traditional language schools

Will students return?

La Vanguardia, a newspaper based in Barcelona, recently published an article which questioned whether or not the thousands of private language schools that operate in Catalunya have a viable future. The prognosis, according to the article, is not entirely encouraging. While a number of school owners featured in the article clearly hope and believe that students will return to their classrooms, others are convinced that learners who have become used to studying online from the comfort of their own homes, are unlikely to want to go back to a system that requires the time and expense involved in traveling to school.

Let’s consider some of the arguments.

(Note: this discussion focuses on local or community language schools, not study abroad schools i.e language schools based in the country where the language is spoken. Of course some language schools operate as both community schools and study abroad schools, but in this post we’ll ignore those students who travel to another country to study, as that is an entirely different barrel of kippers.)

Some of the benefits of studying online.

1. As some of us have been arguing for decades (see previous posts on the subject), online teaching and learning can be at least as effective as classroom teaching and learning, so long as the courses on offer include the following key components:

  • Regular, synchronous classes with a suitably qualified teacher
  • An easy to use virtual classroom (such as those provided by Zoom) that allow students and teachers to interact with each other in real time
  • Well-designed, interactive study materials that students can work through between classes

Ideally the package should also include an e-learning platform that monitors the work students are doing, and there should also be the opportunity for students to engage in extracurricular social activities of some kind (e.g. quiz nights, conversation clubs, or similar) quite possibly involving language learners based in other countries.

2. The aforementioned saving in time and money that comes from not having to travel anywhere represent a clear advantage for both teachers and students, and could also be of benefit to the environment (although let’s not forget that any Internet based activity also leaves a carbon footprint).

3. The benefits of online study for language school owners are almost entirely economic. No need to rent and maintain large numbers of classrooms. There may also be the option to recruit suitably qualified teachers from other parts of the world, who may be less expensive to employ.

Some of the benefits of studying in a physical classroom.

1. Many teachers and learners still prefer the direct contact that comes from sharing a physical space. This may be because it is easier to connect with people who are not looking at you through a screen. Similarly, people who already spend large chunks of their day staring at a screen, may want a break and/or an excuse to get out of the house or office. Classroom-based learning provides a good reason to log off and go out.

2. Classroom teaching does not rely on the technology working to anything like the extent that online teaching does. It only takes one student’s WiFi to go down to disrupt the flow of an online class; it would take a major power outage to have a similarly disruptive effect in a classroom.

3. Class management is easier and more agile in a classroom. For example, while platforms like Zoom enable teachers to divide students into groups and monitor their activities, it’s undoubtedly quicker and easier to do this sort of thing if everyone is sharing the same physical space.

4. There are other possible benefits for parents in sending their offspring to study in a physical classroom.  On the one hand, language schools perform a useful after school child care service. This is especially important in countries like Spain where children often leave school well before their parents leave work.  Similarly, if parents are working from home (as many have been for the last year or so) having a few hours of extra peace and quiet can be valuable. And while the kids are studying at the local language school, they’re not going to be asking for access to their parents’ computer, or demanding to share the household’s already stretched WiFi system.

So what are the implications for private, community-based language schools in countries like Spain? Here are some tentative predictions:

  • Students will return to their classrooms, but the vast majority of those that do will be younger learners (i.e. under the age of 16). Schools will therefore need to consider what they can do with their classrooms outside those peak younger learner time slots.
  • Some adult language learners will also want to go back to school, but probably not enough to make many viable groups. Schools will therefore need to consider the possibility of offering hybrid classes where some students are physically present, while others attend the same class online. This will involve investment in some additional training and technology, but not enough to bring the business to its knees (see previous posts on Telepresence).
  • Schools will continue to offer purely online courses to those adult learners that are comfortable with this system. But to make groups viable, schools may need to find a way to join forces and organise groups on a regional, national or even international basis.
  • Schools will continue to diversify their product range. That could mean offering more specialist language courses, and/or branching out into non-language related training.

One thing’s for sure: the era of having school buildings full of language learners for large chunks of each day are long gone. At least in countries like Spain.

The Vanguardia article (in Spanish) is available here: https://bit.ly/3kGdBLS

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.

Still not disruptive Web-based language learning

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.