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English Teachers vs Robots: How well does Technology enhance and transform Language Learning?

With millions of paying subscribers, Babbel is one of the most successful language learning apps globally,  connecting learners with diverse language goals through one (digital) learning space.

At InnovateELT this year, Geoff Stead, CPO at Babbel, shared some unique insights into the design of Babbel and how it deals with the intersection of learning, teaching and technology.

This article is a summary of the keynote session he presented.


Learning from our learners

At Babbel we’re really lucky. We have a huge number of learners across the world, logging in to learn 14 different languages with us—and as they learn, so do we.

We are getting better and better at building perfect courses because we ask our learners to help us decide what to develop next and how to enhance our learning design models.. It’s a great relationship the delivers a terrific feedback loop. Here’s  what we’ve learned so far.

Great content is useless if nobody uses it …

We know our lessons really work. However, like other language learning apps we also face the harsh reality that way too many people make a great start, get distracted (Look! A squirrel!) and give up.

Face-to-face teaching environments don’t have that problem. Teachers spend many hours of focused time with their students and can adapt their lessons to different conditions in ways that technology can’t yet.

But there are some great technology tricks that can help with engagement, like Nudge theory, Flow state, Behavioural economics, Habit building. If you’re new to this area, and interested I’d recommend Make it Stick as a good intro to these. But here I’m just going to highlight some of the principles that underpin our approach.

Be more human!

Here’s one of the classic mistakes that all digital technology product makers have made at least once: get super excited about the beautiful tools you’ve built but lose sight of the users. EdTech is no exception.

Think about the digital tools you use in your life. Did you carefully pick your email client or your digital notebook because it had the most features? No way. You chose the one that was easiest to use. And that’s because the creators put serious time and effort into researching the best ways for real humans to fit digital products into busy, non-digital lives.

At Babbel we work hard to keep learner-focussed using a method called Design Thinking, which for us includes the related fields of Learner Centric Design and Learner Experience Design.

But far more important than these labels is the need for a near-fanatical focus on what’s really going on for our users; we put huge effort into getting their feedback. One tip that helps us here is using User Personas: detailed descriptions of prototype users that we use as a lens to understand how they might use our app.

We examine the User Journey for each Persona: why they bought the app, how they start to use it and what their experience is over time. We’re alongside every step of the way, learning as they learn and learning from what they do. This enables us to find gaps, weak spots and enhancement opportunities that provides the basis for future investment and continuous improvement.

We also realize that one app is not enough to take our users to language learning mastery. We encourage our learners to use other digital language experiences (Foreign films on Netflix!) as well as working with many face-to-face language providers who use Babbel to support and supplement their in-class learning.

We’ve recently launched Babbel Travel, a service that offers our digital learners opportunities to attend face-to-face classes on holiday or for work. And we also work with businesses to provide them with a tailored range of blended learning solutions.


The technology tightrope

Of course, like many of human language teachers, we’re continually trying out new ideas and approaches, looking for the perfect relationship between the human processes of learning and the capabilities of digital technology


AI for digital learning

One area we work in is AI. But this is such a buzz word that I’d caution any newbie to do some research before getting too excited. Dig a bit deeper to understand what AI is really about. At Babbel we’re mostly in the “narrow AI” space, using specific tools to make the most of different channels such as spoken voice and written text, so as to return really useful feedback and practical recommendations to our learners.

Gamification? Chocolate-covered Broccoli!

Another area of much hype and buzz is Gamification. It is a domain with tremendous potential  but sadly it’s often abused and misused. At the simplistic end of the spectrum you can find poor quality learning resources with a few game-like add-ons where the aim seems to be to trick  learners into spending time with playing simple games with poor or minimal learning design in the mistaken belief that they will somehow benefit. This approach may prove a short-term amusement but will not produce serious learning outcomes. It’s known as Chocolate Covered Broccoli. You can try to sweeten it, but it’s still basically broccoli!  

There certainly are some very good uses for gamification, but they are harder to find, and much more challenging to develop. Our take at Babbel is that we want just enough chocolate to help a cautious learner to engage, but not so much that learners get lost in the “game” and miss out on the much greater thrill of learning to use, enjoy and fall in love with the language they are mastering.

What tech innovation means for teachers

During the Innovate session, we also covered several other emerging technologies:

  • The power of Voice and digital personal assistants: great for practising speaking
  • VR and 360 Video: great for simulating a pretty authentic foreign language experience
  • AR: we saw several fun use cases for on-the-fly live translation of objects around you

There is certainly a torrent of new technologies sweeping into our learning space but what does that mean for teachers today? There was a mix of views in the keynote presentations. One presenter thought that nothing would realistically change before 2024 (I disagree!). The other pointed out how our devices are already shaping us, recommending to use with care and caution (I agree).


My take?

Change is happening and it’s fast. Learners are impatient and will move to whatever best supports learning as quickly and effectively as possible, whether we are ready for that or not.

Teachers need to become digital explorers, trying out new tools and learning how to weave them into their practice.  There will always be a role for human teachers but the balance between humans and machines is constantly shifting, evolving and transforming.

The teachers who will be most effective in the future will be those see and embrace the potential enhancements that technology can bring to their work.

What do you think? What will the balance between human and machine be in the next 5, 10 or even 50 years? Let us know in the comments.

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