We need to talk about LX

Not only did you fail to learn something; you had a horrible time trying.
ELTjam’s working definition of bad LX (learner experience)
Photo Credit: Chris Blakeley via Compfight cc

One of the things I enjoyed most about teaching was the immediacy of feedback. Learning how to harness and manage a feedback loop is one of the great takeaway skills of teaching: you create a plan, you put it into action, you observe, you adjust and tweak based on its effects, and you (hopefully) get the results you wanted. Job done.

My first unobserved class was not a massive success in this respect. I’d planned a lesson from Cutting EdgeUpper Intermediate — one of those really gnarly, task-based ones that no one knew how to teach properly, especially three days off a CELTA — and it was clear within ten minutes that I was crashing and burning. But without the experience or confidence to do anything else, I soldiered on, refusing (or unable) to deviate from the plan. It was a horrible 90 minutes, for me as much as for my students. I’m surprised no one walked out.

The feelings present in class that day — frustration, some anger, confusion, boredom, repetition — are all hallmarks of bad user experience (UX). Actually, in this context, let’s call it something else; let’s call it bad learner experience (LX). Bad LX could be defined in a number of ways, but at its most basic it’s this: not only did you fail to learn something; you had a horrible time trying.

My first week of teaching was a masterclass in delivering terrible LX. But as I grew in confidence and experience, I got better at what I did. I learned how to improvise and adapt. I loosened up a bit. I started reacting to feedback. And, importantly, I started to have fun, which meant my students did too. By Christmas, I pretty much knew what I was doing. Had I not improved, however, my DOS would have been well within her rights to fire me. I was delivering a terrible customer experience, and my almost complete lack of efficacy — not to mention the joyless atmosphere I managed to create in class — would have been totally unacceptable in the long term.

Regardless of whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, more and more language learning will inevitably move online. Call it disruptive innovation, call it the neoliberal takeover in sheep’s clothing, call it the death of language teaching as we know it, whatever you call it there’s no denying that ELT is in a state of flux, and that what eventually emerges will look quite different to what we have now. And that poses a problem, because right now most digital language-learning products deliver absolutely terrible LX. In many cases, it’s frankly unacceptable. It’s the equivalent of my first week of teaching. It’s bad enough to get you fired.

As more learning begins to take place outside the classroom, any person or organisation involved in the creation of learning products has a responsibility to deliver something great, just as a teacher does every time they step into a classroom. Learning English is a high-stakes endeavour for most people, so at ELTjam we take this responsibility extremely seriously. That’s why this year we want to find answers to four big questions that we think need addressing as more ELT moves slowly but surely online. We hope that by doing so, we might even sow the seeds of a sorely needed LX revolution in digital ELT.

1 How are we going to get to grips with digital pedagogy?

‘The criteria for evaluating the worth of any language learning software must include some assessment of its fitness for purpose. That is to say, does it facilitate learning?’
–Scott Thornbury, How could SLA research inform EdTech?, ELTjam, 16 June 2014
‘There’s an independent study that shows that if you use Duolingo for 34 hours you learn the same as you would in one university semester of language learning.’
–Luis Von Ahn, founder of Duolingo, speaking to The Guardian, 27 August 2014
‘A penguin reads our letters.’
Actual sentence users of Duolingo were asked to translate from Catalan, according to http://wtfduolingo.tumblr.com/
Photo Credit: Baer Tierkel via Compfight cc

It seems no one is capable of discussing Duolingo without referencing random animal sentences — it’s a meme for language learning in the digital age. And, let’s be honest, most of us feel at some level that no one could ever truly learn a language using it. But how many of us could explain why? The jokes around Duolingo’s pet-centric content hide a widespread lack of understanding within ELT about the pedagogy of digital learning. Whether right or wrong, at least some form of consensus has built up about the pedagogy of language classrooms — broadly communicative, built around a grammar syllabus, a focus on skills as well as systems.

That this consensus only holds for some of the myriad contexts in which English is taught is a topic for another post, but at least there’s a ‘there’ there. Digital language learning is more like the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange — shout loud enough and wave your hands in the air and you can sell your method to anyone, no matter how flawed it is. We need a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in digital learning. We need to start drawing on what we know from SLA theory and applying it. And we need to have serious, difficult conversations about the role of teachers as more and more language learning moves online.

2 How are we going to solve our content problem?

‘Despite what some people claim, content is, actually, rather important when it comes to language learning.’
– Philip Kerr writing on Adaptive Learning in ELT, October 26, 2015

ELT has a content problem, and it’s not just that much of it isn’t very good. As demand for English increases, and as new technologies such as adaptive learning emerge, we need to find ways of producing vast amounts of high quality, effective, engaging, authentic learning content at a fraction of what it currently costs. ELT as a whole is entering what might be called ‘the margin wars’: as low-cost ways to learn English flood the market — whether free self-study apps or low-cost Skype lessons — the pressure at every level is to reduce costs in order to keep margins up. ELT content has always been incredibly expensive to produce, partly due to inefficiencies in the editorial and production processes, partly due to the royalties model, partly due to entrenched beliefs about what constitutes quality. But reducing the number of skilled in-house editors by freelancing more stuff out and offshoring to countries with lower labour costs isn’t the way to bring those costs down; focusing on the kind of content that will truly excite and engage learners is, as is admitting that we can and should automate the creation of some of the more mundane but necessary stuff. We need a radical reimagining of how we design content and distribute it to learners. We need to make bold moves to leverage new technology and techniques to create it. And we need to stop putting books on screen — it just isn’t going to cut it any more.

3 How are we going to improve the user experience of digital language learning?

When the features of a system, product or service combine to enable a user to achieve a goal frictionlessly, with accompanying delight.
ELTjam’s working definition of great user experience (UX)

At the classroom level, ELT can have pretty great UX. That’s because good ELT classrooms are communicative, learner-centred, social spaces, all of which combine to create a positive environment for learning a language. That’s not to say that classroom-based ELT is without its problems — see the account of my own early teaching days above! — but good teachers recognise these problems and figure out how to solve them, just as I eventually did.

Looking deeper, one of the reasons that good teachers are able to create a good user experience is because they employ, subconsciously or not, elements of user-centred design in their teaching. User-centred design is how good UX is created. At a very high level, it consists of three simple elements:

  1. Understand your users and their context deeply.
  2. Figure out what they want to achieve and why.
  3. Map a journey from where they are now to where they want to be, eliminating as much friction as possible.

Many teachers will recognise those three steps from their own teaching. We might not consciously carry out those exact steps in that order, but over the duration of a course, many teachers will use the first-hand knowledge they gain from their students to design something that’s tailored to their needs, expectations, interests and beliefs.

Why is it then, that the minute we create a digital ELT product, all of that goes out of the window? I’m embarrassed to say that at several points in my career, I’ve worked on products with budgets in the hundreds of thousands of pounds and timelines measured in years and not months that are released into the market without ever once being put in front of an actual user. That’s astounding. How is it that the feedback loop that so many teachers rely on in class is considered a luxury we can do without when it comes to moving that learning out of class?

We’ve talked at length in the past about what we’ve termed the Ed–Tech Disconnect — the phenomenon whereby digital products created by EdTech companies tend to be weak on content and pedagogy but strong on UX, and products made by incumbent ELT companies — usually publishers or language school chains — have the opposite problem: decent content and approach but lousy UX. If we’re going to stay competitive as more learning moves online and goes mobile, then we need to develop a deep understanding of user experience design. We need to understand more about the intersections of UX with content and pedagogy. And we need to start designing around the humans who are going to be using our products as opposed to the content that we happen to have or the platform that we happen to have built.

Which leads us to …

4 How are we going to humanise digital language learning?

Learning is primarily a social experience — a fact that is arguably even more true when a language is being learned.
– Blog reader Nikw211 commenting on ELTjam, October 23, 2015

If language learning is fundamentally a social act, then why do the majority of digital language learning products, with a few notable exceptions, focus on the individual rather than the collective, promoting independence and personalisation over collaboration and dialogue? Why is human–computer interaction given primacy over human–human interaction? Why is interactivity a byword for clicking or dragging and not communication? Why does digital learning for many people mean self-study? In an age of unbridled human communication, where social media and messaging platforms create communities measured in hundreds of millions, why are we struggling to create active language-learning communities of equal size? In order to reimagine language learning for a the digital age, we need to find ways to enable to kind of dialogic processes that characterise the best language classrooms. We need to find ways of having meaningful, non-scripted conversations. And we need to find ways to personalise learning without desocialising it.

Where might the answers lie?

How are we going to solve our content problem? How are we going to get to grips with digital pedagogy? How are we going to improve the user experience of digital language learning? How are we going to humanise it? When you look at each of those questions in isolation, they look like massive challenges. But if you take them together, if you start to look at how they intersect and overlap, they start to look like something else; they start to look like a way of creating amazing LX.

What would happen if you applied the very human-centred principles of UX design to content creation? Would it help us to deliver content that was more relevant, interesting and dynamic? What if you did the same for pedagogy? Would it help facilitate learning? What if you designed a digital learning product around human–human interaction and not around human–content interaction? Would it help learners to co-construct the knowledge and skills they needed? Would it lead to more meaningful interactivity?

Content, pedagogy, UX and human interaction — if we combined those four things, would they become greater than the sum of their parts, and would that make for better language learning in the digital age? We think it would.

By Nick Robinson. Originally posted on www.eltjam.com, 9 February 2016.

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