Phil Wade Interviews: Nik Peachey
We’d like to introduce a new monthly feature: Phil Wade Interviews. Each month Phil Wade will be interviewing a passionate professional in the field of English language education, discussing their work and thoughts, as well as recent trends in ELT. This month, Phil interviews popular blogger on education technology, Nik Peachey. -Editor
Education technology is a rapidly advancing field, moving faster than most people can keep up with. Nik Peachey’s long experience as an instructor in educational technology makes him uniquely suited to know what’s going on, and how things change when students start using computers and apps.
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He’s the designer of Digital Video – A manual for language teachers, Web 2.0 Tools for teachers and Co-editor of Creativity in the English language classroom. He has also worked as a teacher and teacher trainer all over the world for companies including Open University, British Council and Google as well as most of the established ELT publishers.
On his blog, he has been making edtech easier to understand since 2007, attracting more than 3 million views. He also curates the Learning Technology News portal and Tools for Teachers and Learners, each of which have more than 30 thousand subscribers. These days, he works as Head of Learning for EnglishUp, an online English school delivering lessons to learners in Brazil. He can be found online at Nik’s Learning Technology Blog.
On a personal note, Nik Peachey is the reason I got into technology. I came across his work whilst doing a distance MA TESOL and used his sites a lot for ideas of what I could do in classes with technology. His work helped me through the third module on the DELTA and he has been a continual source of inspiration for all my teaching and writing. If you are serious about edtech, you must follow Nik!
You’ve been sharing EdTech sites and teaching ideas for years so what made you decide to go into epub now?
I think there are a number of factors.
Firstly, writing a book or books is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve talked to publishers multiple times but have never been able to find the right fit between producing a book they want and find economically viable to publish, and one that I would want to write. There have always been too many limitations and compromises.
I think over the last couple of years though we have reached a tipping point for self publishing that has made it possible for individuals to produce books of an equal quality to those of publishers and take them to market independently.
One of the big factors in making this possible has been Apple and iTunes. They have taken a lot of the friction out of the payment process and made online purchase extremely simple. They have also provide iBooks Author, a free piece of software that enables anyone with basic word processing skills to produce interactive books that are comparable to, if not better than anything a professional publishing house can produce.
The other really big enabler is the emergence of crowd funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. These sites enable writers like myself to try to raise the capital to buy time and resources to do the job well.
Lastly, I guess in all honesty I want to make some money from my writing. I’ve published hundreds if not thousands of free articles and materials online and a previous book which was read more than 300k times. My blogs have been viewed more than 3 million times, but I still have to pay for my food at the supermarket. That’s real life. Much as I enjoy blogging I have to feed the family, pay the rent and try to put my daughters through school.
I remember reading one of your guest blog posts about 5 years ago about connected universities with students and students using digital materials. Are we there yet?
In terms of materials availability, yes we are there. There are plenty of online resources available and many universities now have most of their lectures and resources openly available online, but in terms of changes in mind set and pedagogy no. We are not even close.
Look at the hysteria caused by Sugata Mitra’s appearance at IATEFL in 2014. Basically, all he is suggesting with his SOLE idea is that if you give kids or anyone else access to the Internet and problems to solve they can do this for themselves. To me that seems self evident. It happens all the time and it should be something that is happening in schools and universities as part of the accepted pedagogy, but as much as we say we should be promoting the role of the educator as a facilitator when push comes to shove it doesn’t seem like we are ready to let go of our status as sage gurus of knowledge. I’ve argued for a long time that schools don’t need to encourage autonomous learning, they just need to stop crushing it.
You are very active in the TEFL world and so meet a great deal of teachers. What is the greatest challenge they face regarding tech? And what’s your solution?
Lack of the right kind of support. Most educational administrators from ministries of education down to the private language school see the problem of educational technology as one of providing hardware. That’s a solution they like because it has a definitive short term price tag on it and once they have paid the money they think their part of the problems is solved and they can hand it over to the teacher. They also have something they can photograph for their marketing materials so it’s like a double win.
The reality is that if technology is going to have genuine impact in education you need a well thought out long term strategy which includes pedagogical change, a change in the ways students are assessed and most importantly training, training and more training.
What teachers generally get is a couple of sessions on how to switch stuff on and then IT support that they need to raise a ticket with to get help if anything goes wrong.
They are left in the classroom in front of a class of students trying to deal with what someone else’s impression of technology integration should be and with an Internet connection that is either inadequately slow or so tightly filtered they can’t access the free content or tools they need to use the technology effectively.
There was recently some research which claimed that technology does not improve grades and studying. What’s your perspective on that?
I’m surprised that something so naive still gets published and that some people still revel in reading it or at least reading the headline.
Putting a computer in a classroom and expecting it to produce measurable improvements in learning is a little like placing pens in a classroom of pencil using students and expecting there to be measurable improvement.
What needs to be measured is the effectiveness of the pedagogical approach. Computers can enable a fundamental change in pedagogy, but if it doesn’t happen then it’s unlikely that there will be any measurable result from adding them.
In contrast to this, I work in a totally online school that enables students to have one to one live lessons online with a real teacher. In our recent research 86% of out students felt they were making good progress. Of the students who had previously studied in a face to face classroom 95% felt they were making better progress than they had in their face to face classrooms. For us the technology enables people to connect to sources of learning, whether that’s people or content sources. This is part of the power of technology.
What do you think the future of EdTech is? I mean, I have seen several indie app companies struggle once they used up their funding and some are arguing that mobile-optimised sites are the way forward.
Yes. There’s a lot of venture capital finding its way into educational technology and particularly into mobile apps these days. They are seen as easily scalable learning solutions, but in most cases they are rubbish and although they can claim huge numbers of downloads many of them offer very little in terms of sustained learning lifetime usage. I recently read some research from Duolingo claiming that they were as successful at delivering learning than the first semester of an undergraduate language course. On reading through the research I discovered that they had removed all the people from their test group who gave up after less than two hours use. This in fact turned out to be 108 out of a test group of 196 people who were being paid to take part in the research. The truth is that interacting with an app whether its mobile, web based or gamified has only a temporary appeal. People learn languages to actually interact with other people and that needs to be part of the language learning process.
You used a different route to producing an ebook to most people. Can you please explain what you did and why?
Before writing the book I raised some money using a crowd funding site called Indiegogo. Indiegogo, like Kickstarter and other crowd funding websites allow anyone to try to raise money for projects using a system of rewards for anyone who back the project. I raised around £5,000 that way and even managed to crowd source the editing work to people who wanted to be involved in the project.
Crowd funding the backing for you writing project is a great way to raise the money you need to do the job properly rather than trying to plug away at your book in your spare time. I raised enough money to get some time off from work to put some serious writing time in. Raising money this way also pushed me to develop my marketing skills. That’s important, because writing a book is actually much easier than marketing it and getting people to buy it, especially as an independent self publisher. Raising the money also proved to me that there was a market for the book. In the end more than 130 people put money into making the book happen.
So many people also start books and never get to finish them, but raising money this way is also very motivating. Once so many people have put money into your project (and especially once you have spent the money) you really feel a strong sense of obligation to actually get the book finished.
The final reason I wanted to do the book this way is because I wanted to make it an ebook only. Most publishers are still tied to the paper-based book and when you write a paper-based book about technology you have to try to give it a shelf life of up to around ten years because the costs of printing and distribution are so high. This means you have to use generic ideas rather than talking about specific apps or sites, as the rate of change is so fast. By doing the book as an ebook it makes it much easier to update content quickly and cheaply, so I was able to include video tutorials in the pages of the book and high resolution images and screenshots of the apps I was writing about. I also wanted to make it affordable to more teachers, So I now have an interactive book that’s as good as anything a publisher could produce which I can sell for around £1 a copy.
Some people argue that self-pub ebooks must be ‘publisher quality’ even though that means expenses and perhaps a level of writing that new writers cannot achieve. What is your perspective for first time epub writers?
In terms of writing, I think new writers have the potential to achieve the same level of quality as an experienced writer, especially if they work with an editor or even a writing partner. Having someone to bounce ideas off can really help you develop your writing and spot things that you will never see in your own work.
As for quality and expenses, I also think we should try to aim for the same level of quality as a professional publisher, but we need to look for smart ways to do this. If you don’t have graphic or design skills think about getting in a freelance to help. There are lots of places you can do this pretty cheaply online like https://uk.fiverr.com/ or https://www.elance.com/
Also think smart. Don’t try to make a huge perfect book on your first attempt, try to produce an MVP (minimally viable product). A minimally viable product doesn’t have to be poor quality it just has to be something that has enough substance for people to find value in. Then once you have started selling your product you can build on it. I wish I had done this with my book – Digital Video – A manual for language teachers. I produced a 400 page book with 40+ lesson plans, sections on web-based and mobile apps with 26 video tutorials and a few chapters of theory and ideas on blended learning and online learning. What I should have done was split it into sections and publish each part separately as it was finished. Then I could have 3 – 4 books on the market and I would have got something out much quicker.
Given the invention of the smartwatch and now the smartpencil, what tech do you see the classroom having in 5 to 10 years?
The classroom of today isn’t that different to a hundred or even a thousand years ago. The likelihood is that the classroom won’t change very much in the next 5 – 10 years. Many schools are still installing interactive whiteboards and thinking of these as new technology. I first trialed one back in 2002 and I can’t say they have changed or improved that much since then. The educational world changes very slowly.
What I’d really like to see happening is more people teaching and studying independently online. Much richer and more interactive content through gamification in a much more immersive sense. I’d like to see learning embedded into the environment through augmented reality applications so that learning can be experiential and contextualised. I’d like to see technology enabling people to connect more easily to learn from each other to enable more social learning, but I think a lot of that is still a long way off. Before there can be a real shift in formal education there will need to be a change in the way learning is evaluated and that change isn’t really in the interests of the existing powers that control such things.
What I’d like to see is learning being evaluated through the actions actually taken by the individual to learn. Things like how much online research the person had done, how much the individual had written, how peers rated the value of the writing, the quality of the person’s participation in networks and communities. This kind of learning could be tracked by Google or some similar company. At present our education system is more like a process of jumping through hoops and conforming to a common prescribed path.
Not every school has huge budgets. For a school interested in venturing into the digital world, what would you suggest is a good but affordable first step?
I would say the best technology investment is super fast broadband. Make sure students can access wifi all over your school very easily on whatever device they are carrying. In terms of technology investment this doesn’t even have to be so expensive, but however much money you have to invest make sure you get the best bandwidth you can afford.
Then invest the rest in building a culture of continuous improvement among your teachers. That’s all you need.