Let me introduce you to a student.

Let me introduce you to a student. Monica is 20 and was born in 2013. She has an older sister and a younger brother and is in the process of doing a degree in Human Resources and Personnel Development. She’s been learning English pretty much all her life, but because she didn’t really pay much attention in school and just did enough to get by she doesn’t feel that confident in her ability. She did an online test that she found and it told her she was B1 level. She doesn’t really know what that means, but she’s talked to her parents and her friends and what she’s been told is that it’s not a good thing.

Her father told her that his company does employ English language speakers, but that it can’t afford very good speakers, so it tries to recruit people with only a little bit of English as then it can pay them less. Her friends told her about their older siblings. Some of whom have very good English and are now employed by companies in an executive / management fast track. Others don’t have such good English and they are finding life difficult – overqualified for some jobs and underqualified for others, life is tough in the middle.

This helps Monica decide. She goes online and does a search for courses to help her improve her English. She finds several providers, but decides that the Camsonford ELT Publishers are exactly what she wants. She does their diagnostic test online, which requires her to complete a grammar and vocabulary item test that approximately gauges her level and then to do reading, listening, writing and speaking. Her writing and speaking are measured by an algorithm that looks for certain key language behaviours and error patterns common to certain levels.

Based on this, Monica is offered a number of different course options. She can either purchase a straight grammar and vocabulary development pack that targets her level of acquisition, or she can pay for a certain number of hours using the online suite (which also includes the language development pack). Or she can pay for a number of hours using the online suite with mediator assistance, though this last one is the most expensive option.

Mediators are employed directly by Camsonford ELT and they spend their working lives online in what is effectively a distributed call centre model. Mediators log in to their own computers and are paid according to “effective hours”, which in essence means they get paid for the amount of time they spend actually helping people. Time merely spent logged into the Camsonford ELT portal isn’t paid per se, but they have to be logged in so that they can pick up as many interactions as possible. Language clients, like Monica, can always ask for a specific mediator, if they have developed a good rapport with each other, but the online asynchronous nature of the program makes this difficult and if clients want a quick answer to a question, they can throw it open to the field and the first mediator to log the interaction, gets paid for the time. Mediators can also “trawl” for business by offering support and encouragement to the clients, but the system limits the number of unsolicited interactions so as not to overload the language clients. This leads to a system where support and encouragement is constantly being offered to the language clients and where help is always available, but where Camsonford ELT doesn’t have to pay for it on a constant basis.

Monica, however, isn´t quite sure about the benefits of having a mediator, so she opts for the middle option, where what she produces is judged as correct or not by the computer. She pays $400 for a 100 hour course (it’s only $400 because she paid the whole thing up front, depending on your payment plan it could go as high as $650 for the same course). Every time she logs in, the timer on her personalised front page tells her how much time she has left. Top up hour packages are available. At any time, Monica can do a level test and change the level of the material she’s working with.

And let’s leave Monica there, staring at her computer screen late at night, trying to work out which order the words in her negative inversion sentence go in.

This is called a case study from 2034, but in truth, all of the technologies involved and most of the content exists now. These are the pieces of the jigsaw spread out across the table – and lots of people are working hard to see how they might fit together.

What do you think? Visionary or madness? How do you think the roles of teacher, learner and publisher might change over the next 20 years or so? Do you think there’s a role for the language school? I’m not so sure.

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