It was interesting to be at IATEFL this year, the annual land grab for attention larger than ever, and a conference dominated by discussions, presentations and a plenary about the future of ELT, which – it is suggested – will be completely mediated by technologies (more of this fallacy later). With Sugata Mitra selling his SOLEs and ELTjam proclaiming ‘EdTech’ to be ‘the future’ of ELT (adapt or die, folks!), this must be a very frightening time for most teachers, writers and trainers. Or is it?

Future Imperfect

Digging deeper into the future, you can easily see how imagined visions of what is to come can corrupt or significantly alter the apparently visible educational landscape. Let’s turn now to consider a couple of these landscapes:

One such landscape envisages a future of language learning where venture capital companies and big publishers rule the roost, with products from books through apps and web platforms. Teachers and materials writers, it would seem, must learn to appreciate the value of working with Disney, News Corp, Rosetta Stone et al, and look forward to producing what will largely be (on evidence of current products) behaviourist learning objects based on mostly receptive skills practice: reading a news article and doing some vocabulary, grammar and comprehension activities, for example. Or perhaps something using the latest ideas in the audio-visual approach…

DuolingoOr possibly working with one of the new EdTech app producers to design an old-fashioned grammar translation app where nonsense decontextualized sentences claim to improve one’s knowledge of a language, where the user is the materials developer and the teacher, and where quantity, rather than quality, is king. Gamification elements allow users to collect and spend points, or fruits or somesuch nonsense. Perhaps the idea with most of these things is that if you get and trade enough points you’ll forget that you’re not actually learning anything meaningful. That you are, in fact, part of a huge social experiment, and you’re paying to take part.

Maybe you can set up a clearing house where anyone who wants to can describe themselves as a teacher and charge whatever they want for classes in a language of their choice? The argument here is that the client is savvy and won’t put up with poor instruction for long, so quality will win out in the end. Not your problem, though – you get your 10% whatever happens. And you can’t police the whole Internet now, can you? All you’re doing is adapting to the ‘EdTech is the future of ELT’ shtick and providing people with learning opportunities, right?

These are some of the deals that must be struck if ELT is to adapt to the new ways, it is argued. Adaptation, then, involves going after the future money whilst sticking steadfastly with the pedagogical past, rather than working on ideas in which technology might be used in more creative ways. The problem with creativity is that it costs money to design and implement, and money to monitor and feedback on – and these costs are anathema to the developers of apps and platforms. Humans cost money, after all – so if you can convince people that learning happens when they do multiple choice exercises and learn useless decontextualized phrases, then you’re cutting costs and – more importantly – not having to waste valuable development time working out how to actually produce creative content.

There are other approaches that cut out or ‘disintermediate’ teachers. Sugata Mitra proposes such a model in his talks. Instead of trying to address shortages in teacher provision, Mitra proposes setting up computer labs and herding kids into them. Once inside they will be given webquests to do and will occasionally benefit from an interested comment from a benevolent granny. This is, apparently, a twenty-first century approach to finding a solution to a broken pedagogical model. Those of us who have been round the block are reminded of other technology-based experiments in places where conditions are difficult: the installation of IWBs in Mexican schools without electricity springs to mind… But really, is any of this more scalable than getting in and training teachers, and – more importantly – is it actually better than getting in and training teachers? I’m right back where I started, with weird apps like Duolingo:

“I think ultimately, language learning, much like language itself, might be an inherently social pursuit. There’s a very obvious facet of this, one that I actually haven’t even touched on yet – languages require speaking to other people, which is completely absent from how Duolingo works.”

Whichever way you read any of the above, what seems obvious to me is that there is an awful lot of ‘backwards adaptation’ going on here. At the moment the technology and developer imaginations seem to limit EdTech production of language learning tools to the kind of thing I first saw in 1989 when I did a CELTA course at International House London. If you take away the annoying ‘gamification’, strip out the social media elements and all the other frills, all you’re really left with each time is a pedestrian implementation of grammar translation or audio-lingualism, and it seems a shame that those working on these tools can’t see further than that (though I suspect, as noted above, that it all comes down to money in the end: better, more creative things are possible, they’re just considered to be too expensive).

Present Simple

Image by Flickr user Kevin Dooley. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Image by Flickr user Kevin Dooley. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Perhaps the biggest problem with any of these visions of the future, however, is the idea that any of this has any basis in reality for the large majority of teachers around the world, working in conditions of hardship, without any hardware, software or – often – reliable electricity.

So all of the above is really, to a greater or lesser extent, a world imagined by people in largely developed nations, people who may have come from private language school backgrounds, or privileged business backgrounds, or perhaps publishers who imagine they can actually conjure up reliable electricity, connectivity and hardware provision at the same time as they develop electronic coursebooks built on an endless supply of reusable learning objects. Reports of the death of printed coursebooks have been greatly exaggerated, and that will, I can confidently predict, be the case for quite some time to come. Having worked in what is now called ‘EdTech’ for over twenty years, the one thing I can say with some certainty is that change in our profession is about as slow as change can get, and there are no visible signs of that, umm, changing.

And – despite the field in which I work – I hope that does remain the case, too. Because I’d like to see some of that money being spent on infrastructure to improve people’s lives, food so that kids can go to school with full stomachs and better pay and conditions for teachers. I’d rather be SOLEless. Don’t invest in more IWBs, in computer labs or anything else until a few other things have been sorted; in short, don’t let EdTech private equity and large publisher agendas override social agendas.

Future Perfect

In the meantime, whilst publishers and platform developers move to more B2B-style models, and whilst there are greater and greater attempts in some circles to cut teachers out of what is, after all, a very human endeavor, there is a future in which EdTech plays a vital role, and that future is one in which teachers and learners work together – sometimes with technology tools, and sometimes without – to learn and develop and to gain the skills they need to get on in life. This is not a world of apps or phrases, nor one of multiple choice quizzes. No, this is a world of practical skills, not technologies; a world that leverages the devices already out there all over the planet. Most importantly it is a communicative and creative world, a world based on shared endeavor and learning, not a world of small screens lighting the faces of individuals as they learn the Hungarian for ‘the boy’s shin was pierced by the heron’s beak’. The future is already here and is evenly distributed (or more evenly than any technology has ever been) – it’s called the mobile phone. The infrastructure is largely there, as is the penetration. But if we insist on filling these amazing devices with a series of true/false questions we do everybody a disservice.

EdTech isn’t the future of ELT. Not if you understand EdTech to be a dull set of exercises and apps, that is. But if you see EdTech as another tool in a wider toolbox that teachers take with them and use as and when they’re needed, then it will play an increasingly-important role. If you’re a teacher reading this, you can continue doing a fabulous job as you are – there will still be coursebooks and dictionaries and all the rest: the further you get from the head office of a publisher or an app developer, the more likely that statement is to be true. Don’t let them fool you, the future is bright, and it’s written on classroom walls and in paper books, not in computer labs or apps. The customer knows best – ask Alan Haburchak from the Guardian (above).


  1. Excellent stuff, Gavin. Down with B2B-style models, right? No idea what they are, but it’s good to see a frighteningly clued-up geek like you speaking out so clearly for a humanistic teaching approach. BTW, what IS Hungarian for ‘the boy’s shin was pierced by the heron’s beak’? I’m off to Budapest soon, playing football against some local lads; could be useful.

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