C is for Commodification

16 07 2017

cocacola(Or P is for Profit)

Let’s say you identify a large and untapped market for a product that you manufacture. Unfortunately the market is in one of the world’s most economically depressed areas. In order to capture and monopolize the market you need to be able to deliver your product at the lowest possible cost to the maximum number of consumers. The smaller the unit of sale, but the more of them, the better. Aggressive marketing will be needed, of course, to persuade a sceptical and precarious client-base to sign up – and stay signed up. And those who are delivering the product should be paid as little as you can get away with: if they are relatively untrained, so much the better.

Soft drinks and cigarettes have been marketed to developing countries like this for decades. Now it is the turn of education. A recent report in The New York Times describes how a chain of low-cost private schools called Bridge International Academies has co-opted the practices of commodification to profit from the dire state of education in many parts of the developing world. As The Times reports:

It was founded in 2007 by [Shannon] May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, along with a friend, Phil Frei. From early on, the founders’ plans for the world’s poor were audacious. ‘‘An aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver education at a high quality for less than $5 a month could radically disrupt the status quo in education for these 700 million children and ultimately create what could be a billion-dollar new global education company,’’ Kimmelman said in 2014.

Notice the key collocation that captures the essence of the business model: ‘to profitably deliver…’

The way they do this is to employ untrained teachers, give them a crash course, pay them less than public school teachers to work longer hours (which include recruitment drives among the local population), and then ‘deliver’ them their lesson plans by means of e-readers – lesson plans which are written by teams of content writers in the US who have never been near the local context. As the NYT describes it:

The e-reader all but guarantees that every instructor, despite his or her education or preparation level, has a lesson script ready for every class — an important tool in regions where teachers have few resources. But scripts can be confining, some teachers told me. And in some of the 20 or so Bridge classrooms I observed, pupils occasionally asked questions, but Bridge instructors ignored them. Teachers say that they are required to read the day’s script as written or risk a reprimand or eventual termination, and they do not have time to entertain questions. Bridge says that ‘‘teachers are required to reference the day’s teachers’ guide and to diligently work to ensure all material is covered in each lesson.’’

The Times correspondent was lucky enough to witness a lesson (reporters are discouraged from entering Bridge schools):

Inside the Bridge school in Kiserian, an hour’s drive from central Nairobi, students wore the same green uniforms and sat at attention behind the same rough wooden desks I saw in Kawan­gware. In front of a blackboard, a preschool teacher, Gladys Ngugi Nyambara, a thin woman also dressed in bright green, held a Bridge ‘‘teacher computer’’ that contained a recently downloaded lesson script on recognizing the ‘‘F’’ sound in common English words. Nyambara held up a picture of a fish and saw these words on the e-reader’s screen: What is this? (signal) Fish.

She gestured toward the class with the picture and delivered the line as precisely as she could. ‘‘What is this?’’ She snapped her fingers. ‘‘FEESSH.’’ She surveyed the 26 expectant faces in front of her. Her eyes went back to the script on the gray rectangular tablet. Listen. Say it the slow way. FISH. She followed the prompt. ‘‘Listen, class. This is a FEESSH.’’

There was a pause, and the teacher leaned over the e-reader. Our turn. Pupils say it the slow way. (signal) Fish. ‘‘Class, your turn.’’ She snapped her fingers again. ‘‘What is this?’’

After some uncertainty over whether to use ‘‘this’’ or ‘‘that,’’ the children began to dutifully respond. ‘‘This is a FEEEESH.’’

Nyambara pressed on, repeating the call-and-response five more times. ‘‘This is a FEESH. Now class?’’ Snap. ‘‘This is a FEESH,’’ responded the children, their voices moving from uncertainty to singsong, pleased to be catching on.

Needless to say, the delivery model has attracted some major corporate players who are already heavily invested in the economics of digitally-mediated commodification, Bill Gates, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Pearson being just a few. As The Times notes, ‘the company’s pitch [is] tailor-made for the new generation of tech-industry philanthropists, who are impatient to solve the world’s problems and who see unleashing the free market as the best way to create enduring social change.’

Hands Up

Contrast this with a project that is the polar opposite of Bridge in spirit, intent and educational philosophy, but which also addresses the needs of children (without disempowering their teachers) in very difficult circumstances. Nick Bilbrough’s initiative to use simple technology (Skype, Zoom) – not to deliver commodified lesson ‘MacNuggets’ at a price – but to freely create opportunities for learners to interact and be creative using English, supporting them and their teachers in such deprived situations as the Gaza Strip and Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, is called the Hands-Up Project.

Because it is not designed to make a profit, it has not attracted the attention of Bill Gates or Pearson, needless to say. But watch any of the videos that Nick has posted on his blog and you cannot help but be moved by the level of engagement – not to say the level of English – of these children.

How can we enlist more support for this project, without ‘unleashing the free market’ and the forces of commodification, I wonder?

G is for Granularity

3 05 2015

Granular is a buzz word in the discourse of publishing these days. With its vaguely breakfast cereal connotations it conjures up an image of learning content made palatable and wholesome.

For example, Knewton, the company that specializes in adaptive learning software, features a short video clip on its website, in which the presenter advises us that

“Publishers need to be looking at producing granular content. … no longer in the form of a big-package textbook, but broken down into small chunks that teachers, students, administrators can choose to use in combination or in a blend with any other content that they choose to use”.

Grains – chunks – blends: it’s making my mouth water.

Elsewhere on the Knewton site, we get this heady, but somewhat less appetizing stuff:

Within the adaptive learning industry, a shared infrastructure can benefit all existing educational apps by providing them with unlimited back-end content, granular and highly accurate student proficiency data, robust analytics, and more.


Differentiated learning can help each student maximize their potential by shaping the curriculum so that each student understands their proficiencies at a granular level and is given a direct path to improving them.

In a recent blog, they even show us what the granules (aka taxons) of second language acquisition look like:

Knewton taxons

Click to enlarge

But there are at least four major flaws in the way language learning has been granularized. These flaws long pre-date data analytics, but by bringing the power of industrial-scale computing to bear on data collection and analysis, companies like Knewton (and the publishers who enlist their services) are magnifying these flaws exponentially.

The first flaw – let’s call it the taxon fallacy – is that they have got their granules wrong. Notice that the so-called taxons in the Knewton graphic are the traditional ‘tenses and conjugations’ (present continuous, past perfect etc) – the same ‘tenses and conjugations’ that have been passed on like a bad gene from one generation to the next ever since the dawn of recorded time (or ever since the teaching of Latin) but which have little or nothing to do with how the English language is either used or internalized.

The units of language acquisition are not ‘tenses and conjugations’ (English has no conjugations, for a start). The units of language acquisition are words and constructions. Construction is a general term for any form-meaning association — whether a single word, a phrase, or a more abstract pattern — that has become conventionalized by the speakers of a language (see this related post).  Constructions are more than just ‘lexical chunks’ – they can also include morpheme combinations (e.g. verb + -ing) and syntactic patterns (e.g. verbs with two objects) – and they are much, much more than ‘tenses and conjugations’. They are not easily located in the syllabus of a standard coursebook – the type of syllabus which is still the default setting for data analysts such as Knewton.

The second fallacy – I’ll call it the proceduralization fallacy – is another legacy of a long tradition of transmissive teaching: it is the belief that declarative knowledge (e.g. knowing that the past of ‘go’ is ‘went’) automatically converts to procedural knowledge, i.e. that it is available for use in real-time communication. Hence, the assumption is that, if the learner is tested on their knowledge of an item (or granule) and found to know it, it follows that they will be able to use it. As teachers we know this is nonsense. Researchers concur: Schmidt’s (1983: 172) long-term case study of a Japanese speaker of English led him to conclude that ‘grammatical competence derived through formal training is not a good predictor of communicative skills.’ Counting the granules tells you very little about a learner’s communicative capacity.

Related to this fallacy is what is known as the accumulated entities fallacy, described by Rutherford (1988: 4) as the view that ‘language learning … entails the successive mastery of steadily accumulating structural entities, and language teaching brings the entities to the learner’s attention’. Since at least the 1980s we have known that, as Ellis (2008: 863) puts it, ‘grammar instruction may prove powerless to alter the natural sequence of acquisition of developmental structures.’ And Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997: 151), coming from a dynamic systems perspective, reminds us that

Learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings.

Unless a granular approach to data collection and analysis factors in these ‘peaks and valleys’, it will have nothing very interesting to say about a learner’s progress.

Finally, there is the homogenization fallacy: the view that all learners are the same, have the same needs, and follow the same learning trajectory to the same ultimate goals. This quaint belief explains why the designers of adaptive learning software think that it is possible to calibrate any single learner’s diet of granules on the basis of how 50,000, or indeed 50 million, other learners consumed their granules. Although software designers using data analytics pay lip-service to ‘differentiation’ and ‘personalization’, essentially they have a battery chicken view of language learning, i.e. that the same grains are good for everyone, even if they are meted out in slightly different quantities and at slightly different rates.

Contrast that view with the sociolinguistic one that no two people speak the ‘same language’: ‘You and I may both be speakers of language X but your grammar and mine at the descriptive level will not be identical … We both appeal to different sets of rules’ (Davies 1991: 40). Or, as Blommaert (2010: 103) writes, ‘Our real “language” is very much a biographical given, the structure of which reflects our own histories and those of the communities in which we spent our lives.’ It does not exist in someone else’s data-base, much less in granular form.

In the end, as Brumfit (1979: 190) memorably put it, ‘language teaching is not packaged for learners, it is made by them. Language is whole people’.

Ergo, it is not granular.


Blommaert, J. (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brumfit, C. (1979) ‘Communicative’ language teaching: an educational perspective. In Brumfit C.J, and Johnson, K. (eds.) The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davies, A. (1991) The Native Speaker in Applied Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Ellis, R. (2008) The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997) ‘Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition’. Applied Linguistics 18/1.

Rutherford, W. (1988) Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London: Longman.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in Wolfson, N., & Judd, E. (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Photos taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Hada Litim, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

Note: Coincidentally, Philip Kerr has just blogged on this same topic, i.e. Knewton’s ‘Content insights’, here: Adaptive Learning in ELT