Friday, 4 April 2014

IATEFL Day Two Reflections: The Spelunky Revolution in ELT EdTech

Do you know the game Spelunky? No? That's okay, it’s quite a popular platform game (think Super Mario) on computers and consoles. I love Spelunky but I'm very, very bad at it. And Spelunky doesn't care. It doesn't reward me with badges when I die, it doesn’t keep saving my progress every few seconds so I can keep getting that bit further, it doesn’t give me gold stars or give me the chance to buy extra powers to progress. I just keep dying and it just keeps dumping me back to the beginning of the game. It’s awesome

Spelunky is part of a new indie scene in gaming that want games to be less about fancy graphics and spurious progression and more about clever gameplay, innovation and real skill. Games like Minecraft and Fez are part of that revolution

I was thinking about this after a couple of sessions yesterday and on Wednesday at IATEFL discussing the future of Edtech in ELT. In the ELTJam presentation, they urged teachers to get involved to avoid these huge companies such as News Corp and Disney appropriating language learning. And there have been rumblings about MOOCs and SOLEs and other acronymised boogeyman doing us all out of a job.

I don't think they will, ultimately. it comes back to Spelunky. Deep down, students and teachers know that language learning is hard, you have to die a lot (well, metaphorically speaking) in ordinary to progress and no amount of badges and whizzy sound effects are going to cover that up. But the tech companies will never be able to admit that, they will never let language learning be as difficult as it actually is when they produce their educational programs. It will soothe and stroke the ego of the learner, let them believe that they are progressing when they are not really….and they when they actually have to use the language, they are going to find out that all those badges and gold stars are worth bupkiss.

By the way, I’m not saying the learning a language should be an unpleasant experience, but it should be a realistic one.

Another reason I don't think these websites and apps will ever replace teachers is that fundamentally they don't understand what language learners want. I've shown my students a lot of these wonderful websites and apps (Voxy, Duolingo, Newsmart etc), we look at them in class, we discuss the pros and cons, and students are normally positive about them. But they almost always end up abandoning them after a couple of days or weeks. Why is that? they're incredibly slick, fun, motivating, yet they are not very ‘sticky’ (a word I’ve heard a few times this week and really like).

I think the reason is that they are - at best - only interactive in the most superficial sense.

And this is what heartens me for the future of teachers in ELT. A few weeks ago in class with my students I did a silly little activity using mobile phones where they had to take close-up pictures of objects around the school and then show them to each other to guess what they were. I thought it would take a few minutes in the end went on for over half an hour. Students was laughing and arguing with each other about what the objects were, huge numbers of words and expressions were coming out as this was happening and I threw them on the board, corrected and shaped them. We looked at speculative language (it might be, it could be) and students were furiously coping it all down. It was one of those glorious moments in class that remind us why we bother teaching in the first place.

Why does this kind of activity using technology engage students in a way that the language learning apps and the language learning websites don't? Because of the interaction. The interaction with each other, and the interaction with a teacher. And the teacher was a crucial component, the teacher managed all the new language that was coming out, reshaping it on the board, making corrections, clarifying, explaining nuance. And then my students go back to Duolingo or Voxy and do a multiple choice activity where they had to choose which of four pictures was a giraffe. How can that compete with the rich, textured engagement and interaction we had during our activity?

It seems that so much of the talk around technology in ELT is about content. How to create content, how to deliver content, how to present content on computers and mobile devices, how to make it adaptive. There’s almost no talk about how to make it interactive.

So don’t worry, we are not about to be unemployed because News Corp and Disney have decided to get into the language learning game. These companies don't get it really. Now, don’t misunderstand me, technology will continue to be an integral part of the classroom and will increasingly become so and teachers really do need to get on board with this stuff,. But there is no Angry Birds for language learning and I’m not really sure there ever will be.

There is no app that will take a sentence a student has produced, put it on the board, correct it, discuss it, explain the nuances of the meaning, shape the pronunciation, and then link it to something personal in the students’ lives.

So let's have our Spelunky revolution in ELT Edtech. Let's make it fun, engaging, but let's not forget that language learning is hard. Language learning involves friction. Let's not let technology sugarcoat the process and let’s think of ways that technology can be integrated which is consistent with these principles about languages and the way they are learned.


  1. David,

    I had similar thoughts in a guest post for the ELTJam folk:


  2. Just read through that Gavin, yes, similar conclusions from different angles. I think we are still in a grace period at the moment where app/website developers of ELT content can get away with all kinds of nonsense and reproduce stuff that would not be acceptable if given to students on paper. But that grace period will soon be over and students will demand more than just grammar-translation exercises.