February 5, 2021

Reimagining Face-to-Face Learning Experiences for English Language Learners During the Pandemic

By: Alexander Broich, President Cengage Global Businesses, Cengage

The COVID-19 pandemic forced 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries out of the classroom, resulting in the largest global disruption of education in history. For the English language teaching (ELT) market, this disruption became an obstacle to the traditional face-to-face teaching model.

Effectively learning a foreign language that enables communication, especially for young learners, is social at its core. Face-to-face English learning creates opportunities for human connections that encourage collaboration and allows learners the chance to read body language and facial gestures, especially important when teaching phonics. On top of that, many English language programs rely on students physically traveling to an English-speaking country to study through an immersive experience. There, students can be exposed to native speakers and culture while practicing daily in an authentic English environment.

As the pandemic forced instructors to adopt distance teaching, they faced a number of challenges including replicating the immersive and social experiences of learning a language in online settings. In a Cengage survey conducted of ELT customers, teachers stated their main challenges with online learning were motivating and engaging learners, providing interactive lessons, reaching students without access to technology and the ability to assess learners. Due to these distance-learning obstacles, the pandemic subsequently led to many language schools witnessing declining enrollment trends or forced closures.

As the head of National Geographic Learning ELT, Cengage’s global English Language Teaching business, I’ve experienced firsthand how our customers have rapidly transformed their teaching and delivery models to ensure learning continuity. I have watched our customers evolve to face these challenges, creating blended teaching models that are more accessible, personalized and scalable. While face-to-face teaching will no doubt return post-COVID, these blended offerings accelerated the ELT ecosystem to better meet the needs of students. During these challenging times, National Geographic Learning ELT partnered with our customers to deliver the best possible experience for students. Below are some of the examples of these efforts.


Kaplan International Pathways UK

For one partner, Kaplan International Pathwaysa global education provider that prepares students for entry to leading universities, face-to-face learning didn’t just happen in the classroom. Its study abroad programs in English-speaking countries provide students the opportunity to develop their English language skills and apply them in real world situations. As COVID-19 limited travel for students, it was Kaplan’s decades-long experience and deep understanding of English language teaching, including the use of interactive, online tools already incorporated into their curriculum, which allowed them to quickly pivot to digital course delivery. In order to elevate student experiences when all learning moved to online formats, Kaplan knew it needed to create a compelling and accessible array of synchronous and adaptive asynchronous learning materials. Our teams worked closely to ensure we were providing instructors with the resources needed to teach confidently. We collaborated to create and then shift a customized learning ecosystem into the virtual space, allowing students to continue or commence their course remotely. The project began by coordinating and scheduling a complete Learning Technology Integration (LTI) deployment of our eBook content through Kaplan’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). In order for Kaplan to monitor student progression we created custom courses for our interactive gradebook and delivered an adaptable and downloadable assessment suite — all supported by comprehensive training and support. The Classroom Presentation Tool became the heart of online learning, allowing teachers to present and demonstrate new language and skills, create opportunities for practice and manage classroom activities. We continue to work side by side with Kaplan to build digital capabilities, deliver effective courses remotely and expand its reach.

Apollo English

When the pandemic hit Vietnam, Apollo English, one of the largest language schools in the country, needed to ensure teachers were properly trained to use technology to create engaging experiences for its young learners. National Geographic Learning worked with Apollo to provide more than 120 first time distance instructors with a training series that showed best practices and tools available to reach learners and meet student needs. Our teams have also been collaborating to create a flexible digital environment that integrates our compelling online practices with Apollo’s learning platform and allows teachers to track their students’ progress in real time and communicate directly with parents. Apollo also discovered through teaching in distance format that bringing powerful storytellers to share their experience of the outside world and promoting student voices in the classroom has a positive impact on learning outcomes. Apollo and National Geographic Learning have teamed up to create customized events, such as ones where students can virtually meet and be taught by a National Geographic Explorer (scientists, researchers, and powerful storytellers from around the globe) which motivates young learners by bringing the world to their classroom. Together, we will continue to develop academic support, including training and curriculum work, to enable advanced teaching and learning opportunities with technology.

Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano (CCCN)

Costa Rica based Centro Cultural Costarricense Norteamericano (CCCN), the largest binational center in Central America, faced technology infrastructure issues but recognized the necessity of providing students access to learning materials outside of the classroom. To start, CCCN had to address the digital learning challenges that arise due to a weak or lack-of internet throughout many areas in the region. Our team is working to ensure the provided materials can be used offline and has also worked with CCCN on a distance learning strategy specially adapted to its needs. Furthermore, we provided support on new curriculum, personalized customer support and a new teaching training program. These strategies are enabling CCCN to expand their business, reaching a growing number of English language learners who previously found traditional face-to-face learning inaccessible. What started out as emergency distance learning is becoming an established and effective virtual learning program.

Our customers have proven that reimagining education and teaching models to reach the diverse needs of English language learners is possible – even in the face of unprecedented challenges. I am eager to imagine what global education will look like in 2021 and beyond. We are moving towards a more hybrid language learning model; one that combines face-to-face instruction in virtual and physical classrooms, synchronous and asynchronous learning and fully integrated digital solutions – often in combination with print texts. While classroom face-to-face language teaching and learning will likely resume after COVID, the developments during this pandemic have created more digitally enhanced product portfolios that enables teachers to effectively teach no matter their location.