breakeltthings

We’re grateful to Jonathan Sayers for kindly allowing us to feature this terrific post he wrote for his own blog, www.eltplustech.com , back on the 22nd November 2013. He can be found on twitter @jo_sayers. Over to you, Jo …

Tonight, at TESOLFrance‘s annual colloquium, I had the privilege of meeting Karen White, Karen Spiler and Sue Kay, and listening to them talk about their excellent resource ELT Teacher to Writer. The idea is to train teachers in the areas of content writing that the publishers value/need and then put writers and publishers in contact with each other.

As part of the talk we had to attribute a few statements about the ELT publishing industry with the labels ‘true’ or ‘false’ (in true ELT style). I got a couple of these very much wrong, and I don’t think I should have done (more in a furthering-of-the-industry way than a not-liking-to-be-wrong kind of way). Here’s why:

The first statement I got wrong was ‘Publishing companies decide what type of materials they are going to publish years in advance.’  There were mentions of publishers’ ‘5 year plans’ and the (cosy) prior knowledge of changes to certain exams informing release dates of new publications. But 5 years is the time it takes some language learning companies, such as busuu or duolingo, to be conceptualised, launched and reach millions of users. Things change so fast these days that a 5 year plan could be redundant after 1. That’s not to say a long term plan isn’t good business practice, but the idea that publishers can predict the market so far in advance is becoming ever less believable. We can learn so much in 5 years, and we can help our learners by using that knowledge now, rather that having such a long lag.

The other statement I got wrong was ‘Publishing companies invest heavily in market research and use the results to inform that material they publish’. The word I took umbrage was with ‘heavily’. And it turned out to be well-founded umbrage, as the figure of 3 million dollars was mentioned for a coursebook research and development. But what about the time it takes to conduct this research? And what about the market fluxes during this time? The phrase ‘agile development‘ is used widely these days, but basically because it reflects the working practices of an increasing number of players in an increasing number of industries. And one of the tenets of agile is ‘fail fast, fail often‘. Simply put, a company that invest so much time and money in a product can’t possibly fail very often and stay alive, so they had really better hope they don’t fail. But if we can get a product (coursebook, exercise, activity, game… however you want to define it) out, then we can gauge reactions to it, implement a back-channel, analyse the results, observe behaviour and make changes where they’re needed.  That way we don’t need to fear failure, we can embrace it as helping us improve the experience of our learners.

As it is, I feel we’re sticking to the same old ways of working, producing similar content for a similar publishing industry, thus confining learners to a similar path. But now we have a chance to do something new, to push things, to break things. I’m not saying we discard theory, quite the opposite; we should test theory, stretch it and make new conclusions about how people learn.

In short I think we should try to adopt another tenet of agile: ‘move fast and break things.’ It’s companies like ELT Teacher 2 Writer that are in a perfect position to help bring about this change.

24 Comments

  1. Philip, I agree with you there.

    It bugs me that when it comes to technology, publishing companies and others love to talk about innovation and are happy and proud to boast about how innovative and original their products are. Yet, when it comes to methodology and content they are ultra-conservative. We are told then that innovation is risky, that it could cost a lot of money if it backfires, that teachers aren’t ready for it etc etc. In their eyes these drawbacks don’t apply to technological innovation though, of course.

    Quite frankly, I’m beginning to think that a lot of Ed tech is just a load of b.s.

  2. The move of the major publishers towards adaptive learning (see previous posts on this blog) is likely to make ELT materials more conservative than ever. The development costs are going to be much higher than in the past (at least for the first projects of this kind) because of the need for huge investment in both platforms and interactive content. As a result, we shouldn’t expect any methodological innovations, which will be perceived as risky (i.e. any methodological innovations at all): shareholders and advisory boards will be expecting some sure returns on the investment. It’s sad and ironic that technological innovation can have retrograde effects … but I guess we already saw that with language laboratories and IWBs.

    1. Philip, I agree with you there.

      It bugs me that when it comes to technology, publishing companies and others love to talk about innovation and are happy and proud to boast about how innovative and original their products are. Yet, when it comes to methodology and content they are ultra-conservative. We are told then that innovation is risky, that it could cost a lot of money if it backfires, that teachers aren’t ready for it etc etc. In their eyes these drawbacks don’t apply to technological innovation though, of course.

      Quite frankly, I’m beginning to think that a lot of Ed tech is just a load of b.s.

  3. Until students (the real end user) are buying courses/materials off their own backs, as opposed to being provided them by the purchasing institution with some input from teachers who often want English File because it’s familiar, I think publishers have little reason to make big changes. I’m still waiting for a major course book that doesn’t focus so heavily on grammar – that’s all the innovation I’ve wanted for 10 years! (Hugh Dellar’s Innovations being the only one I can think of that I’d count).

  4. I think it’s too easy to tell ELT publishers what they should do or to criticise them for doing things that make them money – they’re businesses and if they’re making money, they’re succeeding on their own terms and selling something that people still want to buy. Why would they want to break anything that is working for them? There is no need for them to throw out either bathwater or baby. All they need to do is add some luxury bubbles and maybe some massaging jets. (Hot water that stays hot for longer would be a nice innovation.) I think, given that they don’t *need* to take risks and people still want their products (maybe not a lot of their end-users, but the people who pay the money at least), there’s nothing to break, from their point of view. They just need to add a few extras for now, and in the context of a major course, that can be in the accompanying digital and teacher resource offerings, for example. This is the place to try out new things. And I’ve seen some great and refreshing stuff. If these extras are well received and the feedback is good, then maybe there’s a good indication that they should be absorbed into the main product next time around.

    But what the publishers have that start-ups and venture capitalists don’t, on the whole, is *reputation*. People know what they can expect from them and that is tried and tested, well researched products written by experts that follow a formula everyone knows, teachers are familiar with and students respond to. Start-ups can be have-a-go heroes where traditional publishers can’t, because people aren’t coming to the new kids on the block with the same experience-based expectations. Nobody will be put out if they’re doing something new and different – they can afford to fail and just start up again. A start-up can keep on starting-up. They can tout around their keen embrace of failure as a virtue. If an established business of many years’ standing put out a product that they knew to be unfinished, not thoroughly tested and generally not ready until it’s been used a lot, there would be outcry. A response from an established publisher along the lines of ‘oh well, we’re just learning what doesn’t work’, would be in the national press!

    To move awkwardly from a bathroom metaphor to a business metaphor, imagine you have a traditional family-run restaurant with hundreds of loyal customers, guaranteed full-house covers for the Sunday roast, some Michelin stars, a steady stream of diners throughout the week and a clientele that keeps coming back for more – because they know what they’ll get and enjoy it. Down the street, several pop-up restaurants have sprouted up overnight offering experimental cuisine by comparatively inexperienced chefs. Would you ditch the Sunday roasts and start doing cook-your-own sweetmeats nights instead? No. You’d wait and watch and see what was going down well down the road and what wasn’t, whether you were losing your regulars to the newcomers, how long some of them lasted, which ones did and didn’t and why. Then, maybe you’d start slipping in a tapas night midweek or adding some offal or rarely seen dishes to the usual menu. You’d start by putting them on the ‘Specials’ board and the ones that went down well might be integrated eventually into your main menu. You might have special nights when you invited a talented chef of some different cuisine to your usual fare to be guest chef. You’d see what the response of your customers was to what was on offer down the road and to any gradual changes you made in your own establishment. You would, above all, want to keep your customers and to keep meeting their expectations. And you would leave the large-scale ‘breaking of things’ and the ‘failing’ to the pop-ups.

    The publishers also have a great responsibility towards *learners* and will be loathe to just try stuff out on them and see what they say and then tinker with it later. A start-ups potential customers are unknown; there is no previous relationship, there are no expectations.

    ELT Teacher 2 Writer is playing a fantastic role in introducing the traditional, established ELT publishers to new talent and at the same time equipping people who are perfectly placed to produce great new materials with in-depth training in how to produce what publishers need from them. To stretch the metaphor, they’re training up the great new guest chefs of the future and putting them in touch with restaurants – restaurants that want to try new cuisine on their specials board and ones that just want more Sunday roasts, because it’s working for them. They are adding to the pool of great chefs of the future. As far as I know, ‘breaking things’ isn’t part of their ethos.

    I think that talking up ‘failure’ can be liberating and I’m very much in favour of innovation (in fact, hungry for it!), and, I am a keen explorer of a lot of the new products that are coming onto the digital ELT scene. But for me, if the producer’s ‘failure’ means that I waste my time on something that doesn’t work or gives misleading results, I don’t want to supply feedback to make it better, I just log out and move on.

    Yes, failure isn’t something that need stand in the way of progress, but there is more than one way to capitalise on failure:

    “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Eleanor Roosevelt

    1. Great post, Diane. Let’s work that restaurant metaphor a bit more… What’s to stop the established restaurant being more proactive and buying up some of those pop-up eateries or setting up its own? Keep the Sunday roast gravy train (sorry…) going as long as possible, and take ideas from the pop-ups that could enhance it and extend its life. But also, don’t assume that market will last forever – try to develop its replacement yourself rather than let someone else do it and then wonder where all your customers have gone. Evolution AND revolution.

      1. Maybe Laurie, and I’m not just guessing here, there is a complete lack of trust and respect. For example, OUP have an IP lawyer calling himself a “product curation expert” on LinkedIn inviting innovative publishers to show show him their digital content. How do you think an IP lawyer ‘curates product’?

      2. “What’s to stop the established restaurant being more proactive and buying up some of those pop-up eateries or setting up its own? Keep the Sunday roast gravy train (sorry…) going as long as possible, and take ideas from the pop-ups that could enhance it and extend its life.”
        In my work I see some evidence that the best are doing this. And I’m all for both Evolution and Revolution – I just have real misgivings when I read so much talk of haste and destruction and the inevitable (says who?) demise of everything that has worked so far. (Also, I do love a Sunday roast ;-))

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