Can an intensive English program go virtual?

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Along with continuing enrollment challenges for university and proprietary intensive English programs (IEPs) comes a demand for fresh ideas, re-thinking the model, and new types of programs that meet the needs of today’s learner. Given the rise and ubiquity of online learning, many IEP leaders are asking whether and how they might take their programs online.

Online ESL is already big business, with many startup companies connecting students and teachers in different parts of the world through synchronous online lessons. The first challenge for IEPs thinking about breaking into this market is how to devote the resources to develop and market an online program while not diverting resources from their current on-ground operations. But the greater challenge is how to take a model that has developed and established its value in one format (on-ground) over many years and adapting that model to a new, online format.

In their book on academic cultures, Bergquist and Pawlak identify the ‘tangible’ culture and the ‘virtual’ culture as two cultural types that may be in tension with each other. IEPs have developed around a tangible culture that emphasizes location, student life, interaction with local people, institutional facilities – the whole student experience. Additionally, as a result of visa regulations, they have built curricula and weekly schedules that prioritize compliance over the needs of students (example: there is no strictly educational reason why students should spend 18 hours in class in order to learn a language). This model has been valuable to the many thousands of students who have attended IEPs. But how much of this on-ground value can an IEP retain when it puts its programs online? And with many providers in the online market, most of which are specialized, agile, not tied to an on-ground model, and highly entrepreneurial, how feasible is it for established IEPs to make significant inroads into this market?

My prediction is that most intensive English programs will not play a significant role in the online ESL market, nor will they want to break from the on-ground model they have spent years nurturing. To survive, they will need to continue adapting to the needs of current students who want to travel for an education. Right now this means offering short, specialized programs, and pathways into universities. While the demand for intensive English programs is currently in a slump and may never bounce back to the numbers of recent years, the tangible academic culture is not going away, and there will always be value in traveling for a global, intercultural, and language education. IEPs need to continue working to demonstrate that value to tomorrow’s students.

Bergquist, W.H. & Pawlak, K., Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy, Jossey-Bass 2008.