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Can the ELT industry really switch to online? How has it been for you?

What is the scale of the opportunity to deliver online ELT programmes to a market that really wants face-to-face, cultural experiences abroad?

Like the rest of the UK, the ELT industry is in lockdown right now.

The buildings are quiet, the students remain overseas with their families. And revenues have dried up: not least because the most significant markets to the UK - China, Italy, Spain - were the first to be hit hard.

It’s a grim picture for the industry, with huge amounts of uncertainty about when things will open up again; when students will be able to travel (and which airlines will still be solvent enough to bring them). The truth is, no-one really knows where this will end. We’re all guessing the next steps and hoping for normality to return. And it may not...

But no crisis should go entirely to waste and the obvious opportunity here is for online teaching. In the short term, it may be the quickest of fixes, but will it be the most substantial?

There are obvious drawbacks - it’s not as immersive, doesn’t come with the travel experience, doesn’t build friendships and networks and none will look as fondly on their time learning online as they did on ‘that time they went to the UK’, but these are strange days indeed. And there are a number of upsides to a switch to online teaching.

It’s more cost-effective, for one thing - good online platforms can offer a decent user experience, tailored learning and automated assessments to far greater numbers of students. There’s no geographical limit to who you can recruit as a student, nor are you limited any longer to the number of students you can fit in your building. Your market is simply as far as your messaging will travel - can you still bring in those students who were lined up before the shutdown? And there’s also a wholly different market of time-poor students who even before all this kerfuffle couldn’t make the travel commitment, but who do want to learn.

Many schools will already be offering blended learning - mixing digital programmes with the real-life experience. They may have solid education platforms, packed with useful resources, automated assessment modules and diligent student performance tracking. Let’s assume you have. Is it enough? Can it fill the gap?

For the students, it’s very much a ‘maybe’. Studies on the efficacy of online learning tracked by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggest that the effectiveness of online programmes is made variable in the first instance by the students’ access to technology - where they can access computers and their degree of digital literacy.

But let’s assume they wouldn’t enrol unless they were confident. The statistics suggest that students perform better in online environments when the offering is blended. The evidence for online-only learning is weaker, though inconclusive. Although supporting it with digital nudges - texts, WhatsApp groups, emails and the like will have a beneficial effect.

So the educational outcome is largely benign, at worst. But ‘not perfect, but better than nothing’ is not a business model.

For the students, it removes a huge part of the experience and, while you may be able to save some costs or furlough staff, the majority of your capital and running costs will go on.

So going hard on digital may be the only short term way of slowing the bleed. There are two questions: are you ready… and is the market ready?

Only you can answer the first - whether your platforms, content, assessment and monitoring tools are up to scratch. Whether your team is Zoom-ready or adept at Microsoft Teams… That’s an iterative question. You may be ‘ready’, but user expectations of an audience who run their lives on apps and streaming services may set a higher bar than you are ready for. Your teams’ delivery may not be as slick as it can be.

But what else to do, but dive in?

Marketing digital offerings as a reasonable alternative to the face-to-face model isn’t an overwhelmingly positive message, especially as you may spend all of your time pre- and post-Covid-19 arguing the very opposite, but it may hit understanding audiences. The willingness to learn can overcome scepticism over the model. And you may have a pricing model already for online only - but it may have been created for the ‘time poor’, when you’re now aiming for people with more time than money.

Pricing remains tricky. Some schools are offering online only at the same rates as traditional offerings, and have managed to convert students from one to the other (though the rate of students dropping out remains uncertain for now), while others are going for stripped-down models, with suitably lower prices - a set of ten or more lessons, backed with one-to-one support via video platform. And, for some, access, to online materials for a period afterwards - three or six months, perhaps.

And where do agents fit in all this? As the route to market they retain a key role, but their ownership of those markets is likely to be reduced by the fact that digital allows for schools to go direct to market - for those willing to invest in their brand and marketing online. But for the moment, having agents explaining the switch to already recruited students will be the most optimistic route to their retention.

But how is it for you? Does an online offering give you hope that you can maintain sufficient revenues til the new normal becomes clear? Is the market therefore different; does the role of the agent fundamentally change? Everyone needs the revenues right now, but do you feel it’s realistic? What are your thoughts on how you’re positioned and how the market will adapt? Send us your thoughts, and we’ll pick up on the issues you raise in a series of pieces to come.