Until the other day, I’d never read any of the stuff about Adaptive Learning and skipped the odd session on it when picking TESOL Spain talks to go to. Much as I love eltjam, there are some really long looking posts on here and I couldn’t be bothered. It looked like something I’d have to concentrate on to wade through and, you know, there were Buzzfeed articles to read and YouTube videos to watch.

Then I spent a couple of hours reading the five, lengthy eltjam posts about Knewton, pioneers in Adaptive Learning software, and making notes.

I became fascinated by what was happening in those posts and all fired up with it (blogging is almost physically exciting for me, tragically) . What I see from some of the commenters is shocking.

(Sorry that was a Buzzfeed tactic)

Teachers and materials writers really care about students and learning and things that work in the classroom and helping learners. Really, really. Maybe the publishers are just in it to make money, but the rest of ELT has a personal relationship with many of their students and puts in hours of extra time and effort to help them. It shines through in every post and conference talk of everyone from the most high profile of the ELT community to the lesson plans of  the newly qualified.

Except, for some, when Adaptive Learning is mentioned.

The end result of this system will be to eliminate the need for language teachers. At first this system will act as an aid to teachers but the end result will be to eliminate teachers.

And

What we do have a right to complain about is any attempt to disintermediate English language teachers from the process.

And

My only concern is that initially this will be sold to teachers as “Progress” when in fact it will start to result in the end of their jobs (in say 10 years time). I say, call a spade a spade. It probably will result in better learning in many instances but it will also result in the elimination of many jobs.

Adaptive learning is going to replace teachers with robots. Machines will make our coffee, cook our dinner extra fast, transport us to work, and make our clothes, causing mass unemployment. Eventually, they’ll take over the entire world and we’ll be their slaves.

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Photo Credit: San Diego Shooter via Compfight cc

Or the kettle, microwave, car and sewing machine will just fit into our normal jobs and lives and, damnit, make a lot of tedious tasks simpler.

Classic straw man scaremongering. But scaremongering that comes from genuine, albeit misplaced, fear so I’m not going to be overly harsh on that. However, there’s something else wrong with this argument. It assumes the teachers, not the students are the important thing here.

What we do have a right to complain about is any attempt to disintermediate English language teachers from the process.

Yes, we do have the right to complain. In a free society this is part of freedom of speech. What we don’t have the right to is for society to act in the best interests of the few at the possible expense of the many. There are hundreds of thousands of English teachers and billions of language learners, especially when you add in those not learning English but others, including coding languages.

In the end this is a system that will tend to concentrate wealth- distributing it from the many to the few in the name of efficiency.

Will it? All those students who might get better at English might end up with money from the better job they can get. Is that who we mean here?

Facetiousness aside, language schools already cream off huge profits from students that are not reflected in teachers’ salaries. We’ve been living this one since TEFL started but seem to have forgotten. My first summer school job, the owners had a house in the most expensive part of the country, wore designer clothes and holidayed in the best parts of the world in their other houses.

Lucky old me, they took me to Thailand too.

I worked my arse off for them and became a millionaire.

Now, let’s imagine we knew someone with a disease for which most never fully recover. One millions of people all over the world are born with, but spares the lives of those in rich countries like America and the UK. Treatment is costly, takes hours a week, has to be carried out as both in-patient and out-patient, might even be a lifelong treatment plan and takes time away from leisure, family, work. Doctors do what they can but mostly their efforts produce results for only a few, for those that work really hard at changing their diet and exercise.

Then some company starts work on a miracle drug. It’s in very early stages, no-one knows if it will work and the company is kind of evangelical about it and annoys the doctors. Doctors are sceptical. Where are the trials, the proof it will work? Fair questions that the drug company has to answer and plans to. If they’re wrong, their product simply won’t achieve anything.

But if they’re right?

The doctors fear this most of all. There’ll be no disease. Hospitals that treat the disease will close. Patients will be fully cured and there’ll be no need for doctors ever again. We must not use it!

Don’t worry! This latter part can never happen. The drug will (might) only aid the cure not be the cure. As many have said, and is too obvious to repeat at length, language learning is a complex social thing which will always need teachers. But the idea that our methods must be preserved at all costs to students in a model that currently doesn’t work and mostly produces plateauing B1 and quitting A2 students who fear for their future success because they don’t speak English well enough. Is. Incredible.

I know analogy is a very weak form of argument. It’s powerfully convincing but easy to dismantle. I could shoot full of holes my disease/doctors scenario myself. Honestly, save yourself the effort of commenting if that’s what you want to say as I’ll agree with everything you expose about it.

And, anyway, I  have another one that works much better.

Imagine you suddenly needed to learn Chinese to succeed in life and earn more money, to enjoy masses of popular film and music in its original version and converse with people from other countries. Someone invents a way that might make this process much simpler, quicker and, therefore cost effective for you. You’d jump at it.

I’m someone that just can’t be arsed learning languages anymore. Borrrring, time consuming study for something I don’t care about and feel no shame over. Thank God I can manage my life without it but if you invented a chip I could plug into my brain to download Chinese from, hell, why not? Adaptive Learning is not that pill. But, if it was, I wouldn’t care that it wasn’t as noble a method as toiling in Chinese class and neither would a single one of the people that object to Adaptive Learning and everything Knewton are saying.

We don’t know if Adaptive Learning will work for students.  We use methods that don’t work for everyone already. The communicative method fails most students, as do course books, language schools, self study materials etc etc.

Let’s just see, shall we?

If it doesn’t work, Knewton will go bust and something else will be the buzzword, just as we’ve all been seeing ever since the Audio Lingual method.

You won’t shed any tears over them. Neither will I.

That’s business.

29 Comments

  1. Erm…. you’re just ripping off my blog posts and passing them off as your own! If you want to use my content, then you should pay me! You’ve not even credited me! Please take this down or let me know which email account you’d like me to send an invoice to!

  2. @Michael I would replace – teacher centric, with learner centric.

    I believe in learner empowerment and anything that supports it.

    A learner for example should be able to write the curriculum with friends or colleagues – if they want to. Self determination and creativity should be supported and encouraged within the teaching and learning process and the internet plays an enormous role here.

    While almost every industry undergoes rapid change, educators appear fixated with the past, with tradition, with certificates and accreditation – lights shining brightly on Cambridge and Oxford as if they can do no wrong.

    And the systems are largely built for the school, or the teacher – not for the learner. With all respect to Cleve, English360, Knewton and other LMS companies – why do we need a Management System when we have the internet? Granted we need a communication system but the learner should decide on the content, the way data and analytics are collected, how they are used, and at what cost. Not the school or the teacher or the LMS.

    I feel we need to empower the learners at which point we will see rapid change that keeps pace with technology. Until then, we will continue to meander along as if everything is okay.

  3. I agree Michael. I don´t like Knewton (Pearson) or any of those global brand publishing houses. Indeed I detest them. But, hey – bring it on!

    Testing is designed to capture the client. It isn´t a learning tool and there is no correlation between improved outcomes and ‘testing’. I don´t test. I hated it as a learner and I hate it even more as a teacher. And I won´t support any of the ‘tests’ out there like – IELTS, CAE, TOEIC etc All they are is standardization mechanisms – an ugly way to learn anything. Get rid of them! The publishing houses won´t agree because they make trillions from the hype and too many schools jump on the lolly wagon. I find it quite pathetic really. Language qualifications in general are banal.

    Testing to me is a waste of time and energy.

  4. It is way too early for empirical results vis-a-vis adaptive learning. This may be just a flash in the pan but I think we will see some modest positive results (if only because of the wide scale application of spaced repetition- a wonderful 40-100 year-old technique). But modest to high improvements are there to be had from improvements in teaching as well (see John Hattie).

    I believe that recent trends are quite disconcerting and they have implications for teachers. One trend is the move by publishers to control more of the educational value chain from testing, to publishing, to instruction, and back to testing. Before, teachers were understood and welcomed as partners in the global ELT publishing business but I think under the thrall of adaptive learning and efficacy some publishers may be motivated to interpret “bad” teaching as the “friction” in the end-to-end value chain. What happens when teachers become the weak link in the value chain? What happens when technology can deliver modest positive improvements without teachers? Will publishers “invest” in our skills or systems they can completely control and benefit from?

    If you think these are poor questions so be it. But I do not believe this is scaremongering. Rather I think it is a reasonable extrapolation from recent trends (semi-intelligent computing that will only increase in intelligence, very successful schools in China that have supplanted teachers with computers and that are directly owned by publishers, direct-to-student educational services on the Internet, the coming elimination of book-based curriculum.)

    Actually for language teachers there may be a way out of this situation. The way is to encourage creators of any intelligent system to put teachers at or near the center of control. We should definitely remain partners in the educational process. Systems that do that should be actively supported by teachers. Systems that raise our skills rather than deskill us should be applauded and supported by teachers.

    Seen in this context, what kind of organization do you think Knewton is/was? Personally I am hopeful that someone out there will build a system that invites us in through the front door as opposed to making us peer in from the outside through cracks in the boards.

  5. Economic for schools, IF students keep enrolling ie they like it more so than see results. Since there’s no reason to think doing away with teachers is the end result of adaptive learning, any more than self study books or attempts to get students to be more autonomous ( a big threat to teachers if students get too successful), I still don’t see the cause for concern.

    1. “Personally I am hopeful that someone out there will build a system that invites us in through the front door as opposed to making us peer in from the outside through cracks in the boards.”

      Michael this is exactly our intention with English360. We’re an independent, teacher-led startup with zero VC money, so we don’t have the resources to do everything at once…but, we are getting there. I don’t mean for this to be a plug, so please comment on my post Monday.

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