English language programs: what the virus tells us about who we are

The novel coronavirus has gone pandemic, our entire cohort of students has canceled, and we’ll be closed for the semester. “We are willing to ramp up and teach online,” suggests one faculty member in an email to all staff and faculty. While it’s encouraging that faculty are willing to re-tool quickly for online teaching, the suggestion misses the point that we are a study abroad program where English happens to be taught, and you cannot study abroad online. It’s true that many English language programs have ‘gone online’ to try and ride out the crisis, but this is a stopgap measure that will not satisfy students over the long haul.  The corona crisis forces us to consider just what English language programs in the U.S. actually are, and what value they offer to their students.

The terms ‘intensive English program’ and ‘English language program’ can actually distract us from getting to the right answer. Yes, we teach English, but so do online instructors, phone apps, self-study books, and secondary schools in countries the world over. Our students don’t come to us only for English. English language programs are:

  • experiential: students embark on a life adventure, many in a tradition that follows the ‘grand tour’ of Europe of young people from wealthy families in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • immersive: students are surrounded by the target language and culture, which can drive changes in their language ability, their resilience, tolerance, adaptabilty, and even their identity
  • destination-based: many proprietary programs in particular are located in attractive and prestigious cities such as New York, San Diego, and (yes!) Boston
  • interactive: students can get to know classmates and others in the community, primarily through activities outside the classroom
  • local: students can experience living in a foreign place that may eventually come to feel like a second home to them.

None of these features is available in an online format, and this ‘grounded’ nature goes a long way to defining what English language programs are. It also means that English language programs must see themselves as occupying a particular and special niche in the diverse English language market, and not as the be-all-and-end-all of language learning.

The forced and rapid move online for many English language programs means that they are likely changed forever, and this is a good thing. Now that teachers and administrators know firsthand that online lessons and assignments are possible, they will become integral to curricula in many programs, with online learning accompanying in-class work. This benefits students in various ways:

  1. It meets the digital generation where they are by allowing them to engage with online media. Students can create blogs and multimedia presentations to demonstrate their achievement rather than writing essays in stodgy blue books.
  2. If a teacher is absent or the school is closed because of bad weather, online learning is a useful short-term solution to keep students on track.
  3. Online materials enable teachers to ‘flip the classroom,’ delivering written and spoken material online for outside study while exploiting the interactive potential of the classroom when students gather.
  4. Programs are more likely to introduce online pre-program and post-program study, preparing students for their studies and consolidating their learning, thus adding value to the overall experience.

A few years from now we will be able to distinguish pre-corona and post-corona practices in English language programs. Programs will continue in an essentially grounded tradition, part of a study abroad and language tourism industry that students travel to, while becoming more sophisticated about integrating online learning into their offering. We will continue to be vulnerable to global crises, but perhaps better adapted to cope with them when they happen.