Friday, 27 November 2009

BESIG 2009 - part 2

Day 2 of the BESIG conference started very badly …

I’d been very sensible. Only one beer at the Cambridge meal the night before. Resisted the temptation and persistent persuasion to go dancing with the king and queen of legal English, Amy Krois-Lindner and Matt Firth. Sensible early night because I had my big presentation at 9.45. Alarm set for 7.

I woke up at 8.45, looked at the clock and felt that churning-stomach feeling that it’s all about to go horribly wrong. I knew I had to choose between breakfast, preparing for my talk and showering. I chose the shower. Then I pulled on my suit, packed my suitcase and dashed to the conference venue with a luxurious 7 minutes to spare.

Actually my talk went pretty well. I was talking about English for Nursing (not coincidentally, the latest addition to my series, Cambridge English for Nursing Pre-Intermediate, is coming out in early 2010).

Unfortunately no-one in the audience taught nurses, so it was all a bit hypothetical. I wanted to relate what I was saying to ESP in general – the presentation was called Results-Focused ESP – and I think I got away with it. The audience were very responsive and got involved with plenty of great ideas, which was exactly what I was hoping for.

By the way, I’ll explain my talk in a later post.

Straight after my talk, I had an interview with Carl Dowse. He wanted a film of me giving advice for new ESP teachers. I was surprised how easy that was … probably because I’d already had a chance to think everything through by writing this blog. You see, that’s another nice thing about blogging – it’s great for getting your thoughts straight.

From the interview, I sneaked into Mark Ibbotson’s session on English for Engineering, only a few minutes late. Mark’s session was excellent – he really does know his stuff, and, more importantly, made it all sound really easy and really interesting. At one stage he was talking about the technical vocabulary connected with racing cars, and just kept going deeper and deeper into the vocab. The point he was building up to was that engineering vocabulary is huge and extremely specialised. But … much of it is also generic. The same ideas keep popping up in diverse fields. So instead of despairing at the sheer volume of words, we need to prioritise the vocab we teach.

After Mark’s session, I grabbed a handful of biscuits … a late and not especially fulfilling breakfast. And headed for the last session, the panel discussion on the future of teaching and learning. It was a bit similar to the WOW panel discussion from the first day, but different enough to keep it interesting.

After lots of going round and round with panellists and audience members saying method X is better than method Y, the comment was made (Pete Sharma, I seem to remember) that we’re comparing apples with oranges. Sometimes one’s better, sometimes the other, but it doesn’t make any sense to make absolute comparisons. Eric Baber also made a crucial point: the kind of teaching most of us are involved in is not typical of the majority of language teaching and learning that goes on around the world. Sure, it’s great to have a long chatty one-to-one lesson with a subject specialist, but for most learners that’s simply not an option. The choice for most learners isn’t between face-to-face and computer-based learning. It’s between computer-based and nothing.

[Sorry, Eric and Pete if I’ve misrepresented you – this was the message I took away from the session, and may not have been exactly what you were trying to communicate.]

And that was it … the conference then kind of stopped. It would have been nice to have a closing ceremony, even a closing plenary, a chance for us to thank the organisers with a standing ovation and say good-bye until next year. Apart from that, it was a perfect conference – great sessions, great food and great networking. BESIG is the best conference of the year, and I’m looking forward to the next one.


I had a couple of hours before my train back to Warsaw, so I agreed to go with my friends from Cambridge for a bit of lunch. I was pretty hungry, so it seemed like a good idea at the time …

But by the time we’d ambled down to the city centre, found a nice place to eat and ordered our food, I realised I was cutting it incredibly fine with my train – which was at 3.30. It was already after 2.30. I calculated that I’d need to leave at 3pm at the very latest to have a chance of catching the train. The food finally arrived at five past. I bolted a few mouthfuls, grabbed my coat and suitcase and started running.

OK, so it was only 1.7km (about a mile?), which a top athlete could do in 4 minutes. But top athletes don’t do it on a full stomach, wearing a thick winter coat and dragging a suitcase across cobbles. I had 20 minutes … 16 … 12 … OMG I feel awful …7 … I feel sick … 3 … gotta keep going … 2 … there’s the station … 1 … there’s my train …

Well, somehow I made it. I spent the next hour sweating, panting, groaning. Fortunately I found a Milky Way in my bag, a gift from Vicki Hollett, brought all the way from ‘merica. Best Milky Way I’ve ever had.

So a bad start and a bad finish, but overall a great day and a great weekend. The worst thing was getting home exhausted and realising that it was Monday tomorrow …

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

BESIG 2009 – part 1

[Saturday 21st November] If I were a proper techie, I’d be blogging live from the BESIG conference, which I’m currently attending in Poznan, Poland. But I’m not, so I’ll write this up the old-fashioned way and post it when I get home.

Actually, that’s the most striking thing about this conference – the number of people filming, tweeting, typing and doing all those touch-screen rock-and-roll moves on their iPhones. I feel old.

Last night (Friday), at the excellent welcome event, as I was doing a bit of face-to-face networking (mainly people I’ve got to know online over the last 12 months) I got the impression I was the last, sad individual to resist the urge to tweet. But this morning I felt a bit better: in Nick Robinson’s session, he asked the audience how many of us were on twitter, in case we’d like to tweet while we listened. And no-one was on twitter! So it seems I’m not the only one.

But not for long, it seems. This afternoon I ended up sitting in while Karenne Sylvester was teaching Vicki Hollett how to tweet and how to organise her tweetdeck. I’ll confess, I was expecting the tweetdeck to be a piece of hardware … but now I know what it looks like and how it works. So I guess I’ll have to join the twitterverse …

A quick round-up of the sessions today: Vicki Hollett’s plenary presentation was very nice, focusing on the importance of politeness strategies and whimperatives in building relationships. It seems we don’t ever say “I disagree” or “I propose XYZ”, but rather use long-winded constructions to avoid being too direct. The key question is whether our students need the long-winded version or the simpler version. Corpus linguistics suggests the former. ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) might suggest the latter, but as Vicki said, even in international business communication between non-natives, relationships matter, so the long-winded versions really are important. Food for thought.

After that I went to Nick Robinson’s talk on financial English. He was promoting Cambridge’s new blended learning course, Cambridge Financial English, which looks very impressive. He was also focusing on the way ESP courses need to be not just needs-based but also means-based, i.e. the best medium of instruction will vary from student to student. That’s something I need to think about, and I’ll come back to it in this blog.

I was delighted to see Nick had borrowed one of the slides from my wish-list presentation for his presentation! The cheek of it! Well, actually, it was a nice surprise. This conference has been great for my ego. When I flicked through the EL Gazette in the conference pack last night, I was delighted to see my name on the front page (an advert for my BESIG talk!), a fragment from one of my Jargonbusters on the back page (with a not very difficult competition – you’ll find a clue to the answer by following the link to my Jargonbuster) and a great almost-centre-spread featuring a big extract from Cambridge English for the Media and a big image of the six books in my series – the first time I’ve seen them all lined up like that. Nice.

But the best thing for my ego came from Amy Krois-Lindner’s talk today. She put up a couple of quotes from ESP experts, and the third one was from me! How cool is that? (OK, maybe you're less excited about it, but I found it cool anyway!)

Amy’s talk was really interesting – she was talking about the importance of transformations in ESP. By transformations, she means, for example, listening to a university lecture and turning it into notes, or turning those notes into an email or a spoken explanation to a classmate. When you think about it, these transformations are everywhere, and we should perhaps focus more on the skills involved.

I’m getting out of sequence. Between Nick’s talk and Amy’s, I went to a presentation by Heike Philp and Holly Longstroth – two ladies I’ve met through their wonderful Virtual Round Table service. Today they were talking about their experiences with their Avalon project in Second Life. It’s looks intriguing … certainly a lot of potential, but it looks as though teaching on Second Life needs a pretty radical re-think from traditional methods. The clip Heike and Holly showed was of two ladies having a discussion about the euro. The picture was mainly static because the ladies were too busy concentrating on their English to experiment with moving their virtual hands, let alone flying around their virtual world. So my first impression was “Why bother with Second Life?”. But as I say, there is a lot of potential – but it needs a lot of thought. Maybe I’ll wait a year before I get myself an avatar and learn to fly. I'll learn to tweet first.

After Amy’s session I watched Cleve Miller’s session on English 360. I thought I knew quite a lot of it already, after my interview with Cleve, but I was still a bit blown away by it. I think it was Cleve’s enthusiasm and passion for the project that did it for me. A very funny and well-informed presentation – the best of the day for me. I was sitting next to my friend Andrew, who spent the whole presentation whispering “Oh wow!”, “Brilliant!” and “Yes, yes, yes”. I think he was impressed.

The last session of the day for me was the panel discussion for the Cambridge ESOL World of Work Forum. There were half a dozen members of the WOW forum reporting back on what they’d discussed earlier in the year in Cambridge concerning technology in teaching, learning and exams. It was very interesting … but a bit long. The half dozen presentations all merged into one for me … but perhaps that says more about my muddled brain after a very long and inspiring day. That's my excuse, anyway.

[Tuesday 24th November] That’s all I had time to write up before heading out for a very nice evening meal with the Cambridge crowd. I’ll add my thoughts on day 2 soon.

One last thing – I joined twitter last night. My user name is specificenglish (not very creative but at least I’ve got a new photo for my profile). Looking forward to learning how that works and following some of the people who follow this blog.

PS If you went to the BESIG conference too, I’d love to hear your comments below. Cheers.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Interview: Cleve Miller

A few months ago I became aware of English360, a blended learning product aimed specifically at ESP and business English, and I decided to check it out. Since then, everyone seems to have been either talking about it or working on it. So I thought I'd better speak to Cleve Miller, the man behind the product, to see what else I could find out.

Enjoy the interview and please add questions and comments at the end.

For years I’ve been wondering how to connect ESP teachers around the world. Many of us end up creating our own materials for our own students because our fields are too specific to make them attractive for publishers. If only there were a way for us to share our materials and benefit from each other’s expertise. Is English360 the answer to that problem?

We hope so! That’s certainly the idea. The beauty of web platforms is that they allow people to find each other and work together, while at the same time collapsing any distance between them. You’re right that much of ESP is too specific for traditional publishers, and by providing a self-publishing and collaboration platform, we hope to fill that gap by bringing niche ESP fields together into online communities of practice. We envision teachers working individually or, especially, together in groups to share, exchange, discuss, and publish digital content that can be delivered online or used in class.

Could you explain what English360 is, and how it’s different from other learning management systems (LMSs)?

Well, there is some LMS functionality in English360: organizing courses, recording student results, scheduling, admin privileges, and the like. But compared with the LMS-based products in ELT, English360 is a very different proposition, for several reasons.

First, English360 is open. Other products are basically course delivery systems, while English360 is a course creation system. We’ve opened the platform up so that teachers can create their own content with our authoring tools, as well as adapt and manipulate the Cambridge material, mixing the two into truly personalized courses, delivered in class or online. Basically, we don’t make the courses, our users do, because we believe that teachers know the needs of their students best.Second, English360 is easy to use. It is a powerful platform, and there is a learning curve of a couple of hours. But a school can register, upload their logo, invite their teachers, create courses, and invite students, all in one morning. 

You don’t have to install anything on your server, deal with hosting or HTML, or pay any upfront costs. Many schools are under pressure to have an online component … we’ve made that process simple and quick so that you can focus on teaching.

Where do the course materials come from?

A variety of sources. First, we’ve “disaggregated” over 25 books (with more coming) of Cambridge content – basically digitally cut them into separate pages so they can be searched for and re-combined, and manipulated into whatever sequence the teacher needs. A large majority of these are actually interactive, self-scoring tasks, many with multi-media, not static PDFs.

Second, the material comes from you. You can upload your own content – exercises, audio, video - into the English360 templates as interactive tasks, or as static PDFs. You can add any file from your hard disk without changing the format, or you can copy and paste into interactive templates provided. You can associate your material with the collaborative features of the platform such as course forums, page comments, and teacher or peer feedback options.

Teacher-generated content is where it gets interesting, because of the wide range of sources that teachers use for content. English360 excels at adapting authentic material: from the web, from your students, or from your company clients. Recombining this adapted authentic content with a core of Cambridge content is where we see a lot of value.Third, content can come from the English360 community. While many schools and teachers choose to keep their material private, others decide to share their content with the community. That’s a wonderfully rich source. We have some nice quality rating tools on the way that push the best material to the top of the search results.

In this respect, English360 is a self-publishing platform. Whether the material comes from Cambridge, a school, or a freelance teacher, all content contributors are compensated, and compensated at the same rate. Royalties are paid out according to pageviews, so popularity defines compensation. If you share a great series of lessons on, say, reading clinical studies in medical English, and they become popular, then the income might get interesting. It all depends on how many students are on the platform, but with a BE/ESP market in the tens of millions of students, we believe there is potential for English360 to create tremendous value for teacher authors.

English360 is aimed at the Business English and ESP markets. Could you explain the rationale for focusing on those markets?

We’re focusing on these markets for two reasons, one trivial and one important. The trivial reason is that I’ve been in the BE field for 20+ years, so we’re doing what we know best.

The important reason is that we are firmly in the “all ELT is ESP” camp. Every learner has specific purposes, from a 40-year-old researcher writing scientific abstracts, or a 17-year-old listening to song lyrics from her favorite band. “General” English will move into a new era when it can accommodate this level of personalization for 25-student classes. The collaborative web is going to make this possible: every student will have their own personalized coursebook, with common learning objectives but bespoke input and output.

This is already the reality with BE and ESP, in that many teachers already customize the curriculum based on the needs assessment. Teachers do it now with analog tools – paper, scissors, tape, a photocopier – and English360 pushes this one step further by providing digital tools and online delivery.

But it is of course easier with in-company classes, smaller groups and individual classes. So we are starting there. But we’ll get to general English as we grow, I assure you.

I teach at the British Council, an organisation where many decisions are made centrally and where big changes have to be justified in terms of cost and impact. I can imagine my bosses’ reaction if I suggested switching to blended learning: fewer contact hours = less income. How could I persuade my bosses?

Well, with your permission Jeremy, I’ll dispute the “blended learning = less income” equation! The flexibility of a blended approach delivers unsurpassed revenue opportunities. Physical infrastructure (i.e. classrooms) is the one critical constraint for income in the bricks-and-mortar world; with blended learning that constraint disappears. For example, say you charge €100 for twice weekly classes, versus €65 for “once-weekly + online component” blended course. In terms of physical space you can now double the number of students, increasing income by 30%. Or, you can add a purely online product as a follow-up to a f2f course, adding revenue with minimal cost. Or you can charge €120 for twice-weekly classes, plus an online component. The possibilities are endless.

The problem is that we are stuck in the old “e-learning replaces the teacher” paradigm. Some e-learning companies actually still use this as a sales pitch. We take the opposite view: English360 was made for teachers, and by teachers, and delivers tools to teachers so they take charge and do what teachers do best. That will deliver tremendous value to learners and that value will come back as income.

Another argument is differentiation. By using English360 as a custom curriculum engine, you can create a unique, premium product that delivers competitive advantage in your market.

A final argument for the British Council overlords is that if they don’t do it, someone else will. The reality is, to remain competitive, blended is not an option. Our students are twittering away and updating their Facebook page off their mobile at the back of the class. Our in-company BE students are using collaborative knowledge management tools on the job. Schools that embrace the technology of our students’ everyday lives will thrive. Those that don’t will fail.

What are the practical issues? I mean, how do we join, how much does it cost, and when can we start?

Teachers and schools can get a preview right now by registering here. You’ll be enrolled in a preview community hosted by my colleague Valentina Dodge, who’ll answer any questions you may have.

We formally launch in January. At that point student access is based on a monthly subscription per student account. The cost per student varies by the volume of students, but an average school would see approximately €6 per student per month. There are no set up costs or up-front fees, and there is no fixed cost; you pay for only the students enrolled each month. For this you’ll have an advanced online platform, branded with your school’s logo, accessed off your school’s website, with student access to your own online content and online access to over 30 titles from Cambridge (and more on the way).

Teacher, school, and school admin accounts are free; to maintain a school account, which allows full branding with school or training company logo, there is a minimum monthly commitment of ten student subscribers. We’ve worked hard to keep it as inexpensive as possible; our goal was under €10 per month, and we’ve achieved that and then some.

Finally, could you tell us something about the man behind the product? Are you a software guy or an English teacher?

Far more the teacher. While I did do much of the top-level design of the software user interface, I’m not a coder. But I’ve been in the BE field since the late 80s, teaching and doing corporate consulting and linguistic auditing, and what I could see was how the new collaborative approaches to the web could be employed in a language teaching and mat dev context, and how that should work and how that would add tremendous value to the BE and ESP community. We’re excited the platform is finally built and we’re able to invite everyone in.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Listening: What’s the aim? (Part 1)

In home-made ESP courses, listening tends to be the neglected skill. It’s easy to make text-based lessons – just find something on the internet and turn it into a lesson. Easy peasy. Speaking is also easy to do – as long as you’re happy with spontaneous discussions. Role-plays are a bit harder to set up, but they’re still a piece of cake. Writing … well, you need to come up with some tasks, but after that, the students do all the work for you. 

But listening … that’s a different matter.

For many years, my preferred technique for incorporating listening into home-made courses has been SLTTTSE – Students Listen To Their Teacher Speaking English. Somehow, by some sort of osmosis, students get better at listening by interacting with their teacher. 

Actually, it’s not such a crazy idea – we do learn by doing, and in many ways a teacher is infinitely better as a source of practice than an audio CD, because the teacher is interactive. That means students can learn real-life strategies for dealing with communication breakdowns (e.g. “Sorry, could you speak more slowly, please?”, “Sorry – I didn’t catch that last word” and “What?”). Those techniques won’t get you very far with a CD. 

And that's how I've always justified it to myself as a teacher.

But I got caught out with this technique earlier this year. I was doing reports at the end of a course I was writing and teaching for a group of students from the National Audit Office, and I needed to give a mark for “listening”. So I used one from a BEC Vantage practice test book. Not especially relevant to their jobs, but at least it’s a scientific (?) assessment of their listening skills, which is what I wanted. 

Most of the students did quite badly – it seems I hadn’t prepared them during the course with the listening skills they needed to complete the task. And afterwards, one of the students said to me, “Jeremy, it’s so nice to hear real English for a change. Can we do more of this?

And she was right. I don’t speak real English – I speak teacher English. (Of course the actors on the CD weren’t speaking real English either, but you get the point.) 

So it made me think again about how I should be integrating listening skills into my home-made courses. (I keep saying home-made, by the way, because the published courses I’ve worked on have always been stuffed full of listenings, for reasons that I’ll make clear later.)

As I see it, there are five valid aims for listening activities. The best activities should achieve (or at least support) more than one of these aims.
  1. To provide listening practice.
  2. To teach listening skills.
  3. To provide an interesting topic for discussion.
  4. To present useful language in context.
  5. To serve as a model for speaking activities (and, by extension, for real-life situations).
Now you know why I called this posting ‘part 1’. There’s plenty to say about each of those aims, so here I think I’ll confine myself to 1 and 2 (even though in ESP I think the real meat is in aims 4 and 5).

So … listening practice. As I said above, it’s not unreasonable to assume that students get better at listening if they get lots of practice. It’s not very systematic, and it’s not really teachable or measurable. At the end of your lesson, you can’t tell whether your student is any better as a result of your lesson than before, which may or may not be a problem (depending on how you have to report progress). But it’s still a valid aim.

And if that’s your only aim, there are all sorts of ways to achieve it. SLTTTSE, for example, or BEC Vantage practice tests, or indeed listenings from regular course books. (Obviously you wouldn’t want to photocopy pages from those books – here at the British Council we have class sets of 12 copies available for such activities.) There’s also the internet, of course – YouTube being the obvious example, but also many news sites (e.g. BBC) often have short films to accompany topical stories. The list goes on … listen to songs, watch films or TV programmes, with or without subtitles, etc etc. You don’t me to tell you that.

But the point is, it’s not very systematic. It’s important and it’s hugely better than nothing (or than SLTTTSE by itself), but I think we can go beyond that. That’s where the other aims come in.

And what of aim 2? By listening skills, I’m referring to micro-skills that we can try to focus on in our lessons, which may be a bit more measurable than just ‘listening practice’. They fall into three broad families:

Top-down processing: The idea here is that if you know enough about the context / topic before you listen (contextualisation), and if you can relate it to your own knowledge / experiences / attitudes (personalisation), you can understand a huge amount, even if you miss plenty of individual words. The brain fills in the gaps.

That’s why we do so much pre-listening work – discussing the topic, relating it to our own ideas, predicting based on pictures and titles, etc. And it’s also why we tell our students not to get hung up on the meanings of difficult words, but instead to try to get a general understanding.

It’s also one reason why pre-teaching vocab may be valid. It’s a way of doing a bit of predicting and avoiding the hang-up issue at the same time.

As teaching techniques to enable students to understand a particular listening text better, these are all invaluable little tools.

But I’m not just talking about these as teaching techniques. Can we teach them as a life-skill? Something they’ll start doing more outside the classroom as a result of our lesson? Well, yes and no. I think most top-down processing is done subconsciously – you don’t usually decide to predict something or to relate it to your own experiences. It’s difficult to decide not to get hung up on something. It should come naturally.

But sometimes it’s difficult to spot something that should be obvious. Some people do need to be told not to get hung up on every word, or to read the questions on the exam paper before the recording starts. So for some students in some situations, I think this is a valid life skill to teach.

Bottom-up processing: This is the opposite set of skills – the idea that you hear particular patterns of sound waves, which your brain turns into phonemes, which are then assembled into words, which in turn are processed as chunks of language with meaning. If you think about it, there must be a lot of this going on. If top-down processing fills the gaps, bottom-up processing provides the gapped text itself.

Can we teach it? Yes, I think we can. Most obviously, we can do things like dictation exercises (and related activities where students write what they hear). Not much fun, perhaps, but good for bottom-up skills. Especially at lower level, we can work on helping students break down a continuous stream of noise into discrete words. But at higher levels, I think it’s more a question of building up their vocabularies – a huge job.

Communication strategies: These relate to the idea that real-life listening is usually more active than classroom activities. I’ve already mentioned a few phrases for dealing with communication breakdowns, but there’s lots of work we can do here on clarifying and checking information, active listening skills, asking the speaker to speak differently, etc.

We can also teach (or at least advise on) psychological techniques, e.g. the fact that it’s actually acceptable to ask for clarification, that it’s better to look a bit silly by asking questions than to look like an idiot by failing to understand an important instruction or by attending a meeting where you have no idea what’s going on. Easier said than done, of course, but simply by telling students that they’re not the only one with these crises, you’ll take the first steps towards breaking down the barriers.

Anyway, I guess that’s enough for now. I’ll deal with the other three aims soon, but for the time being, I’ll summarise by saying that (a) STTTSE isn’t enough by itself and (b) listening for the sake of listening practice is fine up to a point, but we can be much more systematic. That said, even the techniques I’ve suggested won’t guarantee quick results. There’s no quick fix, but at least we can try.