The Surge to Online Teaching

The Surge to Online Teaching

There is a mini-crisis looming in the world of English Language teaching. Most companies which play in this area are still operating on the traditional business model. They have very expensive training centres filled with very expensive teaching staff, delivering very expensively designed and created training courses – always run on a very expensive computer network and displayed on different sizes and shapes of displays, some small and basic, some large and interactive, but all pretty expensive.

As you will have surmised from the previous paragraph, the traditional face-to-face English Language Training Business model is very cost intensive – which explains, in part at least, why these companies charge such large sums for their English Language Training Courses, and are so intensely focused on maintaining their revenue stream.

The reasons behind this behaviour are clear. These are high throughput, high student-turnover organisations with very high monthly costs, operating within very tight margins in a very competitive market. The pressure is always on, and the first optional-extra costs which are thrown onto the ‘maybe-someday ’ pile are customer care and service quality assurance.

So the market is ripe for change, purely because of the threat posed to the existing high-cost model by the current migration trend to online training.

The Students

Surprisingly perhaps, the idea of remote learning has in fact been around for almost 70 years. Given Australia’s unique population distribution profile, where 95% of the population live within a few miles of the coast and everyone else lives in the middle of nowhere, it is not surprising that they came up with a way of educating those children who lived many miles from the nearest school.

The first School of the Air was started in Alice Springs in 1951, based on providing direct one-to-many teaching using HF radio communication with children on remote farms and cattle stations. The service is still in place today all over central Australia, still using radio where that is the only available way of talking to the students. Broadband provision is mostly non-existent in these remote areas, and satellite based internet systems run expensive.

Today, 98% plus of any population outside the jungles and deserts of Africa and South America will have a smart phone more-or-less cemented to their hand. They look to their phone to provide them with everything: information, social networking, money, entertainment, and even communication.

For them, the additional move to building education into their daily mobile schedule is a natural and un-contentious next-step, especially for younger students who have already seen the beginnings of this in school. (For many years schools fought against phones – attempting to lock them away in broom cupboards to try to get the kids to listen to the teacher. Today most schools recognise the futility of this kind of regimen, and build the mobile phone into their lesson planning and lesson management.)

So, for many students the idea of moving to an online teaching system seems natural; the logical next step. However life is never quite that simple. Almost all these students remember having an actual teacher in the class for their lessons at school and college. It felt natural, it seemed to be effective, and there seems to be an extra level of added-value and added-comfort which stems from the ability to go up and have a quiet word in the teacher’s ear, or have them come up and have a quiet word in yours.

The Schools

The very large language training companies with which we are all familiar, have only quite recently realised that the internet represents an existential threat to their operations. However the problem they face is quite simple and should have been obvious to them all along.

We are all now living in the Convenience Age. Everything – EVERYTHING! – is available to us through a few quick taps and swipes on our phone – and yet, for some reason, if we want to learn English we are expected to actually physically go to an office somewhere and watch and listen to a teacher play with their technology, as opposed to using our own technology and doing most of this stuff over WeChat, or Skype, or Zoom or Facebook.

The Final Nail

Real-time on-line video communication has been around for nearly forty years, but only recently have network capacity and video transport technologies been sufficiently well aligned to allow for at least reasonable on-screen performance with the likes of FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and WeChat – but bandwidth has always been the Achilles Heel of this kind of application: resulting in poor frame rates, poor synchronisation and link-loss.

All of this system friability will disappear in the next 18 months with the widespread introduction of 5G Technology – after which time the ability of any training organisation to deliver very high quality one-to-one or one-to-many video training links will have become, to all intents and purposes, free.

Learning with Online Teachers

Many teachers are now teaching remotely within countries and even across borders. You no longer need to be located near your students. The whole world is open to the online teacher and more and more of us are beginning to enjoy the experience and take it seriously as a long-term option. It turns out teaching remotely can be both fun and rewarding. You can make a cup of tea in your own kitchen in between lessons, and save having to commute twice a day to the office.

The question of student engagement is more ambiguous admittedly as, on the one hand students are less inclined to distract each other or chit-chat in their native language when they are separated physically, but, on the other hand, you never know whether or not they have another tab or window open on their computer screen to distract themselves. Online games and social media are temptations for the teenage and younger learners and this is tough to regulate in a group setting.

Parents I’m sure were initially skeptical as well about whether or not online lessons would represent value for money as compared with conventional classes. However I think, like teachers, parents may be gradually warming to the idea, as the process becomes smoother and the lessons more productive. There may be convenience for parents too as they save time picking up students from the academy and driving them home. Students too may appreciate being able to learn from the comfort of home.

It is still early days of course and, although the jury is still out (especially for students taking exams at the end of term), I no longer see online as a temporary aberration and believe it will become a permanent feature of ESL teaching. Although classrooms will presumably fill up again after the pandemic, there could be a new demand for online lessons and teachers may find themselves increasingly splitting their schedules between remote and in-house lessons.

From the perspective of schools, priorities include justifying the price of a lesson and striving to make online lessons as effective and engaging as those in a conventional classroom. Looking forward to next term, schools have to make tough decisions regarding classroom space. Some may choose to reduce overheads by occupying smaller premises or using fewer rooms, while making online a larger part of their overall schedules. For those who own or rent classrooms these are major choices and of course the preferences of the students and parents will be a key influence.

Another factor for schools offering online lessons is whether or not to hire teachers who live abroad. Although initially reluctant to do so, I think teachers who work remotely have generally proven themselves to be reliable and the efficiency of online file sharing plus the numerous channels in existence for coordination between employer and employee have facilitated this process greatly. Hence schools may consider hiring remotely on a permanent basis and reduce the number of staff who physically come into the premises. This would coincide with reducing the number of classrooms being maintained by the schools. The extent to which such a trend will materialise is uncertain but we can imagine how ESL schools may look and operate next year or even for many years to come.