Humanizing adaptive learning for ELT

March 17th, 2014

Part 1:  Knewton, adaptive learning, and ELT
Part 2:  Open platforms and teacher-driven adaptive learning

The debate over adaptive learning at eltjam, Philip Kerr’s blog, and Nicola Prentis’ Simple English has been both fascinating and instructive, not only due to the posts but also the great dialogue in the comments. It’s a fun topic because it involves our core beliefs regarding language acquisition, effective teaching, and the roles that technology can play.

That said, I can’t help but feel that in some respects we’re thinking about adaptive learning in a limited way, and that this limited perspective, combined with Knewton confusion, is distorting how we approach the topic, making it into a bigger deal than it really is. But, given the potential power that the new “adaptive learning” technology may indeed have, we do need to see clearly how it can help our teaching, and where it can potentially go wrong.

Adaptive learning in context
I wrote “adaptive learning” in scare quotes above because I think the name itself is misleading. First, in a very important way, all learning is adaptive learning, so the phrase itself is redundant.  Second, the learning, which is carried out by the learner, is not what the vendors provide: “Knewton…constantly mines student performance data, responding in real time to a student’s activity on the system. Upon completion of a given activity, the system directs the student to the next activity.” That is not adaptive learning, but rather adaptive content; it is the content sequence (of “activities”) that adapts to the learner’s past performance. We can call adaptive content “micro-adaptation”, since it happens at a very granular level.

Now, good teachers have been adapting to our students for how long…millennia? We assign homework based on what we know of our students’ strengths and weaknesses (adaptive content).  In the communicative classroom, we are always adjusting our pacing, creating new activities, or supporting spontaneous discussion based on our perception of the students’ needs in that moment (the adaptive classroom).  Dogme is one kind of adaptive learning in the classroom. And, when the stars align, educators can successfully design and deploy a curriculum, including methods and approaches, that iteratively adapts to student needs over time (the adaptive curriculum). We can call the adaptive curriculum “macro-adaptation”.



So how does the new, algorithmic adaptive learning, such as Knewton helps deliver, address each of these categories?

+ As we saw above, the content level is where Knewton focuses, and it’s limited to task level online content that can be objectively scored (micro-adaptation). But, it can do amazing things with this limited data, especially when the data is aggregated (“big data”).  Knewton can change the activity sequence in real time to better fit the student’s performance, and can then make statistical inferences about the quality of specific activities and sequences of activities.

+ For the classroom, students would need tablets or smartphones in order to input the data that Knewton needs. I can think of some very cool pairwork and groupwork tasks involving tablet-based activities, but these aren’t individualized and so would be out of Knewton’s scope. Presumably the student data can only be created by individual tasks, which would severely limit its utility in a communicative classroom. However, the content level input resulting from student online work (e.g. homework, or from a blended course) could be valuable for teachers to have and could help optimize classroom lesson planning.

+ For the curriculum category, algorithmic adaptive learning can analyze the student performance data resulting from the content level, and then deliver insights that can potentially be fed into the curriculum, helping certain aspects if the curriculum iterate and adapt over time (there are limitations here that are discussed below).

So as a tool, Knewton has potential for the ELT profession. But, whether the tool is used appropriately, or not, does not depend on Knewton, but rather on the publishing partners that use the Knewton’s tools. All Knewton does is provide publisher LMSs with a hook into the Knewton data infrastructure.  Knewton is a utility. It’s the publishers that decide how to best design courses that use Knewton in a way that is pedagogically appropriate and leverages Knewton’s strengths to provide adaptive content, classrooms, and curricula. It is the publishers that must understand Knewton’s limitations. As a tool, it can’t do everything – it can’t “take over” language learning, or relegate teachers to obsolescence, although Knewton’s marketing hyperbole might make one think that.

Limitations for ELT
If Knewton’s ambition is one concern, then another is that it is not specifically designed for ELT and SLA, and therefore may not understand its own limitations. Knewton asks its publishing partners to organize their courses into a “knowledge graph” where content is mapped to an analyzable form that consists of the smallest meaningful chunks (called “concepts”), organized as prerequisites to specific learning goals.  You can see here the influence of general learning theory and not SLA/ELT, but let’s not concern ourselves with nomenclature and just call their “knowledge graph” an “acquisition graph”, and call “concepts” anything else at all, say…“items”.  Basically our acquisition graph could be something like the CEFR, and the items are the specifications in a completed English Profile project that detail the grammar, lexis, and functions necessary for each of the can-do’s in the CEFR.  Now, even though this is a somewhat plausible scenario, it opens Knewton up to several objections, foremost the degree of granularity and linearity.

A common criticism of Knewton is that language and language teaching cannot be “broken down into atomised parts”, but that it can only be looked at as a complex, dynamic system.  This touches on the grammar McNugget argument, and I’m sympathetic. But the reality is that language can indeed be broken down into parts, and that this analytic simplification is essential to teaching it. Language should not only be taught this way, and of course we need to always emphasize the communicative whole rather than the parts, and use meaning to teach form.  But to invalidate Knewton because it uses its algorithms on discrete activities is to misunderstand the problem. Discrete activities are essential, in their place. The real problem that Knewton faces in ELT is that both the real-time activity sequencing, and the big data insights delivered that are based on these activity sequences, are less valuable and could be misleading.

They are less valuable in ELT for at least two reasons.  First, they are less valuable because these big data insights come from a limited subset of activities, and much student-produced language and learning data is not captured.

Second, they are less valuable because language learning is less linear than other, general learning domains (e.g. biology, maths). Unlike in general learning domains, most language students are exposed to ungraded, authentic, acquirable language (by their teacher, by the media, etc.) that represents an approximate entirety of what is to be learned. Algebra students are not exposed to advanced calculus on an ongoing basis, and if an algebra student were exposed to calculus, the student wouldn’t be able to “acquire” calculus the way humans can acquire language.  Therefore, for ELT, the cause-effect relationship of Knewton’s acquisition graph and the map of prerequisite items is to some extent invalidated, because the student may have acquired a prerequisite item by, say, listening to a song in English the night before, not by completing a sequence of items. That won’t happen in algebra.

Because of these limitations, Knewton will need to adapt their model considerably if it is to reach its potential in the ELT field.  They have a good team with some talented ELT professionals on it, who are already qualifying some of the stock Knewton phraseology (viz. Knewton’s Sally Searby emphasising that, for ELT, knowledge graphing needs to be “much more nuanced” in the last Knewton response on eltjam).  And, hopefully Knewton’s publishing partners will design courses with acquisition graphs that align with pedagogic reality and recognize these inherent limitations.

Meanwhile, as they work to overcome these limitations, where can Knewton best add value to publisher courses? I would guess that some useful courses can be published straightaway for certain self-study material, some online homework, and exam prep – anywhere the language is fairly defined and the content more amenable to algorithmic micro-adaptation. Then we can see how it goes.

In Part 2 of this post we’ll focus on the primary purpose of adaptive learning, personalization, and how this can be achieved by Knewton as well as by teacher-driven adaptive learning using open platforms.  As Nicola points out, we need to start with “why”….


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Do you have ELT experience in Saudi Arabia?

July 18th, 2013

We’re just starting a fascinating, multi-year ESP project in Saudi Arabia, designing and supporting the English programs for seven new colleges. Blended learning of course, using the English360 platform. We’ll be designing a custom curriculum, authoring content, and creating an online community of practice for the teaching team.

Now, usually we do the course design and content authoring in house, but this is a big project with a near-immediate start date, so we’re looking for a few people to work with, primarily ELT/ESP editors, authors, teacher trainers, and consultants with experience in Saudi Arabia. Teachers are welcome as well, especially if you have some innovative ideas on adapting lessons and methods to the culture.

So, if you’re a freelance ELT/ESP professional with experience in Saudi Arabia, and are looking to put in 5-20 hours weekly on a new project, please get in touch. You can work virtually from wherever you are, and get to work with Jeremy Day and Valentina Dodge, which is always fun and sometimes exciting.  Email me with your CV and whatever information you think relevant at cleve (at) and use “KSA project team” as the subject line please.

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My IATEFL session slides, and general conference impressions

April 22nd, 2013

Here are the slides of the my IATEFL session, and thanks to everyone who emailed me asking for them.

I thought the session went well, although if I do this talk again I’ll switch up the organization a bit, in order to match the case studies to the framework. This would give the audience a real-life example for every step in the framework, instead of leaving the all the examples to the end. And of course I had to rush the end, because, 30 minutes, come on!  Sessions that short are approaching TED Talk length and in my opinion a professional conference is more about in-depth professional development, not the slick and shiny “ideas worth spreading” TED format that is compelling yet often lacking depth.

I spent most of the conference at the English360 stand, which meant I couldn’t see many sessions – frustrating. But the level of interest in open platforms in general, and English360 in particular, was intense. So our time at the stand was spent in energetic discussion about blended learning with our colleagues and customers. Usually you can learn as much doing that as you can going to sessions, if you really listen.

Thoughts on IATEFL Liverpool:

+ It was great to see the interest in the “flipped classroom” – many sessions on that theme. Valentina’s session was packed, and the room held 300. I have some lingering concern about the term though.  I still don’t see the difference between “flipped classroom” and a well-designed, integrated blended language learning course. “Flipped” seems the buzzword for what we’ve been saying all along…input, heads down tasks, and drilling usually take place in the online component, and collaborative, communicative stuff F2F. Furthermore, we really need to differentiate between the aims and approach of the flipped classroom in non-ELT courses (where it originated) and ELT contexts. They are very different beasts. Paul Braddock in his excellent session in the LTSIG pre-conference event did in fact point this out, although he differentiated things primarily through a constructivism lense, whereas I think most of the difference is in the domain itself…acquiring a language is different from learning, say, history, so what you are flipping, and why, will change as well.

+ I fully understad what Pearson is doing with the “all-iPad, zero print books” tactic at their stand, and I applaud them. But Pearson didn’t execute on the concept well at all, and I think the message was lost on the audience there.

+ Panic among the publishers!  There is so much re-organization and job cutting going on among the larger publishers that their staff is feeling immense stress. We had a lot of job inquiries at our stand from recently downsized senior staff – very qualified folks. I encouraged them all to go freelance of course, and to use an open platform (e.g. English360) to deliver products and services.

Here are the slides (you can download them from Slideshare):


IATEFL 2103 Preview: Growing your ELT career with technology

April 5th, 2013

Like many of you I’m sure, I can’t wait for next week’s IATEFL 2013 conference!

It’s great to see everyone of course, but this year I’m also very much looking forward to delivering my session, because it’s something I feel very strongly about: career development in ELT.

I feel strongly about this topic because I see so many teachers who would like to branch out within ELT into new roles, who have the talent and energy to do so, but aren’t sure exactly how. The result is that the ELT profession as a whole loses out on a tremendous amount of talent and innovation at exactly the moment when, as a profession, we need it most.

Liverpool Online

The great thing is that it’s never been easier for teachers to move into new roles such as materials design, consulting,research, school ownership, authoring and self-publishing. Why? Because the technology that is available to us today opens up opportunities that just were not there 10 years ago.

So my talk is about how to do this. We’ll look at a practical, 6-step framework that you can use for career development in ELT and reach your personal, professional and financial goals. Here’s an overvew:

  1. + The ethos of the new web and what it means for your career
  2. + The essential skill set of our technology environment, and how to use it
  3. + Defining the best career direction
  4. + Building your “platform” as an entrepreneur or intrapreneur
  5. + The essential technology tool kit
  6. + Building your community

We’ll also look at case studies of teachers who have successfully moved into new roles, and see what worked (and what didn’t).

So please consider coming:  Thursday 14:00 (session 3.3, hall 4b).


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IATEFL 2013 Preview: No Flippin’ Idea

April 3rd, 2013

What is flipped teaching? What is blended learning? What do learners do in class? What do they do at home?

These are some of the questions that, in my role as Learning Manager for English360,  I discuss with educators and the English360 team on a daily basis. My presentation at 2013 IATEFL Liverpool on Thursday 11th at 17.05 will share suggestions on creating individualised learning opportunities and shed light further light on the benefits of hybrid courses.

Liverpool Online

Increasingly, English language teachers are making their own content and their learners’ projects available outside the classroom. Not all learning and teaching is taking place at the same time, in the same place in a “classroom”. Teachers and learners are using web-based tools to share and connect during face-to-face lessons or after class, to expand horizons and to extend learning.  Whether using freely available informal web-tools or a dedicated LMS, together teachers and learners are turning traditional classroom roles, activities, coursebooks, and educational programmes upside down.

My “No Flippin’ Idea” session will showcase examples and briefly explore bottom-up co-created lesson ideas,  activities and jointly developed (non-linear) courses that are personalised and relevant to each specific learner.

I will highlight how the real “flip” in course design and delivery isn’t about new tools. I’ll show how it isn’t just about sharing a new video to watch before a face-to-face session or simply doing homework on a screen. Profitable, successful flips or blends depend on offering opportunities for discovery, co-operation, collective effort and interaction. It’s all about working together to develop knowledge, new levels of engagement and responsibility.

Cristian, Gaia and Giovanni - My third year English Language students at the Orientale University of Naples

Do you agree that making it flip not flop means valuing the humans at the centre of the educational process? How are you doing that? What are the challenges you have faced?

Please feel free to post your experiences as a reply here. Even better, come along to the talk and our stand (#50) to discuss in more depth.

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IATEFL 2013 Preview: Two approaches to ESP course design

April 1st, 2013

This time next week, I’ll be on my way to Liverpool for the 2013 IATEFL conference. I’m really looking forward to it, not least because it’ll be a chance to meet up face-to-face with so many friends and colleagues from around the world.

liverpool Online

My own presentation, Two approaches to ESP course design is on Wednesday 10th at 16.25, as part of the ESP special interest group day.

ESP course design is one of my favourite topics – I could talk about it all day, but I’ll have to squeeze my ideas into half an hour. The talk is based on my experiences over three parts of my career: Firstly, when I was a teacher creating ESP courses for my own learners; then as Series Editor for the ‘Cambridge English for …’ series; and now as Editorial Director at English360.

In the first phase, I had my own way of designing courses, which I then refined and formalised while working on my books for Cambridge. It was very much a needs-based approach, with a strong focus on practical skills, functional language, situational dialogues and role-plays. I call this approach ‘English for‘, because learners are learning English in order to be able to do something specific.

I still believe this is a really powerful way of designing ESP courses, but in my time at English360 I’ve come to appreciate that it’s not the only way, or even the best way for all teaching situations. Very often, especially in academic contexts, learners need to raise their general level of English, say from A2 to B2. A pure ‘English for …‘ approach is great for practical skills, but isn’t ideal as a level-raiser. So a lot of good ESP teaching involves teaching English (and raising levels) in the context of a given ESP field. So I call this approach English through‘.

My presentation will explore how our choice of approach fundamentally affects everything we do in an ESP course, from the needs analysis, through the syllabus design and materials development, down to the actual teaching and assessment. Of course, many ESP courses include elements of both approaches, but I think it’s vital for teachers and course designers to balance them in an informed way, and to be aware that there are other ways of doing things.

Watch this British Council E-merging Forum interview (Russia Feb 2013) of me briefly describing the two approaches.

Anyway, I hope to see you at the presentation. I’ll also be at the English360 stand every day during the conference, so please come along and say hi.


New lessons every month: Techie English

March 6th, 2013

Last month we published a series of lessons called TECHIE ENGLISH, written by ELT author Phil Wade. They are aimed at students interested in both technology and business and are based around contemporary topics. The lessons include vocabulary, grammar, reading, listening, speaking, writing and video-based activities.

We currently have lessons on:

We will add new TECHIE ENGLISH lessons to English360 every month. We’d love to hear from you if you have ideas for future TECHIE ENGLISH lessons – post a comment below and we’ll do our best to use your ideas.

Image of 3D printer by Scanlime and used under Creative Commons Licence 2.0

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New video content: American Conversation

January 25th, 2013

We’ve just published a brand new video-based resource, American Conversation.

Below, author Irena Dewey explains the rationale behind her resource:

Boost your students’ conversational and cultural competencies in the real world!

Communicating naturally with native speakers is one of the top goals of second language learners. There are certain challenges of learning and teaching conversational English that are difficult to address in a regular classroom setting.

  • Limited Classroom Exposure: even the most excellent instructor is JUST ONE speaker. The Internet, movies, and TV are excellent resources, but they do not provide feedback on comprehension.
  • Language is Culture Specific: without being part of a cultural group, it is difficult to understand the attitudes, feelings, beliefs, personal values and subtle gradations of interpersonal relationships in the target culture.
  • Authenticity of Instructional Materials: most materials are written by professional authors and/or teachers with a heavy focus on Standard English. Instructional videos are staged and scripted and do not represent the variety of patterns of authentic communication.

We address these challenges!

Give your program a competitive edge and adopt American Conversation. Based on authentic, high-interest video conversations and with focus on spontaneous speech, it will be a perfect companion for any academic, business or ESP course.

Program Components:

  • Guided Listening Comprehension (with transcripts)
  • Explanation of incorrect answers
  • Features of Spontaneous Speech
  • Vocabulary
  • Grammar
  • Culture
  • Spelling
  • Reading
  • Writing

Academic/Standard English is your priority – Conversational English is ours. Let’s work together!

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Claire Hart – English360 Community Webinar

September 5th, 2012

Our next community webinar is a special event: on Friday 14th September 2012 (UTC 13.00, CET 15.00) our guest speaker will be Claire Hart. Register here for this upcoming English360 Community Webinar.

If you teach English for professional purposes, the aim is usually to prepare your learners to successfully communicate in the workplace. Most participants will have a series of communicative events which they need to take part in through the medium of English and, particularly with in-company learners, it becomes important to move away from just talking about their job and focus on helping them to do their job in English. Creating authentic and relevant communicative activities can sometimes be a challenge however. Claire Hart will share ideas on creating effective activities which enable learners to rehearse the communicative events they take part in during their working lives, leaving you with a 5 step plan you can use with your own learners.

Claire Hart - Business English Lesson Plans

Claire Hart is a business English and ESP teacher and teacher trainer delivering courses on behalf of The Pyramid Group in Ulm, Germany. She specialises in business English and technical English.

As an active member of the IATEFL BESIG (Business English Special Interest Group) Online Team, Claire is involved in the organisation of online events, the BESIG World Blog  and BESIG´s social media profile. In addition, she enjoys writing EFL lesson plans and shares many of them on her Business English Lesson Plans blog.

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NIOW – Case Study

August 12th, 2012

In 2011 NIOW  started to use English360 as an additional learning tool for Business English courses. With enthusiastic customers as a result. Menno Hordijik (E-learning Manager – NIOW) would like to share this success with everyone.

Menno Hordjik  Elearning Manager

Menno Hordjik - E-learning Manager (NIOW)

Why do we use English360 in our courses?

Until last year training at NIOW was traditional: classroom lessons, using books for homework.
Then the demand for a more versatile approach was growing. A substantial request for proposal for a Business English course required e-learning to be an essential element in the course programmes. Although a large number of e-learning systems are on the market, they all lack suitable content. When doing our research we eventually found the English360 system to be an excellent platform with content based on the elaborate Cambridge University Press’ study materials.

Blended learning: essential!

E-learning is now an integral part of almost all NIOW course programmes in combination with classroom training. Through this highly effective combination the efficiency of our courses has increased significantly. The trainer monitors the progress, provides feedback where necessary and uses the results of the exercises to make a lesson plan for the following classroom session. Parts where participants score poorly are discussed in class. NIOW only provides customized training programmes. This means that we use the available material from English360 in combination with tailor made theory and exercises.

Use of English360

Our trainers are trained in how to use English360 and taught how to monitor and coach participants. They are familiar with the workflow, so every trainer can deliver a valuable asset to a blended learning course. The platform is user friendly and therefore easy to learn. To ensure that participants make a good start with English360 a brief instruction is given during the first classroom session.

Summarizing the advantages for our clients:

• Better training results

• Lower investment

• Reduced travel costs

• Fewer classes during working hours


for NIOW using English360 means:

• More variety in types of courses

• Even more satisfied customers

Convinced of the benefits of English360?

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