Author: jonathandykes1

I am one of the owners of a group of language schools operating in a number of different countries, as well as a Web-based language school and a social network for English language learners. If you'd like to hear more about my career path, read the Biopic on the site.

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

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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.

Musings on pricing

pexels-photo-259092.jpegHow much should a language course cost? Needless to say the answer will depend on all sorts of variables: how long the course lasts; whether it is face-to-face, online, or a mixture of the two; where it takes place (country, region, town/city, location); whether the teacher is professionally qualified; how many students are in the class; whether the course is a standard ‘general’ language course or something more specialised; whether materials are included in the course fee; and so on.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume we’re talking about a general, ten-week semi-intensive course which consists of 100 hours’ face-to-face tuition, given by a professional language teacher in a private language school located in the centre of a mid-size town in the south of Europe, with a maximum of 10 students in the class. How much might a course of this description cost?

An easy response would be to say: ‘as much as a typical student is prepared to pay’. But what’s a typical student? Someone who is paying for her own course or having it paid for her by her company or parents? Someone who desperately needs to take a course to pass an exam? Or someone who is studying for no obvious reason?

Again for the sake of argument, let’s assume our typical student is a young adult who wants to improve her career prospects and her ability to communicate on her travels, but doesn’t have any urgent need to demonstrate her skills and is paying for her own course. How much could she be asked to pay for the course outlined above?

Is there any way of calculating a ‘Goldilocks price’ that is not too cheap (so the school ends up losing income unnecessarily) or too expensive (so that the student is frightened away)? This ‘just right’ price should help the school generate the sort of margin it needs to provide its services now and in the future, while giving the student the sensation that she’s getting good value for money. So what? More than 500 but less than 1,500 euros? That still leaves quite a wide range of possibilities to choose from.

There are dozens of pricing strategies designed to help companies determine the price of their goods or services (see for example http://bit.ly/2owp5Wz). A couple of the most familiar are cost-plus pricing and value-based pricing.

Cost-plus pricing is relatively straightforward: first work out your direct costs (the cost of the teacher, primarily, but also such items such as photocopies for students, course-specific advertising campaigns, etc.) and divide this by the average number of students per group. Let’s assume these direct costs come to 25 euros per hour and the average number of students per group is 5. Direct costs per student hour are therefore 5 euros. Next calculate your overheads or indirect costs (which means everything that isn’t a direct cost, such as your rent, lighting, administrative staff costs, etc.) and divide this by the total number of student hours you have over a given period (could be a month, a term, or a year). Let’s assume this adds another 3 euros to the cost per student hour, making 8 euros in total. Adding a gross margin of 25% will put 2 euros onto the total cost, giving a selling price of 10 euros per hour, or 1,000 euros for the 100-hour course. Sound reasonable?

The answer to this question will most probably be: that depends how much other schools in the same location are charging for a similar course. If a local competitor has lower salary costs and/or lower overheads and/or is happy to work with a lower margin, they could be offering a very similar service for as little as 600 euros. That’s a whopping 40% less.

So should we base our prices on what our competitors are charging? Well, we should certainly know what the going market rate is. But the danger of basing our pricing on what the guys down the road are doing is that it can easily lead to a price war, or a race to the bottom, leaving margins wafer thin or non-existent, and staff feeling underpaid, unappreciated and unhappy.

An alternative to a cost-plus pricing strategy is value-based pricing. This is based on the idea that the client (student) will pay in relation to the value she obtains from the service (course) she is receiving. In the case of a 100-hour language course, the primary value will most commonly be defined in terms of how much progress she has made developing her language learning skills. That can be measured in broad terms by progress tests and/or continuous assessment, but it will probably also involve ensuring our student feels that she’s made significant progress.

Other factors that contribute value will be less obvious but may be just as important: Is she enjoying the course and enjoying interacting with her teacher and the other students? Is the learning environment clean and comfortable? Does the timetable fit easily into her other commitments? Are the reception staff efficient and welcoming? Is the school easy to get to, and/or easy to park near? Does the school offer extra-curricular services and activities such as social events or access to digital study materials outside classroom times?

The value of all these additional factors can also be measured to an extent, but in many instances it could boil down to individual attitudes or preferences. So objectifying all these values can be tricky, never mind attaching a price to them.

As we all know, perceived value can also be heavily influenced by brand recognition and advertising. Car A may be objectively better (more fuel-efficient, more reliable, more spacious, faster …) than car B, but if car B is branded Mercedes or Range Rover (for example) it is likely to command a premium price.

Building brand value is easier said than done. It requires both delivering services that are perceived to be better than average (in some significant way) and communicating these differentiating values clearly and effectively. What’s more both delivery and communication usually need to happen over a prolonged period of time. But if we’re successful at enhancing the perceived value of our brand, the price of our sample course could be closer to 1,500 than to 500 euros. And no-one will complain.

Catalonia today (6th October, 2017)

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Having lived in Catalonia for nearly 40 years, I feel I might be able to offer some insight into the current turbulent situation, albeit from the perspective of a semi-outsider who is mainly concerned about the impact this turmoil could have on our business.

A slice of context first: Up until the global economic crisis of 2008, the vast majority of Catalans were more or less content with the degree of political autonomy the region enjoyed. The Catalan government controlled many key ministries such as education and culture and the Catalan language had been restored to pre-Franco levels of use. In opinion polls only around 10% of Catalans supported pro-independence movements, despite the fact that Catalonia was a net contributor towards Spanish state finances.

The financial crash turned everything around. Hundreds of businesses went bankrupt, unemployment soared (especially among young people) and both the central government in Madrid and the Catalan regional government were forced to adopt unpopular austerity measures.

Suddenly the difference between the amount of money Catalonia contributed to the central government and the amount it received back, became a burning issue. If Catalonia could only keep more of the wealth it generated, the argument went, there would be less need for austerity, and the mountain of debt that the Catalan government had built up could also be reduced. (Parallels with the Brexiteer’s attitude to the EU are strikingly obvious.)

A wide spectrum of Catalan politicians ranging from centre-right Christian democrats to anti-system leftist extremists saw their opportunity to gain support by fanning the flames of popular resentment, pointing the finger of blame at the government in Madrid, and arguing that independence was the only solution. Their task was made easier by the countless corruption scandals that surfaced from Spain’s governing Partido Popular party and the lacklustre performance of its leader, Mariano Rajoy. Of course the Catalans had almost as many corruptions stories of their own to digest, especially from the now defunct centre-right Covergencia i Unió party, but that simply provided the left-leaning separatist parties in Catalonia with more ammunition to fight their own, local battles.

A proposed change to the Catalan Statue of Autonomy that would have recognised Catalonia as a nation within Spain, and which was initially approved by the Spanish parliament, was overruled by the Spanish constitutional court in 2010 at the behest of the PP. This was a slap in the face for many Catalans and added a large amount of fuel to the already smouldering fire.

In the last elections for the Catalan Government, those parties in favour of independence won a majority of seats, although not a majority of votes. Despite not having a clear, popular mandate, the multi-party coalition government decided to press ahead with a route map towards full independence. A key step in the process was to hold a referendum, which would ask the local population if they were favour of forming a new Catalan Republic or not. The Spanish constitution in its current form (a document negotiated in its day by representatives from all over Spain, including a number of eminent Catalan politicians) doesn’t allow for this sort of separatist referendum and predictably enough, the Spanish government asked the courts to declare the proposed referendum illegal.

For their own political reasons, neither the Spanish government nor the Catalan government decided that it was in their interests to seriously attempt to find any middle ground so, despite some largely ineffectual attempts by the Spanish government to prevent the referendum taking place, it went ahead as scheduled last Sunday, October 1st.

Around two million Catalans turned out to vote, many of them queuing stoically in the rain for hours on end. This represented around 42% of those eligible to vote. Most polling stations were left to get on with it, but the police who had been drafted into the region especially for the occasion, attempted to disrupt voting in a significant number of locations. Sickening images of policemen in full riot gear kicking and beating people who were trying to block their path, throwing would be voters down stairs, or pulling peaceful protestors along the ground by their hair, soon filled the world’s social media. What purpose this outrageous behaviour was supposed to serve is anyone’s guess, but it certainly backfired.

So while the turnout didn’t exactly give the Independence movement a clear and unambiguous mandate to push on with their ambitions, the brutish behaviour of the police has given them yet more emotionally charged reasons to proclaim the merits of their case.

Where will it all end? No-one yet knows, but the political chasm is wider than ever and neither side is showing any inclination to back down. The Catalan government is threatening to declare unilateral independence in the next few days; the Spanish government says it won’t give in to blackmail.

Catalans frequently describe their culture as being dominated by ‘seny’ which is akin to common sense or reason. A little more of that on all sides wouldn’t go amiss.

Personally, I feel a profound sense of sadness. It’s not quiet despair, but I don’t see too many reasons to feel optimistic either. Popularism merged with nationalism is rarely a pretty sight. And while I can empathise to an extent with the Catalans’ sense of grievance (especially after the horrific scenes from last Sunday), I can’t sympathise with the way that many of their politicians are attempting to deal with it.

A slim majority of the people who live in the region probably feel equally disillusioned with the way the political landscape is evolving. But this slim majority has been largely silent up to now.  The protestors, the ones making nearly all the running, are the people who think that the answer to their problems lies along the separatist path. Many of my friends, colleagues, clients and neighbours are in this camp, which makes it rather hard for me to express a divergent opinion. But I’m not convinced that separatism will solve anything. On the contrary, I’m concerned that it could easily plunge the region into a deep and long lasting recession, which would make a difficult situation a whole lot worse.