In 2013, we ran two posts where Lindsay Rattray explained the opportunity he saw in bringing together the pedagogy of ELT and the power of inter-connected mobile technology. His startup, ClassWired, was a way to do student-centred ELT activities in class. It was web-based, so designed to work on any device. It gave you information about your class, such as how fast your students are working, and what they are finding difficult. In fact, Lindsay was an early ELT Entrepreneur, asking questions and looking for answers from an ELT teaching and EdTech perspective. Picking up his story almost two years on, it’s interesting to see how the questions have changed, fundamentally. This is more than pivoting. But let’s let Lindsay explain.
I’ve decided to take a step back from ClassWired.
There, I said it.
Why, you ask? Well, the fundamental reason is a kind of ‘we had artistic differences’ of the EdTech world. Basically I need more time to decide which part of the learning process I’d like to interfere with.
Let me explain with an analogy.
The best part of the DELTA, Module 1, is the one that gets you to look at materials and answer this question: ‘What are the assumptions about learning behind this?’ Answers range from ‘group work enhances learning’ for peer-work tasks, to ‘learners need a record of language’ for guided discovery tasks. It sounds simple but it takes some skill to tease out what beliefs about learning underpin the material we use every day.
In EdTech, I think that question – although still valid – should be adapted. My question is: What part of the learning process are you trying to abstract into a piece of technology? In other words, what are your assumptions about which parts of the learning process are regular or repeatable enough to be extracted into a standardised* information system? (*Even adaptable learning materials are part of systematic learning mechanism).
At ClassWired, we abstracted classroom interactions. I believe that the teacher can learn more about their class by viewing students’ work while they work, and receiving key data about how they are working. Knowing more about your class helps you personalise the learning. We built activities, like brainstorming and explain-the-word-to-your-partner, and they worked better in my classroom than they did without the app.
Despite my belief in this idea, I hold a dissonance about trying to abstract the learning interactions. Here are some of my questions:
How many different interaction patterns occur in a class? (Is it too many?)
How many of those patterns can be abstracted? (And how many are too complex and impromptu?)
How flexible can the interaction patterns offered by an app be? (Without being too unwieldy and unusable?)
How consistent are interaction patterns in different classes? (In other words, is it possible to abstract across all/most ESL classes?)
I could continue. Instead, let’s look at a couple of other apps:
Duolingo, to take another example, is a poor abstraction of the entire language-learning process. It makes out-dated assumptions about the learning process. However, as a language extender – in other words abstracting the supplementary materials part of the learning process – it may work quite well.
Flovoco, made by our friends at ELTjam, tries to abstract vocabulary learning. This does not produce the same dissonance as ClassWired (perhaps making it less disruptive?). We can debate whether vocabulary learning is truly separate from language learning, and then there’s the issue of learning discrete items versus chunks, etc. … but no-one would argue that learners don’t focus some of their learning time specifically on vocabulary. Which is why vocabulary learning apps are a more crowded market.
To help me think more about this, I have decided to do a Masters of Learning Sciences and Technology at Sydney Uni. Wish me luck. If I’ve got time I’ll share what I learn.
In the meantime, what do you think? Are my instincts correct here? Should I be so doubtful or should I stick tight with the original vision?
Lindsay is a former programmer and business analyst who migrated over to ELT. He did this because, while studying Arabic in Syria, he realised how much technology could improve our classrooms (just not the pedagogy-less stuff that was being made at that time). He became a teacher to get the teaching skills and knowledge needed to make this happen, and now he’s (slowly) putting it all into practice.