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.

February: this month I have…

  • Completed my first MOOC! (Oxford Teachers’ Academy Teaching English to Teenagers, if you’re interested)
  • Given my French a workout with the help of myfrenchfilmfestival.com, a fantastic annual online festival. Check it out next year!
  • Enjoyed (and appreciated) this brilliant Vice article on ESOL in the USA.
  • Celebrated a friend’s birthday with a stand-up set by Isy Suttie, and some delicious Indian street food at Bhel Puri.
  • Considered LX in ELT materials design, with the help of Nick Robinson’s blog post and webinar. I’m looking forward to learning more about this in the coming months.
  • Been contemplating ways of improving FELLOW volunteer recruitment.
  • Been getting excited about my Dad’s plans to learn Italian!
  • Wondered whether Spritz could help me improve my own language skills…
  • Bought my plane tickets to Bishkek, as well as this book – which means I am actually going to Kyrgyzstan this summer!

My top 5: tools to teach yourself

There are many reasons why you might not have a language teacher at the moment. Maybe there aren’t any in your area. Maybe you can’t afford one. Or perhaps your class ended two hours ago but you just want a little more practice (side note: I love your enthusiasm!). Here are five tools I’ve been using recently to supplement my own language learning. Have a go yourself or, if you’re a teacher, why not get your students to try them out?

1. Writefull

This nifty little app provides feedback on your writing skills by comparing your text to text in an online database. Genius! The app works in 36 languages (although coverage of each language varies).

Use it to check small chunks of language for authenticity as you write. Ideal for advanced learners who want to check their adjective-noun pairings.

Don’t expect it to explain anything. The app will tell you that your ‘I expect seeing’ should be ‘I expect to see’, but it won’t tell you why. No substitute for a real teacher, then…!

2. Memrise

Fast becoming my favourite vocabulary-learning app (although not without many reservations). Use it to learn dozens of languages at various levels, on your smartphone or in a web browser.

Use it to broaden your vocabulary when you’re on the bus into work.

Don’t expect it to teach you words in context, or necessarily in a useful vocabulary set. But hey! at least the majority of the phrases I’ve come across are useful, unlike some other language-learning apps out there…

3. Any language exchange website.

There are loads out there: Livemocha, My Language Exchange and italki all offer you the opportunity to find a language exchange partner and develop your speaking or writing skills. If you feel so inclined, you can also use a lot of language exchange websites to find a paid language tutor (although I haven’t tried this yet).

Use it to meet people who speak your target language, and learn a bit more about the culture of countries where that language is spoken.

Don’t expect it to provide you with perfect feedback on your language every step of the way. Just because someone speaks the language fluently, doesn’t mean that they can teach it!

4. Free Rice.

A website run by the World Food Programme that allows you to brush up your languages while donating rice to people who need it. Set up a free account and answer questions on a variety of subjects, including English Grammar and English Vocabulary. Questions are available at different levels.

Use it to get a little extra practice while doing something good. You can even set up a group of users; get your friends (or class!) involved and encourage some healthy competition…

Don’t expect it to match your learning objectives. Vocabulary is divided into levels, rather than sets, and you can’t choose which words you practise.

5. Super Flashcards.

I’ve been using this Android app on my phone for a couple of years to replace my old handwritten flashcards. It works well, is simple to use, and the content creation is down to you!

Use it to revise useful vocabulary from a reading text, a lesson, or a course book. If you know exactly what you want to practise, it’s a great tool.

Don’t expect it to provide you with sophisticated stats. It’s good, but it’s no Memrise.

December: this month I have…

  • Been trying to get in my ten per day. And largely failing. But more on that to follow…
  • Spent too much money on tickets to live music and comedy events in 2016 (uh-oh!).
  • Been fascinated by LingoRank – an analysis of TED talks by CEFR level. Is the end of publisher-made video nigh?
  • Learned more about the prison system on a visit to the Dana (formerly HMP Shrewsbury). I can’t recommend it enough.
  • Wondered whether I am the project manager’s favourite editor.
  • Been planning my trip to Moscow next month – my first visit to Russia since I moved back to the UK in 2012!
  • Given some of my family members the gift of helping someone else, thanks to CARE’s micro-finance programme, Lend with Care.
  • Been reflecting on Ed Pegg’s analysis of disruptive innovation in ELT – and wondering why I still haven’t taught myself to code.
  • Finished my first course of swimming lessons! My biggest achievement this year.
  • Started listening to the new series of Serial with the amazing Sarah Koenig.
  • Finally mastered double crochet!

And who knows what next year will bring… have a wonderful New Year, and see you in 2016!

Memrise, I don’t know what to think

We’re barely a month into our relationship, but I don’t know how I feel about Memrise anymore.

I’ve been using Memrise to learn French and German vocabulary for the last couple of weeks as part of my ‘ten per day’ aim. I chose Advanced French 1, and Advanced German 1 – and as I write now, I have mastered 106 items!

There are some great things about Memrise:

  • The UX is lovely. Both the app and the site are brilliantly designed and the navigation is intuitive. I knew what I was doing as soon as I started using it (and I wish I could say the same about lots of other language-learning apps out there!).
  • You can see your progress. It’s great to revisit items that you’re struggling to remember – or even items that you haven’t seen in a while – thanks to the long-term memory function.
  • The gamification is fun. Well, er… yes. That’s the point. Although I question the popularity of the app when I can study 20min of French in a week and still be in the Top 10 on a leaderboard. Are there really so few people studying French? Has anyone ever not been in the Top 10 of a leaderboard?
  • There is a variety of task types: multiple choice, scrambled phrases, lexical chunks, translations… they really force the user to engage with the content, and also prevent task fatigue.
  • It’s free. Enough said.

But there are some not-so-great things about Memrise, too:

  • In many user-created sets, the language grading is virtually non-existent. I have no idea what makes any word in Advanced French 1 ‘advanced’, but it definitely has nothing to do with the CEFR. Le cauchemar (‘nightmare’) and je suis PACSé (roughly the equivalent of ‘I’m in a civil partnership’) are in the same set, as is les juifs malmenés par l’histoire (‘Jews mistreated by history’). User-created sets are great because it means you can personalize your own content – and of course Memrise gets a load of content for nothing – but with this comes the irritation that what someone else has created may not fit with your requirements. Or it may be wrong (le bac is not ‘a tub’…).
  • The quality of the distractors can be compromised. Multiple choice task distractors are usually taken from the current or directly preceding vocabulary set – which makes sense. However, when a vocabulary set can contain long phrases as well as single items (see above), it’s pretty easy to get everything right by guessing on item length alone. I lent my phone to a non-French-speaking friend and she managed to score just as well as I did, despite not understanding anything she had ‘learnt.’

From my point of view, the ‘not-so-great things’ about Memrise compromise the app. Weak content does not support the learner. And it’s mainly user-created content – so the quality is likely to vary wildly.

But despite all of this (issues that would simply not fly if they were to crop up in an ELT publisher’s materials), I am actually learning these new words – and they’re sticking.

So now what?

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!).