digital language learning

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:


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.

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 ) 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:

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.

Online language learning providers


The number of companies offering online language learning is going through something akin to an algal bloom. To borrow another metaphor, this time from the animal kingdom, perhaps it’s time to try to sort the sheep from the goats.

Broadly speaking online providers offer either language learning materials designed for self-study, a tutorial service of some description, or both. Each of these services can be good, bad or undeniably appalling.

So, what makes good self-study content? There are no hard and fast rules, but I think we could agree that there are a number of key criteria:

  1. Online material should have been written by people who know something about second language acquisition. This is a subject that provokes all sorts of disagreements, but most people in the profession would probably agree that languages are not best learnt simply by heavy doses of grammar translation (for example).
  2. Material should also be instructive. It other words, it should be as effective as a good teacher at explaining why the language behaves in a certain way. This probably means it should be interactive on various levels; not simply indicating whether an answer is correct or not, but also explaining why.
  3. Material should also cover as many aspects of the languages as possible. Not just grammar and vocabulary, but all the skills, pronunciation, colloquial language use, etc.
  4. Crucially, online material should be interesting, relevant and motivating. In short it should be fun. If the material is dull, students will quickly switch back to YouTube (it only takes a couple of clicks).
  5. User interfaces should be both attractive and intuitive to use; you shouldn’t need a course in order to be able to do the course.
  6. The materials should be accessible on different devices: PCs, laptops, tablets, phablets and quite possibly mobile phones, although small screen sizes can limit the sort of activity that’s feasible. Students should also be able to use the browser or operating system of their choice.
  7. Stating the obvious, but the programming the makes the material interactive needs to be glitch-free, on all devices and with all browsers.
  8. Students’ work should register on a Learner Management System or e-learning platform so their progress can be tracked and time spent studying recorded.
  9. Students should be invited to give feedback about their study materials and encouraged to make suggestions for improvements.
  10. Last but not least, online material shouldn’t include content that is designed primarily as a marketing tool and has little or no pedagogical value. For example, progress tests that are designed fool students into thinking they’re making more progress than they are; or voice recognition graphics that delude students into thinking their pronunciation is accurate to 72%. Voice recognition software is getting better and will become useful at some point, but we’re not there yet. The same could be said of adaptive learning software.

What about the tutorial service? The key criteria here are these:

  1. Are the tutors proficient speakers of the language themselves? No, this doesn’t necessarily mean “native speakers” but a B1 level simply isn’t enough.
  2. Is the provider employing fully qualified professional language teachers or are they happy to contract students or retirees looking for a little extra income?
  3. Have the tutors been trained to teach online? It is different enough from classroom teaching to warrant some form of training.
  4. Crucially, are the tutors working out of a 24/7 call centre, or are students assigned their own tutor to work with? Knowing their students obviously helps teachers focus their tutorials on their students’ needs and also helps them anticipate any difficulties they may have. Not knowing who you’re going to be talking to makes everything a lot harder for both teacher and student.

Predictably enough there tends to be a direct and clear relation between quality and price (see graph). Professional language tutors cost money, as does well developed self-study material. As a rule of thumb, if it’s cheap (or perhaps even free), it might be useful, but it’s likely to disappoint. If you are able to afford the higher end products (top right-hand corner of the graph) you’re likely to make more progress.

Of course a similar argument could be made for traditional, classroom based teaching.



Where have all the adult students gone?

The EFL industry in Spain enjoyed a mini boom during the early years of the global economic crisis as many adult students rushed to improve their English language skills, either to get themselves back into the job market, or else in an attempt to hang on the job they had. As we reached the new decade, the boom slowed down and then started to tail-off. But no-one expected the sudden and significant drop in adult student numbers that hit the industry at the start of the current academic year.

The drop wasn’t school, city, or even region specific; it was the same story all over Spain. And the numbers were eye-watering. Depending who you talk to (and/or who you believe) adult student numbers fell by between 10-20%. Enough to make any school owner or manager wince.

What happened? Where did all these students go? Well, as is normally the case, there is no one, simple answer. There has been a slight upturn in in-company teaching, so it may be that some students, who were previously paying for their own courses in our schools, are now studying in their company (if they’re fortunate to have a job in the first place; Spanish unemployment is still well over 20%.)

The standard of English teaching in main-stream education is also getting better, slowly, so it may be that there are more school leavers who have achieved a basic level of communicative competence.

Some adult students – especially the younger ones – may also have decided to switch from a traditional, bricks and mortar language school to a Web-based classroom.

My own theory is that it’s the free movement of labour in the European Union which is having the greatest effect on our market. In other words, as there so few jobs available in Spain, hundreds of thousands of young adults – many of whom may previously have been our students – have simply upped sticks and gone abroad to find work.

A recent survey conducted in the UK indicates that migrants from Spain rose to 137,000 in 2015 (up from 63,000 in 2011). Most of them are probably working in relatively unskilled jobs in hotels, bars and restaurants, but at least they’re working – and they’re improving their English language skills as they go.

A similar number probably emigrated to other countries in the north of Europe and another significant number emigrated to Latin America. Add up all these emigrants and we could be looking at a total of well over 300,000 migrants – just in 2015.

On a recent trip to Oxford I met a young Spanish guy, working in a hotel, who had previously been a student at our school in Barcelona. He’s a typical example. Will he ever move back to Spain, I asked him? Perhaps, in the future, he said, but only if the situation in Spain changes and he can find a decent job. His new fluency in English, learnt by living and working in Oxford, might just help him with that.

So where does that leave Spanish language schools? Will adult students come back to our schools in the same numbers as before? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on this market. If adult students won’t come to us, we can use the Internet to take our services to them. Even those living and working abroad.

Is Zuckerberg right?

In February this year, Mark Zuckerberg came to Barcelona and announced to the world’s media that Virtual Reality (VR) is “the new platform”. What he seemed to be saying is that VR will soon become the dominant technology in a number of areas such as gaming, entertainment and yes, even education.

Cynics would argue that Zuckerberg is desperate to build up VR as his company, Facebook, reputedly shelled out something like USD 2 billion to purchase Oculus, a manufacturer of high-end VR headsets. Getting any sort of return on an investment of that size will take some doing.

But let’s think about how VR might impact the language teaching industry. Will it be another passing craze that shoots skywards before it loses momentum and tumbles back to earth? Or is it a technology that could offer real and lasting value to language learners worldwide?

The principle of VR is very simple: you put on a headset which surrounds your field of vision and you’re transported to a 360⁰ virtual world that someone has created. Headsets vary in price from the 600 USD of an Oculus Rift – which comes complete with built in headphones and mic, as well as a number of other features – to the 15 dollars that Google charge for their cardboard mask designed to work with a smart phone. Needless to say the experience is enhanced by the high-end headsets.

The virtual worlds that users experience can be anything at all. It could involve skiing down a mountain, exploring underwater caverns, walking with dinosaurs, or travelling through space. The only limit is the imagination of the programmers – and the content development money and tools at their disposal.

Interaction is essentially at two levels:

  1. With other users (e.g. with friends, classmates or teachers)
  2. With autonomous, computer-generated characters (or creatures) that inhabit the virtual world

The potential for education seems obvious. Imagine how much more interesting it would be to visit the Tower of London (for example) in a virtual world and hear about its colourful history from a virtual Yeoman Warder, than it would be to read about it in a text book or watch a video on a website? And if the virtual Yeoman Warder could understand and respond to questions in a convincing and natural way …

The potential for language practice also seems clear. On a simple level, teachers could take their students to a virtual world and have them find information or ask questions about the place they are visiting, or engage in any number of role play activities. On a more sophisticated level, which involves combining speech recognition technology with artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous, virtual characters could engage students in any number of language practice activities. Want to practice interviewing for a job? The interview panel is through this door. Want to play the part of a detective in a whodunnit thriller set in the 1930s? Walk this way, Mac.

I wouldn’t expect our language students to spend all or even most of their time visiting virtual worlds. But it certainly seems as though VR’s educative potential could see it outlast the technology’s novelty factor.

Maybe Mark was right.

For information on Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard, click the links below.