The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, January 27, 2014

Reflections on new directions

It’s late on Saturday evening and I’m just on the train home from the first MaWSIG event in Oxford (that’s the materials writing special interest group within IATEFL). My brain is buzzing with ideas from the day, so I thought I’d jot them down while I think about it.

There were some questions I had around what I’ve been reading recently about the direction of ELT (and ELT publishing) which others articulated really well and which confirmed my misgivings. But at the same time, there were some very positive ideas that came out too. So this isn’t a coherent line of thought or position, just the things bouncing around in my head this evening!

Simon Greenall, in his opening plenary, expressed  really well a couple of things I’ve been mulling over for a while that concern me about possible new trends:

  • A lot of what I’ve read about new digital products and platforms etc. is that they focus very much on the student as consumer and what students want. That sounds great on the surface, but as Simon pointed out, students are just the tip of a very large iceberg of stakeholders in the whole ELT industry that also includes teachers, schools, parents, ministries of education, exam boards, employers etc. And this focus on the end user seems to ignore the perspective and expectations of all these other stakeholders.
  • It also raises questions about whether what students want is actually what they need in order to successfully learn English. An app that practises nice little chunks of language with all that gamification and quantifiable outcomes (which we keep hearing so much about) might be fine as an add-on to more traditional language teaching, but it isn’t going to teach you to speak English on its own. The skill of teachers and materials writers is to put together a whole package, some of which students wouldn’t necessarily choose for themselves, but which they do need.
  • In a similar vein, there seems to be increasing talk about breaking language learning down into more bite-size chunks which can be easily repackaged (especially in the context of adaptive learning). This increasing “granularity” though seems to go completely against everything that teachers and syllabus designers have been trying to do in providing an integrated, holistic approach to language learning over the past 30+ years.
  • Simon also pointed out that many of those promoting new ideas in teaching, publishing and edtech are coming from the perspective of a very niche area of ELT made up of highly- motivated, well-trained, well-informed teachers in flexible teaching contexts where they have the luxury of experimenting with new ideas. The vast majority of English teaching in the world though is done by non-native speaker, non-CELTA-trained teachers with very little scope for moving away from prescribed materials and methods. Yes, the world is changing fast and yes, some things will filter through, but how fast and how long will that take?

On the flip side:

  • Whilst it’s easy to get the idea from the evangelists in edtech, adaptive learning and agile publishing that their thing is THE way ahead and is going to sweep away the old, when they get down to talking about specifics, it seems they’re actually often talking small-scale and niche. In which context, a lot of what they say, to me, makes much more sense and has a lot more appeal. The panel of ELT entrepreneurs (Johanna Stirling, Steve Elsworth, Berni Wall & Marcos Benevides) who talked about actual projects outside of the traditional publishing framework were tackling small-scale, niche markets in a flexible, innovative way.  It was a really inspiring discussion and got me mulling over my own niche and how I might exploit it. (A few ideas so far, but nothing workable as yet!)
  • I also really enjoyed the session on working with external content providers (with John Hughes, Antonia Claire and Lewis Lansford) – i.e. where a publisher works with another organisation, such as the BBC or National Geographic or The Financial Times, and writers use their content (texts, videos etc.) as the basis for teaching materials. It hadn’t really occurred to me before, but my most recent project working on Oxford EAP was kind of similar, although the content provider wasn’t really ‘external’. One of the things that drew me to the project in the first place was the fact that we had a fantastic treasure trove of academic textbooks and journals published by OUP that we could make use of.  In that case, the material we needed for teaching (i.e. authentic academic texts) matched exactly the content available. But I guess the only caveat in these kind of partnerships is the extent to which the content really matches what the writer (and ultimately teachers and students) need or whether it just becomes an exercise in trying to create teaching materials around content – always a risky approach.

As I type this up back at my desk today, I’ve still got lots of ideas whirring around and I’m no nearer resolving which of them are risks, challenges or opportunities, but I can certainly say I’m really looking forward to the next MaWSIG meet-up at IATEFL in Harrogate in April and lots more lively discussion then!

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