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Interview with Peter Marshall - Part 2

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 second of a two-part interview; read the first part here.

Teacher Training

How we scale up on our teacher training activity is a challenge for us and one I think that technology can help with
Russell Willis:
Given OUP’s expertise, do you think you have a role in improving the quality of teaching in classrooms around the world, is that something that you think that OUP should be involved in?
Peter Marshall:
Yes. I think we’ve always been involved in teacher training and on the one hand we’ve always supported particular courses and we've supported teachers on how to get the best from those courses, but equally we’ve got a strong track record of providing teacher training and professional development opportunities that sits apart from any particular course that we might be publishing or promoting at a given time, and I think teachers have valued that from Oxford. I think they feel that we are a credible face of professional development, and I think given everything that’s happening in the world of English language teaching and learning at the moment, that role becomes even more important.

So, we’ve developed in the past 5 or 6 years a program called the Oxford Teachers’ Academy where we’ve developed with the Department for Continuing Education at Oxford University a course content that they have accredited and they also certify the outcomes as well. An issue for us is demand. Often that outstrips our ability to meet that demand. So how we scale up on our teacher training activity is a challenge for us and one I think that technology can help with, so we are migrating some of those courses online so we can just reach more and more teachers.
Russell Willis:
In Asia there is a huge demand for learning English and it can lead to a lack of quality because people are desperate to learn English and a whole range of people will set themselves up as providers - schools, or teachers, without any sort of background in language training at all. Is that something that concerns you?
Peter Marshall:
Yes, it does. Our role is to continue to do what we do best. I think today brands are becoming increasingly important. I think the Oxford brand represents quality. We focus on what we do and what we can control and what we can influence, and if there are providers out there who aren’t as good as they should be, hopefully people will - I mean eventually they will be found out and I think - I’ll go back to my point that to do anything sustainably, it’s got to be underpinned by quality. There is no quick fix in language learning, there is no really quick fix to become a really good teacher.

The Competitive Environment

What we don’t plan to do is open Oxford schools...We are not focused so explicitly on the wider consumer market.
Russell Willis:
OUP and Pearson are often considered to be the largest ELT providers in the world. Is OUP bigger than Pearson right now?
Peter Marshall:
I think if you ask Pearson, and if you ask Oxford, you will probably get two different answers and it depends how you interpret the question. I think we have a very clear mission and that is to reach as many teachers and learners as we possibly can. I think, increasingly, if you look at what we do as organizations there is a divergence. Ten years ago, five years ago, we were probably both at loggerheads and we still are in terms of competition in many, many markets; however, Pearson’s strategy is evolving in a different way to OUP’s, so they own chains of schools, for example, in mainland China We have no plans or intention to…
Russell Willis:
To vertically integrate ELT.
Peter Marshall:
No. So, I think therefore it becomes increasingly difficult to directly compare the two ELT businesses because they’re different.
Russell Willis:
Would OUP consider doing what Pearson is doing? In China you can go to a Pearson-owned school, you can take a Pearson validated test and you can go home and buy all sorts of consumer-oriented Pearson software, if you're in a company you might be offered Global English which is Pearson owned – why would that sort of all-encompassing strategy not be for OUP?
Peter Marshall:
Well, I think there are different reasons. I mean, we are a university press, so we have a different raison d'etre. We are very clear about our strengths and therefore what we want to do, and I think we’re also clear about what we don’t want to do. So, we are very clear that we are an organization based on the development of great instructional content. We’ve talked about testing and assessment and that will become an increasingly important part of what we do in terms of English language teaching. And we’ve talked about teacher training so we can integrate those services around that core instructional content for anybody that wants it.

That's how we see Oxford adding value. What we don’t plan to do is open Oxford schools – I don’t think that's the role of a university press and it’s not really the role of a university and we’re a department of the university, so that isn't something you will see us doing. I do think we will be able to develop different sorts of relationships with schools. We will have professional development to integrate with testing and content, and our prime focus is on the institution and within the institution teachers, decision-makers, and students. We are not focused so explicitly on the wider consumer market.
Russell Willis:
Right, I was going to ask you about that. Pearson’s strategy has changed in the last year very explicitly and they’re essentially leaving the traditional ELT world. They are attempting to disrupt everything from the way in which author royalties are paid, the way materials are put together, and the types of materials they focus on, going for a few mega courses instead of a diverse range. It’s probably the biggest disruption in ELT in decades. So, I think it's kind of interesting the way that they’re going forward and so that’s why I am sort of bringing the comparison with them.
Peter Marshall:
Yes, so we’re very clear what our mission is and then our responsibility to the rest of our university and to our customers is to make sure we play to our strengths and I think we are very clear what those are.
Russell Willis:
And that’s not the consumer market for self-study?
Peter Marshall:
The ability of individuals to access our materials is increasing all the time, through new channels and online distribution. If you want access to our materials as an individual learner you can. In Spain, we’ve developed a distance-learning course called My Oxford English, which is interesting and is being adopted primarily by institutions and by the corporate sector but that again is underpinned by a very rigorous pedagogy. So, I think we will attract more individual learners but we are not setting out to target that as a distinct segment in the way that I think Pearson is.
Russell Willis:
So there is not a consumer market division within OUP ELT?
Peter Marshall:
No, I think, if you like, our revenues from consumers will go up but I keep coming back to the fact that our primary focus is on learning that is in some ways intermediated and that’s typically through teachers. I think when we move beyond the classroom – which again you can do with technology – for example, when you are assigning homework, that broadens access but it’s facilitated again via the institution. Markets will evolve and channels will evolve in the future but that’s our prime focus for now.

The Future

kids-learning-computer.jpg
Creative Commons LicenseThis photo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
One of the things I observed with my children is the extent to which in their world books exist and technology exists, very comfortably side by side.
Russell Willis:
Can you predict the future of ELT?
Peter Marshall:
Well, you ask what a classroom will look like in 5 years’ time, the answer will vary hugely depending on where you are in the world... We talked about developing markets - if you’re sitting in a classroom in Dubai or Saudi Arabia, it’s going to look radically different, almost entirely because of technology.

We were talking all this week about markets such as Turkey which are probably in the vanguard of the adoption of educational technology in ELT in many respects, where due to a government push they’ve acquired about 16 million devices, I’m not sure which brand, so you’ve got a government push into state schools and we’ve also got this burgeoning private education sector with a real appetite for sort of innovation and experimentation. So, I think it’s those sorts of markets that are sort of pointing towards the answer to that question.
Russell Willis:
The brand new classroom in the future...

I guess anyone who’s been in ELT any length of time has seen things like language laboratories and video and other stuff which never really took off ...
Peter Marshall:
Technology transforming education has been around for as long as probably we have but it’s been quite elusive, hasn’t it? It’s always been sort of 3 years or 5 years away, it never quite arrives. One of the big differences this time around I think is mobile technology – the mobility and accessibility. Prices are coming down all the time. Choice is much wider. So, I think those are some of the factors that make me believe that it’s more real, it’s more tangible. I can go to Turkey and I can see it in the classroom today and it’s definitely some of the things to come.
Russell Willis:
One of the reasons that the classrooms didn’t change with technology in the past, whether we’re talking CD-ROMs or language laboratories or video, is that for teachers it was just too much of a logistical hassle for them to actually use it effectively and fluidly within the classroom environment. And so when you envision the way in which the web and mobile technology is going to change the classroom, it has to be predicated on the idea that the teacher is going to find it easier rather than harder, given that you still have the teacher at the center of the learning environment. It does seem to me that this is much more likely than previously.
Peter Marshall:
I think it is and I agree with you those are still the main issues that we are all grappling with - how easy is this stuff to use in the classroom.
Russell Willis:
Has Whiteboard software taken off?
Peter Marshall:
Yeah, I think it has to be one of the most effective new technologies if you look around classrooms around the world. I mean I think the technology came first, didn’t it? The Whiteboards appeared in schools and people would hang their coats on them and they gathered dust because there was no content…
Russell Willis:
No software for them or anything...
Peter Marshall:
But they’re widely used now - I can’t remember the last time I heard the term blackboard used in classroom context, so that’s a really good example of a fairly basic technology that took some time but it’s now common globally.

One of the things I observed with my children is the extent to which in their world books exist and technology exists, very comfortably side by side. They read books at home. Actually, they don’t read books on an iPad. They’ll play games on the iPad. But the two things are mutually exclusive, and whatever the rate of uptake as a publisher, whatever the technology, we have to be supporting teachers. We’ve got to provide content because even if it's not used to its full potential, teachers and educators want to have access to it. So, to be a credible publisher in any area of education, you’ve got to invest and you’ve got to engage with the technology.

I guess when we look back, it might have taken 10 years or 20 years or 30 years but each time we have this conversation about the next brave new world, we’ve moved on apparently a bit closer to it. But, we’re still in the very early days, I think it’s important to say.
Russell Willis:
Peter Marshall, many thanks for your time today.
Peter Marshall:
Thank you.

In the first part of this interview, Peter Marshall spoke about OUP's strategy in Asia, the development of global versus local materials, and the impact of the switch from print to digital publishing.

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