Sometimes a single encounter can change the course of a whole life. In the summer of 2010 I had such an encounter in the most unlikely of places: Riehen, a sleepy and picturesque small town near the city of Basel in Switzerland. The creative journey that followed would make more than a few influential people in the English Language Teaching (ELT) community sit up and take notice. It would give birth to Alphary – yes, there are start-ups in Vienna! – and it would achieve all of this by inciting the corrective-feedback (r)evolution and thereby hopefully solve one of the biggest problems of computer-assisted language learning.
Here is how it all came about. Five years ago in Riehen, an exceptional, young, tech-savvy, and culturally diverse English teacher with Swiss / Hungarian / British background became my neighbour as well as a dear friend and pedagogy mentor soon after. His name is Alexander and although only in his mid-twenties, he was already a teacher at an exclusive private school in Basel.
Needless to say, I asked Alex to test phase6, the flashcard and vocabulary memorization software I had invented as a young student years earlier, which had become – and still is – market leader in Germany (check it out on www.phase6.de in case you understand German). My hopes of a lucrative deal with his private school were crushed, however, when only days after our first meeting, Alex was candid enough to tell me straight to my face why he would not use phase6 in his classroom. His words are burned into my memory to this day:
“Daniel, your software may be appropriately designed to help beginner learners of a language memorize the meaning and translation of single words on a flashcard, but my students already know English, they are on an intermediate level and – sorry to say – they need something much smarter than phase6!”
These words felt like a punch in the stomach: phase6 was my baby after all and no one had ever criticized it in front of me with such candour. Only later did I understand that Alex was not criticizing phase6 as such, but that he had just wanted to make me aware of the big differences in what beginner, intermediate and advanced learners of English need – a crucial, new distinction for me. Alex went on to explain:
“My students need to practise not only what words mean, but also how to use them correctly in varying contexts. And when they get something wrong during an exercise, ideally they should get some smart feedback as to why they’re wrong – not just the common, black and white ‘right or wrong’. Look Daniel, I consider myself a good teacher and when it comes to a vocabulary exercise, I would never just tell a student they’re wrong. First of all language isn’t maths – things are rarely straightforward or ‘logical’. Second, students wouldn’t be learning anything if I just told them they were wrong! Instead I would say things like: ‘Good job, the word you used isn’t entirely wrong because it has a related meaning – it simply doesn’t sound natural in this particular sentence. Try a synonym!’ Oh Daniel, there just is so much more to word knowledge than you and all your competitors even begin to imagine…”
And so the vision of creating the world’s first truly intelligent, digital English tutor was born. What followed was, and still is, an exciting journey across continents – a journey of learning and experimental discovery; a journey of meetings and friendships with some of the world’s leading experts in language and pedagogy; a journey with its fair share of highs and lows, and near disasters; and a series of serendipitous encounters that seem too perfect to be purely coincidental. Among them are those who have become Alphary’s core supporters, vendors, financial backers and (technology) partners, including OUP. If you, the reader, are one of them: please consider this letter a big ‘thank you’! The freshly released Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer (OEVT) is the first manifestation of Alphary’s vision for a ‘digital English tutor’ – it simply wouldn’t have been possible without your contribution.
The OEVT features our fully automated corrective feedback which uses state-of-the-art approaches from artificial intelligence and natural language processing. OEVT is the first app by Oxford University Press (OUP) that carries the Intelligence by Alphary logo. We hope many more will follow in the coming years in collaboration with OUP and other big players in the field.
For those of you outside of the industry: OUP is perceived by many as the world’s most trusted publisher of English Language Learning (ELL) materials with offices in more than 50 countries. We at Alphary.net specialize in intelligent technology for ELL products and aim to become the ‘Intel Inside’ equivalent of the ELT / ELL industry.
For those of you who are professionally interested in more details or the academic background of ‘Intelligence by Alphary’ products and technology, I’d like to refer you to our White Paper, written by one of our pedagogic consultants, ELT writer and English teacher trainer Philip Kerr:
Philip’s most recent and fascinating post on his influential blog Adaptive learning in ELT explores the role of ‘corrective feedback’ and how best to gamify it – the two central USPs of OEVT.
Please feel free to forward this message to selected friends and colleagues who might be interested in trying the app. The more people join the ‘corrective feedback (r)evolution’, the better it is for education across the world.
Let me end with my all-time favourite quote – simply because it reflects so well on the nature of our journey thus far. May it continue in the same fashion...
“Until one is committed there is hesitancy; the chance of drawback; always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
W. N. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
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