No Future? The English Language Teaching Coursebook in the Digital Age



The market for English Language Teaching aids is huge and growing rapidly. There are around one billion learners and eleven million teachers of English today. However, with the introduction of smart phones, ebook readers and tablet computer devices such as the iPad, learners’ expectations about how they access and use learning content have changed. But recent research by Caroline Moore, a digital language learning expert based in London, shows that the publishing sector has not implemented innovations accordingly. The traditional printed coursebook model could be outdated very quickly, Moore warns. Here, she gives an outlook on her OEB 2010 presentation on how content producers should investigate the needs of learners, teachers and institutions, consider the latest thinking in language learning methodology and develop new products and business models.


By Caroline Moore


The most profitable and complex product released by educational publishers is the English Language Teaching (ELT) coursebook, which generates revenues of around £420m for UK-based publishers. The sector has been dominated by major international publishing companies who have the resources for such large-scale content production, sales and marketing.


Although widely used, there is considerable ambivalence among ELT professionals towards coursebooks which often focus on the teaching of linguistic items and analytical approaches to language learning, rather than providing opportunities for meaningful and sustained language acquisition. Coursebooks are often chosen by educational authorities and school managers, with teachers and learners having relatively little say in the content of what is taught.


With the emergence of mobile technologies, learners, teachers and educational authorities are beginning to expect the provision of digital resources, often for free, and available on different technical platforms. The iPad, only launched in April 2010, is already hugely popular, and other, cheaper tablet computers are coming onto the market. All these combined have the potential to transform education in the very near future, and the demand for printed coursebooks could decline very quickly.

New Generation English Language Teaching – Eight Recommendations


  • Regularly updated granular content: teachers and learners pick and mix their own programmes of study
  • Clearer sense of learner progression through the use of online testing tracking, and e-portfolios that document achievement
  • Better exploitation of ELT pedagogy, use of discovery learning that exploits and mediates authentic content available on the Internet
  • Easy access and storage for learners, teachers and institutions
  • Hybrid, mixed media, includes some print at first
  • Self-study components for mobile devices
  • Content that interests and excites learners, including engaging games. Courseware that is relevant to language learning needs, learning styles, expectations and cultural background.
  • Wider repertoire of interactive routines (not just gapfill, matching, sequencing). The range of interactive routines has changed little since the advent of Computer Assisted Language Learning in the 1980s, often limited to basic true / false, gap fill, matching and multiple choice.



ELT publishers, however, have been very conservative in this domain and have found technological innovation difficult. This is partly because technologies have been challenging and the markets small, and bad experiences over the past few decades have taught them to be cautious.


As a consequence, the coursebook model has, until recently, been relatively untouched by digital technologies: Until 2004, ELT course audio cassettes outsold CDs. Since then, publishers have gradually introduced additional digital resources to complement their coursebooks, such as CD-ROM and web-based home study aids, as well as interactive whiteboard tools and materials.


Yet it seems that the tipping point in favour of digital media will come much sooner than publishers believe. They need to commit more resources to working with developers of digital learning materials that will work on different mobile platforms and abandon their current paradigm of coursebooks that offer sequential learning (see “Recommendations”).


Publishers of ELT materials would be well advised to completely rethink their current coursebook business model and fully engage with customer expectations in terms of free content, and introduce tangential or “complementary” products and services that customers will buy.


To remain successful, educational publishers must co-operate with each other and with content developers from outside the sector to deliver their products on common platforms that learners, teachers and schools find easy to use. They might emulate the music industry, which is beginning to accept the need for “co-opetitition”; take, for example, recent investment in the music subscription service, which offers an ad-supported service for free, or an add-free service for a small amount per month, which users can access on their mobiles.


Higher education institutions are already beginning to use platforms such as iTunes U to make materials available to their own students and to the wider public, and publishers should be working more in partnership with their institutional customers.


There are enormous opportunities for newcomers to the sector less encumbered by the ideas, bureaucracies and costs associated with mature businesses. Platforms such as Apple’s iTunes U and its App Store offer a “level playing field” for small developers who can reach the market alongside much larger companies.


Caroline Moore’s research was carried out at Cass Business School, City University, London, over a six month period. It included interviews with experts in English Language Teaching, analysis of an online survey of teachers of English, a review of publishing and digital technologies as well as a detailed literature review of product innovation and language teaching pedagogy.

At OEB 2010, Caroline Moore will present New Generation Courseware: Mobile Learning in the Language Learning Classroom as part of the session Content Creation for Mobile Learning, which will take place on Friday, December 3, 2010, from 11:45 – 13:30.

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