I, Richard Osborne, am a self-confessed geek. I love technology, automation and anything with flashy lights. I’ve always been fascinated by the world of apps – handy made-for-purpose tools on your phone that solve some particular problem or inconvenience you have in your life.
One of my own favourite examples is a French public transport app called Vianavigo. I couldn’t have survived living and working in Paris without this app. It is simply fantastic. Put simply, this is a navigation app that can take you from one point to another in all forms of public transport across the Ile-de-France region (Paris and it’s suburbs). As an aggregation of all Parisian forms of transport, it could tell you to take a bus, hop on a train, then a tram, back on another bus, etc., with a reasonably reliable arrival time prediction. The beauty of this interweaving of Paris’ excellent public transport services is you can pretty much get anywhere in and around the city with very little effort. What’s more, on the inevitable day a bit of your route is blocked due to a strike or breakdown, you can filter out that particular network to find a quick alternative. It saved my life (not literally, but still…) on many occasions. Any other suburban Parisian reading this will be able to relate.
I believe apps like Vianavigo are game changers, true innovations, miles more important than social time wasting tools like Facebook or Instagram. This is a tool with a simple premise that ends up being used for all sorts of vital daily tasks, in ways perhaps even the original creators couldn’t have imagined. It solved a simple, but fundamental, problem for a niche group of people, and to top it all off it’s totally free. Merci le STIF, merci…
The Situation with Language Training
I can very much relate to this concept of trying to solve a fundamental market problem with technology. Over my decade in the language teaching world, I have been repeatedly confronted with the following problem: clients becoming ever more demanding about the cost of training. To compound the problem, language trainers want to use technology to lower the overall cost of their training, but thus far no one has been able to come up with a solution everyone can stand behind pedagogically. We’ve had noteworthy attempts, Macmillan’s English Campus, Cambridge’s English360 and Touchstone, among others, but those are large-scale projects designed to win big tenders and deliver to thousands of learners at a time, making them highly standardised. Their massive development budgets were allocated following the old school methodologies of product development: conduct market research, design a fully functional system, build it in its entirety, then hope to God their customers like it. If they don’t, major updates will be needed, spawning another slow, big-budget development project. Their inflexibility makes them difficult for the average eclectic language trainer to truly integrate into their approach.
Modern technology startups try to break away from this big-money approach by developing a core value proposition based on a real customer need. They try to push a simple, basic prototype to paying customers to get invaluable reactions and feedback. They use this feedback to make quick changes to the product, then get back to testing the next release. There is no end product, only a stable version and a roadmap for continuous and rapid updates. This fast, iterative cycle goes by many names: the lean startup, agile development, etc. It is how I’ve built my product, LearnBook.
You Can’t Teach an Old Teacher New Tricks
My own fundamental problem was this: language teachers are already really good at what they do. So much research and development exists for language teaching that a properly trained trainer could be said to be among the most advanced pedagogs out there. They’re so good, there’s nothing you can really offer them to make them any better. The most amazing, advanced learning technology is wasted on them, because the most effective way to get a person trained in a language is to sit them in a room with one of these educators and let them work their magic.
There can be said to be a special bond between language trainer and trainee, particularly in adults. In face-to-face lessons, the teacher is very often acting as part counsellor or personal life coach. Some trainees bond with their trainer for life, having shared many intimate stories during hundreds of hours of one-on-one contact, to the point that no other trainer will do. I once had a trainee literally slam the phone down on me when I tried to call to organise replacing a colleague for a day. There is no one method these men and women follow. Each language trainer has their own eclectic approach, assuming they aren’t working in the likes of Wall Street English or Berlitz. How can you possibly design an eLearning product that will actually be appreciated and integrated into their various approaches? Not to mention that eLearning removes the fundamentally important contact with the trainer. Face facts people; language trainers, in their hearts, simply don’t want to use eLearning platforms and their materials.
At least, that was the conclusion I came to after years of trying out the many online language learning solutions that exist. After 8 years in business language training, I became a consultant, thinking with all my experience and knowledge I could counsel anyone on what solution was exactly right for them. In the end, the reactions I received from potential clients were disillusioning. These trainers and their organisations didn’t want to use the solutions being presented to them, because they resent having to give up their beloved face-to-face lessons to begin with. That said, the looming cloud of falling training budgets is making the future of one-on-one face-to-face training ever bleaker. Short of a miracle, language training will have to move partly online to save precious money and resources. So, should we all simply roll over and give up on our pedagogic principles?
The Osborne Solution
The answer to my smart-arsed question is obviously no. You simply need someone like me to come along and take an interest in solving this issue. Part of my aforementioned geekiness is my expertise in using a platform called Bubble – an app building service that allows someone with no knowledge of coding or programming to design websites with powerful features. It can enable a startup founder to realise his or her grand vision without the need of raising funds to hire a programmer.
So last summer I got to work. Collaborating with a teaching colleague who practises Neuro Language Coaching, we started focussing our design efforts on one of the fundamental things teachers today like to do online – sharing video and audio with trainees. I conducted a survey of 40 freelance trainers in France and 20 in Germany, and found this feature was by far the most desired for an online platform (over 80% of respondents). Our idea was to go one step further than just sharing stumbled-upon digital media – we wanted to allow trainers to quickly and easily record their own video and audio to send to trainees and use as the basis for language work.
This technique is of course already possible, and relatively simple, thanks to WhatsApp and YouTube’s recording technology. So why aren’t trainers doing this already? I decided to find out by inviting two trainees of a colleague of mine to participate in an experiment. We would conduct regular English lessons, as we would if we were sitting face-to-face, exclusively over WhatsApp. I would record myself introducing a lesson or activity, or giving feedback, via a YouTube video recorded from my phone or tablet, then shared to the WhatsApp group, as well as through Whatsapp audio messages. The trainees were encouraged to use the audio recording feature themselves, enabling me to conduct role plays and other speaking activities in an asynchronous fashion.
The results were great. Not only did the trainees participate and were happy with my activities, but the time I spent recording and correcting their activities was much less than the time they spend preparing and submitting them. By (a somewhat predictable) coincidence, I’d discovered a way to reduce trainer participation time while maintaining trainee participation time, and therefore billable time, without compromising on pedagogic quality. I was conducting my usual classroom activities via audio, video and text message in a quarter of the usual time.
Of course, keeping track of even a few trainees working in WhatsApp was tough. I had to create a spreadsheet to track their activity descriptions, completions, latenesses, etc. This is where the power of automation was needed to move forward. I used the aforementioned Bubble service to create a chat platform that could separate conversations into sections, with video and audio recording built into the system. The idea of the sections was to have each one become a different part of a lesson, e.g. one section titled ‘Lesson 1 Part 1: Lead in’, another titled ‘Lesson 1 Part 2: General comprehension’, etc. You could hide or show a section to the trainee, to allow the teacher to prepare each lesson in advance before revealing it to the trainee. The trainer can also notify individual students about individual messages with a procedurally generated email, to either alert them to a new activity or remind them about one that hasn’t yet been completed.
After getting my first guinea pigs into the platform, I started to see how its simplicity led to some pleasantly surprising hidden uses. While showing one trainer on the platform how to edit their trainee’s message with different colours to give feedback, she asked me, “When I’m typing corrections, can I save them as a draft and come back to them later?” Initially, the answer was no, and such a feature wasn’t on my roadmap. Then again, I thought, what if she creates a new draft section (only visible to other trainers in the group) and call it ‘Draft corrections’? You could simply copy and paste the trainee’s text there, correct it in several stages, then paste the completed corrections back into the original message. Other trainers in the group would also be able to see this invisible section, and could contribute or add their own draft corrections. This experience excited me, thinking about other potential new workarounds and tricks my future users would uncover through experimenting with the platform.
At this point, you may be saying, “Hold on, is this an eLearning platform, a modified version of WhatsApp, or what?” In a technical sense it’s both, but I’d rather we call it something new, as eLearning so easily conjures images of pre-made learning activities and self-study. I want us to think of LearnBook as a teacher powered online training platform. Everything a learner does on the platform amounts to communication with the trainer, just at a distance and with a delay in their response. It’s a way of conducting your usual face-to-face activities online in less time, without the need to physically be there at the same time as the learner, leading to a reduction in training time and therefore cost.
Like I said before, great apps start by solving a fundamental problem with a simple, prototype solution. The version of my app that solves a fundamental language training problem is out there now, getting real feedback, and thanks to Bubble I can implement that feedback in a matter of hours as opposed to the weeks it would have taken using traditional web development methods. As needs and issues get uncovered, I develop additional features to address them. Right now I’m offering a language trainer a way to teach online with as much respect as possible to their classroom pedagogy, while permitting them to reduce the cost of delivering their training, enabling them to compete in a market of huge, low-cost eLearning providers. LearnBook gives the power in online language training back to the teachers, the way it should have always been.
Article written by Richard Osborne of Osborne Solutions
Richard is a CELTA and DELTA qualified language trainer and consultant. He started teaching professional English 9 years ago in Paris and became quickly involved in the pedagogic side of his training centre, in particular using digital training tools. He has since become an expert in digital solutions for the language training market, and started his own consulting company in 2017. He has also produced his own innovative solution to cutting the cost of language training called LearnBook. Richard has been working with Linguaid for the last year developing and delivering training courses on the difficult concept of Blended Langauge Learning.