Jonathan Dykes runs a group of language schools in Barcelona as well as one of the first online schools, Net Languages, which makes for a unique perspective on the merits and shortcomings of both. This post first appeared on his blog.

Christmas 1997. I remember it well, chiefly as I spent most of the holiday developing a business plan for a bright idea I’d had: to use the internet to teach people who, for whatever reason, would never make it into one of our language schools. The plan must have had some merit as it persuaded several people to invest and lo, Net Languages was born in March 1998.

Two of the key members of the start-up team were my esteemed colleagues, Scott Thornbury and Gavin Dudeney. They put together a team of content writers and techies and masterminded the first courses, which were launched in September 1998.

I’m not entirely certain that we were the first company to offer online language courses but we might well have been. (Would that merit an entry on Wikipedia?)

Back in those days, most people were still using dial-up connections with a download speed of 256k, so options were limited. I distinctly remember an expert in the field saying that he couldn’t imagine ever being able to stream video across the internet. How times have changed.

Yet in some respects, they haven’t. Despite the fact that there are now hundreds of ways of learning languages online, bricks and mortar language schools still flourish in many parts of the world.

Personally, I’m delighted that we can still operate viable language schools alongside our online courses. But I’m a little bit surprised that the online option hasn’t disrupted our traditional business to a greater extent. Why is that? Why do students (especially adult students) still make the effort to attend traditional language schools and pay their (generally speaking) higher fees?  Let’s think of some possible answers:

1. Access to the technology

Access to the necessary technology isn’t yet widespread. That may have been the case 15 or even 10 years ago, but I’d bet a small fortune that the majority of students who attend private language schools these days have very good internet connectivity and all the hardware they need. Probably more than they need.

2. The social element

The social element is missing online. Again, this may have been a convincing argument 10 or more years ago, but since the rise of social media, more people spend more time socialising online than they do face-to-face. This suggests they don’t have to go to a language school to meet people to hang out with. On the contrary, studying online they can ‘meet’ and chat to people from all over the world.

3. Effectiveness

Online teaching isn’t as effective. Well, we could debate this one loud and long, but most evidence I’ve come across suggests the opposite. In other words, courses that are either entirely or partly online are generally more effective than courses that are 100% classroom based. Is this because studying online involves assuming a greater degree of responsibility for your own learning? Possibly. Could this turn some people off? Possibly.

4. Discipline

People need the discipline of studying at fixed times. This is certainly something that most language schools insist on. Online learning gives people the option to study whenever it suits them, which ought to be an advantage. ‘You never need to miss a class’ is something that most online language education providers argue, but perhaps this freedom is too great for some people. If you can study at any time, it’s easier to find an excuse for not studying right now. Procrastinate or learn. Again, it comes down to taking greater responsibility for your own learning.

5. Bad experiences in the past

People may have tried a crap online course and come to the conclusion that all online courses are crap. Well, there is an incredible amount of rubbish out there. Even large companies with budgets hundreds of times the size of Net Languages’ annual turnover are capable of producing material which, if it teaches anybody anything, achieves this more by accident than design. Also, given that second language acquisition is a subject that challenges even the experts in the field, most consumers will probably judge a product by its price (if it has one) and/or by its bling factor, rather than by its ability to effectively teach anyone anything. Once bitten by the bling factor twice shy?

6. The role of the teacher

The presence of a teacher throughout the learning process. Maybe that’s it. Maybe a certain proportion of students simply feel that they need a good, professional teacher with them all the time. Someone who will answer their questions, correct their mistakes, smile at them when they’re making an effort and generally show interest in them and motivate them to improve. Perhaps these are the people who are keeping language schools open. But what happens when they discover that they can have their own teacher online? Maybe not all the time, but often enough. (At Net Languages we offer courses with and without a tutorial service. What’s more, students who choose to buy the service get to work with the same teacher throughout their course).

7. Too much screen time

People spend all day staring at screens and prefer to do something different when it comes to learning a language. I’ve heard it said. Of course an image projected on a whiteboard in a classroom is tantamount to looking at a screen and digital projectors are becoming standard pieces of kit in most language schools. We assume students value and expect digital classrooms, but could they end up having an adverse effect on our schools? Perhaps we should pull the plug on anything electronic and adopt Scott’s materials light approach to classroom teaching. Would that help keep the bums on the seats in language schools and off the seats at home? Or would students feel they’re being short-changed if we took all the tech stuff away?

In short: what is it that keeps students turning up to class rather than turning on their computers? It could be a combination of all of the above, although if I had to pick one, my vote would go to number five. That’s the one most of our own students mention when we ask them the question.
Image by andertoons via Compfight cc Text added by ELTjam.


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  2. Interesting debate. But what do we mean by “online learning”? Or “purely online learning”? It might be useful to define the terms clearly, because they’re used in so many different ways. In my view, online learning can mean either :
    1. entirely autonomous e-learning resources (with no synchronous or asynchronous interaction with a trainer/guide/coach/tutor), or
    2. a combination of e-learning and varying degrees of online interaction with a trainer/coach/guide/tutor (which I tend to call online or distance blended learning), or
    3. pure online interaction with a distance trainer (etc..), sometimes called “live learning” (for instance some of the platforms that offer language training through skype or webex, or telephone courses such as those proposed by Telelangue, gofluent, ecsplicite and so on). Some will object that telephone training cannot be confused with online training, but today telephone and web-based communication technology are merging – most have us have VOIP phones – so that it’s getting harder and harder to see the difference.

    What is very clear to me (and I believe to most people today) is that the 1st model – pure e-learning – which is based on the flawed 1990’s concept of self-access learning, has consistently failed in the field of language learning, from the point of view of results. It failed when those programmes were in CD ROM format and it failed again when they were transferred onto the web as e-learning, in a far more primitive and less media-rich version. Some of the companies promoting it made money of course, at least for a time – but then packaged learning methods sell thousands of courses yet how many people who buy them go further than the 1st chapter or actually learn a foreign language thanks to them?
    In my research and experience in the field, this model of self-access e-learning obtains on average a 10% completion rate with learners (at any rate here in France). Very similar to the most recent statistics reflecting completion rates on MOOCs (7,6% at the last count). So this model has been progressively abandoned.

    Which is partly why everyone talks about blended learning today (meaning many different things to different people, but basically a mix of interaction with a trainer…and online resources of different kinds). The other reason of course is that digitalisation is blurring the lines between the 4 businesses of language training : B&M F2F trainers, “live learning” or telephone training providers, e-learning providers and publishers. Vertical integration at the top end of the business is developing fast – witness the recent purchases of Telelangue by Berlitz, of Wall Street institute and GlobalEnglish by Pearson, of Tell Me More by Rosetta Stone. Most telephone training companies are also developing a blended learning model. And the big corporate e-learning providers (Tell Me More, Speex, Cyberteachers, Global English, EF online and Gofluent) have all developed what might be called “virtual blended resource centers” in which the e-learning programme they started out with is only one resource among many others, including “live learning”. This trend is likely to accelerate in the coming years.

    Again in my experience, blended learning can be remarkably effective, but everything hangs on the time, resources, experience, enthusiasm, persistence and talent of those who design, build and run the system. And also on the training, skill and motivation of the trainers who interact with the learners. In very many cases, it has been a failure. The hastily put together model that you could call “bundled learning” (2 or 3 different educational providers assembling their resources to create a multimodal package), does not work well, mostly due to lack of coherence and integration. Poorly designed blended courses, with insufficient human interaction with the learner, mediocre e-learning resources, poor quality follow up and evaluation tools, inexperienced, untrained and unmotivated trainers (etc..), or trainers whose role is simply to tutor the e-learning resources, also tend to fail.

    An approach that you might call “trainer-led, learner-centered integrated blended learning” for want of a sexier term, is at least in my experience, when it’s well designed and managed by competent professionals, the most likely to succeed.

    So like everything else in the world of learning, there is no magic bullet, no tried and tested model that will guarantee fail-safe results. Everything hangs on how it is done and who is doing it. That’s why point 5 on the list is probably the main reason why online learning hasn’t taken off as predicted, despite the initial enthusiasm and why most online providers are still heavily dependent on investment capital.

    Those who wish to explore this further can check my paper on the subject here :

    Interesting development – Pete Sharma is now providing a full blended language learning course called “Getting Blended Learning Right” at iTDi :

    1. Excellent points, Andrew. There is just one thing I would like to add. I don’t think we can talk about whether ‘online learning’ is possible without breaking ‘learning’ down into some constituent parts.

      At its most simple, we have to at least distinguish between instruction that leads to passive understanding on the one hand, and activities/tasks that lead to active production on the other.
      Or, following the same track but getting just slightly more complex, we can take Michael Swan’s model that I posted on my own site some years ago with his permission:

      He says in this article that you need 6 elements in language teaching, and all have to be present for effective learning to take place. He calls these Analysed Input and Analysed Output, Intensive Input and Intensive Output, Extensive Input and Extensive Output. The first two more or less correspond to ‘controlled practice’, the second two to ‘less controlled practice’ and the final two to fluency work.

      OK. Now I strongly believe that for passive understanding, entirely online is fine and works. Your #1. In terms of Michael’s model I would say that passive understanding is Analysed Input + Analysed Output (listen and repeat) + Intensive Input. Of course I am both a writer of self-study books and the owner of a self-study website, so I have to believe that. But 35 years in teaching and countless discussions with students makes me convinced that by reading a book and doing exercises, WITH ATTENTION, or doing equivalent activities on the web, DOES lead to some kind of passive learning. It IS possible to passively learn how to make a cake by reading a recipe. If you read the recipe several times, and if there were follow-up exercises after the recipe to revise and test your understanding, even more so. Some people don’t need the recipe, and that’s great. In language learning terms they are the ones who just pick it up naturally and we won’t see much of them either in our classrooms or online.

      But is is obvious that entirely online, your #1, doesn’t work for active production. Here we need tasks, real communication, teacher feedback, etc. You need to actually make the cake, get it wrong, try again, and so on. We need some kind of blended element, your #2 and #3.

      In terms of Michael’s model, active production equates to Intensive Output + Extensive Output. That leaves one part of his model in a grey area: Extensive Input. I can’t speak for them, but I think that the people behind Newsmart might argue that they are working in this area. The ‘Management Tools’ section of my own BEhereBEthere website currently has just one text, on Leadership, but it is in the Extensive Input area. So I guess I have to believe that online-only is possible here too.

      So, in short, I don’t think we can have a sensible discussion about ‘online only’ vs ‘some form of blended’ without breaking down what kind of learning (passive or active) we are talking about.

  3. Gavin,

    For me, in my teaching, online and face to face classes are identical in the most important respect- that I am dealing with a single individual.

    When I hear people talk about online vs. face to face instruction I never hear them talking about how the two modes are actually two sides of the same coin insofar as it relates to individual learners. It is as if the two spheres were competing with each other. Instead, what we learn from one should be folded into the other so that we never talk of which is inherently better only what we have learned from the one that can contribute to the other.

  4. @Jonathan

    (My comments below should not be interpreted to dismiss or demean the wonderful letter you received above.)

    However, your original question was framed as follows:

    “Personally, I’m delighted that we can still operate viable language schools alongside our online courses. But I’m a little bit surprised that the online option hasn’t disrupted our traditional business to a greater extent. Why is that?”

    The heartfelt recommendation letter above offers little direct support to your (generally tacit) notion that the Internet based language learning experience, per se, is generally superior to an in-class language learning experience. To support such a conclusion in the case you just cited, you would need to have had a school of your own operating where this man took your online course. For language schools, the big advantage of the Internet is that it can extend best practices to places that have not been exposed to best practices before. But this is a purely business advantage rather than an educational, social, or psychological advantage.

    The letter you received demonstrates that the Internet permits “the very best” to compete with local schools which have not been challenged by high level competition before. But this is much different than competing head to head with off-line schools that themselves follow best practices.

    I am an Internet supporter, but in drawing conclusions I believe it is wise to make head to head comparisons. That being- your program off-line against your program online- holding class size, materials, and class time constant.

  5. In defence of the effectiveness of at least some Web-based courses, at least for some people, I offer the following customer statement, which we received earlier this week:

    Fourth question. How important is the Internet to you?:

    In my point of view, The internet has an important role in my life and marvelous technology to get the best knowledge, trade and study. In 2003 I first time joined virtual classes of Syrian Virtual University which taught us the best English course ever which was from Netlanguages. I joine Netlanguages again for my daughter. If there are some people I have to thank and never met before ideally Netlanguages team should me one of best 5 a long with the internet and Microsoft inventors. My life was better with you all. Thank you

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