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language learning in the digital age

An Interview with Geoff Stead, Babbel’s New Executive Vice-President of Didactics

Posted on May 3, 2018 by

Geoff Stead

Exciting news at Babbel: Geoff Stead recently joined as Executive Vice-President of Didactics. He now leads the diverse team of language experts responsible for creating and optimizing Babbel’s lesson content.

Geoff has a well-established reputation for using mobile and other emerging technologies to improve  learning, communication and collaboration. In previous roles in both the UK and the USA, he led teams developing innovative digital learning products.

Recognized as an expert in the field, he is often invited to give keynote speeches on emerging educational technology trends. Geoff took some time to answer my questions about his deep experience in the industry and the philosophy that has guided his career so far.

ZS: Diving right in, what interested you in the opportunity to lead Babbel’s Didactics team?

GS: One of the reasons I love EdTech is impact. It isn’t easy to build the ultimate digital learning tool, but if you get it right, you can make a meaningful difference to unlimited numbers of learners all around the world. Babbel already has over one million subscribers working to improve their language skills. In order to keep improving and expanding upon the foundation Babbel has already built, we need to continue to learn from them.

ZS: On that note – apart from language learners, what other audiences have you developed learning tools and solutions for?

GS: My formative stage was early on, when I worked with learners who had been failed by mainstream schooling. In those years, I led projects to promote adult literacy and numeracy by integrating technology with face-to-face classes. I worked with a wide range of learners, young and not-so-young offenders, refugees and many other groups learning outside of traditional, mainstream settings.

The exciting thing about developing tools for these groups is that you are not restricted by traditional classroom practice and centrally imposed curricula – instead, you can focus on impactful results and using technology where it can make the biggest difference. This means helping learners and teachers to use tech as a learning tool rather than a course-delivery mechanism. It is a powerful difference, and one that has shaped my professional thinking ever since.

More recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work using mobile technology to help larger organisations find their inner innovation mojo. I suppose the recurring theme has been that personalised digital learning delivers personal empowerment.

ZS: Could you tell me a bit about some groundbreaking projects you’ve worked on? How did they influence your ideas about what’s possible with educational technology?

GS: I’ve been lucky enough to work in some dream jobs in both Europe and California, where I built up innovation teams who were pushing the boundaries of what is possible with digital learning. So things like Augmented and Virtual Reality, speaking (dialog) simulators, gamified learning (the good kind), AI-powered systems to grade longer written texts, along with lots of cool mobile apps.

One quirky project I’m really proud of is a huge mural we created while I was at the telecommunications company Qualcomm in San Diego. It was the world’s largest Augmented Reality (AR) artwork.  During the process, we learned a lot technically, since unlike most AR you may have seen, murals are much much bigger than the camera’s view. It is also a great showcase for how mobile users can and should be mobile. Apps can be so much more than miniature versions of what happens on a PC.

A more recent app that stands out is the very addictive Quiz Your English, developed while I was at Cambridge English. The main reason we launched it was to master the art of peer-powered motivation, in this case competing with friends. We released several iterations, always refining ways to get a learner to spend more time on the game – and it works! The monthly leader-board shows some insane usage stats, like people playing over 10,000 games!

ZS:  Looking back at your career so far, are there any specific mistakes you made or mistaken assumptions you held about learning technology? How did you correct course and what was the effect?

GS: Haha, “mistake” is such a defeatist word! I’m endlessly messing up – that’s just life. The trick is to realise that everyone else is too, whether they admit it or not – and to learn to see mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve.

This is exactly why most of the projects I’ve worked on have used an agile, iterative approach. It entails admitting to yourself that you don’t have all the answers up front. It’s about taking small, cautious steps, allowing you to correct course if you inevitably misstep.

ZS: What are some fundamental principles for designing apps and other learning tools that you’ve successfully applied in the past?

GS: The first is to always listen to your learners. It’s the only way to ensure you’re adapting your learning designing to their needs and priorities. The second is to realise that collaboration is where the magic happens. I’ve found the best work comes when you mix educators with designers with developers with learners. Creativity comes when you mix different disciplines and continuously learn from experience and feedback.

Finally, the best learning experiences are when learners do stuff, not when they are too passive. The best EdTech is about empowerment, not content distribution. Babbel’s vision for our product exemplifies this. We don’t want learners to keep their new found skills to themselves. We hope to inspire them to to go out in the wider world and talk to people – to deepen and extend the skills they’ve acquired with us via real-life experiences.

ZS:  On that note, I have one final question. Looking to the future, what emerging technologies or pedagogical approaches do you see as most significant to the future of language learning?

GS: That’s easy! Language learning is partly about building the underpinning skills, but even more about building confidence by immersing yourself in a new language and culture, and interacting with other people. Some of the most exciting new technology buzzwords are exactly about that. These include speech recognition and dialog generation, both of which are great for practising and improving communicative skills. Another is VR and 360 video, which allow learners to immerse themselves in a new culture and setting. And there is more cool stuff on the way.

ZS: Thanks for sharing your insights, Geoff, and welcome to Babbel!