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Anytime, anywhere: How online and mobile technologies are transforming language learning

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Traditional modes of language teaching and learning are increasingly offered in the context of the expanding use of technology in and around language classrooms
  • Options range from new apps and services that provide new opportunities for self-directed study to an expansion of online programmes offered by traditional providers to new tech-based curriculum services

This article is adapted and reprinted with permission from the 2016 edition of ICEF Insights magazine. The complete issue is available to download now.

Language travel remains a dynamic and growing market. Nearly 2.3 million students went abroad for language study in 2014, and many of these students did so as a foundation for further study overseas.

At the same time, many traditional sending markets are investing heavily in language teaching within their domestic education systems, meaning that additional students have an opportunity to develop greater proficiency without (or at least prior to) going abroad. Moreover, growing numbers of students are using online resources for language study, everything from free YouTube tutorials to MOOCs to paid online services offered by industry stalwarts such as Rosetta Stone. These trends are spurring the proliferation of language apps and leading some traditional language schools to enhance their offerings using online technologies.

Language schools are tapping into tech-enabled language learning in a variety of ways. Some schools offer online courses for inbound students or follow-up training for alumni. Others provide standalone courses online that may or may not be directly linked to face-to-face programmes abroad. And still others are finding entirely new business models built around technology-enabled language teaching.

These new models and experiments create a dynamic between traditional and emerging forms of delivering language learning that will play an important role in shaping demand for study abroad in the years ahead.

It’s in your pocket

With a reported 150 million users and an active user base of 30 million students per month, the language learning app Duolingo is the most downloaded education app for both Apple and Android devices. While education apps represent only about 5% of global iOS downloads, the category is a lively one, with year-over-year growth of 13% through the second quarter of 2016.

Even against that backdrop, the adoption rate for Duolingo is particularly impressive. Launched in 2012, the company has raised more than US$80 million in venture financing to date and claims not to have spent any of it on marketing. Rather, the company attributes its phenomenal growth curve to a highly engaging, gamified approach – all underpinned by clever machine learning technology – and to the tremendous word-of-mouth promotion the app has received.

Students can use Duolingo to study multiple languages, with the options varying according to the user’s native language. Most students on the service are using it to learn English, but English speakers can use it to study Spanish, French, and 14 additional European languages.

The industry-tracking service App Annie reports that the number of Duolingo users in markets such as Brazil and Ukraine is roughly equivalent to the population of students enrolled in high school or university foreign-language courses in each country.

App Annie’s vice-president of marketing communications, Fabien Pierre-Nicolas, said in a recent interview with Forbes that “In some countries … we’re seeing that around 5% of the total smartphone population is using Duolingo. For the sake of comparison, about 10% of smartphone users in the US are playing Pokémon Go right now, and everyone is talking about it.”

School is still in

Although a service like Duolingo comes from the tech industry, there are many examples of interesting technology-enabled options being introduced by institutions or schools.

The UK-based online provider Epigeum, for example, offers a fully online English for Academic Studies programme developed in collaboration with 25 higher education institutions in Australia, the UK, and seven other countries.

In Peru, the El Sol Escuela de Español has spun out an entirely separate sister school on the web. El Sol focuses mainly on teaching Spanish to international students who come to Peru for an immersion experience. But the online school – Web Spanish – has developed into a distinct business over the past 10 years with its own brand, curriculum, teaching staff, and clientele. “It’s a different kind of instruction and we teach people differently than we do in the classroom,” says owner Alan La Rue. “Even so, I thought initially it would be the same client base, but in practice it hasn’t worked out that way. In fact, we’re attracting an older clientele [online] who live mostly in the United States.”

Perhaps one of the more innovative uses of technology by an established language school is from Vancouver-based Canadian College of English Language. Educators there began working on some initial computer-based course material in 2011, leading to a three-month pilot of CCEL’s first “paperless classroom.” The trial proved so popular that it expanded to a more wholesale adoption of technology-based learning throughout the school. It also led, in 2012, to the development of a standalone language curriculum and learning system called Smrt English that’s now being licensed to partner institutions in Mexico, Brazil, China, and Saudi Arabia.

Nearly 90,000 students now use Smrt English across 170 institutions, and the service has taken shape as a blended learning platform that allows students to combine in-class instruction with independent study outside of school hours. The combination has proven to be extremely popular and also highly effective: on average, Smrt English students progress through the English curriculum about 25% faster than those who pursue in-class studies alone. “Many students have prior experience with language learning and technology via apps or other online services,” says Smrt CMO Zach Taylor in explaining the appeal for students. “And fundamentally, students are heavily engaged with technology anyway.”

Building on that affinity for all things tech, the service is now poised for more international expansion. “We don’t want to change how teachers teach,” says Mr Taylor. “But we want to change the culture around English learning by engaging students and teachers in a much more effective way and at a much earlier age. Students should not be at a beginner level [of English] in high school or university. They should be ready for much bigger things.”

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