||For many of the language school chains, e-learning has now been integrated fully into their language programmes. One such is Navitas English, which first began to make use of e-learning in 2007. Here, e-learning is being continuously developed, with the help of a full-time e-learning market research analyst, reports Katrina Hennigan, Manager and Director of Studies at Navitas’ Sydney city centre branch, and “considerable professional development funding” is available so that teachers can receive the support they need to use the technology to enhance learning experiences.
Hennigan explains that its online learning platform integrates with one if its course-books, and the service provides suggestions for students on how to maximise their learning opportunities, while using websites they enjoy. “The learning system is organised to reflect the work that students are focusing on in class, so [they] have the extra resources they need, when they need them. [They] can see their grades immediately,” she adds, “and this can really help with motivation. Being able to chat and email other students is also important,” she comments, adding that, increasingly, there are more opportunities for students to collaborate online practising and recording their speaking and sharing notes and ideas.
Virtual versus traditional
At Kaplan International Colleges, group Live Online Programme Manager, Isabel Ribeiro, explains that their virtual classroom mirrors the traditional classroom “Students can see and hear the teacher, they can speak, chat, watch streaming-video [and] view course materials and whiteboards on their screen, as the teacher presents them.” Furthermore, students can access it from anywhere they have Internet access including via their smartphones.
In addition to use in a classroom context, in 2010 Kaplan extended its service, to include a pre-arrival course and stand-alone online courses, which currently include test preparation, as well as general English, with English for business due to be added shortly.
According to Ribeiro, students taking stand-alone general English tend to be slightly older than at the group’s schools, with an average age of around 28-to-30 years. She assuages any concerns that such courses might draw away custom from traditional language schools, explaining: “The pre-arrival course is designed to build the student’s confidence in speaking English for their arrival at the school that they’ll be studying at. The stand-alone courses, on the other hand, can be attractive to students who are not currently able to travel, and need more flexibility, because of work or family commitments.”
Another language school group that also offers stand-alone online language courses is Berlitz. Director of Global Marketing, Rita Pauls, endorses this complementary view of online provision, noting that it allows students to get started in their country, and improve their skills with a native speaker. It is also a good option in many other circumstances, she adds, such as for children and teens who need extra help with schoolwork, corporations that want to offer uniform training to employees throughout a region or globally, or learners in remote locations or who prefer to learn in the comfort of their own home or office.
Putting the school at consumer fingertips, the Berlitz Virtual Classroom is available in more than 25 languages, from beginner to advanced level, for ages six and over, and has attracted more than 50,000 learners worldwide since its launch in 2003. A major selling point of this system, according to Pauls, is that it features live instruction, either in a group or one-to-one, across all time zones.
Looking to the future, Pauls notes that Berlitz’s recent purchase of the French company, Télélangue, a global provider of language services which specialises in distance blended-learning, will enable it to further expand its capacity in e-learning, phone- and web-based training.
Virtual language schools
Other companies such as Net Languages, Livemocha and Language Lab focus entirely on online language teaching. Styling itself “an online language school”, Net Languages is an offshoot of the International House Language School (IHLS) group, delivering its own language courses in English and Spanish. As Director of Education, Fiona Thomas, explains, its courses are designed to work in various ways “as a stand-alone service; as a self-access resource; in multi-media centres or libraries; as material to be integrated into classroom activities with interactive whiteboards, or as part of a blended-learning package”.
With around 13 years experience in the online business, Net Languages knows well the extent to which the world of virtual learning is developing. Therefore, Thomas points out, constant investment is key to staying ahead and competing successfully. It is also crucial, she says, to remain in tune with current trends in technology. This includes introducing applications (apps) for use with mobile phones. As she observes, the way people use these devices is different from the way they use laptops or PCs. Hence, Net Languages’ Stories for Kids apps are designed to work for the small screen size and the amount of time a student would typically spend on this type of hardware.
With the late-2011 launch of English Corner Online, the IHLS group has also invested in the area of social networks. Inspired by the sight of Chinese university students congregating to practise speaking English to each other, this is a free service, designed to connect learners of English from around the world, and help them practise their speaking and writing skills. Through the use of various filters, users are able to choose who they connect with and, because the site is conducted all in English, there is no need to spend time speaking their own language in exchange for time practising the target language, the company points out.
According to IHLS group Chief Executive, Jonathan Dykes, it is hoped that English Corner Online will create synergies for the IHLS group over the longer term, with the potential to encourage students to consider taking a course, either at one of its language schools and/or with Net Languages directly.
Net Languages supplies its products both direct to the public and to other businesses, including language schools, consultancies, agencies and universities, as well as online training organisations. In the latter instance, these organisations can license the use of its courses as their offer for language training, and universities can also license material to use in different ways with their students. Its course planner is a tool designed to help conventional language schools offer blended-learning packages to potential clients.
Livemocha, another virtual learning specialist, began around five years ago as a free service. Building on the success of this initial venture, it added a range of paid-for courses, and then began to build partnerships with a range of third-party organisations. As company Chief Executive Officer, Michael Schutzler, outlines, it has partnered with international corporations, including Nestlé, Google and Intel, as well as schools, libraries and government agencies, to help their employees learn a new language. Most recently, it has entered into an arrangement with education company, Abril Educação, for exclusive representation in the Brazilian market.
The Livemocha Active courses, which are available in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German, include video, audio, vocabulary, and grammar content from educational publishers such as Pearson and HarperCollins. Students registering on the programmes become members of the Livemocha global community, and are encouraged to continuously provide and receive feedback. Lessons and coursework are fluid, to meet the needs of learners, and, “We make language learning both affordable and fun,” Schutlzer explains.
With more than 11 million registered students, instructors and language contributors, Livemocha has captured a sizeable market. However, Schutzler is convinced that much potential remains.
Virtual goes live
Fellow online specialist, Language Lab, shares this optimism regarding the market’s future. “It is,” observes company spokesman, Tom Symonds, “still in its infancy.” In support, he points out that technology is moving very quickly, with broadband speeds increasing, and good computers available to a growing number of people around the world, thus enabling many more people to benefit from learning in this way.
Currently offering business English, exam preparation and a wide variety of general English, such as English with music, Language Lab’s English City virtual learning system is currently rolling out what it claims to be “the first virtual worlds Ielts course” In partnership with Pearson Education. It is also launching “an innovative new approach to teaching business English”, in the form of Market Leader Live. According to Symonds, the selling point of English City is its “highly immersive” nature, and the fact that users “are part of a live experience, unlike many other forms of e-learning”.
English City is available to the public, and is also supplied to a number of partner language schools. Malvern House, for example, began using English City in June 2011, according to spokesperson, Ann Hawkings, and currently offers it without additional charge to students who book and study with the school. If they wish, they can later upgrade or top-up their membership, “so the learning and Malvern House community can continue after they go home”, she comments.
With the resources of companies like Language Lab and Net Languages more readily available, many smaller schools are now able to harness the benefits of online programmes. Others, like A2Z School of English in Manchester, UK, meanwhile, are also beginning to enter the arena on their own initiative. Supported by a third party provider, the school recently introduced online materials as an add-on to normal programmes, which students can use for extra homework. Marcela Landuch, Enrolments Manager at the school, explains, “Our online system works also as a social network, where all the students from our school can make virtual friends, add pictures and communicate.”
Testing testing 1, 2, 3
At BASP Spanish Language School in Argentina, online learning was introduced just over a year ago, primarily for use as a stand-alone service, relates spokesman, Brian Kantt. The system, which is based on video-conferencing, can be provided on either a one-to-one or group basis, and allows students to study with a native language teacher before or after attending the school, and even continue studying with the same teacher they had while there.
Meanwhile, California ESL in the USA has just begun to venture into this area of provision. Following a few requests for online Skype classes, spokesperson, Alissa Olgun, reports that she has begun to recruit students for Skype lessons and online group classes, explaining, “I do think that Skype classes really open the door to another type of student or to another location that may not have a school nearby.” By offering virtual classes, Olgun has been able to cast the recruitment net farther afield. “I think that there is definitely a future in this type of education,” she ventures but she points out that it is unlikely it will replace more traditional methods of language instruction. “It will not take away from the business of in-class, person-to-person learning.”
Mobile service for minority languages
As mobile phone applications have become increasingly common in the language learning arena, Moblang, a project that has received co-funding from the European Union, is seeking to use this technology in order to support minority and/or less frequently used European languages. Available on a subscription basis, its first products basic-level courses in Greek-Turkish, Greek-Albanian, Spanish-Basque and English-Irish were launched in September 2011, and are currently being used by a number of European schools, and language schools, according to spokesperson, Tatjana Taraszow.
As Taraszow highlights, there are many language learning applications for smart phones now on the market. However, Moblang is different in that, targeting less widely spoken languages, it focuses on non-smart phones, and runs on java-based phones with a memory card.
Following the expiry of EU funding at the end of 2011, users will be charged a small fee for the service, which was initially free. For the future, Taraszow comments that it is hoped to increase the number of language combinations, and develop an advanced level course, as well as develop an application for the iPhone.