At the start of the last decade, ELT publishers were worried, Macmillan among them. The financial crash of 2008 led to serious difficulties, not least in their key Spanish market. In 2011, Macmillan’s parent company was fined ₤11.3 million for corruption. Under new ownership, restructuring was a constant. At the same time, Macmillan ELT was getting ready to move from its Oxford headquarters to new premises in London, a move which would inevitably lead to the loss of a sizable proportion of its staff. On top of that, Macmillan, like the other ELT publishers, was aware that changes in the digital landscape (the first 3G iPhone had appeared in June 2008 and wifi access was spreading rapidly around the world) meant that they needed to shift away from the old print-based model. With her finger on the pulse, Caroline Moore, wrote an article in October 2010 entitled ‘No Future? The English Language Teaching Coursebook in the Digital Age’ . The publication (at the start of the decade) and runaway success of the online ‘Touchstone’ course, from arch-rivals, Cambridge University Press, meant that Macmillan needed to change fast if they were to avoid being left behind.

Macmillan already had a platform, Campus, but it was generally recognised as being clunky and outdated, and something new was needed. In the summer of 2012, Macmillan brought in two new executives – people who could talk the ‘creative-disruption’ talk and who believed in the power of big data to shake up English language teaching and publishing. At the time, the idea of big data was beginning to reach public consciousness and ‘Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform how We Live, Work, and Think’ by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, was a major bestseller in 2013 and 2014. ‘Big data’ was the ‘hottest trend’ in technology and peaked in Google Trends in October 2014. See the graph below.

Big_data_Google_Trend

Not long after taking up their positions, the two executives began negotiations with Knewton, an American adaptive learning company. Knewton’s technology promised to gather colossal amounts of data on students using Knewton-enabled platforms. Its founder, Jose Ferreira, bragged that Knewton had ‘more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything […] We literally know everything about what you know and how you learn best, everything’. This data would, it was claimed, enable publishers to multiply, by orders of magnitude, the efficacy of learning materials, allowing publishers, like Macmillan, to provide a truly personalized and optimal offering to learners using their platform.

The contract between Macmillan and Knewton was agreed in May 2013 ‘to build next-generation English Language Learning and Teaching materials’. Perhaps fearful of being left behind in what was seen to be a winner-takes-all market (Pearson already had a financial stake in Knewton), Cambridge University Press duly followed suit, signing a contract with Knewton in September of the same year, in order ‘to create personalized learning experiences in [their] industry-leading ELT digital products’. Things moved fast because, by the start of 2014 when Macmillan’s new catalogue appeared, customers were told to ‘watch out for the ‘Big Tree’’, Macmillans’ new platform, which would be powered by Knewton. ‘The power that will come from this world of adaptive learning takes my breath away’, wrote the international marketing director.

Not a lot happened next, at least outwardly. In the following year, 2015, the Macmillan catalogue again told customers to ‘look out for the Big Tree’ which would offer ‘flexible blended learning models’ which could ‘give teachers much more freedom to choose what they want to do in the class and what they want the students to do online outside of the classroom’.

Macmillan_catalogue_2015

But behind the scenes, everything was going wrong. It had become clear that a linear model of language learning, which was a necessary prerequisite of the Knewton system, simply did not lend itself to anything which would be vaguely marketable in established markets. Skills development, not least the development of so-called 21st century skills, which Macmillan was pushing at the time, would not be facilitated by collecting huge amounts of data and algorithms offering personalized pathways. Even if it could, teachers weren’t ready for it, and the projections for platform adoptions were beginning to seem very over-optimistic. Costs were spiralling. Pushed to meet unrealistic deadlines for a product that was totally ill-conceived in the first place, in-house staff were suffering, and this was made worse by what many staffers thought was a toxic work environment. By the end of 2014 (so, before the copy for the 2015 catalogue had been written), the two executives had gone.

For some time previously, skeptics had been joking that Macmillan had been barking up the wrong tree, and by the time that the 2016 catalogue came out, the ‘Big Tree’ had disappeared without trace. The problem was that so much time and money had been thrown at this particular tree that not enough had been left to develop new course materials (for adults). The whole thing had been a huge cock-up of an extraordinary kind.

Cambridge, too, lost interest in their Knewton connection, but were fortunate (or wise) not to have invested so much energy in it. Language learning was only ever a small part of Knewton’s portfolio, and the company had raised over $180 million in venture capital. Its founder, Jose Ferreira, had been a master of marketing hype, but the business model was not delivering any better than the educational side of things. Pearson pulled out. In December 2016, Ferreira stepped down and was replaced as CEO. The company shifted to ‘selling digital courseware directly to higher-ed institutions and students’ but this could not stop the decline. In September of 2019, Knewton was sold for something under $17 million dollars, with investors taking a hit of over $160 million. My heart bleeds.

It was clear, from very early on (see, for example, my posts from 2014 here and here) that Knewton’s product was little more than what Michael Feldstein called ‘snake oil’. Why and how could so many people fall for it for so long? Why and how will so many people fall for it again in the coming decade, although this time it won’t be ‘big data’ that does the seduction, but AI (which kind of boils down to the same thing)? The former Macmillan executives are still at the game, albeit in new companies and talking a slightly modified talk, and Jose Ferreira (whose new venture has already raised $3.7 million) is promising to revolutionize education with a new start-up which ‘will harness the power of technology to improve both access and quality of education’ (thanks to Audrey Watters for the tip). Investors may be desperate to find places to spread their portfolio, but why do the rest of us lap up the hype? It’s a question to which I will return.

 

 

 

 

Comments
  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I personally believe a good platform, data and content can make world of difference, but it is not the be all and end all.

  2. Hi Philip,
    I cant be 100% sure but I believe I was a writer for the Big Tree project and spent a frustrating couple of months attempting to shove a round piece of the course puzzle called ‘Life Skills’ into the square hole of adaptive learning technology. There was talk of further work, but Macmillan then went mysteriously silent and I heard nothing from my contact there despite follow-up emails. I had little idea about the reasons and background to that job and its disappearance until now!
    We can only hope that publishers are now keeping a much closer eye on your blog in 2020 than they were in 2014, and having had their fingers burnt by the empty promises of certain quarters in EdTech, will take heed when new shiny wares are dangled in front of them.
    Thanks as ever for keeping us all aware of what is some of the most important information in ELT.

  3. Matt Steele says:

    Another great, sane, myth busting post. If I could employ one person to do one thing it would be this: to monitor the claims and promises made by “experts”, “evangelists” “futurists” and the like (especially, but not solely, from ‘ed tech’), and hold them to account. Much as you do at the moment. Thanks Philip.

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