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.
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- Stating the obvious, but the programming the makes the material interactive needs to be glitch-free, on all devices and with all browsers.
- Students’ work should register on a Learner Management System or e-learning platform so their progress can be tracked and time spent studying recorded.
- Students should be invited to give feedback about their study materials and encouraged to make suggestions for improvements.
- 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:
- 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.
- Is the provider employing fully qualified professional language teachers or are they happy to contract students or retirees looking for a little extra income?
- Have the tutors been trained to teach online? It is different enough from classroom teaching to warrant some form of training.
- 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.
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.
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:
- With other users (e.g. with friends, classmates or teachers)
- 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.
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.
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.
Christmas 1997. I remember it well, chiefly as I spent most of the holiday developing a business plan for a bright idea I’d had: to use the Internet to teach people who, for whatever reason, would never make it into one of our language schools. The plan must have had some merit as it persuaded several people to invest and lo, Net Languages was born in March 1998.
Two of the key members of the start-up team were my esteemed colleagues, Scott Thornbury and Gavin Dudeney. They put together a team of content writers and techies and masterminded the first courses, which were launched in September 1998.
I’m not entirely certain that we were the first company to offer Web-based language courses but we might well have been. (Would that merit an entry on Wikipedia?)
Back in those days, most people were still using dial-up connections with a download speed of 256k, so options were limited. I distinctly remember an expert in the field saying that he couldn’t imagine ever being able to stream video across the Internet. How times have changed.
Yet is some respects, they haven’t. Despite the fact that there are now hundreds of ways of learning languages on the Web, bricks and mortar language schools still flourish in many parts of the world.
Personally, I’m delighted that we can still operate viable language schools alongside our Web-based courses. But I’m a little bit surprised that the Web-based option hasn’t disrupted our traditional business to a greater extent. Why is that? Why do students (especially adult students) still make the effort to attend traditional language schools and pay their (generally speaking) higher fees? Let’s think of some possible answers:
1. Access to the necessary technology isn’t yet widespread. That may have been the case 15 or even 10 years ago, but I’d bet a small fortune that the majority of students who attend private language schools these days have very good Internet connectivity and all the hardware they need. Probably more than they need.
2. The social element is missing online. Again, this may have been a convincing argument 10 or more years ago, but since the rise of social media, more people spend more time socialising online than they do face-to-face. This suggests they don’t have to go to a language school to meet people to hang out with. On the contrary, studying online they can meet and chat to people from all over the world.
3. Web-based teaching isn’t as effective. Well, we could debate this one loud and long, but most evidence I’ve come across suggests the opposite. In other words, courses that are either entirely or partly online are generally more effective than courses that are 100% classroom based. Is this because studying online involves assuming a greater degree of responsibility for your own learning? Possibly. Could this turn some people off? Possibly.
4. People need the discipline of studying at fixed times. This is certainly something that most language schools insist on. Web-based learning gives people the option to study whenever it suits them, which ought to be an advantage. ‘You never need to miss a class’ is something that most Web-based providers argue. But perhaps this freedom is too great for some people. If you can study at any time, it’s easier to find an excuse for not studying right now. Procrastinate or learn. Again, it comes down to taking greater responsibility for your own learning.
5. People may have tried a crap Web-based course and come to the conclusion that all online courses are crap. Well, there is an incredible amount of rubbish out there. Even large companies with budgets hundreds of times the size of Net Languages’ annual turnover are capable of producing material which, if it teaches anybody anything, achieves this more by accident than design. Also, given that second language acquisition is a subject that challenges even the experts in the field, most consumers will probably judge a product by its price (if it has one) and/or by its bling factor, rather than by its ability to effectively teach anyone anything. Once bitten by the bling factor twice shy?
6. The presence of a teacher throughout the learning process. Maybe that’s it. Maybe a certain proportion of students simply feel that they need a good, professional teacher with them all the time. Someone who will answer their questions, correct their mistakes, smile at them when they’re making an effort and generally show interest in them and motivate them to improve. Perhaps these are the people who are keeping language schools open. But what happens when they discover that they can have their own teacher online? Maybe not all the time, but often enough. (At Net Languages we offer courses with and without a tutorial service. What’s more, students who choose to buy the service get to work with the same teacher throughout their course).
7. People spend all day staring at screens and prefer to do something different when it comes to learning a language. I’ve heard it said. Of course an image projected on a whiteboard in a classroom is tantamount to looking at a screen and digital projectors are becoming standard pieces of kit in most language schools. We assume students value and expect digital classrooms, but could they end up having an adverse effect on our schools? Perhaps we should pull the plug on anything electronic and adopt Scott’s materials light approach to classroom teaching. Would that help keep the bums on the seats in language schools and off the seats at home? Or would students feel they’re being short-changed if we took all the tech stuff away?
In short: what is it that keeps students turning up to class rather than turning on their computers? It could be a combination of all of the above, although if I had to pick one, my vote would go to number five. That’s the one most of our own students mention when we ask them the question.
All ideas and comments welcome.