ELTjam LXD Session: Ceri Jones on why we need a ‘CoachBot’

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Ceri Jones was the second speaker at the ELTjam LXD Session that we held on the evening of the 13th April in Birmingham, with the backdrop of the IATEFL Conference. Here’s Ceri’s take on Learner Experience design and what its implications might be on language learning content:

I’ve been invited to talk from a content perspective. When I got the invitation, I thought ‘Wow, what exactly does that mean?’ Am I talking as a content provider (which is part of the New Speak of publishing), or am I actually talking from the point of view of a learner who is using this content?

So I’ve decided to talk from them both.

There are two things that I’d like to talk about, but I want to start with this idea of the wicked problem, and possibly the simplification of the solution to the wicked problem that Nick introduced. And I’d like to apologise in advance for being very reductionist.

Simplification and scorability

In the current stage of affairs (and this is where I’m going to be really reductionist) there’s a tendency to simplify; to make things ever smaller. Screens are getting smaller, for example. And this is having a knock-on effect on content. Smaller screens equals less content and in scaling down there seems to be a definite tail that’s wagging the dog of downsizing.  And this tail is scorability. With little room to play around with, it seems that everything needs to be measured. Everything needs to be black and white.

In order to be able to write an activity that is black and white, it has to be very controlled. So, we have the word lists and the grammar syllabus broken down; ever more fragmented into the granular McNuggets of Scott Thornbury. There is a tendency for digital materials to become increasingly controlled and somehow limited and restricted. Of course, if you are a language learner, you need repetition and you need automatisation. Being able to make certain parts of the language mechanical is useful, but for me there is a tension with a whole other side of language learning that seems to be completely missing. What’s happened to exposure? What’s happened to intrinsic interest in the input? What’s happened to acquisition? What happens in this reduced idea of digital material (where everything is very controlled), is you don’t get a chance to listen to something that is possibly random and above your level. You don’t get a chance to read texts because you’re just interested in them, or because they’re a pleasure to read.

Content provision and content curation

We all know learners who learned English through songs; through a kind of intensive, binge listening. It’s a fantastic way to learn, and we don’t seem to be tapping into that. Same for binge reading, or extensive reading. We all know that listening and extensive reading works. So, where’s extensive reading and listening in digital language learning content?

But maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe we don’t need it to be in the content. Maybe this is a better question: do we have to provide all the content? Maybe we should be curating content instead of providing it. So, rather than a content provision problem, it’s more of a content curation challenge. This might be one solution to the wicked problem. Maybe we can guide our students to explore the language that’s out there already. Exactly how that would fit in with an LMS or a course or a platform, I don’t know. But I have this idea of a CoachBot.


And I think the CoachBot speaks to another side of something that’s missing in a lot of digital platforms, apps, etc. And that’s the idea of agency. As a learner, I like to choose a pathway through the material. I like to have a bigger picture, not just swipe, next exercise, swipe, next exercise. My personal experience of doing online course and MOOCS, etc., is that the MOOC that keeps me all the way to the end is the one that shows me a bigger picture and lets me choose my path through the material. It lets me choose what I want to do, what I don’t want to do, and it still gives me a high score, even if I don’t watch all the videos and read all the articles.

Currently, the programs tell you ‘Oh, you need to do more of this. Go back and do that again’. Does the program ever say, ‘Oh, man you look bored. You’ve been doing simple past for the last ten screens! How about something different? You’ve never listened to a podcast, would you like one of those?’ Or, ‘You’ve been doing audio for the last week. Maybe you’d like to do something different?’

This CoachBot doesn’t just say, ‘Ah, you’ve failed at this, try again.’ ‘Ah, you’ve failed again, try again.’ If you’re a gamer, that’s OK; you will try again and again and again to level up. But have you ever seen a language course where you want to do the gap fill again and again and again to level up to the next grammar item?

So,  I think maybe that’s what we need, some kind of layer that helps guide students to look for and enjoy variety, not to get stuck in the purgatory of repeated gap fills, but to explore new paths, and expand their learning rather than limiting it.

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