Open season on language schools? Open English secures huge funding

Open English

Online language school Open English has been getting big publicity over the last week following the news that the business has just raised $65m in funding to expand its operation further in its home base of Latin America and also, for the first time, beyond the Americas. This latest round of funding brings total investment to $120m. That’s one of the highest figures in the history of EdTech – and it’s an ELT product aiming to compete head-on with bricks and mortar English language schools and ELT publishers.

What is Open English? Here’s their description:
Open English is the leading online English-language school across the Americas. The company was founded in 2006 seeking to reinvent the English-language learning experience for today’s busy professional by offering them customized 24/7 online-only instruction imparted by native English-speaking teachers. Currently having surpassed 100,000 students, the company’s language program is founded on a guarantee of helping students achieve fluency in the English language in a short amount of time, and have fun along the way.

Let’s decode that…
Apparently, fluency is guaranteed. Which is nice. The service provides a combo of online exercises and live online conversation classes with American teachers, who look like this:

Open English - live classes

These online classes come in three levels only – Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. Classes start every hour, 23 (not 24…) hours a day, and students can take as many as they like – which is pretty good, compared to other services where you get a fixed number of sessions for your money.

As well as sessions with teachers, there are hundred of videos, speech recognition software, MP3 audio lessons and 500 hours worth of interactive activities. “No more boring textbooks”. Pretty comprehensive, then.

Exam prep
Open English has exam prep for IELTS, TOEFL and TOEIC and is partnered with ETS and IELTS and provides full online practice tests. In the build up to an exam date, students are provided with a mentor to help them prepare.

Is it any good, though?
The platform looks pretty impressive. No qualifications are required for their teachers, and pay is about $10 for a 45 minute class, so a bit above minimum wage (here in the UK, anyway). They claim a 98% student satisfaction rate and have plenty of nice quotes about how good the service is, so they must be doing something right.

How much do they charge?
Ah yes, almost forgot that. They don’t publish prices on their site, but it’s a bit over $100 a month or a bit over $1,000 a year.

Why it’s important
If a student is weighing up options for studying English, this is surely pretty attractive when compared to enrolling at a language school. You can learn from home, whenever you like, the course is personalised, the content is vast and varied, and you have access whenever you want to native speaker teachers (and that’s something your local language school definitely can’t offer). Really, it’s all about convenience – and that’s where online learning wins. It’s not about the technology – that’s the means of making this convenience possible. It so happens that you’ll be learning online, but if you’re under 30 you probably spend half your waking life online anyway. This is the bit that most of the ELT industry just doesn’t get – the tech is just not a big deal for the kind of student likely to be attracted by this kind of service. It’s taken for granted. If you’re a language school making a big deal in your marketing of the fact that you have technology (“We’ve got interactive whiteboards in every classroom!”), then you’re missing the point. Chances are you’ll soon be irrelevant anyway, unless you can find a niche or something completely unique to offer.

Open English is already a pretty big deal. With another $65m in the bank to spend on tech, content, teachers and marketing, and already well established in the highest growth region in the world for ELT, they’re surely a big threat to the established players. Older providers’ moves towards online will always be hampered by their legacy business and the need to keep their current customers happy. Open English don’t need to worry about that – they can throw all of their very significant resources at online learning.

It’s surely only a matter of time before Pearson buys the company.

Here’s one of their TV ads:

Open English – ¿Qué te parece el nuevo profesor de inglés de Wachu? from on Vimeo.

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