Innovation is great

Posted: November 13, 2021 in Discourse, ed tech
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Innovation and ELT

Next week sees the prize ceremony of the nineteenth edition of the British Council’s ELTons awards, celebrating ‘innovation in English language teaching and learning … the newest and most original courses, books, publications, apps, platforms, projects, and more.’ Since the Council launched the ELTons in 2003, it hasn’t been entirely clear what is meant by ‘innovation’. But, reflecting the use of the term in the wider (business) world, ‘innovation’ was seen as a positive value, an inherently good thing, and almost invariably connected to technological innovation. One of the award categories in the ELTons is for ‘digital innovation’, but many of the winners and shortlisted nominations in other categories have been primarily innovative in their use of technology (at first, CD-ROMs, before web-based applications became standard).

Historian Jill Lepore, among others, has traced the mantra of innovation at the start of this century back to renewed interest in the work of mid-20th century Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, in the 1990s. Schumpeter wrote about ‘creative disruption’, and his ideas gained widespread traction with the publication in 1997 of Clayton Christensen’s ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business’. Under Christensen, ‘creative disruption’ morphed into ‘disruptive innovation’. The idea was memorably expressed in Facebook’s motto of ‘Move fast and break things’. Disruptive innovation was always centrally concerned with expanding the market for commercial products by leveraging technology to gain access to more customers. Innovation, then, was and is a commercial strategy, and could be used either in product development or simply as an advertising slogan.

From the start of the innovation wave, the British Council has been keen to position itself in the vanguard. It does this for two reasons. Firstly, it needs to promote its own products and, with the cuts to British Council funding, its need to generate more income is increasingly urgent: ELT products are the main source of this income. Secondly, as part of the Council’s role in pushing British ‘soft power’, it seeks to promote Britain as a desirable, and therefore innovative, place to do business or study. This is wonderfully reflected in a series of videos for the Council’s LearnEnglish website called ‘Britain is Great’, subsets of which are entitled ‘Entrepreneurs are GREAT’ and ‘Innovation is GREAT’ with films celebrating the work of people like Richard Branson and James Dyson. For a while, the Council had a ‘Director, English Language Innovation’, and the current senior management team includes a ‘Director Digital, Partnerships and Innovation’ and a ‘Director Transformation’. With such a focus on innovation at the heart of its organisation, it is hardly surprising that the British Council should celebrate the idea in its ELTons awards. The ELTons celebrate the Council itself, and its core message, as much as they do the achievements of the award winners. Finalists in the ELTons receive a ‘promotional kit’ which includes ‘assets for the promotion of products or publications’. These assets (badges, banners, and so on) serve to promote the Council brand at the same time as advertising the shortlisted products themselves.

Innovation and a better world

Innovation, especially ‘disruptive innovation’, is not, however, what it used to be. The work of Clayton Christensen has been largely discredited (Russell & Vinsel, 2016). The Facebook motto has been changed and ‘the Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” Is Over’ (Taneja, 2019). The interest in ‘minimal viable products’ has shifted to an interest in ‘minimal virtuous products’. This is reflected in the marketing of edtech with the growing focus on how product X or Y will make the world a better place in some way. The ELTons introduced ‘Judges’ Commendations’ for ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ and, this year, a new commendation for ‘Environmental Sustainability and Climate Action’. Innovation is still celebrated, but ‘disruption’ has undergone a slide of meaning, so that it is more likely now to refer to disruption caused by the Covid pandemic, and our responses to it. For example, TESOL Italy’s upcoming annual conference, entitled ‘Disruptive Innovations in ELT’, encourages contributions not only about online study and ‘interactive e-learning platforms’, but also about ‘sustainable development and social justice’, ‘resilience, collaboration, empathy, digital literacy, soft skills, and global competencies’. Innovation is still presented as a good, even necessary, thing.

I am not suggesting that the conflation of innovation with positive social good is purely virtue-signalling, although it is sometimes clearly that. However, the rhetorical shift makes it harder for anyone to criticise innovations, when they are presented as solutions to problems that need to be solved. Allen et al (2021) argue that ‘those who propose solutions are always virtuous because they clearly care about a problem we must solve. Those who suggest the solution will not work, and who have no better solution, are denying the problem the opportunity of the resolution it so desperately needs’.

There are, though, good reasons to be wary of ‘innovation’ in education. First among these is the lessons of history, which teach us that today’s ‘next big thing’ is usually tomorrow’s ‘last next big thing’ (Allen, et al., 2021). On the technology front, from programmed instruction to interactive whiteboards, educational history is littered with artefacts that have been oversold and underused (Cuban, 2001). Away from technology, from Multiple Intelligences to personalized learning, we see the same waves of enthusiasm and widespread adoption, followed by waning interest and abandonment. The waste of money and effort along the way has been colossal, although that is not to say that there have not been some, sometimes significant, gains.

The second big reason to be wary of technological innovations in education is that they focus our attention on products of various kinds. But products are not at the heart of schooling: it is labour, especially the work of teachers, which occupies that place. It is not Zoom that made possible the continuation of education during the pandemic lockdowns. Indeed, in many parts of the world, lower-tech or zero-tech solutions had to be found. It was teachers’ readiness to adapt to the new circumstances that allowed education to stumble onwards during the crisis. Vinsel and Russell’s recent book, ‘The Innovation Delusion’ (2021) compellingly argues that the focus on innovation has led us to ‘devalue the work that underpins modern life’. They point out (Russell and Vinsel, 2016) that ‘feminist theorists have long argued that obsessions with technological novelty obscures all of the labour, including housework, that women, disproportionately, do to keep life on track’. Parallels with the relationship between teachers and technology are hard to avoid. The presentation of innovation as an inherently desirable value ‘rarely asks who benefits, to what end?’

The ‘ELT’ in the ELTons

It’s time to consider the ‘ELT’ part of the ELTons. ‘ELT’ is a hypothetical construct that is often presented as a concrete reality, rather than a loosely-bound constellation of a huge number of different practices and attitudes, many of which have very little in common with each other. This reification of ‘ELT’ can serve a number of purposes, one of which is to frame discourse in particular ways. In a post from a few years ago, Andrew Wickham and I discussed how the framing of ‘ELT’ (and education, more generally) as an industry serves particular interests, but may be detrimental to the interests of others.

Perhaps a useful way of viewing ‘ELT’ is as a discourse community. Borg (2003) argues that ‘membership of a discourse community is usually a matter of choice’. That is to say that you are part of ‘ELT’ if you choose to identify yourself as such. In Europe, huge numbers of English language teachers do not choose to identify themselves primarily as an ‘ELT teacher’: they may see this label as relevant to them, but a more immediate and primary self-identification is often as a ‘school teacher’, a ‘primary school teacher’, a ‘(modern) languages teacher’, a ‘CLIL teacher’, and so on. They work in the state / public sectors. The concerns and interests of those who do not self-identify as ‘ELT practitioners’ are most likely to revolve around their local contexts and issues. Those of us who self-identify as ‘ELT practitioners’ are more likely to be interested in what we share with others who self-identify in the same way in different parts of the globe. The relevance of local contexts and issues is mostly to be found in how they may shed light on more global concerns. If you prioritise the local over the global, your participation in the ‘ELT’ discourse community is likely to be limited. Things like the ELTons are simply off your radar.

Borg (2003) also points out that discourse communities typically have ‘experts who perform gatekeeping roles’. The discourse of ‘ELT’ is enacted in magazines, blogs, videos, webinars and conferences aimed at English language teachers. I exclude from this list academic journals and books which are known to be consulted only rarely by the vast majority of teachers. Similarly, I exclude the more accessible books that have been written specifically for English language teachers, which are mostly sold in minuscule quantities, except for those that are required reading for training courses. The greatest number of contributors to the discourse of ‘ELT’ are authors, developers and publishers of language teaching materials and tools, teachers representing product vendors or (directly or indirectly) promoting their own products, representatives of private teaching / training schools, and organisations, representatives of international examination bodies, and representatives of universities (which, in some countries, essentially function as private institutions (Chowdhury & Ha, 2014)).

In other words, the discourse of ‘ELT’ is shaped to a very significant extent by gatekeepers who have a product to sell. Their customers are often those who do not self-identify in the same way as members of the ‘ELT’ discourse community. The British Council is a key gatekeeper in this discourse and it is a private sector operator par excellence.

The lack of interest in the workers of ‘ELT’ is well documented – see for example the Teachers as Workers blog. It is hardly unexpected, especially in the private sector. The British Council has a long history of labour disputes. At the present time, the Public and Commercial Services Union in the UK is balloting members about strike action against forced redundancies, which ‘are disproportionately targeted at middle to lower graded staff, while at the same time new management positions and a new deputy chief executive officer post are to be created’. One of the aims of the union is to stop the privatisation / outsourcing of Council jobs. The British government’s recent failure to relocate British Council employees in Afghanistan led to over 100,000 people signing a petition demanding action. The public silence of the British Council did little to inspire confidence in their interest in their workers.

The Council is a many-headed beast, and some of these heads do very admirable work in sponsoring or supporting a large variety of valuable projects. I don’t think the ELTons is one of these. The ideology behind them is highly questionable, and their ‘best before’ date has long expired. And given the financial constraints that the Council is now operating under, the money might be better spent elsewhere.

References

Allen, R., Evans, M. & White, B. (2021) The Next Big Thing in School Improvement. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational

Borg, E. (2003) Discourse Community. ELT Journal 57 (4): 398-400

Chowdhury, R. & Ha, P. L. (2014) Desiring TESOL and International Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

Christensen, C. M. (1997) The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business. Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press

Cuban, L. (2001) Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Lepore, J. (2014) The Disruption Machine. The New Yorker, June 16, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/23/the-disruption-machine

Russell, A. L. & Vinsel, L. (2016) Hail the Maintainers. Aeon, 7 April 2016 https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more

Taneja, H. (2019) The Era of “Move Fast and Break Things” Is Over. Harvard Business Review, January 22, 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/01/the-era-of-move-fast-and-break-things-is-over

Vinsel, L. & Russell, A. L. (2020) The Innovation Delusion. New York: Currency Books

Comments
  1. philipjkerr says:

    Here’s an interesting extract from ‘The Blind Spots of Digital Innovation Fetishism’ by Marko Ampuja in ‘The Digital Age and its Discontents’ edited by Mario Stocchetti (Helsinki University Press, 2020) (pp. 31 – 54).
    Due to the phenomenal growth of innovation rhetoric, it is no wonder that the concept has recently aroused critical interest. Paul A. David, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University (2012: 510), writes of ‘the innovation fetish’: an ‘excessive fixation upon innovation’ among the economic, political and educational elites, who have endowed it ‘with seemingly magical or spiritual powers associated with animistic or shamanistic rituals’. Pointing to similar aspects, Valaskivi (2012) writes of the rise of ‘innovationism’, a quasi-religious discourse focusing on innovation that is carried forward especially by social media gurus, information and communication technology (ICT) company leaders, management consultants and researchers working in think tanks and business schools. It promotes the entrepreneurial values of individualism, inspiration, risk-taking and competitiveness, and attaches these to the key symbols of innovation, such as successful start-up companies and Silicon Valley. The latter has served as the ‘spiritual’ centre of innovation enthusiasm, while ICT entrepreneurs have been singled out as public role models that, together with new ICT and digital innovations, represent capitalist dynamism. These discourses form the core of contemporary digital innovation fetishism.

  2. eflnotes says:

    Feminist critiques have pointed out that innovation phases of a product are skewed by gender and if one wants to actually understand a product and even out gender effects studying life trajectory of products (i.e. that look beyond design phases) provides a fuller picture.
    I wonder what a life trajectory study of Elton winners would show?

  3. philipjkerr says:

    It’s an interesting thought … but maybe, for the time being, we could content ourselves with a glimpse at just the few years post-Eltons. In the digital innovations category, companies that I’ve worked with have been shortlisted twice. One went bankrupt shortly afterwards, the other completely changed its strategy. They were both all blokes, of course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s