A Critical Lexicon of ELT in the ‘Digital Age’: Ahistorical

The folks at eltjam were recently ‘delighted’ to launch their series of blog posts, The Lexicon of ELT in the Digital Age. I have to say that I don’t share that delight.

I think the title of the series is misleading. According to Nick Robinson, the series is “heavy on terminology from publishing, software development, product management, digital language-learning and the startup world.” Call me a pedant, but jargon from these fields has little to do with my experience of ELT, that of my colleagues or, I suspect, anything that we would like ELT to be.

All this might simply indicate that I’m not part of eltjam’s target audience but the effort to inject terminology from ‘the startup world’ into ELT leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Do we really need this kind of discourse to permeate every aspect of our lives? Can’t we discuss anything these days without sounding like Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? On the other hand, perhaps I’m being far too precious about ELT given that it’s fairly messy ideologically itself.

So, I thought I would do more than just carp on the sidelines as I usually do and create an alternative lexicon which I hope might provide a useful counterpoint to eltjam’s. Here goes 🙂


As others much more knowledgeable than me have pointed out, education technology is often discussed in a way which suggests little interest in or understanding of its history. The consequence of this is that technologies appear to many of us as free of history, without traceable origins, impersonal, neutral and inevitable. The parallels with economic and political developments are obscured. Not knowing how and why things are the way they are makes it all the more difficult to imagine any alternatives.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the ‘Prussian factory model’ of education and perhaps the most famous invocation of that is in Ken Robinson’s ‘schools kill creativity’ TED talk. I wrote about it in one of my first posts here, and saw no problems with Robinson’s argument that schools hadn’t changed since the industrial revolution. But there certainly are problems with it, as Audrey Watters describes here. According to Watters,

we’ve invented a history of “the factory model of education” in order to justify an “upgrade” – to new software and hardware that will do much of the same thing schools have done for generations now, just (supposedly) more efficiently, with control moved out of the hands of labor (teachers) and into the hands of a new class of engineers, out of the realm of the government and into the realm of the market.

Another influential example is Clayton Christensen’s ‘disruptive innovation’ rhetoric. This critique and Jill Lepore’s article on the flaws in the ‘gospel of disruption’ are both well worth reading. (Update, 1/10/15: Here’s a report from MIT Sloan Management Review of an attempt to validate Christensen’s concept)

Coming up: algorithm, big data, bullshit, Californian ideology, coding, critical literacy

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