Nik Peachey Talks About His Career, Online Teaching and The Future Of Education.
In May 2012 he won a British Council ELTon for Excellence in Course Innovation for the Blended Learning in ELT course he designed for Bell Educational Services .
In 2009 he published a free e-book ‘Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers‘ which has been read by more than 180k teachers world wide.
In 2013 He started his Digital Classrooms Project about exploiting and using online video. He’s currently writing a digital resource book to help teachers exploit online video technology in learning.
Nik is now entering a new stage in his prolific career – moving on from freelance innovator to Head of Learning at EnglishUp. He is going to talk to us about his career transition, his new goals, his insights as Head of Learning and how he’s leading Brazilian schools, teachers and learners into the online educational arena.
1) So Nik, you have just taken up a new post as Head of Learning at EnglishUp. Can you tell us what motivated that decision?
Sure. Well firstly after about 7 years of working alone as a freelance consultant I was starting to feel quite burnt out. I think this was largely due to working in isolation so much of the time. Despite the Facebook pictures of conferences in exotic locations, the majority of the work I do is done from my sofa, which doubles up as my office.
The other thing that had started to worry me was my detachment from the day to day realities of delivering ‘learning experiences’ to real people within the confines of a real business. As a blogger I’ve been letting my imagination run wild with the possibilities of new technologies and how I see that they could impact on learning, but the realities are often very different and now I’m having to deal with those realities, so for me I think this will be a really beneficial experience, which I hope I can still pass on to my blog readers.
As for the choice of EnglishUp as an employer, that came very much out of the blue. I spotted an ad on LinkedIn and asked if they were still recruiting. I had an interview in less than a week and was really excited by the company and the ethos. EnglishUp is owned by Macmillan, so it combines the security and professional standards of an established publisher with the more dynamic outlook of a startup company. I started working for them less than 10 days after that first interview.
2) Is online teaching becoming more mainstream and can we look forward to a day when most schools will be well-versed in adopting blended learning strategies?
I think online teaching and learning is becoming more acceptable particularly within businesses and universities, but I’m not sure that this means these organisations are becoming more ‘well-versed’ in developing learning strategies. Many of the online courses and materials that I’m seeing haven’t moved on much from the behaviourist models of computer assisted language learning of the 60s.
There’s been a huge surge of interest around MOOCs recently and certainly the idea of MOOCs based around the connectivist models created by Steven Downes and George Siemens have huge potential, but it seems that the theoretical models that the MOOC concept was founded are often the first thing to be dropped when companies start developing their huge online courses. In a way that’s what attracted me to EnglishUp. We are taking the exact opposite of the MOOC model. We are putting the teacher and the learner at the centre of what we do and delivering personalised one to one classes.
3) So does this mean that you don’t believe in the MOOC model?
No. It doesn’t mean that at all. I think MOOCs that run on the principles of connectivism and that are based around tasks which genuinely generate peer to peer learning and learning through social interaction are great and can be extremely powerful. The fact is though that there are a lot of online courses which are no different from the courses of ten or even fifteen years ago calling themselves MOOCs and they aren’t. They are just not particularly well designed online courses with lots of students working alone with no real reason to interact. This is why the drop out rates on these so called MOOCs tends to be so high – It’s still top down learning and the learners aren’t being involved in the process of creating and sharing knowledge.
4) Online learning has come a long way over the last decade. Can you tell us what it was like back in 2000 when online teaching was still very much in its infancy?
Well I think the infancy of online learning goes back quite a bit further than that. I was setting up virtual learning environments for my students in Spain back in 2000 and it wasn’t a particularly new thing even then. The delivery of online courses hasn’t really come that far. There’s a lot more video, which is great and a bit more peer to peer interaction which is also good, but take up for the really exciting things that are becoming possible such as augmented reality, virtual reality and gamification is still pretty slow as they challenge many of the established acceptable norms of classroom learning and evaluation.
5) Should we be more optimistic about finding ways to bridge the digital divide in the next decade?
Well I am optimistic about the digital divide, but poverty is still the biggest challenge. I did some research visits recently in India and visited half a dozen village schools. We often think of village schools as being small intimate spaces, but these schools had thousands of students many of whom came for miles to have lessons and only one English teacher for all of them. Many of the schools had no electricity for lights, no doors and hardly enough space to fit all the students. The sad thing is that these are the people who could be most helped by technology, but much of the time it just isn’t reaching them.
6) What are your practical priorities in guiding online teachers to manage technology in their classes?
Generally I think teachers have been trying to drop technology into their lessons, with little bits of websites and a few tools etc and that’s not bad, but to really see the impact that technology offers we need to drop our classes into the technology and use the technology as the starting point. The biggest challenge though in this is that many schools just don’t provide the teachers with the infrastructure they need to make technology lessons successful. Unless they start providing realistic connectivity across the campus, then they can’t expect teachers to be constantly putting themselves out there and taking on the challenges. If as a teacher you constantly have to plan two lessons, the one you want to teach and the one you will have to do when the connection fails, then pretty soon you are just going to go back to teaching the safe reliable way and drop the technology.
7) Is this different for online students and teachers?
Yes it is. With online classes the student and teacher is usually at home and on their own computer using their own connection. They are also immersed in the technology so the issues change. One of the big challenges I think teachers face when moving to teaching a live online class, is that they soon find out how much they relied on hand gestures, physical movement and eye contact with their students and they have to relearn many of these physical techniques and adapt them to communicate through the webcam. Initially many teachers just turn the camera on and then rely on voice, but really they have to start to use the webcam to really reach out the the student and build that connection.
8) Will this new position change your social media focus with regard to blogging, scoops and breaking news?
Well I hope it won’t change too much, though my relationship to blogging has been changing over the last few years anyway. I’m blogging a lot less than I used to, but I’m still writing as much if not more. I’ve been working on my own book which should be finished soon and I think more of my writing will be channeled towards ebook publishing. This does mean that less of it will be available for free, but like everyone else, I need to make a living and have a growing family to feed, clothe and educate.
9) I imagine that your new perspectives as Head of Learning for a fully-fledged online organisation could steer your focus into newer frontiers. What do you think you’ll be blogging about or thinking about one year from now?
Yes I think it will. Nowadays I’m surrounded by bright, open minded, intelligent young people in Macmillan’s digital education department. I feel like a grandfather there, but there’s a great buzz of excitement and ideas and it’s great to be able to pick up on that. I’m not really sure yet how it will manifest itself in my blogging, but I hope it will make the ideas I come up with more practical and more grounded in the realities of day to day online teaching.
10) What educational insights or skills do you hope to nurture in the teachers under your direct supervision?
I think our main focus will be on really nurturing interpersonal relationships with online students and building a really supportive environment for them to learn in so that we overcome the kind of isolation and lack of motivation that impacts on so much online learning. We have a great bunch of teachers who are really open minded and keen to learn and develop so I’m really excited about getting started with this.
11) Are you implementing your digital classrooms project ideas into the EnglishUp course designs?
Yes, I’m starting to. Video is fundamental to the EnglishUp course. The course materials are designed around a video soap opera which takes place in New York. Students can become absorbed by the lives of the characters and we build the learning around that.
12) I would love to pass on a personal piece of advice from you to participants in our new ‘Build Your Teaching Business Online Course’. What’s the number one piece of advice you would give them?
I think this is one of the most exciting times in history to be involved in education. There is so much change and so much potential to learn and teach better than it has ever been done before. For those with digital teaching skills the possibility to control your own destiny and the way you work is really opening up. Nowadays you can work anywhere in the world from your own sofa if you want to. Be excited by this and above all skill up!
Let’s wish Nik Peachey ongoing success in his professional endeavours.
This interview gives us both personal and professional insights into the realities of teaching and learning in the digital age. It also serves to shed practical light on what it takes to stand out as an innovator, thinker and action researcher. I, for one, feel that Nik’s foray into liaising directly with teachers as Head Of Learning at English Up will amplify the fruits of his research and continue to inspire future generations of teachers.
Of course, it has been a pleasure interviewing Nik once again. Special thanks to Nik Peachey for sharing his wisdom with us.
My favourite ‘takeaway’ quote is:
“Generally I think teachers have been trying to drop technology into their lessons, with little bits of websites and a few tools etc and that’s not bad, but to really see the impact that technology offers we need to drop our classes into the technology and use the technology as the starting point”
In fact, I believe that this insight will underlie concepts, ideas and practical approaches to digital learning that I plan to present in the near future;)
If you have further questions, comments or wish to quote your own ‘takeaway’ insight from this interview, please feel free to comment below.