Tuesday, 2 June 2015

An Empowering experience at the Piccolo: VIP event to launch the new integrated Cambridge English course

On Monday 25th May 2015, Cambridge English held a VIP presentation of their new Empower course. The event was a great opportunity to see the books and get some hands-on practice with the online materials and testing package, integrated with the publisher’s own learning management system. The afternoon also provided a nice networking opportunity and a chance to meet other English language professionals in the suitably dramatic setting of the Piccolo theatre (near Piazza Cordusio in central Milan. The theatre is a satellite of the larger Piccolo in the city's Lanza district). 

Cambridge English Empower is a new general adult course that combines content from Cambridge University Press with validated assessment from Cambridge English Language Assessment. As Chris Jory, Publishing Manager of ELT adult courses at CUP pointed out, this makes the course unique and marks a new chapter in the closer integration of course materials and testing from one of the main ELT publishers and testing organisations.

The first thing that you notice about Empower is the fresh and exciting graphic treatment Cambridge have lavished on the course. In particular, gone are the rather tired standard images used to accompany the text in traditional class-based course books. Instead, Cambridge have commissioned and gathered a wealth of really exciting and unusual visuals, including photos that have a strong narrative content and that can be used to stimulate class discussions. Chris’s presentation featured a montage of images including a backpacking biker’s tour of South America, a busker dressed as a chicken playing the double bass and a beach house perched precariously on a raised platform. All of these images immediately invite the wh- questions that trigger active discussions between students and in whole class discussions. (Who are these people? What are they doing – and why? etc.)

Indeed, the emphasis of Empower is very much on eliciting personal experiences and encouraging students to talk about their own lives and to discover the life stories of fellow students. As language teachers, we know that this is always the most enjoyable and rewarding aspect of classroom teaching – and the visually-rich materials of Empower will certainly help teachers and students to have these discussions.

The structure of the course is actually fairly conventional. Chris was at pains to point out that although the course features innovation in terms of its visual design, integration with technology and the testing package, in pedagogical terms it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. In fact, it allows time-poor teachers to teach “off the page” with minimal preparation and follows a tried and trusted communicative pedagogical approach.

The course also features naturalistic and engaging video content, which can be used in both in class and for students to watch in their own time on a range of devices.

Clare McCallum, Head of ELT Marketing Europe and UK Sales at Cambridge University Press, spoke about how Empower dovetails with Cambridge’s other academic activities: language assessment and testing. This is undoubtedly the main innovation of the series for teachers as well as teaching institutions: a course book from a heavyweight publisher that is designed to plug straight in the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). Cambridge has also drawn on its insights from English Profile, its collaboration with the Council of Europe, that provides  a ‘profile’ or set of Reference Level Descriptions for English. For example, each chapter of Empower features the “Can do” objectives for the appropriate level on the “Getting Started” page.

Since the blended learning approach is now becoming standard in all course books, teachers have come to expect online resources that are both effective and easy to use – and here as well, Cambridge has delivered with a suite of digital materials that allow a high degree of personalisation. Indeed, making everything as personal and relevant for the individual student is now the main challenge in a publishing industry that has recently been likened by Nick Robinson of ELT Jam to a supertanker changing  direction. The shift towards individualised learning and adaptive technology is clearly in evidence in Cambridge’s design of the assessment component of its course. Empower allows learners to take up to 25 different paths through its testing software and features a range of intelligent technologies, including voice recognition and software that can assess fluency based on a speaker’s propensity to hesitate, for example.

Technology and big data also feature in Empower’s use of the Cambridge English Corpus, a multi-billion word collection of written, spoken and learner texts drawn from a huge range of sources: newspapers, the web, books, magazines, radio, exams, schools, universities, the workplace and everyday conversation. The CLC also includes the Cambridge Learner Corpus - a unique 50 million word collection of exam scripts written by students taking Cambridge exams all over the world.

Marcus Tubby, an ELT Consultant at Cambridge University Press based in Italy, demonstrated the assessment package in action and walked participants at the event through the Cambridge Learning Management System. Using PCs provided by Cambridge, we were given the chance to try out the live demo of the course and the platform, which includes a range of useful tools such as individual and class enrolment, as well as a Grade Book with exhaustive analyses of student and group performance. While some teachers might find all the number crunching and endless graphics of pie-charts a bit bewildering, obviously, this is the way the industry / professions is moving – and for schools, especially those providing training to corporate clients, having this kind of instant feedback on individual students is a huge boon.

Along with the other major ELT publishers, Cambridge has been at pains to make their course and the integrated technology as user-friendly as possible. However, at the digital chalk face most teachers will need increasing support as well as training to really capitalise on the benefits of this innovation.

The event concluded with a delicious buffet and a chance to chat and mingle with the VIP participants and the speakers. Russell Lewis, Marketing Manager at CUP, Italy was also on hand with members of his team to answer questions and demonstrate the live version of Empower. The particpants received an information pack which, in addition to sample chapters from the course, included a "fold-out" USB key containing a link to the Cambridge Empower site.

Robert Dennis
Director, Riverstone Language & Communications

You can see all the photos from this event in a special album I have created on Flickr. (Please note that if you would like to use these images, you can contact me and I will be happy to share them with you - but some "link love" or an attribution is always appreciated!)


  1. Thanks for sharing this Robert - very interesting indeed!

  2. it's true that in the ways you mention, English is one of the easier languages in the world. However, you left out one key element--that English, plain and simple, makes no sense

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