Now more than ever, we are used to going online to get things done, whether it’s booking a holiday, ordering dinner or meeting with clients across the world. But it’s not always easy to transition to digital interaction and right now, educators in particular are struggling with the challenge of online learning. How effective are online courses when it comes to students’ abilities to learn new material? In 2006, educational psychologist Mary Tallent-Runnels found that test scores are largely the same between online courses with face-to-face learning. But more recent research seems to contradict this notion, showing instead that the vast majority of online learners receive lower scores and find coursework to be more difficult. In addition, test results aren’t the only way to measure effectiveness. When looking at course completion rates, it seems that online courses are far weaker than their traditional face-to-face counterparts.
So what does this mean for eLearning providers? Angela Ruiter discusses the challenges that students face when learning a language online and how Wall Street English works to integrate the key missing ingredient: the human element.
Angela Ruiter | Interview
Angela is a global marketer with a strong background in education, having spent the first three and a half years of her career at University of Illinois at Chicago in the College of Urban Planning & Public Affairs. In 2008, she took up a position in Barcelona, Spain as Marketing Manager at the language education center Oxford House: overseeing website development projects, the creation of retention and ambassador recruitment strategies, and lead generation event management.
She leveraged this experience to transition to her current role as Mobile Channel Marketing Manager at Wall Street English, a global English language brand with an innovative digital platform at the core of its learning method.
Hi Angela, thanks for joining us. Can you go into more detail about what Wall Street English do?
No problem! Wall Street English provides a unique English learning method where students learn through a digital platform as well as regular touchpoints -either online or in a center – with a coach and teacher. We try to have computers provide the parts of the learning experience that computers are best at and people provide the parts that people are best at. We’ve been around for over 40 years, taught over 3 million people, and currently have over 120,000 students in 29 countries. We have a very refined process—if you follow it, we are 100% confident you will learn English. We’ve worked out that there are three main things that you need in order to learn a language:
- Frequent, natural interactions in the language
- Feedback and correction
All our students have coaches and teachers that can help them out on a daily basis, provide feedback, ensure that they are progressing through their learning journey and invaluably, provide our students with the motivation required, a personal trainer of sorts. People are generally quite bad at staying motivated when things get tough, so it’s great to have an outside party who ensures that you don’t give up and do achieve your goals.
For over 40 years our course has combined technology and people to guarantee the best possible learning experience and success. The first version of the Wall Street English course was a strange little computer-like box—people would have to come into our learning centres to listen to it. That evolved into CDs and DVDs, but we’ve now fully digitised our course. It’s currently a TV series similar to Friends that Students watch in clips on web or mobile, then interact with to practice speaking, pronunciation, reading and writing, before meeting online or face-to-face with their coach or teacher.
Can you tell us a bit more about your career to date and what your role specifically entails?
Personality-wise, I really like tinkering with things, and I have strong communication and web development skills that were honed during my time at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)—so this role is absolutely perfect for me.
I’ve always worked in education, first at UIC, and then at Oxford House in Barcelona. It was here that I began to grapple with the challenges of digital marketing and I became really obsessed with working out how to attract more customers. For example, I found it revelatory that the best-performing classes, commercially speaking, weren’t the ones where there was a certificate to be earned at the end—they were the ones that prioritised the social element of learning (e.g. weekly classes with a large group of fellow students).
Since then, I’ve seen this emphasis on social learning play a key role in our work here at Wall Street English, and it’s something that our students demand.
What have been your biggest challenges to date?
I was initially hired to manage a new social platform Wall Street English would offer students to complement their learning in the course. The company had found itself in a tough position; fewer and fewer people were going into centres and yet they knew that the social element to learning really keeps people engaged—so they wanted to bring the community and engagement aspect online.
The social platform didn’t end up making commercial sense to keep open, so we shut it down. In the end, it didn’t actually solve the problem it was meant to. However, it was not a wasted investment, we were fortunately able to glean some great insights from customer data that helped guide our decision-making going forward.
What was the one main thing that you learned from this experience?
The power of asking “Why?” Too many people simply accept things around them and carry on regardless. From the start, some things about the social platform didn’t make sense to me, but I was the new person and didn’t speak up. But over time I gained confidence and learned that expressing doubts can get the team talking and prevent wasted time and resources. We were then able to make a clear decision about whether the social platform was worth it for our students and the business. Sometimes, people just don’t think it’s their responsibility to ask “Why?”. However, if something doesn’t make sense, question it!
That’s a great point. How did you turn this around?
When I first joined, Wall Street English students could access their course on mobile, but the brand had no presence on mobile for prospects. The research we’d conducted showed that most top-of-funnel English learners were on mobile— it made sense to refocus some of our efforts on this channel.
I was then asked to head up our marketing app development which turned out to be a really exciting project. It took 6 months to get a version in beta, and we spent the first 3 months just talking to our customers and putting prototypes in their hands; really early prototypes were just feeds on Facebook or WeChat that replicated the type of content we proposed to have in the app and we got great insight from that! You can’t hope to develop an app that users will love if you don’t even speak to them, so this step was critical in ensuring that we were on the right track. I’d say that this was the single most important element of the project.
It seems like customer communication is pretty important for WSE, is that true?
Absolutely—customer communication is of the utmost importance to what we do. After developing the app (and realising the power of engaging with customers), I moved into looking at our end-to-end messaging strategy – from prospect through to student. We mapped out all the different stages of the funnel and brainstormed how we could best engage with customers at each step of their journey to deliver what they need and drive business.
This year, we’ve fully developed a cross-channel customer contact plan that has been really useful in shaping how we communicate digitally. Digital communication has arguably never been more important, and events such as COVID have forced us to expedite the process of transforming the way we interact with our students.
So how do you ensure that this digital communication remains as human as possible?
We rely heavily on our teachers and personal tutors for this. Tutors are often Wall Street English alumni—they have been through what our students are going through and can truly empathise with their challenges. At the very top, our Managing Director is always speaking about the people element to our business: how our primary focus is on bringing people together, touching people’s lives, helping them change their futures, and connecting them with each other.
It is a core part of our DNA. As we standardise and digitise, we ask ourselves every day “How can we retain the human touch in everything we do?”. For instance, in 2021 we’d like to introduce further student preference functionality. Students each have an email, push, and in-app contact plan to make sure they’re progressing, but they can also tell us about other factors that may affect their learning experience such as holidays, sickness, increased workload.
Instead of simply trying to make sure students are learning as much as possible, as quickly as possible, we try to make sure our digital messaging is truly personalised and helpful, keeping each student on track to the pace they want to be advancing at right now. This is a key factor in ensuring that we remain as human as possible at all times.
Why digital learning needs to be human
Social interaction plays an important role in learning. Students can learn from each other, ask the teacher questions, discuss amongst groups, and receive ongoing, real-time feedback. eLearning companies need to work out a way to leverage the power of social interactions while teaching to a group of disparate students across digital channels.
Here are a few ways in which they can do this:
- Have tutors regularly check in on individual students
- Create study groups
- Introduce group projects into the curriculum
- Set up Facebook groups for each course and encourage students to communicate with each other on social channels
Of course, these are far from exhaustive—they’re just a couple of ideas to help you make sure that your students aren’t missing out on social interaction. By combining the comfort and ease of online learning and the power of human connection, you can ensure that your students are getting the best learning experience possible.