Covid-19

Will students return?

La Vanguardia, a newspaper based in Barcelona, recently published an article which questioned whether or not the thousands of private language schools that operate in Catalunya have a viable future. The prognosis, according to the article, is not entirely encouraging. While a number of school owners featured in the article clearly hope and believe that students will return to their classrooms, others are convinced that learners who have become used to studying online from the comfort of their own homes, are unlikely to want to go back to a system that requires the time and expense involved in traveling to school.

Let’s consider some of the arguments.

(Note: this discussion focuses on local or community language schools, not study abroad schools i.e language schools based in the country where the language is spoken. Of course some language schools operate as both community schools and study abroad schools, but in this post we’ll ignore those students who travel to another country to study, as that is an entirely different barrel of kippers.)

Some of the benefits of studying online.

1. As some of us have been arguing for decades (see previous posts on the subject), online teaching and learning can be at least as effective as classroom teaching and learning, so long as the courses on offer include the following key components:

  • Regular, synchronous classes with a suitably qualified teacher
  • An easy to use virtual classroom (such as those provided by Zoom) that allow students and teachers to interact with each other in real time
  • Well-designed, interactive study materials that students can work through between classes

Ideally the package should also include an e-learning platform that monitors the work students are doing, and there should also be the opportunity for students to engage in extracurricular social activities of some kind (e.g. quiz nights, conversation clubs, or similar) quite possibly involving language learners based in other countries.

2. The aforementioned saving in time and money that comes from not having to travel anywhere represent a clear advantage for both teachers and students, and could also be of benefit to the environment (although let’s not forget that any Internet based activity also leaves a carbon footprint).

3. The benefits of online study for language school owners are almost entirely economic. No need to rent and maintain large numbers of classrooms. There may also be the option to recruit suitably qualified teachers from other parts of the world, who may be less expensive to employ.

Some of the benefits of studying in a physical classroom.

1. Many teachers and learners still prefer the direct contact that comes from sharing a physical space. This may be because it is easier to connect with people who are not looking at you through a screen. Similarly, people who already spend large chunks of their day staring at a screen, may want a break and/or an excuse to get out of the house or office. Classroom-based learning provides a good reason to log off and go out.

2. Classroom teaching does not rely on the technology working to anything like the extent that online teaching does. It only takes one student’s WiFi to go down to disrupt the flow of an online class; it would take a major power outage to have a similarly disruptive effect in a classroom.

3. Class management is easier and more agile in a classroom. For example, while platforms like Zoom enable teachers to divide students into groups and monitor their activities, it’s undoubtedly quicker and easier to do this sort of thing if everyone is sharing the same physical space.

4. There are other possible benefits for parents in sending their offspring to study in a physical classroom.  On the one hand, language schools perform a useful after school child care service. This is especially important in countries like Spain where children often leave school well before their parents leave work.  Similarly, if parents are working from home (as many have been for the last year or so) having a few hours of extra peace and quiet can be valuable. And while the kids are studying at the local language school, they’re not going to be asking for access to their parents’ computer, or demanding to share the household’s already stretched WiFi system.

So what are the implications for private, community-based language schools in countries like Spain? Here are some tentative predictions:

  • Students will return to their classrooms, but the vast majority of those that do will be younger learners (i.e. under the age of 16). Schools will therefore need to consider what they can do with their classrooms outside those peak younger learner time slots.
  • Some adult language learners will also want to go back to school, but probably not enough to make many viable groups. Schools will therefore need to consider the possibility of offering hybrid classes where some students are physically present, while others attend the same class online. This will involve investment in some additional training and technology, but not enough to bring the business to its knees (see previous posts on Telepresence).
  • Schools will continue to offer purely online courses to those adult learners that are comfortable with this system. But to make groups viable, schools may need to find a way to join forces and organise groups on a regional, national or even international basis.
  • Schools will continue to diversify their product range. That could mean offering more specialist language courses, and/or branching out into non-language related training.

One thing’s for sure: the era of having school buildings full of language learners for large chunks of each day are long gone. At least in countries like Spain.

The Vanguardia article (in Spanish) is available here: https://bit.ly/3kGdBLS

Telepresence

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.