A single room with a single book

3 Apr

“A book is a physical object with special attraction that has been, is, and always will be the same.”

Koshiyuki Morioka, quoted by odditycentral.com

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There’s a bookshop in Japan that only sells one book. Or more precisely, multiple copies of one book, with a different title chosen each week. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, it’s brilliant. So on a recent trip to Tokyo I took the time to seek out Morioka Shoten, a single room with a single book, quietly inhabiting a ground floor room of the Suzuki Building on a Ginza backstreet.

Simplicity can get complicated

If you’ve ever worked on any aspect of product development, or if you’ve ever tried to explain the ‘rules’ for the use of articles in the English language, then you’ll know just how difficult it is to keep something simple. A clear vision, sharp focus and zero compromise is essential if you are going to keep your idea on track. It’s perhaps no surprise then that Morioka Shoten was born from the vision of one man, Koshiyuki Morioka.

A little help from your friends

However, Mr Morioka didn’t go it alone with this venture. On a single sheet of paper he outlined his vision at an event where Masamichi Toyama was speaking. Mr Toyama is the President and CEO of Smiles, which ‘turns the whimsical into real business’, and whose corporate philosophy translates as follows:

“We seek to find new value in things that in our hectic day-to-day lives, are taken for granted and ultimately overlooked. To polish this carefully, to bring this value to even one more person – that’s the kind of thought behind our corporate philosophy.”

Mr Toyama decided to invest, and the ‘single room with a single book’ was brought in to being with help from Tokyo and London-based design engineers, Takram.

Multiple layers of simplicity

Takram helped to develop the brand and are responsible for the logo, a simple rhombic shape representing both an open book and a single, small room. This really is minimalism at its finest. Even the date on which the bookshop was first opened, the 5th of May 2015 (or 5.5.15) suggests a desire for every aspect of this venture to be ‘just so’. The whole concept embodies the idea of ‘slow reading’ and what is beautifully described by Takram as ‘blissed conversation between readers and authors’.

The book is the star

Whilst it’s easy to get carried away with the design aspects of Morioka Shoten, it’s immediately evident as you walk into the room that it’s the book that sits centre stage. The concrete floor and plain white walls mean that the focus of your attention is on the narrow table in the middle of the room, showcasing the chosen title. This is complemented by a small selection of related artwork and a beautiful cabinet of drawers acting as a desk and counter. But perhaps most importantly of all, the author is there too. Because rather than just a place where you can buy a book, this is where books develop into conversations, into art and and into new ideas. Events are held most evenings and the author is encouraged to spend as much time in the bookshop as possible during the week that their book is showcased. On my short visit I met not only Mr Morioka and the author and artist, Atsumi, but also the Editor of a Tokyo-based fashion magazine and the designer of the lampshade that hangs at one end of the room. Oh, and his adorable baby. This is a place for people to meet, for the beauty of printed books to be appreciated, for art to be enjoyed, and for ideas to be nurtured.

We need more of this.

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Learning from the games industry

14 Mar

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Publishers are struggling with the digital world. I don’t feel the need to add any caveats to that, because it seems to be an almost universal truth that from international news media organisations through to educational course book publishers (ELT included), everyone’s desperately trying to work out how they’re going to survive and flourish. At present, it’s the smaller, younger, more agile businesses that appear to have the upper hand, but with so much uncertainty and seemingly constant change, you’d be brave to do anything other than spread your bets.

At a recent conference, a talk on what we could learn from the games industry caught my eye, primarily because I was vaguely aware that this was an industry embracing change and innovation. As it turns out, the global industry is embracing it to the tune of $90 billion plus, though that number is being regularly revised. Upwards.

Now maybe it’s because I grew up with Binatone, Atari and the ZX Spectrum, but the talk, which began with some personal anecdotes about games in the 1970s and 1980s, really struck a chord with me. However, I’d like to think it was more than just nostalgia, as it reminded me that the games industry is so successful (it was described as an ‘economic phenomenon’, growing much faster than the music and film industries) because of the magic combination of creativity, talent and genuine innovation, or what the speaker, Dr Jo Twist (CEO at ukie), perfectly coined as the ‘power and beauty of games’. Some footage at the end of the presentation from a new game developed by The Chinese Room took my breath away and, as someone who has dipped in and out of games over the years, reminded me of the pure joy of discovering how the industry has moved on every time I stumble upon something new.

In brief, here are a few facts from the talk (which may or may not surprise you) and some valuable lessons all publishers could learn from an industry that was ‘born digital’:

  • The top five game spenders are the US, China, Japan, Germany and the UK
  • Six billion people globally are game players (don’t call them ‘gamers’!)
  • The average player is 30-something and 52% are female
  • The biggest mobile game market is China
  • Mobile game companies are most commonly less than five years old and have fewer than 25 employees

And what can we learn?

  • Respect your customers. They’re people, not ‘gamers’, not ‘users’, not data. Speak to them on equal terms, involve them in product development. Understand the importance of online collaboration and communities (see steam and twitch).
  • Embrace and actively seek out ‘evangelists’ for your products. ELT publishing is unlikely to ever inspire a character like PewDiePie (for the uninitiated, have a look at the number of views before dismissing the video), but the principle of getting publicity from experts in the field, who have no direct affiliation with the publisher, is far more powerful than publishers merely pumping out their own marketing messages.
  • A tiny piece of the Chinese market can translate to massive success. But you’ve got to be thinking mobile, and never forget that it’s complex and volatile, especially for foreign publishers. See this recent Outsell notice as a warning.
  • Being agile, taking risks, diversifying, experimenting, learning quickly from mistakes, all of these things have gone from desirable to essential. No publisher is going to survive the next few years by plodding along and making half-hearted nods towards agility and flexibility. This ELT Jam post illustrates just how tricky that may be for some.

Clearly this talk has had an impact on me, as one week on, I’m working in St Petersburg (my first time here) and rather than filling my free afternoon with a wander around the beautiful streets, taking in the amazing architecture, I spent it exploring the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines. Though given the number of 10p coins I shoveled into arcade machines in the 1980s, maybe we can put that one down to nostalgia.

Is the UK the worst place to teach English?

4 Jul

A little while ago a post by Russell Mayne about teaching English in South Korea caught my attention. The post is a good three years old now, but a quick search through some of the links suggest that the issues that are being touched upon are still very much relevant. Amazingly, it seems that the mandatory HIV testing of foreign English language teachers in South Korea is still being debated, and a quick Google search reveals extensive grumbles about the way English language teachers are treated by their employers (and others) in South Korea.

Russell, however, clearly states that he’s never taught in South Korea. And I can assure you that in pretty much every country with an ELT industry (and yes, I do believe it’s an industry), you will find tales of woe and discontent from teachers who have worked (or are working) there. Is South Korea any worse than anywhere else? Or, as the comments on Russell’s post suggest, is it the usual mix of good and bad employers, and good and bad experiences? Perhaps the demand for English language teaching, and sheer number of teachers, skew the facts, and actually the percentage of happy teachers is no different from anywhere else, but this would require a level of research beyond a quick Google search and some anecdotal evidence.

I would like to propose, however, that the situation in the UK is worse than South Korea for English language teachers. Like Russell, I have absolutely no evidence to back this up, but I do have personal experience, and I can confirm that it was teaching in the UK – not teaching in Asia – that drove me out of the ELT classroom.

To be clear, it’s been 10 years since I was last ’employed’ as an English language teacher, and I use that word cautiously, as at no point in the UK was I ever offered a contract. I returned from teaching in Japan (where contracts, a small amount of paid leave, and assistance with accommodation were pretty much standard) to study for an MA in Applied Linguistics, with the intention of furthering my ELT career. I figured that if I studied full-time, I could pick up a bit of part-time teaching work, and I was right, odd hours here and there, or a few weeks during the summer, were not hard to come by. It was when I started to look for something a bit more permanent that the state of the ELT industry in the UK started to become clear.

Like South Korea, and any other country, some of the employers I came across in the UK were lovely, others, looking back, were miserable, bitter, cave trolls. One of my interviews (for a few hours of one-to-one tutoring) kicked off with a written grammar test, presided over by one of said trolls. It was a crap test, for a crappy ‘job’ at a crap school. But it wasn’t unusual.

Lots of English language teachers eventually find themselves back in their countries of origin, hoping to continue their ELT careers. Language schools, universities and colleges need teachers, but private language schools in particular have work that’s seasonal. After obtaining my MA, I was looking for a permanent, full-time contract, and was repeatedly told that worries about student visas and the number of students coming in to the UK meant that there was zero job security and no commitment to taking on permanent members of staff. I eventually found myself working in a private sixth form – no contract – preparing low-level Chinese students for the IELTS test which was completely inappropriate for their level, but which they needed a magic 6.5 from in order to scrape into a UK university. On both sides, it was sad and demoralising. These kids were great at maths, great at science, but were doomed to forever struggle with English, because instead of being guided towards being better language learners, they were focusing on practice exam papers, supplemented by materials I wrote myself – in my own time – in an attempt to motivate them with level-appropriate texts and activities. After 12 months and regular clashes with a course coordinator I gave up and abandoned the ELT classroom for good.

Now perhaps I wasn’t destined to be a teacher, or I just quit too easily, but what I saw when I came back to the UK was an industry where qualified and experienced teachers where being routinely screwed over by a system that placed little value on what they did, paid only for teaching hours (preparation, marking homework and creating materials, whilst often expected, was rarely rewarded), and was centred around some of the most expensive cities to live in the UK.

Having now forged an ELT career outside of teaching, I get to see a wider range of scenarios, and there are of course plenty of happy teachers, good jobs and fair employers out there, but I’m not convinced that there’s been huge improvements over the past 10 years. UK language schools pop up in the news from time to time when they close up shop and turf students and teachers alike out on the street, a lot of people I know are working on a temporary basis, or juggling several part-time roles, or going freelance not because they particularly want to but because they don’t really have a choice. And the pay, on the whole, is terrible, particularly given the cost of living in many UK cities. Suddenly, a 12-month contract, wage you can live on, help with housing and compulsory HIV test doesn’t look quite so bad.

Dispensing with the education and technology bullshit

2 Jan

A recent Tweet from Scott Thornbury led me to paper written by Neil Selwyn (Monash University, Melbourne) on Minding Our Language when it comes to education and technology. The refreshingly no nonsense sub-heading reads:

why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it

I have a professional interest in education and technology (or Ed Tech, as it loves to be known), particularly in the context of language teaching. However, what really drew me in to reading Selwyn’s paper was the ‘bullshit’ in the sub-heading. In all aspects of life, bullshit irritates me, and this irritation grew a few months ago when I had the dubious pleasure of dealing with both estate agents and used-car sales people at around the same time. These two professions, in the UK at least, have embraced bullshit to such an extent that the patter flows straight out of sales people’s mouths with no apparent engagement from their brains. I picked one of the used-car salesmen up on this and he managed to cut out the nonsense for all of about two minutes, before slipping back into sales mode, managing to cram ‘one careful owner’, ‘trouble-free motoring’ and ‘handles beautifully’ into one convoluted sentence.

Now whilst I have little hope for these professions (the vague, meaningless language is almost seen as part of the selling and buying game) I’d like to think that anyone working in a profession with links to education would take the time to engage their brains and think carefully about the language they’re using. I challenge anyone involved in English language teaching to attend a conference in 2015 where education and technology isn’t either the main focus of the conference or prevalent in the vast majority of talks being given. I’m not suggesting it shouldn’t be on the agenda, but the language being used in presentations and discussions needs to be clear and meaningful, as there’s way too much bullshit creeping in. Rather than reading any more from me on this, I urge you to take the time to read Selwyn’s paper as it’s a far better researched and persuasive effort than I could manage. Here’s a short extract:

Ed-Tech Speak is highly political in both its nature and its effect. These should not be treated simply as benign or neutral words, terms, phrases and statements. Instead, these are powerful means of advancing the interests and agendas of some social groups over the interests of others. As such, this limited linguistic base is a serious problem for anyone concerned with the democratic potential of digital technology in education.

If you find yourself agreeing with the argument being presented, I have made my own small contribution to the call for cutting out the bullshit, with an Ed Tech Bullshit Bingo card. Print it out, share with friends, take it to conferences and meetings. It’s not going to solve the problem, but it may go some way towards raising awareness. Suitable for ELT professionals of all ages.

Why don’t teachers use eBooks for professional development?

28 Aug

post by Mike Griffin on why Korean students don’t use apps for learning English made me think about some work I’ve been doing recently that involves teachers. Without going into too much detail, I’ve been looking at the potential for ELT professional development eBooks and trying to establish why there seems to be very limited demand for digital versions of existing print titles.

Now, given the title of this post, I guess it’s worth pointing out that I’m aware that there are language teachers out there already buying professional development eBooks. However, all the evidence suggests that most aren’t, despite the proliferation of laptops, tablets and eReaders, and the ease of purchasing eBooks online. The vast majority of language teachers and ex-language teachers I know, myself included, have at least a couple of ‘classic’ ELT methodology books on their (physical) bookshelves, and the more fortunate ones will have a well-stocked resource library where they teach, giving access to both practical guides and theoretical texts.

So at a time when Amazon and many others are telling us eBook sales are booming, why is the ELT industry still so wedded to print? Here are a few of the most common responses I’ve heard from teachers:

  1. eReaders are for fiction, tablets are for apps and social media. Reference texts and methodology books don’t really suit either device. Print is best because I can quickly find what I want, and I can bookmark and annotate pages.
  2. I don’t buy books for professional development. I rely on my library or school, where the only option is print.
  3. Publishers are not giving teachers the incentives to purchase digital. Digital needs to be cheaper, maybe up to 50% cheaper, and there needs to be extra features like audio, video and interactive exercises.
  4. There are so many free online resources, including blogs, journal articles and social media communities, with content more suited to reading on mobile devices, so there’s no need to buy methodology eBooks. Or print books for that matter.
  5. I do read eBooks, but I don’t pay. I only download free PDF versions, you know, the ones you kindly make available on those Russian websites.

This is of course all anecdotal and there are counter-arguments to every one of these points. You can bookmark and annotate eBooks, there is potential for excellent search functionality, the expectation of more content and features for a considerably lower price can be challenging but if approached sensibly can be addressed, and whilst there are some fantastic, thought-provoking bloggers around, this is content that should arguably complement rather than replace cutting-edge, high quality methodology and applied linguistics publishing. Finally, if you need convincing that downloading pirate PDFs is damaging and unacceptable, take the time to read this ELTJam post.

The potential is there for digital delivery to improve the reader’s experience when it comes to methodology and reference titles (in ELT beyond), and for publishers to deliver content in more flexible ways through subscriptions, disaggregated content and library services. However, if print is what most language teachers want (and what teacher trainers and lecturers insist on putting on reading lists) how much time should publishers really spend trying to convince them to switch to digital? And is it a case of switching, or would teachers appreciate redeemable codes for free or low-cost eBooks bundled with the print books, thereby putting a single purchase on both their virtual and physical bookshelves?

I don’t think there are definitive answers to any of these questions, and ELT publishers are either going to continue scratching their heads or, as we’re already seeing (mentioning no names), abandoning professional development publishing in order to focus more energy on the blockbuster courses where there’s greater profit to be made. Whilst I’m all too aware of the importance of keeping publishing profitable, I don’t believe that should be the only driver when it comes to methodology and applied linguistics. Quality publishing in this area is what stimulates debate, brings about change and essentially underpins the professionalism in ELT. What I hope digital content will allow, perhaps combined with print, is more – not less – professional development publishing, better accessibility to ‘classic’ titles, and the ability to reach a greater audience through more flexible content delivered at a lower price. This is simple and yet incredibly complicated, so do get in touch if you have a global solution, and in the meantime, please step away from those illegal downloads.

Thoughts on Rethinking Grammar

5 Nov

A few years ago I was given some sound advice from a friend who works as a bricklayer:

Never trust a tradesman who criticises the work of others.

A good tradesperson should assess a job and tell you what they need to do, how long it will take, how much it’s likely to cost and what the end result will be. If they spend most of their time criticising the work that’s been done before, they’re either lacking knowledge in how to do the job, or they’re making the problem out to be worse than it really is (with the ultimate intention of fleecing you of a bit more cash). Straight criticism is easy, coming up with practical ideas and solutions is much more difficult.

MORE THAN A FEELING

I have this advice in the back of my mind not only when I’m getting a quote for new guttering, but also in my working life. I’m not adverse to criticism, on a personal level I find constructive criticism very beneficial. And there is, of course, a place for debate in marketing, and in ELT publishing. However, if the criticism is little more than a humourless tearing apart of an idea, a piece of work and/or an individual, and it’s not equally balanced with alternative ideas and solutions, I very quickly lose interest in – and respect for – the critic.

Alarm bells therefore started ringing when a colleague forwarded the following abstract to me for an Andrew Walkley and Hugh Dellar lecture at Westminster University, London:

Traditionally, teachers have been encouraged to think of grammar as essentially meaning the official canon as laid out in such books as Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar In Use. In this provocative, challenging talk, Hugh and Andrew will suggest that this is a profoundly limited way of looking at grammar. Alternative viewpoints will be put forward, and the implications for classroom practice will be considered.

Singling out another author’s book in your abstract is not common practice in the world of academia, so I was very curious about how Walkley and Dellar were going to tackle Murphy.

Now given the preamble above, it’s probably worth making a couple of things very clear before I launch in to a summary of the lecture:

  1. Spoiler alert! I am not in any way about to suggest that Walkley and Dellar are the cowboy builders of the ELT world. In fact, far from it. I found myself nodding in agreement through much of the lecture.
  2. I work, from time to time, with Raymond Murphy. However, the views expressed in this blog, for what they’re worth, are entirely my own.

So, to the lecture itself. Split into two parts, the introduction to ‘Rethinking Grammar’ was led by Walkley who questioned how we define grammar and ‘grammatical correctness’, using Toby Young as an example of the kind of pescriptivist that many of us love to hate. Young is a soft target – have a quick look online if you’re not familiar with his (many) opinions – and the attitude to grammar that he represents (essentially an obsession with form over meaning) is not difficult to pick apart. Walkley finished the first section of the lecture with an open question:

What is grammar and how should it be taught?

MORE THAN WORDS

Dellar then took over with a review of the different ‘types’ or definitions of grammar such as words and their functions, rules and forms, tenses and verb phrases, syntax and so on. He went on to advocate a more lexical approach to learning and teaching grammar, through fixed expressions, lexical chunks, discourse, collocation, etc. None of this I disagreed with. The lexical approach is not a new idea and the practical ideas for implementation mentioned by Dellar at the end of the lecture (drills, gap fills, extensive reading, guided discovery, etc) are older than I am. What I would question is whether teachers need to turn their backs on grammar reference books like Murphy’s and course books with grammar syllabuses, in order to implement a lexical approach. Dellar was openly critical of English Grammar in Use, implying that anyone who worked their way through the book from start to finish would unlikely be able to communicate effectively in English at the end of it. But what is being forgotten here is that English Grammar in Use is a reference book. And like other grammar reference books, it was never written to be worked through from start to finish. In fact, it was written to bring grammar out of the classroom and to allow more time for communicative language teaching, as Murphy explains in this 2011 video:

I attended a conference session by Professor Namba recently, an academic in Japan who advocates a very similar approach to Murphy. You focus on meaning, and only when students start to struggle with a particular area of communication do you parachute in a grammar book and focus explicitly on form, either in class, as homework, or a combination of both.

Course books, to a lesser extent, are also materials that good (or even mediocre) teachers can pick and choose from in order to meet the specific needs of their students. Admittedly, many are designed to be worked through unit by unit, and quite often this is led by a ‘traditional’ grammar syllabus, but we’re going back to a similar point. It’s down to the teacher to use materials appropriately. If you plough through every exercise in a course book, in order, you’re as unlikely to be meeting the needs of your class as if you dumped a copy of English Grammar in Use on their desk and told them to get on with it. 

WE WILL ROCK YOU

So whilst I’m in full agreement with the approach to grammar Walkley and Dellar are advocating, and I appreciate the time constraints of public speaking, I’d like to have heard a lot more about new approaches and practical solutions, and much less bashing of Murphy,  Young and traditional course books. Perhaps some time spent looking at modern, blended, corpus-informed course books would also have added a little more balance, rather than just picking the worst examples from old publications. Telling us ‘the road is long’ and then trotting out a list of techniques anyone on a CELTA course could quote is not particularly inspiring and doesn’t really do justice to the extensive research and experience that I’ve no doubt underpins Walkley and Dellar’s work. I have huge respect for anyone who risks shaking things up a bit and challenging the status quo, but from the content of the lecture I saw, this is less punk and more soft rock.

 

I’d welcome comments and debate on any of this and you can see Walkley and Dellar’s presentation slides for yourself here:

Are digital classrooms the new paperless offices?

16 Oct

Messy-Office

The office of the 90s

My first job in marketing was back in the late 90s, when I was working for what was then the University of North London (now London Metropolitan). Whilst the 1990s really aren’t that long ago, the office enironment back then was a world away from the kind of offices you’ll find in the UK in 2013. It was a time when people could get away with having a cheeky cigarette at the start or end of the working day if they made a half-hearted attempt to lean out of the window, and where a pint in the pub at lunchtime was standard practice for many of us. It was also a time when email and the internet were starting to change the way we lived our lives and operated in the workplace. Computers had of course established themselves in the workplace long before the 90s, but now electronic communications and networked systems were enabling us to function in different ways, everything seemed faster and more immediate, and there was a very quick and very obvious decline in the number of phone calls being made, as well as the number of memos being written (and I mean handwritten, with  real carbon copies – imagine that kids!). We could all sense that the world was changing at a rapid pace, and whilst we couldn’t accurately predict how this would affect the world of marketing, what  was perfectly obvious to all of us was that within a few years, the paperless office – an idea that had been touted since the 1970s – would become a reality.

Digital classrooms

15 years on and paperless offices – in my experience at least – remain a complete myth. And it’s perhaps because I have this at the back of my mind that I am hugely skeptical whenever anyone mentions digital classrooms, and print being replaced by apps or ebooks. Earlier this year, on the Oxford University Press ELT blog, If there were no books prompted an expansion on this topic from ‘English Raven’ Jason Renshaw with his post Are ELT publishers going to make it App’n?. Before going into this, it’s probably worth noting that when I refer to my skepticism around ‘digital classrooms’ I mean ‘traditional’ classrooms with teachers and students in the same physical space, using only digital devices for learning. This is of course very different from ‘virtual classrooms’ where the teaching is conducted 100% online, and which I have some healthy skepticism around too, but let’s save that for another day.

Apps in ELT

The original Oxford University Press post draws on an experimental approach in a couple of Carlifornian schools, asking whether their method of teaching algebra with ‘interactive full curriculum apps’ on iPads could be just as successful in English language classrooms (‘success’ being definied here as achieving high grades in end of year exams – questionable in itself). Some obvious points are made about the importance of making the technology work for the aims and objectives of the class, not simply transforming printed books into digital format, but providing teachers with the kinds of tools they need – images, videos, contextualised language – to engage their students and meet their objectives. The potential opportunities for personalised learning are also touched upon.

Jason picked up on this post, and responded with his own, making a number of very bold statements:

  • As mobile devices become more affordable and ubiquitous, we won’t be needing textbooks or even e-books; the future will be in apps.
  • Building learning materials in app form creates all of the functionality, flexibility, interactivity and currency that teachers and students are now starting to expect.
  • I am rather vehemently against the idea of simply converting existing textbooks into e-books … or chopping them into little parts to become dried up PDF or e-PUB potpourri.
  • A clever approach to ELT course apps should allow them to be customised while still providing a core and a map.
  • Forget the idea of trying to own/control the platform (and, by extension, all of the distribution). The publisher that tries that on will not only inevitably fail, they won’t be doing their reputation as The (greedy shareholder-appeasing) Empire any good either.
  • Apps can still work with complete freedom of choice. They will thrive or fail based on the quality and relevance of their content and interactivity, which is exactly how it should be.

Are ELT Publishers going to make it App’n? Jason Renshaw (March 2013)

A mix there of absolute faith in the power and potential of apps, and some strongs words of warning to ELT publishers. Perhaps not surprising then that it prompted a fair number of comments. The first of these was around the practicalities of having ‘heavy’ apps on mobile devices, questioning whether anyone would be willing to put a full course book (with associated media content) on to their mobile device, given the amount of storage required. Whilst this might be an issue for older devices, I doubt it’s likely to stay an issue for long.  I recently attended a talk about new technology and future trends where it was suggested that in a matter of a few years, personal data storage would go so far beyond what we can currently imagine that you could wear a pair of glasses that would record your entire life, enabling you to look back on your childhood at any time, or simply to flick back five minutes to see where you left your car keys (though presumably not where you left your glasses). I thought this may be a bit of an exaggeration, but then on a different subject I read this a couple of months ago:

Internet traffic today per person is measured in gigabytes, with six gigabytes of information exchanged per human per year. In 2017, that number will have risen to 16. By then, global data will be counted in zettabytes – roughly one trillion gigabytes.

Nasdaq crash triggers fear of data meltdown, The Guardian (24 August 2013)

Obviously, global data on the internet is different from data on personal devices, but when I see numbers so big my small head can’t really make sense of them, it makes me think that getting a course book app (or several course books apps for that matter) on to a mobile device isn’t likely to be a problem for long. At least not in terms of storage.

So, schools get these wonderful new apps on to mobile devices, but are teachers and students ready to use them? Not in Italy it seems, where Martin Lisboa commented that a couple of years ago, with students aged 18-26, he struggled to get them using digital content on a CD-ROM. This didn’t surprise me at all, and it’s something I’ve been hearing a lot from focus groups recently, from teenagers and young adults  around the world – they still like to learn from printed books. Yes, there’s a small number who have embraced their iPads and would happily go 100% digital, but the vast majority still have a preference for learning from books and consider apps to be for fun, for entertainment, not for ‘serious’ learning.  Perhaps this will change with future generations, perhaps it will take a while for learning on a tablet to feel ‘normal’ and perhaps ELT publishers have yet to produce apps that work effectively as learning tools. Then again, perhaps we’ve spent hundreds of years learning from printed books for a very good reason – because it’s a great way to learn.

This leads neatly on to one of several insightful comments made by Brendan Wightman, starting with the obvious but often forgotten fact that, in some ways, we’ve seen this all before.

Brendan refers to the “enduring legacy of failure where education and technology meet in formal classrooms” and goes on to make some very salient points about teachers being resistent to new technology being introduced from the top down, the potential conflict between informal, flexible learning and the formal, assessment driven syllabus, and the re-working of social arrangements that technology often brings about.

Reading that summary you may be forgiven for thinking that the responses posted by Brendan reflect someone very resistent to the introduction of technology to the ELT classroom, but that’s clearly not the case. They are simply words of caution from someone who can see the need for books to be “re-imagined” and yet understands that this is likely to be a long, continually changing process, with many failures along the way.

Are apps our future?

So, does anyone really believe that apps are the future for ELT classrooms? Jason Renshaw clearly does, but returning to the conclusion of Oxford’s If there were no books post, it seems this publishing house at least is somewhat hedging its bets:

What a good teacher of the future will need, and can then provide to their learners, is enough coherent learning objects to suit the needs of their learners, to keep the class engaged, to help them learn and practise new language all within a well-tested and graded framework provided by an expert in the provision of learning materials. These objects will be for use both in and out of classroom, allowing us finally to arrive at the ultimate course, designed to fit each individual learner with the perfect combination of print and digital publishing.

If there were no books Robert McLarty (March 2013)

Learners first

The key point here is that the ultimate course – whatever that may be – is one that’s designed to fit the individual. Digital content presents use with many opportunities on this front, but forcing digital materials on to individuals will never end successfully. Both teachers and learners need to be comfortable with their learning materials, and the introduction of digital elements needs to happen gradually and organically. Insisting on fast change and the abandoning of printed books in favour tablets – as is happening in some educational institutions – is inevitably going to result in backlash from those on the receiving end. Similarly, I would suggest that any international publisher with a broad range of customers who leaps feet first into apps at the expense of investment in print is highly likely to regret it. The digital classroom is no more a reality for most teachers than the paperless office, and whilst the world is changing at a rapid pace, changes in the way we educate should be gradual and carefully thought through, and certainly not based on point scoring by government officials, the determination of tech companies to get their hardware into schools, the desire of publishers to keep one step ahead of the competition, or a disasterous combination of all three.

Watch out, it’s the Grammar Police!

6 Aug

I shared this in a few different places recently:

To me, at first glance, it seemed harmless. The world’s cutest grammar police politely pointing out celebrities’ grammar mistakes on Twitter and improving their own knowledge of English in their process. Yes, there may be an element of poking fun, but I can’t imagine Daniel Radcliffe crying himself to sleep because Gabriel from Brazil spotted he’d made an error with his tenses:

Gabriel

The only thing that irritated me slightly was that the promo video had clearly been put together by a school that knew a thing or two about self-promotion. But hey, it’s a cut-throat world out there for language schools, so who can blame them for a bit savvy marketing? They’ve actually done such a good job that the story’s been picked up by the media as far afield as Australia, and I’m sure it hasn’t done any harm to student numbers at Red Balloon schools in Brazil.

With media attention, however, comes the inevitable backlash. There are, as far as I can see, two key reasons why these pint-sized grammar police, or more precisely, the teachers encouraging them, have upset a number of people. These criticims have appeared in a number of places, including a LinkedIn group where I posted the above YouTube video:

1. You make a grammatical error on Twitter. Who cares? There are times when grammar matters, and there are times when it doesn’t. With its immediacy and 140-character limit, Twitter is clearly a place where grammar rules and careful spelling are likely to take a back seat. So it’s wrong to nurture grammar cops who insist that grammar must always adhere to prescribed ‘standards’.

2. Teaching children that unsolicited criticism is acceptable is not a great life lesson. Or in other words, no one likes a smart arse. As a six year old, pointing out an adult’s poor grasp of grammar could, maybe, in the right place and at the right time, be quite funny. But is a public forum like Twitter the right place? Continue dishing out opinions in that way as an adult and you’ll find yourself very short on friends.

So are these fair criticisms? They certainly made me think again about whether or not the video I’d shared was really a bit of harmless fun. And I’m no fan of prescriptivism when it comes to grammar, so my feeling is that there well may be a case for questioning what these young students are being taught indirectly.

There are of course always those who will argue that Twitter (and digital communication in general) is responsible for declining standards in written English, and that this is bad. However, quite apart from the ‘language evolves’ counter-argument, I think most people are perfectly comfortable moving from one form of written communication to another. To form the opinion that a person firing off a Tweet and not worrying about spelling and apostrophes can’t in a different setting write a professional, grammatically correct email is to assume most people are stupid. And that’s a pretty sad view of the world.

However, to suggest that the teachers at Red Balloon have this same world view  is reading far too much into what I’m sure they just saw as a fun way of engaging young kids in English grammar. It would therefore be grossly unfair to write them off as hardcore, blinkered prescriptivists.

On top of this, in the same way that I believe the majority of adults can move comfortably between formal and more ‘relaxed’ attitudes to written grammar, I have faith in the intelligence and common sense of (most) kids.  This reassures me that the the grammar cops from Brazil understand the difference between classroom activities and real life, and that they will not strut around Rio de Janeiro spouting unsolicited criticism at those who cross their paths. In fact, for their sake, I very much hope they don’t. On the contrary, I strongly suspect that their controversial, temporary status as the Twitter grammar police will have no adverse effects on them and they will all grow up to be balanced, polite and well-mannered individuals (more than likely with an excellent grasp of English grammar).

How not to learn Japanese

24 Feb

nihongo

I’ve been learning Japanese, with little real success, for years. It’s often said that language learners ‘plateau’ at the intermediate to upper-intermediate level. I can’t say whether that’s the case for me as I’ve never been there. My perfect opportunity for learning Japanese came when I was living and working in Osaka, but I was far too busy having fun. An elderly Japanese lady at a volunteer centre kindly taught me the two phonemic alphabets, katakana and hiragna (resorting to the use of children’s alphabet bricks and mild corporal punishment), then any language I needed for survival – ordering beer, identifying words for raw, grilled and fried, and finding out where trains were going – I picked up from friends and acquaintances.

It was only when I came back to the UK that I started studying the language. I couldn’t find a suitable class, so I bought some books and quickly discovered that many books for learning Japanese are, for want of a better word, crap. I started with ‘Japanese for Busy People’. It felt like a journey back to the 1970s. To be fair, the books do cover the essential grammar and vocabulary you need, but the edition I had was just so uninspiring, centering around the dullard businessman Mr Smith (Smith-san) as he plods from one situation to the next, sucking all the joy out of learning a language. (Quick caveat here, this series of books has been revised since I was using them, so perhaps they’re a little more accessible now?)

japanesebusypeople

Having given up on ‘Busy People’ I then moved on to an entirely Japanese text book – no English rubrics or explanations of grammar points – ‘Minna no Nihongo’. I think there are bilingual versions available, but the version I had was Japanese throughout, and whilst I struggled, I did at least feel I was making some progress. However, even more than the ‘Busy People’, ‘Minna no Nihongo’ was dull: very few illustrations, dense text and clumsy layout. Having initially embraced the challenge, after a few months I simply lost interest.

minnanonihongo

And that’s when I started to explore options beyond books. I began with ‘My Japanese Coach’, a fun game / learning tool available for the Nintendo DS (and possibly other devices) that helps you to build up vocabulary, practise writing Japanese characters, including kanji, and even goes some way to helping you understand sentence structure and grammar. I found it immediately accessible, but it was an academic light-weight. The kind of tool you could make use of to supplement your learning, but nowhere near comprehensive enough to really help anyone master a language, and completely lacking any kind of use as reference material. I still go back to it now and again to practise writing kanji. Unlike elderly Japanese ladies, it can’t administer slaps to the back of my hand if I get the stroke order of the characters wrong, but it does at least mark my work.

nintendo-ds-console

And then we move on to apps and online learning. Our future is mobile, apparently, and although I’m far too tight to spend any real money on apps, I have downloaded a few ‘learn Japanese’ apps on my smartphone, and have made some half-hearted attempts at playing around with Memrise (the best free online resource I’ve found so far).

memrisescreen

However, as with the Nintendo DS, it always feels like these digital resources are providing little more than a bit of vocabulary practice. So, now I’m back to books and I’m currently embracing ‘Nihongo Challenge’, working towards a Japanese proficiency test with three different books that focus on kanji, grammar and vocabulary / reading. This series seems comprehensive, well structured and accessible, and finally I feel like I’m making some progress. But because of the books or because I now have an achievable goal of a proficiency test to work towards?

nihongo challenge

Deep down I know that the key to learning a language isn’t really about picking the right book or mobile app, it’s about embracing the language and the culture around it. Immersing yourself in it at every opportunity and having the motivation to learn. It’s what I consider to be the ‘Danny Choo’ approach. An East London boy done good, Danny has written about his discovery of Japan – including his language learning journey – on his Culture Japan site. It’s a sad, yet ultimately inspiring and fascintating story, well worth reading.

Interestingly, Danny is now himself starting to branch out into ‘fun educational’ products (fuducational?), with Moekana flashcards.

moekana

And if he were to ever release a mobile app for learning Japanese, that’s something I’d probably invest in. Ultimately though, as Danny himself has proved, with real desire anything is possible and a determined person will find a way to learn a language no matter what resources they have (or don’t have) available to them. I’ve got the books, I’ve got the apps, what I really need is the passion and the motivation.

Global trends, big questions: adaptation or extinction?

17 Feb

I went to see a Futurologist recently. Now you may be imagining this:

crystalball

Thankfully, as I soon discovered, Futurologists are not charlatans with crystal balls, they tend to be very much grounded in the reality of now. Before last week I had never even heard anyone refer to themselves as a Futurologist. It was therefore not a great surprise when the speaker began his talk by explaining that the best way to become a Futurologist is to call yourself a Futurologist. It’s not a common profession. A lesson there for anyone saving up for Futurologist school. Oh, and never call a Futurologist a Futurist, it makes them angry. Futurists were spawned from Futurism, an artistic movement that started in Italy in the early twentieth century. Futurology is quite different. It’s the study of existing conditions in an attempt to predict what may happen in the future. Ever looked out of the window and tried to decide whether or not you might need an umbrella later in the day? Congratulations, you’re a Futurologist, feel free to put that on your business card. If you get really good with your analysis of the world, and start to be able to predict global trends, big businesses will pay you a lot of money to advise them on spotting opportunities and scenario planning. Crystal ball is optional.

Anyway, to the point. Despite my flippancy, the talk was brilliant. But, like many brilliant talks, it raised more questions than it answered. Below is a brief summary of what the Futurologist, Richard Watson, had to say.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”
Charles Darwin

As a species, the human race is rubbish at planning. However, we are very good at adapting and dealing with change. This is what has ensured our survival up until now and is likely to ensure our survival in the future. There are five ‘Forces’ that will determine how the future unfolds (six if we include anxiety about the other five):

1. Demographic shifts

Population growth, ageing nations, the rise of single person households, new family forms and other big changes in lifestyle and demographics could, and probably will, have implications for healthcare services, which will come under increasing pressure. There may be skilled labour shortages, a possible shift of economic activity to areas with high fertility rates, such as Africa, and the complexities and volatility of life could drive an interest in simplicity and security. Lots of ifs and maybes, you’ll notice, but that’s what Futorology is about: there are very few certainties, only possibilities.

2. BRICs and Beyond

The big four newly advanced economics (Brazil, Russia, India and China) could conceivably become bigger than G7, but will they become more like the economies of Japan and the US, or will the G7 economies become more like India and China? Can the current global integration hold or are we going to see a counter-trend of nationalism and protectionism? And can China shift from the ‘made in China’ label to an ‘invented in China’ label? However the economies of the world develop, we are likely to see a scramble for resources such as food, land, energy and (this was something Watson was keen to emphasise) water.

Futurologists don’t just look at the present and try to predict the future, they also look to the past. Watson highlighted our tendency to look only at fairly recent history – a generation or two back – in order to establish possible trends. But actually, we should be looking over much longer periods, in fact, as far back as we can, to get a true idea of the big, global trends. Below is a slide that was shown, illustrating the major economies’ share of global GDP over the past 2,000 years:

majoreconomies

So perhaps China, who peaked two centuries ago thanks to the opium trade, are simply climbing back to the global position they were in (along with India) 1,000 years ago, and Western Europe and the US are slipping back to their less dominant position.

3. Global Connectivity

Mobile is now the critical platform – we have huge demand for speed and mobile access in everything – we’ve got open innovation and our machines are getting smarter, but are we? Connectivity is driving data theft, there is volatility and systemic risk, and we have seen that online crowds can bring together both great wisdom and great foolishness. The implications of this global connectivity are more mobile retail and  e-payment systems, growth of augmented reality, more collaborative consumption, and also an increase in personalisation of products.

4. GRIN Technologies

Genetics, Robotics, Information (Internet) and Nanotechnology. We are only just beginning to discover how smart technology can get. These kinds of technologies could help us to solve skills shortages, or add to the amount of skilled employment, there will undoubtedly be a growth in ‘big data’, data analytics and predictive technology, and we may, for example, see a merger between healthcare and financial planning. Check out the DNA home-testing kits on the 23andme website to see how this is already happening:

“Knowing how your genes may impact your health can help you plan for the future and personalize your healthcare with your doctor.”
23andme.com

However, not everyone is likely to embrace this technology-led future, and ‘future shock’ may well fuel a demand for nostalgia. We’ve already seen the ‘slow food‘ movement emerge as a reaction to fast food and fast lives, could the future lead us more towards slow thinking and nostalgia for physical friendships, live events, manual work and local communities?

5. Sustainability

Watson appeared to have a fairly positive view of the future, stating that whilst there are some big concerns – environmental, political, social, economic – on the whole we’re pretty good at adapting, so extinction of the human race is probably not on the cards (at least not in the near future). Nice to know. However, there is a key issue of energy shortage, combined with the fact that conservation is being largely ignored. We could see tightening regulations, H2O could become the next CO2, and measures such as personal movement allowances may not be that far-fetched.

He then went on to present four possible ways in which our world could progress, illustrated below:

Enoughism

Moreism
A combination of social passivism with market optimism will lead to people striving towards a culture of excess. Some would argue that large chunks of the world are already heading in this direction.

Personal fortress
Social passivism and market pessimism lead to people extracting themselves from society and creating small, secluded communities (or taking to the hills with canned food, bottled water and automatic weapons).

Enoughism
Market pessimism and social activism creates a culture of cooperation, conservation and equal sharing of resources. Very much the opposite of Moreism.

Smart Planet
A combination of market optimism and social activism results in an embracing of new technology to build a future based on global collaboration and smart solutions to problems.

I would argue that the world is big enough for all of these to exist simultaneously. Those of us who were listening to this talk, drinking wine in a trendy building in Old Compton Street, London, were, I suspect, all in the fortunate position of being able to select any part of the grid above and living our lives in whatever way we chose. But we’re in the minority. If there’s going to be a big global shift towards one of the quarters outlined above, then it’s going to be driven by the masses, and those masses don’t currently have the luxury of choice.

Pretty big topics. I was a bit disappointed, therefore, when we moved from considering the implications of a global shortage of energy and water to questions from the audience such as ‘What’s the future of the British high street?’ I guess it’s normal though to try and relate global concerns to our immediate world and experiences. With that in mind, I wondered what impact some of these big, global trends could have on publishing, and more specifically, ELT publishing.

“What a business needs the most for its decisions, especially strategic ones, is data about what goes on outside it.”
Peter Drucker

You do not need to be a Futurologist to see that printed books are soon going to be overtaken by their digital counterparts. Printed books can be beautiful, desirable objects so I doubt they’ll disappear completely, but the immediacy and mobile nature of eBooks, combined with ever-decreasing prices of the hardware to read them on, make the switch to digital inevitable. The boom right now is in fiction, but educational resources (including ELT) are already heading in the same direction, and we are seeing initiatives to flood schools with tablet devices in countries such as Turkey and the UAE.

Publishers who adapt to this change to digital will survive, anyone who doesn’t will very soon become extinct. ELT publishers in particular also need to consider where the big markets will be for English language learning in the future and how learning will take place. Do we need more investment, for example, in online resources for remote learning, and adapted, localised support for emerging markets? Localisation is an interesting one as in some ELT markets we’re seeing a real growth in small, local publishers who are producing materials that suit local needs, in terms of content, delivery and just as importantly, price. Global publishers can bring quality and experience to this mix, yet seem determined to compete rather than collaborate. This could be a big mistake.

And finally, what will the role of the English language teacher be? Will physical classrooms all but disappear in the future? Personally, I think the digital can sit very comfortably alongside the physical, and in ELT at least, I can’t see a desire for language learning in a classroom setting disappearing.  Technology just becomes another option, another layer, it can be integrated into more ‘traditional’ approaches, it’s not a case of one or the other. We’ve seen this already in the music industry. The iPod generation have not stopped going to festivals and concerts. The digital world allows us to share content instanteously and create virtual communities, but it cannot replace shared, physical experiences and the thrill of live events. I’m not suggesting that English language teachers are rock stars – despite what some of them may think – simply that most people like to socialise and share the same experiences, particularly when it comes to learning. It’s why people still form book clubs, museums continue to thrive and why, in my opinion, virtual schools and classrooms will never fully replace their physical counterparts. Then again, I’m no Futurologist ….

Richard Watson’s website: http://www.nowandnext.com

He’s written some books too, most recently: Futurefiles and The Future: 50 ideas you really need to know

And finally, check out this great Trend Map

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