And so my interview with John Tuttle draws to a close with this final instalment. So far we’ve covered the evolution of the ELT industry and the how the role of publisher will continue to develop, and what the future may hold for ‘guru’ authors and the new generation of content writers. Now our conversation turns to adaptive learning and what lies ahead in the world of EdTech …
JT: Here I’ll express my own particular belief that language acquisition is essentially a social activity and that the technology can be applied to actually help optimize the social experience within the classroom. The classroom might become virtual – I mean, we are seeing social networks and teenagers today live in that virtual, connected world, so maybe it becomes more natural – but I think the dynamic and communicative experience of the classroom is very powerful and therefore there is a role for the teacher.
The adaptive technology perhaps can work at two levels: it can provide drill-type exercises and play a part, but the bigger vision for it is based on a notion that there is a growing demand for self study, that it’s possible to create a way to be able to refer students to different content based on their learning style. However, that presupposes that one would populate the content in that way and if you then envisage what’s needed to cater for audial or visual preferences the sheer quantity that’s required becomes challenging. I still struggle with how it’s applied to language where it’s difficult to consolidate knowledge in the way that you can, say, with maths where you can loop back and reinforce understanding of a particular formula or premise and then move on because it builds. I think language is more fluid than that.
The flipped classroom idea is interesting. You can externalize some of the work, even have peer-to-peer stuff going on outside of the classroom so that, within the classroom, there is a focus more on the social skills and a more targeted intervention by the teacher based on profiling of work. That to me is an interesting use of technology, but it’s complementary.
ELTjam: So do you think the ELT community’s reaction to adaptive learning is a knee-jerk reaction? Do you think that would be assuaged by seeing the program actually working?
JT: I think there is something bigger going on. If you look at the growth of demand globally it’s outstripping the teaching capacity of the world. How do you address that? Some people would argue that it is to do with investment in teaching, but the rate of growth in demand is going to outpace the capacity to create teachers.
So, therefore, in terms of major new developments that will influence change I think it will probably be in the area of English language learning, whether it will be a requirement for far greater research on independent learning and how to facilitate it. That pulls together a lot of what’s going on because you can then see the place of adaptive learning, automated marking, online tuition – a whole package of services that help to deliver that. Within that mobile becomes critical. Value added services around mobile in Asia are rapidly growing. I think we’ll see a whole ecosystem developing to support independent learning.
I don’t think that that’s a threat to ELT. It’s not a threat because of the size of the opportunity. It’s a similar thing with MOOCs where, if you look at the completion rates, they are quite low. I think that’s perhaps because its just content-focused and it needs more interaction, including the use of assessment for instance. Ultimately, it comes down to understanding what the motivation of the learner is. If it’s a hobby and there isn’t any sort of real urgency in terms of career or life progression around the learning I can see the value of a more casual online experience. But somebody who needs English in order to immigrate or get a new job, that type of thing, they’re going to want demonstrable value from their learning experience. I think that that’s where ELT really needs the premium service and English language learning becomes an alternative.
ELTjam: OK, so there’s going to be a movement towards enabling the individual learner? Towards facilitating and promoting their ability to learn?
Yeah, and I don’t think that is to challenge the role of the teacher, because it will be serving different needs or even different buying power, actually.
ELTjam: Different learners need their different motivations reflected. [In Pt. 2] We talked about ELT becoming much more tailored around what’s happening in a particular market, and creating products and services that work there specifically …
JT: Yes, and part of that is to understand the access of the market or of the learner and the teacher, because there’s a bit of an assumption that everybody will have anytime, anywhere access and that is not the reality. They’ve got different rates of growth taking place, different interests, so therefore it’s important to have a range of models.
ELTjam: In your opinion, what is potentially the most influential development taking place in ELT at the moment?
JT: I think that it’s the English language-learning requirement because that underpins the investment in technology and in experimentation. It explains the rapid growth of new entrants and perhaps it provides a degree of optimism that new business models can be found.
That focus on how to facilitate independent learning will probably drive a lot of the change. I think the other influential factor is the desire to be able to demonstrate in some measurable way progress and to be able to predict progress. So the use of assessment, in an integrated way within courses externally validated, is perhaps another key driver. Of course, that integration of formative assessment affects the pedagogy – some interesting research work can be done there.
A thought that just occurs to me is that we’ll see the development of translation tools and technology that enables communication without the learner necessarily knowing the language. That’s going to be an interesting development. It probably doesn’t undermine the reasons for learning a language, which often have a cultural dimension to them. Perhaps that won’t be undermined, but you might have a functional approach to language that is facilitated by technology.
ELTjam: Do you see anything happening in ELT that shouldn’t be given the attention that it currently is? That you think has been hyped up?
JT: It’s difficult. I see such a large demand it’s difficult to say what areas of experimentation are not worth it because at the moment they all have a part to play.
It may be that some naturally don’t mature or fall away but there isn’t any one area that I feel we shouldn’t be playing in. I think that the ELT publisher can bring a voice to that and help facilitate, represent and bring the experience they have of working globally with teachers and learners. There’s a forty-year industry to be availed of. Innovation demands an experimental outlook. It would be commercially dangerous in this EdTech age to constrain this.
I think it’s an exciting time and I’m really optimistic about the role of publishers. When you are in the day-to-day trenches it can feel threatening, or the management of change can be challenging, but I find it reassuring when I hear conversations taking place that are actually focusing in on what it means to use this technology well. What does it mean to think in that technology and not translate an older technology such as print? That dialogue that’s taking place in publishing houses is very healthy.