#IATEFL2017 – A very partial commentary

The following is my very partial take of the first presenter in Outside in: bringing new technology perspectives to ELT 1. I play the role of the Muppet critics Statler and Waldorf, as this urge seems to come across me often when reading about technology in language learning. So do take it with that spirit in mind.

Ooh an image on this blog not seen that for a while, if ever

Derek, Duncan, Donald Clark asserts:
“Actually many many more people learn language outside the context of a classroom and formal courses than ever do in classrooms.”

Fair enough this seems a truism, as people do spend more time outside of school or formal learning and so potentially learn more outside of formal context. Donald Clark continues with:

“In this country we have tens of thousands of kids learning German, Spanish, Italian and French and barely any of them can come out and even ask for a cup of coffee in the target country after 8 years of sitting in a classroom.”

Assuming language classes are indeed offered for 8 years at say 2 hours a week for 38 weeks that’s 608 hours  which would arguably be enough for a low aptitude student to reach a low intermediate level of proficiency and be able to order a cup of coffee 2.

So what’s going on!? The horror!

Clark adds:
“But generally, the reason why many more people are learning English outside the classroom is because of technology. Wherever I go, I travel all over the world, I meet young people who constantly say two or three things to me when I say how did you learn your English. They say Youtube, number 1, they say music number 2, they say movies and increasingly young people around the world have access to every single video and movie by torrenting and not paying for it at all.”

When I met my wife some 13 years ago,  who is from France, and I asked her how she learned English, she mentioned listening to Beatles songs on top of working hard in English classes in school. So arguably young people today do similarly but has the increased accessibility of interesting content via technology led to more English learning? A claim to be investigated and not taken at face value.

The next bit of presentational style is:
“AI is the new UI.”

Clark goes on to point out many commercial services such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Amazon use AI.

“AI is the guiding hand in almost everything you do online except learning. So when you go on a VLE or Moodle it’s like stepping back into the 1990s a little bit because that is the 1990s actually. That’s where it comes from.”

Clark seems very tickled by this.

The laugh seems to be on him since if we take Google as an example when they started all their technology was from 1990’s AI work 3.

Moving on Clark says:
“Look at the things that’s happening in AI here. NLP, speech to text, text to speech all of this is entirely relevant to what you do for a living. AI is starting to tackle some serious issues around the teaching and learning of languages. So you cannot ignore this. It’s huge and it already is huge.”

One could say if we take NLP that it is has been “relevant” to teachers since the 1980s. Maybe Clark meant commercially driven relevancy? What serious issues is AI starting to tackle in the teaching and learning of languages? Is it serious issues such as lack of teachers which is being tackled by say video conferencing in projects like Plan Ceibal? Probably not what Clark is pushing. Side note the “huge” remark somehow reminded me of the “massive” remark by a well loved ELT bod 4.

Clark goes on to talk about bots in various enterprises:
“Bots are everywhere. Duolingo is an AI driven system out of Carnegie Mellon, it’s worth half a billion dollars, it’s got a 150 million people on it. If you don’t think AI is coming at your market, think again. It’s been there for a while. And of course they’ve added bots onto this as well.”

Adding without any seemingly obvious sign of irony, referring to bots:

“Don’t get too carried away though they are incredibly difficult things to make and not particularly effective if you get it wrong.”

Clark continues:

“Alexa..I have an immersive language system which is absolutely free sitting in my house”

He forgets to mention – sitting in your house hovering up your personal information, mind you he does add later it costs 150 “bucks” which is cheap apparently (Does he mean cheap compared to teachers?)

He talks about a “cool” maths app which is all very nice but not relevant to learning languages, a very different learning challenge.

He modestly mentions his company and a company he consults for. He mentions assessment via an hilarious meme.

““If only I had a few more papers to grade” said no teacher ever”

That is very funny that is.

One of his final comments would have made a much more interesting start to this talk:
“We have a chance as educators to change the world for the good…”

If Clark had started by describing how he thinks educators can change the world for the good via technology the talk would have certainly resonated. A direction that Professor Yvonne Rogers took well by beginning her talk with the vision of promoting collaborative learning, curiosity and playfulness. Methinks Prof Rogers has had more experience presenting to teachers than to investors.

A final comment when asked a question from the audience “Will teachers be replaced by robots?” Clark suggested that the “first wave” of replacements was seen with “Google and librarians”.

“The number of librarians in the world has dropped and it’s not a neo-liberal plot. People don’t go to libraries any longer and that’s the truth of the matter”.

If we can take US trends as similar to world trends then:
“If libraries receive more public funds, more people use them. And if governments invest less in its libraries (as they have since 2009), fewer people visit—though the drop in visits from disinvestment isn’t as strong as the rise from investment would be.” 5

So maybe it is a neo-liberal plot after all, and that’s the truth of the matter.

Thanks for reading.


  1. IATEFL2017 Outside in: bringing new technology perspectives to ELT

2. [http://www.languagetesting.com/how-long-does-it-take]

3. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_artificial_intelligence]

4.Massive video

5. [https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/04/americans-like-their-libraries-but-they-use-them-less-and-less-pew/477336/]