The extraordinary endurance of course books

Back in 1998 when the Internet was still in its infancy and connectivity was via a dial up modem that produced a cacophony of buzzes and tweets every time you set it to work, I came up with the idea of producing a whole series of Web-based language courses based on texts, audio files and interactive exercises. (There was no video available on the Internet in those days and one expert I consulted laughed out loud at the idea that it might one day be possible to stream video online).

This idea was the genesis of a company called Net Languages, which may have been the world’s very first virtual language school.

When we launched Net Languages I confidently predicted that these new Web-based courses would swiftly bring about the demise of paper-based course books. It seemed patently obvious: paper-based textbooks were so 19th century in approach. Printed words just lay there on the page, as inanimate as carvings on a rock. Of course they could still be instructive; students could read the words, look at the pictures, and tackle a variety of different exercises (using some form of archaic writing implement), but none of these paper-based activities could talk back to the students; they didn’t indicate what students had learnt or what they might have missed; they offered nothing approaching genuine, real-time interaction. What’s more, course books were impossible to update and improve quickly and easily, and they were generally limited to a hundred and twenty or so pages, allowing students and teachers to work their way through them during the standard amount of time allotted for in-school classes and homework.

Web-based courses, on the other hand, could provide students with truly interactive activities, not only indicating whether they had completed an exercise well or badly, but also giving them hints or explanations to help them learn from the experience and do better next time. Web-based courses could also be updated almost instantly, and they could contain much more content than could ever fit into a standard course book, allowing students and teachers to access as much material as they could wish for, including audio files and yes, eventually, video as well.  

I felt certain that all the language teaching publishers would give in to the inevitable and substitute paper for interactive, Web-based materials as soon as they possibly could. But while a number of the big boys invested significant amounts developing Web-based content, none of them abandoned their course books. It was invariably a question of Web-based content plus course books, rather than Web-based content instead of course books.

The obvious explanation back in the early 2000s was that not enough people had access to computers and the Internet to make Web-based courses a universally viable and affordable option. Although not necessarily cheap, course books were certainly cheaper than personal computers, and that seemed likely to ensure their durability.

Then tablet computers arrived and the cost of some of the cheaper models was less than the cost of buying half a dozen course books. Tablets could in fact store many hundreds of books, and they also weighed significantly less than course books, meaning we would no longer have to witness lines of young children bent double as they trudged off to school with several kilos of paper stuffed into their backpacks.

But course books even managed to survive the threat that tablet computers posed. Were tablets simply too challenging to use? They were certainly less likely to survive being dropped on the floor then a course book. Or was it rather that the Internet still remained inaccessible to a large proportion of students both in school and at home?

Starting in March 2020 the Covid pandemic forced schools everywhere to close and students were suddenly obliged to study online (assuming they had the means to do so). But even in these extreme circumstances course books managed to hold their own. Teachers may have supplemented course books with Power Points, quizzes, audios and videos, but most students were still expected to work through their course book remotely, just as they would have done if they’d been in school.

The environmental cost of producing the paper, printing and then shipping course books also deserves a mention. I remember reading somewhere (online) that it takes around 20 litres of water to manufacture one A4 sheet of paper. That equates to well over 2,000 litres for the average course book, never mind the energy and transport costs involved. Of course online teaching resources also have an environmental impact; think of all those huge data centres each consuming enough power to light up a small town. But compared to course books, the environmental impact of digital resources is minimal, a short footnote at the bottom of the page.

So what is the explanation for the astounding durability of course books for language learners? What is their lasting appeal, even in societies where the Internet is almost as readily accessible as electricity?

I have two theories which may go some way to providing an explanation.

  1. Publishers make enough money from the sale of course books to want to keep producing and promoting them. Of course there are still large sections of the global population that don’t have ready access to the Internet, and that therefore rely on paper-based resources, but would publishers make a return on their sizeable investments if they limited sales to these communities? Given that these communities are often in the poorest parts of the world, it seems unlikely. A more likely explanation for the determination of publishers to carry on printing is that course books are the geese that have laid barrel loads of golden eggs for decades. Why ring their super productive necks now?
  2. Both students and teachers still like to have something tangible to hold, to scribble in, to keep, and to refer to. I must admit that I have never been a convert to digital literature, even though it makes lots of sense to download and read a book on a digital device. I just prefer handling and then keeping most of the books I read, even though I may never open them again one I’ve finished them. This doesn’t appear to be a generational thing either as my teenage daughter is also intent on building her own paper-based library.

So will course books always be with us? If not always, they’ll probably outlast me.

What of Net Languages I hear you ask? Well, thanks to the contribution of a great many people, including such ELT heavyweights as Scott Thornbury and Gavin Dudeney, Net Languages survived its infancy and is still holding its own against an increasing number of new Web-based language course providers. Many Net Languages courses are designed to substitute course books completely, but some, especially those for younger learners, are designed rather to supplement printed materials. C’est la vie.

Will students return?

La Vanguardia, a newspaper based in Barcelona, recently published an article which questioned whether or not the thousands of private language schools that operate in Catalunya have a viable future. The prognosis, according to the article, is not entirely encouraging. While a number of school owners featured in the article clearly hope and believe that students will return to their classrooms, others are convinced that learners who have become used to studying online from the comfort of their own homes, are unlikely to want to go back to a system that requires the time and expense involved in traveling to school.

Let’s consider some of the arguments.

(Note: this discussion focuses on local or community language schools, not study abroad schools i.e language schools based in the country where the language is spoken. Of course some language schools operate as both community schools and study abroad schools, but in this post we’ll ignore those students who travel to another country to study, as that is an entirely different barrel of kippers.)

Some of the benefits of studying online.

1. As some of us have been arguing for decades (see previous posts on the subject), online teaching and learning can be at least as effective as classroom teaching and learning, so long as the courses on offer include the following key components:

  • Regular, synchronous classes with a suitably qualified teacher
  • An easy to use virtual classroom (such as those provided by Zoom) that allow students and teachers to interact with each other in real time
  • Well-designed, interactive study materials that students can work through between classes

Ideally the package should also include an e-learning platform that monitors the work students are doing, and there should also be the opportunity for students to engage in extracurricular social activities of some kind (e.g. quiz nights, conversation clubs, or similar) quite possibly involving language learners based in other countries.

2. The aforementioned saving in time and money that comes from not having to travel anywhere represent a clear advantage for both teachers and students, and could also be of benefit to the environment (although let’s not forget that any Internet based activity also leaves a carbon footprint).

3. The benefits of online study for language school owners are almost entirely economic. No need to rent and maintain large numbers of classrooms. There may also be the option to recruit suitably qualified teachers from other parts of the world, who may be less expensive to employ.

Some of the benefits of studying in a physical classroom.

1. Many teachers and learners still prefer the direct contact that comes from sharing a physical space. This may be because it is easier to connect with people who are not looking at you through a screen. Similarly, people who already spend large chunks of their day staring at a screen, may want a break and/or an excuse to get out of the house or office. Classroom-based learning provides a good reason to log off and go out.

2. Classroom teaching does not rely on the technology working to anything like the extent that online teaching does. It only takes one student’s WiFi to go down to disrupt the flow of an online class; it would take a major power outage to have a similarly disruptive effect in a classroom.

3. Class management is easier and more agile in a classroom. For example, while platforms like Zoom enable teachers to divide students into groups and monitor their activities, it’s undoubtedly quicker and easier to do this sort of thing if everyone is sharing the same physical space.

4. There are other possible benefits for parents in sending their offspring to study in a physical classroom.  On the one hand, language schools perform a useful after school child care service. This is especially important in countries like Spain where children often leave school well before their parents leave work.  Similarly, if parents are working from home (as many have been for the last year or so) having a few hours of extra peace and quiet can be valuable. And while the kids are studying at the local language school, they’re not going to be asking for access to their parents’ computer, or demanding to share the household’s already stretched WiFi system.

So what are the implications for private, community-based language schools in countries like Spain? Here are some tentative predictions:

  • Students will return to their classrooms, but the vast majority of those that do will be younger learners (i.e. under the age of 16). Schools will therefore need to consider what they can do with their classrooms outside those peak younger learner time slots.
  • Some adult language learners will also want to go back to school, but probably not enough to make many viable groups. Schools will therefore need to consider the possibility of offering hybrid classes where some students are physically present, while others attend the same class online. This will involve investment in some additional training and technology, but not enough to bring the business to its knees (see previous posts on Telepresence).
  • Schools will continue to offer purely online courses to those adult learners that are comfortable with this system. But to make groups viable, schools may need to find a way to join forces and organise groups on a regional, national or even international basis.
  • Schools will continue to diversify their product range. That could mean offering more specialist language courses, and/or branching out into non-language related training.

One thing’s for sure: the era of having school buildings full of language learners for large chunks of each day are long gone. At least in countries like Spain.

The Vanguardia article (in Spanish) is available here: https://bit.ly/3kGdBLS

Carbon offsetting

At some point over the next 3-6 months, travel restrictions are likely to be lifted and the number of planes flying eager travellers around the world will start to climb back up towards pre-Covid levels. This is great news for those language schools that rely mainly on students coming from abroad to study with them; it’s not such good news for the planet, as aviation is one of the main sources of green-house gases. Students may have the option of traveling by train on certain routes (e.g. from London to Paris) but this cleaner option is often considerably more time consuming and costly than flying, and in many cases is downright impossible (think Riyadh to Dublin).

While modern aircraft are much more fuel efficient than older models, the massive (pre-Covid) increase in the number of flights worldwide led to a significant increase in the volume of green-house gases generated by the aviation industry. According to Wikipedia, in 2018, global commercial operations produced over 900 million tonnes of CO₂, which was around 2.4% of all global CO₂ emissions.  Aware of the problem (and motivated by the need to cut fuel costs) the aviation industry is already experimenting with cleaner, hybrid engines (some powered by aviation fuel, others by electricity). Hydrogen powered aircraft that emit zero carbon could also enter service by 2035 (see https://cnb.cx/2LojPmB)

In the meantime, environmentally conscious language schools face something of a conundrum. On the one hand they want to attract as many students to their schools as they can comfortably cater for; on the other hand they don’t want to contribute to the disastrous consequences of global warming. But there is a way through this conundrum. The first step is to measure the amount of carbon students generate by flying to study at your school (and flying home again). This sounds complicated, but there are dozens of websites designed to help us make these calculations (see for example www.flightfootprint.net )

Once you have an idea of the volume of carbon your students have generated, you can then investigate ways to offset the carbon by subscribing to one of the many projects that have been set up specifically for this purpose.  See for example https://bit.ly/39zzqaT 

Of course offsetting projects all cost money and it may be too much of a challenge for hard up language schools to offset all the carbon their students are responsible for. But, as the saying goes, every little helps. And schools may find that their students – who are also increasingly conscious of the threats of global warming – are prepared to contribute, by paying a small additional carbon offsetting fee. It would perhaps be interesting to make such a fee optional on the school’s application form, then monitor the proportion of students that agree to it.

Two of the schools that have recently become accredited by Green Standard Schools are showing the way, by participating in different offsetting projects. 

First we have Scuola Leonardo da Vinci Milano, a school specialising in teaching Italian, which contributes towards a tree planting project called Treedom. This organisation not only plants trees on behalf of their partners in those areas of the world where they are most needed, they also measure the amount of carbon the tree planting project is offsetting. See https://bit.ly/35Bq4dq

Secondly, English Country Schools, an organisation that specialises in running summer schools for children and teenagers in the south-west of England, supports offsetting projects in Uganda, China and India. These include the provision of energy efficient cooking stoves designed both to reduce fuel consumption (mainly non-renewable biomass) and improve levels of indoor air pollution. See https://bit.ly/3sslLuE In 2019 ECS was credited with offsetting 150 tonnes of carbon by their partners, Carbon Footprint Ltd.

Green Standard Schools would like to applaud its members for this sort of initiative and encourage other language schools to consider the feasibility of following their lead.

(Post first published on https://greenstandardschools.org )

Green Standard Schools

I’m delighted to be one of the founders of Green Standard Schools – a new, not-for-profit association that aims to encourage the adoption of rigorous, new environmental standards across the language teaching sector.

Our purpose is to promote environmental sustainability in language teaching institutions everywhere.

Our aims are:

  • To lessen the impact that language teaching has on the environment by developing a set of policies and practices that language teaching institutions and their stakeholders can adopt and adhere to.
  • To award accreditation against these policies and practices to providers of language education everywhere.
  • To develop resources designed to encourage environmental sustainability in language teaching and learning, and offer training and support in the application of these resources.

Protecting the environment through education

The world is racing towards an environmental catastrophe that can only be halted by immediate and persistent action. Not just action on a geo-political scale, but action by everyone in their every-day habits and behaviours. The more people learn about the environmental dangers we are all facing, the more likely they are to modify their behaviour and persuade those around them to modify theirs. Learning can take place in many different contexts: mainstream education is key, as are social networks and more traditional media channels. But we need to take every opportunity, both to communicate the many threats our environment is facing, and to outline possible solutions; and language teaching institutions, whether private or public, can play an important role.

To learn more about the association and find out how your language teaching institution can become a Green Standard School, please visit our website: www.greenstandardschools.org

You can also write to us at info@greenstandard schools.org

Telepresence

With lockdown restrictions beginning to ease in many countries, the likelihood is that most schools, including language schools, will be able to reopen some time before the end of the summer. However, the probability of an effective vaccine becoming widely available by then is extremely small, so some sort of social distancing (perhaps better described as physical distancing) is going to have to remain in force.

Language schools that want to reopen but keep their staff and students safe are going to have to adjust to this new reality, which will probably involve systematically checking everyone’s temperature as they enter the school building and cleaning furniture and fittings between classes. Given the modest size of most language schools classrooms, it will almost certainly involve operating classes with no more than 3 or 4 students per group, so that a safe, physical distance between students can be maintained. That has obvious consequences for the financial sustainability of these groups and for the schools themselves.  

It is equally likely that a number of students will want to continue to study online as it a totally safe option, while other benefits include not having to spend time and money travelling back and forth to school.  So the danger is that language schools will end up with small, unsustainable groups in their buildings and small, unsustainable groups online.

One solution to this problem might be to use telepresence technology to combine these groups so that students working online can attend the same class as other students who are physically present in the school building. That could increase group averages to a level where they are generating the sort of margin needed to sustain the business.

There is nothing new about the idea of beaming people into a room occupied by other people. Video conferencing suites were established back in the 1990s and were commonly used to enable employees to attend meetings without having to travel. More recently, we’ve all become used to using software like Zoom, Team Meetings or BigBlueButton to meet up with family and friends, or teach groups of students at a distance. This same software could be used to enable students to attend a class taking place in a school and for everyone physically present in the classroom to fully engage with the students working online.

What’s more, most of the hardware needed for a telepresence class may already be available in many language school classrooms. This consists of a computer, a decent internet connection, a data projector that allows the image on the computer screen to be projected onto a large screen or whiteboard, and some speakers so that everyone in the classroom can hear what the people online are saying.

Two other pieces of equipment that would definitely help are: a wide-angled webcam (ideally 120⁰) that would allow the students online to see everything that’s happening in the classroom; and an omnidirectional microphone that would enable students online to hear everyone in the classroom, no matter where they are sitting or standing. Both pieces of equipment can be bought for as little as €150-200, which makes the purchase affordable for most schools, even in these hard times.

Teachers will need to adapt to the demands of having students both physically present in the classroom and online, but that shouldn’t be any more demanding than the sudden transition from physical teaching to online teaching that almost all language teachers had to go through as soon as lockdown restrictions came into force.

Telepresence classes could include the usual range of teaching strategies and techniques including pair-work and dividing the class into smaller groups, although it would clearly make sense to pair students who are either online, or in the classroom; mixing and matching could be more problematic. Teaching materials would also need to be digital, but that shouldn’t cause too many issues to too many teachers or learners, already used to studying without paper.

 Another advantage of organising classes this way is that students could conceivably switch from being physically present to studying online, using some form of rota system, thereby getting the best of both experiences, if that appeals to them.

Teachers could also record the lessons (with their students’ permission) enabling students to go back and review stages of the lesson if they need to.

Once the holy-grail of an effective vaccine has become widely available, students will be able to repopulate our schools and classrooms without fear, should they choose to. But a good proportion may prefer to stay online. A telepresence option would give everyone the choice of how and where they study in future, while helping to ensure the financial viability of the school.

(This post is a summary of a webinar I gave to International House school Directors on 21st May.)

Language teaching post lockdown

Traditional language schools all over the world have been obliged to shut their doors alongside all other non-essential services as part of the global strategy to stem the number of people contracting Covid-19, which is based on keeping people away from each other where possible. Most language schools I know have made an effort to switch to online teaching (something I’ve been encouraging for over 20 years, see previous posts on the subject) and a good number have probably surprised themselves by how painless the transformation has been.

But what of the future? As the number of Covid-19 cases slowly declines, governments around the world are beginning to wonder how and when they can ease the current lockdown and get their economies moving again. In Spain construction workers are back on site. In Denmark nursery and primary schools have reopened their doors. It’s likely that all schools, including language schools, will be allowed to reopen after the summer, if not before. At the same time it is extremely unlikely that an effective vaccine against Covid-19 will become available until the end of the year, at the very earliest. So what should language schools be planning to do if or when their governments say they can re-open their doors before a vaccine becomes widely available? Can they go back to traditional classroom teaching and keep their staff and students virus-free?

One option would be for schools to continue to offer online courses only, and keep their premises mothballed until such time as a vaccine is available and it becomes perfectly safe to mix and mingle with other people again. But that’s probably not a realistic option for most language schools, as the income generated from students studying online probably won’t be enough to cover costly overheads, such as sizeable school buildings, even if they are mothballed. What’s more, this sort of ‘safety first’ strategy could play into the hands of competitor schools that do decide to open their doors and invite students back into their classrooms.

So what other options are there? One might be to introduce a form of social distancing in the schools and classrooms. This could involve reducing the number of students per group and ensuring students are kept two meters apart while they study. This may be feasible in some cases, but most language schools probably don’t have classrooms big enough to make this an option, unless they reduce the number of students in each group to 3-4, and that would probably make the groups economically unviable.

Would it be possible to have some students in the classrooms and others attending the same class online? They would present certain technical difficulties, but it may be worth looking into.

Another option might be to ask students to produce evidence that they are not contagious before they start their course. Governments around the world are desperately trying to increasing their testing facilities, and it may soon become feasible to test a large proportion of the population every few weeks. There is also the possibility that students could have an app on their phone which indicates whether they are free of the virus or not. This sort of technology is already being used in China (apparently) so it may become more widely available soon.

Predicting how the pandemic is going to evolve is obviously extremely difficult. But it’s not so difficult to predict that mass vaccinations are not going to be available any time soon and in the meantime, language schools (especially private language schools) are going to have to find a way to increase their income in order to survive. How to do that without compromising the health and safety of their students and staff is the challenge.

Surviving Covid-19


Like any number of other business sectors, the language teaching industry is beginning to feel the sharp bite of Covid 19 as it continues to spread across the world. In China, Hong Kong, Italy, Madrid and Bucharest, schools of all descriptions have been ordered to close and the likelihood is that public health authorities in other regions will soon adopt a similar policy in an attempt to restrict further contagion.

As we all know, controlling the spread of the virus really is a matter of life and death as something like 2-3% of those people who contract the disease die as a result. In most cases the victims are either elderly, or individuals with previous health problems, and while this isn’t the typical profile of most language learners, younger, healthier students can become transmitters and unwillingly infect their elderly or weaker relatives. Hence the school closures.

At the same time the number of people travelling abroad has fallen off a cliff as more and more people, including language students (or their parents) are persuaded that non-essential travel is best avoided in current circumstances. Several airlines have even cancelled flights to regions that have the largest number of coronavirus cases, including flights to and from key markets for the language teaching industry such as Italy and China.

You don’t need an MBA to know that if a business loses a large proportion of its income for any length of time the consequences are likely to be serious. So what can be done to lessen the impact? Various things, some obvious, others perhaps less so:

  • Cut back on expenditure. The most obvious response to a drop in income, although unlikely to be enough of a solution, given that most language schools have a broad range of fixed costs that can’t readily be trimmed.
  • Talk to your bank. If cash is short, an overdraft will help. But you’ll have to persuade your bank’s risk assessors that the downturn is temporary and that cash will return. You’ll also need to bear in mind that banks are likely to be inundated with similar requests from dozens of other businesses. How long is the queue?
  • Sell any non-essential assets. Do you really need that mini-van? Does anyone else want it?
  • Assuming you own them, re-mortgage your premises. Again, this presupposes that your bank has the time and inclination to talk to you about such an idea, but most banks will see this as a relatively safe option.
  • Offer existing students (i.e. those who have already paid for a course) who can’t come to class, an online course as an alternative to a refund. Using web conferencing tools such as Zoom, your teachers can continue to teach your students, either individually or in groups, face-to-face and in real time. You could even sweeten the offer by including an interactive self-study course component. (But be careful which course you choose, there is an awful lot of reputation damaging garbage out there.)
  • Start advertising online courses (with or without a self-study component) to new students. Imagine you have been told to self-isolate to help prevent the spread of the virus. Might you be tempted to use some of this time to improve your language skills? There’s only so much television you can subject yourself to…
  • Find a new investor: if all else fails and you are confident that the slump in business will be temporary, you may be able to persuade someone with some spare cash to inject some of it into your business in exchange for a proportion of the shares. (And no, just in case you were wondering, this is not an unscrupulous pitch from me to people in need.)  

A number of language schools will probably succumb to the effects of the virus at some point. How many collapse will depend on their current state of health (the weakest will succumb first) and the time it takes for the rate of contagion to drop away and for the virus to disappear from the headlines. Let’s hope that’s a matter of weeks rather than months, for everyone’s sake.

BREXIT (and JEXIT)

Having won the general election with a comfortable majority the Tories will now be able to (yes, that’s right) get Brexit done. We shall have to wait and see how this pithy slogan impacts the wider economy but we can perhaps begin to speculate what some of the consequences might be for the language teaching industry in the UK. Let’s think in terms of the questions some people might ask:

Will it be more difficult for European nationals to take a language course in the UK? In the short-term, obviously not, as nothing will change during the transition period, which is scheduled to last at least until the end of 2020. Beyond this period change is possible although the likelihood is that European nationals will continue to be welcomed, both as short-term visitors and as longer-term students as it would make no economic sense to pull up the drawbridge. That said, it is unlikely that European nationals who haven’t obtained permission to stay in the UK before the end of the transition period will be allowed to stay indefinitely, as is currently the case, unless of course they score enough points on the new as yet to be defined Australian-style immigration system.

Will it be more expensive to study in the UK? The pound jumped a few percentage points against both the Euro and the US dollar as soon as the election exit poll was published, so the immediate answer to the question is ‘yes, a little’. How the pound and the UK economy as a whole behave over the longer-term will clearly depend on a whole range of factors, including the future trade agreements that have as yet to be negotiated with the EU, the USA and the rest of the world. Speculating what the outcome of those negotiations is likely to be is way too difficult.

Will European nationals (and others) be put off studying in the UK (or perhaps we should say England) by the perception (true or false) that a majority of British nationals are fed up with having quite so many foreign visitors? This sort of perception could conceivably put some people off, in the same way that some people might be dissuaded from visiting other parts of the world where a significant number of the local inhabitants complain about the volume of foreign visitors perceived to be invading their cities, pushing up prices in their neighbourhoods, filling their streets with souvenir shops, and so on. However, so long as the experience of people studying in the UK continues to be overwhelmingly positive, there is no reason to suppose that any negative perceptions generated by Brexit will last forever.

As for the rather less significant issue of Jexit (see previous post on the subject) I have also been very keen to ‘get it done’ for the passed 18 months or so. I’m pleased and relieved to be able to say that my previous business partners and I finally signed an agreement in November. In essence, this involved a share swap: my partners acquired the shares I owned in our language schools in Spain while I acquired the shares they held in our schools in Mexico, Colombia and Northern Ireland. So it was, in the end, a relatively soft Jexit and we can now all get on with our lives.  Let’s hope the consequences of Brexit are equally benign.

Dunbar and me

Primates are animals that form stable, social groups and the size of these groups is thought to have a direct relation to the size of the neocortex of the species concerned. In the 1990s the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar argued that the size of the human neocortex should enable us to maintain cohesive social groups of around 150 members. This became known as ‘Dunbar’s number’.

To maintain this size, human groups would need a clear incentive to remain together and would need to devote a good proportion of their time to some form of social grooming. However, according to Dunbar [1] a common language obviates the need for regular physical intimacy and allows social groups to remain cohesive through such instruments as gossip, story-telling and so on.

Certain companies have discovered that social problems begin when more than 150 people are working in the same building. W.L. Gore and Associates famously designed all their buildings with a capacity for 150 employees.

What about the language teaching business? Does Dunbar’s number have any validity here? Some of the evidence suggests that it does:

How many Accredited Members does EAQUALS currently have? According to their website the answer is 141.

What about IALC? According to their website, they have 161 members, although that number may include some temporary summer centres.

Also, coincidentally or not, the International House World Organisation has had around 150 affiliate members for as long as anyone can remember. New affiliates join, others leave, but the total remains more or less the same.

At the latest IHWO conference in Catania, Italy, I suggested that we should try to disprove that we are being held back by the size of our neocortex and actively recruit enough new affiliates to push the net total up to 170. Of course if we succeed, we may be risking the social cohesion of the organisation. But perhaps the neocortex of IH affiliates will demonstrate its ability to cope.

If you would like more information on how to become an affiliate of IHWO you can click here:  https://ihworld.com/join-ih/

Or you can write to me at jonathanpdykes@gmail.com 6�


[1] Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language – Harvard University Press, 1996

Diversify or decline

The Institute of North American Studies (IEN) is one of Barcelona’s oldest, largest and most prestigious language schools. The IEN started teaching English to the local population back in 1960 and since then around half a million students have passed through its classrooms. A few months ago the Director of the IEN announced that the Institute would stop teaching English at the end of the current academic year (in June) and concentrate on organising cultural events instead. This news came as something of a bombshell to the 40 or so English language teachers who were working at the school, as well as the 1,100 students still studying there. There were even articles written in the press (see for example a piece in El Periodico https://bit.ly/2DJ0tSl ) which included subheadings such as ‘Crisis in face-to-face language teaching’.

The basic reason given for the closure was that it is no longer economically viable to teach English in the school while maintaining pedagogical and other standards. Improvement in the effectiveness of language teaching in mainstream education, an increase in the number of low-cost competitors, and the rise of online language learning opportunities were all mentioned as reasons explaining the decline in the IEN’s student numbers.

To those of us working in the language teaching business in Spain this has become a familiar story (see previous post ‘Where have all the adult students gone?’ from June 2016). Of course the IEN is not the first private language school in Spain to stop teaching. Hundreds, if not thousands of schools of all shapes and sizes have come and gone over the last 50 years, including some which caused a significant amount of damage when they crashed without any warning (e.g. the Wall Street chain and its competitor clone which, ironically, was called Opening). But the IEN always seemed to be an integral part of Barcelona society. It had always been there and had always been successful. So what happened?

I don’t have any reliable inside information, but it seems fairly obvious to me that, in addition to a sharp decline in student numbers, the IEN may have suffered from an ‘all our eggs in one basket syndrome’. So when the bottom fell out of that particular basket (teaching English to the local population) there was precious little left to fall back on.   

My own approach, adopted some 20 years ago, was to diversify both in terms of product range and geographically. That meant promoting Spanish courses for foreigners alongside a wide range of in-school and off-site English courses; it meant offering an extensive range of teacher training courses; it meant operating as test centres for various exam boards; it meant having our own study abroad department; it meant doing all of the above in various different countries; it meant developing our own online learning solution. Most recently it meant investigating the possibility of offering vocational training courses that may or may not have included a language learning component. Of course the danger inherent in this approach is that you end up with too many ‘baskets’ to handle effectively (aka over-diversification) and this is something I may have been guilty of, although my counter argument would be that there is no reason why a range of ‘baskets’ can’t be distributed among a team of competent managers.

The harsh but obvious truth is that with the possible exception of Facebook, Google and Amazon, no business will last forever. The writing has been on the wall for some time for those private language schools in Spain that still rely heavily on teaching English on their own premises. But there are other options. Some of these may require a significant amount of time or investment to get off the ground, but not all of them do. To quote from a slim volume called ‘Poke the Box’ by Seth Godin: Don’t let the risks inherent in starting something new stop you from trying.