Sunday, October 26, 2008

Commodifying ELT

I recently had an opportunity to visit BECC (Bunkyo English Commnication Center) in Hiroshima Bunkyo Women's University. It was a tremendously comfortable space. Probably you should think of the center as a luxurious lounge, not as a school. See how it looks in pictures:

Floor 1
Floor 2
Floor 3

Or you may want to see videos:
A short TV program
A very short TV commercial

A Japanese pamphlet (PDF format) is here:

The interior design was well-thought of (although some criticism is possible in terms of universal design) and the selection of textbooks, picture books, manga books, DVDs and other materials was of course good. You can tell almost immediately that the center is professionally designed. It is not something a national university would build, for example, when it is suddenly given a budget that must be spent immediately within the fiscal year.

The center is indeed a product of Kanda University of International Studies.

The center was designed by KUIS and all the staff in the center were sent from KUIS. Yes, a blunt way of expressing it is that ELT in Hiroshima Bunkyo Women's University was outsourced. Together with KUIS, HBWU has commodified ELT to make the new center as a very attractive product. I'm sure many high school students are attracted to HBWU through this BECC.

By using words like "commodify" or "outsource," I do not mean a cheap criticism. though. Although I'm not a total believer of market capitalism, capitalistic actions are something no one can ignore in modern times. If I were an administrative staff of a private university that needs more competitive power, I might also be tempted to outsourcing ELT to make a very appealing product for "consumers" of educational service. I might not even mind using the word "edutainment" for education.

However, KUIS and HBWU are certainly not treating their students as capricious consumers. They promote self-access study and independent learning. I never mean a shallow criticism of their policy, either.

Through self-access study, learners develop skills in self-directed and cooperative learning, which promote independent life-long learning of language. The Self-access Learning Centre encourages learners to be accountable for their own learning and take the necessary steps to self-improve.

However, the first paragraph of "Philosophy" of Self-Access Learning Center makes me pause a bit to think about this process of commodification of ELT to individual customers.

Downloading music onto an iPod, buying a coffee in Starbucks, booking a vacation online, or choosing a telephone ringtone, all of these show that increasingly our world is one of individualization. No longer do we have to accept what other people choose for us, but we can tailor much of our environment to suit our needs and desires. The flexibility that comes with having freedom of choice is really important, and this is our philosophy of language learning in the SALC.

Individualism is indeed one of the defining features of modernity. It is an individual who is to choose, make a decision and hold responsibility. But just as Kant regarded the existence of others in public sphere as a highly critical condition for human beings, or as Marx clarified that without understanding the social, human beings cannot be properly understood, the modernity has not granted a blind faith to individualism. After all, you may say, now is "post-modern" not "modern." The notion of individualism is not a sacred canon at all (if only you're not a neo-liberalist, I mean).

As someone who is concerned with school education or as someone who regards the socio-cultural approach as essential for a proper understanding of learning, I'm not completely free from some anxiety about this commodification of ELT. I wonder whether the combination of individualism and consumerism is a wise option in education.


Search in WWW
Search in this blog


Alex Case said...

Very well put. I have exactly the same vague feeling of unease, but also have experience of the practical weaknesses of a public sector that can ignore market forces. Please let me know if you come up with a solution!

Yosuke YANASE said...

Dear Mr Alex Case
Thank you very much for your comment, which encouraged me to think further. Someday, I might write short essays like "Individualism and the public" and "Capitalism and the modernity." In each case, in my opinion, the former seem to have hijacked the latter.  Thank you again.

Caleb said...

Thank you Mr Yanase for your interesting opinion piece. It is certainly very thought provoking. As one involved in education in Japan, I have some thoughts on this too.

Firstly, I think that the comments here expose the tension between the need to recognise and respond to individual differences among learners and to accept that education should have broader aims than self-actualisation, self-realisation and the service of neo-liberalist economics.

Secondly, I think it is possible to consider that there may be some overlap between neo-liberalist ideas and more progressive educational thinking on this matter.

While one may not agree with the neo-liberal paradigm that seeks to commoditise education for profit, there may still be value in adopting a pragmatic rather than an ideological approach to forms of educational practice that are responsive to the legitimate educational needs of the individuals AND the societies they serve.

My suggestion therefore is not to look at a simple binary solution which posits an "either/or" option: the status quo versus untrammelled individualism. These are surely not the only choices we face here.

Focussing on the needs of individuals can surely be seen to have a legitimate purpose in education if this is framed within the broader context of social responsibility and societal obligation. I do not believe that these things are mutually exclusive if ideological positions are abandoned.

Finally, I think your opinion piece raises some difficult questions for educators and policymakers. If we do regard private education as captive to neo-liberalism (and I would argue that there are many who work in private education for whom the profit motive is not the only driving force), then the responsibility surely falls on the public education system and national universities to respond, rather than clinging to the relatively safety of conservatism and the maintenance of the status quo.

I think we have to ask ourselves therefore, why the type of centre that was built at HBWU is not a feature of national universities and public high schools. Surely, if they were, they could be used to promote socially responsive and responsible education. It is a matter of some puzzlement to me therefore why public monies are not committed to projects like this where they can be overseen by publicly minded individuals such as yourself.

Thank you once again for making public your interesting thoughts. I hope you continue to write and publish on topics such as this.

Yosuke YANASE said...

Dear Mr. or Ms. Caleb
Thank you very much for your comment. Yes, we do need a pragmatic approach for a good balance between private and public aspects of education. Neo-liberalism is not a solution in this respect any more than the old system of universities in Japan was. The concept of the 'public' should be renewed (specifically for teaching English as a 'global' language, and it will probably call for a renewal of the concept of the 'individual.' I guess the new conceptual understanding will not be obtained by some ideology, but through intelligent and responsible social experiments like the one above and others. Here again, I believe in the power of democracy. Thank you again!