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.

Amara’s law in language teaching

Roy Amara was an American scientist and futurist who was best known for coining Amara’s law, which goes as follows:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

This law is often described by using the Hype Cycle, a graphical presentation of the maturity of emerging technologies, developed by Gartner, an American IT firm.

While we might argue that this model is rather too simple and doesn’t readily apply to some new technologies (consider smart phones, for example, which seem to have avoided anything approaching a trough in their steady march to world domination) we can probably all think of other technologies that have gone through something akin to the Hype Cycle, at least in our own experience.

It seemed to me that it might be quite interesting to look at a few of the technologies that have excited certain people (myself included) in the language teaching profession over the past decade or so, to see how well they fit this model.

1. Interactive white boards (understood to be either be a standalone touch screen computer, or a touchpad used to control a computer via a projector)

These first hit the media toward the end of the last century and by the middle of the noughties, most language teaching publishers and hundreds of self-respecting language schools had bought into the hype. These devices were going to transform the classroom by allowing students to participate more actively, by recording work that could be saved and mailed out to students, by making the Internet more accessible in the classroom, and so on. There were some dissenting voices: they were dubbed “Interactive white elephants” by one leading commentator and while they didn’t fall to the bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment for all users, most teachers used them far less than their managers might have wished. Their Plateau of Productivity was probably achieved several years ago and, I would humbly suggest, is rather lower than the standard model predicts – as indicated by the line in the version of the graph at the end of the post.

2. Tablet computers.

In May 2013 I gave a presentation at a conference during which I predicted the imminent demise of the text book and its substitution by tablet computers. Not just for language teaching but for education across all sectors. While there were one or two arguments against this prediction (most notably the cost) the arguments in favour of moving from print to portable digital devices seemed numerous, clear and overwhelming.  A few well-resourced language schools had already gone out and bought class sets of iPads for their students. Expectations were at their peak. So what happened? A combination of factors, as per usual. Cost was certainly one. Even providing class sets of tablets for half a dozen concurrent groups was going to require serious investment. But perhaps the main inhibitor to the adoption of tablets was the steadfast determination of all text book publishers to stretch print as far into the future as they possibly could and shy away from producing digital alternatives. Then smart phones came along and it suddenly seemed somehow redundant to provide students with tablet computers when an increasing number of them (from the age of 11-12 up in most countries) had their own device which was capable of doing most things a tablet could do, albeit on a very small screen. Currently I know of no language school that organises its curriculum around the availability of tablet computers. Which doesn’t mean such schools don’t exist. But it could signal that tablet computers have struggled to emerge from the Trough of Disillusionment, at least as far as the language teaching business is concerned.

3. Online learning

As mentioned in previous posts (see ‘Still not disruptive Web-based language learning’ published back in 2014) I was an early convert to the idea of providing language courses over the Internet. I even managed to persuade a number of people to invest in a company we called Net Languages, which may well have been the first Web-based language teaching operation ever. We had great expectations, but we were way ahead of the market and when the dotcom bubble burst, disillusionment inevitably followed. Enlightenment (aka overcoming the fear of online language learning) slowly emerged and the market is now full of online course providers of all kinds and flavours (see previous post ‘Online language learning providers’ for a broader picture). So in many respects, online language learning has followed Amara’s law and the Hype Cycle pretty closely. Personally, I don’t think this technology has yet arrived at its Plateau of Productivity, but I’ve been saying the same thing for around 20 years, so you’d be forgiven for questioning my credibility on this point.    

4. Virtual Reality

In February 2016 Mark Zuckerberg announced to the world that VR was going to be the new platform. What he seemed to be saying was that VR would soon become the dominant technology in a number of areas such as gaming, entertainment and yes, even education. Since then the cost of VR technology has fallen dramatically. Stand-alone headsets from Zuckerberg’s company Oculus are now available for less than 200€. The cost of developing virtual worlds has also fallen. But whereas VR is becoming more widely used in many industries, it hasn’t yet had much of an impact on language teaching. Are expectations building? Or has our industry bypassed overestimating the impact of this relatively new technology and gone straight to underestimating its impact? Does Amara’s law not apply here? I guess the next couple of years will give us some clues.

Hype Cycle graph reflecting comments made above:

JEXIT

cropped-opened-door1.jpg

In case you hadn’t heard, my position as CEO of the IHLS Group ended – rather abruptly, it has to be said – a few weeks ago. After 26 years in the role this represents a profound change, both for me and for most of the IHLS team. The reasons behind the change are many and various; suffice it to say that my business partners and I have had serious differences of opinion for some time about how we should deal with present challenges, and the sort of route we should take going forward. They eventually decided that they would better be able to push ahead with their own agenda without me – which makes perfect sense. Time will tell if their decision pays off.

This unforeseen change caused ripples which stretched way beyond my immediate circle. Dozens of people from all over the world have sent messages expressing their sense of shock and incomprehension. One of the most memorable said “It’s as if they’d decided to take the Eiffel Tower away from Paris”. (I assume the author wasn’t simply referring to my height.) I’m truly grateful for all the support. I’ve even had a couple of tentative job offers!

Which brings me rather neatly to my next point. What do I do now? Well, Plan A is to try to negotiate a share swap with my partners so I get to keep some of the companies in the group and they keep the rest. That would leave everybody with something to work on. I could then set about expanding my own group of companies. But this sort of negotiation is easier said than done. While I have no interest in holding a minority stake in a group of companies that I’m not able to influence, my partners may have no interest in dividing the group, for all sorts of reasons.

Plan B is to start again, either alone, or with other partners. People ask: “But don’t you want to retire? Do you really need the hassle of starting another business?” My answer is simple: I love doing all sorts of things – travelling, gardening, reading, watching sport, playing music – but these are never going to be more than hobbies. I seem to have been genetically programmed to start and manage businesses in the field of international education. That’s what I do. And to a certain extent, what you do (and how you do it) defines who you are.

Watch this space.

 

 

 

TV interview

My recent interview (in English) on El Punt Avui TV. Talking about how I started out in the language teaching business, some of what’s happened over the past 40 years and what may happen in the future.