities to topics? I think that’s what he meant.
    Also it’s true that “writer” is someone that originates the idea and concept, “content creator” is someone providing content for someone else’s. It doesn’t mean either of those is easy but they *are* different – I see some jobs as writing and some as content creating.
    I stopped thinking I should have royalties for everything regardless and in fact ensuring a fairer fee as opposed to royalties is now my focus as I can see how the royalties carrot has meant I have been paid very unfairly for some things I’ve written as nothing is done to market them and I have no chance to earn out the advance, yet the fee paid illustrator earned 4 times more than me as a flat fee. Content creating is a skill, it’s just not the same one as coming up with whole books or products.

    • Rachael Roberts
      July 11, 2014

      Most dishes in a restaurant look pretty much the same too. They all usually have meat or fish, potatoes or rice or pasta, vegetables…

      • Nicola
        July 11, 2014

        And the chef doesn’t get 10% commission on every dish he makes!

  5. John Chrimes
    July 11, 2014

    Given what we know about SLA [and its impact on materials], language [CEFR levels] and syllabus mapping [see CEFR again etc] then it really does challenge the content creator right now to produce challenging and original materials that facilitate critical thinking etc. Despite what Mr Thornbury might say.

    BTW: I have to build-in device constraints to my content from the get-go as we inch towards BYOD culture.

    Yeah … they’re worth 10%+ alright.

    • Nicola
      July 11, 2014

      It is a challenge indeed but one for which negotiating a fair fee for the hours of work put in is where the energy needs to go, not taking a punt along with the publisher as to whether that product will succeed or not. If you haven’t created the idea and the concept etc, you’re a session musician not a songwriter. And session musicians are critical to the music but not paid royalties, they’re paid for their work only; (at least that’s how I understand that works). no one is saying it’s not valuable work or that it shouldn’t be well paid but only that it’s not the same work.

  6. James
    July 11, 2014

    Nicola – ever tipped after eating in a restaurant?

    • Nicola
      July 11, 2014

      Good example actually. I generally don’t! why should wait staff get a tip when the kitchen staff, cleaners etc don’t? What about mechanics, shop assistants … teachers? In fact everyone else who does a job for which they get paid for what they work. If that pay is not fair, that’s a different question and one which absolutely must be addressed, even industrial action taken if nneds be.

  7. Rachael Roberts
    July 11, 2014

    Writing video worksheets or grammar exercises etc can indeed be compared with being a session musician and I’m happy to take a fee for that kind of work because I recognise that it isn’t particularly challenging or creative. However, writing a coursebook isn’t the same at all. To take your music analogy, it’s like a musician being asked to produce a piece of music which creates a certain mood, uses certain instruments and so on. Although there are constraints, the musician still needs to come up with something original within those constraints. Just because you have been given a set of ingredients you need to include, doesn’t mean the publishers have done all the creative work. Very far from it. If they could produce coursebooks without getting in writers, they would.

    I’m actually not stuck on getting royalties, even for coursebooks, but I see the move to fees for such work as a way of reducing the money paid to authors considerably, as well as devaluing what they bring to the process. Some coursebooks do not pay off when you get royalties (I’ve written one!), but generally they pay better than the kind of fees I’m hearing about. For example £12-16,000 for a year’s work, often including weekends and evenings. What writers do to create a coursebook is worth far more than that.

    So that’s why I jumped on Nick saying that the author’s contribution was no longer worth 10%. Unless you are producing something like duolinguo where, like Julie says, the language is very much secondary to the motivational factors (I learnt stuff using the site for a few months, but I’d have learnt a lot more and still be doing it if the methodology was better), the quality of the author’s input is still key. And this doesn’t just apply to print books. I recently wrote a MyLab product where my brief was to use the closed, multiple choice matching type activities to teach exam skills such as text organisation, cohesion and coherence etc. It was extremely challenging. I was paid a fee, but, I felt, one that was a fair recompense for the skills I brought to the table (not just the hours I put in).

    • Nicola
      July 11, 2014

      I think they key point is being paid a fee that you feel is a fair reflection of your time, plus skills and qualifications when those are being used. Consultants that charge £1000 an hour for example – I am sure they price thermselves at a rate that takes all those things into account. The low fees you mention are not fair even if just the time is taken into account!

  8. Rachael Roberts
    July 11, 2014

    I agree, Nicola. But that’s what happens once people start saying that all writing these days is cookie cutter stuff…

    • Nicola
      July 11, 2014

      All writing no, some writing yes. Maybe if writers could see a distinction then they could more clearly negotiate for better pay as saying nothing is cookie cutter is not true.
      I think I know the difference in my own work and have definitely done things I consider Content Creating and things I consider Writing. I have no problem with the distinction and only wish I had asked for a fairer wage for some of the the Content Creating and waived royalties for some of the Writing. The Speaking Skills book was a mixture of both, the exercises were Content Creating but the book mostly originated from me in terms of scope and content so royalties…well, honestly, I expect I’d have done better out of it to have a flat fee but we’ll see.
      I used to be much more pro royalties but I have changed my mind completely. I think the days of making a lot off royalties are over and so few professions earn money this way, writing just had a weird privilege for a couple of hundred years. In my non ELT I sold the Spanish rights and got an advance which I am treating as a fee because I doubt it will earn out if I go by English language sales so far. It’s the first decent money I have got out of it, even with a higher take of the books sales at 25%. And that’s a novel so is what I consider Writing.

  9. hughdellar
    July 11, 2014

    Nice to see you hold the humble art of the ELT coursebook writer in such high esteem, Nicola.

    I’d suggest that actually this article is more indicative of a kind of materials illiteracy that’s so prevalent in the field and that lumps coursebooks together as one single monolith, when the reality is they’re often very different and written with very different goals in mind. To suggest things have been static and homogenous in the coursebook market for the last decade is to fail to appreciate the diversity of user experiences available to teachers and learners.

    You also don’t really take into consideration the fact that coursebooks are written for CLASSROOMS, where they’re mediated by teachers, and thus serve a whole manner of social functions that those “basic conversation questions” often facilitate and encourage.

    At their best, coursebooks can also be agents of change, as the seminal ELTJ article by Tom Hutchinson and Eunice Torres noted ( They can help to bring about subtle shifts in the way teachers – and thus students – perceive language and can also usher in discussion of social issues and angles previously left out of classes.

    The powers of Knewton you extol above are fine if you’re looking to be TESTED in your own time on discrete items of structural grammar, but if you really believe that that leads towards greater proficiency and all-round competence with the language as a whole, then you’re either possessed of far greater than than I am, extremely gullible . . . . or else on commission.

    • Nicola
      July 11, 2014

      I haven’t written course books but I’ve used them for years and they don’t stand out for me particularly – except, Hugh, Innovations which I love precisely because it stood out so much. I bought it for Summer School in fact. It baffles me still how bad some coursebooks are and that’s mainly why I started making my own materials in the first place. I don’t blame authors for this (well not all authors), I blame publishers. If they allowed more Writing and less Content Creating I expect the books would be much better.

      Knewton, which is mentioned in only one piece of this post is only applicable to certain types of learning activities and there is no one method or activity which leads to all round competence, neither paper nor electronic. Although having said that I know plenty of language learners who succeeded with neither of these things.

  10. Gavin Dudeney
    July 12, 2014

    People seem to be labouring under some misapprehensions here>

    1) That VC investment and user numbers are somehow indicative of quality
    2) That adding badges to something makes it better
    3) That you can learn a language through decontextualised vocabulary lists and grammar exercises on the short sentence level

    Anybody who thinks coursebooks are not creative should spend some time looking at the mechanical stuff in Newsmart, or the ridiculous sentences Duolingo and their ilk produce.

    We’ve had our .com bubble, I suspect the next one will be the .edu bubble.


    • Nicola
      July 12, 2014

      You’re right, 1) alone does not indicate quality but neither does the publisher’s logo on it since what defines quality is so subjective. But 2) badges make something a lot more fun if it is in itself not a fun task. I’d say the burden of learning a language is not in any way fun for most people. 3) That you can learn a language by any one method or material alone is of course not possible – most students plateau at B1/B2 so even ELT as a whole doesn’t manage it.
      Duolingo is not a whole method, Newsmart is not a whole method and they’re free AND they don’t make claims to raise a student’s level in x number of hours AND Newsmart at least is an evolving product although in that sense so are coursebooks – albeit print cannot change as fast. AND Newsmart doesn’t pay royalties (I believe) but I imagine sees its writers as content creators. Using non dumbed down content is a different approach, has anyone said it is creative?
      You’re right that there is a bubble coming – only the products people like and work will survive. The exploration is what the creative solutions will emerge from in the end.

  11. Pingback: Content Creator vs Writer | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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This entry was posted on July 7, 2014 by in Edtech and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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