EF Education First is one of the world’s leading language schools. Based in Lucerne, Switzerland, it operates 500 schools and offices in 53 countries and has a complement of 40,500 full- and part-time staff. EF students pursue studies in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese in 44 global destinations and, through the Englishtown website, can also study English online.
We recently sat down with Anders Ahlund, EF’s President of International Sales and Marketing, to get his perspective on the industry and on some of the new initiatives at EF. Currently based in Dubai and Zurich, Mr Ahlund is a 25-year veteran of the company whose experience at EF spans a variety of departments, divisions, and countries. He is currently responsible for business development including the management of the company’s worldwide agent network.
We began our discussion by talking about how the language industry has changed in recent decades. In the following interview, Mr Ahlund highlights a number of important shifts, including the increasing integration of language programmes with academic studies, the importance of emerging markets, the ongoing priority of diversifying enrolment, and the increasing role of technology in EF operations.
In Conversation With Anders Ahlund, Part 1
ICEF Monitor: You have been in this industry for over 25 years, you have certainly seen a lot of change over that time. What are some of the biggest changes that stand out for you?
Anders Ahlund: There have been many. The biggest is probably on the programme side, the language schools have gone more towards academics. We have seen now many programmes integrated with universities, combined taught programmes like transition programmes, etc. I think that is probably the biggest change on the school side. Then, of course, it has gone from an academic world to a very commercial world. It has become an industry. There are probably more short-term decisions nowadays than it was back in time. So there are good and bad things with these changes.
ICEF Monitor: And one of the other changes we have seen lately is that people have become a bit too reliant on the bigger markets like China and India, so they are starting to diversify looking at more emerging markets. What are some of the big emerging markets that EF is focusing on?
Anders Ahlund: First of all, we never want to have more than 10% of one nationality in our schools. We want to have a very nice mix of students and therefore today we recruit students from 107 countries. We have our own sales and support offices in 50 countries, where we have of course the majority of our students, but we work with an additional 67 countries through partnerships, joint ventures, etc. But of course China is still a very important emerging market that has high growth rate and we will continue to invest in China.
ICEF Monitor: And then the other markets?
Anders Ahlund: There are many interesting emerging markets growing both in South America and Asia, and also going forward I think that Africa will come.
ICEF Monitor: Any particular countries in Africa that are on your radar right now?
Anders Ahlund: We have for many years been working with Nigeria, for example, and that is a market that will continue to grow.
ICEF Monitor: EF has quite a vast network not only in terms of students and schools but also in terms of agents, marketing campaigns, leads, applications, and of course down to enrolments. How do you manage that vast network? What kind of software does EF use?
Anders Ahlund: We had to take the decision in the early 90’ to actually develop our own software. We couldn’t find anything on the market off the shelf that could work for us. We have so many different type of programmes, we have individual students, we have groups, long-term programmes, short-term programmes, and we really needed an integrated system that could take care of sales, marketing, CRM operations, administration, and we simply had to develop our own programme. We have today 700 people working in Bangalore only developing our software for administration.
ICEF Monitor: That is quite a huge investment in software, do you license that to others?
Anders Ahlund: We don’t.
ICEF Monitor: Why not?
Anders Ahlund: It’s a very important part of our business, we could not give that out to other companies.
Part 2: EF Standard English Test
In our second and final interview segment below, Mr Ahlund introduces an important new initiative for the company: the EF Standard English Test (EFSET), a proprietary language test designed to allow students to more frequently test their progress and to receive results right away. “EFSET is a tool to improve students’ learning,” he says. “So it is more a complement at the moment, rather than a replacement of the established language tests.”
EFSET plays a part as well in the annual EF English Proficiency Index, a global ranking of English skills across 63 countries and territories. Millions of people are tested worldwide during the EPI process each year and the EFSET will be the standard test used for the EPI going forward.
The EFSET course is delivered online and reflects in part the important role of online learning in EF programmes. The company now provides tools to allow parents to better track the progress of their students online, and increasingly emphasises blended learning where students combine online learning with classroom instruction – to the extent that students in EF schools typically complete as much as 15% of their studies online.
ICEF Monitor: There is something new on the horizon for EF, you have just recently created an online test – the EF Standard English Test (EFSET). Tell us a bit about how that began?
Anders Ahlund: That is a project that has been going on for several years and the more students we have studying with us and with others online, the bigger need there is to more frequently and instantly test your progress. The tests on the markets are not accessible, at least not 24/7, and they are quite expensive. So we decided to invest quite a lot of money to help the students to test themselves, so that they know that they are on track, and that will actually be a very strong tool to improve their learning.
ICEF Monitor: So that’s the benefit for students. What’s in it for EF?
Anders Ahlund: The benefit for EF is that it’s very good for the brand, obviously, and it does open a lot of doors, and we are simply expanding our network. We are offering this test to universities, to governments, etc. There are some benefits for us as well.
ICEF Monitor: There are a number of big players of course in the exam industry. Why would a student take the EFSET over something that is more well know, such as TOEFL or Cambridge?
Anders Ahlund: As I said the test is available 24/7 and it does not cost anything. We never give out the answers, so that they can retake the tests as often as they want, and they will be able to see exactly how fast they are learning, and where they need to improve. So there are benefits.
ICEF Monitor: How will you go about establishing the exam in the market place?
Anders Ahlund: Don’t forget that we have several million students studying with us every year both online and offline, so obviously we are using this test in-house. But we also have the English Proficiency Index, that we are working with every year, so that we also test externally millions of people, and the EFSET test will be the standard test we are using.
ICEF Monitor: Let’s go back to software what kind of software platform is the EFSET being used on?
Anders Ahlund: That’s an open source technology, it’s Vertex and Casandra that we are mainly using, but there is also this Elasticsearch software that we are using. And that enables us to deliver this test worldwide to millions at the same time.
ICEF Monitor: And in testing of course it’s always a concern about cheating and making sure you can verify the identity of the test taker, biometrics are used, keystroke analyses. How is that being used with EFSET?
Anders Ahlund: At the moment EFSET is mainly developed to be a tool for the students in their learning process and therefore it is in the students’ own interest not to cheat. Because then why even take the test? But in the future, of course, we have the possibility with 500 offices in 50 countries to have a setup where we could do this in a very secure environment as well. But at the moment this is a test for the students with their own responsibility used in the best possible way.
ICEF Monitor: And the test is a real big step into the online world. Of course we are seeing more and more providers that are moving into online learning, agents are seeing an interest from students certainly for online learning. What kinds of reactions have you had for the online test so far?
Anders Ahlund: It has only been positive. The more we can offer to the students that is added value at no cost, is just positive. Agents are very positive, government offices are very positive, so it’s only good.
ICEF Monitor: Which governments are you working with to try to establish the EFSET?
Anders Ahlund: We are working in several countries in Middle East but also in South America.
ICEF Monitor: And how will the exam evolve over time?
Anders Ahlund: There will be some changes to the test over time. We are already working on adding two more components to make it a little bit more complete, and who knows down the road maybe we will do the secure environment as well.
ICEF Monitor: Students we know are embracing technology are very passion about it, so we can imagine they will be very comfortable taking the EFSET online. But parents, agents perhaps are not embracing online as readily or they are just a little bit hesitant about it these days. How do you find that kind of reaction?
Anders Ahlund: It’s true, the older generation is probably a little bit slower moving but the students themselves they are pushing this through, so I don’t see any risk that it will not move in the direction that we believe will happen. I know that many parents are maybe more concern about online courses rather than online testing. What we have tried to develop there is a special page for the parents where they can actually follow their student’s attendance online, progress online, and really see how the student is learning. And that is more than they can actually do offline. So I think we are developing tools for the parents to be more comfortable and secure with their children studying online.
ICEF Monitor: So EF is then moving a bit more into the online world in the future?
Anders Ahlund: I think we have taken many steps in the last couple of years and of course it will move that way and I don’t think it’s either or. We see this as a compliment you maybe start online and then you maybe go to a local language school and then eventually go abroad and you study in the county where the language is spoken. And also our offline courses have a component that is online as well. We are, I will say, the only school at the moment offering a fully integrated blended learning system that has some 15% online components in the curriculum when you go to an offline school abroad.
ICEF Monitor: So they start online and then move into a face-to-face?
Anders Ahlund: Many students, not all students, but many students start with an online course and then eventually they go abroad and study the language.