The Changing TEFL Industry

Some would say it’s already changed.

It used to be that if you were a language student, you had to come to us, the experts. Language schools, teachers, and course books were the gatekeepers that controlled access to knowledge. It used to be that you had to come through us if you wanted to learn a language.

Not anymore.

Just as the internet changed the way music industry works, it has also started to change the way languages are learned and taught, forever.

Language schools no longer control access to the best language learning methods, materials, or data. We are no longer the gatekeepers, and so we can no longer afford to be complacent.

Learners have access to online tools that can help to practice their listening, reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary. For speaking they can connect to a native speaker for a language exchange. All for free.

For all of us in the TEFL industry – teachers, trainers, managers, product writers, and owners – this has profound consequences for our jobs and careers.

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  • Adam Hughes

    Hi David, and thanks for another thought provoking article .

    I’d argue that you’re a bit ahead of the curve here actually, and that a lot of these tools aren’t sufficiently developed to replace teachers (thought I’d be very interested to be pointed in the direction of resources that prove otherwise). Many tools are quite gimmicky, for example, tools to build vocabulary have always existed, and while iPads and websites have made them more visually appealing and efficient, packs of mini-flashcards to flick over (or DIY cards!) have served the same purpose for decades.

    There are two big reasons for which I see are jobs being protected a little while longer, the first of which is that a lot of quality, graded content requires a fee, and the industry for analyzing the quality of that amongst foreign markets is still very immature. If you Baidu different coursebooks for self-study, or different graded readers, it’s hard to find many solid recommendations. Speaking specifically about young learners, it is an absolute nightmare to find engaging authentic content for free which a typical Chinese middle school student would be able to follow (let alone paid for). This obviously becomes less of an issue as learners become higher level and have the linguistic ability to pick from and gain more from resources (e.g. my wife who seems to learn most of her English from Modern Family these days!), but these students have long since begun to fall in the trap of paying companies like EF or Webb for pre-produced graded content (with a teacher thrown in).

    The second one is simple motivation. The majority of people need a bit of a push, and for whatever reason, paying for a teacher and lessons helps people feel a sense of urgency.

    I suppose a neat analogy of language learning would be like going to a gym. You could go to the park and run around there for a while, use the monkey bars, slides and benches to do all your sit-ups and whatnot for free. While Nike and wearable tech are making that more enjoyable, people still pay to go to the gym…

    • http://www.barefootteflteacher.com/ David Weller

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for the comment (and so sorry it’s taken so long to answer; MA dissertation, new baby, and new job have delayed my posting on here!). You made some excellent points, all of which I agree with… let me explain.

      First of all, I don’t think our jobs are necessarily in danger, but rather our job roles and focus are going to change. Teachers (good teachers) only a little, but product writers, marketing, sales and service
      staff a huge amount.

      The autonomous language learning industry is most definitely in its infancy, but is developing fast (I really will have to do a students’ resources page soon). So I agree with your rather good analogy of going to the gym (language learning, after all, is a physical skill too, I believe!).

      What I see is not a complete change over to autonomous learning, where every student has to become an expert at language learning theory (i.e. become their own personal trainers), but rather as these gimmicky apps mature, they will become a near-complete language learning solution in themselves, no theory required.

      As more attractive alternatives become available to students (that are more motivating, more professionally produced, available cheaper, 24/7) schools will see their students leave faster than before, dissatisfied. Marketing and sales will still find schools more students… but students that
      are unhappy, unsatisfied, and bored. Jobs won’t be in danger, but they’ll be jobs that teachers won’t enjoy doing.

      You’re also right about the level of the learner making a difference; the current apps that are beginning to work for higher level learners will gradually be made more accessible for lower level and younger
      learners.

      Finally, I agree that motivation is what teachers are what makes teachers important. My point is that motivation will soon be the only reason that students come to a language school. Therefore, the way we teach is going to have to change.

      Hope that all made sense (it does in my head at least) and thanks again! I’ll expanding on points in the next few posts.

  • Jason

    Hi David,
    first of all, I have to sat that Adam put if VERY nicely and the simile is quite accurate. I have to agree with his point and declare a bit further that I do not think our TEFL jobs are EVER at risk. Autodidacts have been around since the beginnings of time and the truth is: teachers are rather unnecessary. We have gotten around for hundreds or even thousands of years by learning on our own or without the structured, compartmentalized learning of the 20th century classroom. Anyone has the capacity to learn anything by themselves. However, the VAST majority of us are not disciplined enough (for the lack of better words) to work on it on our own…even if the materials were good!!! (but as Adam made clear, they are not). The reality is that regardless of the techno-developments of this century and the development of better self-learning materials, we will always need the extra push, the encouragement (after all, positive reinforcement is something we must keep up in the classroom at all times), the knowledge that you can rely on the instructor for questions on any random thought that comes to mind when you are perusing a specific grammar point or whatever it is…this and other reasons are what brings students back to class.
    I myself have studied a stupid amount of languages and I can confidently say that I have enough structural/linguistic knowledge to learn a new language on my own even though a lot of material isn’t so good for a lot of foreign languages out there BUT I wouldn’t want to do that.
    One important thing that just came to mind is the simple fact that we disagree on linguistic/cultural issues that learners face on a nearly daily basis and trying to prescribe a norm sounds very old-fashioned to me. The richness of the discussion is something learners will never get from a “self-help” book.
    I think you might be being overly dramatic on this one :)

    • http://www.barefootteflteacher.com/ David Weller

      Hi Jason,

      Thanks for commenting! You’re quite right, I was being a little over-dramatic :-)

      I agree with you that we’ll always need teachers, and our jobs are safe (I’m not a prophet of doom, promise!), just that they’ll have to change focus – please see my reply to Adam, above.