The Automated Language Teaching and Assessment (ALTA) Institute at the University of Cambridge has recently announced the first summer school in Machine Learning for Digital English Language Teaching, to be held 3-7 July 2017, in Chania, Crete. We think it’s going to be a fascinating event – we’ll be there and will be sharing the outcomes on ELTjam. In meantime, we asked Diane Nicholls to tell us some more about the event.


What’s the theme and what can we expect to discuss?

It’s about how Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing and Psychometrics can help address a number of the barriers to progress in the provision of pedagogically motivated assessment and feedback in digital products for English Language Learning. These problems include
a reliance on closed question tasks in the form of gap-fills, drag-and-drops and matchings to the exclusion of open writing

  • a tick-or-cross model of corrective feedback
  • a focus on scores and a resulting distraction from formative feedback
  • systems that only allow answers that have been pre-set
  • a lack of opportunities for learners to repair and learn from their mistakes
  • the prioritization of question-answering skills over learning skills

The programme runs from Monday to Friday and combines lecture-style talks by experts from Cambridge, Sheffield and Athens universities with three 3-hour tutorials and two 3-hour hands-on practical sessions. The lectures will help attendees learn more about the technology and how it can be used; the practical sessions will teach them how to integrate Apps and Cloud services such as Write & Improve or the Alphary Vocab App into their online classrooms and blended curricula. Those happy to do a little very simple programming will be shown how to make use of the applications programming interfaces (APIs) behind these tools to customise input and output, and store results for student profiling and follow-up guidance. These practical sessions will be very hands-on and there’ll be plenty of support from friendly developers. The programme can be downloaded here.

Why are you running this event? Why is it an important topic?

Teaching is going online more and more and both teachers and learners in new digital delivery environments need guided instruction and automated feedback to facilitate and support their aims. Dialog and collaboration between academic researchers, ELT product developers and publishers and on-the-ground teachers is key to the development of better products to meet those needs, and these are the people this summer school will bring together. It’s important because we need to move forward from the current state of the art.

Who should come and why?

We’re keen to attract people working in ELT teaching, publishing, product development and research who are interested in understanding and finding solutions to the problems listed above. Anyone who has used or developed existing tools and thought there must be a better way and who wants to explore the possibilities with experts from different fields. People who want to share their own experience and ideas with similarly interested professionals. We’re limiting the number of attendees to 35 because we want people to feel as comfortable as possible to share their questions and thoughts and for the speakers, presenters and tutors not to be spread too thinly.

What will people leave with at the end of the week?

Attendees will get accreditation to show they’ve attended both lectures and practical sessions. More importantly, they’ll have gained a good grounding in a broad range of topics that have the potential to positively affect and enrich digital ELT, and will take away practical knowledge and hands-on experience in integrating and modifying digital products into other platforms and environments. They will also forge links with and learn from other tech-engaged ELT professionals, product developers and researchers. There’ll be plenty to take away!

What can attendees expect to do at the summer school?

Learn from and share with leading experts from a range of fields in a friendly, open and relaxed environment. There’ll be a good balance of theory and practice, and plenty of relaxed socialising too. More details about the practical sessions will be released as the planning progresses and we’re looking forward to contributions from ELTJam about Learner Experience Design and design thinking for ELT too.

Why Crete?

We have three Greek lecturers and a number of keen sailors on the team. And we want the summer school to be a relaxed and enjoyable break, as well as a great learning experience. Chania just made sense.

The registration fee for the week is £300. There is a special discount on half-board accommodation at the hotel venue that expires on 31st March. Registration details can be found here.

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