Are digital classrooms the new paperless offices?

16 Oct


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:


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).

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.


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.


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.

Time for some Twitter training?

3 Mar

“Our aim is to get the basics right and provide a service which is punctual and reliable, clean and safe.
Our vision is ‘A great journey every day.'”

“Crap old trains, complete disregard for passengers and lack of interest in employing any staff.
Now give us your money.”

Picture this. You’re standing on a freezing cold, wet train platform, waiting for the train that takes you to work. It’s late. Again. 20% of your take-home salary is spent on your annual rail ticket, but most of the train carriages are old and poorly maintained, you rarely get a seat and the service is regularly delayed or cancelled. Station announcements are unreliable, so you follow your train operator’s official Twitter account to keep yourself updated. You look at your phone and you see this:


Well meant perhaps, but might rub you up the wrong way, right? And like this customer, you might feel like Tweeting a response:


Probably best for the official First Capital Connect Tweeter to leave it there. But that’s really not their style:


Welcome to Britain, welcome to First Capital Connect (FirstCC) trains and welcome to their curious Twitter account, @FirstCC. You may well see no problem with the Twitter exchange above, but bear with me, there will be more on that later. First, some context. For those not familiar with the British train system, since the rail network was privatised in 1993, there has been a number of private Train Operating Companies (TOCs) operating on the various different routes. Most of these are franchises, let by the government. Inevitably, some of the TOCs operate better services than others. In a recent customer survey, Virgin were ranked top. FirstCC, who are responsible for getting many people to and from work in London, came bottom of the heap. Now I could blog extensively about the failings of rail privatisation, and the misery of using FirstCC trains, but what caught my attention recently was the way in which FirstCC are attempting to communicate with customers through Twitter. Any organisation considering, or already using social media for Customer Services or Marketing Communications, could learn a lot from the @FirstCC account. Here’s why.

Injecting personality

If you search online for advice on using Twitter for business purposes you’ll no doubt be advised to keep Tweets professional, but not robotic. A bit of personality helps. FirstCC Tweeters have taken this advice on board, using their first names and having distinct personalities. Recently, we’ve been treated to the sarcastic one:



And the condescending one:


And perhaps unsurprisingly, this injection of ‘personality’ irritates some customers:


Keeping it professional

I’m not suggesting that helpful and professional advice isn’t provided by @FirstCC, it is, and the Twitter team clearly care about what they’re doing. For every condescending remark there are many helpful ones, and at present it seems to be one of the better ways in which FirstCC are effectively communicating details of their many delays and bus replacement services. However, the inclination to respond inappropriately and engage in debate really isn’t what passengers need. Arguably, if a passenger is unhappy about their train being cancelled, there’s going to be little that someone on Twitter account can do about it. All that can really be asked of them is to provide the most up-to-date information, and leave it at that. Winding up disgruntled customers simply isn’t necessary and detracts from the more helpful responses:


Giving accurate information

Time and again I’ve found that the frustration caused by cancelled and delayed trains in Britain is multiplied by either no communication at all or a series of conflicting messages.  It’s not at all unusual for a departures board to display one thing, a station announcement to state another and the National Rail website to give no indication at all of any problems. Sadly, the FirstCC Twitter account just seems to be adding to the confusion at times, and presumbably through no fault of their own. It’s simply that the internal communications at FirstCC appear to be in as much of a mess as the exernal, therefore making customers feel as though they’re being deceived:


A difficult job

It can’t be easy working for any form of Customer Services in an organisation that causes as much frustration and misery as FirstCC. And I would never condone the verbal abuse of a member of staff, whether they’re standing on a train platform or Tweeting from cyber space. At the same time, I would never condescend or argue with a customer. Abusive Tweets from passengers are, quite rightly, ignored (most of the time), yet general moans and groans that do not require a response  are regularly responded to with unnecessary remarks by the @FirstCC Tweeters.

Ultimately, most passengers, myself included, would simply like clean, punctual trains, with helpful, polite staff, all at a reasonable price. You know, like they have in many other first-world countries. FirstCC are not to blame for all the problems with our decrepit rail system, they are, however, operating their franchise with absolute contempt for the passengers who have no choice but to use the trains to get to and from work. As one Tweeter put it, every day travelling on FirstCC feels like legislated mugging.

Now whilst I don’t feel qualified to give FirstCC advice on the steps they need to take to improve their service (though I suspect a complete change of senior management would be a good start), what I do have is a solid understanding of the power – and the dangers – of Twitter. And right now, @FirstCC are playing a very dangerous game. Perhaps they’ve just decided that customer dissatisfaction can’t get any worse, so they’ll do what they like, but I really don’t think that’s the case. Those operating the @FirstCC Twitter account do provide useful information and are going some way towards addressing FirstCC’s terrible reputation for communicating with passengers. Whilst adding a bit of personality to these Tweets is fine, the sarcasm and winding up of customers is not, particularly when yet another delayed train is preventing thousands of commuters from getting home to their families.

Lessons learnt

FirstCC do have published ‘Twitter Rules of Engagement‘ and have clearly thought through their Twitter policy. In fact, it seems they’re doing many things right, though – at the risk of coming across as miserable – I would question the need for FirstCC Tweeters to ‘entertain’, as it’s exactly this kind of quirkiness that most long-suffering passengers could do without:

“People often use Twitter to tell us when they’ve been helped (or entertained!) by one of the First Capital Connect team. Including #FCCthanks in your tweet will help us to pass your gratitude to the person who’s earned it.”

If there’s anything other organisations can learn from @FirstCC it’s that cheeky and sarcastic comments are no more acceptable on Twitter than they would be in an old-fashioned letter of apology or at the end of a telephone. The immediacy of Twitter means that when being used for complaints – as the @FirstCC account so often is – the customer is likely to be right in the middle of an unsatisfactory situation, when emotions can run high. They are not sitting at home after the incident, putting together a reasoned letter or email to Customer Services. It may be easy for FirstCC staff to call for a ‘constructive look’ at a situation when they’re Tweeting from their desks, but that’s not quite so easy for the passenger to do when they’ve paid £5,000 for their season ticket and find themselves standing on a cold platform wondering when (and if) their dirty, over-crowded train is going to arrive. For the sake of the @FirstCC Twitter team, I sincerely hope it’s only delays and cancellations they find themselves apologising for in the future.



Thanks to @rtfirstcc which enabled me to pull together these examples with so little effort.

If you’re interested in why First Capital Connect ought to be ashamed of themsleves, this site, put together by one of their many unhappy customers, is a good place to start:

I’ve tried to contact every Tweeter featured above to let them know I’ve featured them on this blog post, but if I’ve missed anyone or, having read this, you’d rather I removed your Tweets, just let me know through this blog or Twitter. I’m not short of other examples to use!

And finally, my intention has been to present a balanced view and I would welcome feedback on this blog post from anyone at First Capital Connect.

How not to learn Japanese

24 Feb


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?)


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.


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.


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).


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.


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:


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:


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.”

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:


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).

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:

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):


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:


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:

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 😉

Coffee shop comedowns

1 Feb

When I go out to eat or drink, I always favour bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants with character. The food and drink is of course important, but if I can enjoy that with professional service in a beautiful or interesting building, taking in a fantastic view or soaking up a friendly, lively atmosphere, then I will happily pay a premium for doing so.

So when I developed a serious taste for coffee a year or two ago, I started to seek out the independent coffee shops near where I lived. I dabbled in tea shops too, but quickly discovered that doilies and frills are really not my thing. Unfortunately I found that whilst lots of places can produce good coffee, finding a coffee shop that met my exacting standards – and I really am hard to please at times – wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I always seemed to be let down by something; ultra slow service, dirty seats and tables, lipstick stained coffee cups, children running riot. As I said, I’m hard to please. I got so desperate a few months ago that I wandered in to a Costa.


I say wandered in, but I was actually lured in by the massive biscuits I could see through the window. One of the aspects of coffee drinking I enjoy is the accompanying food – biscotti, cake, pastries, and of course, because I live in England, a nice biscuit. However, no sooner had I selected my sweet coffee accompaniment (a giant custard cream) than I realised I’d made a mistake. To be fair, the coffee was okay, it was everything else that was awful. Filthy floor, cheap chairs covered in crumbs, tables left uncleared, sultry staff, newspaper racks with half of yesterday’s Daily Mail and a two day old Sun for your reading pleasure, and to top it off, sanitised Bob Marley cover versions being piped through some tinny speakers. Not even a big biscuit could make up for this miserable coffee experience. I vowed never to return.

Giant custard cream

Big biscuits are not enough

Then towards the end of last year a few things piqued my interest in Costa. The first was this advert:

It appeared Costa were re-inventing themselves, showing a playful, creative side. Then I started seeing articles in various marketing magazines, like this one:


It seemed pretty clear that at a time when decent coffee was starting to flood in to the UK, Costa were trying to differentiate themselves through their staff, or what they would call baristas.  Because Costa, with its big custard creams, represents such an authentic Italian experience, right? Anyway, pretentious use of barista aside, could this investment in staff mean not only an improvement in service, but also clean tables and chairs, and regularly swept floors? Staff can’t do a lot about soul-less buildings and head-office approved easy listening, but a well run chain cafe is better than a badly run chain cafe.

And then Costa opened a new coffee shop between the train station and the office where I work. So a couple of weeks ago I gave them a second chance.

The people in charge of the Costa chain clearly aren’t stupid. The new branch I visited is in a freshly developed area close to a major train station with very little competition, lots of new student accommodation and plenty of nearby offices. Not surprisingly, it was quite busy when I visited. And whoever was managing this Costa had decided that the best way to make the most of this prime location and huge demand was to have two members of staff on duty. That’s one to take the money and one to make the coffee. No one to clear tables, no one to sweep the floor, no-one to re-stock the fridge, in short, no-one to care. I selected an excessively chilled sandwich from the three on offer, got in line and waited. When I reached the money taker, a dripping wet tray was retrieved and a plate was thrown on top for me to put my packaged sandwich on. Coffee was ordered, and quickly made, and that was that. The staff were efficient, but miserable and clearly over-worked. You can probably guess how the experience went from there. I couldn’t find a clear table, so cleared one myself, and ate my bland, cold sandwich, drank my coffee, tried not to listen to Jack Johnson, and left. This time REALLY vowing never to return.

Now I realise a bad lunch experience isn’t the end of the world, but all of this reminded me that far too often there is a huge gap between the marketing hype and the reality of goods and services we receive. I don’t blame the staff in Costa. I’d be just as miserable as them if I was dropped into a busy lunchtime shift with not a manager in sight. If a company puts their staff at the centre of a marketing push, they really ought to start investing in those staff and giving them a reason, or reasons, to care. Some will argue that with minimum wage you’ll always get minimum effort. I’m not convinced by that. There are more ways to motivate people than with money, and one of those is creating a pleasant and supportive working environment. Personally, if being a customer in Costa is such a grim experience, I imagine that working there is several times worse.

Anyway, my Costa mis-adventures are soon going to fade into distant memories, as I’ve found two wonderful alternatives for my coffee fixes. The first is Hot Numbers. Great coffee, good music, lovely building, friendly atmosphere, delicious cakes and just as importantly, a well managed business with staff who smile and care:

And if all else fails, then I’ll stay at home where at least any mess is my own, the music will be good and I can invite who I like. This experience can be enhanced with tasty coffee from Tim Peaks, fronted by the brilliant Tim Burgess who serves up daily breakfast bangers via Twitter (@Tim_Burgess) and coffee with biscotti at the delightful With all of that on offer, I’ll happily for-go the giant custard creams.


Cheers Tim!

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:

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.


For more information on Cambridge corpora:

For an insight into data gathering for smaller corpora projects:

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

Always in beta

19 Jan

“The relentless digitisation of products, services and communications is a journey away from linear, one-way, interruption, frequency and inflexibility.”

Neil Perkin
Founder, Only Dead Fish

I recently discovered ‘Only Dead Fish’. That may not sound like a good thing, but I assure you it is. ‘Only Dead Fish’ is a digital and media consultancy business founded by Neil Perkin. Reading Perkin’s blog, and specifically looking through a presentation on ‘agile planning’ that he posted back in 2011, I was struck by how relevant it was to the work I do – and I’m sure many others who’ve engaged with it feel the same way, no matter what industry they work in. It was one of those moments when the ideas and approaches that I employ every day, but have never fully thought through, are presented in an enlightening and coherent way, reassuring me that what I’m doing does make sense, and encouraging me to embrace the opportunities presented by a world – driven by new, digital technology – that’s forever changing and evolving.

Traditional approaches to marketing involve auditing, planning, implementing, measuring, analysing, and, well you get the idea. It’s a cyclical process, in the sense that your measuring and anlaysing feeds into your future planning, but it’s fairly rigid. Once you’ve done your research, put together a strategy and have a plan, you pretty much stick to it. In my previous life as a teacher, there was a similar approach. After assessing the needs of a class (or more commonly the requirements of the school syllabus – the two weren’t always 100% compatible) I’d put together an overarching plan for a period of time, plus specific plans for each lesson. But as all teachers know, lessons don’t always go to plan. And if it looks like the lesson is starting to fall flat on its face, you need to adapt to the needs of the class, you need to be flexible. You need to be agile.

Perkin describes agile planning as ‘a set of guiding principles’ as opposed to a ‘process’. There are seven of these:

1. Ideas from anywhere

I particularly like this one and it’s what made me stick with Perkins’ 91-slide presentation. It’s the idea that organisations should encourage employees to connect with one another, there needs to be a flow of ideas. People should not be placed in silos. (I couldn’t agree more!)

2. Users at the centre

We should observe our customers in context. We should challenge questions and find the problems that need to be solved.

3. Not a single solution, but lots of choices

Create and curate choice.

4. Test and learn

Design with vision and optimise with feedback. Advantage comes from responsiveness and adaptability, rather than scale.

5. ‘Always on’ marketing

Less emphasis on campaigns, and more on continuous communication. Be useful, interesting, entertaining and playful, and build a culture of experimentation, not planning. (For me this is the toughest one as it can involve battles if an organisation doesn’t fully embrace experimentation. However, some things are definitely worth fighting for!)

6. Smart collection and reapplication of data

Use data to deliver a better user experience.

7. Free your mind (and your budget)

Detailed plans are the enemy of adaptability.


Before I saw this being referred to as ‘agile planning’ I’d always thought of it simply as ‘flexibility’. Planning is good. It helps me to think things through, to allocate resources, and sometimes even more importantly, having a detailed written plan – that follows rigid guidelines – reassures those above me in the heirarchy that I know what I’m doing. However, with digital products and digital marketing and communications, detailed plans are fast becoming a huge waste of time. Yes, of course we still need clear objectives and a well thought through strategy that we can communicate to those we work with. It’s the concept of a campaign plan, with clear start and end dates, that I think is being fast replaced by an ongoing and more agile approach.

In work, as in all aspects of life, no matter how much we plan, it’s the unplanned that will either delight and surprise us, or knock us sideways, and we need to embrace this. Organisations that accept that we are always in beta, always experimenting, will be able to react quickly to new opportunities. Let’s stop wasting time on detailed plans and just get stuck in, or as a certain sportswear company would say, Just Do It.

“While we are in here bullshitting about strategy, something is happening out there.”

Gary Humel
US Management Expert

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