The Future of ELT

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.” http://goo.gl/jZssXr

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).

33 thoughts on “The Future of ELT”

  1. Well said, Gavin. As another who has ‘been around the block a few times’, I am not afraid of the apparently irresistible move towards a technologically-based, gesture-driven learning model (as is often suggested by those who would promote it), rather, I am bemused by the fact that history shows us fairly clearly that humans, given a choice, like to learn in groups and they like to learn with a human teacher who interacts directly with them!
    They said Audio-Lingualism would be the future, they said the Tandberg Lab would answer all our problems, they also said fast-food would eliminate any other kind – they were wrong and I dare to suggest that ‘they’ are wrong now too. For all the reasons you have offered above and a few more that I can think of…
    As a trainer of new teachers, I do think that we must include various tech-based options, show how useful webquests can be in a balanced syllabus, how tablets, smart phones and various devices can enhance a learner’s experience but our emphasise remains where it always was: introducing teachers to a technically challenging and demanding profession in which face to face contact is paramount.

    Reply
  2. No, the future is not here yet but soon it will be. Touch screen telephones will soon be available for 25-50 dollars in 3rd world nations allowing people to bypass existing educational infrastructures in a way we have never seen. What we currently do have is proof of concept as 12-month old 1st world kids sit immersed in front of touch screens for hours at a time.

    I have strong disagreements with ed-tech but the wave is coming and the past 20 years of ed-tech development is not the map we should be looking at for the future. All sorts of end-arounds will take place because the changing cost structure and quality of mobile technology will soon reach a point where disruptive changes will be inevitable.

    The changes will only be limited by our imaginations. The past 20 years of ed-tech change is no map to the future. It won’t be like moving from TNT to dynamite but more like from dynamite to the Atomic bomb. I don’t know where the educational equivalent of the Bikini will be coming from but expect it within the next ten years and hopefully it will be something that invites teachers in; not keeps them out.

    Reply
  3. Michael,

    You’re not saying much there. Your main point seems to be ‘wait and see, it’ll be brilliant’. Which leaves me wondering why it hasn’t been brilliant yet. Where has your ‘bikini’ been all my life? The answer, I fear, is that there isn’t one.

    I already made the point that the mobile device is the most widespread technology ever, but if it is treated as a ‘behavourist content delivery device’, as the cigarette is for nicotine, then I fear we’re not getting far.

    You say the ‘wave is coming’ – what is this wave? You think people are suddenly going to invent something beyond the cheap grammar translation, etc.? I think not, though I’m intrigued by the possibilities of some of the new VR kit coming along. You shouldn’t hold your breath, mind…

    Gavin

    Reply
  4. “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.”
    sounds much like many private language schools I’ve worked for! I think, as I’ve said before, ed tech is just a tool and maybe one that stops people getting bored as there’s seemingly no limit to how long we’ll spend of our free time in front of screens. That alone might lead to success in language learning. I also don’t think the kind of innovation you’re talking about would happen without NASA size budgets and it’s not a fault of publishers if they don’t have the kind of investment potential to invent AI

    Reply
    • I’m a terribly unmotivated language learner but Duolingo caught me for a while. If I coupled something similarly fun with actual motivation, I might achieve something. I think language learning is intrinsically pretty boring and unsatisfying, plenty of people find the opposite. So the tech might aid either side, but you’re right, I could look at some studies. I’m sure copious amounts of rigorously applied, large samples of learners have been tested in just such a fashion – it is SLA Research after all. 🙂

      I suppose I am curious what, if any, new kind of technique can be dreamt up for language learning either with or without tech. Pretty much you just need to speak and need to speak and ….that’s it. Everything else is a substitute for that if it’s not an experience you can get in real life.

      And since I meant ALL the PLS’s I have ever worked for bar one and they’re ALL still in business and vary massively year to year presumably since teachers move on (and no, often crap teachers are not let go, or at least mediocre ones limp on for years) I think your built in word of mouth safety feature only applies to very small schools in areas where there isn’t enough demand to outstrip supply.

      But I liked this post and, having learned you are out of retirement, I hope to see you back in blogland!

      Reply
  5. “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.”
    sounds much like many private language schools I’ve worked for! I think, as I’ve said before, ed tech is just a tool and maybe one that stops people getting bored as there’s seemingly no limit to how long we’ll spend of our free time in front of screens. That alone might lead to success in language learning. I also don’t think the kind of innovation you’re talking about would happen without NASA size budgets and it’s not a fault of publishers if they don’t have the kind of investment potential to invent AI

    Reply
    • Nicola,

      Of course there are bad private language schools, as there are bad pints, dogs and days. But your analogy doesn’t stack up because PLSs operate in geographically very limited areas, and word does soon get around. Unlike in an online environment, their market is limited and gets to talk to each other, sometimes daily. So… moving on…

      In terms of ‘stopping people getting bored’, search out some studies on motivation and technology and see what they demonstrate, or perhaps sit down to do some comprehension exercises on a dense piece of Russian text on a small mobile phone screen. I can already hear your eyes drooping…

      At the same time, I’m not sure there’s any correlation between time spent in front of a screen, and learning. If there were, all the people I know on Facebook would be Einsteins, and clearly many of them (me included) are not.

      I don’t want AI, I simply want I. That is all.

      Gavin

      Reply
  6. I believe that Gavin is correct in identifying the underlying problem as a lack of creativity about what could be done better. Of what we’ve seen so far, there’s been very little we can confidently label as truly different, much less more effective, in edtech. Oh sure, the crowd-sourced translations, the grammar practice bits, the vocabulary apps, even the webquests are all neat, but they really are no different from what has always done on paper or chalk. And where paper-based language education has failed, to my knowledge, hasn’t been because paper is too slow, or not pretty enough, or not widely distributed. It is because we haven’t used it intelligently enough, in accordance to what we know about how languages are learnt. All we seem to be doing now is transferring those practices to another medium.

    Even the adaptive learning stuff–IF it all works as advertised in language learning, and note the big “if”–will still be at best merely another tool in the kit of the expert teacher, as Gavin notes. That would indeed be a good thing; however, like all other teaching tools from the clay tablet to the digital, it will prove just as ineffective in the hands of the average teacher and student.

    There’s certainly a lot of gee-whizziness going on over what seems to be just superficial improvements in delivering the same old methods.

    Reply
    • Marcos, you said “Of what we’ve seen so far, there’s been very little we can confidently label as truly different.” I agree with you but I’d substitute the word ‘different’ for the word ‘imaginative’. Marcos’s Atama-ii Books is a good example of combining technology, an understanding of pedagogy and imagination. The books would work well enough on paper; it’s the imaginative, creative work that’s gone into them that’s of most value, not the technology used to deliver them to readers.

      The person who I think is really pointing the way forward for edtech in ELT is Paul Driver (http://digitaldebris.info/). What he does so brilliantly is to use technology as part of a process of getting outside the classroom and beyond the coursebook and engaging learners directly with the places, people and language around them. The key point about technology in Paul’s work, I think, is that it is only one element and by no means the most important. To understand the significance of Paul’s work is really about, I’d recommend this: http://www.academia.edu/2269092/Pervasive_Games_and_Mobile_Technologies_for_Embodied_Language_Learning)

      Reply
      • Hi Gavin. Thanks for your reply.

        I totally agree. One of my immediate responses to Paul’s work was a sense of my own inadequacy: much as I’d love to come up with something like SpyWalk or Urban Chronicles, I have to admit that I probably never could! (I say ‘probably’ because I’m not quite ready to give up the dream yet…)

        On the other hand, and the point I was trying to make in my original comment, I think Paul has demonstrated just what is required to fully realise the pedagogical potential of technology (to the extent that that’s desirable!) and why so much edtech is so underwhelming. It takes the combination of imagination, inspiration, academic rigour, great design and technical skills.

        It’s rare for one person to be strong in all those areas but that’s where collaborations and partnerships will possibly be fruitful in the future. No doubt there’ll be more of these, along the lines of Newsmart (although I am very uncomfortable with News Corp’s involvement there!), and they will certainly be more sophisticated and interesting than, say, Duolingo.

        In the meantime, though, anyone looking for inspiration could learn a lot from Paul’s work.

        Reply
        • Kyle,

          Agreed! As for News Corp, I’m surprised that all their money could only produce vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension exercises with a little basic gamification bolted on. It sort of makes you feel like they want a piece of the financial action, but can’t really be bothered to do it properly…

          Gavin

          Reply
  7. What is the joke? They used to say say that an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of keyboards for an infinite amount of time would eventually produce the complete works of William Shakespeare–but now, thanks to the Internet, we know that isn’t true.

    I’ve participated in some online MOOC writing courses, where students certainly *could* be entirely self-taught. What’s striking to me is how much they crave interaction with a teacher (and not just other participants, even–specifically with a teacher). Of course, if you have nothing, then something online that you do yourself could trump that. But I don’t believe that young people honestly prefer touch screens to people, and I say that as the parent of a 19-year old who has touch screens. He uses them, sure, but not to replace his classes (and wouldn’t want to–we have this conversation all the time. Poor kid, I’m forever asking him to evaluate his devices and describe how he learns or doesn’t learn from them). Given a choice between digital textbooks and paper ones, as he is every term, he always chooses the paper ones. He could email his profs or go into their office hours–he prefers to see them in their offices. And so on. The screens? Those are for playing League of Legends and texting his friends. They’re an add-on to his life, not a replacement for in-person human interaction.

    I get the argument of “something is better than nothing.” But I wouldn’t extrapolate from that that “something is therefore all we want or need,” no matter what that “something” is.

    I’m blanking on whose blog it was now, but it was one of the post-IATEFL OMG-Sugata-Mitra ones, where someone was complaining about how certain people weren’t doing anything “new.” I don’t care so much if something is new or old; the question ought to be, does it work or not? If it works, I don’t care if it came out in 1957 or two months ago. I’m still bemused by being told that the audio-lingual method is terrible, when it’s how I learned the only second language I’m actually fluent in. And so on. I’m as excited as anyone (or, OK, as excited as some people) to see something new, but it’s still got to go back to that question–does it work or not? The same question that should be applied to whatever thing you’ve been doing for the past several years or longer.

    Reply
    • Dorothy,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I chuckled recently when the founding father of Udacity claimed to have found the secret to a successful MOOC. Apparently the secret is…. wait for it… smaller groups, tutors and feedback!

      Who would have thought it, eh?

      Now, we call these new MOOCs ‘online courses’ and have been successfully running them for more than a decade. Still, it’s nice to finally have some real thought to validate the model…

      Gavin

      Reply
  8. “Why do you not touch the turtle” is pretty memorable; and from listening Michael Hoey’s IATEFL plenary – http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2014/sessions/2014-04-04/plenary-session-michael-hoey – I guess it’s using semantic priming. And then taking away the touch and the turtle, are you not left with a prefabricated pattern?
    A language learning strategy relying solely of Duolingo might well be pretty shaky, but as one of many options … why not?

    Reply
  9. Kyle,

    Paul’s work is indeed ground-breaking and was worthy of an ELTON last year (except it didn’t get one, which is a tragedy), and I’ve been a big fan for some time now. I particularly like the fluid nature of learning as it moves from class to the real world and back again.

    The big problem with it, however, is that many teachers would struggle to implement it themselves as it’s technically relatively complex (at least in terms of the teachers I come across, and their ICT experience).

    Gavin

    Reply
    • Hi Gavin. Thanks for your reply.

      I totally agree. One of my immediate responses to Paul’s work was a sense of my own inadequacy: much as I’d love to come up with something like SpyWalk or Urban Chronicles, I have to admit that I probably never could! (I say ‘probably’ because I’m not quite ready to give up the dream yet…)

      On the other hand, and the point I was trying to make in my original comment, I think Paul has demonstrated just what is required to fully realise the pedagogical potential of technology (to the extent that that’s desirable!) and why so much edtech is so underwhelming. It takes the combination of imagination, inspiration, academic rigour, great design and technical skills.

      It’s rare for one person to be strong in all those areas but that’s where collaborations and partnerships will possibly be fruitful in the future. No doubt there’ll be more of these, along the lines of Newsmart (although I am very uncomfortable with News Corp’s involvement there!), and they will certainly be more sophisticated and interesting than, say, Duolingo.

      In the meantime, though, anyone looking for inspiration could learn a lot from Paul’s work.

      Reply
      • Kyle,

        Agreed! As for News Corp, I’m surprised that all their money could only produce vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension exercises with a little basic gamification bolted on. It sort of makes you feel like they want a piece of the financial action, but can’t really be bothered to do it properly…

        Gavin

        Reply
  10. Richard,

    I suspect that it’s less a case of using ‘semantic priming’ and more a case of a dodgy algorithm putting some words together in what might be construed as a ‘valid sentence’.

    There seems to be a thread here – and on various discussions on Facebook around this blog post – that ‘something’ is better than nothing at all. Whilst I suppose that may be undeniable, why on earth are we settling for these somethings: Duolingo instead of nothing, computer rooms and webquests instead of real teachers, etc. when we could, perhaps, work towards better solutions?

    Let’s figure out how we get teachers to teach in more remote areas – how would we have to change the notion of ‘teacher’ to make that happen? Let’s figure out how to get beyond the mechanical in apps and platforms…. Nobody’s producing anything transformative with an ‘ah well, that’ll do’ approach…

    Gavin

    Reply
  11. Not normally one to comment, but I enjoyed reading this and the whole world viewpoint you have in terms of the vast regions of the world where technology simply isn’t an option at the moment. A really insightful, realistic and common sense article. I realise this isn’t exactly making a point or a comment for discussion, but it’s important that posts like this remind us of what is real and present, and how that can inform us. Thanks Gavin

    Reply
  12. Great article, Gavin. I share your scepticism about the value of EdTech in ELT as it’s currently being used, but perhaps the problem is not so much a lack of creativity as a lack of understanding as to how language learning (and teaching) differs from other subjects. I think that ELT has a lot to learn from the wider world of education, but at the same time there are clear differences between a language class and, say, a maths or science class, where I suspect EdTech has a rather different, potentially greater impact.

    Conflating language teaching with other more knowledge-based (and therefore more easily assessable) subjects seems to be the app developers’ and EdTech disciples’ principal mistake, and while I admire much of Sugata Mitra’s work, perhaps IATEFL made a similar error of judgement when they invited him as a plenary speaker.

    Reply
  13. 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.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Get our newsletter

Learning Included is our newsletter for learning professionals who want to tap into the latest in learning design innovation, research and best practice.

Evidence-informed, inclusive learning design ideas every two weeks.


Not sure? Check it out first

Learning Included Newsletter