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Will the Corona crisis change the ELT and language teaching industry for good?

There are two siloed versions of what a post-pandemic world will look like for the language travel industry, but as ever, the devil is in the detail, and probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. Jimmy dives in to take a look.

It’s clearly all very uncertain and there’s no greater foolishness than predicting how we’ll all emerge from this pandemic.

But, by and large, there’s two schools of thought on the post-Corona world:

  • That we will never be the same again
  • That we will be the same again, and surprisingly quickly

So, those are pretty much mutually exclusive, but, for what it's worth, my money is on the notion of a dull apocalypse - that things will change and, in the end, quite markedly - but also much more slowly than we think and we won’t realise how much til we look back.

Furthermore, those changes may well be accelerated, rather than caused, by Corona - because of what the crisis has made us realise rather than what it has done to us.

In the ELT industry, the assumption has been that this pandemic will accelerate the inevitable pre-eminence of digital learning and, therefore, all organisations in the ELT sector will have to smarten up their LMS and Zoom etiquette, or die. But it may not be so simple as that for two reasons:

The first is that the ‘traditional’ product may be more robust than many are assuming. While the idea of overseas students hopping on packed economy flights looks a little unlikely right now, there will be a demand for the teaching-plus-travel model. Quite simply, people liked it and in good numbers and many will regret missing out and want a second try. A digital alternative may act as an amuse bouche but it won’t be the full meal.

Quite simply, there are significant elements to the ‘traditional’ ELT course that cannot be digitised. The travel, the new friendships, the networks, the understanding of a foreign culture - all the benefits of the immersion version, where travel to the UK gives students much more understanding than ‘mere’ fluency. Even virtual reality cannot really challenge that. Not yet anyhow.

And people will return to that. We may well take a period of readjustment as we step cautiously back to normal, but people are longing for genuine experiences (do you miss the pub; the restaurant; the cinema?). After the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic, which ravaged Europe, the 1920s were a period of extraordinary creativity and physical and social mobility. A pandemic doesn’t necessarily shut us down for good.

So don’t obsess on the idea that the industry will leave behind the old models completely. There will be, however, a move towards more digital education (which actually may expand markets to those who couldn’t/wouldn’t travel) and to a hybrid model of digital and real world teaching.

What we don’t yet know is what that hybrid looks like - because what we do know is that the digital models are not yet perfect. Far from it.

The OECD’s director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, has pointed out the chasm between expectation and delivery - that edtech has failed to replicate the key relationship in education: that between the teacher and the student. The tendency remains, he reckons, that online teaching is stuck in broadcast mode and the interaction is lost. The opportunity is there if teachers can leverage their ‘soft skills’ on digital platforms and marry that to good content and good tech. That nirvana remains a way off for many.

Those teachers' skills help bridge the divides that digital brings. Some of those divides are obvious - hardware, bandwidth and digital skills pre-eminent amongst them, but a digitally-led education, even a flipped classroom model, also exposes those students who lack the skills to self-direct their learning and who are in a situation where they can get parental or mentor help.

For many, digital learning has been rolled out over the past few years as an augmentation or a side hustle - or in the last few weeks in something of a hurry. The potential seismic shift from being an information repository and a content dissemination process to platforms which can augment those key relationships with teachers and deliver personalisation and independent, monitored and assessed learning, has not been delivered. It has, instead, been hampered by a lack of technical understanding amongst institutions, a lack of training and insufficient bandwidth. The danger is that users will associate the sense of inadequacy with a lockdown and a sense of ‘muddling through’, rather than real progress. The atmospherics will be downbeat.

But what’s your experience? Has the path to online learning been seamless and fruitful or have the technical and teaching issues put obstacles in the way. Will demand for traditional products return? How do you see the market for your business changing during and after this pandemic? Let us know