More than a chat and call service, Skype is now being used to teach English at various levels and across any geographic/political boundaries. And it costs a lot less than a traditional English teaching class.
With over 660 million registered users, Skype is already a globally popular internet chat and call service. Its service is certainly not limited to casual chat and family or business calls any more. People are coming up with new ways to use Skype as an educational channel. A good example is English Out There, an English teaching service that uses Skype to teach English worldwide at various levels. With the voice chat and video call facility, Skype provides an ideal medium for learning English from the comfort of one’s home or an internet café by benefiting from courses taught by qualified English teachers.
Happily, Jason West, who is the founder of the English Out There program and the designer of the social media English course taught via Skype, discusses Skype’s usability in teaching English worldwide.
Ernest: Jason, thanks for joining in! Please tell briefly about your experience in the field of education and how you came to think of using Skype for English Language teaching.
Jason: I studied psychology and history at the same college Kingsley Amis, author of Lucky Jim, taught English at, i.e., University of Wales, Swansea. I then worked in media and traveled before starting, slightly by accident, an English school in Chinatown, Soho, London, in 1992, with a guy I met on a one-week introduction to TEFL course. In two years, we had the whole building and were British Council accredited. I left my first school to start English Out There in 2000. I wanted to improve standard General English courses for learners coming to London. I felt that they would benefit from a more active, practical, and contextually personalized program. I had the idea of teaching groups some language and then taking them out of the classroom to use it immediately with complete strangers on the streets of London. After a while, we worked out the best way to do it and then started seeing and hearing incredible improvements. That prompted more research into exactly what was happening in the minds of our learners. In about 2005, I started using Skype and in 2006 realized, just as we were beginning to think about publishing our course materials, that our courses would work extremely well with Skype. So, we did some test runs, and then, when we began the long and difficult process of producing the materials (5000 plus pages over six levels), we included instructions and adaptations for use with VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), such as Skype, MSN, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk etc.
Ernest: So when did you first design a Skype course and what was the first Skype teaching experience like?
Jason: I first designed a Skype course in 2007. The first few trial runs felt a bit like we were in a laboratory. It happened at the same time that we were also helping design a new VoIP platform for a technology company and we used Skype and the bespoke VoIP platform, which we had built with a record button. I wasn’t the first person to teach our lessons using Skype; it was my colleague Jon, who did some work with a Chinese English learner he met online (we used to leave our Skype status to ‘Skype Me’ and pick up random learners looking for people to practice their English with). I have a recording of one of the first sessions Jon did with a lovely student in China called Belinda. It was a lesson on prepositions of place and I still have the recording.
The first EOT sessions on Skype were audio only and, to be honest, audio works really well. My recent case studies were audio too. I know people love video and teachers say you need to see people’s lips moving and pick up on visual cues, but I disagree. I have never seen my student Jane’s face and you can hear how much she improved using our courses on our website (up three levels in just six lessons).
Ernest: What are the minimal technical requirements for teaching English via Skype?
Jason: In this matter, audio is great because it doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth or a super fast computer. Many applications involving video struggle a bit because of the peripheral technology. I have even taught English using Skype and other VoIP platforms down to about 56 kbps on a really old computer (I still use a fairly old computer!). As long as you don’t have a lot of applications running at the same time and you have around 100 kbps for yourself, you should be fine. Some places share connections and when too many people are on the same connection it can cause trouble. But cyber or internet cafes should all be fine to use if you don’t have your own broadband connection. EOT course materials can be printed out or uploaded into virtual classrooms and interactive whiteboards, so they can be taught to groups on and offline before the learners do their focused speaking practice on their own, online. We are just launching our intermediate classroom course, TD4 (CEFR B2 level), as separate printed students’ and teachers’ books, so a printed English course book that can be taught in any school and works with online social media, such as Facebook and Skype, for the speaking practice task element. Students can easily record their speaking practice sessions and send their best MP3s of their conversations to their teachers as assignments. More importantly, they can listen to their own English conversations again on their iPod, phone, or MP3 player. Listening to yourself speak is a really effective technique.
Ernest: Does an English course designed for teaching via Skype differ notably from the usual English language courses taught conventionally in classes?
Jason: Many teachers and organizations have tried to take the offline teaching model and simply put it online. This causes some problems. Firstly, the materials they use are not specifically designed for online teaching and they don’t use the technological capabilities of online teaching fully. They are usually still ‘teacher-centric’ in instructional terms and rarely facilitate and support focused speaking practice with fluent or native speakers. That, as most English learners instinctively know, is the best and quickest way to improve. The process is as important as the language in the lesson. Our materials for Skype require the student to be properly and fully prepared to speak BEFORE they go online and practice. This means no time is wasted. Practice time online is incredibly valuable to both the learner (they might have to pay for their time in a cyber café or be in a work break) and the fluent or native English speaking partners (who are giving their time and it is rude to bore them or be unprepared or talk about the same thing all the time). You’d be surprised how many learners think it is easy to go online and start practicing their speaking skills immediately. Would you ever try to give a presentation to a room full of people with no preparation? Probably not. Well online speaking practice and language exchange is a bit like that. The more you prepare before you speak, the more you get out of it and the quicker you will improve and grow in confidence and fluency. That’s what English Out There courses do; they provide a proven and effective structure for online speaking practice. They make online language exchange easier and turn it into a proper easy-to-follow course.
Ernest: Students from what non-English speaking countries or regions have been benefiting most from your English Out There program?
Jason: Oh, it’s all over really… always has been, but Asian English students often improve extremely quickly because EOT helps with the particular problems they have faced learning to speak English. For example, many countries in Asia teach in a way that makes learning to speak very difficult and this is aggravated by socio-cultural pressure not to sound stupid when you speak, or as some people call it, to ‘lose face’. The psychological pressure to speak perfect sentences actually makes these students perform worse, even if they have studied English for years and can read and write it pretty well. EOT helps them to get over their fear, slowly at first, and then they make the breakthrough as their confidence grows rapidly. There is a type of student who is tired of the struggle with conventional courses, who has tried everything and still not got anywhere fast and they decide to give EOT a go. It can be a bit scary at the start, but the job of an EOT teacher is to carefully support the students through the first few lessons, to make sure they follow the process properly and complete the tasks. Giving people assurances and boosting their confidence is crucial. EOT is a bit like riding a bicycle, once you have got the hang of it, there’s no stopping you! We pride ourselves on being an ELT program that deliberately prepares students to become autonomous learners, and succeeds.
Ernest: Have your courses included any specific design for students whose native language isn’t English and who need explanations or teaching via grammar translation method?
Jason: Yes, our lowest level self-study and online/one-to-one lessons for teachers come with bilingual instructions in English with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, or Spanish. We are keen to add Arabic and some other languages as in this format, they are really useful for learners who have studied English for a long time but are very nervous about speaking. Having instructions in their own language means they can start with very simple language, understand exactly what they have to do with the lessons, and only worry about the performance of the speaking task and not the language in the lesson. I would recommend very nervous speakers (and teachers who want to learn how to teach EOT) to start with these courses.
Ernest: Has the English Out There program been recognized by the authorities in education in your country?
Jason: No, not really, we were short listed for a British Council innovation award in 2004 but we didn’t win. It was all a bit strange really; it is 2011 now and what we do is still not mainstream; so back then, we must have seemed very strange. Language learning really is only just catching up with us now and as social media and social learning become bigger and more mainstream, I am certain that the 250,000 hours of teaching, development, and editing from a group of about 40 professionals that went into our course books will be well worth the effort. More teachers and students will start to realize that there is a much more effective and considerably quicker way to improve your English.
Ernest: How much does it usually cost students of different levels to take English Out There courses at various levels?
Jason: A student can now buy any 60 hour self-study ebook course with MP3s for just five pounds. That works out at about eight UK pence per hour. One course can change someone’s life completely because it teaches them how to learn English effectively. As I said at the start, EOT is challenging but if you give it a good go and do it with a teacher who can help support and motivate you through the crucial early stages you will learn to speak English comfortably, incredibly quickly—quicker than any other course that is currently advertised. For example, a conversational English course at a large international language school chain in Delhi last year cost $12.38 per hour and in total was the equivalent of almost twice the monthly salary of the average Indian learner. Traditional methods still rely on charging more for classes taught by native speaker teachers. EOT can be taught equally effectively by non-native speaker English teachers because most of the important speaking practice takes place one-to-one with members of the public or online. Our teacher’s materials can be downloaded and printed and copied as much as the teacher wants. In fact, an individual teacher can set up their own, on and offline EOT branded English teaching business for just £125. Institutions can teach EOT by buying a multi-user commercial license. We are confident that we can help a lot more people to learn to speak English, and also do it much more cost effectively than any other English teaching organization in the world. For example, with a teacher and some EOT course materials, any cyber café can be turned into a top quality English school, instantly.
Ernest: Do you think governments should consider the use of Skype in state-run teaching programs for particular groups of people, say for the physically disabled who can’t easily attend a school in person?
Jason: Yes, absolutely! The effectiveness and economies of scale and deployment are obvious but the world, and governments especially, should forget the past when it comes to teaching languages. What has gone before has not worked very well. It is well known that most people who start to learn a language, around 95%, never get beyond the beginner stage. We now know a lot more about the brain and how we learn languages, but still governments and large corporations are pumping out more of the same courses and materials that they have been since the 1980s and 1990s. So many industries and educational fields have moved forward, embracing and practically applying the latest research to the benefit of their end users. Unfortunately, language learning is still shrouded in some unnecessary mystery. It takes a bit of personal effort to learn a language, but anyone can do it. Our brains are all virtually identical genetically and we all learned our first language the same way which means we just need to recreate a similar psychological process and sustain and focus it over a period of time.
Ernest: In closing Jason, tell our readers how one can get registered for a course at English Out There and what are the course availability and timing details?
Jason: You can always get a self-study course, 24/7, just go to our website and buy one with Paypal, Google Checkout, or a bank card; download it; print the first lesson off; do it with a pen and dictionary; then go onto Skype and ask your English speaking friends you met on Facebook or another social network the questions from the lesson you just studied; and have fun getting to know them. If you build up a group of ELPers (we call them English Language Philanthropists), say ten to fifteen around the world in different time zones there will always be someone friendly to practice with online when you have done a lesson. Or just have three ELPers you have regular practice times with each week. Do one lesson a week for 20 weeks and you will be able to speak English comfortably, or we will give you your money back. The way the EOT levels work is that you should choose the level that YOU think you speak English at (research has shown that it is you who are the best judge of that). And that’s it. And if you want more support and guidance at the start, find a teacher either locally or online and use the materials with them. Once you know what you are doing and have done two or three lessons successfully, you will be up and running and on the way to speaking good English in almost no time at all and certainly a lot less time than your previous efforts.
If you want to hear real students improving faster than ever before, go to http://englishoutthere.com/listen; there are also EOT teachers on Facebook with before and after audios, who will be happy to hear from you. One is Nina from EnglishBrno in the Czech Republic. This is what she wrote to me recently, “Lenka has made incredible progress, especially thanks to EOT; I think… she just won't shut up! It's the biggest surprise during the 7 years I have been teaching, that this is really possible, in just 3-4 months!!!” Nina is also a member of our closed teachers’ group on Facebook that helps to provide peer support and advice for teachers starting to use our materials.
Ernest: Many thanks Jason for telling about this exciting development in teaching English.
Jason: No problem; thanks for being interested and giving me the opportunity to tell our story.