Adaptive Learning: It’s US who need to adapt

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 thoughts on “Adaptive Learning: It’s US who need to adapt”

  1. Adaptive Learning is still far, far away from emulating even some of the most basic aspects of teaching in ELT. We don’t know if a fully individualised, adaptive learning programme as the sole input in language learning is feasible. It probably isn’t. The teacher will continue to be needed, adaptive learning is no more real a threat to that need than course books or reference materials that explain grammar or teach vocabulary. It can and will be another tool, like course books and reference books and blackboards and whiteboards and cassette players and televisions and websites and pens and pencils, for teachers and learners to make use of to teach better, learn better and experience (and enjoy) real progress. At the end of the day it’ll come down to a personal choice, and the rationale behind those choices can be surprisingly varied and often unpredictable.

    A quick story. I used to teach in a PLS in Europe. We were in competition with another English Language teaching business in a town nearby, one that had a method which enabled students to study at their own pace through time spent on site with digital materials, supported by some ‘conversation practice’ sessions with a teacher. We couldn’t hope to compete with either their prices or this level of flexibility. So we emphasised the ‘traditional’ nature of our offering and the benefits of that. We often worried that we were peddling an outdated practice (this was 15 years ago). Then one day we started getting calls from potential new students, all of whom were moving away from that other business to join us, all at the same time. The reason? The other business decided to do away with free, plentiful parking for their students on site.

    I truly believe that not only today but for the future there is room for everyone and everything. And ELT will always need real, HUMAN teachers.

    Reply
  2. Hey – seems like you´re taking it to em!

    New methodologies are evolving everyday to integrate the internet and new technology into course design. Knewton is a leader in LMS for blended learning, adaptive, flipped, personalized etcetera. I think they enhance innovation in the classroom and enable teachers. Remember – 99 percent of language learning is still loosely based around ‘standardised testing’ and rote learning – which began in 1965 and in my experience this methodology will bore anyone to death. No wonder it is under-threat. Times change and so will methodology – with the most resistance coming from teachers and faculty worried about their jobs. Embrace edtech and I don´t think you will not need to worry about a job. Heck – you might even discover something new!

    I think ‘speaking’ is a good thing for language learners and can´t quite figure out how ‘ the communicative approach doesn´t work’ .

    Lastly – good luck to the English school owners who make a buck – they probably deserve it. There are plenty of others who lose their shirt in the process – what would you say about them?

    Risk and reward is for the brave at heart – and not many teachers progress from teaching to entrepreneur but those that do generally do a pretty good job. The opportunities for teachers to make a dollar could never be better. Edtech is booming as education across the board changes at rapid pace so I say – embrace change, embrace the internet and pick up a ‘new’ dollar or two.

    Reply
    • Nicola, I don’t mean to be pedantic but it is only scaremongering if it isn’t true. If it is true then it is simply a warning.

      Reply
      • I am not without my reasons for giving this warning. To wit:

        1. Knewton claims that a student must be connected to a computer to make use of its service. Of, course this is because they depend on the computer to do all the adaptive work. Teachers aren’t involved in the process.

        2. My calculated guess is that they are pitching their product to language schools (institutions) that currently or soon plan to build out instructional systems that rely heavily on computers.

        3. One example of this is Wall Street English which I am very familiar with as it is quite strong in Shanghai. Wall street is owned by Pearson (2010) who is also a “partner” of Knewton. What Pearson says in its 2012 financial is instructive, “Our framework also involves shifting an increasing
        proportion of investment into our faster-growing and
        proven service-oriented models. They are: direct to
        consumer, building on the success of initiatives such
        as our language schools in China;

        4. Wall street seems like a great business model to me. For every five hours students spend studying, at least 4 are spent just on the computer.

        5. In other words Knewton is collaborating with an existing provider that has already eliminated 80% or more of the instructional hours of teachers. This model is financially successful (which means they will continue to follow along this path). Teachers in Wall Street are required to stick to scripted interactions in the time they spend with students moreover they rarely see the same students again month to month. Consider these teachers may only see a student twice in a year (thus effectively deskilling teachers).

        6. Many students that I speak to question this model but they are attracted to Wall Street thanks to the lack of competitors in the marketplace and the “brand name.” I should add that it is very difficult for foreign companies to enter China. Government regulations make surviving here complicated. In one of the largest markets in the world Wall Street has few competitors.

        7. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if Wall Street were also able to offer all the shiny new toys that Knewton provides? Even if the market were mesmerized by the pie-in-the-shy promises for 5 years, that would be enough.

        8. Once to condition students to study without teachers for long periods of time you no longer need to work hard to make teachers productive (or skilled). So yes, this is a warning.

        Reply
        • Michael – who cares if Knewton are successful or not?

          In the end the market will decide – not you, not me – the market. If the market wants something then we should provide it. What you appear to be missing (as does Nicola) is that the internet is a great way to learn a language – point one. And secondly, it allows many more students to learn a language – with or without Knewton. I presume you know that there are not enough teachers to service the demand for English language learning – right?

          Okay – let´s forget technology. How would you plan teaching students all over China in remote locations? Short answer – not possible without technology.

          Your argument does not have legs – it´s illogical. Here in Brazil there is an enormous shortage of teachers, hence the online language learning market is growing exponentially.

          Watching videos, practising grammar, or pronunciation online – whatever, whenever just makes plain sense – and it all helps. What are you saying? Would you prefer to deny them the opportunity? Do you want students to go out of their way to meet you and only you, under your terms, when you want and at a time of your choosing? Is that what you want?

          I do not understand how you can argue to the contrary.

          Reply
  3. Hey – seems like you´re taking it to em!

    New methodologies are evolving everyday to integrate the internet and new technology into course design. Knewton is a leader in LMS for blended learning, adaptive, flipped, personalized etcetera. I think they enhance innovation in the classroom and enable teachers. Remember – 99 percent of language learning is still loosely based around ‘standardised testing’ and rote learning – which began in 1965 and in my experience this methodology will bore anyone to death. No wonder it is under-threat. Times change and so will methodology – with the most resistance coming from teachers and faculty worried about their jobs. Embrace edtech and I don´t think you will not need to worry about a job. Heck – you might even discover something new!

    I think ‘speaking’ is a good thing for language learners and can´t quite figure out how ‘ the communicative approach doesn´t work’ .

    Lastly – good luck to the English school owners who make a buck – they probably deserve it. There are plenty of others who lose their shirt in the process – what would you say about them?

    Risk and reward is for the brave at heart – and not many teachers progress from teaching to entrepreneur but those that do generally do a pretty good job. The opportunities for teachers to make a dollar could never be better. Edtech is booming as education across the board changes at rapid pace so I say – embrace change, embrace the internet and pick up a ‘new’ dollar or two.

    Reply
    • Thanks for commenting. Just to clarify, my point that the communicative approach doesn’t work was a bit glib. I meant that most of the students I’ve encountered over the years get stuck at a certain level and no kind of class budges them.
      And rich, successful language schools that pay their teachers well, pay them for planning and marking and have great professional development, holiday pay and pensions and full contributions to social security, fantastic! Not very many of them though! But that’s a separate issue.

      Reply
      • I don’t think it’s pedantic. I think the difference between the two is also intent and state of mind. Intent to alert to danger from a rational perspective is warning . Intent to frighten from a position of panic is scaremongering. I now see you probably weren’t motivated by the latter so it wasn’t scaremongering
        However, the truth of the future is not knowable now, so by your own definition, it’s not easy to say which term best applies 🙂

        Reply
        • I am not without my reasons for giving this warning. To wit:

          1. Knewton claims that a student must be connected to a computer to make use of its service. Of, course this is because they depend on the computer to do all the adaptive work. Teachers aren’t involved in the process.

          2. My calculated guess is that they are pitching their product to language schools (institutions) that currently or soon plan to build out instructional systems that rely heavily on computers.

          3. One example of this is Wall Street English which I am very familiar with as it is quite strong in Shanghai. Wall street is owned by Pearson (2010) who is also a “partner” of Knewton. What Pearson says in its 2012 financial is instructive, “Our framework also involves shifting an increasing
          proportion of investment into our faster-growing and
          proven service-oriented models. They are: direct to
          consumer, building on the success of initiatives such
          as our language schools in China;

          4. Wall street seems like a great business model to me. For every five hours students spend studying, at least 4 are spent just on the computer.

          5. In other words Knewton is collaborating with an existing provider that has already eliminated 80% or more of the instructional hours of teachers. This model is financially successful (which means they will continue to follow along this path). Teachers in Wall Street are required to stick to scripted interactions in the time they spend with students moreover they rarely see the same students again month to month. Consider these teachers may only see a student twice in a year (thus effectively deskilling teachers).

          6. Many students that I speak to question this model but they are attracted to Wall Street thanks to the lack of competitors in the marketplace and the “brand name.” I should add that it is very difficult for foreign companies to enter China. Government regulations make surviving here complicated. In one of the largest markets in the world Wall Street has few competitors.

          7. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if Wall Street were also able to offer all the shiny new toys that Knewton provides? Even if the market were mesmerized by the pie-in-the-shy promises for 5 years, that would be enough.

          8. Once to condition students to study without teachers for long periods of time you no longer need to work hard to make teachers productive (or skilled). So yes, this is a warning.

          Reply
  4. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig writes something along the lines that we all carry out our jobs in a way that will ensure we have them in the future. I’m sure as hell guilty of that one with my anti-technology in the classroom bent!

    Reply
  5. I’m inclined to think that if a teacher can be replaced by a computer then he or she probably should be! Of course I don’t think it’s likely; it’s more likely teachers who use technology (effectively) will replace those who don’t.
    It’s really sad that the educators, the very people who are meant to be making the world a better place (assumption!), are complicit in restricting access to knowledge to the privileged.

    Reply
  6. To Michael. I think that Wall Street is a great example of a school that has not put the rest of language schools out of business. It offers an alternative – one that some people take and others leave. I suspected the school described by Ian above that was only serious competition until it withdrew free parking was Wall Street as soon as I read it.
    When I lived in Istanbul, I had private students who came to me because Wall Street didn’t offer them enough conversation practice – they literally caused a rise in my work not a fall.
    As Robert says, there are not enough language schools or teachers and there are plenty of people that will always want the things virtual learning or adaptive learning can’t offer. We can incorporate those tools or pick up the extra work that comes as a result of lots of people maybe starting to learn a language via the internet etc where they might not have done otherwise because they weren’t near a school etc.
    However, Robert, I’m not sure where you get the impression I think the internet is not a valid source of learning. I am always encouraging my students to do everything BUT have more lessons with me. Watch films, use Newsmart for example or other apps or sites I find – I regularly nag them to use Duolingo, talk to each other at lunchtime when I’m not there, read Graded Readers. Most of them don’t as they need to pay someone to sit in front of them to make them do it. In much the same way as people join gyms when they could exercise at home but don’t.

    Reply
    • HI Nicola,

      Fair enough – I thought you were one of the ‘ I´m losing my job to the internet’ nazis. And there are plenty of them. Or a disheveled greeny hellbent on demeaning people who manage to make a dollar in business – but I might be wrong there too.

      Either way – students will learn how they see fit. And I feel the net provides an opportunity for teachers to offer more ‘styles’ as opposed to one size fits all. These new tools, or robots, are vehicles for innovation. I read the other day that drones now deliver beer – well, I don´t know if that´s good or not but whichever way – we live in very exciting times and this debate and others like it will continue to be hotly contested. Between robots and people, people and people and maybe even – robots and robots hahaha

      Thanks all – better toddle off and bother another blogger I don´t agree with.

      Reply
  7. Great post.
    I’d just add one thing: there’s no guarantee that adaptive learning will (begin to) replace teachers because it’s better for students. It may just be more economic for schools and publishers.

    Reply
  8. 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.

    Reply
    • “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.

      Reply
  9. 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.

    Reply
  10. 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.

    Reply
  11. @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.

    Reply
  12. 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!

    Reply

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