Content overload?

Note: this post was originally published here, in March 2016. I’m in the process of migrating from Blogger to WordPress.

More writers. More content.

I saw recently that the IH Journal has an article about becoming an ELT materials writer. This is now one of the ‘done things’ in ELT, isn’t it? Now that the web is ready and willing to absorb more and more content, there seems to be a demand for more and more. However…

How much more ELT content does the world actually need?

Coming from someone whose job is developing content, in one form or another, this might sound odd. It actually reminds me of teachers clapping Sugata Mitra enthusiastically when he talks about their role being irrelevant in modern education. However, I’ll attempt to explain myself.

If Content is not King, or Queen, to what extent is this due to the fact that there is an overwhelming amount of it already in existence? Publishers are looking at developing content management systems so that content can be re-used and adapted, without the need to go to an author or materials writer, at minimal cost and in a hurry. Becoming more agile in this way will enable them to react quickly to sales opportunities. This suggests that the development of new content WILL decrease overall, perhaps.

The following answer occurred to me shortly after I had listened to Nick Robinson’s recent webinar for ELTjam about product development, in which he quoted Peter Thiel (PayPal), who apparently asks this question of his interviewees:

Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on.

There is already MORE THAN ENOUGH content in the world to sufficiently provide for English language learners, so if no more content was ever produced, there really wouldn’t be a problem.

Could this be true? What are the arguments against?

Yes, I KNOW that publishers and educational product developers think about MONEY and therefore if there’s a business opportunity the value is financial. I’m ignoring this, for a moment. I want to focus on educational value.

I will happily continue to take on work to develop content, because it is part of my job and I need money!

The fact that content needs updating, it needs to be provided in a nice package and it has to change to keep up with industry, ministry and assessment changes are all true, but those points are arguable.

It’s worth a discussion, don’t you think? 

Who is the content for?

I believe, although I may be wrong, that the majority of language learning materials end up in the hands of teachers who ‘deliver’ the course to their students. Companies like Duolingo, Busuu, Rosetta Stone and Babbel follow a B2C (business to customer) model, focusing on the direct delivery of their product to a language learner (customer). In more traditional educational publishing (although B2B and B2C both exist) it is often what was once described to me as a ‘dog food market’. You don’t sell dog food to dogs, do you? So to whom is the content sold? Not the students. Woof woof. Often not the teachers either, it’s the school managers and administrators, but teachers often have a say, more so than students, certainly. So if this content is for the teachers, how does it improve the situation for them and their students?

Concierge Learning

Searching online for ELT materials returns a vast number of links to an ocean of content. On a daily basis, hundreds, if not thousands of new items of content: pages, videos, quizzes, activities etc are added. Most free, some behind a paywall. The thing is, what does this IMMENSE amount of content mean for teachers and the industry as a whole?

I’ve been very interested in the concept of ‘content curation’ for a number of years. I use ScoopIt to archive and share articles and links I find. I also use a whole ecosystem of tools and apps which bring me content and enable me to save and share. I consider this a vital part of my own continuous learning process.

One way in which teachers might actually ignore newly published content and just work with what is already available is this form of content curation. I’m sure, if given the time, teachers could seek and save good, free content on the web and distribute it as course material to their students. This relates to the concept of ‘concierge learning’ (Bonk, 2007) and this could be a key role for teachers in modern education. It would also fit in nicely with the idea of teachers helping the students develop as self-directed learners, which I’ve always thought to be an important part of education.

The opportunities are already out there, the students just need to know about them:

We need to push students into the many learning possibilities that are ripe for them now. Concierges sometimes show you things you did not know were available or possible.” (Bonk)

In terms of materials for language learning, these things are often online and free. Teachers can guide the learners in the direction of GOOD materials, rather than leaving them to search through the flotsam and jetsam in the polluted ocean of content to find a clean bit of water, as it were. They can also use or set up content management systems, based within Moodle, or using platforms such as English 360, Edmodo, or Let’s Learn English; or keeping it simple with a blog or a wiki.

Another thing is that the production of content by the students themselves is easily possible and is a potentially valuable part of language learning. There is also the argument that you don’t need any materials at all.

If this content curated course development can be done with web tools that already exist, then I think a responsible question to ask at the beginning of any product development project might be this:

If a teacher doesn’t actually need any new content, or a new product, in order to help their students learn English, then what value does this product have for the teachers and learners who are expected to use it?

If that question can’t be answered sufficiently well, then perhaps it’s worth having another think about things. If you have a good answer, then perhaps it’s going to be a great product which makes you a load of money! An answer may be in how the content is delivered, which could be a valid way of adding value.

There is also, of course, the possibility that you’re looking to develop a product that will take the teacher out of the equation. Good luck with that, because I don’t think teachers are going anywhere.

What do you think?


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