Tag Archives: English language program

Defining your English language program’s value proposition

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

After the catastrophe of 9/11, as we wondered if and when  international students would start coming back to study English in our schools and programs, a teacher kept reminding me that there would be ‘pent-up demand’ – that people who had missed the chance to study English abroad would be extra-keen to travel when the opportunity came back, and they would come back in great numbers. The thing to do now, he advised me, was to make sure our school was visible and ready when students were ready to return. So I used that quiet time to work intensively on the school’s website, translating content into French, Spanish, and Japanese, and ensuring inquirers could get the information they wanted – or submit an application – with a minimum of obstacles and clicks.

Knowing that the market would soon be hyper-competitive, I was also careful to ensure that the school’s unique value proposition (an executive-level facility with classes of three or four students) was stated front and center and included in all messaging, so that inquirers would be able to differentiate the school from others – and quickly decide whether this was the school for them or not.

While English language programs have been able to retain students and even recruit new students in these online times, we find ourselves in something like the same situation as we did in the early 2000s. There are hundreds of accredited English language programs in the U.S., most of which will be actively recruiting students for in-person learning. How will prospective students be able to tell one from the other?

In a 2009 blog that remains relevant today (https://hbr.org/2009/09/value-propositions-that-work.html), Anthony Tjan proposed that there are only four types of benefits that matter to consumers. Language program leaders should consider which of these benefits their program offers and build this value proposition into their promotional materials and messaging.

  • Best quality. You don’t have to be the best English language program in the world – but define the category you are in and be the best at what you do in your category, whether it is offering academic preparation on an inner-city campus or short-term programs in a laid-back beachfront environment. And one hint: it is not enough to scatter ‘high quality’ in your mission statement and promotional materials. Describe what you do and do it consistently well. Your students will decide if it is high quality or not.
  • Best bang for the buck. This doesn’t mean you are the cheapest school, but it does mean that inquirers must be able to relate your price to your offer. I once worked at a school that was priced more highly than others in the city, but students frequently complained that they didn’t know why it was so expensive. The school owner may have wanted to position the school as superior, but did not have – or did not communicate – any special features to justify that price. The school never filled up and went out of business a few months after I moved on. A high price is justified if you can clearly describe the school’s benefits over lower-priced schools. On the other hand, a low price does not necessarily equal good value, especially if quality is compromised. As a teacher I worked with used to quote her mother, “You pay or you pay, but either way you pay.”
  • Luxury and aspiration. Brands such as Rolex and Porsche fill this consumer need, but it is rarely addressed in the language school industry. OISE probably comes closest, and like other aspirational brands, it is targeted at a relatively small number of high-paying clients rather than a mass market. University-governed programs are unlikely to adopt this strategy as their tuition rates are subject to institutional approval, but in theory there is no reason why more proprietary programs shouldn’t pursue this approach, which requires a relatively small facility and allows for a high level of customer service and teacher-student contact.
  • Must-have. There are certain products and services we can’t do without, and others that we need to attain certain goals in life. There is real value if students need your program in order to reach a certain goal. For example, conditional admission programs or pathway programs at some universities make completion of the English language program or component necessary for full admission to the institution. Making English language courses credit-bearing and part of degree requirements for non-native English speaking students is another (but rare) example. Achieving this status for a university-governed program requires advocating for it with the institution’s upper administration.

Do any of Tjan’s value propositions describe your program’s offer to students? If so, now is the time to double down and emphasize that value proposition to inquirers. If not, it will be a useful exercise to sit down with your team and ask, “Why should students choose this school over another one?” You’ll want to have an answer to this question as students the world over begin looking for an in-person English language program in the coming months.

Prepare to delight your students

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

As I write this, we have just learned that the first COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for emergency use in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration. Even while the number of infections reaches an all-time high, the approval gives us a glimmer of hope that things will return to some kind of normal in the coming months. Students will be back with us in person, students and teachers will occupy our classrooms, and our hallways will be lively with the comings and goings of students between classes.

Let’s remember though that English language programs were suffering enrollment declines even before the pandemic, and it wasn’t simply the result of the negative rhetoric of the (now outgoing) administration. English language teaching has been been improving across the globe, and is begun at ever-younger ages, starting in elementary school in some countries. There is competition for English language business from other countries – including those where English is not spoken as a first language, such as Malaysia and the Philippines, where students can find programs that meet limited budgets. Synchronous online learning has taken off at low cost.

English language programs in the U.S. must compete on two levels, then: first, they must convince potential students that an in-person experience in a country where English is spoken is the best option; second, they must demonstrate that their own program is the best choice. English language programs of course compete against each other for new students, but that is not where the competition ends. Once in the U.S., students can transfer from one program to another, so programs have to ensure student retention in order to be successful. Although it may seem a long time until students are back with us in person, now is a good time to consider how your program will differentiate itself and hold onto students once once they have enrolled.

Although most of us in English language programs probably consider our industry to be education, I’m convinced that a significant part of what we do has much in common with the hospitality industry, and I think we can gain some competitive edge by adopting this perspective on our work. Think about it: many of us offer housing, transportation, an activity program, and concierge services. We create attractive spaces for our customers (students), help them navigate the local area with maps and guides, and are there to assist them, in some cases 24 hours a day. We have procedures in place to handle complaints and try to achieve customer satisfaction. So as we look ahead to having students back with us, we can consider our own experiences in hospitality environments – especially hotels and resorts – and plan how to apply the good practices we found there to our English language programs.

Were you ever delighted in one of those environments, and do you remember that experience? I was. There was the chocolate I found on the pillow when I checked into my room in one hotel. There was the happy hour with wine and good company in the late afternoon at another. I woke up on a long-haul flight feeling groggy and disoriented, and was offered a delicious and refreshing cup of ice cream.

These are small gestures and don’t cost much, but they have some or all of these features:

  • They are a pleasant and unexpected surprise
  • They break the usual routine
  • They give customers something extra that wasn’t advertised
  • They show the customer that someone has thought about them
  • They demonstrate to customers that someone has taken extra trouble to make them feel happy
  • They are memorable

What would create this effect in your program? A pop-up ice cream party after class? The teacher handing around treats after a particularly tricky grammar exercise? An ‘impromptu’ concert by a couple of your teachers or staff? Why not brainstorm ideas with everyone at your next in-person meeting?

These kinds of things show your students you care about them over and above the classes and advertised services.

Here are a couple of tips to help you succeed in delighting your students:

  1. Calendar it. Just put a ‘delight’ reminder in your calendar, to repeat every two or three weeks, just to ensure you remember to implement one of your ideas. But don’t make it routine or expected. 
  2. Budget it. Make this a line item in your budget. And don’t be greedy with the budget – offer amounts to teachers and staff so that they can be creative in delighting students too.

And

3. Remember, you can treat everyone as your customer. That means       teachers and staff too. So see if you can find ways to delight them,       and they will want to pass on that feeling to the students.

Wishing you a holiday season filled with delights!

 

Handling student complaints

Photo by 傅甬 华 on Unsplash

As organizations that provide a multitude of services – classes, accommodation, transportation, and cultural activities, to name the main ones – it’s inevitable that not all students will be satisfied all the time. Among the most common requests resulting from dissatisfaction in an English language program are “I want to change my host family” and “I want to change my class.” It’s easy for busy staff to become defensive or want to dismiss such requests, but we should keep in mind that student dissatisfaction and the resulting complaints or requests can help us learn to serve students more effectively and build a stronger program, especially if issues come up repeatedly.

Fairness
When handling complaints, it’s important to be seen to be fair to all students, and this can be a challenge. Your program may have a policy that limits class or accommodation changes, and there are likely good reasons for this: complying with too many requests would make the program unmanageable, so to avoid the slippery slope you discourage any changes.

If you have to make a change for a student, in order to avoid charges of ‘not fair!’ the change should be for a reason that is unique to that student’s situation. For example, a student who for some reason was not able to complete the class placement process may ask to change levels, and the teacher(s) of the student may agree that the student is incorrectly placed. Other students may just see that a student got to change levels or classes.

To avoid having to change every student who comes to you, you have to be clear that any changes you made were for reasons specific to individual students – but you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) explain what those reasons were. Still, not making a change for a student because of ‘program policy’ can be a hard sell to the student, and you will likely have to do some work to explain why the student should stay in her situation.

Record-keeping
Keeping a record of student complaints is not only required by accreditors, it is helpful in your program review process. Reviewing complaints that come up more than once – such as requests for class changes or complaints about a textbook – can guide you in making positive changes in your program. You can design a paper form to record complaints, or set something up using digital tools. I’ve used a digital form that stored the complaint in our internal website and sent a copy of it to the program directors.

Complaint form
Your form should have sections for:

– Student information (name, student number)

– Date of the complaint

– Name of the person filling out the form

– Description of the complaint, including actions taken so far, if any

– Follow-up actions taken

– Record of follow-up with student

Responding to complaints
Your options for responding to a complaint are:

a. Resolve. This may involve work, expense, or inconvenience, but your first goal should be a satisfied student.

b. Persuade. You may not be able to make a change for the student or you may not think it is appropriate. In this case, you will need to explain to the student the reason why you will not make a change in a manner that is credible to the student.

c. Resist. The student’s complaint may not be reasonable. For example, the host family may not conform with the image of the ‘ideal’ family the student had in mind. In this case you will need to explain that the complaint is not justified and that the program has fulfilled the promised made in its advertising.

d. Wait it out. Sometimes you have to accept that you cannot satisfy a student’s request – and not all complaints are reasonable. Although the student may continue to complain, there is nothing you can do. Although this is not the best solution as it will leave a student dissatisfied, you may just need to wait for the problem to go away when the student leaves your program – again, as long as you are sure you have provided what you advertised.

e. Advise out. In some cases, you and the student have to agree that this program is not a good fit. If you believe that the student’s best interest is the top priority, you may decide to help the student find a new program and help with the transfer-out process.

Dealing with a complaint
Here is my Standard Operating Procedure for a complaint:

  1. Ask the student to take a seat, take out a notepad and pen, get ready to listen and write.
  2. If you don’t know the student’s name ask for it. Write it down and check the spelling with the student. Then you can ask the student to describe the problem.
  3. Listen carefully and take notes. Ask questions to clarify.
  4. Ask the student if s/he has already raised this problem directly with the person concerned. Find out if this might be a possibility.
  5. When the student has finished explaining the problem, ask any further questions, then re-tell the problem back to the student to ensure you have understood correctly.
  6. Tell the student you cannot give an answer right now as you need to investigate. Say you will check back with the student in 24 hours.
  7. Make a note in your calendar or on your to-do list to get back to the student in 24 hours.
  8. Start a formal record of the complaint. Your program should have a paper or digital means of recording complaints that includes the student’s name, the nature of the complaint, and the resolution.
  9. Investigate, try to find a solution to the problem, discuss with colleagues, and be ready to speak or otherwise communicate with the student the next day.
  10. Be sure to follow up with the student within 24 hours, whether you have been able to resolve the problem or not.
  11. Complete the written record of the complaint and archive it.
  12. Take any disciplinary action needed if the complaint is about a teacher or staff member and you have found that the complaint is justified.

Finally
Avoid complaints by being honest in your advertising, managing student expectations, and providing great classes and services.

Are English language programs threatened by online learning?

What does the future hold for English language programs in the U.S., once we get over the current crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus? Will things return ‘to normal,’ with students traveling here to study at English language schools and university-based programs? Or will a wholesale rush to online learning result in the virtual disappearance of in-person programs?

I recently heard colleagues with many years of experience in the field arguing that the future is online. As we struggle through the COVID-19 crisis and learning online or remotely become normalized, their thinking seems to go, learners won’t want to spend the time, money, and effort to travel to another country to learn English. Online learning is the future, and in-person English language schools will decline.

At a time like this, we may gain some insight into the future of the field by looking at examples of other industries that have faced similar challenges from new technologies.

Netflix vs. Movie Theaters
When Netflix launched its streaming service in 2010, there were predictions that the availability of movies to stream at home would negatively impact movie-going. Why make the effort and spend good money at a movie theater when you could watch movies at home? In reality, U.S. movie theaters had their best year ever in 2019, with box office revenue of around $12 billion. There is evidence, in fact, that people who stream movies also regularly go to movie theaters – if you are a movie fan, you like both formats.

Airplanes vs. Ocean Liners
Why take a boat when a plane is quicker? The airline industry largely put a stop to people crossing the oceans in liners back in the 1960s. But today, passengers ships are bigger, more lavish, and more popular than ever, with annual revenues of around $30 billion, and carrying over 20 million passengers per year. The industry re-purposed itself from one that carried people from point A to point B, to one that offers luxury round-trip vacations.

Recorded Music vs. Concerts
Before Edison invented recording, all music was live. Recording and playback technologies have advanced over the years, from cylinders to records, cassettes, eight-tracks, CDs, MP3s, and now streaming. With music available to us in the comfort of our homes and our headsets, why would anyone bother to shell out a lot of money and go stand or sit in some venue to hear it played? Yet by the second quarter of 2019, LiveNation had sold 73 million concert tickets, with revenue of over $3 billion. There must be something about concerts that you cannot get from your music streaming service.

True, movie theaters, cruises, and concerts have all been decimated by the effects of the COVID-19 virus. Some businesses will not survive, but plenty will return when it is safe enough for people to be physically close again. Nobody can predict the future of English language programs, but the ‘it’s all going online’ narrative is only one possible outcome, and in my view, not the most likely. English language programs may benefit from the ‘movie theater effect,’ with those who are enthusiastic about learning showing up in person to learn in spite of online options. They may see the ‘cruise ship effect,’ adapting to serve a new clientele for different purposes. They may experience something similar to the ‘concert effect,’ with enthusiasts knowing they will get something visceral and exciting from attending in person.

Yes, online English learning has arrived, and that’s a good thing. But English language programs will continue to provide the authentic, immersive experience that thousands of learners want and appreciate. In spite of current challenges, they are here to stay.

What do you think?

The differing worlds of faculty and staff

Occupying the same physical space, the faculty and staff of university English language programs (ELPs) may inhabit very different worlds, giving them divergent perspectives on the activity they are all involved in. This situation can lead to antagonism, mutual suspicion, and a fissure between faculty and staff who should be working toward the common goal of educating students.

Let’s look at some of the differences between the worlds of faculty and staff.

Faculty Staff
1 Primarily internally focused (on classes and students) Internally and externally focused (on accreditors, the wider institution, Department of Homeland Security)
Example: When administrators translate external reporting requirements (such as student achievement data) into demands on faculty for changes in teaching or assessment practices, faculty can feel their work – their art and craft – is being interfered with. Faculty may resist making changes or providing requested information, leading to frustration among administrators..
2 Defined duties with possibility to earn more salary for extra duties performed  Fixed salary based on workday; flexible duties and no possibility to earn more for added duties
Example: Staff can get frustrated by faculty asking for more compensation or a reduced teaching load when they are asked to do something new, such as serve on an ad hoc committee. Staff may feel that faculty should behave like them and take on whatever duties are asked.
3 Emphasis on individual students and classes Emphasis on the program as a whole or on specific non-curricular areas
Example: Faculty may be critical of the class assignment process if they do not get their individual preferences met. Administrators have to take the needs of the whole program into account and cannot satisfy all individual preferences. 
4 Ownership of individual work Self-identify with the organization as a whole or with their department
Example: Faculty may object to administrative efforts to ‘standardize’ – make school-wide – syllabi, assessment tools, or teaching materials.
5 Requirement to keep to class schedule, with some freedom to work at school or at home Requirement to be in the office with some freedom to organize time and work
Example: Administrators may become frustrated at faculty who are ‘never here’ or the inability to schedule meetings because of faculty members’ varying schedules.
6 Breaks between semesters  with requirement to be present during semesters Fixed number of vacation days with flexibility to take vacation
Example: Administrators may be envious of faculty members’ long breaks; faculty may find it difficult to schedule vacations, attendance at weddings, or medical treatments because of the requirement to find a substitute or make up classes.
7 In decision-making, an emphasis on process In decision-making, an emphasis on results
Example: Administrators can get frustrated with the length of time faculty take to make decisions through committee meetings and faculty meetings; faculty may be dissatisfied if they feel decisions were ‘rushed through’ by administrators without sufficient consultation or discussion with faculty. 

With so much potential for conflict, it is vital that the faculty-administration relationship be proactively attended to and managed. This means formalizing opportunities for sharing perspectives, consulting each other on proposed changes, and engaging in dialogue. It means establishing meetings – committee-style and whole-organization, formal and informal – where faculty and staff can exchange ideas on an equal basis, and where concerns can be openly expressed in a civil way without fear of criticism or retribution. And it means not personalizing disagreements, but working through them as colleagues, with a willingness to see the other side and make compromises to reach solutions.

None of this is easy, but it is vital for the effective functioning of your program and the maintenance of a motivating and fulfilling work environment for all.