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Interview with Peter Marshall - Part 1

interview-peter-marshall1.jpg Peter Marshall is the Managing Director of Oxford University Press’s ELT Division, a leading global provider of English language learning materials and services. The Division supports the wider educational mission of the University of Oxford by seeking to improve peoples’ lives through education and learning English. Every year, OUP reaches millions of English language learners around the world through its network of international offices and partnerships.

Peter has worked in international publishing and education throughout his career, and has led the ELT Division at OUP for ten years. Before joining OUP, he spent 15 years working for Pearson Education businesses across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Peter is a Fellow of St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford.

Russell Willis, founder of ELT News and president of iEnglish.com, sat down with Peter during his recent visit to Japan. This is the first of a two-part interview; the concluding part will be published in December.

Asia and Japan

Increasingly English is a ticket to more opportunity and perhaps prosperity for individuals and their families and whole economies.
Russell Willis:
As I understand it, you are over here to talk about OUP’s strategy and vision for Asia. Is there a new strategy and a new vision?
Peter Marshall:
I wouldn’t describe it as new – I visit Japan probably once a year on average when I am visiting other Asian markets, I was in Hong Kong back in August. So when I travel, part of my job really is to make sure that I am constantly communicating our plans, our ambitions, as a global organization. So, it’s partly to refresh that agenda but also, given the speed at which ELT markets are evolving, our strategy has to be pretty nimble. So, it is on an annual basis – adapting and evolving rather than it being a sort of fundamental overall.
Russell Willis:
In other words, your visit here is sort of a part of the feedback loop of information that you get from the markets that reinforce or redirect your strategy?
Peter Marshall:
Yeah, I think it works both ways. A part of my role is to make sure that everybody that works in ELT globally, and there are about 1600 of us, we all know what we’re about as an organization, but equally my visits to markets give feedback and inform the evolution of our strategy. So, I typically learn as much when I am traveling as hopefully people do when I am talking about our strategy for the next few years.
Russell Willis:
How would you summarize that strategy?
Peter Marshall:
Well, our aim as the ELT division of OUP is to reach as many English language teachers and learners as we can in support of that wider OUP mission. So, we talk about our vision as being to improve the lives of people through education and learning English and we really believe in that vision because increasingly English is a ticket to more opportunity and perhaps prosperity for individuals and their families and whole economies actually. So that’s our strategy. How we pursue that strategy obviously changes and evolves year on year, but that is the essence of it and that really hasn’t changed in quite a long time.

Global and Local

I think versioning is a legitimate and really very important part of what we do as a global publisher.
Russell Willis:
In the past, some British-based publishers have been criticized for having a one-size-fits-all approach where what they publish for Germany or France is then shoveled out into the rest of the world without any kind of understanding of the particular needs those markets might require.
Peter Marshall:
Yes, but certainly that isn’t our approach. We have international materials and resources that do travel to many, many markets and are specifically developed without a region or a market in mind.

That said, an increasing proportion of what we do is either region or market specific and that trend is accelerating I would say. You have this interesting sort of challenge when we talk about globalization because, actually, if you look at what’s happening in many markets, including Japan, our role is to be as credible locally as we are internationally. That’s easy to say, but it’s quite a challenge.
Russell Willis:
And would you point to any specific course in Japan that would be an example of that?
Peter Marshall:
Japan is a source of authors who understand what works in the classroom in Japan and probably therefore more widely in Asia, so some of our bestselling courses, for example Let’s Go, or Everybody Up, are authored by people with real experience teaching in Japan. The other way around would be to look at courses that we have written for Japan, so most recently Passport comes to mind - or courses we have adapted - such as Get Ahead, those are examples of courses where Japan is the core market.

I’d also say that there are interesting connections between different parts of the world in terms of how English is taught, so a course which is developed for Asia might do very well in Latin America and part of our role is to understand those commonalities. So, I think versioning is a legitimate and really very important part of what we do as a global publisher.
Russell Willis:
And would you say that that sort of understanding of versioning and tailoring material to specific markets is something that’s different from, say, 15 years ago?
Peter Marshall:
I think that’s been an increasing characteristic of what we’ve done. I’d probably say you can go back 20 years or so. We have had to be plugged into what’s happening locally in order to be a credible international publisher. If you look at how, for example, English is taught to young learners around the world, that’s developed hugely in the past 20 years, often with a sort of government push to move English further down the curriculum and we can take lessons from individual markets and apply them more widely.
Russell Willis:
Traditionally, I believe that Japan has been, in terms of revenue at least, the largest market in Asia for you. Is that changing, are you seeing a big rise in China and other areas? I imagine Japan still, on a revenue basis, is the largest market, but what is the competition looking like?
Peter Marshall:
Okay. Yeah, Japan is - I’m happy to say it is still the largest market for us in Asia. But you’re right, if you look at the growth trajectory of other markets, in this region, but also more generally in developing markets, they are growing significantly faster than more established markets, of which Japan is an example. Most European markets I would now describe as fairly well-established markets.

So you’ve almost got a sort of two-speed world at the moment, more established markets growing incrementally but South Asian markets, Latin America, the Middle East growing significantly faster and in Asia in particular, China, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia are growing very quickly, albeit from quite a small base.
Russell Willis:
I believe today you were visiting the Ministry of Education here in Japan. How long has OUP been engaging with education ministries to presumably both affect and get feedback on what kind of education materials are most appropriate for those markets?
Peter Marshall:
We’ve been engaged with ministries around Asia for probably longer than I’ve been working in ELT. I think depending on the country the ministry is more or less accessible or more or less open to dialogue with publishers, and what’s interesting about Japan that we’ve observed more recently is an appetite or willingness to engage with OUP to help shape and inform the agenda for English language learning. It's a more recent development for us in Japan, but not elsewhere in the region. It’s an interesting and exciting time for us here in Japan.
Russell Willis:
My understanding is that the Ministry of Education has in the past been quite resistant to deal with foreign publishers and it’s been almost impossible for foreign published material to get into any kind of state school system, but I believe that that is changing. You’ve had some recent successes with that regionally, I believe.
Peter Marshall:
Yes, we have. For example, we’ve had some of our materials adopted in Osaka; I think 19 schools will be using the Oxford Reading Tree from April, so that’s a really interesting new development, and our visit today was very encouraging. I mean, it’s very clear that the ministry recognize that there is an opportunity, or need, to channel more resources and pay more attention to English language learning in Japan from primary through second grade, and I think - back to my original point about the role that we play in the world, I mean that's why we exist really is to help governments and educators to develop English language skills.
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The Impact of Digital

It’s very clear that digitization enables us to develop tests that are more efficient, that are easy for teachers to use, that are more engaging for the test takers.
Russell Willis:
Has digital affected your business in any significant way, and how do you think it’s going to affect things in the future?
Peter Marshall:
I think it’s arguably the most significant development and opportunity and challenge that we all face in education whatever our role – as a publisher or as a government, or as teachers. And if I think about our role as a publisher, I mean essentially it doesn’t really change. What does change is how we go about that job. We’ve always focused on strong pedagogy and content and we always will, but what’s interesting now is technology is creating many more opportunities to develop new ways of learning. So, the challenge is how do you harness technology and pedagogy in a really meaningful way, and I think we’re in the very, very early stages. We’re seeing lots of experimentation around the world, some of that isn’t working but some of it, I think, is pointing the way ahead.

For Oxford, early developments have been in augmenting our core courses material and more recently we’ve developed apps particularly for reference and lexical content and, increasingly, the graded readers. The other aspect I would point to is that of testing and assessment. It’s very clear that digitization enables us to develop tests that are more efficient, that are easy for teachers to use, that are more engaging for the test takers. So we’ve developed a suite of placement tests, Oxford English Testing over the past few years. We are, as we speak, launching the Oxford Test of English, which is a new online proficiency test that we’ve developed in collaboration with the University of Oxford. That’s a really good example I think of how technology is enabling us to adapt and evolve our role as a publisher.
Russell Willis:
Does the Oxford Test of English - is that something that would be positioned against, for example, the UCLES exams, the Cambridge exams?
Peter Marshall:
No, not directly. It’s not an exam. It’s a test. It’s endorsed by the University of Oxford, and we think there is a very large demand globally. It sits somewhere in between the sort of high-stakes exit tests, and the lower-stakes placement tests or in-course tests and end-of-course tests, so that teachers can track students’ progress. That is a segment of the market that we think has been under-supported in the past and that's where we see the opportunity for the Oxford Test of English.
Russell Willis:
For many students the fact that it’s validated by the university itself makes it a very attractive test to say that you have scored something nice on...
Peter Marshall:
Yes, and I think there are two main reasons that we wanted that university endorsement and engagement; one is to underpin the quality of the test, but secondly it gives it an international recognition, so over time that will develop. But it also means that teachers can be confident that they are benchmarking their students against other students internationally. The test itself is benchmarked against the Common European Framework.

Creating Materials in the Digital Age

If you divorce content from pedagogy, then I don’t think you’re going to create something that’s truly valuable.
Russell Willis:
One of the things that digital is affecting is, right at the start, the way in which courses and materials are being planned. At least one of your competitors seems to be throwing the traditional course book development model out of the window and looking at ways in which to create materials on an atomized basis where you’ve got modular areas of practice and you’re able to put courses together which aren’t designed and written in the traditional model, a model which is epitomized by OUP’s Headway. What’s your feeling about that?
Peter Marshall:
Well, I think as opportunities evolve, there is space for all sorts of different types of learning programs and resources, so we are certainly not abandoning the development of integrated full-skills, general English courses. We think they have a very strong future. What is changing is the way in which they’re delivered. You mentioned Headway, other courses such as English File, we are evolving and adapting them and delivering them online. Typically, we will be providing more practice material that augments the core course. But that pedagogy - which has been developed and tried and tested over many, many years - is something that we believe is central to what we do because ultimately you have to underpin technology with pedagogy.

That said, we’re developing entirely new courses with digital in mind from the outset and that’s entirely new territory for all publishers, so that informs the way in which authors conceive of their courses, it informs how our editors work. So, we’re developing content from the outset both with print and digital outputs in mind. Also – we’ve talked about assessment – and I think in future courses will embed assessment in a much more integrated and professional way than perhaps has been done in the past. So, we are continuing to put huge value on the underpinning pedagogy, because ultimately teachers and learners need something that really is going to work and there is a lot of material out there at the moment that is still unproved.
Russell Willis:
So you still see the idea of having an author or authors create the majority of the core of the course, the creation of one coherent approach rather than a pick-and-mix.
Peter Marshall:
Yes, if you look at our publishing program now, the majority of our courses have been developed with author teams or individual authors or smaller groups of authors. We’ve also always had materials that are developed by writers as well, and I think that both of those models will continue. This notion of atomized content is something that, I think, we have to be very wary of. If you divorce content from pedagogy, then I don’t think you’re going to create something that’s truly valuable. Where I think there is scope for us to develop more content that sits around courses would be in something like, say, skills development or practice material where students just need more and more and more and there is only so much you can contain within the confines of a traditional course. So, that’s an area where you really can add value by creating, if you like, more generic material.

I think all the evidence - if we look at some of the results of our digital material where we’ve taken well-established copyrights, for example, our Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and we’ve created an app where we put them online, they are our bestsellers regardless of the medium. So, I think some of those big powerful proven brands will exist and thrive in the digital age as well.

In the concluding part of this interview, hear more from Peter Marshall on OUP's role in teacher training, on how OUP's mission differs from that of major rival Pearson, and what the future holds for ELT.

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