Language learning

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.

 

 

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.

https://www.oculus.com/en-us/blog/oculus-rift-pre-orders-now-open-first-shipments-march-28/

https://www.google.com/get/cardboard/get-cardboard/

Accreditation – who needs it?

As avid readers of this blog will know, I’m responsible for a company called Net Languages that has been developing and delivering Web-based language courses for over 18 years. During this time we’ve established ourselves as a reputable company that knows what it’s doing and delivers an effective and reliable service.

One of our sales representatives recently suggested that it would make it easier for him to compete with some of the many new-comers to our market if our courses were accredited by a reputable university – preferably from an English speaking country. He’s probably right. We all know that the word ‘university’ has almost magical properties.

That said, I honestly doubt there is a single university out there that knows as much about second language acquisition and how to deliver effective Web-based language courses as we do. So if we decide we need ‘accreditation’ what we’re really talking about is a straightforward commercial arrangement i.e. paying for the respectability that the word ‘university’ conveys.

As most universities are struggling to make ends meet, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one interested in the idea of charging us a fee to add their seal of approval to our courses – even if they don’t know too much about it.

Organisations like the British Council, the Instituto Cervantes, EAQUALS, or International House provide meaningful accreditation to bricks and mortar language schools, as most (if not all) of these organisations do know what they’re doing. They perform rigorous inspection visits, evaluate schools’ performance and help raise standards. But the field of Web-based language teaching is rather less well catered for.

Perhaps I should start an independent accreditation scheme for Web-based language courses. But I’ll probably just go and find a university.

Butterflies in a storm

Civil war breaks out in Syria (for all sorts of reasons) causing thousands of casualties, mass migration and unimaginable hardship. A group of fanatics who claim to be inspired by the Koran, but who seem to be motivated primarily by their own blood lust, attempt to fill part of the power vacuum and create “so-called Islamic state”. A number of countries, including the USA, France, Russia and Iran, form an unlikely and largely uncoordinated coalition, which aims to obliterate the fanatics. This provokes fanatics elsewhere to blow up a Russian plane full of tourists and cause mayhem and mass murder in Paris. So far, so horribly familiar.

So what has this got to do with the language teaching business? Well, as a direct consequence of the horrendous events outlined above, a number of students from both France and Russia have written to us saying they are very sorry but they have been advised to postpone or cancel their courses. In some cases, whole groups of students have called off their trips.

This is collateral damage of a very mild kind and in no way compares to the tragic events going on elsewhere. But it does go to show how we are all hostages to fortune. As managers of a small, far-away business, there is absolutely nothing we can do to prevent geo-political turmoil, any more than language schools in the north of England and Ireland could prevent a volcano in Iceland disrupting their business a few years ago.

Of course it’s not just language teaching companies that are taking a hit; any business that involves international travel will be feeling the effects, some much more than we are. Just imagine how many empty hotel rooms there must be in Sharm El-Sheik at the moment.

Disruption can of course be triggered by events closer to home as well. Business can be blown off course by local political uncertainties, changes to legislation, technological innovation and a whole host of economic tremors including inflation, deflation, currency fluctuations, interest rate hikes, unemployment, sovereign debt levels… the list is almost endless.

So are we just butterflies in a storm, being blasted whichever way the wind blows hardest?  Is there anything we can do to prepare for outrageous fortune’s slings and arrows and plan our way out of trouble?

Many large organisations engage in ‘what-if’ planning, or PEST analysis, but I’m not sure that many language schools do. Perhaps we should give it some thought.

Here are a couple of links to help get you started:

http://www.businessballs.com/pestanalysisfreetemplate.htm

https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_09.htm

The Market for Digital English Language Learning

According to a report entitled ‘The 2013-2018 Worldwide Digital English Language Learning Market’ published in August 2014 by research group Ambient Insight, the value of all English language learning products (both digital and non-digital) sold in 2013 was around $35.5 billion. Somewhat surprisingly, only 5% of this total was generated by the sale of digital products.

The report predicts that the sale of digital English language learning products will “surge” to around $3.1 billion by 2018. While that’s a reasonable compound annual growth rate of 11,1%, it still represents less than 10% of the total market value of English language learning products sold in 2013. Isn’t that rather underwhelming?

In August last year I published a post on this blog which listed some of the possible reasons why the transition from classroom-based language teaching to Web-based language teaching hasn’t moved as fast as some of us confidently predicted. One year on and it feels like we might just be about to move out of second gear…

The Ambient Insight report lists five major catalysts driving the growth (such as it is) towards digital English language learning. These are:

1. Large-scale digitization initiative in academic segments. For example, the goal in Brazil is to have all content (including English learning content) in high schools available in digital format by 2017.

2. New Educational policies for English language learning. In other words, governments around the world are implementing policies designed to improve the level of English of their student populations and, at least in some cases, this will stimulate demand for digital content.

3. Consumer demand for mobile language learning. This is described as “Perhaps the most important long-term catalyst for digital English language products.” In this case “products” is taken to mean “apps” and “edugames” although we all know that serious self-paced learning courses can also work perfectly well on tablets (if not so readily on phones).

4. The proliferation of Mobile Learning value added services (VAS). In other words, sign up for a service provided by your local, friendly mobile network operator and get a ‘free’ English course (or app or edugame) as part of the package.

5. The demand for specialised forms of English – otherwise known as ESP courses. In this case, the clients tend to be corporates and that encourages providers to produce suitably high tech solutions – or so the theory goes.

The report clearly states that not every catalyst is present everywhere. It also lists a number of secondary catalysts it has identified including “the steady adoption of digital products in the private English language learning industry.” Perhaps. Although in my experience “steady” in this instance should probably be taken to mean “just about perceptible”.

The complete Ambient Insight report runs to 351 pages and costs rather more than most private language schools could afford to pay. There is however a very useful summary available free on their website: www.ambientinsight.com

To my mind, the report raises a many questions as it answers. For example:

If there are so many catalysts driving growth in digital products, why is the annual compound figure a steady 11% rather than a brisker 15% or 20%?

Are text books still going to dominate our lives in 2018?

Who can I speak to in Brazil to get our digital English products into their high school project?

As always, any comments or suggestions are welcome.

Who’s afraid of the Universal Translator?

Picture this: a Chinese businessman walks into a meeting room where two clients – one German and one Italian – are waiting to greet him. They are all wearing small, high-tech ear pieces which contain both a miniature speaker and a microphone. These devices are connected by Bluetooth to the businessmen’s latest generation smart phones, which nestle comfortably in their jacket pockets. The Chinese businessman greets his clients in Chinese. His smart phone picks up the sound of the greeting, converts the voice into text, and then sends the text message to his clients’ phones. Their phones receive the text greeting, translate it into German or Italian, convert the text message into voice and transmit the now spoken message into their ear pieces. It all happens instantly. The German replies in German and his response is again picked up and translated by the others’ smart phones. Each person at the meeting continues to express himself in his own language and each participant hears every utterance made by the others in his own mother tongue.

This trilingual translated conversation probably wouldn’t sound entirely natural. Only one person would be able to speak at the same time (so the translator wouldn’t be much use at raucous dinner parties) and each participant would probably need to speak rather more slowly and clearly than they would do if they were speaking to someone who shared their mother tongue. Nevertheless the speed of interaction would certainly be faster than it would have been if they had been obliged to use an interpreter; and the intelligibility of the conversation would almost certainly be better than it would have been if they had all tried to communicate in a second (or third or fourth) language.

This combination of voice recognition and instant translation is the sort of thing we are used to seeing in futuristic TV programs such as Star Trek. Douglas Adams, author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, also famously invented a creature called the Babel Fish that lives in the owner’s ear and is capable of translating any language in the universe instantly and faultlessly. While we´re still some way away from being able to travel across the universe at warp speed, (or discovering if the number 42 is indeed the meaning of life, the universe and everything) the prospect of everyone having access to a Universal Translator is distinctly less remote. Both Google and Microsoft are busy developing this technology and it seems only a matter of time before their programs become proficient. In 2014 Google announced that their instant translator was working with around 70% accuracy between English and Portuguese. Microsoft has also demonstrated a program capable of real-time spoken translation which it plans to integrate into Skype.

The key questions for anyone involved in the language teaching business are;

  1. How long will it be before such programs are both accurate and commonplace?
  2. Once such tools are widely available, will anyone still want to learn a second or third language?

The first question is difficult to answer with any degree of certainty. We all know that both voice recognition software and machine translation have a fair way to go before they can be relied upon. But they will get better, especially if giant corporations such as Google and Microsoft throw their almost limitless resources at the challenge. My best guess is that it will take rather less than 10 years …

As for the second question, we should probably separate those people who study a second language because they need to (i.e. for school, for work or to enhance their career prospects) from those people who study another language simply because they want to.

Needless to say there will always be people who want to be able to express themselves in a second or third language. There are also arguments for suggesting that fluency in another language increases brain power and might help stave off the onset of mental diseases such as dementia.

But it seems self-evident that a large proportion of the people who are currently studying a second or third language in our schools are motivated to do so largely by the extrinsic benefits it can bring, rather than by any intrinsic joy or value. A safe assumption, then, is that when a program exists that does away with the need to study another language, given the choice, a large proportion of our clients may well find some other way to spend their time and money.

This would not be good news for the language teaching business. It would be equally damaging for interpreters, publishers, exam boards, and all their myriad suppliers.

A lifeline may be provided by the world’s education ministries, which might decide to leave second or third language studies on the curriculum, irrespective of the rise of universal translators. If they continue to struggle to teach languages effectively (as they currently do in large areas of the world), private language schools should still be able to make a living by picking up the pieces. But what if future curriculum planners decide to abandon second or third languages in favour of more maths, or something relatively new like computer programming?

Before we collectively fall into despair, let’s just remember that many people in our industry (myself included) predicted that paper-based text books would have vanished by now; yet they still sell in their tens of thousands, even in fully-wired, developed countries. Could fear of the effects of the Universal Translator be equally misplaced?

The good news is that, no matter what the mid to long-term future brings, we probably still have a viable business for several years to come. At the very least, that should give us enough time to develop an exit strategy.