App-ologies to the writers of Fiddler on the Roof there! But according to research carried out by IT consultants Gartner, in the year 2017 users of mobile devices will download 268 billion apps, of which 94.5% will be free. So, that’s a lot of apps, practically an app for everything. There was even a recent BBC radio programme entitled My Teacher is an App.
Incidentally, I find that if I look at the word ‘app’ for too long, or write it too many times, it does something to my brain and the word temporarily ceases to mean anything. This effect (for which the term semantic satiation was coined by psychologist Leon Jakobovits James back in 1962) is caused by repetition arousing a specific neural pattern in the cortex that corresponds to the meaning of the word. Perhaps brain fatigue would work as well.
Another strange phenomenon, which may be entirely unconnected, is the app-earance of the word ‘app’ in other words (apart from app-lication that is). It may be hanging off the front of the word like an unofficial prefix, as in app-rehension and app-reciate, or tucked into the middle as in dis-app-earance or pine-app-le, or popping up in more exotic words such as Zünd-app or M-app-a Mundi. I’ve also been noticing it quite a lot recently in the educational buzz-term Ad-app-tive Learning, which even looks a bit like ‘Add Apps To Learning’.
‘Adaptive learning is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students’ learning needs, as indicated by their responses to questions and tasks. The technology encompasses aspects derived from various fields of study including computer science, education, and psychology.’ (Wikipedia)
Sounds impressive, but does this mean that teachers are going to be replaced (or at least sidelined) by computing? Well, according to Knewton, an education technology company that develops and provides adaptive learning platforms:
“The Knewton award-winning Adaptive Learning Platform uses proprietary algorithms to deliver a personalized learning path for each student, each day. Knewton’s technology identifies each student’s strengths, weaknesses, and unique learning style. Taking into account both personal proficiencies and course requirements, the platform continuously tailors learning materials to each student’s exact needs, delivering the most relevant content in the most efficient and effective form.”
As stated on their website Knewton is already well represented in ELT, with many of the big publishers using the technology as they move into the global marketplace with their latest ‘products’:
“With this Knewton-enhanced Pearson product, every student gets the benefit of instructor-guided course work supplemented by adaptive follow-up assignments.”
“Macmillan plans to create next-generation products that are targeted to the ELT market, using Knewton technology to provide personalized recommendations and analytics.”
“Using Knewton adaptive learning technology, Cambridge University Press will develop a new generation of digital ELT products.”
So students download the content, learn it, and then click to continue along their personalized learning path. I can see the global implications for such an app-roach, especially in certain Asian countries where children spend most of their school years doing stuff that prepares them for ‘high IQ’ scorings: rote learning, memorization, constant testing, high stakes. Oh, and adaptive learning is also being incorporated into the field of distance learning, as well as new areas of online education such as group collaboration. Anywhere, in fact, where ‘measurable learning outcomes’ can be delivered.
The issue of adaptive learning is generating a lot of discussion among teachers, but I wonder what learners think? Has anyone asked them, or carried out any research? The ELT profession is a very broad one, of course, with many different teaching contexts. I can imagine situations where adaptive learning technology could be applied on a grand scale, where teachers are employed primarily as materials operators and test administrators, but this brave new world of ‘massification’ in education seems to me an un-app-ealing utopia.
There is not yet, as far as I know, an app that delivers task-based learning as I use it with my students. This is because the process develops in real time, and involves interaction with other warm-bodied people. When students use language to complete tasks they are required to make constant adjustments and corrections as they respond to the unexpected and the spontaneous. They may then repeat a task but in a different role, armed with new words and phrases to try out. True, they may turn to their smartphones to find a word or check out a reference, but the real value of the training is in the room where they are interacting with other learners and receiving support and correction from the trainer. They see that by repeating and extending tasks, and pushing themselves towards new challenges, they are making progress through continuous improvement. This must be a more satisfactory learning experience than using apps, even those containing ‘proprietary algorithms that deliver a personalized learning path’.