Language learning

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:

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.

Why it’s good to be green

Butterfly

Back in 2007, on my way home from the ICEF workshop in Berlin, I was trying to think of new ways that we could make IH Barcelona stand out from the ever-increasing crowd of private language schools offering Intensive Spanish courses in our fair city. Having spent the previous few days in environmentally conscious Berlin, an idea occurred to me: we could perhaps become the world’s first accredited environmentally friendly language school. This could have three real benefits:

  1. It could become a useful marketing tool, helping us attract environmentally conscious students from other parts of the world.
  2. It might help us lower some costs, by cutting back on the amount of paper, water and energy we use.
  3. It would lessen the impact our activities have on the environment and, as the slogan says, every little helps.

Having spent some time researching options, we eventually decided to go for EMAS which is the European Union’s Eco Management and Audit Scheme. To summarise what this involves:

  • We have to publish an Environment Policy which specifies our aims and approach
  • We have to set ourselves targets to reduce the consumption of energy, water, paper and so on.
  • We have to recycle everything that can be recycled
  • We have to ensure that we avoid purchasing products that can be damaging to the environment (e.g. cleaning materials) and replace them with products that are as benign as possible
  • We have to keep detailed records of all of the above and undergo two external audits each year.

We almost certainly were the first language school in Spain (if not the world) to achieve EMAS accreditation and we have now been on the register for 8 years.

So have the benefits we anticipated from adopting this policy materialised? Yes and no.

  1. Our Eco-friendly policy probably hasn’t as much impact as a marketing tool as we originally hoped, although these things are notoriously difficult to gauge. One corporate client once told us that they had chosen us to be their provider as they were also on the EMAS register. But that’s just one case of our environmental policy having tipped the buyer’s decision in our favour. Has this policy influenced other clients in some shape or form? Our surveys suggest it might have, but not to any great extent.
  2. While we’ve clearly lowered the amount of money we spend on utilities and consumables, we’ve had to spend rather more money than we’ve saved. Primarily because we’ve had to employ a part-time (but extremely enthusiastic) Environment Officer to oversee and manage the whole process. Secondly because the cost of the external audits isn’t exactly cheap.
  3. The area where the policy has probably been most successful has been on lessening our impact on the environment. We have reduced the amount of energy we use in relation to student numbers consistently, year on year. The same with water and paper. We still have room for improvement – we still can’t persuade all our staff and students to always switch the lights off when they leave a room; and the amount of paper we use still seems excessive to me. But there is definitely a greater awareness of these issues in the school and while there will always be a number of cynics, peer pressure to consider how our behaviour impacts the environment increases each and every year.

So has it all been worth it? On balance I believe it has. We’re not about to stop global warming on our own, but at the very least we’re able to help raise awareness and we’re seriously trying to set a good example.

As our slogan says “The Earth is our International House”.

For more information on EMAS: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/emas/index_en.htm

To see our environment policy: http://www.ihes.com/bcn/medioamb.html

 

Alternative facts

At IATEFL 2016 Silvana Richardson gave an impassioned presentation which generated a great deal of discussion and support, both at the conference and on social media. She repeated her plenary at the ELT conference organised by IH Barcelona earlier this year and once again she had the audience on its feet.

Her argument, in summary, is that it is time to stop treating English teachers who are non-native speakers of the language as second class citizens. English language teaching institutions shouldn’t discriminate between native and non-native speakers of English when they hire teachers; rather they should simply hire people on their ability to teach the language effectively.

Silvana uses a number of arguments to support her case. One of these is that bilingual or multilingual non-native speakers of English are often more effective classroom teachers than monolingual native English speakers as, having gone through the process of learning English themselves, they are often better able to anticipate the many pitfalls that students are likely to find themselves stuck in. No-one in the profession would take issue with that.

Silvana also claims that a familiar argument, that it is the market that demands native English speakers, is false. She attempts to explode this myth (as she sees it) by providing data from a number of studies conducted in different parts of the world. Two of these studies were taken from SE Asia where, according to the data referenced, a majority of students actively prefer non-native speakers (understood to be speakers of the students’ own language) as teachers. Anyone familiar with this part of the world won’t be entirely surprised by this finding. Grammar translation is still a common teaching method in many classrooms in the region and that requires a thorough knowledge of the students’ mother tongue – something most native English speakers lack. The fear of losing face is also a cultural constant in this part of the world and this fear is often compounded in the presence of foreigners.

But does the argument hold elsewhere? The only data Silvana uses from Spain to reinforce her thesis (that the market doesn’t care) is taken from a study conducted at a university in the Basque region where around 50% of the 70 students surveyed stated they didn’t especially value native English speakers. But university students don’t get to choose their teachers in any case. Could this lack of choice have influenced the result?

The ‘alternative fact’ (to coin a current phrase) is that a large proportion of students studying at private language schools in Spain (i.e. those people who do have a choice where to study) indicate a very clear preference for having native English speakers as teachers. A recent survey conducted with past and present students at IH Barcelona bears this out.

The survey asked students to evaluate 10 qualities an English language teacher might have on a scale of 0 to 10. Some of the qualities students were asked to evaluate were:

  • Experience
  • Qualifications
  • A friendly and caring nature
  • Knowledge of the students’ language
  • Etc.

The survey was completed online by 408 students.

The teacher quality that scored the highest percentage of responses (57,7%) with the maximum score of 10 was ‘Gives interesting classes’. ‘Native speaker’ was the quality that scored the third highest number of maximums, with 52,25% of respondents awarding this quality a top score of 10. But if we add the number of respondents scoring ‘Native speaker’ with an 8, 9, or 10 on the scale, it comes to a massive 83,4% (see graph). This out-performs nearly all the other qualities listed in the survey including even ‘Experience’ (76,1%).

So, whether we like it or not, ‘native speaker’ is evidently a quality that students in this particular market value highly. I think we can safely say that it is therefore very likely to be one of the factors that influences these students when they are evaluating their options and deciding where to study.

Having provided data that suggests the market doesn’t really care, Silvana seems prepared to admit that some people might care after all, as she then goes on to an ask a very pertinent question: Is the customer always right? In other words, should we as school owners and directors, go along with our students’ preferences for native speakers or “challenge them, rather than pander to them”?

Let’s state the obvious: in a highly competitive market, the providers of any service would be crazy to ignore the strongly felt preferences of their potential clients. Such an approach would be tantamount to commercial suicide.

This is precisely the situation that the owners and directors of private language schools in Spain find themselves in. Whether we agree with our clients’ perceptions or not, a large majority of those people prepared to pay to improve their English language skills (or their children’s language skills) evidently value teachers who are native English speakers very highly. Does this mean that we can’t or won’t employ non-native speakers as teachers? No, we can, we do and we will. But it does mean that there is a clear and obvious risk in doing so; a risk that is ignored by Silvana’s claims that

a) the market is essentially agnostic and

b) those students that do prefer native speakers should have their views challenged.

‘Discrimination’ is an ugly term that no-one wants to be associated with. A majority of the private language schools in Spain (including all the schools that I’m involved with personally) pride themselves on being companies that will not discriminate on gender, race, sexual preferences, age, weight, height, or anything else. But we are working in the world as is, not as we’d like it, and it will take time to wean our students away from the idea that ‘native speaker’ somehow equals ‘better value teacher’. The risks inherent in challenging this widely held view too quickly or too openly – especially in the current market conditions – are simply too great.

One final thought: this debate, which is a very lively one, seems to centre almost exclusively on native or non-native teachers of English. Presumably this reflects the global demand for English and the huge numbers of English teachers, both native and non-native speakers, needed to address it. The debate feels rather different if we think about teachers of other languages. Imagine a student coming to Spain to take an intensive Spanish course, for example. Would such a student be surprised and possibly even disappointed if her teacher turned out not to be a native speaker of Spanish? I think perhaps she would.

A video recording of Silvana’s plenary at IATEFL can be found here: http://bit.ly/1XxfxDH

 

NS survey