Tag Archives: online learning

Tough times for English language programs

It has been a quiet week for English language programs. That is something to be thankful for after the craziness that was visited on us in the first half of July, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a new rule:  international students attending institutions that are going to offer their programs entirely online must either transfer to another institution where they can take at least a part of their program face to face, or leave the country. The rule of course impacted students at the hundreds of English language programs and schools across the country.

When the rule was rescinded, there was much celebration (online anyway) in the international education community. The administration’s dialing back of the rule was declared a victory. I was relieved that the rule was rescinded, but I couldn’t help but feel we’d all been played by an administration that seems to thrive on dividing us all in order to step in with its heroic authoritarianism to save the day. And this was a move that seemed calculated to divide us in the international higher education community – by forcing international students to switch from schools operating online to schools offering in-person classes, all schools would feel pressured to re-open, serving the administration’s denialist approach to the COVID-19 virus.

The rule, calculated to divide us, had the opposite effect. Our two most prestigious universities filed suit and were supported by many other institutions; senators, governors, and business leaders spoke out against it; and our international education organizations – NAFSA, TESOL, EnglishUSA, UCIEP, and others – released public statements and organized advocacy efforts to protest it. If there was something to celebrate, it was that the excesses of this administration can be pushed back if we are united, not divided. And we showed that we are united.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end here. While new guidance is likely to be issued in the coming weeks, for now it looks as though international students who plan to attend institutions that are going fully online will not be issued a visa. This is going to hit English language programs particularly hard. Although some have gained a foothold in online teaching, most rely on what these programs do best: offer in-person, in-class language, cultural, and social experiences that cannot be replicated online. They will be pressured to re-open and implement measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Yet many of these programs occupy compact spaces with relatively small classrooms and common areas in which it is almost impossible to maintain a safe distance from others.

These are the most challenging times English language programs have had to face, and there is little doubt that we will see more program closures and employee layoffs, a tragedy for our field. But I know a lot of people in this field, and I know that we are resilient, we are fighters, we persist. We are down but not out, bruised but not defeated, and we’ll keep up the struggle because we love what we do, we know how important it is, and we want students everywhere to know that no matter what message our government sends, ‘you ARE welcome here.’

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?

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.