Screenshot_20191011-200743_ChromeOver the last week, the Guardian has been running a series of articles on the global corporations that contribute most to climate change and the way that these vested interests lobby against changes to the law which might protect the planet. Beginning in the 1990s, an alliance of fossil fuel and automobile corporations, along with conservative think tanks and politicians, developed a ‘denial machine’ which sought to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change. Between 2003 and 2010, it has been estimated that over $550 million was received from a variety of sources to support this campaign. The Guardian’s current series is an update and reminder of the research into climate change denial that has been carried out in recent years.

In the past, it was easier to trace where the money came from (e.g. ExxonMobil or Koch Industries), but it appears that the cash is now being channelled through foundations like Donors Trust and Donors Capital, who, in turn, pass it on to other foundations and think tanks (see below) that promote the denial of climate change.

The connection between climate change denial and edtech becomes clear when you look at the organisations behind the ‘denial machine’. I have written about some of these organisations before (see this post ) so when I read the reports in the Guardian, there were some familiar names.

Besides their scepticism about climate change, all of the organisations believe that education should be market-driven, free from governmental interference, and characterised by consumer choice. These aims are facilitated by the deployment of educational technology. Here are some examples.

State Policy Network

The State Policy Network (SPN) is an American umbrella organization for a large group of conservative and libertarian think tanks that seek to influence national and global policies. Among other libertarian causes, it opposes climate change regulations and supports the privatisation of education, in particular the expansion of ‘digital education’.

The Cato Institute

The mission of the Cato Institute, a member of the SPN, ‘is to originate, disseminate, and increase understanding of public policies based on the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace. Our vision is to create free, open, and civil societies founded on libertarian principles’. The Institute has said that it had never been in the business of “promoting climate science denial”; it did not dispute human activity’s impact on the climate, but believed it was minimal. Turning to education, it believes that ‘states should institute school choice on a broad scale, moving toward a competitive education market. The only way to transform the system is to break up the long-standing government monopoly and use the dynamics of the market to create innovations, better methods, and new schools’. Innovations and better methods will, of course, be driven by technology.


FreedomWorks, another member of the SPN and another conservative and libertarian advocacy group, is widely associated with the Tea Party Movement . Recent posts on its blog have been entitled ‘The Climate Crisis that Wasn’t: Scientists Agree there is “No Cause for Alarm”’, ‘Climate Protesters: If You Want to Save the Planet, You Should Support Capitalism Not Socialism’ and ‘Electric Vehicle Tax Credit: Nothing But Regressive Cronyism’. Its approach to education is equally uncompromising. It seeks to abolish the US Department of Education, describes American schools as ‘failing’, wants market-driven educational provision and absolute parental choice . Technology will play a fundamental role in bringing about the desired changes: ‘just as computers and the Internet have fundamentally reshaped the way we do business, they will also soon reshape education’ .

The Heritage Foundation

The Heritage Foundation, the last of the SPN members that I’ll mention here, is yet another conservative American think tank which rejects the scientific consensus on climate change . Its line on education is neatly summed up in this extract from a blog post by a Heritage senior policy analyst: ‘Virtual or online learning is revolutionizing American education. It has the potential to dramatically expand the educational opportunities of American students, largely overcoming the geographic and demographic restrictions. Virtual learning also has the potential to improve the quality of instruction, while increasing productivity and lowering costs, ultimately reducing the burden on taxpayers‘.

The Institute of Economic Affairs

Just to show that the ‘denial machine’ isn’t an exclusively American phenomenon, I include ‘the UK’s most influential conservative think tank [which] has published at least four books, as well as multiple articles and papers, over two decades suggesting manmade climate change may be uncertain or exaggerated. In recent years the group has focused more on free-market solutions to reducing carbon emissions’ . It is an ‘associate member of the SPN’ . No surprise to discover that a member of the advisory council of the IEA is James Tooley, a close associate of Michael Barber, formerly Chief Education Advisor at Pearson. Tooley’s articles for the IEA include ‘Education without the State’  and ‘Transforming incentives will unleash the power of entrepreneurship in the education sector’ .

The IEA does not disclose its funding, but anyone interested in finding out more should look here ‘Revealed: how the UK’s powerful right-wing think tanks and Conservative MPs work together’ .

Microsoft, Facebook and Google

Let me be clear to start: Microsoft, Facebook and Google are not climate change deniers. However, Facebook and Microsoft are financial backers of the SPN. In a statement, a spokesperson for Microsoft said: “As a large company, Microsoft has great interest in the many policy issues discussed across the country. We have a longstanding record of engaging with a broad assortment of groups on a bipartisan basis, both at the national and local level. In regard to State Policy Network, Microsoft has focused our participation on their technology policy work group because it is valuable forum to hear various perspectives about technology challenges and to share potential solutions” . Google has made substantial contributions to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (a conservative US policy group ‘that was instrumental in convincing the Trump administration to abandon the Paris agreement and has criticised the White House for not dismantling more environmental rules). In the Guardian report, Google ‘defended its contributions, saying that its “collaboration” with organisations such as CEI “does not mean we endorse the organisations’ entire agenda”. “When it comes to regulation of technology, Google has to find friends wherever they can and I think it is wise that the company does not apply litmus tests to who they support,” the source said’ .

You have to wonder what these companies (all of whom support environmental causes in various ways) might consider more important than the future of the planet. Could it be that the libertarian think tanks are important allies in resisting any form of internet governance, in objecting to any constraints on the capture of data?


I was intrigued to learn earlier this year that Oxford University Press had launched a new online test of English language proficiency, called the Oxford Test of English (OTE). At the conference where I first heard about it, I was struck by the fact that the presentation of the OUP sponsored plenary speaker was entitled ‘The Power of Assessment’ and dealt with formative assessment / assessment for learning. Oxford clearly want to position themselves as serious competitors to Pearson and Cambridge English in the testing business.

The brochure for the exam kicks off with a gem of a marketing slogan, ‘Smart. Smarter. SmarTest’ (geddit?), and the next few pages give us all the key information.

Faster and more flexible‘Traditional language proficiency tests’ is presumably intended to refer to the main competition (Pearson and Cambridge English). Cambridge First takes, in total, 3½ hours; the Pearson Test of English Academic takes 3 hours. The OTE takes, in total, 2 hours and 5 minutes. It can be taken, in theory, on any day of the year, although this depends on the individual Approved Test Centres, and, again, in theory, it can be booked as little as 14 days in advance. Results should take only two weeks to arrive. Further flexibility is offered in the way that candidates can pick ’n’ choose which of the four skills they want to have tests, just one or all four, although, as an incentive to go the whole hog, they will only get a ‘Certificate of Proficiency’ if they do all four.

A further incentive to do all four skills at the same time can be found in the price structure. One centre in Spain is currently offering the test for one single skill at Ꞓ41.50, but do the whole lot, and it will only set you back Ꞓ89. For a high-stakes test, this is cheap. In the UK right now, both Cambridge First and Pearson Academic cost in the region of £150, and IELTS a bit more than that. So, faster, more flexible and cheaper … Oxford means business.

Individual experience

The ‘individual experience’ on the next page of the brochure is pure marketing guff. This is, after all, a high-stakes, standardised test. It may be true that ‘the Speaking and Writing modules provide randomly generated tasks, making the overall test different each time’, but there can only be a certain number of permutations. What’s more, in ‘traditional tests’, like Cambridge First, where there is a live examiner or two, an individualised experience is unavoidable.

More interesting to me is the reference to adaptive technology. According to the brochure, ‘The Listening and Reading modules are adaptive, which means the test difficulty adjusts in response to your answers, quickly finding the right level for each test taker. This means that the questions are at just the right level of challenge, making the test shorter and less stressful than traditional proficiency tests’.

My curiosity piqued, I decided to look more closely at the Reading module. I found one practice test online which is the same as the demo that is available at the OTE website . Unfortunately, this example is not adaptive: it is at B1 level. The actual test records scores between 51 and 140, corresponding to levels A2, B1 and B2.

Test scores

The tasks in the Reading module are familiar from coursebooks and other exams: multiple choice, multiple matching and gapped texts.

Reading tasks

According to the exam specifications, these tasks are designed to measure the following skills:

  • Reading to identify main message, purpose, detail
  • Expeditious reading to identify specific information, opinion and attitude
  • Reading to identify text structure, organizational features of a text
  • Reading to identify attitude / opinion, purpose, reference, the meanings of words in context, global meaning

The ability to perform these skills depends, ultimately, on the candidate’s knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, as can be seen in the examples below.

Task 1Task 2

How exactly, I wonder, does the test difficulty adjust in response to the candidate’s answers? The algorithm that is used depends on measures of the difficulty of the test items. If these items are to be made harder or easier, the only significant way that I can see of doing this is by making the key vocabulary lower- or higher-frequency. This, in turn, is only possible if vocabulary and grammar has been tagged as being at a particular level. The most well-known tools for doing this have been developed by Pearson (with the GSE Teacher Toolkit ) and Cambridge English Profile . To the best of my knowledge, Oxford does not yet have a tool of this kind (at least, none that is publicly available). However, the data that OUP will accumulate from OTE scripts and recordings will be invaluable in building a database which their lexicographers can use in developing such a tool.

Even when a data-driven (and numerically precise) tool is available for modifying the difficulty of test items, I still find it hard to understand how the adaptivity will impact on the length or the stress of the reading test. The Reading module is only 35 minutes long and contains only 22 items. Anything that is significantly shorter must surely impact on the reliability of the test.

My conclusion from this is that the adaptive element of the Reading and Listening modules in the OTE is less important to the test itself than it is to building a sophisticated database (not dissimilar to the GSE Teacher Toolkit or Cambridge English Profile). The value of this will be found, in due course, in calibrating all OUP materials. The OTE has already been aligned to the Oxford Online Placement Test (OOPT) and, presumably, coursebooks will soon follow. This, in turn, will facilitate a vertically integrated business model, like Pearson and CUP, where everything from placement test, to coursework, to formative assessment, to final proficiency testing can be on offer.

There has been wide agreement for a long time that one of the most important ways of building the mental lexicon is by having extended exposure to language input through reading and listening. Some researchers (e.g. Krashen, 2008) have gone as far as to say that direct vocabulary instruction serves little purpose, as there is no interface between explicit and implicit knowledge. This remains, however, a minority position, with a majority of researchers agreeing with Barcroft (2015) that deliberate learning plays an important role, even if it is only ‘one step towards knowing the word’ (Nation, 2013: 46).

There is even more agreement when it comes to the differences between deliberate study and extended exposure to language input, in terms of the kinds of learning that takes place. Whilst basic knowledge of lexical items (the pairings of meaning and form) may be developed through deliberate learning (e.g. flash cards), it is suggested that ‘the more ‘contextualized’ aspects of vocabulary (e.g. collocation) cannot be easily taught explicitly and are best learned implicitly through extensive exposure to the use of words in context’ (Schmitt, 2008: 333). In other words, deliberate study may develop lexical breadth, but, for lexical depth, reading and listening are the way to go.

This raises the question of how many times a learner would need to encounter a word (in reading or listening) in order to learn its meaning. Learners may well be developing other aspects of word knowledge at the same time, of course, but a precondition for this is probably that the form-meaning relationship is sorted out. Laufer and Nation (2012: 167) report that ‘researchers seem to agree that with ten exposures, there is some chance of recognizing the meaning of a new word later on’. I’ve always found this figure interesting, but strangely unsatisfactory, unsure of what, precisely, it was actually telling me. Now, with the recent publication of a meta-analysis looking at the effects of repetition on incidental vocabulary learning (Uchihara, Webb & Yanagisawa, 2019), things are becoming a little clearer.

First of all, the number ten is a ballpark figure, rather than a scientifically proven statistic. In their literature review, Uchihara et al. report that ‘the number of encounters necessary to learn words rang[es] from 6, 10, 12, to more than 20 times. That is to say, ‘the number of encounters necessary for learning of vocabulary to occur during meaning-focussed input remains unclear’. If you ask a question to which there is a great variety of answers, there is a strong probability that there is something wrong with the question. That, it would appear, is the case here.

Unsurprisingly, there is, at least, a correlation between repeated encounters of a word and learning, described by Uchihara et al as statistically significant (with a medium effect size). More interesting are the findings about the variables in the studies that were looked at. These included ‘learner variables’ (age and the current size of the learner’s lexicon), ‘treatment variables’ (the amount of spacing between the encounters, listening versus reading, the presence or absence of visual aids, the degree to which learners ‘engage’ with the words they encounter) and ‘methodological variables’ in the design of the research (the kinds of words that are being looked at, word characteristics, the use of non-words, the test format and whether or not learners were told that they were going to be tested).

Here is a selection of the findings:

  • Older learners tend to benefit more from repeated encounters than younger learners.
  • Learners with a smaller vocabulary size tend to benefit more from repeated encounters with L2 words, but this correlation was not statistically significant. ‘Beyond a certain point in vocabulary growth, learners may be able to acquire L2 words in fewer encounters and need not receive as many encounters as learners with smaller vocabulary size’.
  • Learners made greater gains when the repeated exposure took place under massed conditions (e.g. on the same day), rather than under ‘spaced conditions’ (spread out over a longer period of time).
  • Repeated exposure during reading and, to a slightly lesser extent, listening resulted in more gains than reading while listening and viewing.
  • ‘Learners presented with visual information during meaning-focused tasks benefited less from repeated encounters than those who had no access to the information’. This does not mean that visual support is counter-productive: only that the positive effect of repeated encounters is not enhanced by visual support.
  • ‘A significantly larger effect was found for treatments involving no engagement compared to treatment involving engagement’. Again, this does not mean that ‘no engagement’ is better than ‘engagement’: only that the positive effect of repeated encounters is not enhanced by ‘engagement’.
  • ‘The frequency-learning correlation does not seem to increase beyond a range of around 20 encounters with a word’.
  • Experiments using non-words may exaggerate the effect of frequent encounters (i.e. in the real world, with real words, the learning potential of repeated encounters may be less than indicated by some research).
  • Forewarning learners of an upcoming comprehension test had a positive impact on gains in vocabulary learning. Again, this does not mean that teachers should systematically test their students’ comprehension of what they have read.

For me, the most interesting finding was that ‘about 11% of the variance in word learning through meaning-focused input was explained by frequency of encounters’. This means, quite simply, that a wide range of other factors, beyond repeated encounters, will determine the likelihood of learners acquiring vocabulary items from extensive reading and listening. The frequency of word encounters is just one factor among many.

I’m still not sure what the takeaways from this meta-analysis should be, besides the fact that it’s all rather complex. The research does not, in any way, undermine the importance of massive exposure to meaning-focussed input in learning a language. But I will be much more circumspect in my teacher training work about making specific claims concerning the number of times that words need to be encountered before they are ‘learnt’. And I will be even more sceptical about claims for the effectiveness of certain online language learning programs which use algorithms to ensure that words reappear a certain number of times in written, audio and video texts that are presented to learners.


Barcroft, J. 2015. Lexical Input Processing and Vocabulary Learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Laufer, B. & Nation, I.S.P. 2012. Vocabulary. In Gass, S.M. & Mackey, A. (Eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp.163 – 176). Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Nation, I.S.P. 2013. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Krashen, S. 2008. The comprehension hypothesis extended. In T. Piske & M. Young-Scholten (Eds.), Input Matters in SLA (pp.81 – 94). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters

Schmitt, N. 2008. Review article: instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research 12 (3): 329 – 363

Uchihara, T., Webb, S. & Yanagisawa, A. 2019. The Effects of Repetition on Incidental Vocabulary Learning: A Meta-Analysis of Correlational Studies. Language Learning, 69 (3): 559 – 599) Available online:

Back in the middle of the last century, the first interactive machines for language teaching appeared. Previously, there had been phonograph discs and wire recorders (Ornstein, 1968: 401), but these had never really taken off. This time, things were different. Buoyed by a belief in the power of technology, along with the need (following the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik programme) to demonstrate the pre-eminence of the United States’ technological expertise, the interactive teaching machines that were used in programmed instruction promised to revolutionize language learning (Valdman, 1968: 1). From coast to coast, ‘tremors of excitement ran through professional journals and conferences and department meetings’ (Kennedy, 1967: 871). The new technology was driven by hard science, supported and promoted by the one of the most well-known and respected psychologists and public intellectuals of the day (Skinner, 1961).

In classrooms, the machines acted as powerfully effective triggers in generating situational interest (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Even more exciting than the mechanical teaching machines were the computers that were appearing on the scene. ‘Lick’ Licklider, a pioneer in interactive computing at the Advanced Research Projects Agency in Arlington, Virginia, developed an automated drill routine for learning German by hooking up a computer, two typewriters, an oscilloscope and a light pen (Noble, 1991: 124). Students loved it, and some would ‘go on and on, learning German words until they were forced by scheduling to cease their efforts’. Researchers called the seductive nature of the technology ‘stimulus trapping’, and Licklider hoped that ‘before [the student] gets out from under the control of the computer’s incentives, [they] will learn enough German words’ (Noble, 1991: 125).

With many of the developed economies of the world facing a critical shortage of teachers, ‘an urgent pedagogical emergency’ (Hof, 2018), the new approach was considered to be extremely efficient and could equalise opportunity in schools across the country. It was ‘here to stay: [it] appears destined to make progress that could well go beyond the fondest dreams of its originators […] an entire industry is just coming into being and significant sales and profits should not be too long in coming’ (Kozlowski, 1961: 47).

Unfortunately, however, researchers and entrepreneurs had massively underestimated the significance of novelty effects. The triggered situational interest of the machines did not lead to intrinsic individual motivation. Students quickly tired of, and eventually came to dislike, programmed instruction and the machines that delivered it (McDonald et al.: 2005: 89). What’s more, the machines were expensive and ‘research studies conducted on its effectiveness showed that the differences in achievement did not constantly or substantially favour programmed instruction over conventional instruction (Saettler, 2004: 303). Newer technologies, with better ‘stimulus trapping’, were appearing. Programmed instruction lost its backing and disappeared, leaving as traces only its interest in clearly defined learning objectives, the measurement of learning outcomes and a concern with the efficiency of learning approaches.

Hot on the heels of programmed instruction came the language laboratory. Futuristic in appearance, not entirely unlike the deck of the starship USS Enterprise which launched at around the same time, language labs captured the public imagination and promised to explore the final frontiers of language learning. As with the earlier teaching machines, students were initially enthusiastic. Even today, when language labs are introduced into contexts where they may be perceived as new technology, they can lead to high levels of initial motivation (e.g. Ramganesh & Janaki, 2017).

Given the huge investments into these labs, it’s unfortunate that initial interest waned fast. By 1969, many of these rooms had turned into ‘“electronic graveyards,” sitting empty and unused, or perhaps somewhat glorified study halls to which students grudgingly repair to don headphones, turn down the volume, and prepare the next period’s history or English lesson, unmolested by any member of the foreign language faculty’ (Turner, 1969: 1, quoted in Roby, 2003: 527). ‘Many second language students shudder[ed] at the thought of entering into the bowels of the “language laboratory” to practice and perfect the acoustical aerobics of proper pronunciation skills. Visions of sterile white-walled, windowless rooms, filled with endless bolted-down rows of claustrophobic metal carrels, and overseen by a humorless, lab director, evoke[d] fear in the hearts of even the most stout-hearted prospective second-language learners (Wiley, 1990: 44).

By the turn of this century, language labs had mostly gone, consigned to oblivion by the appearance of yet newer technology: the internet, laptops and smartphones. Education had been on the brink of being transformed through new learning technologies for decades (Laurillard, 2008: 1), but this time it really was different. It wasn’t just one technology that had appeared, but a whole slew of them: ‘artificial intelligence, learning analytics, predictive analytics, adaptive learning software, school management software, learning management systems (LMS), school clouds. No school was without these and other technologies branded as ‘superintelligent’ by the late 2020s’ (Macgilchrist et al., 2019). The hardware, especially phones, was ubiquitous and, therefore, free. Unlike teaching machines and language laboratories, students were used to using the technology and expected to use their devices in their studies.

A barrage of publicity, mostly paid for by the industry, surrounded the new technologies. These would ‘meet the demands of Generation Z’, the new generation of students, now cast as consumers, who ‘were accustomed to personalizing everything’.  AR, VR, interactive whiteboards, digital projectors and so on made it easier to ‘create engaging, interactive experiences’. The ‘New Age’ technologies made learning fun and easy,  ‘bringing enthusiasm among the students, improving student engagement, enriching the teaching process, and bringing liveliness in the classroom’. On top of that, they allowed huge amounts of data to be captured and sold, whilst tracking progress and attendance. In any case, resistance to digital technology, said more than one language teaching expert, was pointless (Styring, 2015).slide

At the same time, technology companies increasingly took on ‘central roles as advisors to national governments and local districts on educational futures’ and public educational institutions came to be ‘regarded by many as dispensable or even harmful’ (Macgilchrist et al., 2019).

But, as it turned out, the students of Generation Z were not as uniformly enthusiastic about the new technology as had been assumed, and resistance to digital, personalized delivery in education was not long in coming. In November 2018, high school students at Brooklyn’s Secondary School for Journalism staged a walkout in protest at their school’s use of Summit Learning, a web-based platform promoting personalized learning developed by Facebook. They complained that the platform resulted in coursework requiring students to spend much of their day in front of a computer screen, that made it easy to cheat by looking up answers online, and that some of their teachers didn’t have the proper training for the curriculum (Leskin, 2018). Besides, their school was in a deplorable state of disrepair, especially the toilets. There were similar protests in Kansas, where students staged sit-ins, supported by their parents, one of whom complained that ‘we’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies’ before pulling his son out of the school (Bowles, 2019). In Pennsylvania and Connecticut, some schools stopped using Summit Learning altogether, following protests.

But the resistance did not last. Protesters were accused of being nostalgic conservatives and educationalists kept largely quiet, fearful of losing their funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (Facebook) and other philanthro-capitalists. The provision of training in grit, growth mindset, positive psychology and mindfulness (also promoted by the technology companies) was ramped up, and eventually the disaffected students became more quiescent. Before long, the data-intensive, personalized approach, relying on the tools, services and data storage of particular platforms had become ‘baked in’ to educational systems around the world (Moore, 2018: 211). There was no going back (except for small numbers of ultra-privileged students in a few private institutions).

By the middle of the century (2155), most students, of all ages, studied with interactive screens in the comfort of their homes. Algorithmically-driven content, with personalized, adaptive tests had become the norm, but the technology occasionally went wrong, leading to some frustration. One day, two young children discovered a book in their attic. Made of paper with yellow, crinkly pages, where ‘the words stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to’. The book recounted the experience of schools in the distant past, where ‘all the kids from the neighbourhood came’, sitting in the same room with a human teacher, studying the same things ‘so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it’. Margie, the younger of the children at 11 years old, was engrossed in the book when she received a nudge from her personalized learning platform to return to her studies. But Margie was reluctant to go back to her fractions. She ‘was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had’ (Asimov, 1951).


Asimov, I. 1951. The Fun They Had. Accessed September 20, 2019.

Bowles, N. 2019. ‘Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion’ The New York Times, April 21. Accessed September 20, 2019.

Hidi, S. & Renninger, K.A. 2006. ‘The Four-Phase Model of Interest Development’ Educational Psychologist, 41 (2), 111 – 127

Hof, B. 2018. ‘From Harvard via Moscow to West Berlin: educational technology, programmed instruction and the commercialisation of learning after 1957’ History of Education, 47 (4): 445-465

Kennedy, R.H. 1967. ‘Before using Programmed Instruction’ The English Journal, 56 (6), 871 – 873

Kozlowski, T. 1961. ‘Programmed Teaching’ Financial Analysts Journal, 17 (6): 47 – 54

Laurillard, D. 2008. Digital Technologies and their Role in Achieving our Ambitions for Education. London: Institute for Education.

Leskin, P. 2018. ‘Students in Brooklyn protest their school’s use of a Zuckerberg-backed online curriculum that Facebook engineers helped build’ Business Insider, 12.11.18 Accessed 20 September 2019.

McDonald, J. K., Yanchar, S. C. & Osguthorpe, R.T. 2005. ‘Learning from Programmed Instruction: Examining Implications for Modern Instructional Technology’ Educational Technology Research and Development, 53 (2): 84 – 98

Macgilchrist, F., Allert, H. & Bruch, A. 2019. ‚Students and society in the 2020s. Three future ‘histories’ of education and technology’. Learning, Media and Technology, )

Moore, M. 2018. Democracy Hacked. London: Oneworld

Noble, D. D. 1991. The Classroom Arsenal. London: The Falmer Press

Ornstein, J. 1968. ‘Programmed Instruction and Educational Technology in the Language Field: Boon or Failure?’ The Modern Language Journal, 52 (7), 401 – 410

Ramganesh, E. & Janaki, S. 2017. ‘Attitude of College Teachers towards the Utilization of Language Laboratories for Learning English’ Asian Journal of Social Science Studies; Vol. 2 (1): 103 – 109

Roby, W.B. 2003. ‘Technology in the service of foreign language teaching: The case of the language laboratory’ In D. Jonassen (ed.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 2nd ed.: 523 – 541. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Saettler, P. 2004. The Evolution of American Educational Technology. Greenwich, Conn.: Information Age Publishing

Skinner, B. F. 1961. ‘Teaching Machines’ Scientific American, 205(5), 90-107

Styring, J. 2015. Engaging Generation Z. Cambridge English webinar 2015

Valdman, A. 1968. ‘Programmed Instruction versus Guided Learning in Foreign Language Acquisition’ Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German, 1 (2), 1 – 14.

Wiley, P. D. 1990. ‘Language labs for 1990: User-friendly, expandable and affordable’. Media & Methods, 27(1), 44–47)


Jenny Holzer, Protect me from what I want

Digital flashcard systems like Memrise and Quizlet remain among the most popular language learning apps. Their focus is on the deliberate learning of vocabulary, an approach described by Paul Nation (Nation, 2005) as ‘one of the least efficient ways of developing learners’ vocabulary knowledge but nonetheless […] an important part of a well-balanced vocabulary programme’. The deliberate teaching of vocabulary also features prominently in most platform-based language courses.

For both vocabulary apps and bigger courses, the lexical items need to be organised into sets for the purposes of both presentation and practice. A common way of doing this, especially at lower levels, is to group the items into semantic clusters (sets with a classifying superordinate, like body part, and a collection of example hyponyms, like arm, leg, head, chest, etc.).

The problem, as Keith Folse puts it, is that such clusters ‘are not only unhelpful, they actually hinder vocabulary retention’ (Folse, 2004: 52). Evidence for this claim may be found in Higa (1963), Tinkham (1993, 1997), Waring (1997), Erten & Tekin (2008) and Barcroft (2015), to cite just some of the more well-known studies. The results, says Folse, ‘are clear and, I think, very conclusive’. The explanation that is usually given draws on interference theory: semantic similarity may lead to confusion (e.g. when learners mix up days of the week, colour words or adjectives to describe personality).

It appears, then, to be long past time to get rid of semantic clusters in language teaching. Well … not so fast. First of all, although most of the research sides with Folse, not all of it does. Nakata and Suzuki (2019) in their survey of more recent research found that results were more mixed. They found one study which suggested that there was no significant difference in learning outcomes between presenting words in semantic clusters and semantically unrelated groups (Ishii, 2015). And they found four studies (Hashemi & Gowdasiaei, 2005; Hoshino, 2010; Schneider, Healy, & Bourne, 1998, 2002) where semantic clusters had a positive effect on learning.

Nakata and Suzuki (2019) offer three reasons why semantic clustering might facilitate vocabulary learning: it (1) ‘reflects how vocabulary is stored in the mental lexicon, (2) introduces desirable difficulty, and (3) leads to extra attention, effort, or engagement from learners’. Finkbeiner and Nicol (2003) make a similar point: ‘although learning semantically related words appears to take longer, it is possible that words learned under these conditions are learned better for the purpose of actual language use (e.g., the retrieval of vocabulary during production and comprehension). That is, the very difficulty associated with learning the new labels may make them easier to process once they are learned’. Both pairs of researcher cited in this paragraph conclude that semantic clusters are best avoided, but their discussion of the possible benefits of this clustering is a recognition that the research (for reasons which I will come on to) cannot lead to categorical conclusions.

The problem, as so often with pedagogical research, is the gap between research conditions and real-world classrooms. Before looking at this in a little more detail, one relatively uncontentious observation can be made. Even those scholars who advise against semantic clustering (e.g. Papathanasiou, 2009), acknowledge that the situation is complicated by other factors, especially the level of proficiency of the learner and whether or not one or more of the hyponyms are known to the learner. At higher levels (when it is more likely that one or more of the hyponyms are already, even partially, known), semantic clustering is not a problem. I would add that, on the whole at higher levels, the deliberate learning of vocabulary is even less efficient than at lower levels and should be an increasingly small part of a well-balanced vocabulary programme.

So, why is there a problem drawing practical conclusions from the research? In order to have any scientific validity at all, researchers need to control a large number of variable. They need, for example, to be sure that learners do not already know any of the items that are being presented. The only practical way of doing this is to present sets of invented words, and this is what most of the research does (Sarioğlu, 2018). These artificial words solve one problem, but create others, the most significant of which is item difficulty. Many factors impact on item difficulty, and these include word frequency (obviously a problem with invented words), word length, pronounceability and the familiarity and length of the corresponding item in L1. None of the studies which support the abandonment of semantic clusters have controlled all of these variables (Nakata and Suzuki, 2019). Indeed, it would be practically impossible to do so. Learning pseudo-words is a very different proposition to learning real words, which a learner may subsequently encounter or want to use.

Take, for example, the days of the week. It’s quite common for learners to muddle up Tuesday and Thursday. The reason for this is not just semantic similarity (Tuesday and Monday are less frequently confused). They are also very similar in terms of both spelling and pronunciation. They are ‘synforms’ (see Laufer, 2009), which, like semantic clusters, can hinder learning of new items. But, now imagine a French-speaking learner of Spanish studying the days of the week. It is much less likely that martes and jueves will be muddled, because of their similarity to the French words mardi and jeudi. There would appear to be no good reason not to teach the complete set of days of the week to a learner like this. All other things being equal, it is probably a good idea to avoid semantic clusters, but all other things are very rarely equal.

Again, in an attempt to control for variables, researchers typically present the target items in isolation (in bilingual pairings). But, again, the real world does not normally conform to this condition. Leo Sellivan (2014) suggests that semantic clusters (e.g. colours) are taught as part of collocations. He gives the examples of red dress, green grass and black coffee, and points out that the alliterative patterns can serve as mnemonic devices which will facilitate learning. The suggestion is, I think, a very good one, but, more generally, it’s worth noting that the presentation of lexical items in both digital flashcards and platform courses is rarely context-free. Contexts will inevitably impact on learning and may well obviate the risks of semantic clustering.

Finally, this kind of research typically gives participants very restricted time to memorize the target words (Sarioğlu, 2018) and they are tested in very controlled recall tasks. In the case of language platform courses, practice of target items is usually spread out over a much longer period of time, with a variety of exposure opportunities (in controlled practice tasks, exposure in texts, personalisation tasks, revision exercises, etc.) both within and across learning units. In this light, it is not unreasonable to argue that laboratory-type research offers only limited insights into what should happen in the real world of language learning and teaching. The choice of learning items, the way they are presented and practised, and the variety of activities in the well-balanced vocabulary programme are probably all more significant than the question of whether items are organised into semantic clusters.

Although semantic clusters are quite common in language learning materials, much more common are thematic clusters (i.e. groups of words which are topically related, but include a variety of parts of speech (see below). Researchers, it seems, have no problem with this way of organising lexical sets. By way of conclusion, here’s an extract from a recent book:

‘Introducing new words together that are similar in meaning (synonyms), such as scared and frightened, or forms (synforms), like contain and maintain, can be confusing, and students are less likely to remember them. This problem is known as ‘interference’. One way to avoid this is to choose words that are around the same theme, but which include a mix of different parts of speech. For example, if you want to focus on vocabulary to talk about feelings, instead of picking lots of adjectives (happy, sad, angry, scared, frightened, nervous, etc.) include some verbs (feel, enjoy, complain) and some nouns (fun, feelings, nerves). This also encourages students to use a variety of structures with the vocabulary.’ (Hughes, et al., 2015: 25)



Barcroft, J. 2015. Lexical Input Processing and Vocabulary Learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Erten, I.H., & Tekin, M. 2008. Effects on vocabulary acquisition of presenting new words in semantic sets versus semantically-unrelated sets. System, 36 (3), 407-422

Finkbeiner, M. & Nicol, J. 2003. Semantic category effects in second language word learning. Applied Psycholinguistics 24 (2003), 369–383

Folse, K. S. 2004. Vocabulary Myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Hashemi, M.R., & Gowdasiaei, F. 2005. An attribute-treatment interaction study: Lexical-set versus semantically-unrelated vocabulary instruction. RELC Journal, 36 (3), 341-361

Higa, M. 1963. Interference effects of intralist word relationships in verbal learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2, 170-175

Hoshino, Y. 2010. The categorical facilitation effects on L2 vocabulary learning in a classroom setting. RELC Journal, 41, 301–312

Hughes, S. H., Mauchline, F. & Moore, J. 2019. ETpedia Vocabulary. Shoreham-by-Sea: Pavilion Publishing and Media

Ishii, T. 2015. Semantic connection or visual connection: Investigating the true source of confusion. Language Teaching Research, 19, 712–722

Laufer, B. 2009. The concept of ‘synforms’ (similar lexical forms) in vocabulary acquisition. Language and Education, 2 (2): 113 – 132

Nakata, T. & Suzuki, Y. 2019. Effects Of Massing And Spacing On The Learning Of Semantically Related And Unrelated Words. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 41 (2), 287 – 311

Nation, P. 2005. Teaching Vocabulary. Asian EFL Journal.

Papathanasiou, E. 2009. An investigation of two ways of presenting vocabulary. ELT Journal 63 (4), 313 – 322

Sarioğlu, M. 2018. A Matter of Controversy: Teaching New L2 Words in Semantic Sets or Unrelated Sets. Journal of Higher Education and Science Vol 8 / 1: 172 – 183

Schneider, V. I., Healy, A. F., & Bourne, L. E. 1998. Contextual interference effects in foreign language vocabulary acquisition and retention. In Healy, A. F. & Bourne, L. E. (Eds.), Foreign language learning: Psycholinguistic studies on training and retention (pp. 77–90). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

Schneider, V. I., Healy, A. F., & Bourne, L. E. 2002. What is learned under difficult conditions is hard to forget: Contextual interference effects in foreign vocabulary acquisition, retention, and transfer. Journal of Memory and Language, 46, 419–440

Sellivan, L. 2014. Horizontal alternatives to vertical lists. Blog post:

Tinkham, T. 1993. The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. System 21 (3), 371-380.

Tinkham, T. 1997. The effects of semantic and thematic clustering on the learning of a second language vocabulary. Second Language Research, 13 (2),138-163

Waring, R. 1997. The negative effects of learning words in semantic sets: a replication. System, 25 (2), 261 – 274

At a recent ELT conference, a plenary presentation entitled ‘Getting it right with edtech’ (sponsored by a vendor of – increasingly digital – ELT products) began with the speaker suggesting that technology was basically neutral, that what you do with educational technology matters far more than the nature of the technology itself. The idea that technology is a ‘neutral tool’ has a long pedigree and often accompanies exhortations to embrace edtech in one form or another (see for example Fox, 2001). It is an idea that is supported by no less a luminary than Chomsky, who, in a 2012 video entitled ‘The Purpose of Education’ (Chomsky, 2012), said that:

As far as […] technology […] and education is concerned, technology is basically neutral. It’s kind of like a hammer. I mean, […] the hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or whether a torturer uses it to crush somebody’s skull; a hammer can do either. The same with the modern technology; say, the Internet, and so on.

Womans hammerAlthough hammers are not usually classic examples of educational technology, they are worthy of a short discussion. Hammers come in all shapes and sizes and when you choose one, you need to consider its head weight (usually between 16 and 20 ounces), the length of the handle, the shape of the grip, etc. Appropriate specifications for particular hammering tasks have been calculated in great detail. The data on which these specifications is based on an analysis of the hand size and upper body strength of the typical user. The typical user is a man, and the typical hammer has been designed for a man. The average male hand length is 177.9 mm, that of the average woman is 10 mm shorter (Wang & Cai, 2017). Women typically have about half the upper body strength of men (Miller et al., 1993). It’s possible, but not easy to find hammers designed for women (they are referred to as ‘Ladies hammers’ on Amazon). They have a much lighter head weight, a shorter handle length, and many come in pink or floral designs. Hammers, in other words, are far from neutral: they are highly gendered.

Moving closer to educational purposes and ways in which we might ‘get it right with edtech’, it is useful to look at the smart phone. The average size of these devices has risen in recent years, and is now 5.5 inches, with the market for 6 inch screens growing fast. Why is this an issue? Well, as Caroline Criado Perez (2019: 159) notes, ‘while we’re all admittedly impressed by the size of your screen, it’s a slightly different matter when it comes to fitting into half the population’s hands. The average man can fairly comfortably use his device one-handed – but the average woman’s hand is not much bigger than the handset itself’. This is despite the fact the fact that women are more likely to own an iPhone than men  .

It is not, of course, just technological artefacts that are gendered. Voice-recognition software is also very biased. One researcher (Tatman, 2017) has found that Google’s speech recognition tool is 13% more accurate for men than it is for women. There are also significant biases for race and social class. The reason lies in the dataset that the tool is trained on: the algorithms may be gender- and socio-culturally-neutral, but the dataset is not. It would not be difficult to redress this bias by training the tool on a different dataset.

The same bias can be found in automatic translation software. Because corpora such as the BNC or COCA have twice as many male pronouns as female ones (as a result of the kinds of text that are selected for the corpora), translation software reflects the bias. With Google Translate, a sentence in a language with a gender-neutral pronoun, such as ‘S/he is a doctor’ is rendered into English as ‘He is a doctor’. Meanwhile, ‘S/he is a nurse’ is translated as ‘She is a nurse’ (Criado Perez, 2019: 166).

Datasets, then, are often very far from neutral. Algorithms are not necessarily any more neutral than the datasets, and Cathy O’Neil’s best-seller ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ catalogues the many, many ways in which algorithms, posing as neutral mathematical tools, can increase racial, social and gender inequalities.

It would not be hard to provide many more examples, but the selection above is probably enough. Technology, as Langdon Winner (Winner, 1980) observed almost forty years ago, is ‘deeply interwoven in the conditions of modern politics’. Technology cannot be neutral: it has politics.

So far, I have focused primarily on the non-neutrality of technology in terms of gender (and, in passing, race and class). Before returning to broader societal issues, I would like to make a relatively brief mention of another kind of non-neutrality: the pedagogic. Language learning materials necessarily contain content of some kind: texts, topics, the choice of values or role models, language examples, and so on. These cannot be value-free. In the early days of educational computer software, one researcher (Biraimah, 1993) found that it was ‘at least, if not more, biased than the printed page it may one day replace’. My own impression is that this remains true today.

Equally interesting to my mind is the fact that all educational technologies, ranging from the writing slate to the blackboard (see Buzbee, 2014), from the overhead projector to the interactive whiteboard, always privilege a particular kind of teaching (and learning). ‘Technologies are inherently biased because they are built to accomplish certain very specific goals which means that some technologies are good for some tasks while not so good for other tasks’ (Zhao et al., 2004: 25). Digital flashcards, for example, inevitably encourage a focus on rote learning. Contemporary LMSs have impressive multi-functionality (i.e. they often could be used in a very wide variety of ways), but, in practice, most teachers use them in very conservative ways (Laanpere et al., 2004). This may be a result of teacher and institutional preferences, but it is almost certainly due, at least in part, to the way that LMSs are designed. They are usually ‘based on traditional approaches to instruction dating from the nineteenth century: presentation and assessment [and] this can be seen in the selection of features which are most accessible in the interface, and easiest to use’ (Lane, 2009).

The argument that educational technology is neutral because it could be put to many different uses, good or bad, is problematic because the likelihood of one particular use is usually much greater than another. There is, however, another way of looking at technological neutrality, and that is to look at its origins. Elsewhere on this blog, in post after post, I have given examples of the ways in which educational technology has been developed, marketed and sold primarily for commercial purposes. Educational values, if indeed there are any, are often an afterthought. The research literature in this area is rich and growing: Stephen Ball, Larry Cuban, Neil Selwyn, Joel Spring, Audrey Watters, etc.

Rather than revisit old ground here, this is an opportunity to look at a slightly different origin of educational technology: the US military. The close connection of the early history of the internet and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (now DARPA) of the United States Department of Defense is fairly well-known. Much less well-known are the very close connections between the US military and educational technologies, which are catalogued in the recently reissued ‘The Classroom Arsenal’ by Douglas D. Noble.

Following the twin shocks of the Soviet Sputnik 1 (in 1957) and Yuri Gagarin (in 1961), the United States launched a massive programme of investment in the development of high-tech weaponry. This included ‘computer systems design, time-sharing, graphics displays, conversational programming languages, heuristic problem-solving, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science’ (Noble, 1991: 55), all of which are now crucial components in educational technology. But it also quickly became clear that more sophisticated weapons required much better trained operators, hence the US military’s huge (and continuing) interest in training. Early interest focused on teaching machines and programmed instruction (branches of the US military were by far the biggest purchasers of programmed instruction products). It was essential that training was effective and efficient, and this led to a wide interest in the mathematical modelling of learning and instruction.

What was then called computer-based education (CBE) was developed as a response to military needs. The first experiments in computer-based training took place at the Systems Research Laboratory of the Air Force’s RAND Corporation think tank (Noble, 1991: 73). Research and development in this area accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s and CBE (which has morphed into the platforms of today) ‘assumed particular forms because of the historical, contingent, military contexts for which and within which it was developed’ (Noble, 1991: 83). It is possible to imagine computer-based education having developed in very different directions. Between the 1960s and 1980s, for example, the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) project at the University of Illinois focused heavily on computer-mediated social interaction (forums, message boards, email, chat rooms and multi-player games). PLATO was also significantly funded by a variety of US military agencies, but proved to be of much less interest to the generals than the work taking place in other laboratories. As Noble observes, ‘some technologies get developed while others do not, and those that do are shaped by particular interests and by the historical and political circumstances surrounding their development (Noble, 1991: 4).

According to Noble, however, the influence of the military reached far beyond the development of particular technologies. Alongside the investment in technologies, the military were the prime movers in a campaign to promote computer literacy in schools.

Computer literacy was an ideological campaign rather than an educational initiative – a campaign designed, at bottom, to render people ‘comfortable’ with the ‘inevitable’ new technologies. Its basic intent was to win the reluctant acquiescence of an entire population in a brave new world sculpted in silicon.

The computer campaign also succeeded in getting people in front of that screen and used to having computers around; it made people ‘computer-friendly’, just as computers were being rendered ‘used-friendly’. It also managed to distract the population, suddenly propelled by the urgency of learning about computers, from learning about other things, such as how computers were being used to erode the quality of their working lives, or why they, supposedly the citizens of a democracy, had no say in technological decisions that were determining the shape of their own futures.

Third, it made possible the successful introduction of millions of computers into schools, factories and offices, even homes, with minimal resistance. The nation’s public schools have by now spent over two billion dollars on over a million and a half computers, and this trend still shows no signs of abating. At this time, schools continue to spend one-fifth as much on computers, software, training and staffing as they do on all books and other instructional materials combined. Yet the impact of this enormous expenditure is a stockpile of often idle machines, typically used for quite unimaginative educational applications. Furthermore, the accumulated results of three decades of research on the effectiveness of computer-based instruction remain ‘inconclusive and often contradictory’. (Noble, 1991: x – xi)

Rather than being neutral in any way, it seems more reasonable to argue, along with (I think) most contemporary researchers, that edtech is profoundly value-laden because it has the potential to (i) influence certain values in students; (ii) change educational values in [various] ways; and (iii) change national values (Omotoyinbo & Omotoyinbo, 2016: 173). Most importantly, the growth in the use of educational technology has been accompanied by a change in the way that education itself is viewed: ‘as a tool, a sophisticated supply system of human cognitive resources, in the service of a computerized, technology-driven economy’ (Noble, 1991: 1). These two trends are inextricably linked.


Biraimah, K. 1993. The non-neutrality of educational computer software. Computers and Education 20 / 4: 283 – 290

Buzbee, L. 2014. Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press

Chomsky, N. 2012. The Purpose of Education (video). Learning Without Frontiers Conference.

Criado Perez, C. 2019. Invisible Women. London: Chatto & Windus

Fox, R. 2001. Technological neutrality and practice in higher education. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.

Laanpere, M., Poldoja, H. & Kikkas, K. 2004. The second thoughts about pedagogical neutrality of LMS. Proceedings of IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies, 2004.

Lane, L. 2009. Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching. First Monday, 14(10).

Miller, A.E., MacDougall, J.D., Tarnopolsky, M. A. & Sale, D.G. 1993. ‘Gender differences in strength and muscle fiber characteristics’ European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology. 66(3): 254-62

Noble, D. D. 1991. The Classroom Arsenal. Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge

Omotoyinbo, D. W. & Omotoyinbo, F. R. 2016. Educational Technology and Value Neutrality. Societal Studies, 8 / 2: 163 – 179

O’Neil, C. 2016. Weapons of Math Destruction. London: Penguin

Sundström, P. Interpreting the Notion that Technology is Value Neutral. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy 1, 1998: 42-44

Tatman, R. 2017. ‘Gender and Dialect Bias in YouTube’s Automatic Captions’ Proceedings of the First Workshop on Ethics in Natural Language Processing, pp. 53–59

Wang, C. & Cai, D. 2017. ‘Hand tool handle design based on hand measurements’ MATEC Web of Conferences 119, 01044 (2017)

Winner, L. 1980. Do Artifacts have Politics? Daedalus 109 / 1: 121 – 136

Zhao, Y, Alvarez-Torres, M. J., Smith, B. & Tan, H. S. 2004. The Non-neutrality of Technology: a Theoretical Analysis and Empirical Study of Computer Mediated Communication Technologies. Journal of Educational Computing Research 30 (1 &2): 23 – 55

When the startup, AltSchool, was founded in 2013 by Max Ventilla, the former head of personalization at Google, it quickly drew the attention of venture capitalists and within a few years had raised $174 million from the likes of the Zuckerberg Foundation, Peter Thiel, Laurene Powell Jobs and Pierre Omidyar. It garnered gushing articles in a fawning edtech press which enthused about ‘how successful students can be when they learn in small, personalized communities that champion project-based learning, guided by educators who get a say in the technology they use’. It promised ‘a personalized learning approach that would far surpass the standardized education most kids receive’.

altschoolVentilla was an impressive money-raiser who used, and appeared to believe, every cliché in the edTech sales manual. Dressed in regulation jeans, polo shirt and fleece, he claimed that schools in America were ‘stuck in an industrial-age model, [which] has been in steady decline for the last century’ . What he offered, instead, was a learner-centred, project-based curriculum providing real-world lessons. There was a focus on social-emotional learning activities and critical thinking was vital.

The key to the approach was technology. From the start, software developers, engineers and researchers worked alongside teachers everyday, ‘constantly tweaking the Personalized Learning Plan, which shows students their assignments for each day and helps teachers keep track of and assess student’s learning’. There were tablets for pre-schoolers, laptops for older kids and wall-mounted cameras to record the lessons. There were, of course, Khan Academy videos. Ventilla explained that “we start with a representation of each child”, and even though “the vast majority of the learning should happen non-digitally”, the child’s habits and preferences gets converted into data, “a digital representation of the important things that relate to that child’s learning, not just their academic learning but also their non-academic learning. Everything logistic that goes into setting up the experience for them, whether it’s who has permission to pick them up or their allergy information. You name it.” And just like Netflix matches us to TV shows, “If you have that accurate and actionable representation for each child, now you can start to personalize the whole experience for that child. You can create that kind of loop you described where because we can represent a child well, we can match them to the right experiences.”

AltSchool seemed to offer the possibility of doing something noble, of transforming education, ‘bringing it into the digital age’, and, at the same time, a healthy return on investors’ money. Expanding rapidly, nine AltSchool microschools were opened in New York and the Bay Area, and plans were afoot for further expansion in Chicago. But, by then, it was already clear that something was going wrong. Five of the schools were closed before they had really got started and the attrition rate in some classrooms had reached about 30%. Revenue in 2018 was only $7 million and there were few buyers for the AltSchool platform. Quoting once more from the edTech bible, Ventilla explained the situation: ‘Our whole strategy is to spend more than we make,’ he says. Since software is expensive to develop and cheap to distribute, the losses, he believes, will turn into steep profits once AltSchool refines its product and lands enough customers.

The problems were many and apparent. Some of the buildings were simply not appropriate for schools, with no playgrounds or gyms, malfunctioning toilets, among other issues. Parents were becoming unhappy and accused AltSchool of putting ‘its ambitions as a tech company above its responsibility to teach their children. […] We kind of came to the conclusion that, really, AltSchool as a school was kind of a front for what Max really wants to do, which is develop software that he’s selling,’ a parent of a former AltSchool student told Business Insider. ‘We had really mediocre educators using technology as a crutch,’ said one father who transferred his child to a different private school after two years at AltSchool. […] We learned that it’s almost impossible to really customize the learning experience for each kid.’ Some parents began to wonder whether AltSchool had enticed families into its program merely to extract data from their children, then toss them aside?

With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that the accusations were hardly unfair. In June of this year, AltSchool announced that its four remaining schools would be operated by a new partner, Higher Ground Education (a well-funded startup founded in 2016 which promotes and ‘modernises’ Montessori education). Meanwhile, AltSchool has been rebranded as Altitude Learning, focusing its ‘resources on the development and expansion of its personalized learning platform’ for licensing to other schools across the country.

Quoting once more from the edTech sales manual, Ventilla has said that education should drive the tech, not the other way round. Not so many years earlier, before starting AltSchool, Ventilla also said that he had read two dozen books on education and emerged a fan of Sir Ken Robinson. He had no experience as a teacher or as an educational administrator. Instead, he had ‘extensive knowledge of networks, and he understood the kinds of insights that can be gleaned from big data’.

The use of big data and analytics in education continues to grow.

A vast apparatus of measurement is being developed to underpin national education systems, institutions and the actions of the individuals who occupy them. […] The presence of digital data and software in education is being amplified through massive financial and political investment in educational technologies, as well as huge growth in data collection and analysis in policymaking practices, extension of performance measurement technologies in the management of educational institutions, and rapid expansion of digital methodologies in educational research. To a significant extent, many of the ways in which classrooms function, educational policy departments and leaders make decisions, and researchers make sense of data, simply would not happen as currently intended without the presence of software code and the digital data processing programs it enacts. (Williamson, 2017: 4)

The most common and successful use of this technology so far has been in the identification of students at risk of dropping out of their courses (Jørno & Gynther, 2018: 204). The kind of analytics used in this context may be called ‘academic analytics’ and focuses on educational processes at the institutional level or higher (Gelan et al, 2018: 3). However, ‘learning analytics’, the capture and analysis of learner and learning data in order to personalize learning ‘(1) through real-time feedback on online courses and e-textbooks that can ‘learn’ from how they are used and ‘talk back’ to the teacher, and (2) individualization and personalization of the educational experience through adaptive learning systems that enable materials to be tailored to each student’s individual needs through automated real-time analysis’ (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2014) has become ‘the main keyword of data-driven education’ (Williamson, 2017: 10). See my earlier posts on this topic here and here and here.

Learning with big dataNear the start of Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s enthusiastic sales pitch (Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education) for the use of big data in education, there is a discussion of Duolingo. They quote Luis von Ahn, the founder of Duolingo, as saying ‘there has been little empirical work on what is the best way to teach a foreign language’. This is so far from the truth as to be laughable. Von Ahn’s comment, along with the Duolingo product itself, is merely indicative of a lack of awareness of the enormous amount of research that has been carried out. But what could the data gleaned from the interactions of millions of users with Duolingo tell us of value? The example that is given is the following. Apparently, ‘in the case of Spanish speakers learning English, it’s common to teach pronouns early on: words like “he,” “she,” and “it”.’ But, Duolingo discovered, ‘the term “it” tends to confuse and create anxiety for Spanish speakers, since the word doesn’t easily translate into their language […] Delaying the introduction of “it” until a few weeks later dramatically improves the number of people who stick with learning English rather than drop out.’ Was von Ahn unaware of the decades of research into language transfer effects? Did von Ahn (who grew up speaking Spanish in Guatemala) need all this data to tell him that English personal pronouns can cause problems for Spanish learners of English? Was von Ahn unaware of the debates concerning the value of teaching isolated words (especially grammar words!)?

The area where little empirical research has been done is not in different ways of learning another language: it is in the use of big data and learning analytics to assist language learning. Claims about the value of these technologies in language learning are almost always speculative – they are based on comparison to other school subjects (especially, mathematics). Gelan et al (2018: 2), who note this lack of research, suggest that ‘understanding language learner behaviour could provide valuable insights into task design for instructors and materials designers, as well as help students with effective learning strategies and personalised learning pathways’ (my italics). Reinders (2018: 81) writes ‘that analysis of prior experiences with certain groups or certain courses may help to identify key moments at which students need to receive more or different support. Analysis of student engagement and performance throughout a course may help with early identification of learning problems and may prompt early intervention’ (italics added). But there is some research out there, and it’s worth having a look at. Most studies that have collected learner-tracking data concern glossary use for reading comprehension and vocabulary retention (Gelan et al, 2018: 5), but a few have attempted to go further in scope.

Volk et al (2015) looked at the behaviour of the 20,000 students per day using the platform which accompanies ‘More!’ (Gerngross et al. 2008) to do their English homework for Austrian lower secondary schools. They discovered that

  • the exercises used least frequently were those that are located further back in the course book
  • usage is highest from Monday to Wednesday, declining from Thursday, with a rise again on Sunday
  • most interaction took place between 3:00 and 5:00 pm.
  • repetition of exercises led to a strong improvement in success rate
  • students performed better on multiple choice and matching exercises than they did where they had to produce some language

The authors of this paper conclude by saying that ‘the results of this study suggest a number of new avenues for research. In general, the authors plan to extend their analysis of exercise results and applied exercises to the population of all schools using the online learning platform This step enables a deeper insight into student’s learning behaviour and allows making more generalizing statements.’ When I shared these research findings with the Austrian lower secondary teachers that I work with, their reaction was one of utter disbelief. People get paid to do this research? Why not just ask us?

More useful, more actionable insights may yet come from other sources. For example, Gu Yueguo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Beijing Foreign Studies University has announced the intention to set up a national Big Data research center, specializing in big data-related research topics in foreign language education (Yu, 2015). Meanwhile, I’m aware of only one big research project that has published its results. The EC Erasmus+ VITAL project (Visualisation Tools and Analytics to monitor Online Language Learning & Teaching) was carried out between 2015 and 2017 and looked at the learning trails of students from universities in Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands. It was discovered (Gelan et al, 2015) that:

  • students who did online exercises when they were supposed to do them were slightly more successful than those who were late carrying out the tasks
  • successful students logged on more often, spent more time online, attempted and completed more tasks, revisited both exercises and theory pages more frequently, did the work in the order in which it was supposed to be done and did more work in the holidays
  • most students preferred to go straight into the assessed exercises and only used the theory pages when they felt they needed to; successful students referred back to the theory pages more often than unsuccessful students
  • students made little use of the voice recording functionality
  • most online activity took place the day before a class and the day of the class itself

EU funding for this VITAL project amounted to 274,840 Euros[1]. The technology for capturing the data has been around for a long time. In my opinion, nothing of value, or at least nothing new, has been learnt. Publishers like Pearson and Cambridge University Press who have large numbers of learners using their platforms have been capturing learning data for many years. They do not publish their findings and, intriguingly, do not even claim that they have learnt anything useful / actionable from the data they have collected. Sure, an exercise here or there may need to be amended. Both teachers and students may need more support in using the more open-ended functionalities of the platforms (e.g. discussion forums). But are they getting ‘unprecedented insights into what works and what doesn’t’ (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2014)? Are they any closer to building better pedagogies? On the basis of what we know so far, you wouldn’t want to bet on it.

It may be the case that all the learning / learner data that is captured could be used in some way that has nothing to do with language learning. Show me a language-learning app developer who does not dream of monetizing the ‘behavioural surplus’ (Zuboff, 2018) that they collect! But, for the data and analytics to be of any value in guiding language learning, it must lead to actionable insights. Unfortunately, as Jørno & Gynther (2018: 198) point out, there is very little clarity about what is meant by ‘actionable insights’. There is a danger that data and analytics ‘simply gravitates towards insights that confirm longstanding good practice and insights, such as “students tend to ignore optional learning activities … [and] focus on activities that are assessed” (Jørno & Gynther, 2018: 211). While this is happening, the focus on data inevitably shapes the way we look at the object of study (i.e. language learning), ‘thereby systematically excluding other perspectives’ (Mau, 2019: 15; see also Beer, 2019). The belief that tech is always the solution, that all we need is more data and better analytics, remains very powerful: it’s called techno-chauvinism (Broussard, 2018: 7-8).


Beer, D. 2019. The Data Gaze. London: Sage

Broussard, M. 2018. Artificial Unintelligence. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Gelan, A., Fastre, G., Verjans, M., Martin, N., Jansenswillen, G., Creemers, M., Lieben, J., Depaire, B. & Thomas, M. 2018. ‘Affordances and limitations of learning analytics for computer­assisted language learning: a case study of the VITAL project’. Computer Assisted Language Learning. pp. 1­26.

Gerngross, G., Puchta, H., Holzmann, C., Stranks, J., Lewis-Jones, P. & Finnie, R. 2008. More! 1 Cyber Homework. Innsbruck, Austria: Helbling

Jørno, R. L. & Gynther, K. 2018. ‘What Constitutes an “Actionable Insight” in Learning Analytics?’ Journal of Learning Analytics 5 (3): 198 – 221

Mau, S. 2019. The Metric Society. Cambridge: Polity Press

Mayer-Schönberger, V. & Cukier, K. 2014. Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Reinders, H. 2018. ‘Learning analytics for language learning and teaching’. JALT CALL Journal 14 / 1: 77 – 86

Volk, H., Kellner, K. & Wohlhart, D. 2015. ‘Learning Analytics for English Language Teaching.’ Journal of Universal Computer Science, Vol. 21 / 1: 156-174

Williamson, B. 2017. Big Data in Education. London: Sage

Yu, Q. 2015. ‘Learning Analytics: The next frontier for computer assisted language learning in big data age’ SHS Web of Conferences, 17

Zuboff, S. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. London: Profile Books


[1] See

Jargon buster

Posted: January 18, 2019 in Discourse, ed tech

With the 2019 educational conference show season about to start, here’s a handy guide to gaining a REAL understanding of the words you’re likely to come across. Please feel free to add in the comments anything I’ve omitted.

iatefl conference


Keeping the money-people happy.

AI (artificial intelligence)

Ooh! Aah! Yes, please.

analytics (as in learning analytics)

The analysis of student data to reveal crucial insights such as the fact that students who work more, make more progress. Cf. data

AR (augmented reality)

Out-of-date interactive technology with no convincing classroom value. cf. interactive


A word for standard that makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about.

blended (as in blended learning)

Homework. Or, if you want to sound more knowledgeable, the way e-learning is being combined with traditional classroom methods and independent study to create a new, hybrid teaching methodology that is shown by research to facilitate better learning outcomes.


A non-unionized, cheap teacher for the masses.


A word used by people who haven’t read enough neuro-science.


Getting other people to help you, and getting praised for doing so.

CPD (continuous professional development)

Unpaid training.


A good excuse to get out your guitar, recite a few poems and show how sensitive you are. Cf. 21st century skills

curated (as in curated learning content)

Stuff nicked from other websites. A way of getting more personalization for less investment.


The correct way to refer to students. Cf. markets


Information about students that can be sold to advertising companies.

design (as in learning design)

Used to mean curriculum by people selling edtech products who aren’t sure what curriculum means.

discovery learning

A myth with a long-gone expiry date.

disruptive (as in disruptive innovation in education)

A word used in utter seriousness by people who dream of getting rich from the privatisation of education.


Handy for speaking and writing exercises, according to They open up a new set of opportunities to make classes more relevant and engaging for students. They can in fact enrich students’ imagination and get them more involved into the learning process.

ecosystem (as in learning ecosystem)

All the different ways that data about learners can be captured, sold or hacked.


The go-to site for ‘news’ about edtech. The company’s goal is ‘to promote the smart adoption of education technology through impartial reporting’ … much of which is paid for by investors in edtech start-ups.


PowerPoint, for example.


A fancy word for efficiency that nobody bothers with much any more.


Not connected to power in any way at all.


Sticking with something.

flipped (as in flipped classrooms)

Watching educational videos at home.

formative assessment

A critically important tool in the iterative process of maximizing the learning environment and customizing instruction to meet students’ needs. Also known as testing.


Persuading people to push buttons.

global citizens

Nice people.


Used to describe a learning activity that is less boring than other learning activities.

inclusive (as in inclusive practices)

Not to be confused with virtue-signalling.


A meaningless word that sounds good to some people. Interchangeable with cutting-edge and state-of-the-art


With buttons that can be pushed.

interactive whiteboard

A term you won’t hear this year, except when accompanied with a scoff, because everyone has forgotten it and wants to move on. Cf. 60% of the other terms in this glossary by 2025

(the) knowledge economy

Platform capitalism.


A smokescreen for poor pay and conditions. Cf. 21st century skills

literacy (as in critical literacy, digital literacy, emotional literacy, media literacy, visual literacy)

A jargon word used to mean that someone can do something.

MALL (Mobile assisted language learning)

Chatting or playing games with your phone in class.


Another contemporary way of referring to students. Cf. customer


Translating, interpreting and things like that.


An ever-growing industry.


U.S. education technology companies raised $1.45 billion from venture capitalists and private-equity investors in 2018 (according to EdSurge).

outcomes (as in learning outcomes)

‘Learning’, or whatever, that can be measured.


A meaningless word useful for selling edtech stuff. Interchangeable with differentiated and individualized.


A euphemism for sellers. Cf. solutions


An obsolete word for providers of educational learning solutions. Cf. solutions


A bit of management jargon from the last century. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know exactly what it means – you can define it yourself.


A slippery word that is meant to elicit a positive response.


Also known as grit, the ability to suspend your better judgment and plough on.


Something to do with Vygotsky, but it probably doesn’t matter what exactly. It’s a ‘good thing’.

SEL (Social-Emotional Learning)

A VA (value-added) experience needed by students who spend too long in CAL in a VLE with poor UX.

skills (as in 21st century skills)

The abilities that young people will need for an imagined future workplace. These are to be paid for by the state, rather than the companies that might employ a small number of them on zero-hour contracts.

soft skills

Everything you need to be a compliant employee.

solutions (as in learning solutions)

A euphemism for stuff that someone is trying to sell to schools.


A teacher in need of a reality check.

thought leaders (as in educational thought leaders)

Effective self-promoters, usually with no background in education.


Nothing to do with Transformative Learning Theory (Mezirow) … just another buzz word.


Technology that makes you dizzy.

ltsigIt’s hype time again. Spurred on, no doubt, by the current spate of books and articles  about AIED (artificial intelligence in education), the IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG is organising an online event on the topic in November of this year. Currently, the most visible online references to AI in language learning are related to Glossika , basically a language learning system that uses spaced repetition, whose marketing department has realised that references to AI might help sell the product. GlossikaThey’re not alone – see, for example, Knowble which I reviewed earlier this year .

In the wider world of education, where AI has made greater inroads than in language teaching, every day brings more stuff: How artificial intelligence is changing teaching , 32 Ways AI is Improving Education , How artificial intelligence could help teachers do a better job , etc., etc. There’s a full-length book by Anthony Seldon, The Fourth Education Revolution: will artificial intelligence liberate or infantilise humanity? (2018, University of Buckingham Press) – one of the most poorly researched and badly edited books on education I’ve ever read, although that won’t stop it selling – and, no surprises here, there’s a Pearson commissioned report called Intelligence Unleashed: An argument for AI in Education (2016) which is available free.

Common to all these publications is the claim that AI will radically change education. When it comes to language teaching, a similar claim has been made by Donald Clark (described by Anthony Seldon as an education guru but perhaps best-known to many in ELT for his demolition of Sugata Mitra). In 2017, Clark wrote a blog post for Cambridge English (now unavailable) entitled How AI will reboot language learning, and a more recent version of this post, called AI has and will change language learning forever (sic) is available on Clark’s own blog. Given the history of the failure of education predictions, Clark is making bold claims. Thomas Edison (1922) believed that movies would revolutionize education. Radios were similarly hyped in the 1940s and in the 1960s it was the turn of TV. In the 1980s, Seymour Papert predicted the end of schools – ‘the computer will blow up the school’, he wrote. Twenty years later, we had the interactive possibilities of Web 2.0. As each technology failed to deliver on the hype, a new generation of enthusiasts found something else to make predictions about.

But is Donald Clark onto something? Developments in AI and computational linguistics have recently resulted in enormous progress in machine translation. Impressive advances in automatic speech recognition and generation, coupled with the power that can be packed into a handheld device, mean that we can expect some re-evaluation of the value of learning another language. Stephen Heppell, a specialist at Bournemouth University in the use of ICT in Education, has said: ‘Simultaneous translation is coming, making language teachers redundant. Modern languages teaching in future may be more about navigating cultural differences’ (quoted by Seldon, p.263). Well, maybe, but this is not Clark’s main interest.

Less a matter of opinion and much closer to the present day is the issue of assessment. AI is becoming ubiquitous in language testing. Cambridge, Pearson, TELC, Babbel and Duolingo are all using or exploring AI in their testing software, and we can expect to see this increase. Current, paper-based systems of testing subject knowledge are, according to Rosemary Luckin and Kristen Weatherby, outdated, ineffective, time-consuming, the cause of great anxiety and can easily be automated (Luckin, R. & Weatherby, K. 2018. ‘Learning analytics, artificial intelligence and the process of assessment’ in Luckin, R. (ed.) Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology, 2018. UCL Institute of Education Press, p.253). By capturing data of various kinds throughout a language learner’s course of study and by using AI to analyse learning development, continuous formative assessment becomes possible in ways that were previously unimaginable. ‘Assessment for Learning (AfL)’ or ‘Learning Oriented Assessment (LOA)’ are two terms used by Cambridge English to refer to the potential that AI offers which is described by Luckin (who is also one of the authors of the Pearson paper mentioned earlier). In practical terms, albeit in a still very limited way, this can be seen in the CUP course ‘Empower’, which combines CUP course content with validated LOA from Cambridge Assessment English.

Will this reboot or revolutionise language teaching? Probably not and here’s why. AIED systems need to operate with what is called a ‘domain knowledge model’. This specifies what is to be learnt and includes an analysis of the steps that must be taken to reach that learning goal. Some subjects (especially STEM subjects) ‘lend themselves much more readily to having their domains represented in ways that can be automatically reasoned about’ (du Boulay, D. et al., 2018. ‘Artificial intelligences and big data technologies to close the achievement gap’ in Luckin, R. (ed.) Enhancing Learning and Teaching with Technology, 2018. UCL Institute of Education Press, p.258). This is why most AIED systems have been built to teach these areas. Language are rather different. We simply do not have a domain knowledge model, except perhaps for the very lowest levels of language learning (and even that is highly questionable). Language learning is probably not, or not primarily, about acquiring subject knowledge. Debate still rages about the relationship between explicit language knowledge and language competence. AI-driven formative assessment will likely focus most on explicit language knowledge, as does most current language teaching. This will not reboot or revolutionise anything. It will more likely reinforce what is already happening: a model of language learning that assumes there is a strong interface between explicit knowledge and language competence. It is not a model that is shared by most SLA researchers.

So, one thing that AI can do (and is doing) for language learning is to improve the algorithms that determine the way that grammar and vocabulary are presented to individual learners in online programs. AI-optimised delivery of ‘English Grammar in Use’ may lead to some learning gains, but they are unlikely to be significant. It is not, in any case, what language learners need.

AI, Donald Clark suggests, can offer personalised learning. Precisely what kind of personalised learning this might be, and whether or not this is a good thing, remains unclear. A 2015 report funded by the Gates Foundation found that we currently lack evidence about the effectiveness of personalised learning. We do not know which aspects of personalised learning (learner autonomy, individualised learning pathways and instructional approaches, etc.) or which combinations of these will lead to gains in language learning. The complexity of the issues means that we may never have a satisfactory explanation. You can read my own exploration of the problems of personalised learning starting here .

What’s left? Clark suggests that chatbots are one area with ‘huge potential’. I beg to differ and I explained my reasons eighteen months ago . Chatbots work fine in very specific domains. As Clark says, they can be used for ‘controlled practice’, but ‘controlled practice’ means practice of specific language knowledge, the practice of limited conversational routines, for example. It could certainly be useful, but more than that? Taking things a stage further, Clark then suggests more holistic speaking and listening practice with Amazon Echo, Alexa or Google Home. If and when the day comes that we have general, as opposed to domain-specific, AI, chatting with one of these tools would open up vast new possibilities. Unfortunately, general AI does not exist, and until then Alexa and co will remain a poor substitute for human-human interaction (which is readily available online, anyway). Incidentally, AI could be used to form groups of online language learners to carry out communicative tasks – ‘the aim might be to design a grouping of students all at a similar cognitive level and of similar interests, or one where the participants bring different but complementary knowledge and skills’ (Luckin, R., Holmes, W., Griffiths, M. & Forceir, L.B. 2016. Intelligence Unleashed: An argument for AI in Education. London: Pearson, p.26).

Predictions about the impact of technology on education have a tendency to be made by people with a vested interest in the technologies. Edison was a businessman who had invested heavily in motion pictures. Donald Clark is an edtech entrepreneur whose company, Wildfire, uses AI in online learning programs. Stephen Heppell is executive chairman of LP+ who are currently developing a Chinese language learning community for 20 million Chinese school students. The reporting of AIED is almost invariably in websites that are paid for, in one way or another, by edtech companies. Predictions need, therefore, to be treated sceptically. Indeed, the safest prediction we can make about hyped educational technologies is that inflated expectations will be followed by disillusionment, before the technology finds a smaller niche.