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22nd Apr 2015

The promise and challenge of technology in language learning

Many language schools are thinking about innovation these days. Innovation - in terms of programmes, student services, or any other aspect of the student experience - can be a basis for differentiating a school in a crowded marketplace. It can also be an important counter to the challenge of commoditisation in language learning. This is no small question for the industry, as the extent that competing schools are undifferentiated from one another tends to shift the competitive dynamic in the marketplace to push prices down over time. Evaluation & Accreditation of Quality in Language Services (Eaquals) is a leading international provider of monitoring services in the language education sector, with over 125 accredited members in 30 countries. And so it is perhaps not surprising that both sources and strategies for innovation were the subject of considerable discussion at the Eaquals International Conference in Malaga, Spain last week.

What we talk about when we talk about tech

The conference gave particular consideration to the role of technology in language learning, and the potential of technology as a source of innovation for schools. We have reported previously on the growing consumer demand for technology-enabled language learning - a market that is forecast to double its revenues to US$1.6 billion by 2018. Digital language learning is a broad category that includes:

  • Online learning, whether self-paced or collaborative;
  • Digital learning resources (e.g., e-textbooks, e-gradebooks, interactive media);
  • Mobile learning apps, including educational games and other mobile services.

The ways in which language schools can apply any of these technologies are equally broad. For example, a school may choose to offer online learning, whether as a stand-alone programme for remote students, as a complement to classroom instruction for students on site, or a tool to use before or after studying abroad. Additionally, a school may choose to provide mobile devices or mobile apps to allow students greater opportunity for independent study outside of class time. Teachers may bring technology into the classroom in the form of new teaching tools, such as interactive whiteboards or computer-based assessments, and more.

The benefits of e-learning

Aside from its strategic significance to the school, technology holds great promise for students as well. It can support more independent and personalised learning, and, in the best case, allow students to accomplish more and progress faster in their studies. The rationale for adopting technology at a classroom or school level is therefore fairly straightforward:

  • It responds to consumer demand;
  • Improves student performance;
  • Extends what teachers can accomplish in the classroom;
  • Conveys a certain sophistication and cutting-edge flair for the school’s language programmes.

In short: it boosts the competitive edge of the language centre, helps to differentiate its programmes and services, and, in so doing, ultimately helps to attract and retain more students. This competitive advantage is being further enabled by various standards for the use of technology in schools, including accreditation models for online learning programmes, that are beginning to grow up around the burgeoning consumer demand for digital language learning. Eaquals, for example, regularly reviews and updates their accreditation scheme to ensure it remains fit for purpose, and they have recently developed a new set of quality indicators for online language programmes in response to the increasing use of learning technologies in language schools. We caught up with Sarah Aitken, Eaquals Executive Director, who explained, "As the use of IT becomes mainstream in language education, Eaquals accreditation will be able to continue to apply a principled approach to evaluating and supporting quality across our member centres. Eaquals Quality Standards are already designed to be relevant in all educational contexts and the ability to accredit new types of language teaching institutions will support our growth strategy as well as keep Eaquals at the forefront of innovation in our sector." Eaquals members have been increasingly engaged with issues raised by the use of handheld IT devices in language learning and are grappling with issues such as how to direct resources to e-learning and how the technology will be used both in and out of the classroom. Eaquals wants to ensure that their accreditation scheme covers all academic activities within their current member language centres, focusing on the quality of course delivery and the learner experience. The newly updated Eaquals Quality Standards apply to online course delivery models as well as "traditional" models. A working group is refining practical inspection procedures and producing guidance documents for applicants and inspectors, and a full launch of the scheme is expected later later this year.

Not so fast

Such quality measures to recognise, develop, and reward good practice in online learning will prove vital as the industry evolves, particularly as educators face challenges when implementing e-learning. Scott Thornbury's seminar at the Eaquals conference looked at the other side of the potential in e-learning. A celebrated author and associate professor in the Master of Arts in TESOL at The New School in New York, Mr Thornbury outlined the common challenges that schools encounter when adopting new technologies. These include the following:

  • Variability in hardware and software, including access to devices as well as the Internet, used by both teachers and students;
  • Administrative challenges with respect to students forgetting to bring devices, losing passwords, requiring tech support, etc.;
  • Mixed levels of enthusiasm and expectations from stakeholders, management, and teachers;
  • Variable motivation of teachers to adopt new tools or processes in the classroom;
  • Lack of training for teachers in the use of technology in their teaching;
  • Issues around motivating learners (e.g., to follow a self-paced online lesson or adopt a new mobile app);
  • Extremely competitive and congested marketplace, with adoptions and teaching practices varying considerably from school to school or even class to class.

Other speakers argued that schools tend to set their expectations too high in terms of what technology can accomplish. Then, when things don’t go as planned, there is a tendency to think that “digital doesn’t work” and technology becomes a scapegoat for other problems a school may have. Ultimately, the key to more reasonable expectations and an effective tech adoption, say experts, is to have a plan.

Strategy first

In other words, a clear digital strategy is essential when integrating technology into learning. You must consider:

  • How will expanded adoption of learning technology fit into your strategic plan?
  • What material will be online as opposed to in books and/or delivered face to face?
  • Will you use online services, mobile devices, or other technology tools?
  • How will you promote any new technology adoptions or features in your marketing materials?
  • Will you use material from a publisher or will you create your own e-library? (The former providing convenience and up-to-date coursework, the latter distinguishing you from the competition, boosting your profile, and perhaps offering you a revenue stream should you decide to license it.)

These are just some of the key questions to be asked, and underlying them all is a goal of purposeful innovation - that is, innovation with sound business goals that has a chance to create or reinforce some competitive advantage. As Michael Carrier, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Cambridge English, put it at the conference, “Innovation must be connected to the value proposition. It must be connected to the value for the customer and for the business in terms of revenue generation.”

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