Digital learning

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:

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

online-language-learning

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.