Language learning

Green Standard Schools

I’m delighted to be one of the founders of Green Standard Schools – a new, not-for-profit association that aims to encourage the adoption of rigorous, new environmental standards across the language teaching sector.

Our purpose is to promote environmental sustainability in language teaching institutions everywhere.

Our aims are:

  • To lessen the impact that language teaching has on the environment by developing a set of policies and practices that language teaching institutions and their stakeholders can adopt and adhere to.
  • To award accreditation against these policies and practices to providers of language education everywhere.
  • To develop resources designed to encourage environmental sustainability in language teaching and learning, and offer training and support in the application of these resources.

Protecting the environment through education

The world is racing towards an environmental catastrophe that can only be halted by immediate and persistent action. Not just action on a geo-political scale, but action by everyone in their every-day habits and behaviours. The more people learn about the environmental dangers we are all facing, the more likely they are to modify their behaviour and persuade those around them to modify theirs. Learning can take place in many different contexts: mainstream education is key, as are social networks and more traditional media channels. But we need to take every opportunity, both to communicate the many threats our environment is facing, and to outline possible solutions; and language teaching institutions, whether private or public, can play an important role.

To learn more about the association and find out how your language teaching institution can become a Green Standard School, please visit our website: www.greenstandardschools.org

You can also write to us at info@greenstandard schools.org

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.

BREXIT (and JEXIT)

Having won the general election with a comfortable majority the Tories will now be able to (yes, that’s right) get Brexit done. We shall have to wait and see how this pithy slogan impacts the wider economy but we can perhaps begin to speculate what some of the consequences might be for the language teaching industry in the UK. Let’s think in terms of the questions some people might ask:

Will it be more difficult for European nationals to take a language course in the UK? In the short-term, obviously not, as nothing will change during the transition period, which is scheduled to last at least until the end of 2020. Beyond this period change is possible although the likelihood is that European nationals will continue to be welcomed, both as short-term visitors and as longer-term students as it would make no economic sense to pull up the drawbridge. That said, it is unlikely that European nationals who haven’t obtained permission to stay in the UK before the end of the transition period will be allowed to stay indefinitely, as is currently the case, unless of course they score enough points on the new as yet to be defined Australian-style immigration system.

Will it be more expensive to study in the UK? The pound jumped a few percentage points against both the Euro and the US dollar as soon as the election exit poll was published, so the immediate answer to the question is ‘yes, a little’. How the pound and the UK economy as a whole behave over the longer-term will clearly depend on a whole range of factors, including the future trade agreements that have as yet to be negotiated with the EU, the USA and the rest of the world. Speculating what the outcome of those negotiations is likely to be is way too difficult.

Will European nationals (and others) be put off studying in the UK (or perhaps we should say England) by the perception (true or false) that a majority of British nationals are fed up with having quite so many foreign visitors? This sort of perception could conceivably put some people off, in the same way that some people might be dissuaded from visiting other parts of the world where a significant number of the local inhabitants complain about the volume of foreign visitors perceived to be invading their cities, pushing up prices in their neighbourhoods, filling their streets with souvenir shops, and so on. However, so long as the experience of people studying in the UK continues to be overwhelmingly positive, there is no reason to suppose that any negative perceptions generated by Brexit will last forever.

As for the rather less significant issue of Jexit (see previous post on the subject) I have also been very keen to ‘get it done’ for the passed 18 months or so. I’m pleased and relieved to be able to say that my previous business partners and I finally signed an agreement in November. In essence, this involved a share swap: my partners acquired the shares I owned in our language schools in Spain while I acquired the shares they held in our schools in Mexico, Colombia and Northern Ireland. So it was, in the end, a relatively soft Jexit and we can now all get on with our lives.  Let’s hope the consequences of Brexit are equally benign.

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.

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

 

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.