edtech boogie

Guest post from Anna Cowper. After having worked as an ELT teacher in various European countries and in Oxford in the UK as an editor and publisher, Anna is now a freelance writer and editor. She is based partly in the UK and partly in southwest France and is always on the lookout for the next interesting project.


Everybody, it seems, is lovin’ edtech at the moment, almost as much as they’ve ever loved McDonald’s. But are you, dear reader? Do you love edtech; do you love it really and, if so how much? If, as is widely believed, public and state education are moving inexorably towards digital formats, allegiance to the tech dimension is not simply a matter of lifestyle preference. Weaning yourself off paper could be a matter of survival. There is a reason why Pearson, in the words of Laurie Harrison, is ‘betting the house’ on digital and have totally reorganized themselves, side-lining its print operations permanently in favour of digital products and digital development. All the other ELT major publishers have gone or are going through similar, if less drastic, reorganizations. Educational publishing is becoming edtech, so it’s definitely time to start walking the talk. However, if you’ve just been or are just about to be made redundant because the publishing house for which you work has just downsized its print operations in favour of digital growth and development; or even if you’ve been successfully reorganized, but have an unprepossessing new job title and get bossed about by 25-year old with a degree in computer science, your love of ed tech is probably not as deep as all that at this present moment. There might just be something a teeny-weeny bit forced about it and you might, knowing me, be expecting to relieve your feelings somewhat with a sympathetic bitching session about digital migration – Have we really thought it through? Do we know what we’re doing? etc. Well, I certainly don’t plan to disappoint you entirely, but let us first look the beast in eye.

Photo Credit: Peter Gorges via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Peter Gorges via Compfight cc

Whatever my fears and reservations might be, it is undeniable that technological change has dynamised educational publishing and got it buzzing with new ideas and debate. This is tremendously positive – how could it be otherwise? Those who have actually done it – i.e. used technology to create something new and different – an app, an interactive digital activity type, or just particular ways of combining and delivering teaching and learning elements which weren’t possible before the power and reach and digital technology made them so – are to be admired and emulated. They keep us out of the doldrums of complacency and mediocrity; stimulate our imagination and creative powers and permit the industry as whole to move forward in its mission to help teachers teach and learners learn. For me, the most inspiring development to date is the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), defined by Wikipedia as ‘an online course aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web.’ The first and most famous MOOC was the Khan Academy, founded by Indian-American maths prodigy and businessman Salman Khan in 2006. It started out with Khan using the internet to tutor his niece, Nadia in mathematics and has become a huge, FREE, online learning resource for maths and the natural sciences. Khan’s relaxed and friendly yet practical approach – he filmed short videos of himself explaining the concepts, followed by practice exercises and activities – proved extremely effective. The word spread, more and more people requested access to the videos, Bill Gates got interested because his children were using the site to help with their homework and came up with some funding and finally the Khan Academy was born. It now features over 2,400 free video lessons and resources in maths and sciences and is used by millions all over world, including, and most particularly, those in poor or remote regions lacking educational infrastructure.

So how could we not love MOOCs? Free MOOCs are great because they empower people and make education obtainable and pay-as-you-go type MOOCs are, of course, what all the publishers have their eye on as the next Big Thing. They open up the B2C channel – what used to be the self-study market – which is an absolute gift in an area like adult ELT, for example, where there is a lot of potential demand, so essential have English skills become in the employment market, but a the potential user profile is extremely diverse (try ‘most adults in most places who want a job’) and therefore extremely hard to market to – and offer scope for publishing companies to become a suppliers of more than just online content but also perhaps of tutorial services and eventually even accreditation. Pearson is showing us the way with its ‘MyLab’ learning tools, its growing portfolio of electronic testing systems, its  future plans, no doubt for expanding the Pearson Academy; Macmillan, who started before everyone else with Onestopenglish and the Macmillan English Campus, are also doing no end of groovy things especially in Brazil with academies and lecture streaming and tutorial services. The possibilities, it seems, are multiplying.

So far, so hunky-dory, and if all these juicy new opportunities weren’t enough, there is even evidence to suggest that these screen-based ‘adaptive learning’ applications are extremely pedagogically sound to boot. They allow for more personalized learning, since students progress at their own pace; the adaptive technology gets them to repeat and revise topics as necessary and then moves them onto higher levels once a topic has been mastered. Not only do such programs give learners the freedom to take responsibility for their own learning, but they also give teachers access to more information than they’ve ever had before about their students’ progress. They can see exactly where each individual is having difficulty and has lots of incorrect answers and also those areas in which they excel, allowing the teacher to target very precisely what they need to work on during face-to-face classroom time. The future is the much discussed ‘flipped classroom’, where, in the words of the Economist, no less  (which has been running a series of articles about edtech throughout the year) ‘more basic information is supplied at home via screens, while class time is spent embedding, refining and testing that knowledge … each child will be taught at a different speed, in some cases by adaptive computer programs, in others by ‘superstar’ lecturers of one sort or another, while the job of classroom teachers moves from orator to coach: giving individual attention to children identified by the gizmos as needing targeted help.’ And if you’ve any doubt what ELT publishers should be producing, the answer is here, too: ‘new interactive digital textbooks with built-in continuous performance assessment can change in real time, depending on what and how much the pupil using it is learning (sometimes with the pupil being unaware that he or she is being tested).’

OK, so now we know what we’re supposed to be doing, we can get on with it … except that there are several large-ish flies in the ointment. For one thing, it looks like we’re going to have a bit more competition in the future and from a new quarter – that is from all the knowledge economy-driven venture capitalists, who are seeing a big fat sitting duck of a new market that they can get a huge stake of as long as they act quickly enough and wrest it out of the sleepy hands of increasingly irrelevant parties such as schools, universities and textbook publishers before we wake up. The tech sector is already very busy smelling the coffee: according to the Economist in June, Bill Gates is calling this time of a technological change ‘a special moment for education’ (how warm inside does that make you feel?). Lots of other big tech firms have also developed a soft spot for the education sector, too’ Private-sector money, ‘ says the Economist, ‘ is piling in. Rupert Murdoch, hardly a rose-tinted-specs technophile, is allowing Amplify, his digital education business, to run up losses of around $180m this year in hope of dominating an edtech market that News Corporation reckons will soon be worth $44 billion in America alone.’ That’s why we’re all getting into bed with techie firms as fast as we can, we have no choice. What’s at stake is a slice of that $44 billion – but only if Rupert Murdoch doesn’t get there first.

And this is where it all starts to feel a bit less inspiring. For, if the driving force behind the Khan Academy was the desire to educate, the edtech bandwagon is being hijacked by the most ruthless, the most predatory, the most short-termist, the most profit driven of all sectors of capitalism which exists for maximum return on investment alone. In this context, all the rhetoric about technologized learning being, by default, better and more efficient feels rather like a smoke screen. The point is, you can make machines, you can programme the systems and they are commodities for a mass market. You could argue that books are/were too, but educational publishers have never suggested sacking all the teachers and getting rid of schools and replacing them with private profit-driven businesses. We didn’t think we were qualified to do so, for starters, so it’s interesting that a bunch of finance experts and paid programmers seem to think that they are. But for the moment, these intents are softened and wrapped up in tech supremacy rhetoric. Edtech, the Economist declares, promises ‘better teaching for millions of children at lower cost’ as if this were a perfectly logical default reasoning, as if the cost – of all that hardware, all the maintenance, all the updates, all the servicing did not exist (and we haven’t even got to the software costs yet). But then it’s in the interests of hardware companies, who are already getting us to replace our phones and computers and other consumer electronic items at a rate of knots, to brush over such things They must be beside themselves at the very thought of winning all that business – a tablet computer for every child in every school, to be replaced at least every three or four years, maintenance contracts for broken and damaged equipment  – Yeeha!

Photo Credit: Wooly Matt via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Wooly Matt via Compfight cc

And how much is learning from screens really going to help? Whilst it’s undeniably true that young people seem to engage more easily with animated LED screens than with printed books this may be because animated LED screens have been principally associated with games and leisure activities. Once the novelty of classroom use has worn off what are the grounds to believe that the medium will make much difference to the ability to absorb content? If teachers are replaced by videos of teachers, who is going to be there to answer questions if you don’t understand? How are students going to stay motivated? True you can rewind a video and replay the difficult bits several times, but repetition isn’t necessarily clarification – and anyway is this ‘better’ than human interaction? Why are we so bent on dehumanizing and isolating ourselves anyway? ‘Teachers’, the Economist says sniffily ‘may use edtech websites, but their unions are suspicious of anything suggesting that schools could get along with fewer teachers’ (oh foolish teachers who don’t embrace becoming obsolete and losing their livelihood with open arms), and it really gives away the whole underlying agenda with the next phrase ‘and they dislike the idea of private companies such as Mr Murdoch’s News Corp making money out of education.’ Too right they do! And I suspect that quite a lot of people would take issue with the idea that the world would somehow be a better place if News Corp’s (or whoever’s) shareholders made profits from education rather than teachers earned their living and got their salaries paid from it. Not that publishers haven’t always made money of out of education and existed for that purpose, but in the past, they serviced teachers and schools/institutes of education who serviced students, and even more to the point, everyone involved in these processes was or had been an educator. And being an educator/working in education was understood as something of a vocation, involving helping people to develop and reach their potential and all that kind of stuff. However, once education is commodified (even further than it is already) then it will have to obey the rules of capitalism and be sold for the highest possible price to those who are fortunate enough to be able to pay for it for the profit of the few who are fortunate enough to own it. It is very possible that the way state school system is structured and run could do with a serious overhaul and update, but is this the best we can do by way of an alternative?

It’s impossible to avoid politics when discussing education because education policy is up there with employment and crime as one of the most powerful of political currencies. Every new government promises education reforms and every campaigning MP lambasts the failure of his predecessor to do enough to raise standards in local schools. Education is also one of those things, like child-rearing, that everyone thinks they know about, especially if they have they no experience in it, hence the appointment of education ministers (for example in the UK the current, and extraordinarily bad, one used to be a journalist and the one before that was an economist), hence the often appreciable gap between what educational policies are adopted and what might actually might be a good, practical kind of idea and help people get educated. And educational publishers are of course caught in the middle of all this, both the actual specific policies and the educational zeitgeist generally. So the billion-dollar question is – which way is it going to go? Pearson were confident enough at this year’s IATEFL conference to jettison print products from their stand, but judging from the disappointment and frustration of the many who came to browse but were faced only with a screen, they had miscalculated (or were simply ahead of their time?). A tablet for every child is very far from being a reality in most schools at the moment; most mainstream teachers are just about catching on to how the whiteboards work, but there isn’t one of those in every classroom either.

The zeitgeist, however (which is what politicians trade in) is undeniably technophile, to the extent that beliefs such as ‘tech is better’ and ‘resistance is useless’ seems to have become firmly lodged in the collective subconscious. What educational policy-maker (especially if the chances are, see above, they almost certainly have very little first-hand experience of education) is going to resist the siren call of ‘cheap’, exciting interactive digital learning products being gradually phased in to replace expensive, inefficient, bolshie trouble-making teachers? Even so, technologizing every aspect of education isn’t going to happen overnight. The extent to which it is, nevertheless, already an on-going process, is reflected in the slow decline in print revenues, which obviously needs to be addressed. This income must be replaced in order publishers to survive and grow. Having insisted rather heavily on the limitations of Tech as a panacea, I return to my original theme (and sincere and growing belief) that Tech has much to contribute as a learning tool in education generally and language learning specifically. It’s the idea that we should throw out everything else and start again which (seems to me) erroneous. However there is that chilling doubt, that again in the words of Laurie Harrison – ‘Is it possible that years of experience and expertise in creating excellent print books aren’t much of an advantage when it comes to creating something brilliant for teaching and learning English on iPad?’ We can all make a spirited – and valid – defence of our  various areas expertise, but the truth is, with a few honourable exceptions, even the canniest of us who have managed over the last four or five years to manoeuvre the word ‘digital’ into our job titles, have absolutely no grasp of programming beyond the basics (if that). How much does this matter? We are all doing our best learning to dance with our new tech partners but who is (and should be) leading the way?

So, these are, and continue to be, interesting times for educational publishing. EdTech is here to stay and it is up to us NOT to allow ourselves to be elbowed aside by ‘venture tech’ and maintain our position in the new educational order. This will only be possible by staying carefully attuned to what’s really going on in education and keeping our activities rooted in principle rather than opportunism. Technology undoubtedly brings us more. Books are limited by what fits inside their two covers, but digital gives us more content, more data, more links, more add-ons, more access, more updates … more everything; human beings, however, even the brightest of us, only have a certain amount of brain capacity to process all this. For sure, there are several thousand free learn English websites on the web and probably even more sets of free teaching resources than that; but which one to choose? A lot of these are mediocre and some of them are just bad, and, anyway, if you lock yourself in a library for a year with a million books and videos, how likely is that you will come out at the end having learned everything? As every (good) teacher knows, the  essence of the art of teaching lies in being able to gauge your students’ capacity and not overwhelm them with too much, too soon; you can’t learn a language, for example, by being exposed to the whole grammatical system all at once. It is educational publishers, in partnership with the educators and the learners who are their customers, who are best placed to show the world how this great deluge of information can best be mediated because that  is their business and always has been. In embracing EdTech, educational publishers will have to forgo their role of guardians of information and knowledge (which they have lost anyway) and become more like lighthouses that will help readers, writers, teachers and students to navigate through the great and growing sea of data on which we are all afloat.

This post first appeared on Anna’s blog, The Sceptical Technologist.

Title and Feature Photo Credit: pedrosimoes7 via Compfight cc. Text added by eltjam.

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