The future of language schools?

24 Nov

While strolling gently through the internet this morning I caught a glimpse of the possibly chilling future of language schools.  And we were defunct.  Shabbily dressed individuals hanging around outside railway stations bearing signs reading “Will teach for food”.  Or worse,  hanging around outside playgrounds and shopping malls targetting the teenagers as they come past:

“Conditionals man, you need conditionals?  I got em right here.  What d’you want?  first, second third?  I got mixed, but they’ll cost you.”

“Hey!  Don’t go getting stuff from him!  He don’t know his pluperfect subjunctive from his past participle!  I got what you need – words man!  Thousands of them!  I’ll do you a deal – ten for a euro?  How’s that? No good?  How about fifty for a euro?”

“You leave him alone.  I’m talking here.  At least I know my third person agreement!”

At this point the scene degenerates into a scuffle and the shocked children run off wailing before the police arrive.

So why this scene of gloom and doom for the language school?

I suspect that as a business model, it’s time has come for a number of reasons.

(1)  Let’s face it – the teaching that occurs in the state sector, which the private language school essentially supplements, has improved dramatically over the years to a point where there is little differentiation of teaching materials and teaching practices between the state and private sectors.

(2)  Access to English language media has improved.  It’s not uncommon to talk to people with little formal language training but who have an extensive vocabulary and relatively strong grammar skills, purely because of their interactions with film, television, music and everything they find on the internet.  For academics, whose key publications are often in English, their working knowledge of the language is quite advanced.

(3)  Costs.  Language schools can be prohibitively expensive to run.  There are the teachers’ salaries, associated tax and social security payments, ancillary staff in administrative, sales and marketing positions.  Light, heat, water etc….   it all adds up.  And these costs then have to be represented in the price that is charged to the customer – the students.    Which makes it an expensive business, learning a language.  And if it can be done cheaper…?

(4)  The rise of online learning systems.  Which is where it can be done cheaper.  The systems are now in place, and are sufficiently reliable, that there is no real need for the learner to enter the physical building of the language school.  Even face to face time, that much vaunted ace in the hole of the real world, can be reproduced electronically with video conferencing.  Skype lessons anyone?

(5)  Language schools are the middle men.  This was the point that occurred to me this morning:  language schools essentially provide the interface between the materials producers and the materials consumers.  John and Liz Soars write their latest Headway book, CUP print it and distribute it, the school buys it and I teach it to my class.  Why?  Only because this has been the traditional model thus far and no-one’s come up with a better alternative.  Yet.

My prediction is the gradual death of the language school and rising costs and falling student numbers conspire to close us down.  Language teaching will continue as it ever has, but the model of the private language school will alas be no more.  The giant brands in the world of EFL will develop and maintain online educational platforms (most of them are already nearly there).  The publishers will employ the teachers directly to mediate the lessons in their online environments and will supply the materials directly to the learners, thus finally cutting out the middle men.  And we’ll all be out of a job.

See you down by the train station!


31 Responses to “The future of language schools?”

  1. Brad Patterson Monday 28 November 2011 at 13:43 #

    Hi David-

    “Conditionals, man… I got em right, here” LOL

    I agree that there is quite a bit of change ahead, but I see 2 points differently. First, I think you’re right to point to the internet, though I’m not sure that the future lies in the hands of traditional publishers or EFL biggies for these reasons:

    1) They are likely to stay stuck in a costly traditional model of production of materials, sales of materials and pricing models (specifically traditional pricing models have been very ineffective online where free, fremium etc still rule).

    2) New actors in the scene will be ready to take bigger risks and will not have the huge overhead of these traditional actors. This trend has been apparent in the larger Education scene the past 3 or 4 years and I’m guessing there’ll be quite a bit of similar movement within ELT.

    More than anything, I just don’t see these traditional actors making the pivot necessary to succeed as they’re too invested in the old distribution model. It’s the same story as the encyclopedia… it was dominated by the Encyclopedia Britannica for a century, then Microsoft Encarta blew it out of the water with CD-roms and then wikipedia came along and replaced Microsoft’s model. Wikipedia has very little overhead because it’s been crowd-sourced. Who’s to say something like this won’t happen for ELT ?

    In a similar vein, virtual on-line schools have very little overheard for the same reasons.
    Lastly, I don’t think we’ll be out of a job for long… I think physical language schools might feel the change most abruptly, but the demand for quality English instruction is only going to grow… and that being said, for the adaptable among us there’s quite a bit of opportunity, I’d say.

    Whaddya think ? cheers, brad

  2. annforeman Wednesday 30 November 2011 at 12:14 #

    Hi David,

    Your post has got me wondering about whether I should be rejigging my CV. Also thought that many other teachers would be interested in it so I’ve just posted a link to it on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check there for comments.

    Please feel free to post on the page whenever you have anything you’d like to share.



  3. Andrew Wednesday 30 November 2011 at 19:11 #

    I agree – and disagree. Every regional government in Spain (there are 19, talk about over-egging the pudding and wasting money hand over fist, but that’s for another article…) is desperately scrabbling to get to the top of the tree and claim that their bi/trilingual teaching model is the best. Our CLIL is better than yours, yah boo sucks. We do five hours a week, you only do four. Yes to Cambridge ESOL exams here, a round NO to them in the next province.
    The teaching of English in schools WILL improve once the new generation of multilingual, multicultural, greatly-travelled teachers make their way through the system and the diehard traditionalists retire. And eventually parents of schoolchildren will themselves be English speakers (at the moment that plaudit is claimed by only 17% of the adult pouplation) and they and, who knows, perhaps politicians, will become positive role models. The closed shop of the dubbing industry seems unbreakable, but maybe eventually people will click that “Versión Original” button on their TV remote and leave it there to watch TV series in original version. In time there may be a demand for original version films at the cinema, too.
    However for the foreseeable future, the only way good English pronunciation can be taught – or the pronunciation of any language for that matter – is with the presence and the regular correction of an experienced, knowledgeable native speaker. And that means language schools, be they real or online. It’s lack of confidence in pronunciation that is holding back the vast majority of potential Engllish speakers in Spain – witness the straight faced assertion of “intermediate level English” on a German CV and a Spanish one. Only one of the two can actually speak English – at the moment.

  4. Irene Vlazaki Wednesday 30 November 2011 at 21:28 #

    Hi David,
    I have found your entry through a facebook link and must admit it has put me into a lot of thought namely because of all this vivid imagery you used to describe the future teacher.
    I work and live in Greece where digital literacy especially among teachers is in its very first steps. I have a working experience in both public and private sector so that counts for both. However, ELT level is high and Greek students are rather fluent in English.
    The truth is that technology has offered a number of miraculous applications. They are absolutely wonderful, they open new perspectives and they are free!!
    This is a qualitative change without a precedent in language teaching.
    On the other hand, when I reflect on my most successful lessons the thing that made the difference was the inspiration I shared with my students, a special bond, a different look in their eye, a silent moment, some kind of chemistry. You cant have all these without physical presence (at least for the time being). When technology manages to cover those areas as well (I’m not suggesting it’s impossible) then it will be the time to fully substitute language schools. Maybe I sound like “the ghost past” but afterall it served as the stepping stone for the “ghost future”. In short, I wouldn’t worry… unless we are all turned into robots.

  5. David Petrie Wednesday 30 November 2011 at 23:07 #

    A number of people have commented on this post via links and shares on facebook – I just thought I’d collate them here, just so no-one gets left out of the debate! If anyone listed below would prefer their comment removed – let me know (either by facebook or by submitting a comment via the “About” section on this blog).

    Keith Ho
    point 1 is misleading. it may be true that ‘there is little differentiation of teaching materials and teaching practices between the state and private sectors’, but in 90% of the countries of the world there are very few public school systems that can match the quality of even an average private school. and he concludes that teachers will all be out of work, which won’t happen. people will still teach English; they just won’t have to put on trousers to do it.

    Connor O’Donoghue
    I think it’s true of many places, but I think we’re fine in Dublin. In fact, I think private language schools in English-speaking countries will get stronger as people become even more mobile. I also think that there are years and years of growth left in the developing world. But if you’re unlucky enough to be stuck in Europe, I’d say you’ve only got about 40 years.

    Robert McKinnon-Szabó
    I think it´s just going to get more specialised – business English, academic support English, English for scientific research, English for hospitality and service industry etc. Everything will have to be quantitatively measured and that which provides too little benefit will be cut.

    Shamsu Mohd
    No i didn’t agree whith him.

    Karenne Sylvester
    LOL.. the thought you Ann Foreman rejigging your CV :D, great post

    EFL SMARTblog
    Very interesting read. I think students like to have the social aspects of being in a physical class and that’s the main thing schools have going for them. However I do think smaller language schools will have to take on more of an online presence to survive. And as for the publishers… what about all the massive wealth of free EFL materials there are on the net? Why bother with coursebooks at all now? There is so much IELTS and FCE stuff around you can quite easily plan a course with no books…. We may be cutting out the middle man in many areas…

    Jerry Groome
    Utter, utter rubbish.

    Sophia Khan
    Its true of course that digital and online media are changing language learning, and true that language learners now have access to virtually limitless, authentic materials perfectly attuned to their own interests. I think we can certainly expect fewer students in the classroom, at least in the private sector, if this isn’t evident already. And it’s true that premises are expensive as well as, it seems, unnecessary. But it’s like ebooks or music sharing- you just need to carve out another way of doing things. Contrary to the article there are alternatives to the traditional textbook teaching method out there, eg check out, this ‘school’ is global, personal and works through Facebook, Skype and simply using the local environment – and teachers do still have a place. Sure the “giant brands of EFL” (ie publishers) can develop (and have already developed) their online platforms, but this is truly tying you into one book and one way of doing things. Fine if you want to take traditional textbook teaching into the digital era, but this change is essentially superficial. Technology is in the process of radicalizing how, when, where and WHAT we learn. I don’t believe teachers (guides) will ever become unnecessary when exploring new territory, but coursebooks certainly could. Long post, sorry, insomnia 🙂

    John Goodhew
    I spoke with my students about this. They told me that they enjoy the aspect of attending a language course, because it not only gives the opportunity to use English language but also gives them the chance to experiencing the culture too. So, I feel that schools will remain open.

    • Gina Stradwick Thursday 1 December 2011 at 05:32 #

      Yes, agree with John Goodhew. Students love the community life, the fun, the laughter. They also like getting their questions answered personally, in context.[ Same argument goes for shopping online or going to the mall]. A few students prefer to self study online but there will always be a need for social learning with peers. Maybe the fees will have to fall but the language school will continue for a long while yet.
      As will universities and other learning institutions,people are more than brains on legs.

      • TommyTommy Thursday 1 December 2011 at 17:50 #

        One of the exciting developments in recent years is that online learning is being made social. Moodle is a great example, but there are tons of tools that are free and easy for teachers to set up that foster groupwork and social learning and allow students to have access to good teaching remotely. Self-study tools have been around for a long time, but the future of online learning will go a lot farther and allow for a lot of the elements of good classroom teaching to be delivered to people that aren’t served by language schools.

        Online learning doesn’t have wide acceptance yet, but if I were running a language school, I would take steps to create a good social-based e-learning platform to supplement face-to-face lessons. It would certainly be sound pedagogically and most likely good for business in the long run.

  6. LouiseAlix Thursday 1 December 2011 at 09:47 #

    Brilliantly written piece of creative writing! The creative thinking behind it is also very interesting. I work in the Netherlands where children are exposed to English on a daily basis (media + school) and we have pretty high standards: but to say that the state sector (English is taught at primary and secondary over here) has improved so dramatically is, I feel, a gross over-generalisation (for our specific situation). Over here the course books seem to still be regarded as the holy books and, although the younger teachers are bringing in new didactics (whilst still faithful disciples of course books), there has been a noticeable drop in exam standards and rise in private tutors. I think there’s still a place for language schools and tutors but would actually be very pleased if the need for them was reduced as it would mean that state education had fully achieved its goals!

  7. Stephen Greene Sunday 4 December 2011 at 23:27 #

    A great, thought-provoking post. I have two main comments to make. The first, as other people have already mentioned, is that in many countries there is still a large disparity between the public and private sectors, and that is certainly the case here in Brazil. Those who can afford it send their kids to pretty good schools and have English classes afterwards as well. By the time they are in their early 20’s they have a very good command of the language and so don’t need language schools anymore. For poorer people, however, there is stil a need for private language schools, the problem is that they cannot afford the better ones.

    My second point is related in that the people who are able to exploit the opportunities offered by the internet tend to be those who are better off as they have computers and faster broadband connections. There is a danger that the digital divide will only increase the problems I mentioned in my first point.

  8. David Petrie Tuesday 6 December 2011 at 12:22 #

    Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to comment on this post – it’s taken a bit of time to collate all the comments from the various facebook shares and pages, but I will respond to all your points just as soon as I get the chance!


  9. Lee Thursday 29 December 2011 at 22:22 #

    Interesting article and comments. I have been looking at TEFL as a possible career which will enable me to work abroad. If this is not going to be the way it is run, and it becomes primarily taught by people using video conferencing and such, I am really thinking about ditching the idea.

  10. Lee Thursday 29 December 2011 at 23:00 #

    Going to physical classes does seem to be very much ingrained. I think we are talking more about cultural change than technological change for it to be supplanted by online learning. At home or wherever the learner is logged on there may be many distractions which are not present in a physical class. A halfway step could be organised physical groups of learners who communicate with their teacher online. There is also the cultural exchange element of TEFL which may keep up a trend for people physically going abroad. One can watch a live concert or sport on TV, but it is not the same as physically being there. Of course, education is mainly about learning information, not atmosphere. The technology to switch most classes, not just TEFL, to being online has arguably already existed for a number of years. The internet should have replaced TV, which should have replaced radio, which should have replaced newspapers. They all still exist. Just my bundle o’thoughts. It will be interesting to see how this plays out…

  11. Lee Friday 30 December 2011 at 16:18 #

    I think, quite seriously, a major aspect of the way TEFL teaching work has long been promoted, certainly in my experience, is as an opportunity to work abroad, and not just as an incidental bonus but as an essential part of the experience. If the work no longer involves this, by and large, I think we will see a drop in the number of people wanting to do it, particularly in the 20s and 30s age group.

  12. Lee Monday 2 January 2012 at 11:14 #

    A point which is often overlooked in this kind of discussion is that the traditional argument in favour of online education can be reversed. If a school is in an area which is densely populated and has a large potential market, it is easy enough to run physical classes. Having classes online could be said to be unnecessary, like texting the person sitting next to you. Of course school costs money, but it also makes money, and jobs. The other point often made is that online enables many more people to be taught at one time. Yet any kind of teaching involves one on one time for each student, and any teacher only has a finite amount of time. Online education is brilliant and will doubtless enjoy a boom, but I don’t believe it will replace onsite.

  13. Leo Saturday 3 March 2012 at 12:43 #

    Enjoyed reading the post and the comments that followed.
    Wasn’t it OUP that published Headway though? 😉

  14. phil3wade Sunday 4 March 2012 at 11:10 #

    It deserves many of them right. They got fat from ripping students off. Education should be about helping people not cheating them. They also haven’t moved with the times and paid teachers far too little. Crowd sourcing is the future I’m sure. Get together with some teacher friends, set up a website and offer your united services and split the money. You can charge more and you will get more but it will still be cheaper than what schools charge. I’d be interested in trying this for writing or online work if anyone is interested.

    After all, the only benefits of working for schools are almost obselete:
    1)They have work-Nowadays, maybe not
    2)They organise courses and materials-Now, some don’t or you do Dogme/devise your own
    3)They do the pay stuff-Now we’re all freelancers so still need to do invoicing
    4)They provide good support and training-Often the bosses have less qualifications than the staff and training is poor and unpaid.

    The sky could be the limit with the right people. They could teach online, write books (for publishers and self-published), start a journal, set up an innovative online development TESOL group etc.

    The only problems I can see are how to divide up work and payments.

    • David Petrie Sunday 4 March 2012 at 16:49 #

      Hi Phil,
      I’ll be honest, I think what you say needs some qualification! I can’t say that I’ve worked for any language schools that have got fat, or for any that I think have ripped off the students. Like any industry I think there’s a certain amount of product and brand differentiation and that ultimately, you should get what you pay for. I think there’s a problem with “unwarranted reputation” – schools that brand themselves or market themselves as “quality education providers” where the standard of teaching is no different from elsewhere – but business is a Darwinian process – if people don’t think the product is worth what you charge, they won’t buy it!
      My current employers meet all four of your criteria – they have the work, they organise the courses etc, they do the pay stuff (and don’t, in my view, pay “too little” – but then that is an adjustable concept at the best of times) and they provide good support and training. So I don’t see that faith in language schools is misplaced – my argument was more that the model of the language education is likely to change dramatically, and in the long run, there may be no place for the language school. Though plenty of people have disagreed with me on this!
      You mentioned the idea of a collective – there’s a group on facebook called the English teachers Collective – though I don’t know who they are or how they’re organised – might be worth checking out though:
      Also – on the publishing / writing front – have you come across “The Round”?

      Thanks for commenting,

  15. phil3wade Sunday 4 March 2012 at 18:27 #

    Yes. I was referring to the big ‘education providers’ with franchises and overseas schools. The quality differs greatly and I remember one marketing section just said “we spend most of the tuition on marketing as we have no repeat customers”. The school’s ethos was ‘party party’.

    Sounds like a great place to work.

    Over the years I’ve seen corporate sections disappear, ‘language/travel’ ones too, a lot of middle management jobs go and then all the uni prep courses come in. But now you can either just go to uni or do a prep year in your own country and some schools as so expensive it’s cheaper to do a diploma or MA course in English to get a real qualification and extra English classes.

    I don’t really see what USP language schools have anymore in the UK except for rich kids sent away for a year or kids who really failed to get into uni because of their bad English. While language schools abroad range from being after school homework clubs/extra classes to providing inhouse business courses. In the past they were places for EFL exam prep and to take the tests but now most unis do it all so all that’s left is kids and business. Or am I wrong?

    Yes I think those 2 initiatives are a step in the right direction.

    Cheers David.

    • Lee Thursday 5 July 2012 at 09:58 #

      I’m planning to study TEFL in summer 2013. I think there is enough mileage in onsite classes for a while yet, although online teaching may be an interesting avenue to explore. I don’t think its necessarily a case of either/or…

      • Lee Wednesday 11 July 2012 at 15:46 #

        I’ve never really been convinced by the whole “computers/robots/AIs/internet will take over our lives and our jobs” arguments in the first place…

      • David Petrie Friday 13 July 2012 at 16:59 #

        Hi Lee,
        You’re right of course – it’s not all doom and gloom for face-to-face tefl! I would recommend getting to grips with some of the blended learning options though – it could be useful! Good luck with your tefl study plans – what & where are you planning to study?
        All the best,

  16. Lee Sunday 16 September 2012 at 19:19 #

    Hi David. Thanks for your good wishes. Possibly the Cactus TEFL at Sheffield University. Do you know much about it? Yeah, blended learning is effective, with students able to cut down on campus time whilst maintaining some face to face contact. Even if TEFL does end up largely online based there are other ways of living and working abroad…though you have to look carefully at exactly what the arrangements are. But yeah I’m keen on pursuing TEFL course and work.

    • David Petrie Monday 1 October 2012 at 16:23 #

      Hi Lee,
      I don’t know much about Cactus TEFL, but a quick look at their website and course content profile makes me a bit wary. It doesn’t include any actual teaching practice and it won’t provide you with a widely recognised qualification – just a course certificate.
      I think if you’re serious about getting an ELT qualification, you should look into CELTA courses which I know take a lot longer and are a LOT more expensive, but are much more widely accepted around the world.
      This is only my personal opinion, but I probably wouldn’t hire someone with a Cactus TEFL certificate – at least not based on the course description I read.
      All the best,

  17. Lee Friday 14 December 2012 at 19:31 #

    Thanks Dave. Of course the more professional and encompassing version of the course is worthwhile. I got thinking of this thread again when I read an old Asimov story called “The Fun They Had”. The future Asimov postulates is rather different from the online education which is developing, with children being educated alone by robots, rather than the human interactivity offered by online tools like skype. Plus no one yet seriously suggests swapping our primary schools for a home PC based system. However, we already have huge problems in our society with social isolation, internet addiction and obesity. I think all those and more will be exacerbated if online education takes over entirely. Only a fool would suggest reverting to pre-internet style learning (I’m saying this in an online discussion!) and I have gone a long way down one particular point of your article, but I think we as a society at this point need to think about what to change and what is best left alone.


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