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Keep it human: If going digital is to be long term, keep the personal touch

Forgive the language, in the current circumstances, but it’s pretty much adapt or die in the ELT industry.

The coronavirus pandemic has, and will continue to, caused huge damage to the industry. Slumps in income will inevitably lead to closures - those who survive will, most likely, be the ones who find a variety of revenue streams.

One strand of that, which has the potential to be both an immediate and a long term response, is to go much deeper into digital markets.

For struggling businesses, time is short, and leadership is required to pull together a persuasive online package. Some students may look to the pure-play digital and app providers like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone and take the quick and cheap route. And then you’ve lost them.

You can, of course, do better than those options. You have content, teachers, assessment skills and all the other educational components of a successful ‘real-life’ course. Transferring those to the digital arena may be a bit rough and ready at first, whether you already have a bespoke learning platform or are learning to get by on Microsoft Teams, but don’t go thinking that you need to be perfect. There is no ideal model for online delivery. We’re in the foothills of how this is best delivered with not enough data on educational effectiveness yet available. Nor, indeed, any settled definition of what ‘effective’ is. If you’re replacing a ‘real life’ experience like travelling to another country to learn a language with simply language learning, then what on earth do you measure to compare the two?

So while there is no ‘perfect’ that we can all recognise, everyone will have an idea of what terrible looks like - bad experiences travel online, on review sites and blogs and via social media. Avoiding that reputational damage is key. To avoid that, there are some principles to bear in mind which will help embed digital as a long term answer. They are almost contextual principles - the little things that remind you to put the user first. No matter how much your organisation is in an existential crisis right now, the way out of this mess is via your students.

So bear these in mind:

Digital equity - it’s not a level playing field

If you’re teaching students from a variety of locations and backgrounds, especially in economically straitened times, then remember there are likely to be differences in the quality of access to technologies. Some may be in situations with poor digital infrastructure and be struggling for decent hardware that’s not shared with the rest of the family, or battling for bandwidth amongst a family all trying to watch Netflix in a lockdown. In situations like that, synchronous video conferencing (massive Zoom grids for instance) can disadvantage those students with poor access so one-to-one video connections with students can be vital or else you’ll lose the students who can’t hear or be heard. As with ‘traditional’ teaching, there will be students who sit in on a Zoom call but don’t participate or keep up. Follow-up one-to-one sessions on video calls can help catch those who need to catch up.

Keep it useful - content in a context

We’re in a pandemic. You may have heard. Many students will be anxious and may find it difficult to see the importance of learning a language from inside a lockdown. If they can’t get out of their flat, when will they use this skill? So keep the connection with the real world in the teaching and the content. Create lessons which reflect the new reality. If the language skills they think they want involve buying face masks rather than pizza, then match that.

Stick to learning by doing - stick to immersive principles

The easiest thing in digital teaching is to switch to videos of lectures, i.e. you create a digital classroom, with slides and someone droning at everybody else. The real life experience of language teaching may be much more immersive. And while you can’t quite match that, a learning-by-doing interactive format is a much more useful basic principle. It requires invention and creativity from your teams, but it also reminds them that they are in a live environment - don’t think of it as creating archives of re-usable content with an endless shelf-life. Think of it as an engaged classroom. Just a geographically scattered one.

Work/life balance: Everyone needs a life

Social media amongst students is rife with tales of lectures delivered by teachers on mute, of one-to-one calls starting in a toilet … of everyone just feeling their way in a hastily convened new world. Many students will be learning in a crowded home environment, taught by people who also have family around and may be trying to home school their children too. And many will be in different time zones, so what seems reasonable to one will seem out-of-hours to another. So it’s important to talk to both staff and students about how to make the contact hours work, how to make content accessible at all hours, but with feedback and assessment loops that are helpful in the moment. And everyone needs a little patience.

Be human: Don’t forget it’s a crisis

There’s little chance of forgetting we’re in a crisis, but remember the human context. When connecting with students ask about their home life, circumstances, whether they’ve done some exercise, how their mental health is. Many of the universities who have emptied their campuses have diverted plenty of resources into counselling. There may not be the corresponding funding to do that in the ELT sector, but making a human connection will make the student feel more engaged and make the whole experience feel less impersonal.

Once we’re through all this, those who survive and prosper will, most likely, emerge into a hybrid model of face-to-face and digital teaching. Those who do so best will be the ones who manage to transfer the principles of human interaction into the online space. By keeping the individuals and their lives and circumstances in mind, that quality can make the difference in all environments.