Can online learning rise to the challenge?

One of the fastest growing education markets is English language learning, the challenge is how to deliver it in an effective way

By Charles McIntyre – EdTech Europe

Two billion students will be learning English over the next decade, 80% of global companies say English is needed to succeed in their business and 55% of all websites are written in English.  The English language is pervasive and the teaching of English is big business.  Expenditure on English language learning is growing at twice the rate of spend on education more generally and by 2018 we expect global expenditure on English language learning to exceed $80bn, almost 4x more than the total spend on all the other languages put together.

From the learner’s perspective, there is clear evidence that learning English generates a direct economic benefit.  For example, employees who speak fluent English in India earn 34% more than their counterparts who don’t. This impact can be seen right across the emerging markets of the world. And these are the markets where populations are rising fast.  Asia and Africa are the key drivers, together they will account for 90% of global population growth by 2050.

‘Employees who speak fluent English in India earn 34% more than their counterparts who don’t’

The challenge is how to deliver English language learning in an effective way. Language learning is a sophisticated skill that requires high levels of engagement and ideally a fully immersive experience. For example, it is not easy to replicate the outside world of multiple accents, different speeds of delivery and a wide range of vocabulary in a classroom.

Studies have shown that teaching students with a small amount of input—just a few words uttered by a single speaker, as you often find in a classroom or a language-study book on tape—fail to produce comparable results in real-world tests where subjects encounter many different words, speakers and dialects. It turns out that the more voices and the more words tested in the lab, the better the results outside of the lab. In a study published in 2013 by linguist Melissa M. Baese-Berk, then at Michigan State University, and her colleagues showed that an hour of training over two days on five different varieties of accented English improved understanding of all types of accented English, even totally novel accents.

The more you review the various studies, the more you realise that ideally you would have a teaching environment that provides interactive, personalised teaching with a high level of student engagement and feedback.  So not unsurprisingly the premium end of English language learning is a fully immersive course in an English speaking country, where you will be fully engaged with the cultural environment as well as the language. However, after flights, accommodation and tuition fees you are close to spending £3,000 for a 4 week course.  This is also assuming you have been able to arrange a suitable entry visa. So all-in-all a costly solution available only to a few.

‘The good news is that technology is now beginning to make big inroads into delivering effective language learning online. We already have the bigger players like Pearson with Wall Street English and Global English as well as a range of new kids on the block like Busuu, Duolingo, Babbel, Voxy and Papagei’

The good news is that technology is now beginning to make big inroads into delivering effective language learning online. We already have the bigger players like Pearson with Wall Street English and Global English as well as a range of new kids on the block like Busuu, Duolingo, Babbel, Voxy and Papagei.  If you take Voxy as an example, the course offers a mix of thematic course units, video content, live one-on-one online tutors and analytical feedback.  All of the ingredients you would want in a language course. If you add Papagei into the mix, you can then look at having highly engaging video content from a news broadcast or a tv show that has had the speech elements dissected, translated, meta-tagged and re-assembled to create simultaneous text transcription in the original language and the learner’s own language, together with a mobile interactive vocabulary and grammar coach.

Go one step further and you enter the land of companies such as Immerse Learning who have created a 3D virtual world where teachers and students can engage in real time, fully immersive experiences in simulated environments through a web browser.  So we have the tools to take the best that teaching has to offer to the student wherever they are, rather than the student having to come to the teacher.  This is particularly relevant as most students are not even able to consider travelling. The British Council estimates that 99% of English language learners stay in their own country.

So the future looks bright in terms of what we can do technically. The next step is ensuring that the infrastructure, business models and funding are there to support the growth of these new digital businesses.

W: edtecheurope.com

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