Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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

The Future of ELT #eltpast

The future of ELT is a common topic in our house — no, really — so I was happy I was going to be able to catch the Future of ELT panel hosted by Regent’s University. Happy, that is, until I actually tuned in and watched and listened with mounting disbelief. The future of ELT looked distinctly like the past and the present and, as then, was dominated by the male voice.

In order to get to the speakers, you had to stay awake through twenty minutes of the most uninspiring intro and then a video about Regent’s. On stage were three men and the male host. Two women were beamed in via Skype. If anything showed that the future of ELT doesn’t lie in technology it was the appallingly bad Skype connection to Padmini Boruah in India which left her unable to hear and often operating on a delay so back and forth flowed badly. She was eventually able to present her points and then hand over to the panel Q & A which she couldn’t hear. Valeria Franca in Brazil seemed to be trying to keep her up to date by typing summaries and, at one point, summarised verbally something Dave Graddol had commented.

Why was someone from the event not doing this? Instead an expert speaker who, as women so often do, facilitated for the comfort of others. What she summarised was merely Dave Graddol blathering on about what he thought about what Padmini had said, he hadn’t asked a question. After Valeria’s summary he then blathered a bit longer with no question. And when Padmini asked him to elaborate on a point (again, unfortunately, leaving the floor to him) there was the tinkle of men’s laughter as Graddol told her he had been agreeing with her. It was extremely uncomfortable to me as a spectator. A man so used to holding court, so accustomed to his place at the front of the stage that he didn’t even notice she had spoken less than him in the Q & A. She was then cut off by the host because of timings. Was it her who had taken up more of the time or was it Graddol? Why was he not interrupted? If he was merely agreeing, maybe he could have done so more concisely.

Perhaps an ELT dialogue written by one of the other speakers, course book author Paul Seligson, would be a good model for him.

Man: Yes, good points, I agree. What do you think about … (insert max 10 words)?

But then, as evidenced all evening, that wouldn’t be an authentic dialogue and Paul did say how much he struggles to write those.

Paul Seligson, it is a mystery to me what qualified him to be on a panel about the future of ELT. Just to complete the set onstage? He admitted himself that he found it impossible to predict after recounting how, when he started out, there were black and white books, BBC World Service and no internet and haven’t things changed since then! A man who has, in his own words, shown his irrelevance had of course not let that hold him back from accepting the invitation to talk about something he knew nothing about. It was like the Ghost of ELT Past, lamenting the disappearance of the good old days when “I started in publishing [and] there were lots and lots of publishers. It was  a wonderful thing to go to a conference and every publisher feted you and took you out for dinner and you’d get free dinners, free breakfasts, free everything. It was wonderful and now it’s much more restrictive. It’s much narrower.”

Now presumably he has to pay for his own meals at conferences … just like everyone else. Just like all those teachers who, as Graddol pointed out during the talk, usually have to finance their own professional development and so self fund going to conferences.

Having surely lost any sympathy from anyone listening, but painfully unaware of his privilege, he then went on to describe the past and present of publishing. (emphasis his) “It was all author driven. The publishers came to me and asked me to write books. Now publishers pretty much do what they want to.” Disappearing even further up his own ego, he mourned the replacement of royalties by fees. And how unless you’re an established author it’s very difficult to get royalties.

Firstly WHAT has this got to do with English Teaching or the future of it? Secondly, I’m sorry if this is news to authors, NO-ONE cares about  royalties except other authors. It would have been appropriate at a materials writing event but not here. An audience of teachers has no interest in authors no longer receiving passive income on new work. Teachers, like most other professions, also only receive money for the hours they spend at work (and none for preparation, marking, report writing). Dave Graddol sympathised with Paul about how terrible it was that authors now have to create content. I doubt anyone else did.

Dave Graddol’s own section looked at the present trends in demographics in China and the rise of corporations through exams and curriculum influence. Apparently this is much more dangerous to education than the “third party independent” exams our industry has grown. Since Cambridge Assessment rule that field, create the exams and the materials and schools in many countries teach them in their curriculum, why are they any different? Paul later claimed IELTS as a reality check for someone who thinks they know English. What’s reality about writing a short paragraph describing a graph and chucking in conjunctions into a few hundred word essay about whether pollution is the government’s responsibility? IELTS is not reality, as anyone who has tried to come up with something to say for an IELTS speaking question will attest to.

Valeria looked at the situation in Brazil regarding the English level of English teachers which needs to change if the future is to improve. There wasn’t time for a Q&A for her part. This did not happen with the Q&A after any of the three men’s sections and it was much harder for the women to participate with the disadvantage offered by the tech.  For me, the only really insightful prediction in the whole event had been from Padmini about the amount of content and information young people have to filter and that the teacher will be the one to mediate that. Basically, the teacher as curator. That shows a way teachers will move with the technology and the changing needs of students and was something worth exploring. In fact, teachers already do that to a certain extent with course books that  have to be adapted and supplemented.

Scott Thornbury made some observations about voice recognition and “the elephant in the room”,  simultaneous voice translation. And it’s there that I would have thought a talk like this would have started, not been mentioned only in the last half an hour. From this talk it’s clear that if the future of ELT is only being spoken about in terms of the past and present, ELT is going to be squashed by the elephant or one of its cousins. The current model of teaching and learning, that as Valeria showed hasn’t been adequate in Brazil, could be wiped out by voice translation, as long as someone has a smartphone or whatever the next generations of devices will be. As long as connectivity is better in the future than was shown last night.

The solution to the time consuming, expensive hassle of learning English is going to come along and it’s going to come from outside ELT because the industry and those who speak for it aren’t looking far enough ahead or far enough outside their own sphere.


16 comments on “The Future of ELT #eltpast

  1. eflnotes
    October 30, 2015

    i can’t comment on the event but i take your word 🙂 i think actually relying on the (relevant) ‘past’ to predict the ‘future’ is uncontroversial

    things like voice recognition will be used mainly by people who don’t want/need to learn a language. much like Google translate is used today

    saying that such technologies will be a “solution to the time consuming, expensive hassle of learning English” reminds me of certain people saying “knowledge is obsolete” 🙂


    • Nicola
      October 31, 2015

      I think reflection on the past in order to say something meaningful about the future isn’t controversial either but it was just too much of that and looked hopelessly outdated. You could have been watching something made ten years ago for the majority of it. I’d be interested to see what you thought if you watched it, Fiona has added the link in the comment above which I hadn’t, so you could. Definitely skip the first 20 minutes though it will still seem plenty long enough!

      “things like voice recognition will be used mainly by people who don’t want/need to learn a language” I agree COMPLETELY. But the thing I think many in EFL don’t see is that most people really don’t want to learn English, it’s an obligation not a hobby. So as soon as you take away the need, through voice translation tech one day maybe, the want for most will disappear because it was never there. It’s like SatNav – you could just learn your way around, or use map reading skills but millions of people use SatNav even for journeys they’ve done before because tech has removed the need to bother thinking about it. Even when a SatNAv goes wrong, people usually reprogram it to get them back on the route rather than abandon it. Language learning will be the same because it’s pain in the neck not being able to speak it fluently. Maybe people will even tolerate a degree of error in it simply for the convenience. I don’t think it’s the same degree of saying knowledge will be obsolete but on the other hand, if Google had a way of implanting in brains, one day, maybe that would happen too. Then you’d be free to do other things with your brain, like create stuff, solve problems – higher order thinking. Knowing stuff is just storage. And language learning is just a hassle for most people if they need it for work or studies or exams/qualifications or visas. That’s a hell of a lot of students. They might enjoy classes, but most of them wouldn’t take them if they didn’t need to. And need creates obligation which usually stops it being fun. I have a half written post on this topic that I keep meaning to finish. Will be more detailed perhaps as I wrote more than intended here!

  2. Fiona Thomas' ELT Blog
    October 30, 2015

    I watched this in 3 sittings. The first bit live but didn’t have the patience to continue after watching the connection issues and the video about Regent’s university which was completely irrelevant to the audience. If the video had been about teacher training I would have found more acceptable (Regent’s university had after all been organising the event) but putting on a self-promoting video which has zero interest for the target audience is pretty misguided I think.
    I found that a recording had been uploaded so decided to persist today. In case anybody is interested, this is the link:
    I was less offended by what was said that you obviously were, Nicola but I was seriously unhappy about how the two panel speakers who were talking from a distance were managed. Is the fact that they were women relevant? I don’t know, but the fact is they were and the other speakers were men and it was neither a balanced discussion nor were the women given the same opportunities to contribute.
    I understand that with Padmila there were technical issues but there were none with Valeria so why why why was she not given the same treatment as the other speakers? Why was there no panel discussion about her points? Apparently because they ran out of time.
    At IATEFL people come into the room holding up 5 minute left signs so that nobody encroaches on anybody else’s time …. did nobody think about managing timing here?
    The fact is that Valeria was communicating at a distance via Skype (she was at a disadvantage), her name begins with a V so she was last (alphabetical order, another disadvantage), and they ran out of time to have a panel discussion about the points she brought up (yet another disadvantage). Does her gender have anything to do with this? I seriously hope not but the management of her contribution was v. lacking.
    Personally my issue is with the management of the discussion and less about the different speakers’ contributions.

    • Nicola
      October 31, 2015

      Hi Fiona, Thanks for the this — and for the link as I hadn’t linked it properly not realising I could go further in without having signed in. I’ll change mine above in case people don’s see this comment.
      I think it’s so hard to say exactly what happened there and why. Someone who is a linguistics discourse expert with a background specifically in gender discourse would be able to analyse and make it clearer. But something more than just the tech, or just the lack of time management was going on — as you say the tech issue didn’t apply to both women — and it’s this kind of unconscious bias that I really don’t know how anyone is ever to overcome — even with the very best intentions.

  3. wirralboy70
    October 31, 2015

    Hi Nicola, great post on the future of ELT!We need more voices like yours! Why didn’t they speak about: remote teaching, TBLT with tech, CLIL, MALL, teacher training? Sad it was so rubbish!Personally, I feel really frustrated that teaching could be so good and what I see is so bad! Many struggle with the dvd! I am sure that one day soon language will be made obsolete but that could be some way off, meanwhile we should use the tech to teach better. Thanks Steve

    Date: Fri, 30 Oct 2015 17:13:30 +0000 To:

    • Nicola
      October 31, 2015

      You’re right. Flipped classroom was mentioned briefly, by Graddol, mostly as a bad thing because it cut out teachers. Hardly an in depth look at changes in teaching though he did say that his area of expertise is bigger picture so fair enough. They should have had someone who could have talked about the future of some of the things you’ve mentioned — even just for some balance and relevance.

  4. Scott Thornbury
    October 31, 2015

    For what it’s worth, here are the notes that I used to summarize my initial contribution:

    1. Futurology – what we desire or what we fear?
    2. 4 scenarios: Happy English (China); Powerpoint Karaoke (Germany); Ceibal project in Uruguay; HelloTalk – 1-2-1 exchanging of English and Turkish online – Ergo, while the need/desire for English remains strong, the means of learning it are hugely diverse. And will probably grow more so, fuelled by technological innovation.
    3. While technologies capacity to deliver and provide access to content seems unlimited, more importantly is its capacity to put people together. Given languages social function, it’s likely that this capacity will increase exponentially. As one commentator put it, as long ago as 2006, ‘the ideal of the independent language learner (…) is becoming rapidly replaced by the ideal of the collaborative learning community where learners find support for and develop control of their learning in interactions and exchanges with peers, learners, teachers, and native speakers’.(‘Distance learning of foreign languages’, Language Teaching, 39, p.260.
    4. Nevertheless, the elephant in the room is translation technology, witness Skype Star Trek translator. With machine translation literally at our fingertips, the role of the teacher – or better – communications facilitator – will be to help learners exploit these effectively and creatively.
    5. Moreover, in an increasingly globalised world, where mobility is the norm, the capacity to adapt to different contexts and purposes will become all-important, and any notion of ‘standard’ will evaporate, to be replaced by what one writer called ‘semiotic agility’, i.e. linguistic resourcefulness, which will inevitably include language meshing, mashing, and mixing. Only for a very few aspiring cross-cultural migrants will the need for a standard, monolingual native-like English persist.

  5. Nicola
    October 31, 2015

    Thanks, Scott, That’s very helpful for people who didn’t see the event. FWIW on my part, I thought your bit was interesting especially the Google translate ESP student story.

  6. Julian Kenny
    October 31, 2015

    Thanks for continuing the discussion here. I’m glad that it has started a bit more of a debate. We did invite all of the speakers to London, but unfortunately we had to rely on some dodgy Internet connections. I did try to make sure that everyone had a fair opportunity to speak and it was a shame that we didn’t have time for questions to Valeria. Hopefully if we do something like this again, we will have to arrange a system for giving time limits to people online.

    • Nicola
      October 31, 2015

      Thanks for commenting BUT I don’t think it was only (or even?) the people online that needed time limits, it was that a lot of allowances need to be afforded to online speakers, especially by men who are used to dominating a conversation. I think there are more subtle things at work here, though clear time limits for all speakers would help. Also, I think there are other people that could have contributed to a more future-looking debate on this topic and some of them were name-checked during the talk.

      • Nicola
        October 31, 2015

        Also, I figured everyone would have been invited but that, of course, that’s not always possible and an online contribution often works very well. I didn’t mean to imply there was anything deliberate about who was online. However, I think it’s a good idea to look at who can and who can’t be there in person, bear in mind what a disadvantage that can be and modify accordingly, perhaps by adding an in-person female if the stage is otherwise dominated by men as is all too often the case in many industries but, unfortunately, even in one where women make up 60% of it/

  7. Julian Kenny
    October 31, 2015

    We did check the amount of time that people spoke after the event and apart from Padmini is was a relatively similar amount of time. I’m sure that Regen’s University would be happy to run another event to make it easier for more people to comment. Isn’t it better to have some debate that will always have critics and create more debate, than have no event in the first place?

    • Fiona Thomas' ELT Blog
      October 31, 2015

      Debate is good, of course but so is reflection.

      I applaud the organising of such an event and thank Regent’s University for doing this and making the event public. I also appreciate that events that try to include online contributions in an essentially face-to-face discussion are likely to fraught with difficulties. I am also sure that none of the issues related to how the two online participants were treated were intentional.

      However, by justifying the management of the discussion by counting the minutes each person spoke I’m afraid the point has been missed. This is about only having women contributing online and only men in the auditorium, this is about the fact that contributing online is different from contributing in person and no allowances were made for that, it’s about the fact that the only person who did not receive the same opportunity to have her points discussed was Valeria because of a misguided decision to order the panellists by alphabetical order “in the interests of fairness” and not managing the time better.

      There are a lot of issues going on here and it is purely in the interest of encouraging more balanced and fairer future discussions that I am bringing them up here.

    • Nicola
      October 31, 2015

      I don’t know how long each “slot” was in relation to others but it was definitely the case that Q&A sessions were dominated by the men. That then meant Valeria’s didn’t get due attention after hers. I think actually that as well as the organisers, participants need training on how to keep contributions balanced. It’s about sensitive turn-taking and I am going to try and give this some thought and research, see if I can find someone who knows about gender and discourse dynamics. As an industry, TEFL of all others should be able to get that right!
      I’m not sure the direction of this debate was what Regent’s can have been intending! But I think a bit more research into the area, or guidance, would have meant more valuable contribution and discussion was had on the topic in the first place. It needed much more “future” stuff than it did have and that, I think was down to the lineup.

  8. Julian Kenny
    October 31, 2015

    Thanks Fiona. We did make a mistake with this. We organised the panel and then offered panellists the opportunity to join in person or online. I know it looks bad that the women were only online, but I assure you this wasn’t intentional. Until a week or so ago the majority of panellists we’re going to be online and there wouldn’t have been a gender divide.
    This was the first ELT event for Regent’s and we will take on board all the comments here and from other sources to organise future events.
    The comment about the minutes speaking came from a worry on my part that time wasn’t fairly allocated after the panel discussion, so we checked the video the day after. It wasn’t really an excuse. For future events we will have a fairer system in place.
    Thanks again for all the comments, we will definitely take them on board for future events. We may also come back here and ask for more input, if that’s ok?

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