Tag Archives: ELT

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.

Going Underground

26 Aug

Amazon have announced the launch of Underground – a (potentially) disruptive new model for mobile app distribution, designed to make premium app content free and therefore bring an end to paid-for apps and in-app purchasing. How does it work, why have they done this, and what might the implications be for educational apps and ELT? Well, it breaks down like this:

Access to free, premium apps

Owners of Android devices can download the ‘Amazon Underground‘ shopping app directly from Amazon (it’s not on Google Play) and gain immediate access to free apps. Amazon have launched this in the US, the UK, France and Germany, but presumably access for more countries will be coming soon. Of course, this is early days so don’t expect to choose from the million-plus apps that you’re presented with on Google Play. This new model is dependent on content providers – app developers – buying into Amazon’s vision and it will therefore take time to build up content. However, Amazon have managed to launch with an impressive range of apps, so if you’re an Android user and a fan of Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds (or if Office Suite Professional 8 is more your thing), it’s well worth taking a look.

Importantly, this is not Amazon Prime or a similar subscription service. It is completely free. You do have to register with Amazon, and therefore become a part of their eco-system (if you’re not already), but you didn’t seriously expect this offer to be completely catch-free, did you?

 If premium apps are free, how do developers make money?

Unlike Google Play and the Apple App Store, where developers make their money from download payments, in-app purchases and/or in-app advertising, with this new Amazon model the end user pays nothing, it is instead Amazon who pay the developers.

With a ‘usage per minute’ model, developers receive royalty payments from Amazon based on the number of minutes users have accessed their app(s) for. In theory, this will help to maintain quality, as developers will only be successful if their apps are good enough to continually engage users.

 So isn’t this just another way for developers to monetize their ‘free’ apps?

No. Amazon have imposed some strict (and some slightly vaguer) rules about the kinds of apps that can be distributed through this model, and one of those rules is that the app must be available for sale elsewhere (essentially, Google Play or the Apple App Store), so this rules out the multitude of low quality, free apps currently bulking out the app stores.

It’s also worth noting that any apps with in-app purchasing have to be re-built to strip out this functionality, and whilst in-app advertising is permissible, in-app advertising that rewards users with in-app purchase items is not.

What’s in it for Amazon?

More customers registered with Amazon. And data. Lots and lots of data.

Are Google and Apple quaking in their boots?

Unlikely. At least, not yet. If this new model takes off, and users start to drift way from Google Play, or switch from iPhones to the likes of Samsung and Sony, then Google and Apple will have to react, but there are a lot of ‘ifs’ and many of the question marks will be around content. There’s little point in having a thousand free apps if the one app that every teenager wants is only available for iOS or on Google Play. Presumably though, there are mums and dads funding their teenagers’ app purchases who will be wishing Amazon every success with this new venture. The importance of getting the right content mustn’t be underestimated, and it’s an area where Amazon, and others, have struggled with digital products such as eReaders, when ‘paucity of content’ in some markets dramatically inhibits sales.

Any benefits for education and English language teaching?

Amazon’s focus appears to be on games though clearly, free educational apps would appeal to many schools (and parents), but if you don’t pay for your content, you are at the mercy of developers who can, at any point, opt out and withdraw their app(s). Not great if you’ve integrated something into your curriculum and it disappears part way through the academic year. For primary and secondary schools there’s the added complication (possibly an impassable barrier?) of Amazon registration. The model appears to be geared much more towards individuals, and simply not designed for the distribution and volume purchase needs of educational institutions. That said, if a sizeable opportunity arose, no doubt Amazon would find a way…

For ELT then, perhaps of more interest is the potential for adults studying by themselves or attending language classes and needing some supplementary support. There is of course no shortage of this kind of material freely available online and on the app stores, but why trawl through hours of dubious grammar explanations on YouTube if you can download – and access offline – quality content from reputable digital publishers? Naturally, this is dependent on said publishers seeing value in distributing their apps through this new Amazon model when they might be doing perfectly well with the more traditional sales channels. But is any developer really happy with losing a third of all their revenue to Google and Apple? And wouldn’t it be nice for your lovingly created app to be sitting with a relatively small selection of ‘premium’ content rather than frantically waving for attention as it drowns in a sea of cheap, poorly executed rubbish churned out from someone’s bedroom in South East Asia? (Rubbish apps from other parts of the world also available.)

OK, sounds interesting. And finally my Fire Phone purchase makes sense!

Umm, no. The Fire Phone is not supported, and neither are Generation 2 or earlier Fire tablets. Bad luck.

Check out the Twitter chatter on the Amazon-led hashtag: #actuallyfree

Is the UK the worst place to teach English?

4 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dispensing with the education and technology bullshit

2 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why don’t teachers use eBooks for professional development?

28 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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