Blended Learning, Financial and Technological Opportunism.

To read  Barrett and Sharman’s “Blended Learning” one might be forgiven for thinking that these new technologies were invented for English teachers rather than the language teaching industry. After all, their “common sense” approach in suggesting that new technology is not there to replace the teacher but, used judiciously, is a useful tool to help make classes lively, relevant and effective will strike a chord with most English teachers around the world. One might say something similar with regards to the use of graded readers or songs in the classroom. Yet such a simplistic view of blended learning fails to take account of the political economy of “new technology”. The drive towards competition between individual capitalists or blocks of capital and the war with workers over working conditions and the level of profits.

 

Indeed in Daniel Bell’s post industrial society (a theory which long predates modern conceptions of the knowledge economy) new technology would allow people to participate in ever longer periods of leisure and free us to spend more time on socially orientated labour. 10 years after the publication of his book unemployment rose to 4,000,0000 in the UK and, in the heartland of capìtalism, America, working hours have increased not reduced. Of course, if new technology  reduces the amount of time to produce the things we need to live then this will free us to dedicate our time to other pursuits- it is logical. But the reality of capitalism and logic are not necessarily compatible. This world of high tech solutions is a world of arms races, scarcity, poverty and increased working hours. The imbalances of the world capitalist system and its inescapable tendency towards boom and slump, not only waste the potential advantages of new technology but threaten the very existence of life on the planet itself. So no, here at Marxist TEFL we will not accept such a banal explanation of blended learning.

 

In the 1960’s and 70’s schools in the UK became increasingly equipped with language laboratories as did many universities. French and, to a lesser extent, German, was pumped through individual headphones whilst students stared at a large shared screen and repeated (or at least mouthed) the sentences they heard. In language academies teachers had their own less expensive “drilling techniques” which depended on the dynamism of the teacher. And, naturally, the industry turned against  the audio-lingual approach and embraced the communicative approach. It is no accident that the presentation of the two methodologies bare a close resemblance to Fordism and Post-Fordism. The former being large-scale, inflexible and repetitive whilst the latter being based on smaller units, specialised and flexible. The learner would no longer passively assimilate the grammar by slowing moving through its hierarchies but would discover a varied manner of expressing themselves in real tasks and capable of functioning in varied situations. Of course, the reality of CLT differs strongly from its claims but so too does the reality of Post-Fordism with its not so flexible production line.

 

The introduction of new technology to the classroom has of course been effected by this change in approach. The language laboratory seemed less appropriate but with the spread of the internet and ever effective computer technology, the eighties witnessed a small boom in computer rooms for students. The logic of competition meaning that once one centre had a computer the others had to follow. Not only were the computers very inefficient and the internet connection incredibly slow but teachers had no real idea of how to use them effectively. Indeed, it is part of our history that many teachers remember that as trainee teachers on TEFL cert courses sharing premises with general English courses for students from abroad, they were actually banned from using the school’s computers. The computers were reserved for the “real students”. But trainee teachers could reserve an overhead projector in order  to experiment with new technologies. Naturally these stories are hidden from the TEFL books about new technologies, rather we are presented with stories about teacher reluctance to “embrace” new technology.

 

Moreover, teachers  either found themselves shut out or rationed with respect to the computer room. It wasn’t until the late nineties that computers arrived in the staff room. This coincided with the revolt against the textbook (see Underhill). Increasingly, teachers were encouraged to produce material which was up-to-date and, obviously, textbooks are never current. Correspondingly, using the computer became an essential part of all TEFL cert courses and schools invested in internet resources like “One Stop English” and “Instant Ideas” to give their schools the gloss of modernity.  Yet it is not the hypocrisy of the industry which concerns us here but something more fundamental, the history merely shows who owns the new technology. What we will turn to now is the use of new technology and the threat it poses to teachers.

 

 

The real industry powerhouse behind blended learning is of course Wall Street Institute. A powerhouse because it has been pushing its computer based method for over 30 years and now with the backing of the Carlyle Group since 2005 it is in a position to extend an operation that already includes over 400 centres in 27 countries around the world. Key to this method is the primacy of computer tasks as an alternative to classroom teaching. Whilst students do enjoy “encounters” with teachers in small groups of four this is for speaking practice only. Effectively the teacher’s role is greatly diminished with “assistants” on hand to help with computer or task comprehension problems. Though we shouldn’t take WSI’ claims at face value, it is instructive to note that in their franchise material they claim operating profits of 35% and above.

 

When Wall Street tried to expand in Spain I 2002 they encountered a number of problems.  Wikipedia summarises this history well:

In 2002 there were as many as 130 WSI branches in Spain. Many of these were  franchises. With the collapse that same year of rival school Opening English, which used a similar computer-based teaching method to that of Wall Street, the Baltimore company saw 88 of its Spanish franchises close before the end of the year.

Today there are less than 20 Wall Street Institute branches open in Spain.

Wall Street and Opening English used a similar method to charge their customers. Customers would sign up for an extended period of time in order to avail of cheaper rates. However the contract which they signed was not with Wall Street but with a financing operation unconnected to the English school chain. Thus when students of the two schools, unhappy with their progress, tried to rescind their contracts early they discovered that they had to take the issue up with the bank that underwrote the financing company who issued their contract. Wall Street does not teach children. The majority were unsuccessful in their claims.

What presented a problem for these schools was the necessity of enrolling large numbers to process through their centres. Their centres had the very best computers at the time and much of the software was cutting edge. This clearly requires a large capital outlay which the shool needs to recover in order to pay back start up loans Arguably, with the advance of the internet, particularly its speed, this model of computer based learning backed by supplementary “speaking classes and tutorials” could see a major change to teaching as it is no longer dependent on a well-resourced centre. Much more widespread change then than that predicted by Barrett and Sharman.

In our opinion. however, the dominant hegemony of the university sector  will act as a counterweight towards these changes. Rather what we envisage is much more computer based work. The Academic TEFL industry can not ignore WSI and it must seem to compete but it has other advantages though, like control over testing which  delegitamises the WSI approach. FCE and IELTS techniques do not fit neatly into the WSI model. Private academies and universities will not want to relinquish their traditional classroom based instruction. Blended learning is being sold as an extra rather than an alternative. Flirtations with moodle and other LMEs are already commonplace. We can not expect lower class sizes, however, or more one to one tutorials, indeed class sizes are likely to increase with this new technology.

Individual teachers can expect more reliance on them to search the internet for videos and make them into lessons, maintain blogs, use moodle type technology and have an e-mail account accessible to students. New technology will mean more work for the teacher and not less. And what is quite remarkable in this scramble for new technology is that very little research exists to support its effectiveness (see the excellent work of Sarker and Nicholson for a destruction of associated learning myths). The truth is that the industry is falling over itself to compete in the field of these new technologies but thee is no sound pedagogical justification for doing so. Smaller class sizes which have sound pedagogical research to support them and overwhelming student support are simply off the agenda. There is nothing common sense about new technology in the classroom only the madness of capitalism and its logic of profit.

 

 

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Blended Learning, Financial and Technological Opportunism.

  1. alexcase

    I think a critique of Blended Learning as an economic thing rather than a learning thing is needed, but this seems a bit unfocused to me. I don’t think you’ve managed to tie the various arguments together very well. Still, very thought provoking, and I have personal experience of more technology meaning more work for the same money, specifically with Interactive Whiteboards

    TEFLtastic blog- http://www.tefl.net/alexcase

  2. marxistelf

    Sorry Alex that you found the article lacking a little in focus but it is worth repeating that new technology like method generally in TEFL is not neutral and we cannot separate method/new technology from the social relations of production. This is not to argue that blended learning or Communicative Language Teaching is reducible to a simple economic imperative but that change does not operate in a vacumn and blended learning cannot be properly understood without first understanding the capitalist conditions under which it was developed and is being incorporated in the classroom. It is important therefore not to separate the learning issues from the “economic” issues. If the article has been longwinded or unfocussed in arguing this then,again, sincere apologies are due.

  3. alexcase

    Sorry if I came over a little negative, it was partly disappointment because the post started so well. Whilst I think you have a point about the organisations you mention such as Wall Street, what they do with technology has almost no impact on the rest of the industry. Most of the bloggers about technology in TEFL are self employed or work in universities, and most of the technology they use comes from outside TEFL (youtube, Skype etc). Therefore, I see the two worlds as existing almost entirely seperately from each other and a critique of one part hardly touching on the other. Fascinating topic though

    Do you fancy doing a guest piece on my blog, maybe something like “Be careful what you do with that technology (or be careful what that technology is doing to you)”, which would tie in nicely with a recent tech post, or a manifesto piece on what Marxism can teach us about TEFL

  4. marxistelf

    Alex don’t apologise for appearing negative, it is through a critical engagement with each others’ ideas that we can sharpen our own. I do, of course , though disagree with you entirely. If we look at the major players in the industry, they are all experimenting with blended learning:

    http://www.berlitz.ie/berlitz-online/eberlitz-blended-learning/

    http://www.ihpalermo.com/node/212?lang=eng

    http://www.britishcouncilonline.org/BCI/ST/Html_Pages/learning-resources.asp

    It is true that individuals like yourself have pioneered innnovative uses of technology but what the industry now does with this technology is a different matter.

    As for universities being different, I would argue they represent the most pernicious arm of the industry.

    I myself write blogs for my students as a learning aid and have experimented with skype as a learning tool, but am now being told by my employer, a university, that I must write a blog over which they have editorial control and also use their own very poor blended learning system.

    I think you misread the situation very badly but am of course pleased with your willingness to debate these ideas.

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