Applying startup thinking to teacher development

At the Innovate ELT conference in Barcelona last month, Cambridge English, as platinum sponsors, had a room where they could showcase their products and services, talk to delegates and get feedback on what they were working on. The team put up a whiteboard with the following question:

What digital skills do teachers need?

The most common answer?


Post-its about digital skills teachers most need.

Teachers we spoke to said that they felt like they were often on the back foot and that things were moving quickly and they didn’t really have the comfort and confidence to keep on top of digital trends and resources and incorporate them into their lessons. Of course this is not the case for all teachers and not relevant in all contexts, but this was a theme that came out in discussions in Barcelona last month, and one that we’ve heard at other conferences and in some conversations on the blog.

Rewind a couple of months to a meeting where Cambridge English asked us at ELTjam to work with them on developing a digital framework – an initiative to help language teachers develop their digital skills specifically to enhance teaching and learning. The task was an exciting one, and over the last few months we’ve been on a journey that has resulted in the first step: a digital framework website helping teachers identify their level of digital skills and think about the kind of training they might need.

We approached this project from the perspective of startup thinking and methodology. This post looks at some of the ways we managed to do that and the results that have come about from starting small, getting out of the office and constantly iterating.

The Problem

In startup thinking, it’s important to start by identifying the problem. Why are you doing what you’re doing and who will it help? In the case of this project, there were a number of problems that we identified:

  • Many teachers feel confused and often overwhelmed by the options available for incorporating technology into lessons. This can be due to pressure from institutions, students, EdTech marketing efforts, peers and society in general.
  • Existing training relating to digital language teaching was not linked to other training. It was hard to see any progression.
  • Existing frameworks for language teaching lacked digital components.
  • Existing digital frameworks from outside the world of language teaching were not always relevant.

At the heart of this was the question for us; how can we help teachers use digital to enhance teaching and learning?

The Solution

Once the problem has been defined, you can start to look in more detail at the solution. After a lot of discussion around the different possibilities for structuring a solution to this problem, we decided that a framework related specifically to digital competencies for language teachers and their trainers would be the best first step. This would allow some structure and sense of progression and would allow for all future training (from Cambridge English and other providers) to be linked to something tangible. Due to the specific digital nature of the framework, it would sit alongside the existing Cambridge English Teaching Framework rather than be incorporated into it. The Cambridge English Digital Framework for Teachers can be found at

The initial structure of the framework came from sorting and organising a large number of competencies from the other frameworks, removing duplicates, consolidating and adding our own where we saw there were gaps. There was a lot of overlap and a lot to sort through, but after a number of iterations we arrived at the following set of top level categories as a way of making sense of the huge variety of competencies that relate to digital language teaching:

  • The wider digital world
  • The digital language teaching context
  • Designing learning
  • Delivering learning
  • Evaluating learning
  • Professional development

Each of these categories is made up of a number of components, and each component has four levelled competency statements that teachers can use to rate their proficiency.

The Feedback Loop

We noticed early on in our sorting of competencies that the designing, delivering and evaluating learning categories were independent from the other categories and could be described as a cycle. Whilst this is true of any development cycle, it reminded us of the build, measure, learn cycle that is much discussed in the world of lean product development. You design a lesson or course, deliver it and (formatively and summatively) evaluate its success. This should then feed back into the way that you design future lessons and courses; it’s a feedback loop.

The other categories provide the knowledge and skills needed to improve your ability to cycle through this loop: The better your knowledge and skills relating to the digital world and digital language learning, and the more effective professional development you engage in, the more efficiently you should cycle through the design, deliver, evaluate loop and the more competent you become at teaching with digital.

Start small, ship it and learn

We knew that developing the framework was a big undertaking and that it was impossible to get things right first time. In true lean startup style, we decided to do an MVP of the product; just enough to get some feedback and check we were on the right track. We took our initial organisational structure and began by writing components and descriptions for a small segment of the framework. We then tested this version (V0.1) with a number of education experts who had relevant experience and could offer advice, and also with a range of teachers who would hopefully use the framework, our intended users of the product.  

What we learned from the feedback on V0.1 really helped us shape the framework and the direction that it has gone in. Here are some of the things we learned from that initial testing:

  1. It was hard to manage and confusing. Version 0.1 was printed on paper, and it was already a big document! We realised that we didn’t want a linear framework, we saw it as cyclical and wanted to encourage people to jump around from component to component as they began looking in more detail at the things that were relevant to them. The testing showed that people were confused by the amount of content and the way that it was organised.
  2. Some of the components weren’t relevant. We had included a large number of components (even in the small section that we wrote in full) that were not relevant and in many cases actually off-putting for many of the teachers. Added to that, we had the level too high, and many teachers felt that even the lower competency statements didn’t relate to them.
  3. The level names didn’t work. The names used in the existing framework (Foundation, Developing, Proficient, Expert) lacked clarity in this context. For example, you can be an expert teacher despite only an awareness of certain digital competencies if they are not integral to your teaching context. We decided instead to use Awareness, Understanding, Habit and Mastery as they more meaningfully indicated an objective level of proficiency.
  4. The leveled statements needed to be less subjective. The terminology we had initially used within the leveled competency statements (‘has a basic understanding’ vs ‘has a good understanding’) was very subjective and we saw that we should instead try and focus on a tangible, deliverable outcome of being at that level of competency.
  5. It’s going to be hard to get people to use the framework. Advice from the experts showed that it’s a real challenge to get busy teachers to engage in training of their own accord. The site will need to be very compelling to get teachers coming back regularly for training.

After this initial testing we had a much clearer idea of what we needed from a content and a presentation perspective. With the expert help of Jeremy Day, we started to go through a number of other iterations on the content. And for the website, we enlisted the excellent web development and design skills of Mark Bain, who has worked on a number of other ELT websites. The first web version of the framework was ready in time for IATEFL and saw its first outing there. There have since been iterations released in time for Innovate ELT conference and most recently in time for a Cambridge English newsletter email. We see a product like this as constantly evolving and in need of updates and iterations. In fact the most recent development sprint ended yesterday and the updates are now live.

Iterations: Training

So, where do we go next? We see the existing incarnation of the framework as a really good resource for assessing one’s level and finding out about key concepts, but now we’re ready for the next step: training.

Over the next few months we’ll be releasing free training resources in order to get feedback on the best ways to help teachers build their skills and feel more confident teaching with digital.

If you’d like to give any feedback on the framework, or the types of training you think should be included, please use the feedback options on the site, or comment below.

2 thoughts on “Applying startup thinking to teacher development”

  1. Dear ELT Jam staff!
    I was so glad to find this link to this page! I’m a teacher in a EFL school in Brazil and am currently doing a MA. My focus of study is exactly this: teachers and technology. In 2014, I decided to carry out a survey among teachers in my institution to see how they felt about new technology, their views as users and use in class. This article meets with my findings!! I’m currently investigating the best way to help teachers in my context overcome fear.


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