Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
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?
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%.
The Disruptive Innovation Quiz.
Choose the correct answers (a or b) to complete the sentences.
1. Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses _____ .
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 _____ .
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.
b) disrupt the industry
Answers: 1b 2a 3b 4a 5a 6b
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.