Blogging is a great way to access a personal Learning Network, reach out to the ELT community across the world, keep up-to-date with developments in the field or just vent about things on your mind and there are fantastic ELT examples all over the internet. However, can it lead to anything more than simply having a wider platform for your ideas?
Madrid-based blog El Blog Para Aprender Inglés (The Blog for Learning English) shows how an unassuming BlogSpot-hosted blog helping Spanish-speaking learners of English has grown into a successful online language school with plans to branch out even further. The company is run by Mónica Stocker and Mark Schouman and this is what they had to say in answer to ELTjam’s questions:
Can you tell us a bit about how EBPAI started and the kinds of things you do now?
It all started in December 2005, when Mónica decided to start writing a blog about English grammar in Spanish for those Spanish students who could not understand the grammar explanations in English. Much to her surprise she started having lots of readers and was even interviewed by El Pais, a very important Spanish newspaper.
Your blog has a large and active readership. What is it that keeps people coming back?
We think it is because we write about things the Spanish students want to know. Many times when they ask us a question and we write a post to answer that question, the post becomes extremely popular. For example, ‘How to express the subjunctive mood in English’ has had more than 36,000 single views, which is a lot for a post.
Why did you decide to start an online language school?
Well, we had a huge audience through the blog and people started asking for online English classes. Mónica found out one day that she had a waiting list of 10 people asking for classes and it was then when we decided to start a company and hire teachers. Now we have two online English schools, EBPAI for private students and Aprentias for company classes.
What are some of the challenges involved in running the school?
For us the biggest challenge has been paper work and taxes. It’s incredible the amount of paper work involved in running a small business and it can really suck your energy.
When we met in Madrid you said you have to put quite a lot of effort into recruitment. Can you tell us a bit about the process?
Because we truly believe that for any Language Academy the professional quality of teachers is the single most important factor for success we try to hire only the very best teachers. Since we receive quite a few applications for positions with EBPAI this means that teacher selection is a permanent, ongoing and time consuming activity. In a nutshell: we use many different filters in order to try to find experienced, all-round teachers who are both flexible as well as inventive in terms of their approach to making students progress — be it in one-on-one classes, group classes or Skype classes.
What are the pedagogical implications of teaching 100% online? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages for the learners and teachers? How do you try and overcome some of the challenges?
Teaching over Skype has one big advantage to start with, especially if you don’t use the camera, and that is that you force your students to listen to English and to speak. Then there are other advantages, both for learners and teachers; for example, you can learn and teach from home, so you don’t waste your time commuting and you don’t spend any money traveling either. Besides, it’s quite comfortable to be able to have a class in pyjamas if you so wish! The big disadvantage is that there is no face-to-face contact with the student which is sometimes necessary to explain concepts, interpret gestures or to grasp the general atmosphere created when two or more people meet. However, we think that this disadvantage is, to a great extent, compensated by the advantages we have just mentioned.
What technology do you and the teachers and learners use when setting up and delivering online lessons? Is there anything that you’re missing or would like to see developed that would help improve things?
Apart from Skype’s chat function, we use material such as Instant Ideas and all types of online resources such as Cambridge material, websites, online exercises, infographics, podcasts, or any kind of audio. Perhaps what is missing is more specialised software for online private English academies. Most of the software we find in the market is for schools which teach any subject to a group of people. So with the existing software, for example, you can’t assign classes for one-to-one lessons, or sign attendance sheets unless you have it built-in for your own academy.
You also have your own app. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Mónica joined forces with a British online teacher, Emma Bonnington, to give free audio lessons for beginners on the blog. Mónica wrote the stories and Emma recorded them. A company that makes bilingual English-Spanish apps (eBBi Books), saw the product on the blog and offered to make an app. We reached an agreement and in April 2014 we launched the app called 25 bilingual clips. It’s a bilingual audiobook which helps students to learn the basic concepts of English grammar by reading and listening at the same time.
What were the challenges in building your own app? How has it been received by the learners?
I must say that eBBi Books did a wonderful job and took most of the work off our hands. The greatest challenge was to make sure that there weren’t any mistakes, which is something that happens every time you write a book. It was very well received by the learners. In a couple of days it ranked fourth on the educational apps in the App store.
What do you see in store for English language teaching and learning in Spain?
We are preparing some new products, but we don’t want to say too much because we are hoping to surprise our readers with top-notch tools for improving their English level. Apart from that, in November we started a free online TOEFL iBT course sponsored by Kaplan that we’ll finish in February 2015. As with all our free online courses it has become very popular. Hopefully, we’ll launch other free courses this year.
Any other predictions for 2015?
The English teaching industry will remain the same in 2015, unless someone comes up with a robot that can teach English just like a teacher. In any case, we think working really hard and trying to meet the students’ needs is the only recipe for success.