online language learning

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.

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.