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

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