Archive for the ‘big data’ Category

About two and a half years ago when I started writing this blog, there was a lot of hype around adaptive learning and the big data which might drive it. Two and a half years are a long time in technology. A look at Google Trends suggests that interest in adaptive learning has been pretty static for the last couple of years. It’s interesting to note that 3 of the 7 lettered points on this graph are Knewton-related media events (including the most recent, A, which is Knewton’s latest deal with Hachette) and 2 of them concern McGraw-Hill. It would be interesting to know whether these companies follow both parts of Simon Cowell’s dictum of ‘Create the hype, but don’t ever believe it’.


A look at the Hype Cycle (see here for Wikipedia’s entry on the topic and for criticism of the hype of Hype Cycles) of the IT research and advisory firm, Gartner, indicates that both big data and adaptive learning have now slid into the ‘trough of disillusionment’, which means that the market has started to mature, becoming more realistic about how useful the technologies can be for organizations.

A few years ago, the Gates Foundation, one of the leading cheerleaders and financial promoters of adaptive learning, launched its Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program (ALMAP) to ‘advance evidence-based understanding of how adaptive learning technologies could improve opportunities for low-income adults to learn and to complete postsecondary credentials’. It’s striking that the program’s aims referred to how such technologies could lead to learning gains, not whether they would. Now, though, with the publication of a report commissioned by the Gates Foundation to analyze the data coming out of the ALMAP Program, things are looking less rosy. The report is inconclusive. There is no firm evidence that adaptive learning systems are leading to better course grades or course completion. ‘The ultimate goal – better student outcomes at lower cost – remains elusive’, the report concludes. Rahim Rajan, a senior program office for Gates, is clear: ‘There is no magical silver bullet here.’

The same conclusion is being reached elsewhere. A report for the National Education Policy Center (in Boulder, Colorado) concludes: Personalized Instruction, in all its many forms, does not seem to be the transformational technology that is needed, however. After more than 30 years, Personalized Instruction is still producing incremental change. The outcomes of large-scale studies and meta-analyses, to the extent they tell us anything useful at all, show mixed results ranging from modest impacts to no impact. Additionally, one must remember that the modest impacts we see in these meta-analyses are coming from blended instruction, which raises the cost of education rather than reducing it (Enyedy, 2014: 15 -see reference at the foot of this post). In the same vein, a recent academic study by Meg Coffin Murray and Jorge Pérez (2015, ‘Informing and Performing: A Study Comparing Adaptive Learning to Traditional Learning’) found that ‘adaptive learning systems have negligible impact on learning outcomes’.

future-ready-learning-reimagining-the-role-of-technology-in-education-1-638In the latest educational technology plan from the U.S. Department of Education (‘Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education’, 2016) the only mentions of the word ‘adaptive’ are in the context of testing. And the latest OECD report on ‘Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection’ (2015), finds, more generally, that information and communication technologies, when they are used in the classroom, have, at best, a mixed impact on student performance.

There is, however, too much money at stake for the earlier hype to disappear completely. Sponsored cheerleading for adaptive systems continues to find its way into blogs and national magazines and newspapers. EdSurge, for example, recently published a report called ‘Decoding Adaptive’ (2016), sponsored by Pearson, that continues to wave the flag. Enthusiastic anecdotes take the place of evidence, but, for all that, it’s a useful read.

In the world of ELT, there are plenty of sales people who want new products which they can call ‘adaptive’ (and gamified, too, please). But it’s striking that three years after I started following the hype, such products are rather thin on the ground. Pearson was the first of the big names in ELT to do a deal with Knewton, and invested heavily in the company. Their relationship remains close. But, to the best of my knowledge, the only truly adaptive ELT product that Pearson offers is the PTE test.

Macmillan signed a contract with Knewton in May 2013 ‘to provide personalized grammar and vocabulary lessons, exam reviews, and supplementary materials for each student’. In December of that year, they talked up their new ‘big tree online learning platform’: ‘Look out for the Big Tree logo over the coming year for more information as to how we are using our partnership with Knewton to move forward in the Language Learning division and create content that is tailored to students’ needs and reactive to their progress.’ I’ve been looking out, but it’s all gone rather quiet on the adaptive / platform front.

In September 2013, it was the turn of Cambridge to sign a deal with Knewton ‘to create personalized learning experiences in its industry-leading ELT digital products for students worldwide’. This year saw the launch of a major new CUP series, ‘Empower’. It has an online workbook with personalized extra practice, but there’s nothing (yet) that anyone would call adaptive. More recently, Cambridge has launched the online version of the 2nd edition of Touchstone. Nothing adaptive there, either.

Earlier this year, Cambridge published The Cambridge Guide to Blended Learning for Language Teaching, edited by Mike McCarthy. It contains a chapter by M.O.Z. San Pedro and R. Baker on ‘Adaptive Learning’. It’s an enthusiastic account of the potential of adaptive learning, but it doesn’t contain a single reference to language learning or ELT!

So, what’s going on? Skepticism is becoming the order of the day. The early hype of people like Knewton’s Jose Ferreira is now understood for what it was. Companies like Macmillan got their fingers badly burnt when they barked up the wrong tree with their ‘Big Tree’ platform.

Noel Enyedy captures a more contemporary understanding when he writes: Personalized Instruction is based on the metaphor of personal desktop computers—the technology of the 80s and 90s. Today’s technology is not just personal but mobile, social, and networked. The flexibility and social nature of how technology infuses other aspects of our lives is not captured by the model of Personalized Instruction, which focuses on the isolated individual’s personal path to a fixed end-point. To truly harness the power of modern technology, we need a new vision for educational technology (Enyedy, 2014: 16).

Adaptive solutions aren’t going away, but there is now a much better understanding of what sorts of problems might have adaptive solutions. Testing is certainly one. As the educational technology plan from the U.S. Department of Education (‘Future Ready Learning: Re-imagining the Role of Technology in Education’, 2016) puts it: Computer adaptive testing, which uses algorithms to adjust the difficulty of questions throughout an assessment on the basis of a student’s responses, has facilitated the ability of assessments to estimate accurately what students know and can do across the curriculum in a shorter testing session than would otherwise be necessary. In ELT, Pearson and EF have adaptive tests that have been well researched and designed.

Vocabulary apps which deploy adaptive technology continue to become more sophisticated, although empirical research is lacking. Automated writing tutors with adaptive corrective feedback are also developing fast, and I’ll be writing a post about these soon. Similarly, as speech recognition software improves, we can expect to see better and better automated adaptive pronunciation tutors. But going beyond such applications, there are bigger questions to ask, and answers to these will impact on whatever direction adaptive technologies take. Large platforms (LMSs), with or without adaptive software, are already beginning to look rather dated. Will they be replaced by integrated apps, or are apps themselves going to be replaced by bots (currently riding high in the Hype Cycle)? In language learning and teaching, the future of bots is likely to be shaped by developments in natural language processing (another topic about which I’ll be blogging soon). Nobody really has a clue where the next two and a half years will take us (if anywhere), but it’s becoming increasingly likely that adaptive learning will be only one very small part of it.


Enyedy, N. 2014. Personalized Instruction: New Interest, Old Rhetoric, Limited Results, and the Need for a New Direction for Computer-Mediated Learning. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved 17.07.16 from

‘Sticky’ – as in ‘sticky learning’ or ‘sticky content’ (as opposed to ‘sticky fingers’ or a ‘sticky problem’) – is itself fast becoming a sticky word. If you check out ‘sticky learning’ on Google Trends, you’ll see that it suddenly spiked in September 2011, following the slightly earlier appearance of ‘sticky content’. The historical rise in this use of the word coincides with the exponential growth in the number of references to ‘big data’.

I am often asked if adaptive learning really will take off as a big thing in language learning. Will adaptivity itself be a sticky idea? When the question is asked, people mean the big data variety of adaptive learning, rather than the much more limited adaptivity of spaced repetition algorithms, which, I think, is firmly here and here to stay. I can’t answer the question with any confidence, but I recently came across a book which suggests a useful way of approaching the question.

41u+NEyWjnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_‘From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse’ by Jack Schneider (Harvard Education Press, 2014) investigates the reasons why promising ideas from education research fail to get taken up by practitioners, and why other, less-than-promising ideas, from a research or theoretical perspective, become sticky quite quickly. As an example of the former, Schneider considers Robert Sternberg’s ‘Triarchic Theory’. As an example of the latter, he devotes a chapter to Howard Gardner’s ‘Multiple Intelligences Theory’.

Schneider argues that educational ideas need to possess four key attributes in order for teachers to sit up, take notice and adopt them.

  1. perceived significance: the idea must answer a question central to the profession – offering a big-picture understanding rather than merely one small piece of a larger puzzle
  2. philosophical compatibility: the idea must clearly jibe with closely held [teacher] beliefs like the idea that teachers are professionals, or that all children can learn
  3. occupational realism: it must be possible for the idea to be put easily into immediate use
  4. transportability: the idea needs to find its practical expression in a form that teachers can access and use at the time that they need it – it needs to have a simple core that can travel through pre-service coursework, professional development seminars, independent study and peer networks

To what extent does big data adaptive learning possess these attributes? It certainly comes up trumps with respect to perceived significance. The big question that it attempts to answer is the question of how we can make language learning personalized / differentiated / individualised. As its advocates never cease to remind us, adaptive learning holds out the promise of moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach. The extent to which it can keep this promise is another matter, of course. For it to do so, it will never be enough just to offer different pathways through a digitalised coursebook (or its equivalent). Much, much more content will be needed: at least five or six times the content of a one-size-fits-all coursebook. At the moment, there is little evidence of the necessary investment into content being made (quite the opposite, in fact), but the idea remains powerful nevertheless.

When it comes to philosophical compatibility, adaptive learning begins to run into difficulties. Despite the decades of edging towards more communicative approaches in language teaching, research (e.g. the research into English teaching in Turkey described in a previous post), suggests that teachers still see explanation and explication as key functions of their jobs. They believe that they know their students best and they know what is best for them. Big data adaptive learning challenges these beliefs head on. It is no doubt for this reason that companies like Knewton make such a point of claiming that their technology is there to help teachers. But Jose Ferreira doth protest too much, methinks. Platform-delivered adaptive learning is a direct threat to teachers’ professionalism, their salaries and their jobs.

Occupational realism is more problematic still. Very, very few language teachers around the world have any experience of truly blended learning, and it’s very difficult to envisage precisely what it is that the teacher should be doing in a classroom. Publishers moving towards larger-scale blended adaptive materials know that this is a big problem, and are actively looking at ways of packaging teacher training / teacher development (with a specific focus on blended contexts) into the learner-facing materials that they sell. But the problem won’t go away. Education ministries have a long history of throwing money at technological ‘solutions’ without thinking about obtaining the necessary buy-in from their employees. It is safe to predict that this is something that is unlikely to change. Moreover, learning how to become a blended teacher is much harder than learning, say, how to make good use of an interactive whiteboard. Since there are as many different blended adaptive approaches as there are different educational contexts, there cannot be (irony of ironies) a one-size-fits-all approach to training teachers to make good use of this software.

Finally, how transportable is big data adaptive learning? Not very, is the short answer, and for the same reasons that ‘occupational realism’ is highly problematic.

Looking at things through Jack Schneider’s lens, we might be tempted to come to the conclusion that the future for adaptive learning is a rocky path, at best. But Schneider doesn’t take political or economic considerations into account. Sternberg’s ‘Triarchic Theory’ never had the OECD or the Gates Foundation backing it up. It never had millions and millions of dollars of investment behind it. As we know from political elections (and the big data adaptive learning issue is a profoundly political one), big bucks can buy opinions.

It may also prove to be the case that the opinions of teachers don’t actually matter much. If the big adaptive bucks can win the educational debate at the highest policy-making levels, teachers will be the first victims of the ‘creative disruption’ that adaptivity promises. If you don’t believe me, just look at what is going on in the U.S.

There are causes for concern, but I don’t want to sound too alarmist. Nobody really has a clue whether big data adaptivity will actually work in language learning terms. It remains more of a theory than a research-endorsed practice. And to end on a positive note, regardless of how sticky it proves to be, it might just provide the shot-in-the-arm realisation that language teachers, at their best, are a lot more than competent explainers of grammar or deliverers of gap-fills.

The cheer-leading for big data in education continues unabated. Almost everything you read online on the subject is an advertisement, usually disguised as a piece of news or a blog post, but which can invariably be traced back to an organisation with a vested interest in digital disruption.  A typical example is this advergraphic which comes under a banner that reads ‘Big Data Improves Education’. The site, Datafloq, is selling itself as ‘the one-stop-shop around Big Data.’ Their ‘vision’ is ‘Connecting Data and People and [they] aim to achieve that by spurring the understanding, acceptance and application of Big Data in order to drive innovation and economic growth.’

Critical voices are rare, but growing. There’s a very useful bibliography of recent critiques here. And in the world of English language teaching, I was pleased to see that there’s a version of Gavin Dudeney’s talk, ‘Of Big Data & Little Data’, now up on YouTube. The slides which accompany his talk can be accessed here.

His main interest is in reclaiming the discourse of edtech in ELT, in moving away from the current obsession with numbers, and in returning the focus to what he calls ‘old edtech’ – the everyday technological practices of the vast majority of ELT practitioners.2014-12-01_2233

It’s a stimulating and deadpan-entertaining talk and well worth 40 minutes of your time. Just fast-forward the bit when he talks about me.

If you’re interested in hearing more critical voices, you may also like to listen to a series of podcasts, put together by the IATEFL Learning Technologies and Global Issues Special Interest Groups. In the first of these, I interview Neil Selwyn and, in the second, Lindsay Clandfield interviews Audrey Watters of Hack Education.


2014-09-30_2216Jose Ferreira, the fast-talking sales rep-in-chief of Knewton, likes to dazzle with numbers. In a 2012 talk hosted by the US Department of Education, Ferreira rattles off the stats: So Knewton students today, we have about 125,000, 180,000 right now, by December it’ll be 650,000, early next year it’ll be in the millions, and next year it’ll be close to 10 million. And that’s just through our Pearson partnership. For each of these students, Knewton gathers millions of data points every day. That, brags Ferreira, is five orders of magnitude more data about you than Google has. … We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything, and it’s not even close. With just a touch of breathless exaggeration, Ferreira goes on: We literally know everything about what you know and how you learn best, everything.

The data is mined to find correlations between learning outcomes and learning behaviours, and, once correlations have been established, learning programmes can be tailored to individual students. Ferreira explains: We take the combined data problem all hundred million to figure out exactly how to teach every concept to each kid. So the 100 million first shows up to learn the rules of exponents, great let’s go find a group of people who are psychometrically equivalent to that kid. They learn the same ways, they have the same learning style, they know the same stuff, because Knewton can figure out things like you learn math best in the morning between 8:40 and 9:13 am. You learn science best in 42 minute bite sizes the 44 minute mark you click right, you start missing questions you would normally get right.

The basic premise here is that the more data you have, the more accurately you can predict what will work best for any individual learner. But how accurate is it? In the absence of any decent, independent research (or, for that matter, any verifiable claims from Knewton), how should we respond to Ferreira’s contribution to the White House Education Datapalooza?

A 51Oy5J3o0yL._AA258_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA280_SH20_OU35_new book by Stephen Finlay, Predictive Analytics, Data Mining and Big Data (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) suggests that predictive analytics are typically about 20 – 30% more accurate than humans attempting to make the same judgements. That’s pretty impressive and perhaps Knewton does better than that, but the key thing to remember is that, however much data Knewton is playing with, and however good their algorithms are, we are still talking about predictions and not certainties. If an adaptive system could predict with 90% accuracy (and the actual figure is typically much lower than that) what learning content and what learning approach would be effective for an individual learner, it would still mean that it was wrong 10% of the time. When this is scaled up to the numbers of students that use Knewton software, it means that millions of students are getting faulty recommendations. Beyond a certain point, further expansion of the data that is mined is unlikely to make any difference to the accuracy of predictions.

A further problem identified by Stephen Finlay is the tendency of people in predictive analytics to confuse correlation and causation. Certain students may have learnt maths best between 8.40 and 9.13, but it does not follow that they learnt it best because they studied at that time. If strong correlations do not involve causality, then actionable insights (such as individualised course design) can be no more than an informed gamble.

Knewton’s claim that they know how every student learns best is marketing hyperbole and should set alarm bells ringing. When it comes to language learning, we simply do not know how students learn (we do not have any generally accepted theory of second language acquisition), let alone how they learn best. More data won’t help our theories of learning! Ferreira’s claim that, with Knewton, every kid gets a perfectly optimized textbook, except it’s also video and other rich media dynamically generated in real time is equally preposterous, not least since the content of the textbook will be at least as significant as the way in which it is ‘optimized’. And, as we all know, textbooks have their faults.

Cui bono? Perhaps huge data and predictive analytics will benefit students; perhaps not. We will need to wait and find out. But Stephen Finlay reminds us that in gold rushes (and internet booms and the exciting world of Big Data) the people who sell the tools make a lot of money. Far more strike it rich selling picks and shovels to prospectors than do the prospectors. Likewise, there is a lot of money to be made selling Big Data solutions. Whether the buyer actually gets any benefit from them is not the primary concern of the sales people. (p.16/17) Which is, perhaps, one of the reasons that some sales people talk so fast.

Talk the big data talk

Posted: March 7, 2014 in big data
Tags: ,

Pearson’s Efficacy document has a chapter called ‘A New Era of Learning Efficacy on a Planet of Smarter Systems’ by Jon Iwata. It’s basically a paean of praise to the potential of big data.  I threw the text into a word cloud program to see what would come up. And what we get is a handy little guide for anyone who wants to bluff their way in a discussion about adaptive learning. Alternatively, you could use it for buzz word bingo.


Some of the words you won’t be needing at all are ‘teach’, ‘teachers’, ‘classrooms’ or ‘lessons’. Sorry about the blur in the image: it’s my laptop having an emotional response.