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Learning from the games industry

14 Mar

IMG_0481

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.

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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.

Always judge a book by its cover?

17 Mar

You may not realise it from looking at what’s on offer, but ELT publishers really care about the covers of their books. And why are covers so important? Well, let’s start with the wider world of books, films and music. From a personal point of view, I feel that great pieces of work deserve to be wrapped with care and style, be that London Calling or Call of the Wild, and in fact, the exterior artwork is as much a part of that work as the inner content.

londoncalling

I miss the days of looking through artwork and reading lyrics that have been carefully put together as part of a double LP that I’ve had to hunt down by spending hours digging around in record shops (really showing my age now!). Similarly with books, if I’m going to be reading something over a course of time, and it’s going to be sitting up on my bookshelf, then I want to enjoy looking at it. Or at the every least, have a cover that does justice to the content. The fuss made over Faber’s recent anniversary cover of Plath’s The Bell Jar illustrates just how protective people are of works of literature that they love, and how misjudging the artwork on the cover of your book can seriously backfire.

belljar

Now I’m not suggesting that English in Mind is to Cambridge University Press what Nevermind is to Nirvana. Let’s be honest, you might love your faithful old copy of Oxford’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary or Cambridge’s English Grammar in Use,  but would you feel compelled to fire off an email of complaint if the covers of these titles were to be substantially changed?

EGiU fourth edition

So if we agree that ELT products are never likely to sit alongside the film, literature and music that we love and cherish, do the covers matter at all? Essentially these are learning tools, so if we were to go down the route of what’s being planned for cigarette packets in the UK  (by which I mean blank packaging, not images of rotting lungs) would it matter?

Yes, it probably would matter. For a few reasons.

1. The flick factor. Whether you’re a language teacher looking for a new course book or a student hunting out some supplementary self-study materials, you have a lot of choice. Too much choice perhaps. So publishers are fighting for your attention, and whether that’s online or in a bookshop, the front cover is one of the first things you’ll notice. If it fails to catch your attention, you’ll never get as far as flicking through the content (which, incidentally, also needs to be attractively designed and well laid out). Many people do judge books by covers.

2. You’ve got to live with this book. It may not be as close to your heart as Pride and Prejudice, but as a teacher you’re going to have to live with certain books day in, day out, possibly for months, maybe even for years. You could also be the person presenting a new set of course books to your students, and ideally you want them to be pleased with your choice. Rightly or wrongly, the front cover of a book can be the first step in engaging students in the content.

3. Good covers show the publisher cares. Well, sometimes. If a publisher has given little thought to the front cover, or even if a lot of thought has been given but the end result is awful, what does that say about the actual content of the book? To be fair, those who designed the covers are unlikely to be the same people who wrote and edited the content, but a shoddy front cover or typos on the back cover are often an indication of  standards inside the book as well. Conversely, beware of books where all of the investment has been thrown at design. The same is true online, where slick websites are all too often masking the fact that the learning materials are dull and uninspiring. Particularly for course books, get samples and trial before you invest!

In short, book covers are important, and ELT publishers know this. As we move towards more digital content, those who are really on the ball will be adapting new covers accordingly. Where once the spine of the book was important because that’s the first thing many people would see in bookshops, now it’s key to ensure that the covers work well as thumbnail images. Increasingly, designs will also need to be optimised for tablets (no matter what way up you’re holding the device) and the covers themselves may soon become animated, interactive and/or customisable.

So, does a bad cover mean a bad book? Well, no, not necessarily. Does a good cover mean a good book? Definitely not. It is an indication though and I don’t think anyone’s going to stop judging books their covers any time soon.

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

Vive la eRevolution (Seconde Partie)

10 Feb

My post a couple of weeks ago on the eLanguage corpus, CANELC (Cambridge and Nottingham eLanguage Corpus), prompted a few questions on Twitter and other social media sites about word frequencies. I’d made the observation that despite the very direct nature of Twitter and other eLanguage, ‘thank you’ was the second most frequent two-word item in the CANELC corpus, suggesting that politeness isn’t being lost, even though economy of space means that we’re reducing the hedging and softening in our communications.

However, I didn’t want to dwell too much on the frequency tables because out of context, and without analysis, they’re pretty meaningless.That said, Professor Carter has kindly provided the slides from his talk so I can now give at least a few insights into what these frequency lists might tell us. Plus, I like lists, and it seems other people do too, so here are the top 50 most frequent single words from CANELC (click on the image to increase the size):

corpora1

In his talk, Professor Carter noted a high frequency of pronouns, which is particularly interesting when you compare the CANELC list to the 100 million word BNC (British National Corpus). Pronoun use in the spoken BNC = 1: 38; in the written BNC = 1: 200; and in CANELC = 1: 43. A clear indication  that eLanguage has far more in common with spoken language than with ‘traditional’ written language. The demonstratives ‘this’ and ‘that’ are also high up on the list, which Professor Carter feels “underlines the personal nature of most e-communication, with significant pointing to referents in the most immediate environments.”

And here are the top 50 most frequent two-word units:

corpora2

With this list we see what Professor Carter refers to as “the frequent use of temporal referents” which “allows for an immediate or near-immediate information exchange in near real-time.” So words like ‘next week’, ‘next year’, ‘this morning’ and so on are helping to create “a shared digital space rather than physical space, within which the social, physical and temporal context is frequently changeable.” And in this way, eLanguage as a ‘genre’ “behaves like synchronous communication.” So although this language is written, many exchanges are taking place in real time and, perhaps inevitably, the language is more like that we are used to hearing in spoken communication.

Going back to the single word list, you will see that the humble ‘x’ is sitting at number 38. This is because the most common closings in eLanguage are: x, xx and xxx. In his talk, Professor Carter referred to a Daisy Goodwin column in the Sunday Times from August 2012. The article  highlights how written business communications, which were once “carefully calibrated and deeply unexciting” now leave us “floundering in semantic uncertainties.” It seems an ‘x’ or two (or three) at the end of an email is not just for friends and family, they’re creeping in to business emails too, leaving some of us unsure whether flirtation has moved out of the stationery cupboard and on to email, or if we’re causing offence by omitting an x, xx or xxx from our own business communications.

These are just a few observations which barely scratch the surface of Professor Carter’s and Dr Knight’s talk, and the pilot project they conducted. We are likely to see CANELC, and similar projects, soon having a significant impact on written corpora data, and this will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on our understanding of eLanguage and have implications for language learning and teaching in the future. In fact, CANELC data has already been added to the Cambridge Written English Corpus, the web pages for which explain in more detail how corpora are used in ELT materials writing.

Corpus banner

Want to find out more about eLanguage corpus research? Below is a table, again kindly supplied by Professor Carter, of other projects that have been initiated around the world. What’s different about these is that unlike CANELC, which took samples from a wide variety of e-communication, the corpora listed below are more bespoke, each focusing on one very specific variety of eLanguage:

othercorporaprojects
Interesting to see that one person’s junk mail is another person’s research project. Should anyone take the time to seek out information on these projects, please do post any insights. xxx 😉

Vive la eRevolution!

25 Jan

“We are in the middle of a syntactical and discursive revolution.”

Ron Carter (2013)
Research Professor of Modern English Language, University of Nottingham, UK

You’d be hard pushed these days to find decent, up-to-date ELT course materials that don’t claim to be informed, in one way or another, by corpora.  Digital technology allows us to gather and analyse all kinds of language data which in turn helps to inform language teaching and materials development. A couple of short blog posts from Professor Ron Carter (2011) provide a gentle and very readable introduction to corpora and corpus linguistics for anyone new to this: http://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2011/12/12/a-few-words-on-corpus-linguistics/

Some corpora are bigger than others

The true value of corpora informed ELT materials depends on two key elements: the nature of the corpus or corpora that have been used, and the way in which the information they reveal has been practically applied. And it’s not just about size. For example, if you have a 10o million word corpus consisting primarily of samples from written academic work by native English speakers, that’s not going to be of much use for informing an ELT book on speaking skills. Ideally, a corpus should represent data from a balanced range of ages, nationalities, gender, occupations and so on, and it must be very aware of its own limitations, some are general and some are very specific.

Texts and tweets

I was therefore curious when I heard about a ‘texts and tweets’ project being led by Professor Carter, which has been addressing the (some would say long overdue) need for a corpus that gathers, for want of a better word, ‘eLanguage’ data. It’s a pilot research project called CANELC (Cambridge and Nottingham eLanguage Corpus) and some of the inital findings were presented by Professor Carter and Dr Dawn Knight, to staff at Cambridge University Press this week.

CANELC is a one million word corpus of digitally-based communication in English. Data has been gathered from UK message boards, blogs, tweets, emails and SMS messages, between the years of 2006 and 2011, though with the majority of data coming from 2010 and 2011. The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed a few limitations already: UK only, no 2012 data and no Facebook. In the words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast”, in fact so fast these days, that by the time you think you’ve got to grips with the OMGs and LOLs, those pesky kids have invented a whole new way of communicating, LOL is only used with a sarcastic tone, OMG is lame, and you’re an old dinosaur. The issue with no Facebook data relates to consent. The chaining effect on Facebook and distribution amongst friends makes it close to impossible to obtain consent to use this data in a corpus. Similar problems exist on other social media sites.

Let’s talk about syntax

So those are some of the problems, but this pilot project has provided some fascinating insights into the ways in which eLanguage is changing the way we communicate in English, and what I felt was central to Professor Carter’s and Dr Knight’s findings was that it’s not all about new words / acronyms, or even new meanings for ‘old’ words (net, surf, windows, etc.). It’s syntax and discourse that are changing, and we’re in the middle of a revolution.

Here’s just a small sample of what the analysis of this corpus revealed:

We are seeing much more informality and ‘spoken-ness’ in written language. This is not limited to SMS and Twitter. Emails are becoming just as informal.

Politeness, softening and hedging are becoming much less common. Perhaps due to the economy of space, Twitter communication tends to be very direct. Though I did notice that ‘thank you’ is at number two on the two-word lexical item frequency list.

There’s a big increase in personal pronouns, when compared with other corpora.

Kisses are a pervasive feature of ecommunication. The presence, number or absence of kisses at the end of a message is an aspect of ‘netiquette’ that leaves many people floundering.

The rules of punctuation are pretty much suspended.

Pictures and emoticons are an essential part of ecommunication, with the visual over-riding the linguistic.

Haptic communication ‘((hugz))’ seems to be a way of bringing a physical presence to the digital world. We are also obsessed with saying where we are and what we’re doing. Or even what we’re not doing.

Modal verbs are starting to slip out of usage.

Banter, play and creativity with language are all very common.

This really is just the tip of the iceberg and opens far more questions than it answers. In essence we are seeing language that is a hybrid of written and spoken communication, one that’s constantly evolving, and one that doesn’t just exist in digital form but which is creeping into the way we speak as well.

Implications for ELT

Professor Carter made it very clear that eLanguage adds another layer (possibly even layers) of complication to the world of the English language learner, but in his opinion it complicates it for the better. Awareness of the way we use language in the digital world is becoming essential and it’s fascinating to see how this is affecting all aspects of communication. Whilst the ideas of ‘netiquette’ and eLanguage are starting to appear in some course materials, it’s unlikely that we’re going to see marginalisation of modal verbs anytime soon, and particularly when these things are still being tested in national and international language examinations. As far as I’m aware, replying to a celebrity tweet is not yet a core element of Cambridge’s First Certificate exam.

And on the topic of celebrity tweets, I was interested to hear Professor Carter cite another piece of research (I didn’t catch the source) that had analysed the language of celebrities on Twitter. It will perhaps come as no surprise to many Twitter users that choice language is prevalanet amongt celebrity Tweeters, and the UK’s own Lily Allen (now Lily Rose Cooper) came top of the swearers. That’s @lilyrosecooper for any language learners who want to learn how to curse like a sailor.

lilyallentwitter

For more information on Cambridge corpora: http://www.cambridge.org/elt/catalogue/subject/item2701617/Cambridge-International-Corpus/

For an insight into data gathering for smaller corpora projects: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IBAREv9ZrxA

For highlights from Professor Carter’s and Dr Knight’s CANELC talk: #CANELC live tweeted by @ericbaber (24 January 2013)

Death of the print dictionary?

12 Jan

“Like maps and encyclopedias – but unlike novels or newspapers – dictionaries are things you consult (while you’re doing something else) rather than things you read. For any kind of reference enquiry, the book really can be improved upon, and at Macmillan, we’ve taken the decision to phase out printed dictionaries and focus on our rich and expanding collection of digital resources.”

Rundell, M. (2012) Stop the presses – the end of the print dictionary www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/bye-print-dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary announced towards the end of 2012 that they would no longer be printing dictionaries. They were going 100% digital.  Many dictionary users around the world shrugged their shoulders. If there has ever been a print product in need of regular updating, and benefitting from a digital format, then it’s the dictionary. Digital dictionaries enable easy searching, audio (and therefore pronunciations you can hear as well as read) and portability. For many years dictionary users have been able to load content on to their PCs from CD-ROMs and we now have eBooks and online products with integrated dictionaries, plus a wealth of free online options and low-cost (and high-cost) mobile apps. Since 2010, winners of the popular UK TV show Countdown have received a laptop and lifetime subscription to Oxford Online, replacing the long-standing traditional prize of a leather-bound, 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. Macmillan may have been the first to make a formal announcement, but all dictionary publishers have been going digital for years.

So the print dictionary is dead, right? Or are we getting it dead wrong?

Last week I presented details of our 2013 plans for ELT dictionary publishing at the Cambridge University Press ELT winter sales conference in Athens. These plans include a new (fourth) PRINT edition of the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, due to be published in Spring 2013. And the reason we’re doing this? In simple terms, because there’s still demand from our customers. Whilst digital immigrants are becoming more accepting of content in digital format, and digital natives expect it, given the choice there is still a solid market for print, and this includes dictionaries. A presentation at the same conference from a hugely successful Greek wholesaler illustrated that this is particularly true in Greece where, despite the country’s economic woes, the ELT industry continues to provide a good living for print book sellers and distributors who work effectively with publishers, and who understand what their customers want. For me, it underlined the importance of taking an objective look at the markets, listening to customers and analysing data objectively, rather than making dangerous assumptions or predictions and then applying them globally, based on my own digital preferences or customer behaviours in the UK.

So if it’s generally accepted that digital dictionaries are a good idea, why this continued interest in print? When the Macmillan announcment appeared online I put a question about the value of print dictionaries to a business English Linkedin group. Opinions were mixed, but here are some of the responses in favour of print:

“I like using print versions with my younger students, because it helps them with learning the alphabet and how and where to find a word in a dictionary. It may be old-fashioned but I still think it is an essential skill to learn.”

“I still hand students monolingual dictionaries in class as their phones only have bi-lingual ones. And sometimes just looking at a whole page (especially those with wonderful illustrations) is better than checking online.”

“There is no doubt that searching for a word in a book has a value that cannot be found in pressing a key. The imprint it makes on a person and his memory is different perhaps because it involves his human faculties. An online dictionary puts the meaning in front of you as a piece of dry information without any sense of accomplishment (effort).”

“A dictionary is a great resource … once opened, it’s difficult for a motivated student to close. I find students use printed dictionaries both at home and in the classroom – they feel comfortable with them …”

Clearly then, not everyone is in favour of dictionaries only being available digitally, and perhaps because of the particular ways dictionaries are used when learning another language, it seems the ELT community will continue to embrace print, as long as it’s available. You’ll find similar comments on the Macmillan blog.

However, the process of publishing planning is a detailed and complex one, heavily dependent on financial viability and therefore not nearly as simple as just looking at sales figures and speaking to customers and distributors. There is no guarantee that Cambridge, or any other publisher, will continue to print ELT dictionaries in the coming years and our digital alternatives (online and mobile) are already making a huge impact. For example, it is thought that the free dictionaries at dictionary.cambridge.org  are the world’s most popular online ELT dictionaries. Monthly visits are in the millions, and by allowing advertising on the site Cambridge can offer users a range of quality, up-to-date dictionaries completely free of charge. There’s also an API developer hub.

For the time being though, Cambridge will continue to offer learners and teachers of English a choice – and many are choosing to access our dictionaries in more than one way. As we stride in to 2013, it seems that the reported death of the print dictionary in 2012 was an exaggeration.

Find out more about Cambridge print dictionaries and mobile apps at www.selfstudy.cambridge.org

Free Cambridge ELT dictionaries can be accessed at dictionary.cambridge.org

Follow Cambridge ELT dictionaries, including ‘Word of the Day’:

Facebook www.facebook.com/pages/Cambridge-Dictionaries-Online

WordPress dictionaryblog.cambridge.org

Twitter @CambridgeWords

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