Posts Tagged ‘OECD’

Google search resultsUnconditional calls for language teachers to incorporate digital technology into their teaching are common. The reasons that are given are many and typically include the fact that (1) our students are ‘digital natives’ and expect technology to be integrated into their learning, (2) and digital technology is ubiquitous and has so many affordances for learning. Writing on the topic is almost invariably enthusiastic and the general conclusion is that the integration of technology is necessary and essential. Here’s a fairly typical example: digital technology is ‘an essential multisensory extension to the textbook’ (Torben Schmidt and Thomas Strasser in Surkamp & Viebrock, 2018: 221).

 

Teachers who are reluctant or fail to embrace technology are often ‘characterised as technophobic, or too traditional in their teaching style, or reluctant to adopt change’ (Watson, 2001: 253). (It’s those pesky teachers again.)

Claims for the importance of digital technology are often backed up by vague references to research. Michael Carrier, for example, in his introductory chapter to ‘Digital Language Learning and Teaching’ (Carrier et al. 2017: 3) writes that ‘research results […] seem to show conclusively that the use of educational technology adds certain degrees of richness to the learning and teaching process […] at the very least, digital learning seems to provide enhanced motivation for learners’.

Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Neither in language learning / teaching, nor in education more generally, is there any clear evidence of the necessary benefits of introducing educational technology. In the broader context, the ‘PISA analysis of the impact of Information Communication Technology (ICT) on reading, mathematics, and science (OECD, 2015: 3) in countries heavily invested in educational technology showed mixed effects and “no appreciable improvements”’ (Herodotou et al., 2019). Educational technology can or might  ‘add certain degrees of richness’ or ‘provide enhanced motivation’, but that is not the same as saying that it does or will. The shift from can to will, a piece of modal legerdemain used to advocate for educational technology, is neatly illustrated in a quote from the MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, whose remit is to improve learning and teaching across the university via digital learning: ‘Digital Learning technologies can enable students to grasp concepts more quickly [etc….] Digital technologies will enable this in new and better ways and create possibilities beyond the limits of our current imagination’ (quoted by Carrier, 2017: 1).

Before moving on, here’s another example. The introduction to Li Li’s ‘New Technologies and Language Learning’ (Li, 2017: x) states, with a cautious can, that one of the objectives of the book is ‘to provide examples of how technologies can be used in assisting language education’. In the next paragraph, however, caution is thrown to the wind and we are told, unequivocally, that ‘technology is beneficial for language learning’.

Pedagogy before technology

Examples of gratuitous technology use are not hard to find. Mark Warschauer (who, as the founding director of the Digital Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, could be fairly described as an edtech enthusiast) describes one example: ‘I remember observing a beginners’ French class a number of years ago, the teacher bragged about how engaged the learners were in creating multimedia in French. However, the students were spending most of their time and energy talking with each other in English about how to make PowerPoints, when, as beginning learners, they really needed to be spending time hearing as much French as possible’ (quoted in the Guardian, May 2014).

As a result, no doubt, of having similar experiences, it seems that many people are becoming a little more circumspect in their enthusiasm for edtech. In the same Guardian article as Warschauer’s recollections, Russell Stannard ‘says the trick is to put the pedagogy first, not the technology. “You’ve got to know why you’re using it. Teachers do need to learn to use new technology, but the driving force should always be the pedagogy behind it’. Nicky Hockly, Gavin Dudeney and Mark Pegrum (Hockly et al., 2013: 45) concur: ‘Content and pedagogy come before technology. We must decide on our content and pedagogical aims before determining whether our students should use pens or keyboards, write essays or blogs, or design posters or videos’. And Graham Stanley (2013: 1) in the introduction to his ‘Language Learning With Technology’ states that his ‘book makes a point of putting pedagogy at the forefront of the lesson, which is why content has been organised around specific learning content goals rather than specific technologies’.

But, Axel Krommer, of the Friedrich-Alexander University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, has argued that the principle of ‘pedagogy before technology’ is ‘trivial at best’. In a piece for the Goethe Institute he writes ‘a theory with which everyone agrees and whose opposite no-one believes true is meaningless’, although he adds that it may be useful as ‘an admonitory wake-up call when educational institutions risk being blinded by technological possibilities that cause them to neglect pedagogical principles that should really be taken for granted’. It was this piece that set me thinking more about ‘pedagogy before technology’.

Pedagogy before technology (on condition that there is technology)

Another person to lament the placing of technology before pedagogy is Nik Peachey. In an opinion piece for the Guardian, entitled ‘Technology can sometimes be wasted on English language teaching’, he complains about how teachers are left to sort out how to use technology ‘in a pedagogically effective way, often with very little training or support’. He appears to take it as given that technology is a positive force, and argues that it shouldn’t be wasted. The issue, he says, is that better teacher training is needed so that teachers’ ‘digital literacies’ are improved and to ensure that technological potential is fulfilled.

His position, therefore, cannot really be said to be one of ‘pedagogy before technology’. Like the other writers mentioned above, he comes to the pedagogy through and after an interest in the technology. The educational use of digital technology per se is never seriously questioned. The same holds true for almost the entirety of the world of CALL research.

confer

A Canadian conference ‘Pedagogy b4 Technology’ illustrates my point beautifully.

There are occasional exceptions. A recent example which I found interesting was an article by Herodotou et al (2019), in which the authors take as their starting point a set of OECD educational goals (quality of life, including health, civic engagement, social connections, education, security, life satisfaction and the environment), and then investigate the extent to which a variety of learning approaches (formative analytics, teachback, place-based learning, learning with robots, learning with drones, citizen inquiry) – not all of which involve technology – might contribute to the realisation of these goals.

Technology before pedagogy as policy

Some of the high school English teachers I work with have to use tablets in one lesson a week. Some welcome it, some accept it (they can catch up with other duties while the kids are busy with exercises on the tablet), others just roll their eyes at the mention of this policy. In the same school system, English language learning materials can only be bought if they come in digital versions (even if it is the paper versions that are actually used). The digital versions are mostly used for projecting pages onto the IWBs. Meanwhile, budgets and the time available for in-service training have been cut.

Elsewhere, a chain of universities decides that a certain proportion of all courses must be taught online. English language courses, being less prestigious than major subjects, are one of the first to be migrated to platforms. The staff, few of whom have tenure or time to spare, cope as best as they can, with some support from a department head. Training is provided in the mechanics of operating the platform, and, hopefully before too long, more training will become available to optimize the use of the platform for pedagogical purposes. An adequate budget has yet to be agreed.

The reasons why so many educational authorities introduce such policies are, at best, only superficially related to pedagogy. There is a belief, widely held, that technology cannot fail to make things better. In the words of Tony Blair: ‘Technology has revolutionised the way we work and is now set to transform education. Children cannot be effective in tomorrow’s world if they are trained in yesterday’s skills’. But there is also the potential of education technology to scale education up (i.e. increase student numbers), to reduce long-term costs, to facilitate accountability, to increase productivity, to restrict the power of teachers (and their unions), and so on.

In such circumstances, which are not uncommon, it seems to me that there are more pressing things to worry about than teachers who are not sufficiently thinking about the pedagogical uses to which they put the technology that they have to use. Working conditions, pay and hours, are all affected by the digitalisation of education. These things do get talked about (see, for example, Walsh, 2019), but only rarely.

Technology as pedagogy

Blended learning, described by Pete Sharma in 2010 as a ‘buzz word’ in ELT, remains a popular pedagogical approach. In a recent article (2019), he enthuses about the possibilities of blended learning, suggesting that teachers should use it all the time: ‘teaching in this new digital age should use the technologies which students meet in their everyday lives, such as the Internet, laptop, smartphone and tablet’. It’s also, he claims, time-efficient, but other pedagogical justifications are scant: ‘some language areas are really suited to be studied outside the classroom. Extensive reading and practising difficult phonemes, for instance’.

Blended learning and digital technology are inseparable. Hockley (2018) explains the spread of blended learning in ELT as being driven primarily by ‘the twin drivers of economics (i.e. lower costs) and increasingly accessible and affordable hardware and software’. It might be nice to believe that ‘it is pedagogy, rather than technology, that should underpin the design of blended learning programmes’ (McCarthy, 2016, back cover), but the technology is the pedagogy here. Precisely how it is used is almost inevitably an afterthought.

Which pedagogy, anyway?

We can talk about putting pedagogy before technology, but this raises the question of which particular pedagogy we want to put in the driving seat. Presumably not all pedagogies are of equal value.

One of the most common uses of digital technology that has been designed specifically for language learning is the IWB- or platform-delivered coursebook and its accompanying digital workbook. We know that a majority of teachers using online coursebook packages direct their students more readily to tasks with clear right / wrong answers (e.g. drag-and-drop or gap-fill grammar exercises) than they do to the forum facilities where communicative language use is possible. Here, technology is merely replicating and, perhaps (because of its ease of use), encouraging established pedagogical practices. The pedagogy precedes the technology, but it’s probably not the best pedagogy in the world. Nor does it make best use of the technology’s potential. Would the affordances of the technology make a better starting point for course design?

Graham Stanley’s book (2013) offers suggestions for using technology for a variety of purposes, ranging from deliberate practice of grammar and vocabulary to ways of facilitating opportunities for skills practice. It’s an eclectic mix, similar to the range of activities on offer in the average coursebook for adults or teenagers. It is pedagogy-neutral in the sense that it does not offer a set of principles of language learning or teaching, and from these derive a set of practices for using the technology. It is a recipe book for using technological tools and, like all recipe books, prioritises activities over principles. I like the book and I don’t intend these comments as criticism. My point is simply that it’s not easy to take pedagogical principles as a starting point. Does the world of ELT even have generally agreed pedagogical principles?

And what is it that we’re teaching?

One final thought … If we consider how learners are likely to be using the English they are learning in their real-world futures, technology will not be far away: reading online, listening to / watching online material, writing and speaking with messaging apps, writing with text, email or Google Docs … If, in designing pedagogical approaches, we wish to include features of authentic language use, it’s hard to see how we can avoid placing technology fairly near the centre of the stage. Technologically-mediated language use is inseparable from pedagogy: one does not precede the other.

Similarly, if we believe that it is part of the English teacher’s job to develop the digital literacy (e.g. Hockly et al., 2013), visual literacy (e.g. Donaghy, 2015) or multimodal literacy of their students – not, incidentally, a belief that I share – then, again, technology cannot be separated from pedagogy.

Pedagogy before technology, OK??

So, I ask myself what precisely it is that people mean when they say that pedagogy should come before technology. The locutionary force, or referential meaning, usually remains unclear: in the absence of a particular pedagogy and particular contexts, what exactly is being said? The illocutionary force, likewise, is difficult to understand in the absence of a particular addressee: is the message only intended for teachers suffering from Everest Syndrome? And the perlocutionary force is equally intriguing: how are people who make the statement positioning themselves, and in relation to which addressee? Along the lines of green-washing and woke-washing, are we sometimes seeing cases of pedagogy-washing?

REFERENCES

Carrier, M., Damerow, R. M. & Bailey, K. M. (2017) Digital Language Learning and Teaching: Research, theory, and practice. New York: Routledge

Donaghy, K. (2015) Film in Action. Peaslake, Surrey: DELTA Publishing

Herodotou, C., Sharples, M., Gaved, M., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Rienties, B., Scanlon, E. & Whitelock, D. (2019) Innovative Pedagogies of the Future: An Evidence-Based Selection. Frontiers in Education, 4 (113)

Hockly, N. (2018) Blended Learning. ELT Journal 72 (1): pp. 97 – 101

Hockly, N., Dudeney, G. & Pegrum, M. (2013) Digital Literacies. Harlow: Pearson

Li, L. (2017) New Technologies and Language Learning. London: Palgrave

McCarthy, M. (Ed.) (2016) The Cambridge Guide to Blended Learning for Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

OECD (2015) Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection, PISA. Paris: OECD Publishing

Sharma, P. (2010) Blended Learning. ELT Journal, 64 (4): pp. 456 – 458

Sharma, P. (2019) The Complete Guide to Running a Blended Learning Course. Oxford University Press English Language Teaching Global Blog 17 October 2019. Available at: https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2019/10/17/complete-guidagogyde-blended-learning/

Stanley, G. (2013) Language Learning with Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Surkamp, C. & Viebrock, B. (Eds.) (2018) Teaching English as a Foreign Language: An Introduction. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler

Walsh, P. (2019) Precarity. ELT Journal, 73 (4): pp. 459–462

Watson, D. M. (2001) Pedagogy before Technology: Re-thinking the Relationship between ICT and Teaching. Education and Information Technologies 6:4: pp.251–26

In my last post , I asked why it is so easy to believe that technology (in particular, technological innovations) will offer solutions to whatever problems exist in language learning and teaching. A simple, but inadequate, answer is that huge amounts of money have been invested in persuading us. Without wanting to detract from the significance of this, it is clearly not sufficient as an explanation. In an attempt to develop my own understanding, I have been turning more and more to the idea of ‘social imaginaries’. In many ways, this is also an attempt to draw together the various interests that I have had since starting this blog.

The Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, describes a ‘social imaginary’ as a ‘common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy’ (Taylor, 2004: 23). As a social imaginary develops over time, it ‘begins to define the contours of [people’s] worlds and can eventually come to count as the taken-for-granted shape of things, too obvious to mention’ (Taylor, 2004: 29). It is, however, not just a set of ideas or a shared narrative: it is also a set of social practices that enact those understandings, whilst at the same time modifying or solidifying them. The understandings make the practices possible, and it is the practices that largely carry the understanding (Taylor, 2004: 25). In the process, the language we use is filled with new associations and our familiarity with these associations shapes ‘our perceptions and expectations’ (Worster, 1994, quoted in Moore, 2015: 33). A social imaginary, then, is a complex system that is not technological or economic or social or political or educational, but all of these (Urry, 2016). The image of the patterns of an amorphous mass of moving magma (Castoriadis, 1987), flowing through pre-existing channels, but also, at times, striking out along new paths, may offer a helpful metaphor.

Lava flow Hawaii

Technology, of course, plays a key role in contemporary social imaginaries and the term ‘sociotechnical imaginary’ is increasingly widely used. The understandings of the sociotechnical imaginary typically express visions of social progress and a desirable future that is made possible by advances in science and technology (Jasanoff & Kim, 2015: 4). In education, technology is presented as capable of overcoming human failings and the dark ways of the past, of facilitating a ‘pedagogical utopia of natural, authentic teaching and learning’ (Friesen, forthcoming). As such understandings become more widespread and as the educational practices (platforms, apps, etc.) which both shape and are shaped by them become equally widespread, technology has come to be seen as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of education (Friesen, forthcoming). We need to be careful, however, that having shaped the technology, it does not comes to shape us (see Cobo, 2019, for a further exploration of this idea).

As a way of beginning to try to understand what is going on in edtech in ELT, which is not so very different from what is taking place in education more generally, I have sketched a number of what I consider key components of the shared understandings and the social practices that are related to them. These are closely interlocking pieces and each of them is itself embedded in much broader understandings. They evolve over time and their history can be traced quite easily. Taken together, they do, I think, help us to understand a little more why technology in ELT seems so seductive.

1 The main purpose of English language teaching is to prepare people for the workplace

There has always been a strong connection between learning an additional living language (such as English) and preparing for the world of work. The first modern language schools, such as the Berlitz schools at the end of the 19th century with their native-speaker teachers and monolingual methods, positioned themselves as primarily vocational, in opposition to the kinds of language teaching taking place in schools and universities, which were more broadly humanistic in their objectives. Throughout the 20th century, and especially as English grew as a global language, the public sector, internationally, grew closer to the methods and objectives of the private schools. The idea that learning English might serve other purposes (e.g. cultural enrichment or personal development) has never entirely gone away, as witnessed by the Council of Europe’s list of objectives (including the promotion of mutual understanding and European co-operation, and the overcoming of prejudice and discrimination) in the Common European Framework, but it is often forgotten.

The clarion calls from industry to better align education with labour markets, present and future, grow louder all the time, often finding expression in claims that ‘education is unfit for purpose.’ It is invariably assumed that this purpose is to train students in the appropriate skills to enhance their ‘human capital’ in an increasingly competitive and global market (Lingard & Gale, 2007). Educational agendas are increasingly set by the world of business (bodies like the OECD or the World Economic Forum, corporations like Google or Microsoft, and national governments which share their priorities (see my earlier post about neo-liberalism and solutionism ).

One way in which this shift is reflected in English language teaching is in the growing emphasis that is placed on ‘21st century skills’ in teaching material. Sometimes called ‘life skills’, they are very clearly concerned with the world of work, rather than the rest of our lives. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs survey lists the soft skills that are considered important in the near future and they include ‘creativity’, ‘critical thinking’, ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘leadership’. (The fact that the World Economic Forum is made up of a group of huge international corporations (e.g. J.P. Morgan, HSBC, UBS, Johnson & Johnson) with a very dubious track record of embezzlement, fraud, money-laundering and tax evasion has not resulted in much serious, public questioning of the view of education expounded by the WEF.)

Without exception, the ELT publishers have brought these work / life skills into their courses, and the topic is an extremely popular one in ELT blogs and magazines, and at conferences. Two of the four plenaries at this year’s international IATEFL conference are concerned with these skills. Pearson has a wide range of related products, including ‘a four-level competency-based digital course that provides engaging instruction in the essential work and life skills competencies that adult learners need’. Macmillan ELT made ‘life skills’ the central plank of their marketing campaign and approach to product design, and even won a British Council ELTon (see below) Award for ‘Innovation in teacher resources) in 2015 for their ‘life skills’ marketing campaign. Cambridge University Press has developed a ‘Framework for Life Competencies’ which allows these skills to be assigned numerical values.

The point I am making here is not that these skills do not play an important role in contemporary society, nor that English language learners may not benefit from some training in them. The point, rather, is that the assumption that English language learning is mostly concerned with preparation for the workplace has become so widespread that it becomes difficult to think in another way.

2 Technological innovation is good and necessary

The main reason that soft skills are deemed to be so important is that we live in a rapidly-changing world, where the unsubstantiated claim that 85% (or whatever other figure comes to mind) of current jobs won’t exist 10 years from now is so often repeated that it is taken as fact . Whether or not this is true is perhaps less important to those who make the claim than the present and the future that they like to envisage. The claim is, at least, true-ish enough to resonate widely. Since these jobs will disappear, and new ones will emerge, because of technological innovations, education, too, will need to innovate to keep up.

English language teaching has not been slow to celebrate innovation. There were coursebooks called ‘Cutting Edge’ (1998) and ‘Innovations’ (2005), but more recently the connections between innovation and technology have become much stronger. The title of the recent ‘Language Hub’ (2019) was presumably chosen, in part, to conjure up images of digital whizzkids in fashionable co-working start-up spaces. Technological innovation is explicitly promoted in the Special Interest Groups of IATEFL and TESOL. Despite a singular lack of research that unequivocally demonstrates a positive connection between technology and language learning, the former’s objective is ‘to raise awareness among ELT professionals of the power of learning technologies to assist with language learning’. There is a popular annual conference, called InnovateELT , which has the tagline ‘Be Part of the Solution’, and the first problem that this may be a solution to is that our students need to be ‘ready to take on challenging new careers’.

Last, but by no means least, there are the annual British Council ELTon awards  with a special prize for digital innovation. Among the British Council’s own recent innovations are a range of digitally-delivered resources to develop work / life skills among teens.

Again, my intention (here) is not to criticise any of the things mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. It is merely to point to a particular structure of feeling and the way that is enacted and strengthened through material practices like books, social groups, conferences and other events.

3 Technological innovations are best driven by the private sector

The vast majority of people teaching English language around the world work in state-run primary and secondary schools. They are typically not native-speakers of English, they hold national teaching qualifications and they are frequently qualified to teach other subjects in addition to English (often another language). They may or may not self-identify as teachers of ‘ELT’ or ‘EFL’, often seeing themselves more as ‘school teachers’ or ‘language teachers’. People who self-identify as part of the world of ‘ELT or ‘TEFL’ are more likely to be native speakers and to work in the private sector (including private or semi-private language schools, universities (which, in English-speaking countries, are often indistinguishable from private sector institutions), publishing companies, and freelancers). They are more likely to hold international (TEFL) qualifications or higher degrees, and they are less likely to be involved in the teaching of other languages.

The relationship between these two groups is well illustrated by the practice of training days, where groups of a few hundred state-school teachers participate in workshops organised by publishing companies and delivered by ELT specialists. In this context, state-school teachers are essentially in a client role when they are in contact with the world of ‘ELT’ – as buyers or potential buyers of educational products, training or technology.

Technological innovation is invariably driven by the private sector. This may be in the development of technologies (platforms, apps and so on), in the promotion of technology (through training days and conference sponsorship, for example), or in training for technology (with consultancy companies like ELTjam or The Consultants-E, which offer a wide range of technologically oriented ‘solutions’).

As in education more generally, it is believed that the private sector can be more agile and more efficient than state-run bodies, which continue to decline in importance in educational policy-setting. When state-run bodies are involved in technological innovation in education, it is normal for them to work in partnership with the private sector.

4 Accountability is crucial

Efficacy is vital. It makes no sense to innovate unless the innovations improve something, but for us to know this, we need a way to measure it. In a previous post , I looked at Pearson’s ‘Asking More: the Path to Efficacy’ by CEO John Fallon (who will be stepping down later this year). Efficacy in education, says Fallon, is ‘making a measurable impact on someone’s life through learning’. ‘Measurable’ is the key word, because, as Fallon claims, ‘it is increasingly possible to determine what works and what doesn’t in education, just as in healthcare.’ We need ‘a relentless focus’ on ‘the learning outcomes we deliver’ because it is these outcomes that can be measured in ‘a systematic, evidence-based fashion’. Measurement, of course, is all the easier when education is delivered online, ‘real-time learner data’ can be captured, and the power of analytics can be deployed.

Data is evidence, and it’s as easy to agree on the importance of evidence as it is hard to decide on (1) what it is evidence of, and (2) what kind of data is most valuable. While those questions remain largely unanswered, the data-capturing imperative invades more and more domains of the educational world.

English language teaching is becoming data-obsessed. From language scales, like Pearson’s Global Scale of English to scales of teacher competences, from numerically-oriented formative assessment practices (such as those used on many LMSs) to the reporting of effect sizes in meta-analyses (such as those used by John Hattie and colleagues), datafication in ELT accelerates non-stop.

The scales and frameworks are all problematic in a number of ways (see, for example, this post on ‘The Mismeasure of Language’) but they have undeniably shaped the way that we are able to think. Of course, we need measurable outcomes! If, for the present, there are privacy and security issues, it is to be hoped that technology will find solutions to them, too.

REFERENCES

Castoriadis, C. (1987). The Imaginary Institution of Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cobo, C. (2019). I Accept the Terms and Conditions. Montevideo: International Development Research Centre / Center for Research Ceibal Foundation. https://adaptivelearninginelt.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/41acf-cd84b5_7a6e74f4592c460b8f34d1f69f2d5068.pdf

Friesen, N. (forthcoming) The technological imaginary in education, or: Myth and enlightenment in ‘Personalized Learning’. In M. Stocchetti (Ed.) The Digital Age and its Discontents. University of Helsinki Press. Available at https://www.academia.edu/37960891/The_Technological_Imaginary_in_Education_or_Myth_and_Enlightenment_in_Personalized_Learning_

Jasanoff, S. & Kim, S.-H. (2015). Dreamscapes of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lingard, B. & Gale, T. (2007). The emergent structure of feeling: what does it mean for critical educational studies and research?, Critical Studies in Education, 48:1, pp. 1-23

Moore, J. W. (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life. London: Verso.

Robbins, K. & Webster, F. (1989]. The Technical Fix. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Taylor, C. (2014). Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Urry, J. (2016). What is the Future? Cambridge: Polity Press.

 

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’.

Google_trends

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 http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/personalized-instruction

The drive towards adaptive learning is being fuelled less by individual learners or teachers than it is by commercial interests, large educational institutions and even larger agencies, including national governments. How one feels about adaptive learning is likely to be shaped by one’s beliefs about how education should be managed.

Huge amounts of money are at stake. Education is ‘a global marketplace that is estimated conservatively to be worth in excess of $5 trillion per annum’ (Selwyn, Distrusting Educational Technology 2013, p.2). With an eye on this pot, in one year, 2012, ‘venture capital funds, private equity investors and transnational corporations like Pearson poured over $1.1 billion into education technology companies’[1] Knewton, just one of a number of adaptive learning companies, managed to raise $54 million before it signed multi-million dollar contracts with ELT publishers like Macmillan and Cambridge University Press. In ELT, some publishing companies are preferring to sit back and wait to see what happens. Most, however, have their sights firmly set on the earnings potential and are fully aware that late-starters may never be able to catch up with the pace-setters.

The nexus of vested interests that is driving the move towards adaptive learning is both tight and complicated. Fuller accounts of this can be found in Stephen Ball’s ‘Education Inc.’ (2012) and Joel Spring’s ‘Education Networks’ (2012) but for this post I hope that a few examples will suffice.

Leading the way is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world’s largest private foundation with endowments of almost $40 billion. One of its activities is the ‘Adaptive Learning Market Acceleration Program’ which seeks to promote adaptive learning and claims that the adaptive learning loop can defeat the iron triangle of costs, quality and access (referred to in The Selling Points of Adaptive Learning, above). It is worth noting that this foundation has also funded Teach Plus, an organisation that has been lobbying US ‘state legislatures to eliminate protection of senior teachers during layoffs’ (Spring, 2012, p.51). It also supports the Foundation for Excellence in Education, ‘a major advocacy group for expanding online instruction by changing state laws’ (ibid., p.51). The chairman of this foundation is Jeb Bush, brother of ex-president Bush, who took the message of his foundation’s ‘Digital Learning Now!’ program on the road in 2011. The message, reports Spring (ibid. p.63) was simple: ‘the economic crises provided an opportunity to reduce school budgets by replacing teachers with online courses.’ The Foundation for Excellence in Education is also supported by the Walton Foundation (the Walmart family) and iQity, a company whose website makes clear its reasons for supporting Jeb Bush’s lobbying. ‘The iQity e-Learning Platform is the most complete solution available for the electronic search and delivery of curriculum, courses, and other learning objects. Delivering over one million courses each year, the iQity Platform is a proven success for students, teachers, school administrators, and district offices; as well as state, regional, and national education officials across the country.[2]

Another supporter of the Foundation for Excellence in Education is the Pearson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Pearson. The Pearson Foundation, in its turn, is supported by the Gates Foundation. In 2011, the Pearson Foundation received funding from the Gates Foundation to create 24 online courses, four of which would be distributed free and the others sold by Pearson the publishers (Spring, 2012, p.66).

The campaign to promote online adaptive learning is massively funded and extremely well-articulated. It receives support from transnational agencies such as the World Bank, WTO and OECD, and its arguments are firmly rooted in the discourse ‘of international management consultancies and education businesses’ (Ball, 2012, p.11-12). It is in this context that observers like Neil Selwyn connect the growing use of digital technologies in education to the corporatisation and globalisation of education and neo-liberal ideology.

Adaptive learning also holds rich promise for those who can profit from the huge amount of data it will generate. Jose Fereira, CEO of Knewton, acknowledges that adaptive learning has ‘the capacity to produce a tremendous amount of data, more than maybe any other industry’[3]. He continues ‘Big data is going to impact education in a big way. It is inevitable. It has already begun. If you’re part of an education organization, you need to have a vision for how you will take advantage of big data. Wait too long and you’ll wake up to find that your competitors (and the instructors that use them) have left you behind with new capabilities and insights that seem almost magical.’ Rather paradoxically, he then concludes that ‘we must all commit to the principle that the data ultimately belong to the students and the schools’. It is not easy to understand how such data can be both the property of individuals and, at the same time, be used by educational organizations to gain competitive advantage.

The existence and exploitation of this data may also raise concerns about privacy. In the same way that many people do not fully understand the extent or purpose of ‘dataveillance’ by cookies when they are browsing the internet, students cannot be expected to fully grasp the extent or potential commercial use of the data that they generate when engaged in adaptive learning programs.

Selwyn (Distrusting Educational Technology 2013, p.59-60) highlights a further problem connected with the arrival of big data. ‘Dataveillance’, he writes, also ‘functions to decrease the influence of ‘human’ experience and judgement, with it no longer seeming to matter what a teacher may personally know about a student in the face of his or her ‘dashboard’ profile and aggregated tally of positive and negative ‘events’. As such, there would seem to be little room for ‘professional’ expertise or interpersonal emotion when faced with such data. In these terms, institutional technologies could be said to be both dehumanizing and deprofessionalizing the relationships between people in an education context – be they students, teachers, administrators or managers.’

Adaptive learning in online and blended programs may well offer a number of advantages, but these will need to be weighed against the replacement or deskilling of teachers, and the growing control of big business over educational processes and content. Does adaptive learning increase the risk of transforming language teaching into a digital diploma mill (Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The automation of higher education 2002)?

Solutionism

Evgeney Morozov’s 2013 best-seller, ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’, takes issue with our current preoccupation with finding technological solutions to complex and contentious problems. If adaptive learning is being presented as a solution, what is the problem that it is the solution of? In Morosov’s analysis, it is not an educational problem. ‘Digital technologies might be a perfect solution to some problems,’ he writes, ‘but those problems don’t include education – not if by education we mean the development of the skills to think critically about any given issue’ (Morosov, 2013, p.8). Only if we conceive of education as the transmission of bits of information (and in the case of language education as the transmission of bits of linguistic information), could adaptive learning be seen as some sort of solution to an educational problem. The push towards adaptive learning in ELT can be seen, in Morosov’s terms, as reaching ‘for the answer before the questions have been fully asked’ (ibid., p.6).

The world of education has been particularly susceptible to the dreams of a ‘technical fix’. Its history, writes Neil Selwyn, ‘has been characterised by attempts to use the ‘power’ of technology in order to solve problems that are non-technological in nature. […] This faith in the technical fix is pervasive and relentless – especially in the minds of the key interests and opinion formers of this digital age. As the co-founder of the influential Wired magazine reasoned more recently, ‘tools and technology drive us. Even if a problem has been caused by technology, the answer will always be more technology’ (Selwyn, Education in a Digital World 2013, p.36).

Morosov cautions against solutionism in all fields of human activity, pointing out that, by the time a problem is ‘solved’, it becomes something else entirely. Anyone involved in language teaching would be well-advised to identify and prioritise the problems that matter to them before jumping to the conclusion that adaptive learning is the ‘solution’. Like other technologies, it might, just possibly, ‘reproduce, perpetuate, strengthen and deepen existing patterns of social relations and structures – albeit in different forms and guises. In this respect, then, it is perhaps best to approach educational technology as a ‘problem changer’ rather than a ‘problem solver’ (Selwyn, Education in a Digital World 2013, p.21).


[1] Philip McRae Rebirth of the Teaching Machine through the Seduction of Data Analytics: This time it’s personal April 14, 2013 http://philmcrae.com/2/post/2013/04/rebirth-of-the-teaching-maching-through-the-seduction-of-data-analytics-this-time-its-personal1.html (last accessed 13 January 2014)

[2] http://www.iq-ity.com/ (last accessed 13 January, 2014)