Adaptive Learning and ELT: 5 assumptions questioned


Where are we going with Adaptive Learning and ELT?  I’m a little worried we might be mapping our path before we’ve seen it.  So here are 5 assumptions I’ve identified from our posts on the subject so far, and my thoughts on each.

(If you need to catch up on the original posts first, there’s the Knewton series including Nicola Prentis’ excellent critique and Cleve Miller’s more recent posts.)

1.  English as a Second Language is a special subject.

As good teachers, we think our subject is special.  Naturally enough, as English – nay, language teachers, we think our subject is especially special.  Language is alive and subjective, science is not!  I put it to you, good readers, that the only difference between ELT and, say Maths, is that it’s harder to convince people that abstract grammar skills are useful without an ability to use them in practice.

Maths is catching up though, and Dan Meyer leads the way (with some very ELT-like communicative methodology).  If you haven’t got time for the video: simply substituting formulae for word problems (if little Johnny has 3 apples…) does not teach you how to use Maths to model your world.  Just as knowing how to complete ‘If I _____ (be) you…’ doesn’t teach you how to actually use 2nd conditional.

The view of Maths as somehow more amenable to Adaptive Learning is one that sees Maths as stuck in a Grammar-Translation world.  My view is that if we think Grammar-Translation and fill-in-the-gaps is the only place Adaptive Learning can take us, then it’s not the educational game-changer it should be.

2.  Using technology is not communicating.

Another assumption is that if we’re using technology (especially EdTech), we’re not communicating.  Indeed, some of us feel that we need to get as much of the technology bit done outside of class to free up class time for ‘real’ interaction.  Yet you don’t need to go past your local bar (or classroom) to see that technology is an integral part of how we communicate with people in face-to-face situations.  And any teacher who has heard a robotic dictionary voice in their class will know that comment extends to EdTech too.  The challenge in Adaptive ELT is how do you integrate technology with both an educational and communicative purpose.

3.  Adaptive Learning happens outside of class.

This point is connected to the previous one.  I think the view underlying this is that if we’re going to use Adaptive Learning then we need to get the data into the adaptivewhat’samicallitcomputeryserver, and it’s far better to do that in controlled tasks whose results can be automatically corrected.  Which brings me to my next point…

4.  Adaptive Learning needs algorithms.  Based on numerical data.

Yet I wonder: what if we had data that simply complemented what we observe in class?  What if we could simply see what words our students were brainstorming, or what questions they were writing down to ask each other?  Wouldn’t we be able to adapt our class simply by seeing our students’ work in one place?  (And of course having access to the numerical data too – who’s going fast, slow, writing long sentences, etc…)

5.  Adaptive Learning is about content.

The problem, as we see it, is how teachers push the right content to students at the right moment.  As teachers, we know that we could improve our classes if only we had more flexible content to respond to our class better.  My thesis here is that we first need to understand our class better.  If an emergent syllabus is truly an aim, then we need to capture and measure student content, not just improve flexibility of teacher content.

What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Adaptive Learning and ELT: 5 assumptions questioned”

  1. Knewton’s choice of the phrase Adaptive Learning sounds great but their version is limited to one-on-one sessions with a computer, independently directs students what to learn next, and has zero dependency on the teacher (or the classroom). Your vision is something that assists the teacher make sense of all the language being used in the classroom (I’m guessing). These two patterns are so different that it would be wise to create different terms such as the dry but descriptive:

    Artificial Intelligent direct tutoring assistant

    Artificial Intelligent classroom instructional assistant

    The first is far and away easier to create. But as teachers we should be pushing for the second as well.

  2. I see your central point. Though I would add that I think the second system is in fact easier to create. The first one requires a system that works independently of a teacher. The second is merely information to help a teacher make a decision themselves.

    • I do know if I agree that it is easier, but I would agree that the second would help language teachers quickly and constantly get better.

      Wow, what fun it would be to build a taxonomy of the information machines could collect and organize that would be helpful to both new and experienced teachers.


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