ELTons award winner professor Stephen Bax reveals all about his career and his passion for innovation
- Before becoming a university professor at the Open University, you had some interesting and varied experiences as a Tefl teacher. Tell us about your career to date.
I started in Tefl in 1981 when I saw an advert for teachers in Sudan saying: ‘Teachers wanted, no experience necessary.’ So from 1981 to 1983 I taught English in a girls’ school in Argo in north Sudan with classes of up to 120, and I loved every minute of it, including learning Arabic.
Then I travelled in the Arab world, studying Arabic in Damascus, Syria, before going to work for the British Council in Baghdad at the time of the Iran–Iraq war.
I then returned to study in the UK, doing an MSc at Edinburgh before moving south to Canterbury, where I now live.
My PhD is in the cognitive processes in reading – researching how people interpret texts. More specifically, I looked at intertextuality in reading and discourse, which is how people read when there are references to other texts. I have always had an interest in texts and text analysis.
More recently, I have been researching reading using new eye-tracking technology, and received the Tesol Distinguished Researcher of the Year Award for 2014 from the International Tesol Foundation. I conducted early research in that area in relation to language testing.
- What exactly is your ELTon-winning website textinspector.com and why did you decide to develop it?
My interest both in texts and also in technology led me to start building the tool. Teachers can put any text into it and get a quick and detailed insight into the vocabulary content and overall level of their text, for teaching and testing purposes.
After a year or so of developing the software myself, I joined up with the software development team at Versantus, near Oxford, who helped me develop the software and interface to a more professional level.
- What has the reception to it been like?
We have had an amazing response. We have had over 120,000 users in the last two years, from 103 countries. It is now used by students and staff at 145 universities and colleges. People love it – and they are now asking us if we are going to develop other tools. They’ve asked for more word lists in the software and they are asking for more checks of grammar.
- What, do you think, is the potential for such technology to improve education and ELT?
Text Inspector is a good example of how and why English language teaching can be revolutionised by new technologies. When I started teaching English in Sudan, the main focus was on the classroom itself, with a huge burden on the teacher and the coursework as students had nothing else to turn to. Now, the internet and digital tools have broken down the classroom walls, giving learners access to hundreds of new resources as well as access to other learners around the world. This means that fusty old teachers like me need to rethink radically what we do.
We might try a flipped classroom or a video link with a classroom in another continent. In terms of tools for analysis like Text Inspector, we can now radically revise our lesson planning, our strategies for marking and our test preparation.
I would hope that in ten years’ time every English teacher with access to the internet will automatically check every text they use to ensure that they are appropriate for testing and teaching.
- What does the future hold for textinspector.com?
Then with feedback from users we hope to improve it and make it even more reliable and useful. Already it can analyse academic vocabulary in texts but we aim to extend it as a tool for analysing academic writing even more.
- What was it like to win the ELTon award for digital innovation?
I was really pleased and surprised to receive the ELTon award along with Versantus. The effect has been a massive boost in the number of people coming to the site. I now keep the trophy on my mantelpiece.
Stephen Bax is Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics and Director of Research Excellence at the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics at the Open University, UK.