Tag Archives: intensive English programs

What makes a school?

We are used to talking a lot about quality in education. It used to be normal to describe quality in terms of inputs: faculty to student ratios, faculty degrees, school facilities, test scores of the incoming class, and so on. More recently, we have been pressured by government departments, funding agencies, and accreditors to prove our quality in terms of outcomes: can-do statements, demonstrable skills gained, behavioral changes in our students at the end of their course or program.

The input-outcome paradigm for determining quality is adequate enough if we are in a production mindset. In this mindset, education is analogous to the production of goods or services. “Our shoes are made of the finest Italian leather” is an input-based quality claim. “Kills 99.9% of bacteria” is an outcome-based quality claim. Similarly, “highly qualified and friendly teachers” is an input-based quality claim. “Our Academic English program will prepare you to succeed at a university” is an outcome-based quality claim.

I wonder if this paradigm tells the whole story about the quality of an education? This is important to consider for intensive English programs (IEPs), because they are increasingly competing against other models of English language education and training, such as in-country classes, online tutoring and courses, even apps on devices. The producers of these alternatives can point to their inputs and outcomes and on that basis apparently offer a viable alternative to an intensive English program.

But I want IEPs to revive the notion of the school, a concept that is far broader than mere production or educational delivery. If you think about your own educational experiences which were the most memorable? Which shaped you most as a human being? Were you most influenced by a program that had clearly defined student learning outcomes? Did you learn the most from the teacher who was the most highly qualified? Unlikely.

A school is a place where community is formed. Diverse (however you choose to define diverse) students, teachers, and staff, come together in the shared enterprise of teaching and learning. There is social interaction, friction, the challenging of dearly-held beliefs. There is laughter, disappointment, joy, and frustration. Students encounter teachers with idiosyncrasies that they will never forget. A story heard sticks in the mind forever. A kindness is extended and remembered.  All of this is the quality of an education that is not recognized by the production paradigm of educational quality. It cannot be measured. You cannot really put a price on it.

Think about this kind of quality when  you go to your school in the morning. You still have to hire qualified teachers and measure student learning. But you have the opportunity to create unique, precious, and lasting experiences for your students, staff, and faculty. This is what really makes a school.

Outcomes are fine, but inputs make the difference

Alan speaking at the 2019 TESOL International Convention in Atlanta, GA

At the TESOL International Convention in March, I participated in a panel presentation on the future of intensive English programs. One of the themes I asked attendees to consider was user experience design, an increasingly popular concept in industry that emphasizes the creation of meaningful and relevant experiences for a product’s users. We are about to see, for example, the widespread introduction of self-driving cars. What will we do in our vehicles when we no longer have to concentrate on driving? Car manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to promoting the experience users of their vehicles will have, rather than the car’s technical features.

The intensive English program (IEP) field can take something useful from the notion of user experience. In recent years, educators have been pressured to focus their efforts on student learning outcomes, as governments seek greater accountability from educational institutions. The obsession with outcomes has unfortunately led to the neglect of the quality of the educational experience, and ‘non-essential’ programs such as sports and the arts have been cut back in many school districts. IEPs have been swept up in the outcomes obsession, primarily through the requirements of their accreditors, who need to see measurable evidence of outcomes but have no standards relating to the quality of the students’ daily experience in their programs.

But this is a rough time for IEPs in the U.S. Student numbers are falling because of changing demographics in their sending countries, stronger English language programming in public schools across the globe, and above all, competition from other countries (such as the Philippines and Malaysia) and formats (apps and online learning). Simply focusing on outcomes is not the answer for U.S. IEPs. Each IEP can offer a unique experience to its students, an experience that can be personally enriching and be life-changing, can create life-long international friendships and networks, and can teach much more than language: intercultural communication and understanding, adaptability, and resilience.

If you booked a package vacation with a tour company, you would not expect the company to describe to you the anticipated outcomes of the vacation. You would expect that the elements you purchase, or the inputs – the destination, the tours, the hotel, the attractions – would offer an enriching and enjoyable experience. In their marketing strategy and program delivery, IEP leaders should pay close attention to user experience design, thinking about every aspect of the program from the users’ (the students’) point of view and working to make it the best possible experience for them. This is one way IEPs can distinguish themselves from the competition in an increasingly crowded global English language marketplace.

The panel presentation, “IEP? What will Intensive English Programs Look Like in the Future?” was devised and chaired by Jodi Nelms (University of Houston), and included contributions from Mary Reeves and Heidi Villenga (Commission on English Language Program Accreditation), Mark Algren (University of Missouri) and Scott Stevens (University of Delaware). 

Unintended Consequences? Effects of the 2010 Accreditation Act on Intensive English Programs

The Accreditation Act passed in 2010 required that F-1 students pursuing an English language training program must attend a program that is accredited by a Department of Education recognized accrediting agency. University-governed programs were covered by their university’s regional accreditor, which meant that for them, an additional specialized accreditation was optional. All proprietary programs – mostly for-profit language schools – were required to seek and gain accreditation.

The Accreditation Act was supported, and its passage celebrated by, program directors and leaders at university-governed and well-established, already-accredited for-profit language school companies. They were motivated by a strong desire to bring greater professionalism to the field and to weed out a significant number of unscrupulous and fly-by-night operators who had cleared the relatively low bar for entry into the industry and whose low standards were tainting the field as a whole. Since the passage of the Act, the two specialized accrediting agencies for intensive English programs, CEA and ACCET, have added hundreds of intensive English programs to their rolls. Plenty of programs that sought accreditation have been denied, and the weeding out process has been largely successful.

But some consequences are not so unequivocally positive for the field:

  • The accreditation process costs up to $10,000, plus annual sustaining fees. This is a significant financial burden on programs, especially during a time of enrollment challenges. While university-governed programs have the option of sheltering under their institution’s accreditation and avoiding these costs, proprietary programs have no choice but to pay up or cease doing business.
  • The requirement for an IEP to be accredited creates a Catch-22 for potential new entrants into the market. A proprietary program has to be in business for two years (ACCET) or one year (CEA) before it can apply for accreditation. The accreditation process itself takes around 18 months, and if it succeeds, the program must then wait for F-1 issuing approval from the federal government. In the words of one IEP administrator in this situation, “It felt like being choked to death for four years.” During this time, the program has to survive on non-F-1 students. The near-impossibility of this makes the price of entry extremely high for those wanting to enter the field. While there were always requirements to become an F-1 school, the Accreditation Act raised almost insurmountable barriers to new proprietary players.
  • A consequence of this is greater consolidation in the proprietary IEP market. If you cannot start a new school, you have to purchase an existing one. Inevitably, those with the resources to do this are large companies seeking to develop branded chains of English schools. Further, accrediting agencies make it relatively easy for existing schools to open new branches through a simplified accreditation process for the new branch, thus allowing existing companies to expand while new entrants continue to struggle to gain entry.
  • Accreditation likely has the effect of curbing innovation in the field. Adherence to accreditation standards tends to result in institutional isomorphism (the phenomenon of institutions of a certain type looking the same), and programs are reluctant to launch anything radically different for fear of not complying with accreditation standards. Aside from surface details (number of levels, number of weeks per session, etc.), IEPs can be quite difficult to tell apart. This, combined with the lengthy SEVP approval process for new programs, in turn leads to commodification in the industry: potential students have difficulty telling one program apart from another, and use price, location, and established brand reputation to make their choice rather than any specific features of a program.

Overall, the benefit to the field has been positive. Students can apply to U.S. IEPs with the knowledge that their chosen program has been verified by an accreditor to meet high standards. The price to the industry as a whole is high though, and we should look for ways to mitigate the downsides – in particular to find ways to foster innovation and be open to new models – as we continue to face challenging market conditions in the years to come.

Challenge and change in intensive English programs

From left: Bill Hellriegel, Carol Swett, Michelle Bell, Amy Fenning, Alan Broomhead

Challenges over the past few years have deeply impacted intensive English programs, forcing irreversible changes in their organizational cultures that result in anxiety and tension, but also innovation and adaptation. That was the theme of a panel session, “Organizational Culture in University and Proprietary IEPs: Challenges and Changes,” presented by Michelle Bell (University of Southern California), Amy Fenning (University of Tennessee at Martin), Bill Hellriegel (Southern Illinois University), Carol Swett (ELS Language Centers at Benedictine University, Illinois) and myself at the TESOL International Convention on March 28. Recognizing the cultural types of IEPs and how they are affected by changes is the first step in adapting and surviving in an increasingly competitive field.

IEP cultures can roughly be divided into collegial and managerial types, following Bergquist and Pawlak’s (2007) typology of academic cultures. A collegial culture, more likely to be found in a university-governed IEP, is faculty-focused, with faculty scholarship and teaching, academic autonomy and freedom, and faculty ownership of the curriculum as the organizing principle. A managerial culture is administration-driven, motivated by considerations of fiscal responsibility and effective supervision, and organized by systems, processes, and standards.

The massive shift to accreditation in IEPs has moved collegially-oriented programs in a managerial direction. Faculty are required to plan, teach, and assess in compliance with program-wide student learning outcomes; policies and procedures have to be written and followed; and program success is measured by data, which has to be systematically collected, analyzed, and evaluated. Proprietary IEPs are seeing a a shift in the other direction: faculty standards require minimum levels of certification, experience, and ongoing professional development, and these are affecting faculty hiring and employment practices in many proprietary programs.

The severe enrollment challenge of the past two years has also affected both types of program. University IEPs are becoming more revenue-driven and entrepreneurial, actively seeking new recruitment partnerships and designing new programs – such as short-term high school programs – to respond to changing demand. Faculty may have little say in these initiatives. Meanwhile, proprietary IEPs are increasingly developing conditional-admit and TOEFL-waiver agreements with partner universities, requiring them to make programs more academically-focused and hire masters-level teachers who are qualified to teach English for academic purposes.

These are ground-shifting developments, and program leaders who recognize the need to address profound cultural change in their organizations – and not just surface-level adjustments – will be in the strongest position to navigate these challenging times.

Reference
Bergquist, W.H. & Pawlak, K., Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy, Jossey-Bass 2007

Can an intensive English program go virtual?


Business image created by Jcomp – Freepik.com

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.

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

Hourly teaching rates in IEPs – reflection

In my last post, I questioned the hourly rates for ESL teachers in intensive English programs. I looked at the rates themselves, which can be very low, and the practice of counting class-hours as the basis for the hourly rate, which neglects the time that teachers put in on preparation, grading, and other duties.

There is no simple solution to this, since institutions and programs vary in their expectations of teachers for out-of-class work, and teachers themselves spend very different amounts of time preparing and following up on their lessons. Early-career ESL teachers may burn themselves out with over-preparation (as I almost did), or impose time constraints on themselves (knowing that their salary doesn’t justify an enormous amount of preparation) – which can lead to greater spontaneity in the classroom and can therefore  be a useful discipline to learn. Offering an hourly rate that teachers must work within may be the fairest and most workable way to manage all this variation.

Keep in mind, too, that proprietary English language schools are often the first stepping stone into a teaching career for newly-minted ESL teachers, who may have completed only a one-month certificate in addition to their bachelor’s degree. This is a low bar for entry into a teaching job, yet student satisfaction surveys indicate that such teachers can perform well, and the school can be seen as a kind of apprenticeship and nurturer of teaching talent. One teacher I employed did great work before deciding to complete his master’s degree and going on to become a business English professor at a prestigious English language program in Tokyo.

In the end, schools employing hourly-paid teachers should do their best for their teachers, providing resources and programs to develop the skills of their teachers, who may well leave for greener pastures when the time comes.  Additionally, hourly-paid teachers should inform themselves about the ESL job market, understand what they are likely to be able to achieve career-wise, decide whether to earn further qualifications, and make good decisions for themselves.