ELTjam LXD Session: Nick Robinson

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On the evening of the 13th April, amidst the noise and tomfoolery of the IATEFL Conference in Birmingham, we hosted a small, underground ELTjam Session event. The topic of the evening was Learner Experience Design, and we invited four speakers to take 10 minutes to share their thoughts on the subject while the invite-only audience supped on craft ales. First up was our very own Nick Robinson. Here is his opening salvo from that night … 

Most of you probably know ELTjam primarily as a blog. When we set the blog up, the idea was to try and start examining the way in which technology was impacting on English language teaching. What we didn’t want to do was the ‘Here’s a Hundred Cool Things To Do With An Interactive Whiteboard’ thing because there are loads of people doing stuff like that and doing it very, very well.

We wanted to try and do something different. The idea was to do a bit of analysis; to look (at an industry level) at how technology was impacting on English language teaching and ELT publishing, which is the background we all came from.

We also wanted to lift the lid a little bit on the the big scary world of EdTech to figure out what was going on there. Over the last three years we’ve said some important things and I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved. We’ve sparked some well needed debates, we’ve issued a few stark warnings about some things that might happen if we didn’t change the way we’re thinking about ELT and, sadly, some of those things have come to pass. We’ve seen that quite recently, but let’s not dwell on that right now.

There is a term known as “the observer effect” which is used to describe the way in which the act of observation can have an effect on what you’re observing. And I do wonder sometimes, is the fact that we’re observing ELT through this prism having some kind of effect on the industry? I like to think that it is to some extent. However, I’m not sure it’s having enough of an effect.

There is an American congress woman called Shirley Chisholm, and she once said this:

You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.

I wouldn’t suggest for a second that we’ve spent the last three years whimpering. I hope we haven’t spent the last three years whimpering. We’ve done a fair share of complaining maybe, and we’ve occasionally wanted to shake things up a little it, and got a bit frustrated, especially with ELT publishing. I do feel that now is the time to start making some real progress and now is the time to start implementing some ideas. So, I want to introduce you to an idea, or two ideas really. The first one I want to introduce you to is ‘design thinking.’

Design thinking is a way of tackling very complex and taxing problems, and approaching them the way designers do. Designers approach problems in a very certain way, and there’s a term that designers use to refer to certain types of problems. They refer to ‘wicked problems.’ To be clear, this is the malevolent use of the word wicked. This is wicked meaning bad, wicked meaning evil. Design thinking is designed to help you solve wicked problems.

A wicked problem is a problem where the problem itself and the solution are ill-defined. For example, why does Learner A acquire language at this pace and Learner B acquires it at that pace? Why did this activity work with that class, and it didn’t work with this class? Why does no-one remember how to use the present perfect when I taught it last week? Why does everyone drop out of my online course?

Language education is full of wicked problems, and I can think of few problems more wicked than trying to master the English language as a way of succeeding in your career, or as a journey to economic prosperity (which is what most learners are trying to do). That is a wicked, difficult problem, and it’s also a problem worth solving.

I don’t mean this as a criticism against all of ELT but, as an industry, our approach to the wicked problem of language learning has been to try and simplify it. We’ve done this by attempting to make it appear more straightforward than it is. So, for example, we talk about a grammar syllabus. We can’t figure out how we acquire language, so let’s just give learners a grammar syllabus. We bring the CEFR in, give it some scales, and we start measuring the frequency of words, and start thinking “Well, let’s just start with the most frequent – that’s the logical thing to do”.

I don’t think any of these are solutions to the wicked problem of language learning. I think they are crutches that help people learning a language feel like they understand the system they’re in, like they’re making progress. It helps them feel like there is a system. I’m not 100% sure that there is. Right now we’re stuck a little bit in ELT. We are looking at the problem of language learning with too few possible solutions. We are wedded to the ideas of classroom instruction and content-mediated instruction, whether that’s online or face to face, and a lot of what we do that’s “new” are iterations of what we’ve already done. Let’s put the book on screen. Let’s put the course online. I don’t think that’s quite enough.

So, we need to start asking ourselves if we could do more. Design thinking encourages us to think differently and to explore a million different options, a million different solutions to a problem. It encourages you not to settle until you’ve found the right solution. There’s a joke that goes:

Q: How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Why a lightbulb?

And to that I say, why a classroom? Why an LMS? Why a book? Why an app? Why any of it, really? I can honestly say, for those of you who’ve been following our recent progress on the blog, that by far the best language learning product that I have built in my entire career is my phone number. Amé – Ask Me English – is by far the most effective language learning product I’ve ever created. That’s not an app. That’s not an online course.

We started ELTjam as a way of exploring what was happening in the industry. Now we have a responsibility, all of us, to try and do some big and exciting things for the industry and for the people who benefit from it. That’s a big goal, and the best way to get to a big goal is with a smaller start, so our first step towards that is to try to introduce some design thinking into ELT. We’re calling that learner experience design, or LXD.

LXD is a way of improving the experience of language learning by making it more effective, while making it more fun at the same time. It’s about exploring the problems of language learning and trying to find good solutions, and right now we feel that solution looks like a recipe of four different things: great pedagogy, an incredible user experience, really good content, and allowing people to interact socially with each other or with teachers.

But, that’s not always how it will look in the future, and that’s the super exciting thing. For me, the idea of learner experience design, or re-imagining the experience of learning a language, is an incredibly exciting wicked problem to be facing right now.

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2 thoughts on “ELTjam LXD Session: Nick Robinson”

  1. @Tim,

    When designers talk about a wicked problem they are not talking in moral terms (Evil). Even people who are involved in developing systems that could be used for real good, might at times interpret their design problem as a “wicked problem.” The problems themselves have no connection to a greater morality but rather a wicked problem indicates the perceived level of difficulty to the individual designer.

    A wicked problem is a problem with many levels of complexity. It probably has a huge number of stakeholders who themselves hold very different understandings of the problem and make many different demands on “the answer.” Many times these demands are so conflicting that it is impossible to see how an answer can “designed.” A problem at this level is neither inherently good nor evil.

    And yes, in this context, the design for EFL is a wicked problem because we have so many different stakeholders who all have different perceptions of the problem at a time when the ways to answer these problems is growing. One response to complexity is to resort to simplicity. In the face of complexity, the choice of choosing to design with simplicity is a very human reaction.

    The problem of evil as it relates to design is a human problem. It is based on who we believe we are and what we believe we “owe” others. A wicked problem can, yes, incorporate such questions but a wicked problem can just as easily ignore such considerations.

    Moral questions: Are teachers deserving of respect? Why? Does software treat teachers with the respect they deserve? Should the purpose of education be to ferret out only the most capable or should we attempt to teach everyone to an equal level?

    Technical Question: What is the best way to teach the present perfect such that the largest number of people learn to X degree and retain that information over X time. Is I.Q. fixed? Is there such thing as a language learning gene? What are the merits of individual instruction vs. group instruction? When should we teach the past tense?

    It sounds a bit like you are giving technical questions a moral life that I for one don’t believe they deserve. In addition, I think what you identified as the problem, “simplicity”, is actually one of the solutions.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mike, and the correction. I’d been attempting to clarify that ‘wicked’ in this context didn’t mean ‘awesome’ or ‘excellent’ but rather had a negative connotation. You’re right, though, that it’s not in moral terms in this context (one of the perils of public speaking!). I hope the subsequent paragraph clarified what I was getting at, which I think tallies with your comment.


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