Putting the ‘no’ in inNOvation

A couple of months ago, while on the quest for useful teaching ideas, I stumbled across Stephen Shapiro’s Personality Poker. It’s an interesting personality test: select five cards (using spin/hold buttons) with adjectives that describe your strongest characteristics, then enter your email to discover your ‘custom personality profile’.

So I did. And my result? According to Personality Poker, I put the ‘no’ in inNOvation. I’m the reticent team member; I’m the person who’s going to shoot down your next Big Idea.

It’s hard not to react to this diagnosis when you work in an industry where technology is constantly forced in your face, and ‘innovation’ (through Change, big C) is the order of the day. An Ed Tech email pops into my inbox at least once an hour. And since the beginning of the year I have attended a number of talks where I’ve been told that I live in a VUCA world and I need to – I quote – ‘innovate or die’.

I struggle with the Personality Poker outcome for two reasons.

Firstly, I’m a millennial. I’m not supposed to need stability: I’m generationally predisposed to change jobs every two years, and never buy a home or put down roots. I should thrive in the VUCA world! Like most millennials, I’m a digital native. I’m at ease with technology – and isn’t that where all the innovation is? How dare a free gambling-themed personality test tell me that I am not an innovator?!

Secondly, Personality Poker is right – and we all know that the truth can be a bitter pill to swallow. I do put the ‘no’ in inNOvation. But perhaps not in the way that the author intended.

One of my biggest bugbears about attitudes to technology in education – both publishing and teaching – is that we are all rushing somewhere. In educational publishing (and I’m sure it isn’t just publishing!), innovation rhetoric is rife with hyperbole: content is no longer king, we must innovate or die. In teaching, a lot of fuss is made about the latest app, website, or techy classroom tool du jour. A couple of years ago BETT was awash with 3D printers, being flogged to schools with the promise of preparing their students for the future job market. And yes, it’s expensive, but you can also use it to make coat hooks and trays to use around the school. You’ll save money on furniture!

Believe it or not, I did hear those words in a 3D printer presentation! Twelve months later, I bumped into a Design and Technology teacher at an art festival who confessed that their 3D printer investment had been a complete waste of money: the machine, which handled most of the design work, wasn’t compatible with her school’s GCSE syllabus and the hulking machine lived, unused, in a corner of the workshop. Perhaps not surprising.

If I say ‘no’, to innovation, it is not because I think that our current educational practices are perfect, or there is no better way to deliver learning content than the channels we use at the moment. When I say ‘no’, it is because I am reluctant to be seduced by flamboyant words or grand gestures (future boyfriends, take note). If I don’t buy into the latest Big Idea, does that mean I’m not an innovator? That I can’t change and improve? I don’t think so.

I have been trying to pen an articulate description of my feelings towards innovation and technology in education since early January. I came up with a number of different names for myself: ‘low-fi educator’, ‘slow teacher’ (inspired by slow food), ‘moderate educator’ (moder…ator?). Then I discovered this wonderful reflective blog post by teacher Ben Rimes that helped me to think more about my own identity and refine the jumble of words in my head. I may even have been googling ‘is there anyone else like me out there?’ at the time.

And to answer Ben’s question: yes, stoicism is appropriate in Ed Tech. Actually, it’s appropriate everywhere – and I think we’d all be a little better off if we brought our stoic sides into the classroom (or the meeting room) every now and then.

Here’s what an ELT editor actually does!

An attempt to explain the main elements of my job to my family and non-ELT friends…

Research

This could be desk-based research (online focus groups, reading blogs, etc.) or it could be in-market research (meeting teachers, observing lessons and running face-to-face focus groups). It might occasionally involve BETT or IATEFL. Whatever the method, it’s really important to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the world of ELT, and what teachers and students want and need from their learning materials.

Commissioning

I commission authors; my more senior colleagues commission titles or series. When there’s a bit too much work for me to manage alone, I also book in freelance editors to work on discreet areas of a project or act as a ‘second eye’ to make sure that the materials do what they are supposed to do (and are pedagogically sound).

Materials development

In the first instance, this involves working with the author(s) to develop learning materials that fit all the requirements outlined during the research phase of the project. It also means working with a cross-functional team (art editors, designers, audio producers, video producers, developers and copy editors) to shape the final product! Depending on the materials, I could be attending a photo selection meeting, working on location for a video shoot, or rubbing shoulders with the young and talented at a London recording studio. Recording studio celebrity spots so far: Bill Bailey, Omid Djalili and Sylvester McCoy.

Project management

Making sure that everything runs smoothly: manuscripts go in and out on time, deadlines are met and the final product gets to the market ready for promotion and the new academic year.

The ten best things about being an ELT editor

  1. Making a difference. This sounds trite, I know. But anyone working in education has the power to changes lives for the better – and it’s exciting to think about the ways in which people can grow and develop as a result of learning English.
  1. Travel. I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of interesting cities in my career so far… and here’s hoping I get to visit many more!
  1. Meeting teachers and students. One of the best parts of the job is getting to know people from all over the world, and finding out what makes them tick.
  1. Photo and video shoots. There’s nothing more entertaining than a day or two on location, which brings me to…
  1. The variety of the day-to-day. I have an office job, but it’s not always an office job. One day I might be finding a new author, the next – attending an audio recording, or conducting a focus group in a Ukrainian high school. Being an editor is more than just copy-editing.
  1. The combination of creativity and strategy. Mapping out markets and analyzing teacher and learner needs is one thing, but developing a product that ticks the all-important exam boxes while remaining fun and engaging is quite another. And publishers don’t always get it right…
  1. Photo selection meetings. You get to spend a few hours looking at pretty pictures – and choosing your favourites! What’s not to like?
  1. The people. The vast majority of my colleagues disappeared abroad to teach after university (like me), before returning a few years later to a career in ELT publishing with plenty of stories to tell. We’re a multilingual group with intricate knowledge of the countries we lived and loved.
  1. Technology. EdTech histrionics aside, there’s a lot going on at the intersection of mobile technology and language learning – and I’m excited to see where Google Classroom and Facebook’s Summit will go in 2016.
  1. The extra-curriculars. My office job gives me another reason to keep teaching – and thanks to our strong network, there are always plenty of opportunities to step into the classroom.

Content: how much do we care?

This week Nick Robinson – of ELTjam and MaWSIG fame – wrote a guest post on Book Machine called ‘Content is no longer king.’ I’ve read the post a few times now and have been thinking about the best way to respond (I do work for a company known for its high-quality content, after all!). Here are my thoughts…

Nick’s phrase ‘drinking from a fire hose of content’ perfectly encapsulates one of the most frustrating aspects of modern life, and certainly a challenge that faces any 21st-century educator or learner. Personally, I can’t stand the fire hose. As much as I love Netflix (Orange is the New Black binge-watcher that I am), I can’t help but long for my old LOVEFiLM subscription; I chose the films I loved, and I received the DVDs at random. No hours wasted browsing libraries or genres, overwhelmed by choice.

When it comes to learning a language, we have options. Many options.

Nick’s alternatives are undeniably important. No one is going to dispute that a misstep in one of the five areas he mentions (UX, access, choice, cost, and data) can jeopardize a product or service. Over the last few months I have selected – and dismissed – apps and digital language-learning tools for many of the reasons above. As I use tech to support my language learning (and I already pay a reasonable rate for private tuition), cost is key. If an app isn’t free, I won’t download it. Simple. I also avoid apps that aren’t intelligent enough to process my learning data: I want something that can tell me if I’ve been wrong before, and help me avoid being wrong again.

Nick cites Netflix and Spotify as two examples of companies whose success can be explained by their understanding of the importance of access and choice. And while I dislike the Netflix UX, using the subscription streaming service’s ‘guided discovery’ approach to content is approximately 1000x more helpful and efficient than typing ‘what should I watch?’ into Google on a rainy Saturday afternoon. I pay for Netflix because it evaluates and presents the content for me. But why do I subscribe to Netflix over Amazon Prime? Hint: it begins with a ‘c’…

One of the key ways in which Netflix and Amazon Prime compete for subscriptions is by creating new content. I loved Transparent, but did I love it as much as Orange is the New Black? Did it entertain me as much as I wanted it to? No. So – apologies to Jeffrey Tambor – the Netflix subscription stayed.

I’m not denying that access and cost are important. They are. But as it becomes easier to find a service that works smoothly and does what we need, we are inevitably going to become more critical of what’s inside. What do we really want from the product or service we’re using? In the world of online streaming, that means maximum entertainment. How many people do you know who have said they love x programme on Netflix so much, it would be worth paying the subscription just for that?

Language learners want effective content that helps them to achieve their language goals – be it writing an email to an international colleague, giving a presentation at university or scoring a 7 on their IELTS exam.

At first glance, we might not think too much about the content. But there’s a reason why I chose Memrise over Busuu, and why I initially abandoned the PONS vocabulary trainer in favour of a less user-friendly German language app.* As we become more discerning digital customers, the emphasis on high-quality and effective content will return.

*In case you’re wondering: the PONS app is a thing of a beauty, with the nicest UX of any language app I’ve seen, but earlier versions didn’t include the articles of the nouns being taught (vital information for German language learners!).