What is the ‘new normal’?

Among the many words and phrases that have been coined or gained new currency since COVID-19 first struck, I find ‘the new normal’ particularly interesting. In the educational world, its meaning is so obvious that it doesn’t need spelling out. But in case you’re unclear about what I’m referring to, the title of this webinar, run by GENTEFL, the Global Educators Network Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (an affiliate of IATEFL), will give you a hint.

webinar GENTEFL

Teaching in a VLE may be overstating it a bit, but you get the picture. ‘The new normal’ is the shift away from face-to-face teaching in bricks-and-mortar institutions, towards online teaching of one kind or another. The Malaysian New Straits Times refers to it as ‘E-learning, new way forward in new norm’. The TEFL Academy says that ‘digital learning is the new normal’, and the New Indian Express prefers the term ‘tech education’.

Indian express

I’ll come back to these sources in a little while.

Whose new normal?

There is, indeed, a strong possibility that online learning and teaching may become ‘the new normal’ for many people working in education. In corporate training and in higher education, ‘tech education’ will likely become increasingly common. Many universities, especially but not only in the US, Britain and Australia, have been relying on ‘international students’ (almost half a million in the UK in 2018/ 2019), in particular Chinese, to fill their coffers. With uncertainty about how and when these universities will reopen for the next academic year, a successful transition to online is a matter of survival – a challenge that a number of universities will probably not be able to rise to. The core of ELT, private TEFL schools in Inner Circle countries, likewise dependent on visitors from other countries, has also been hard hit. It is not easy for them to transition to online, since the heart of their appeal lies in their physical location.

But elsewhere, the picture is rather different. A recent Reddit discussion began as follows: ‘In Vietnam, [English language] schools have reopened and things have returned to normal almost overnight. There’s actually a teacher shortage at the moment as so many left and interest in online learning is minimal, although most schools are still offering it as an option’. The consensus in the discussion that follows is that bricks-and-mortar schools will take a hit, especially with adult (but not kids’) groups, but that ‘teaching online will not be the new normal’.

By far the greatest number of students studying English around the world are in primary and secondary schools. It is highly unlikely that online study will be the ‘new normal’ for most of these students (although we may expect to see attempts to move towards more blended approaches). There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most glaringly obvious is that the function of schools is not exclusively educational: child-care, allowing parents to go to work, is the first among these.

We can expect some exceptions. In New York, for example, current plans include a ‘hybrid model’ (a sexed-up term for blended learning), in which students are in schools for part of the time and continue learning remotely for the rest. The idea emerged after Governor Andrew Cuomo ‘convened a committee with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reimagine education for students when school goes back in session in the fall’. How exactly this will pan out remains to be seen, but, in much of the rest of the world, where the influence of the Gates Foundation is less strong, ‘hybrid schooling’ is likely to be seen as even more unpalatable and unworkable than it is by many in New York.

In short, the ‘new normal’ will affect some sectors of English language teaching much more than others. For some, perhaps the majority, little change can be expected once state schools reopen. Smaller classes, maybe, more blended, but not a wholesale shift to ‘tech education’.

Not so new anyway!

Scott Galloway, a New York professor of marketing and author of the best-selling ‘The Four’ (an analysis of the Big Four tech firms), began a recent blog post as follows:

After COVID-19, nothing will be the same. The previous sentence is bullsh*t. On the contrary, things will never be more the same, just accelerated.

He elaborates his point by pointing out that many universities were already in deep trouble before COVID. Big tech had already moved massively into education and healthcare, which are ‘the only two sectors, other than government, that offer the margin dollars required to sate investors’ growth expectations’ (from another recent post by Galloway). Education start-ups have long been attracting cheap capital: COVID has simply sped the process up.

Coming from a very different perspective, Audrey Watters gave a conference presentation over three years ago entitled ‘Education Technology as ‘The New Normal’’. I have been writing about the normalization of digital tools in language teaching for over six years. What is new is the speed, rather than the nature, of the change.

Galloway draws an interesting parallel with the SARS virus, which, he says, ‘was huge for e-commerce in Asia, and it helped Alibaba break out into the consumer space. COVID-19 could be to education in the United States what SARS was to e-commerce in Asia’.

‘The new normal’ as a marketing tool

Earlier in this post, I mentioned three articles that discussed the ‘new normal’ in education. The first of these, from the New Straits Times, looks like a news article, but features extensive quotes from Shereen Chee, chief operating officer of Sunago Education, a Malaysian vendor of online English classes. The article is basically an advert for Sunago: one section includes the following:

Sunago combines digitisation and the human touch to create a personalised learning experience. […] Chee said now is a great time for employers to take advantage of the scheme and equip their team with enhanced English skills, so they can hit the ground running once the Covid-19 slump is over.

The second reference about ‘digital learning is the new normal’ comes from The TEFL Academy, which sells online training courses, particularly targeting prospective teachers who want to work online. The third reference, from the New Indian Express, was written by Ananth Koppar, the founder of Kshema Technologies Pvt Ltd, India’s first venture-funded software company. Koppar is hardly a neutral reporter.

Other examples abound. For example, a similar piece called ‘The ‘New Normal’ in Education’ can be found in FE News (10 June 2020). This was written by Simon Carter, Marketing and Propositions Director of RM Education, an EdTech vendor in the UK. EdTech has a long history of promoting its wares through sponsored content and adverts masquerading as reportage.

It is, therefore, a good idea, whenever you come across the phrase, ‘the new normal’, to adopt a sceptical stance from the outset. I’ll give two more examples to illustrate my point.

A recent article (1 April 2020) in the ELTABB (English Language Teachers Association Berlin Brandenburg) journal is introduced as follows:

With online language teaching being the new normal in ELT, coaching principles can help teachers and students share responsibility for the learning process.

Putting aside, for the moment, my reservations about whether online teaching is, in fact, the new normal in ‘ELT’, I’m happy to accept that coaching principles may be helpful in online teaching. But I can’t help noticing that the article was written by a self-described edupreneur and co-founder of the International Language Coaching Association (€50 annual subscription) which runs three-day training courses (€400).

My second example is a Macmillan webinar by Thom Kiddle called ‘Professional Development for teachers in the ‘new normal’. It’s a good webinar, a very good one in my opinion, but you’ll notice a NILE poster tacked to the wall behind Thom as he speaks. NILE, a highly reputed provider of teacher education courses in the UK, has invested significantly in online teacher education in recent years and is well-positioned to deal with the ‘new normal’. It’s also worth noting that the webinar host, Macmillan, is in a commercial partnership with NILE, the purpose of which is to ‘develop and promote quality teacher education programmes worldwide’. As good as the webinar is, it is also clearly, in part, an advertisement.

Thom Kiddle

The use of the phrase ‘the new normal’ as a marketing hook is not new. Although its first recorded use dates back to the first part of the 20th century, it became more widespread at the start of the 21st. One populariser of the phrase was Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in technology, including Facebook, who wrote a book called ‘The New Normal: Great Opportunities in a Time of Great Risk’ (2004). Since then, the phrase has been used extensively to refer to the state of the business world after the financial crisis of 2018. (For more about the history of the phrase, see here.) More often than not, users of the phrase are selling the idea (and sometimes a product) that we need to get used to a new configuration of the world, one in which technology plays a greater role.

Normalizing ‘the new normal’

Of all the most unlikely sources for a critique of ‘the new normal’, the World Economic Forum has the following to offer in a blog post entitled ‘There’s nothing new about the ‘new normal’. Here’s why’:

The language of a ‘new normal’ is being deployed almost as a way to quell any uncertainty ushered in by the coronavirus. With no cure in sight, everyone from politicians and the media to friends and family has perpetuated this rhetoric as they imagine settling into life under this ‘new normal’. This framing is inviting: it contends that things will never be the same as they were before — so welcome to a new world order. By using this language, we reimagine where we were previously relative to where we are now, appropriating our present as the standard. As we weigh our personal and political responses to this pandemic, the language we employ matters. It helps to shape and reinforce our understanding of the world and the ways in which we choose to approach it. The analytic frame embodied by the persistent discussion of the ‘new normal’ helps bring order to our current turbulence, but it should not be the lens through which we examine today’s crisis.

We can’t expect the World Economic Forum to become too critical of the ‘new normal’ of digital learning, since they have been pushing for it so hard for so long. But the quote from their blog above may usefully be read in conjunction with an article by Jun Yu and Nick Couldry, called ‘Education as a domain of natural data extraction: analysing corporate discourse about educational tracking’ (Information, Communication and Society, 2020, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2020.1764604). The article explores the general discursive framing by which the use of big data in education has come to seem normal. The authors looked at the public discourse of eight major vendors of educational platforms that use big data (including Macmillan, Pearson, Knewton and Blackboard). They found that ‘the most fundamental move in today’s dominant commercial discourse is to promote the idea that data and its growth are natural’. In this way, ‘software systems, not teachers, [are] central to education’. Yu and Couldry’s main interest is in the way that discourse shapes the normalization of dataveillance, but, in a more general sense, the phrase, ‘the new normal’, is contributing to the normalization of digital education. If you think that’s fine, I suggest you dip into some of the books I listed in my last blog post.

  1. philipjkerr says:

    I’ve just come across an article in https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2020/june/1590933600/anna-krien/screens-ate-school#mtr Here’s an extract:

    According to Goldie Blumenstyk in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the global pandemic is edu-tech’s “black swan” moment, an “unforeseen event that changes everything”. It could be, she writes, more of a “catalyst for online education and other ed-tech tools than decades of punditry and self-serving corporate exhortations”.
    It is curious, the way Blumenstyk words this. As if COVID-19, by being a genuine emergency and catalyst for remote learning, somehow redresses the stealth and all-in lobbying from the tech giants in the past decade. Because be it a black swan, a trojan horse or just a crappy time all round, it is possible that under the cover of this virus, almost every school student in Australia has been signed up to one or another private and opaque platform without much in the way of informed consent. It would be an understatement to say that the private vision for public education just got a few extra runs on the board.

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