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.


  1. Wow, Jeremy, Cleve -this sounds seriously interesting. I circled Cleve's talk to go to without knowing that much, really am looking forward to it now.


  2. Hi Karenne, thanks - looking forward to finally meeting f2f in Poznan. I'm very interested in your feedback, since you do a lot of mat dev already...indeed we've come up with a software test process that internally we call the "Kalinago threshhold" :-)

  3. Karenne:
    Glad you find it interesting. I think it has fantastic potential, and I really hope it works. I think it's a case of critical mass - either it'll take off and be massive or the world will decide it's still not ready for blended learning ...
    I really hope it's the former.

    I didn't thank you properly for the interview - I left the closing words to you (I thought it was such a strong ending and didn't want to spoil it), but huge thanks for the interview. If I can get a few more people to become aware of english360, I'll be very proud to have done my bit.

    I'm intrigued by the idea of the Kalinago threshold ...

  4. Hi Jeremy - no, thank you for the opportunity! Your questions were spot on, so it was a pleasure.

  5. Ooh... I didn't see this comment before - what's the kalinago threshold, sounds intriguing.. I'll have to tweet you ;-)