E-learning and the Theory of the Adjacent Possible

The Education Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line August 2010. Human decisions are removed from educational strategy… (with apologies to the Terminator scriptwriter(s)

In his ‘illustrious’ movie career, Arnold Schwarzenegger did quite a bit of damage to people and property, but he managed to cause much more shock and anger when, as governor of California, he tried to make changes to the education system. In 2009, whilst trying to solve the problem of a $24 billion budget deficit, he announced that he wanted to make schoolbooks obsolete.

“It’s nonsensical and expensive to look to traditional hard-bound books when information today is so readily available in electronic form,” Schwarzenegger said in a newspaper interview. “Especially now, when our school districts are strapped for cash and our state budget deficit is forcing further cuts to classrooms, we must do everything we can to untie educators’ hands and free up dollars so that schools can do more with fewer resources.”

It was a nice touch to suggest that educators have their hands tied behind their backs if they’re forced to teach their pupils with just books to help them.

He also pointed out that today’s school pupils feel comfortable using electronic equipment. “Textbooks are outdated, in my opinion,” he said. “For too many years, we’ve been trying to teach kids exactly the same way.”

Gavin "I've seen the future and it's electronic" Dudeney at the ISTEK conference in Istanbul, April 2010

California’s schoolbook bill in 2008 was $350 million. The governor argued that the state’s children could be educated far more cheaply in a paper-free environment. With this in mind, Schwarzenegger and his education advisers wanted to launch a scheme in August 2010 whereby California’s high-school pupils would have access to online math and science texts using a digital textbook like a Sony reader, which would be provided free.

And this, young teacher, is your new classroom.

I can’t find any information online to confirm whether this actually took place, so if there are any Californians reading this, maybe you could add a note at the end.

California isn’t the only place where these discussions about similar radical changes are taking place. Here in Europe, most national governments are having to think along the same lines. In almost every case, I imagine they’re trying to work out how much money they can save if they don’t have to buy books.

As an ELT author, I suppose I should be ranting on about how disgraceful it is to think of a world without books.

But I’m not going to do that.

I think paper-free education is a great idea. And the main reason is an environmental one. I see the disappearance of schoolbooks as a totally positive thing for the planet. Beyond ecological issues, there’s no question in my mind that, at some indeterminate point in the future, all education will be in an electronic/digital format.

The problem is knowing when this ‘indeterminate point in the future’ is. And in ELT, it’s a pressing one for the people who produce materials, both publishers and authors.

And let’s start with a pat on the back for ELT publishers, who already produce masses of very good supplementary materials that are freely available online. And there are lots of individuals around who provide even more free online material through blogs, websites and other means.

As a result, at this point in time, publishers face two problems:

1   Some teachers, institutions and even states are already set up to teach electronically, most are not – yet. The simple solution would be to make all materials available both in paper form and online, or a combination of both. But this would be very expensive.

2   Given the amount that publishers already make available for free online, working out how to make people pay for this kind of material in future is going to involve some clever marketing.

Key players in the education industry are going to have to make some important decisions soon.

To help them, I offer – the Theory of the Adjacent Possible.

The Theory of the Adjacent Possible is kind of obvious when you hear it described, but everything has to be expounded and given a name somewhere and by someone. In this case, the someone is a man called Stuart Kauffman, an American theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher (no idea what that means), who was born in 1939.

Stuart Kauffmann

Basically, the idea of the Adjacent Possible (for a science dunce like me) is that evolution is rarely revolution, it’s a simple step from what there is now into the next possible set of circumstances.

Kauffman believes that the whole of biological evolution is based on this concept. To survive, all living creatures, or ‘autonomous agents’ as Kauffman calls them, have had to evolve toward a higher complexity. They do this step-by-step, in other words ‘The Adjacent Possible’.

Now a younger more TV-friendly writer called Steven Johnson has revived the idea of The Adjacent Possible in a book called Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

Steven Johnson, Oxford England, July 2010

Here’s a short extract from an interview with Johnson in The Guardian, on 19th October 2010, which really nails the point that major changes rarely come in a true eureka moment.

One night in 1902, an ambitious young American engineer named Willis Carrier was waiting for a train, watching fog roll in across the platform, when he had a sudden flash of insight: he could exploit the principle of fog to cool buildings. He patented the idea, protected it fiercely, put his new invention into production, and made a fortune. As eureka moments go, even Archimedes might have had to concede that Carrier’s was impressive.

Carrier’s company, still in existence and worth billions of dollars, cornered the market in air conditioning. However, for Johnson, the point of this story is that moments like this are as rare as hen’s teeth. Big ideas like this are hardly ever the result of a blinding flash of inspiration. And they rarely emerge from someone working alone.

It’s much more likely that great new ideas are simply the next logical or feasible step. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

He makes an analogy with chess where, at any given time, several moves may be possible, but countless others won’t be. It’s the same with inventions: the printing press was only possible after moveable type, paper and ink had all been invented. YouTube, when it was launched in 2005, was a brilliant idea; had it been launched in 1995, before broadband and cheap video cameras were widespread, it would have been a terrible one.

I think the same thing applies to the future of education. There will be no e-revolution, but in 25 years time, education will be almost entirely electronic, but it will have been achieved by a gradual process. The days of paper books are numbered. In environmental terms, this is a good thing.

And the future looks bright for the next generation of ELT workers, young men and women who are in the early years of their career, and looking to move into writing. As the market fragments even more than it has done already, publishers are going to need more material for students, not less.

If you want to be an educational writer, there will be lots of work for you. You may have to accept fees for the work that you do rather than royalties, but you will still be able to earn money by writing. ELT writing will become more like journalism, and the things people write will be more up-to-the minute as a result. I think Sean Banville’s breakingnewsenglish.com is a kind of blueprint for the future in this respect.

So pens at the ready (if you still use such old-fashioned devices for writing) and wait for the call. When publishers realize how much material they need to satisfy the requirements of future English learners, they will need your help – and quickly.


32 thoughts on “E-learning and the Theory of the Adjacent Possible

  1. Really interesting thoughts about where this is all going, Ken. As someone who is intimately involved in this part of our profession, I read with great interest what you think is going to happen in the quite near future.

    It will certainly be different!!

    Mike =)

    PS Very nice to see you again at TESOL France and look forward to the next time our paths cross!

    1. Thanks, Mike…

      I’m just telling it as I see it from inside the business, but without much clue as to the e-potential. I’m hoping that people will add their own take – we may get a really good and clear picture of the future, or we may be so wrong, we can look back in 20 years and laugh at our own ignorance of the Adjacent Possible. 😛

  2. Ken,

    Lots of great thoughts, necessary thoughts that can motivate many to re evaluate what they do, how they do it and why they do it

    A few things I’d like to comment on.

    1. It isn’t for environmental reasons that a paperless learning culture is important. Actually – electronic devices are much more detrimental to the environment. MUCH.

    2. People will pay for content that makes their life easier. The web is so hard to navigate for resources and materials – teachers need ebooks to aggregate and facilitate their use. This is the future. Why can’t you have a book where in each lesson, the teacher has content that is in the public domain to mix and match with that of the ebook? I’m still waiting for an ebook which will have selections of youtube videos instantly clickable through the pdf of the ebook – to complement and support each lesson.

    I’m coming out with a “blended book”. It will have a specific approach and also allow teachers with a click of a mouse, to add content to their ebook. Also, a real hands on form to discuss each and every lesson in the book.

    I really think publishers have to “let go”. It won’t be easy for them when guys like me can make a book, collect payment and also harness the public content of the web in one fell swoop. Why in the world should anyone like myself ever sign on with a publisher? Publishers really have to reinvent themselves or they will go the way of the music industry…. IMHO.

    But I do agree – there will always be a “book” market and the change will be gradual.


    1. David,

      my daughter works in the eco-business, and she says that e-learning will eventually be much less detrimental to the environment than paper, when alternative power sources are up and running. Surprisingly, the UK seems to be in the lead in this respect. Also eco-groups must keep up the pressure on computer manufacturers to increase the percentage of materials that can be genuinely recycled, not re-constituted.

      And publishers ARE re-inventing themselves. I have had a look at some future plans – but not allowed to say more at this point. Congratulations if you’ve come up with a blended plan that will put the frighteners on them. Many have tried, and most have failed. 😛

  3. Ken

    This is an area I have also been investigating and anyone out there is very welcome to get in touch with me about their experience (find me on Facebook – Joel Josephson).

    My starting point with this was something I wrote in a previous proposal, ‘How can we have an education system where the only time the students are NOT connected to technology is when they switch off as they pass through the classroom door”

    From my investigations it would appear for a real possibility of success, a Paperless education system needs to stretch from the Authority to the student, with ePortfolios included.

    I have been led to believe the most effective way to implement the concept will be through an open source platform, IP based, that will allow all content publishers to offer their content through the curriculum approval gateways.

    The most important aspect though, as far as I am being told, will need to be how the pedagogy of the new approach is developed.

    Very happy to be trashed.


    1. Hey Joel!

      ‘happy to be trashed’?? Why would I trash your very well-expressed views? This is an open forum for all points of view.

  4. Brilliant post, Ken. In my view, the ELT textbook publishers are caught in a bind (ha ha) similar to that of the newspaper boys: why trade physical dollars for digital pennies? Stakeholders in “old” formats, at the end of the day, are never able to make the sacrifice. As a result, they are almost never the ones to survive the format evolution (think Yellow Pages vs. Google; USA Today vs. Drudge Report; Newsweek vs. Huffington Post; local classified newspaper ads vs. CraigsList). If there’s one thing we’ve seen work in the digital world, it’s unrelenting focus on being best at one – at first, at least – narrowly defined thing (Google, LinkedIn, Facebook). You know the story about the Greeks who burned their boats upon landing in Troy, to signal to the men that there was no return, it was victory or death. Who will be the first of the ELT textbook publishers to burn their paper boats?

    1. Hi Paul!

      i LOVE the Greek analogy, and will steal it in some future post.

      I will at this point re-state my belief that ELT publishers by and large do a good job, or at least try to serve market needs. I hope no one goes to the wall … um… as the evolution continues, rather than ‘when the revolution comes’.

  5. A thought provoking post Ken,

    The future of education with the help of technology should be more personalised. Technology will hopefully enable practitioners to differentiate, not only, the level & suitability of resources for each learner, but also the medium by which they engage with the resource.

    As an example in a classroom a learner may engage in a group around an IWB with the teacher with bespoke interactive HTML5 content or a website with a suitable video. While other learners could be engaging with ebooks on Kindles, YouTube videos on their smart phones and game based learning on a PSP or DS.

    At the moment there is a major move for educators to share their content. In fact the new version of Moodle, 2.0 (just been released) is set up to encourage practitioners not only to share their entire courses but also for them to ‘give away’ their courses so other practitioners can repurpose them to fit their learners needs.

    Moodle or any other LMS can facilitate the delivery of the content in a structured (pedagogical) way, however, the main issue is the content. If you frequent Twitter and participate in any educational ‘chat’ you will note the number of links that are shared between practitioners to free open source resources as they are all keen to support each other.

    Despite practitioners creating and sharing their own content, they will still require writers, designers and publishers to create up to date relevant resources. However, in the future it may be that they require an e-chapter or video rather than a textbook.

    There is probably already enough free resources available on the web now to support learners through school, however, finding them and tagging them appropriately is the problem. Ironically a job publishers are good at.

    I have only been on Twitter a few months, however, I have already come across tens of thousands of free resources (which I have subsequently passed on to my followers), that said, it would take me a year to think how I would go about tagging them never mind actually doing it. Incidentally when I talk about resources I refer to blog posts (& the comments), webpages, quizzes, interactive activities, comprehensions, videos, screencasts and much more.

    The future will only be different if there is a culture change not only in the way educators deliver teaching & learning but how publishers and resource creators make their resources available.


    1. Paul,

      possibly by accident, you have brought up an interesting scenario – one where there is so much exciting stuff around for teachers and students that they don’t know where to turn. Maybe in future, the most useful tool will be some kind of on-line directory to make sense of all this stuff – how to access it and how to use it.

      And then there will be the teachers who feel totally overawed by this. Talking to teachers on three continents in my recent travels as an author, I would say more than half of them are alarmed by the prospect of a move away from books. And not just older teachers.

      Keep up the good work!

  6. Hi Ken,

    Really enjoyed reading your post. Loved the Theory of the Adjacent Possible – this is new to me and I think it´s a fantastic way of looking at possibilities of development/evolution.

    I agree that the future of publishing is electronic – but I’m not too sure it’ll happen that fast. I think this is another of those fields in which there’ll be a northern / southern hemisphere divide: those who can & those who can’t afford the resources and gadgets which come associated with digital publishing. And this might actually be one of the things which holds these developments back on a wider scale.

    But I agree with you – the opportunities for those who are the “content” creators are immense. In a way, many are already experimenting a bit with this with this surge in blogging and “publishing” over the web.

    I also agree with David: I´m still waiting for an “enhanced” or “blended” form of presenting materials digitally. PDF’s are not the solution! PDF’s don’t engage learners!

    A couple of months ago I attended a conference on Digital Publishing here in Brazil (in fact, it lead me to blog about the whole issue) and listened to John Thompson (http://www.sociology.cam.ac.uk/contacts/staff/profiles/jthompson.html). It was really instructive and a balanced point of view and made me think: yes, change will come, but the pace will be slow enough to allow everyone to make the adjustments which are necessary.

    Maybe you already follow these sites, but I’ve found them useful in helping me understand what is round the corner in terms of digital books:


    1. Thanks, Valeria…

      the hidden agenda of this blog was that I thought I was taking quite an extreme view about this. It turns out that readers who more or less agree with my main premise have commented here, and those who don’t (book-lovers?) have emailed me! I’m trying to get them to comment here and I’m worried that they feel they are in a minority. I don’t think they are…

  7. I confess to not really understanding the theory of adjacent possibility but the main thrust of this post was very clear and I am in complete agreement. As I mentioned on Willy’s blog (how I travelled on over here) the main thing that the ELT publishers will now have to deal with is not how to digitize their content but how to make their content fit the new medium’s need.

    What we painted on walls was not what we carved into stone, not what we scratched on to vellum and not what we created on paper.

    Digital media and the web 2.0 has its own calling and I liked very much how you have recognized the need for an almost journalistic approach.

    It’s an exciting future ahead of us all.

    1. Karenne…

      “What we painted on walls was not what we carved into stone, not what we scratched on to vellum and not what we created on paper.” Brilliant! Is that another original from the queen of Gonzo ELT blog-writing?

      The Adjacent Possible is pretty simple – think of the moves a pawn can make in a game of chess – just to one of five adjacent places. Life is more about pawns than other chess pieces.

      1. Ken, Have you been cheating at chess again? Or do you mean prawns. They can move to six adjacent places at this time of year. Puzzled, in deep snow, PJ

      2. I will presume Mr Jackson has been at the wine gums again. In the manner of Nicholas Parsons, I will judge that to be an incorrect challenge, but will award a point because it amused the audience.

  8. ” For me, the physical object of the book is in itself a bridge between what began in the mind and returns there. …” (Jeanette Winterson-not me !:) ), but completely agree with her ! We can only imagine how lives and ways of acquiring knowledge will be changed in the future, but how will anyone learn to become curious about books when there are no books on the shelves? How can we explain to anyone that a book is a safe passage, is a crossing, is a tightrope between two worlds if they did not have the opportunity to hold one in their hands???

    1. Thank you, Ljubica!

      I SO want people to come here to defend books. Personally, I can never imagine a time when I’m not completely surrounded by books, as I am, sitting here in my office.

      Going to bed with Hilary Mantel now 😛

  9. I like to challenge myself, so I am going to step around to the other side of my mirror and try and defend books here.

    Well, not so much defend as think about some reasons they ought to stay with us in ELT… But there is a caveat: to stay, they’ll need to change.

    Physical books won’t be able to compete with e-books that allow for rich media, choice/options and personalisation (in terms of a language program and progress).

    However, if we adapt our physical ELT books so that they become more like actual books then I think there is a lot of potential there.

    By that I mean, make books that have stories and articles, magazine-style. Make the content accessible for ELLs, but stop trying to teach a whole course (in terms of language work) off the page. Make these books attractive and interesting and focus on the content. Make them something that students will like to put on a shelf and re-read later, or use as a reference (not so much for language, but actual topical content). Get rid of all that bloody clutter with vocab snippets and gap-fills and grammar boxes crowding around a central text or dialogue, rendering it artificial or contrived — the sort of thing that turns a book into a study scheme with a one-way street imposed from afar.

    So, in short, let’s just make books, and make them really good ones. Input, reading as it really is (or ought to be).

    All of that scaffolding, language work, language references and nitty gritty can go into an accompanying CD-rom or online program, where it can be personalised, put together in different ways, accompanied by media and speaking/writing software, and facilitate things like ongoing e-portfolios.

    At the end of a course, how nice might it be for ELLs to pick up their books again and say “This is interesting, and I can read it, as is, without help and without a schedule of accompanying language tasks…”

    1. Jason!

      do you mean — make ELT books readable?? Like a magazine?? With no academic clutter on the page to engage the top 2% of our students???

      I’m reading Wolf Hall at the moment. If Henry VIII was still around, you’d be heading for the Tower this morning.

      Do you mind if I copy this out and take it to my next editorial meeting? Every para a winner.

      1. Permission granted, Ken!

        But to pre-empt what I think will be a criticism or question about my ideas here: “so why not just use existing books… why make ELT books if essentially they look similar to what’s already out there (here)…?”

        To that I would say (and I am sure Ken and other coursebook writers out there would agree), one of the genuine arts to what we do in coursebooks is the fusion of interesting, appealing topical content with language that is accessible for foreign learners, without being (or feeling) contrived or fake, or loaded (you get my drift).

        There are more non-native users of English now than native speakers. I think they ought to have access to good content as well (on their journey to higher levels of proficiency), and I think there is an art and skill to writing it for them. And I don’t think it ought to be automatically a case of text/content plus language practice and comprehension exercises (or text/content to feed such things next to it on the written page).

        – J

      2. The point I’ve been plugging away at for years is that you don’t need multiple examples of a structure in a text – dialogue or prose text – to ram the concept home. As we all know, multiple uses of any structure look contrived outside of political speeches (and we all know how authentic THAT content is).

        One example of a structure – highlighted somehow, then linked to more practice material than you can shake a stick at, if that’s your idea of a good time (apologies to Groucho Marx for stealing that line). The point is – the practice material is elsewhere, and in future will be online, noisy, colourful, with bells on.

        Jason, fancy co-authoring a book called ‘With Bells On’??

      3. Your comment there about ‘structure overload’ in texts reminds me of a very fiery battle I fought with editors when I started writing the reading strand of my series.

        Thankfully, I won.

        However (and perhaps this is a digression), a fascinating thing happened with my reading texts. I wrote them to four levels of proficiency based on my teacher’s instinct — not a list of structures. Later, a good colleague of mine (who owned a language school and was very researchy) pasted several unit samples from each of my levels into a program that determined US grade level appropriacy in terms of lexis (lexical density, grammar, etc).

        The four levels matched US grades 3-4, 5-6, 6-7 and 7-8 with scores of 70-90% (and these were the grade ranges we had considered in writing the series, as a reference point for texts and vocabulary).

        Sometimes, I really do think publishers ought to consider the fact that writers can write for levels, without needing lists of words and structures, and they can do this based on experience and instinct, while concentrating much more on making things genuine and interesting for their potential readers.

  10. Jason and Ken,
    Just wanted to say I am learning so much from this conversation of yours. Lurking and learning. What you are talking about is sort of my goal with EC’s “edition” and the learners seem to enjoy the lightness of it. It’s still a work in progress, but I am having fun building it. The comment section helps me figure out which style is most popular for our readers and listeners. Thanks again for thinking out loud here so that those of us who are not in your staff room can benefit.

    1. You’re most welcome, Tara. Normally, the Raven and I just fool around with these comments, but occasionally there’s something of pedagogical value, usually when Jason decides to be serious. 😛

  11. Aloha Ken (and to all readers and posters),

    Quite interesting discussion here. A few things come to mind.

    I know that this may seem to be an odd comment from a guy who is a huge proponent of extensive reading for language learners, but I have always thought of a ‘text’ book as something that is, in many ways, designed to slow down our thought processes a bit so that we can internalize new concepts or information.

    I think that, for example, when learning a new formula in algebra (a kind of language), most learners benefit by going slowly, step-by-step, through the formula on the printed page, perhaps making notes on the page. This is usually followed by some examples of problems and solutions, and finally there are some practice problems to solve.

    I know that this is a very ‘traditional’ and perhaps very boring example; however; one can only imagine where the learner might wander if she were able to click through five or six hypertext connections, possibly unconsciously trying to escape the unsolved algebraic formulas on the page!

    I worry that with too much wonderful ‘noise’ always waiting for us,–just a click away–we may never get back to the formula that we are trying to learn. And while we may ‘learn’ some fantastic new things on our journey through cyberspace, the goal of learning to solve the algebra problem may be lost forever.

    I think that a good ‘text’ book also allows the learner’s mind to focus on a ‘target’ concept, in perhaps varied and interesting ways, but without so much external noise that we lose track of what it is we are attempting to learn. Again, with too many ‘connections’ available in an e-text, we may produce material that is interesting in a very ‘wide’ manner, but will this be at the expense of learners ever pursuing anything in depth?

    One final issue here comes from my experience teaching an English for Academic Purposes research writing course in Palau a number of years ago.

    I had about eight students in my EAP course in Palau, and the goal of the course was for students to produce a research paper akin to what they would have to write at a US university (these were students hoping to go to school on Guam or in Hawaii).

    We spent a good deal of time in the library working on how to find sources and how to create both a working and a final bibliography. And the plan was then to spend the final two-thirds of the course actually writing and revising the final papers.

    However, this plan never came to fruition because ff my eight students, six did most of their ‘research’ for the final paper online, and two did most of their research in the library, or they used journals stored on the library computer databases.

    Though we talked about finding competent/authoritative sources until I was blue in the face, the students who did most of their work online had extraordinary trouble dealing with separating the wheat from the chaff.

    Most of the material they used from online sources was poorly written, poorly researched, secondary material that was written for a website and really had no place in a university research paper. Most of these students would have failed their course had they turned in their ‘research’ papers at a US university.

    However, we did make lemonade from lemons, since most of these students ended up enduring a semester-long course on textual authority.

    But, and this is a big BUT, these students did NOT get to practice actually writing and revising a quality research paper, the stated goal of the course, instead they spent an entire term learning that surfing hundreds of sites and taking notes from unreliable sources would do nothing other than get them laughed out of a university seminar room.

    Again, I think that this experience speaks to the fact that sometimes students need to slow down in order to pursue a topic or concept in depth, and reading printed words on the page (or perhaps e-text without a myriad of hypertextual connections to extraneous information or multi-media delights), provides the opportunity for this ‘slow’ learning to take place.

    My two cents.

    Mark Furr
    Hanalei, Hawaii

    PS: I would not trade my 1st edition, 1st impression of The Pickwick Papers (bought many years ago in England) for three new ipads!

    1. Mark,

      this is great, great – exactly what I’ve been waiting for to balance the COMPLETELY ONE-SIDED arguments expressed in the original blog.

      Personally, I couldn’t imagine not being surrounded by books – there are books in every room in my house – you are never more than a step away from one.

      I can never imagine buying a Kindle or an e-Reader, and I will only buy an iPad if a sensible reason for working on it makes itself known to me.

      In the classroom, I think the situation is different, and will have to change. But I hope future generations of teachers will be trained to tell their students to OCCASIONALLY close their e-notebooks and listen up.

      Thanks again for this late and very important contribution.

  12. Quote from Tim O’Reilly: on the digital revolution.

    “Many existing publishers will go out of business, yes, but that was happening before the digital revolution, as part of the ongoing ‘creative destruction’ of capitalism,” he says. “To adapt, publishers need to cannibalize their own business, experimenting with new forms, new formats, and new business models”

  13. Brilliant post Ken,

    It is only natural that e-books will become more important and printed material be used less. But why not use technology that students already own – their mobile phones? This would save even more resources and might also get us to start teaching and learning in a different way supported by a different digital format.

    I can carry thousands of books on my android powered mobile through Amazon’s Kindle app and these are great to use with students –

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s