What Language Providers Need To Do To Succeed In The Post Covid Age

The demand for language training remains strong in the ‘new normal’. Prior to Covid, center-based learning was the preferred channel for English learning (67%*). In 2020, due to Covid restrictions and lockdowns, online was often the only channel available for learners to continue their training courses.

How has Covid impacted the language training market? What challenges and opportunities have arisen? What key differentiators do language providers now need to consider to get ahead? Panelists Bindi Clements(Instructional Design and Efficacy Manager), Ivan Croxford (Director of Marketing) and Lex Baker (Director of New Business Development) discussed these topics in a recent webinar, hosted by Marie Breuil (Development Marketing Manager), on December 10th, 2020.

Watch the on-demand video of the panel discussion on “How to Succeed in the ‘New Normal’ of the Language Training Market, or read a synopsis below.

*HTF Market Intelligence, 2018

The Pandemic had a Heavy Impact on the Language Training Market

As with many industries worldwide, the spread of Coronavirus had a major impact on the language education industry throughout 2020. While most face-to-face learning was able to shift online, destination learning was severely affected due to travel restrictions.

Panelist Bindi Clements refers to the English UK report from July 2020 on the “Impact of Covid19 on the English language training sector in the UK”, showing student numbers down by 82% and a loss of revenue of half a billion pounds (nearly US$700m) in the first half of 2020 (compared to 2019) in the UK only.

Being able to rapidly move online was key for center-based providers during the pandemic. However, many freelancers, the self-employed and smaller organizations struggled, as they didn’t necessarily have the capacity or resource to transform their business so quickly. This limitation sometimes led to business closures (read more about the concern over English language school closures in the UK) or conversion to brands better prepared for online delivery (see example of converting to Wall Street English). 

“This pandemic was a ‘wake-up call’, as the education industry has always been slow to react in terms of technology and method innovation. It made all of us aware that markets are changing. The industry had no choice but to react, and this was a real shock to the system“, explains New Business Development Director Lex Baker.

Clear Opportunities to Improve Language Training in the Post-Covid Age

Asked about the opportunities that have opened up to the language training market in 2020, Instructional Design and Efficacy Manager Bindi Clements believes that “the demand for learning English isn’t going away. So as destination learning is not available right now, there can be opportunities for language providers offering an immersive experience in their home country. Also self-access online learning platforms such as Duolingo and Busuu have seen a huge increase in student numbers and usage.”

“There is definitely an opportunity for providers to invest in infrastructure and methodology to combine face-to-face classes and online learning – giving the learners greater choice and accessibility.”

Bindi explains how Wall Street English switched from in-class to digital classroom in just a few weeks as a reaction to Covid (learn more about how the company has responded to Covid-19): “In February we went from offering nearly 1,000 online classes to 1,500 learners, through delivering 12,000 classes to nearly 27,000 students in March, and then reaching over 38,000 classes to nearly 96,000 learners by the end of April. I strongly believe that there’s a real opportunity to develop the online market”.

However, Bindi states that “online learning is not perceived as effective nor as enjoyable as in-center learning. Nowadays language providers have the opportunity to improve the quality of online training, but also the quality of the technology used and the learning experience – and prove it is effective for the students.” (Read more about the research on the effectiveness of online classes in language learning.)

Clements continues explaining that “online teaching is a lot more than switching an in-center class into a digital platform such as Zoom. It’s about blended technology and collaborative learning: you need to connect teachers and students, inside and outside the classroom, using technology.”

“After all, technology will not replace teachers, but it will help teachers to do their job more effectively,” concludes Bindi Clements. 

Customer Satisfaction with Online Learning Improves by Increasing Engagement

“Guaranteeing customer satisfaction online can be very challenging, not only for languages, but for any kind of training”, Bindi explains. “You need to make sure you deliver a fantastic learning experience, a frictionless customer journey to your students. Online learning needs to offer flexibility – not only how but also when they want to learn. You will also need to provide a lot of support, in terms of technology or learning, and also in recognizing and celebrating the progress of the learners with them: this is key for their motivation.”

Flipped learning (watch video below) can be a very useful approach for the online channel. Bindi explains that “students are assigned learning content to prepare ahead of the class, and are then able to practice what they’ve learnt during the class with the teacher and other learners. That’s really motivating for them. They want to complete the preparation beforehand, as they know they will use it in the classroom”.

Finally, Bindi adds that increasing student interactions, creating communities and offering interesting and varied content also contribute to increasing engagement, which in turn improves customer satisfaction.

Consumers Will Look for Value, Results and Digital-Led Solutions in the ‘New Normal’

“While these difficult times have been the most disruptive in my whole career”, explains Marketing Director Ivan Croxford, “it has also been interesting to see how consumer behaviors have evolved”. The McKinsey & Company study on “Understanding and Shaping Consumer Behavior in the Next Normal” (July 2020) reveals that consumers will shift to value and will be less loyal to brands than in pre-Covid times. This means language education brands should look at new ways to meet consumers where they are today and satisfy their needs in the post-Covid age. 

Ivan Croxford believes that “education providers will stand out by demonstrating value, efficacy and a successful learning outcome to the consumer, especially when the perception of online learning so far is that it is cheap and not effective.”

“Another interesting aspect is that now people care a lot about brand purpose, whether companies deliver on their brand promise or not, and how they treat their employees and customers. Customer service will ever be so important in the new normal!” explains Ivan Croxford.

The McKinsey & Company study mentions ‘The fight to digital AND omnichannel’, referring to consumers looking for digital-led solutions. “In the ‘new normal’, unlike the kids’ segment, online learning for adults will be a more persistent trend: it is more convenient and people do realize that it is actually working!” states Ivan, before adding:

“There will not only be a notion of omnichannel in purchasing behavior but also in the offer, in other words mixing face-to-face with online learning. I believe this is the biggest challenge for the market right now”.

Balancing Revenue Streams and Costs Efficiencies to Get Ahead of the Market

Looking forward, New Business Development Director Lex Baker believes that “in order to provide consistency and quality, language providers need to consider a good balance between revenue streams and cost efficiencies, with an operating model able to survive a crisis.”

“Making your business more adaptable and flexible than in the past will be key for the industry, considering it has become difficult to foresee the near future”, adds Lex. “This means from a business perspective that you need to avoid relying on a single sales channel and try to build security by accessing different revenue streams for your product or service”.  

Baker then adds: “in terms of cost efficiencies, the real challenge in education is that a lot of the industry usually relies on big groups, which is naturally problematic in current times, and it appears it will probably last another year or two. Groups need to be smaller, and businesses need to look at being more efficient in their cost, in the use of the floorspace, the use of their teams and staffing, in the way they manage their classes. This means inevitably – and I believe this is a business opportunity for the industry, with consumers now being more used to online learning – a shift towards blended, flipped classrooms or virtual models”.

Succeed through Differentiation and Expansion of the Addressable Market

Asked about what the key differentiators of successful language providers will be in the ‘new normal’, panelist Lex Baker recommends “demonstrating that you deliver results and creating value, especially when online learning is generally perceived as cheap. Then you have to work on the overall experience: does the brand deliver what consumers are looking for? Does it provide an engaging experience?”

“Taking the example of Wall Street English, we have strong brand recognition in urban areas, however there is a big drop outside those areas,” comments Ivan Croxford. “Online learning enables us to address this new segment either with a flexible program combining online and in-person, or online only. There’s also an opportunity to reach out the corporate market, through teaching online to companies and institutions.”

Ivan then concludes: “Simply put, adding online into your mix expands your addressable market enormously.”

Investors in Education Searching for Longer-Term and Omnichannel Models in 2021

“In the Global EducationInvestor Summit [held in December 2020], industry experts said that in nine months, the education industry has changed as much as it normally would in five years. We’re facing interesting times in the industry, even though very challenging” Lex Baker states.

“From what was said in this summit, a high portion of the industry in 2025 will still be face-to-face. For that reason, investors continue to believe in brick-and-mortar models, even if they are being more diligent and cautious right now”, explains Lex Baker.

“As an effect of the Covid crisis, investors are now looking for longer term investments with more adaptive and flexible models delivering lower financial risks. They are looking for models that deliver omnichannel”.

In terms of delivering learning outcomes, experience and engagement, Wall Street English will continue to invest in its brick-and-mortar model. “As our main market is busy adults, it’s all about offering choice, offering the best option for their lifestyle. It’s all about personalization and adaptability. We know consumers want that, that´s why we now offer our courses online, in-center or a combination of both in our product mix”, Baker concludes.

If any questions about online learning, converting a brand to Wall Street English or franchising opportunities, feel free to contact us.

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