It’s Manhattan, or somewhere similar, and the James Bond style music plays loudly as we cut from a cityscape to a young woman, dressed in black, walking up an outdoor staircase and into a rooftop apartment. We see that her hands are bloody as she opens the metal flight case she’s carrying. We watch as her pleasure turns to anger on discovering that she’s been had… the money is fake. She throws the case across the room. The phone rings. She answers and is offered a new ‘job’. Does she accept? You decide.

Welcome to scene one of the new English course created by SuperMemo World, a Polish company creating apps to aid long-term memory through spaced repetition. Each scene of the film is interactive; the learner is involved in the story and can affect the path that the characters take. The woman in black is introduced to us as Olive Green and seems to be involved in the murky world of art theft. Each scene ends on a little cliff-hanger, with an option to ‘learn’ or go to the ‘next scene’. The learning section is made up of activities involving words and phrases from the scene, presumably repeated in a way that maximises long term memory (although we’re told to ‘wait and see’ for ourselves, how the product actually helps you learn).

The course claims to take learners from ‘basics up to proficiency level’ through the combination of film, gaming and language learning tools, with the scenes progressing from A1 at the beginning to C1 at the end of the film. The film has optional subtitles in eight different languages, including Russian and Chinese. Access to the course for 14 days costs just €9.90 and there’s an option of ongoing access for an additional €4.90 per month.

Pros

The content and the control for the user are the strongest features of this product. The video quality is high and the scenes are genuinely compelling and engaging. A lot of effort has been put into the scripting of the story and how the film has been put together, with impressive attention to detail. The fact that the user has to interact with the scenes is an excellent way of keeping learners engaged, with various different task types ensuring that it’s kept fresh.

It’s hard to see, from a few days’ use, exactly how the spaced repetition algorithms are used in this product, and the methodology page doesn’t make things much clearer. But there is a calendar view which allows you to see the words that you’ve been introduced to on different days, and an option to review words from previous days. You can also rate how well you feel you know the different words, which presumably feeds into how often you are asked to review them.

All this is likely to be hugely motivating for learners and keep them coming back for more scenes. And at that price, it’s amazing value.

Cons

Unfortunately the product loses out in terms of quality of educational content. The words introduced at the different levels don’t seem to be informed by frequency (i.e. ‘She’s broke and in prison’ at A1). The exercise types are confusing from both an educational and user experience perspective and there is a real lack of variety. There are no exercises that focus on writing, reading comprehension, pronunciation, speaking or grammar. There are some comprehension checks along the way, but I didn’t seem to get them for every scene, and the exercise types are limited. The dialogue in the film is fairly authentic and at a near natural speed, but as it’s not very well graded it would be too challenging for low level learners.

The second main weakness of the product is the user experience. The instructions are not clear and I was often confused about what was expected of me in a task or why I was doing something. There were inconsistencies in terms of expected behaviour and no onboarding process to tell me what to expect from different sections of the dashboard. After seven scenes I am none the wiser as to how the spaced repetition element fits in or what the impact is of the rating that I attach to the words and phrases that I am shown.

You can view a trailer of the film here and read about the course here

23 Comments

  1. Indeed, it would be great to have this review updated by ELTjam as apparently the Olive Green product is under constant development and has been supplemented with additional features (mentioned above by Jo and others’ comments as important and previously missing), such as, for example:
    – various platforms: it’s available online at olivegreenthemovie.com and also for mobile devices (Android, iOS, PC Windows)
    – programme for schools and group learning: https://olivegreenthemovie.com/about/en/partnerships/
    – grammar sections added to each scene, with both explanations and multiple exercises
    – speaking sections (interactive dialogues) added to each scene
    I am looking forward to reading a more up-to-date account.

    1. Thanks for letting us know, Ali! We no longer carry out reviews on the blog, but hopefully your comment will encourage readers to go and take a look. Best of luck with the ongoing development!

  2. Worth noting that by January 2016 Olive Green scored best Educational App BETTAward 2016 and a number of other awards in educational and film area hardly any other linguistic product can match. How about reviewing your score here Jo?

  3. I’m also looking forward to the product reviews, this will be a great addition to the blog.
    I will definitely be checking this out. I grew up playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” and other first generation IT edugames on tiny Macs, and have worked with film-based distance EFL courses for the Spanish-speaking markets for over a decade. This looks like a fun mix.
    I agree that I would definitely sacrifice frequency words for an interesting plot any day of the week. Most ELT books are terribly boring and not at all compelling. We’ve had students write letters asking their teachers how the film ends in the following level, which I consider a major victory.
    Good point however, on the difference between needing to understand a term and actually being responsible for it in an exercise. I’m sure they have kinks to work out like any new launch.
    I’ll keep my eye on the updates from Karolina.
    -Michelle

    1. Hi Michelle, thank you so much for your comment.

      At SuperMemo we also believe that ELT (as well as English Language Learning) needs a strong gust of fresh air. Olive Green is the response to a growing need not only to educate, but also to entertain and engage, the need to seamlessly combine eduAction into one, a new educational trend we are creating.

      Moreover, at this point, we are not aiming at a typical classroom audience, but at independent, autonomous users in charge of their learning process. This is the learning style that our method supports best and that is what makes is so different from the book/teacher-oriented classroom learning. We do realize, however, that this might be a lot to process.

      Finally, as mentioned before, we are currently and constantly developing Olive Green according to the product tailor-made curriculum. Please make sure to check out our new releases of the product to discover the amazing new functionalities.

      Many thanks,
      Karolina

  4. “The words introduced at the different levels don’t seem to be informed by frequency (i.e. ‘She’s broke and in prison’ at A1).”

    I haven’t seen this material, but to be fair, it would be very hard to maintain any kind of narrative if frequency were the only criteria. You can’t even make a sentence out of the ten most frequent words in English, let alone a coherent text out the 50 most frequent. Children learning their first language are exposed to an enormous amount of low frequency vocabulary in the texts they engage with (Anyone know what a ‘tuffet’ is? Anyone ever used the word ‘pieman’?) What’s important is that (a) the low frequency vocabulary is comprehensible because of context (verbal or non-verbal); (b) the low frequency vocabulary is not a focus for intentional learning activities, i.e. is not deliberately recycled and practised; and (c) that there should be a relatively high proportion of high frequency vocabulary that IS the focus of intentional learning, e.g. spaced learning review and practice activities.

    1. The phrase in question was in a vocabulary exercise, with the word ‘broke’ to be learned, practiced and recycled at A1. Of course the dialogue itself will contain some low frequency words, and you’re right that it would be impossible to create a meaningful conversation from only the most high frequency of words. I felt that the explicit vocabulary practice should focus on more useful, high frequency lexis at this level.

      1. OK, fair point, Jo. As I said, I hadn’t seen the treatment that ‘broke’ was given. Interestingly, a word like ‘broke’ probably does feature high on the frequency list, as the past of ‘break’, but not in its more idiomatic sense. This is why materials writers have to treat frequency lists with extreme caution!

    2. Hello Scott, thanks so much for your comment. Mixed frequency for vocabulary was deliberate in this product. We decided to take this approach since it strongly mimics the natural learning conditions, which you point to, by great exposure to a lot of natural language and delivers the vocabulary necessary to understand the context at the first contact with a foreign tongue. Additionally, the learner can create their own vocabulary list (they have an immense vocabulary base of over 30,000 items at their disposal) to learn from according to their needs.
      I strongly encourage you to take a look at the product and see for yourself.

  5. Great review, Jo. There’s so much to commend here: the balanced account, the fact that you’re taking the blog in new and interesting directions, and (particular kudos here) you are actually supporting your mission statement from IATEFL of encouraging dialogue and engagement between Edtech companies and long-standing practitioners in ELT, as evidenced by the interaction between Nicola and Karolina.

    A few comments or suggestions, if I may. I think it might be helpful to explain what you mean by ‘instructional design’. I’ve heard and seen it used to mean different things by different people on many occasions. Although I have my own understanding of the term, I may be analysing from a different criteria set from you guys.

    Also, as part of the summary data, it would be useful to state if the product is self-study or has ambitions for group study. Increasingly, we are seeing products backed by a range of support services in the form of platforms that facilitate collaboration, data storage and continued learning, etc. Could there be some way of identifying quickly whether the product is self-contained or integrated? I’m also not sure whether this is an app or a website, or a disc? And finally, who are the target customers – adults, teens, everyone? Just a few thoughts …

    1. Hi Brendan,

      Yes, instructional design can be a slightly ambiguous term, and often includes aspects of methodology and pedagogy too. We decided to split these two apart, allowing us to score the academic aspects from an ELT perspective separately. So Instructional design relates broadly to the experience of the instruction, while ‘Pedagogy and Methodology’ relates more to the content itself and areas more specifically related to ELT.

      To give an example, the management of things such cognitive load, and learner control fall under the instructional design category, while things such as the breadth and depth of subject matter and quality of materials would be under pedagogy and methodology.

      Yes, in terms of the intended audience and use of the product, it would be good to include those in the reviews. In this case it is a web app for self-study (I saw no mention of group study, or integration with other systems on the site). In terms of target audience, I would expect it to be teenagers and young adults who are looking for fun ways to improve their English, although this is just my assumption as it was not stated on the that, as far as I could see.

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