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The Surge to Online Teaching

29th July 2019

By Jock Howson

There is a mini-crisis looming in the world of English Language teaching.

Most companies which play in this area are still operating on the traditional business model. They have very expensive training centres filled with very expensive teaching staff, delivering very expensively designed and created training courses – always run on a very expensive computer network and displayed on different sizes and shapes of displays, some small and basic, some large and interactive, but all pretty expensive.

As you will have surmised from the previous paragraph, the traditional face-to-face English Language Training Business model is very cost intensive – which explains, in part at least, why these companies charge such large sums for their English Language Training Courses, and are so intensely focused on maintaining their revenue stream.  

The reasons behind this behaviour are clear. These are high throughput, high student-turnover organisations with very high monthly costs, operating within very tight margins in a very competitive market. The pressure is always on, and the first optional-extra costs which are thrown onto the ‘maybe-someday ’ pile are customer care and service quality assurance.

So the market is ripe for change, purely because of the threat posed to the existing high-cost model by the current migration trend to online training.

 

The Students

Surprisingly perhaps, the idea of remote learning has in fact been around for almost 70 years. Given Australia’s unique population distribution profile, where 95% of the population live within a few miles of the coast and everyone else lives in the middle of nowhere, it is not surprising that they came up with a way of educating those children who lived many miles from the nearest school.

The first School of the Air was started in Alice Springs in 1951, based on providing direct one-to-many teaching using HF radio communication with children on remote farms and cattle stations. The service is still in place today all over central Australia, still using radio where that is the only available way of talking to the students. Broadband provision is mostly non-existent in these remote areas, and satellite based internet systems run expensive.

Today, 98% plus of any population outside the jungles and deserts of Africa and South America will have a smart phone more-or-less cemented to their hand. They look to their phone to provide them with everything: information, social networking, money, entertainment, and even communication.

For them, the additional move to building education into their daily mobile schedule is a natural and un-contentious next-step, especially for younger students who have already seen the beginnings of this in school. (For many years schools fought against phones – attempting to lock them away in broom cupboards to try to get the kids to listen to the teacher. Today most schools recognise the futility of this kind of regimen, and build the mobile phone into their lesson planning and lesson management.)

So, for many students the idea of moving to an online teaching system seems natural; the logical next step. However life is never quite that simple. Almost all these students remember having an actual teacher in the class for their lessons at school and college. It felt natural, it seemed to be effective, and there seems to be an extra level of added-value and added-comfort which stems from the ability to go up and have a quiet word in the teacher’s ear, or have them come up and have a quiet word in yours.

There still seems to be a strong underlying suspicion that perhaps online-only teaching is not as effective and not as valuable as real-time classroom teaching. On the other hand, if it is much cheaper, much more convenient and much more flexible than classroom based teaching, as online learning certainly promises to be, then perhaps that more than offsets the effectiveness question.

One other point to consider with regard to the student side of this equation though, is the whole question of social interaction. Most classroom-based language schools focus very strongly on building a friendly, caring-sharing attitude in their training centres, with lots of small low-cost ideas and events encouraged to build the idea of teamwork and confraternity.

The original idea behind this was to encourage the students to build up relationships within their classes, which would give them additional reason for wanting to keep coming back to the school, and might encourage them to sign up for further tuition. This is still true of course, but an important additional element has now been added.

Many younger students tend to live more and more as online only creatures, with little in the way of real-world interaction. The idea behind the social side of Language Schools is currently aimed at providing these people with a communal space where they can use and practice their English in the real world, not simply online – and they are encouraged to believe that using English in the real world, talking to real people face-to-face, is better for their English, though it is rarely made clear why this might be true. This is one of the ways that classroom based EFL centres are attempting to turn back the rising internet tide.

 

The Schools

The very large language training companies with which we are all familiar, have only quite recently realised that the internet represents an existential threat to their operations. However the problem they face is quite simple and should have been obvious to them all along.

We are all now living in the Convenience Age. Everything – EVERYTHING! – is available to us through a few quick taps and swipes on our phone – and yet, for some reason, if we want to learn English we are expected to actually physically go to an office somewhere and watch and listen to a teacher play with their technology, as opposed to using our own technology and doing most of this stuff over WeChat, or Skype, or Zoom or Facebook.

For some people the idea of actually having a teacher in front of them and a group of classmates around them to work on communication with, is a high value proposition; but for many more people this set up is an embarrassing inconvenience which they would much rather do without, being quite content to simply log-in, participate at the level they feel comfortable with, and then log-out and get on with the rest of their life – virtual or otherwise.

The big language companies are finding it very hard to cope with these pressures. Small new online English language companies are popping up every day, with a very low cost-base and a highly flexible approach – deliver what the customer asks for, at a very low price, and in the comfort of their own phone.

Most of the big boys have tried or are trying to roll-out their own internet based solution, based on their name, market position and reputation. The two problems they face though is that they have to try to do this without cannibalising their existing user-base, and their need to avoid shifting most new customers to the new lower-cost online model. They still need to fill their classrooms and pay their rent.

 

The Final Nail

Real-time on-line video communication has been around for nearly forty years, but only recently have network capacity and video transport technologies been sufficiently well aligned to allow for at least reasonable on-screen performance with the likes of FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and WeChat – but bandwidth has always been the Achilles Heel of this kind of application: resulting in poor frame rates, poor synchronisation and link-loss.

All of this system friability will disappear in the next 18 months with the widespread introduction of 5G Technology – after which time the ability of any training organisation to deliver very high quality one-to-one or one-to-many video training links will have become, to all intents and purposes, free.

In my view, the introduction of 5G technology will be the death knell of the large scale in-class Language Training schools we have become accustomed to. Between now and the end of 2020 I think we will see large scale closures or at least re-purposing of most of the high-street Language Training premises which currently dot the high streets of cities from Belfast to Beijing, via Berlin, Beirut and Belo Horizonte.

I am sure some of the big names in language training will survive this lurch to the web, though in very different form, but the real problem they will face is that this is just the beginning.

 Immediately on the tail of 5G, we’ll see the introduction of learning-machine based AI teaching-systems. These will be able to ask students questions, work out their language learning requirements just by analysing the words they use to formulate their answers, and then deliver individually tailored course material specifically  designed to sort out the student’s grammar, vocabulary, sentence structures and accent, all at the same time. Human teachers will still be required - to coach, remind, advise and encourage, but not to compete with the AI’s level of language capability.

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Jock Howson

Jock has spent most of his life wandering around the world, and is currently living in China again – this time in Shenzhen. A senior executive in various IT companies for several years, Jock specialises in teaching Business English.

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