The Adaption Game: adapting print materials for digital contexts

We invited speakers at the Innovate ELT conference to submit write-ups of their talks, and this is the first. Here, materials writer Claire Hart reflects on an increasingly common role for writers: adapting print content for digital delivery. 

An internet radio, an electric bike, an iWatch and a digital SLR camera – what do they have in common? They’re all examples of hybrid innovations. We appreciate the familiarity of the original products behind these hybrid innovations and the sense of continuity they give us, but today we also want our products to be fast, digitally-enabled, personalised and responsive to our needs.

In the talk I gave at Innovate ELT in Barcelona on 9th May 2015, I suggested that digitalised print materials for EFL learners are also a hybrid innovation, typically combining the cohesive structure and familiar global syllabi of coursebooks with the accessibility and appeal of digital platforms. ELT publishers are extending existing product lines to create hybrid digital products instead of disrupting and cannibalising products that they’ve invested heavily in. Incorporating an existing ELT brand into your digital product also reassures learners and teachers in a world where the credibility and pedagogical value of online language learning materials is sometimes called into question. More and more of us materials writers are likely to find ourselves adapting print for digital if current trends continue, so what do we need to think about?

The brief

We all know how important it is to read the brief carefully when you start work on a new materials development project. However, if you’re adapting materials it’s also important to find out how closely the adapted digital content needs to mirror the original content. Are you merely using the original content as a source of ‘inspiration’ or should you be following it step-by-step and using exactly the same grammar and skills progression and vocabulary sets? Remember that the print material author was, most likely, assuming that students would follow the book in a linear way and, therefore, recycled language at later stages in the course. It’s advisable to take vocabulary sets in their entirety and also to ensure there aren’t any noticeable gaps in the grammar and skills taught.

The platform’s capabilities

Once you’ve established what the relationship between the print and digital content is going to be, you will have to get to grips with the online platform itself. Most have a range of activity types: gap-fill, matching and categorising activities, for example, will be available in even the simplest of platforms. In other platforms you can turn an activity with ‘underline’ in the rubric into a highlighting activity, or an activity where you have to match pictures to vocabulary items into a picture labelling activity. But then you might come to an activity in your print coursebook which doesn’t fit into any of your templates, for example: Work in pairs, A and B. Play twenty questions. How do you deal with this?

This brings us to another challenge: How do you create opportunities for freer practice in a digital context? The answer will depend on how exactly the learners will be interacting with the material and what possibilities for interaction the platform provides. For example, I have used coursebook material to create digital content for tablets that’s used synchronously in class by a group of students. In this case, I could create a Student A page and a Student B page and have them talk to each other for real during a role-play or information gap activity. The platform also enabled me to ask students to add page comments or take part in a forum in order to interact with each other through writing.

But these are usually luxuries that digital adapters don’t have. Freer practice with writing is usually easier to engineer than freer speaking practice, but then the question of who exactly is going to assess this writing arises. Teachers may feel that an online course should be self-contained and feedback generated automatically. The answer to the question of how to create opportunities for freer practice will, therefore, vary from context to context, but it’s one you need to keep in mind.

The content

Finally, you will probably have to consider the look and feel of the digital course you’re creating. Visual impact is particularly important online. Users increasingly expect content to look as attractive as possible. Typically, you’ll want to use a high number of images and make these quite large. Some may be part of an activity and some may just be there to set the scene for one. Depending on the type of course, you may also have to create a storyline for the digital content and bring some ‘drama’ to it, not least due to the increasing prevalence of, and interest in, gamification. Here you might find the ‘three attempts’ principle useful, i.e. your protagonist or character attempts to achieve something, fails, tries again, fails, tries a third time and succeeds.

Don’t let the tech side of adapting print for digital put you off getting involved in these kind of projects. The use of online platforms and templates is usually quite intuitive and shouldn’t take you too long to master. As with all writing projects, the most important thing is to use your knowledge of ELT pedagogy and classroom experience, add a little sprinkle of creativity to bring the material to life and, of course, don’t be afraid to ask your editor for help if you’re struggling.

Claire Hart is a business English teacher and published materials writer based in Germany.
Feature image by Leo Reynolds via Compfight cc Text added by ELTjam.



3 thoughts on “The Adaption Game: adapting print materials for digital contexts”

  1. I think you have to be very careful when trying to create online courses with offline material. I am not saying it is impossible, but you do need a very clear idea of what the whole course will look like when you are finished.

    As someone that spends most days building online courses you realize that the sources you can obtain from a book; images, text, exercises and games, are only a relatively small part of an online course. The text may form the foundation, but with all the other audio visual materials available as well as speech recording and recognition you are soon in another realm.

    With language courses a good adaptive vocab trainer is a basic expectation, but not available to writers of traditional books.

    Free writing is harder with an online course, but also not impossible for the program to at least correct many errors and provide some feedback.

    Making the whole course adaptive requires a vast amount of exercises and materials, something not often found in books.

    Of course you don’t have to have all these features, but most courses and platforms are heading this way.

    My question would be: Is the existing material really good enough and extensive enough, or would it just be easier and more effective to start from scratch?

  2. Great article Claire! It really brings to light some of the surprises you face as a new materials writer or when using a new technique. ELearning platforms are great to play around with and it is always interesting to see what your materials end up like as an end product.

    Pair work is definitely a key issue and I like your idea of including eLearning in class. We all live on line so it provides a real life interaction which our students may have in their daily lives: commenting on a blog post, whatsapping in a group message or leaving a message on Linked In for example.

    Mark’s comment on whether the materials should and could be altered is a tricky topic too. Is it plagiarism if we take materials and edit them to form new materials? Do we need the author and publisher’s consent to do so? In the end of the day, are we just recycling and modernising old materials?


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