[EDLING:1530] Guardian Unlimited Technology: Now you're speaking my language
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Thu May 4 21:08:33 UTC 2006
Francis Hult spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited Technology site and thought you should see it.
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Now you're speaking my language
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Now you're speaking my language
A businessman in China plans to deliver language learning to millions through podcasts, cutting out teachers and classrooms
Thursday May 04 2006
Some people may have doubts about the long-term prospects for podcasts, but Dubliner Ken Carroll is not among them. His site Chinesepod.com is one of the top five podcast sites worldwide: it has sent out 3m free podcasts since it was set up last September, and downloads are running around 20,000 a day. But it's not just sinophiles who will find this language-learning site of interest. The site is one of the first and best examples of how Web 2.0 technologies can be applied in business.
Carroll has been teaching English as a foreign language (Tefl) for more than 20 years, working his way across Europe before ending up in Shanghai in 1994. As there were no language schools, he opened one, and today has five branches, 70 western and 35 local teachers serving 2,500 students. But for a long time, he was aware that teaching English in the traditional way had a big problem: "There isn't a whole lot that is scalable when you have classes of teachers," he explains.
Although the arrival of the web in the 1990s looked like a solution, it proved a letdown: "It was essentially just like a textbook," Carroll says; the human element was missing. It was this social aspect that made podcasting so appealing when he was introduced to it in early 2005. "This is personable, it can create atmosphere," he says.
Carroll was also attracted by other aspects. First, the entry costs for podcasting were low: "a studio doesn't cost that much to build" in Shanghai. Second, the turnaround time is fast, especially compared with creating traditional language-learning materials like books -days, rather than years. Finally, podcasts offered the scalability Carroll had been searching for. "You only need one teacher to reach an audience of potentially hundreds of thousands," he points out. Enormous potential
Carroll realised he couldn't use the technology immediately to address the biggest market of all: English for Chinese speakers. People in China aren't yet familiar with subscribing to podcast feeds. So he decided to try the idea teaching Mandarin Chinese to English speakers, another promising market. "We see enormous potential for this approach, to attack market segments that would never otherwise spend money in this context - people who would not take evening classes to learn Chinese, people who wouldn't buy a set of books and CD-Roms."
His business partner, Hank Horkoff, suggests offering all the podcasts free of charge. "That would attract people to the site," Carroll explains. "Then we had to figure out what exactly we would get them to pay for." The solution is extra teaching materials, available from a subscribers-only learning centre: transcripts of the lessons require a basic subscription ($9 a month), while Flash-based interactive teaching materials require the premium level subscription ($30 a month). Currently, there are more than 1,000 subscribers to Chinesepod.
As well as adopting this viral marketing approach, and a standard open-source software stack for the website, Chinesepod draws on several Web 2.0 ideas. Podcasts are presented in a reverse chronological order, with users' comments. There is also a formal Chinesepod blog, and a wiki, where users are invited to contribute entries related to Chinese and China. Every part of the site encourages users to join the conversation. "We obsess to feedback: what are the users saying, what do they want, what are their problems," Carroll says.
All this feedback is pored over by the 30-strong production team, who use it as the basis for future daily podcasts. After the scripts are written, and the premium exercises generated, Carroll and his co-presenter, Jenny Zhu, record all the podcasts for the week, each in a single take. "We even leave in mistakes because it's more natural, it sounds warmer," he says.
The next stage of Chinesepod aims to put the user more firmly in control thanks to another Web 2.0 idea: content tags. "Say you were going to visit China in six months on business," Carroll says. "You could come in, test, find your level, and say: I'd like business-oriented lessons for an elementary [user]." Creating a customised curriculum will be possible thanks to the modular form of Chinesepod, which consists of self-contained podcasts, each dealing with one topic and lasting about 12 minutes.
One measure of Chinesepod's success is that it has been invited to collaborate with Qinghua University in Beijing - the Oxford of China. Carroll notes: "They administer globally the tests for standard Mandarin. In the run-up to the Olympics in 2008, they've been tasked to drive interest globally in the Mandarin language." Prestige boost
Although this will provide a big prestige boost for Chinesepod, the real money will come from teaching English to Chinese speakers. "The prize is probably 1,000 times bigger," Carroll says. "[The Chinese authorities] estimate they need about 1 million English teachers. They'll never be able to meet demand." Podcasts seem the perfect solution. "Instead of trying to rope in hundreds of thousands of teachers ... you just select one or two or three, but you make sure they are the best."
To get round the problem of lack of familiarity with podcasts, Carroll's plan is to go around English language schools in China and offer content free of charge, which can be used as the basis of classroom teaching. He makes his money from students who subscribe to premium content on the Englishpod.com site he has set up.
Carroll's sites have also attracted a flock of imitators. Perhaps the best of these, Japanesepod101.com, even used the same web design and typeface initially. Carroll seems unconcerned that big language-learning companies might adopt a similar approach. "Nobody wants to threaten their revenues with a model that hasn't been proven. We're kind of attacking our own offline business - but I'd rather do it myself than have somebody else eat my lunch."
For their part, those in the traditional language-learning world seem equally unperturbed. As Suzanne Furstner, head of Cactus Tefl, an independent company that represents and promotes the Tefl industry, says: "I doubt very much whether this will render the classroom less necessary. Personal interaction when learning a language is of crucial importance."
Carroll agrees that "language learning is not just about learning words". But he adds that "I think in a few years [podcasting] could really affect [language schools]", not least because it's very much pot luck how good the teachers are. Podcasts, on the other hand, let everyone have the best in teaching, while Web 2.0 technologies can supply much of the classroom's personal interaction.
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