Paul Maglione is the co-founder of Entertainment Learning and English Attack! Ajarn puts Paul in the hot seat to talk about the 'gamification' of on-line English language learning, the future for e-learning websites and traditional paper textbooks - and lots more!
Hi Paul, welcome to the ajarn hot seat. What's your background?
A very unconventional one for someone involved in education!
I studied economics at university and moved into freelance journalism right after, transitioning to corporate marketing and then on to the marketing and programming side of television (CNBC, CNN, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies) some years later.
I then made the jump over to the world of video games – specifically games for mobile phones – before deciding that it was time to start my own venture.
What first gave you the idea of starting English Attack?
Over the course of my career at that point, I had seen the Internet transform news, then video (film and television), and then gaming. With my co-founder we felt that there were relatively few new frontiers left in those areas, but that the digital wave had not really hit the world of education yet, and there was perhaps a way we could apply what we knew about online entertainment to the still very traditional ways people both taught and learned.
Within that framework, we tried to identify an aspect of education that was global, universally in demand, for which people were used to paying fees, and which could benefit from creativity and innovation. The answer was simple: English as a second or foreign language.
How did you go about developing the website?
We started off by surveying everything that had been done up to then in terms of e-learning of ESL/EFL, and we immediately saw that there was a gap in the market: there were several sites and apps aimed at very young children; and many focused on Business English, but to our surprise no one was catering for the mass market of “digital natives” - teens and young adults born in the past quarter-century who grew up with the internet and were hard to motivate with a traditional teacher-led, book-based approach.
I obtained a TEFL Certificate from Rutgers University, and, with the help of a dozen or so EFL/ESL teachers we came up with prototypes of the video lesson and visual dictionary learning units we had in mind, as well as learning games dynamically driven by these.
We consulted ESL./EFL teachers as well as researchers in cognitive neuroscience as to how to apply best practice from those two fields and to fine-tune our prototype learning units, and then tested the Beta version of our site with over 25,000 learners worldwide, integrating their feedback before launching the commercial version of the site in January 2012.
How do you choose the content you feature in the learning units?
We try to reflect what’s current in popular culture – the latest films, TV series, music videos, or news items, for example – and within those parameters, we look for clips which are of the ideal length (one to three minutes) and which feature interesting dialogue, visual clues, and which are appropriate for different levels of language proficiency.
In terms of our visual dictionaries, we started with the basics – household items, commonly visited places, foods, animals, and so on – and then expanded to new categories, such as world cities; hobbies; sports, themed idioms, and Photo Vocabs focused on a specific area of proper pronunciation.
So how can teachers use English Attack with their students?
Teachers can use Teacher Tools to create online classes, assign classwork or homework; monitor for assignment compliance and scores, and communicate with learners either individually or as a group.
Teachers can also use the platform for whole-class exercises via video projector; for homework assignments; as a class discussion lead-in; and more generally for autonomous learning for which extra motivation can be supplied in the form of a competition or contest among learners for who scores the most points on the platform, or is able to win a specific badge, or able to reach one of the 50 achievement levels on the site soonest.
It sounds a lot of fun but what are your thoughts about the “gamification” of learning resources?
The object of gamification, in any area, is to shape desired behavior by adding an element of friendly competition and/or fun to the task(s) you are asking people to perform.
Since most learners of English are doing so in a way that is on some level compulsory – either because it is a required subject at school, or training course they are asked to take at work, or they are attending a language institute their parents are paying for – it is important that we inject elements of gamification into what otherwise could be seen by these learners as a sequence of mandatory tasks.
And we know that gamification works with learning because gaming itself is a wonderful example of a “gamified” learning curve which already incorporates what we know to be successful pedagogical principles: gradual difficulty curves; learning by doing; repetition with variation; learning through failure; continuous positive feedback; social sharing of achievement milestones; and a motivational effort/reward ecosystem.
Digital natives respond particularly well to this type of learning logic, which is why we have fully integrated it into English Attack!
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by teachers of English today?
The biggest single challenge facing teachers in developing economies is surely the lack of resources due to inadequate budgets. There has never been a better time to explore new ways of teaching, new dimensions to learning, and the seemingly infinite suppy of new approaches and materials, but far too often teachers find themselves purchasing software or e-learning access out of their own pockets, or making due with second-rate freeware they find on the internet.
Another challenge is engaging learners. It’s easy to underestimate how digital entertainment has made paper textbooks and workbooks seem old-fashioned to today’s digital natives, and thus how difficult this makes it to engage teens or young adult learners with material and exercises which have not changed that much over the past 50 years.
That’s why we decided to propose a revolutionary approach, one rooted in authentic, current, short-format multimedia content, so that teachers could then focus on illustrating points of language and building up learners’ confidence rather than having an uphill climb simply to capture their attention.
Do e-learning sites compete with traditional schools and language institutes?
Some try to, yes, and in my opinion they fail because nothing can ever replace a teacher for as the guide to a comprehensive, long-term learning of a subject or a skill.
From the outset, our vision instead was to be an innovative yet complementary resource to classroom instruction; an ideal component – with no “publisher agenda” involving textbooks we were also trying to sell – of Blended Learning approach; and a facilitator of “flipped classrooms,” whereby learners could absorb authentic-material storylines, characters, vocabulary and grammar usage outside of the classroom, allowing more classroom time for discussion of the language experienced and drilling to consolidate what the learners have been exposed to.
Do you think it's still as important as ever these days for people around the world to learn English?
In their lifestyles, interests, and above all in their personal and professional aspirations, people everywhere are more “mobile” – i.e. ready to relocate to follow their ambitions – and globally minded than every before in human history.
And most of them are fully aware that the sine qua non of that mobility, the fundamental passport to even consider making it a reality, is English. That is why we cannot compare English with any other “foreign language,” like French for example, in terms of its importance or how it is learned.
English is our world lingua franca; it is the language of opportunity; and it is thus far more than an academic topic for education ministers to consider: it is an indispensable core knowledge asset for a country’s people - above for its youth - as well as being a strategic asset for a country’s economy and global competitiveness.
What countries have adopted English Attack most eagerly?
We are delighted to have users in over 117 countries, but we are strongest in Central and South America; Southern Europe; the Middle East and Turkey; and Southeast Asia.
We are particularly pleased that Thailand is in our top 10 countries in terms of registered users!
Do you think the days of the paper textbook are numbered?
In a word, yes. Young people, in particular, are becoming increasingly allergic to paper-based educational formats lacking currency and interactivity.
The input material in textbooks seems to age faster than ever, especially when publishers try to make them “current” (“Lady Gaga? Daddy, that is so 2011”).
One thing slowing down the demise of the textbook, however, is the extremely slow “wiring” of schools, in particular those in the state sector: many classrooms in the poorer parts of the developing world still lack electricity, let alone a broadband connection or wi-fi, so paper-based materials (if they’re lucky) and chalkboards will continue to be relevant in these settings for some time to come.
But the writing, longer-term, does indeed seem to be on the wall. I do think, however, that despite the widespread declared enthusiasm for “edtech” and all its related cyber-baubles, teachers still – and will continue to – rely on a quality ELT textbook as the pedagogical “anchor” of their teaching, and schools are also probably more comfortable having such an expert-authored curriculum than being without.
I can easily see an emerging norm where textbooks are phased out for learners in favor of online platforms, both in the classroom and outside of it; while the publishers, in addition to investing in those types of platforms, focus their efforts textbook-wise on teachers and the related teacher training that allows them to get the best out of the material.
Should learning resources be free or should learners have to pay for them?
Nothing is ever truly “free,” and that goes for learning resources as well as anything else. Even the so-called “free” lesson plans and so on to be found on the internet require teacher time and effort to download, print out, adapt to a specific set of learners, and so on.
If learners (i.e. parents) are paying for their own textbooks today, then yes, we can expect them to be asked to pay for quality digital resources tomorrow; if a private school pays (i.e. again parents pay) this will continue to be the case with online materials; and if it is the government financing the purchase of materials (i.e. taxpayers pay) then this will shift over into access to quality e-learning platforms.
What digital technology allows us to do, however, is to set price points for a vast range of interactive materials well below that of paper-based materials, enabling teachers and schools to do more with less.
What are some of the general trends in education technology?
Gosh, there are so many I hardly know where to start. “Mobile” probably is at the top of the list, with the explosion of education apps on smartphones and especially on tablets. Artificial Intelligence-assisted “adaptive” learning is another trend, as are gamification and learning approaches integrating social networking.
There is now a lot of brainpower and a lot of capital being poured into education technology, so we can expect to see the pace of innovation accelerate as this greater supply meets with increasing demand for revolutionary approaches to teaching and learning.
What is your opinion of the state of English language learning in Thailand?
In the most recent EF English Proficiency Index study, Thailand came in at 42nd place among 44 countries surveyed, with a “Very Low Proficiency” verdict, so I don’t think we can say all is rosy here.
Yet Thailand would have so much to gain from better English language skills among the general population – for its tourism sector, of course, but also to be more attractive as a manufacturing base, and in order to be considered as an option for companies seeking to delocalize services, an area where the Philippines is experiencing good growth. This is even more important today with ASEAN 2015 starting soon.
One of the barriers to more widespread adoption of evolved EFL approaches, of course, is a lack of budgets in state schools. In recognition of this reality, our Thai partners have come up with a very special campaign for all government secondary schools (M-1/M-6) under which schools or students pay only 1 Baht per day per student if there is a minimum of 200 license purchased per school.
A very important rationale behind the 1 Baht campaign is that signed-up students can use English Attack! every day, including during long holidays, not just during the school year.
What other ways would you recommend that people improve their English?
Entertainment is a great way to learn languages: for example I only studied French one semester at university but was able to speak fluently after about a year of watching French television and movies.
Social media is a wonderful source of language immersion as well: I would recommend that if students are not already using Facebook with the English language interface, they should, and they should try to join and participate in FB groups and pages about learning English – English Attack! has a very popular one, with nearly 300,00 fans!