Tag Archives: TESOL

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). 

IEPs and the Rise of Pathway Programs

This week my colleague from the University of Kansas, Deborah Osborne and I led a discussion on the future of

Deborah Osborne and Alan at the TESOL Convention, Seattle

university intensive English programs at the TESOL Convention in Seattle. Many university IEPs reported enrollment declines of between 10% and 70% last fall, and some are really struggling at this point. Meanwhile, pathway programs resulting from partnerships between universities (such as American University, Oregon State University, and George Mason University) and corporate partners (such as INTO, Navitas, and Shorelight) continue to proliferate, suggesting that English language and academic preparation for international students is undergoing a major shift.

For prospective students, the major attraction of a pathway program is the word ‘guaranteed.’ If they complete the program successfully, they will matriculate into the partner university. Many university IEPs can offer college advising and assistance with applications, but are not able to offer that guarantee. For universities, pathway programs can offer a fast track to increasing international student enrollments with little upfront investment or the need to build their own international student recruiting capacity.

There are two main choices for university IEPs. First, they can try to compete on the pathway providers’ territory by setting up their own pathway programs. The challenge here is that they generally don’t have the recruitment network to make that happen quickly, and there are very few instances of a university recruiting significant numbers of students via a home-grown pathway. Second, they can adapt to provide programming that pathway programs can’t. Examples include shorter programs, custom programs, specialized programs, and programs to support admitted or matriculated international students on their campus. This will require flexibility and an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

These are challenging times for IEPs, and it remains to be seen whether they can adapt to the challenge of the pathway model.