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13th Dec 2017

How language schools are integrating online with traditional delivery

The age of online learning is well underway. Enrolment in the burgeoning field of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has nearly tripled since 2014, and this growth curve has been helped along by the fact that some of the world’s leading universities are rapidly expanding their online offerings. The increasing participation of these elite education brands, global adoption of mobile technologies, and improving tools and practices for online learning have all had a profound impact on how both students and parents look at the virtual classroom. Like everything else in their on-demand, always-connected lives, students now expect to be able to access educational programmes where, when, and how they want them. And in a recent global survey, 60% of responding parents said they would consider online programmes if they offered substantial savings over traditional, campus-based options. Just as digital learning is reshaping traditional modes of higher education, new technologies are also making their presence felt in language teaching. Established language schools are responding by bringing digital resources into their classrooms, opening sister schools online, or even spinning off new businesses to sell digital curricula or other “ed tech” products.

The hybrid classroom

For some providers, the answer lies in creating online language courses that are closely linked to traditional face-to-face programmes. “We generally see a big gap between when a student applies and when they arrive to begin their studies,” says CultureWorks vice-president academic and Student Affairs Liz Johnson. “So we see online as a way for students to start studying earlier, in their home countries, and at a lower cost.” Along with Danielle Dilkes, an educational technology specialist, Ms Johnson led the development of the Online Gateway Program at CultureWorks, a private English-language training (ELT) provider with centres on four university campuses in Canada. The Gateway programme was first piloted in 2016, but only after a considerable research and development effort. “One mistake that people make is trying to deliver existing programmes online,” says Ms Dilkes. A teacher leading a live class session in CultureWorks’ Online Gateway Program. For CultureWorks, the business development process began with a decision to form a team and provide it with enough release time to thoroughly research the design and delivery issues associated with a new online programme. The team then built out an initial pilot programme working backwards from defined learning outcomes. The Gateway Program is delivered via a third-party learning management system licensed by CultureWorks, but all digital resources used in the course were developed in-house by school staff. By the time the pilot was underway with a group of Latin American students in 2016, the teaching team was coming to grips with several new challenges. For example, the Gateway Program relies on a combination of self-directed learning – for which students use on-demand lessons and resource materials for skills development – and teacher-led sessions, where the focus is on practice and consolidation of new language skills. But not all students transition smoothly to a model where the teacher is not always front and centre. “There are definitely some cultural issues in self-directed learning,” says Ms Dilkes. There are also practical issues in online delivery, such as how to schedule group sessions in cases where teachers and students are spread across multiple time zones. But perhaps the biggest surprise coming out of the pilot was that not all students who joined the course were intending to travel abroad for an immersion experience. For many in the pilot group, the Gateway Program was not so much a pathway to intensive study in Canada, but rather an opportunity to access a high-quality ELT programme in their home country – a consideration that may be especially relevant for students in smaller cities and towns where ELT provision is often more limited. In that sense, CultureWorks’ online course gives students a new option to pursue their English studies at home and with enough flexibility to accommodate work or family commitments. From the school’s point of view, the course has come to represent both a pathway to traditional immersion programmes in Canada and also a way to reach new groups of prospective students abroad. “The challenge,” adds Ms Johnson, “is to deliver a targeted experience to a wider variety of students, in terms of age, educational background, and family, study, or work demands.”

Making the connection to campus

EC English Language Centres had an experience similar to that of CultureWorks when they launched Fusion last year. Designed for students and young professionals who want to learn English but are either time or budget restricted, the Fusion model integrates online learning with an immersion experience abroad. Students initially study online in their own time – a period that also includes live sessions with EC teachers. “This allows students to experience the power of face-to-face teaching, but within a fully flexible and personalised framework in their home country,” says Fusion’s Fernanda Squarzoni. Next comes the immersion stage, when students travel abroad to study at an EC school. They then return to the online space and continue learning. “The experience is completely holistic,” says Ms Squarzoni. “Where the traditional study abroad experience is still vital, by harnessing advances in education technology, we are able to optimise its effectiveness. We’re seeing real advances in terms of both academic progress and student satisfaction.” Originally, Fusion was designed as a structured 12-week programme with a set two-week immersion period. But it became clear that a more flexible model was required that would allow students to study abroad for longer periods. “We now see Fusion as something truly flexible that can work around an in-person course of any length,” says Ms Squarzoni. “We really believe this will set a trend. Students are becoming more comfortable with online learning, but they also recognise that in-person courses have a huge part to play when it comes to achieving real fluency.”

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