Digital language material

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.)

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.