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BEhereBEthere: An Adventure in eLearning



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I have an eLearning site for Business English at It's early days and I'm on an adventure. This is 'my story', but the article is also fun and controversial, and it's about all kinds of general eLearning issues.

BEhereBEthere: An Adventure in eLearning

  1. 1. 1/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. BEhereBEthere: An Adventure in eLearning and eTeaching by Paul Emmerson This article is ‘my story’. On the way it’s also a fun and controversial look at the general world of eLearning. By sharing a little of my journey, I hope you might have a few reference points for your own. Contents Origins (2010 to 2012) 2 Shocked and bored at lunchtime 3 Is Bore And Score disruptive? 4 Questions and stories 6 ‘Completed’ does not mean ‘Learned’ 7 A black box 9 My eLearning is cold but I don’t blame the restaurant 9 One final blast 11 Just do it 12 SMEs and IDs 13 eTeaching: a dual SME/ID role 14 Authoring tools and LMSs 15 Launch and early marketing 17 The future 18
  2. 2. 2/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. Origins (2010 to 2012) Back in October 2010 I launched my website for teachers It has tips and techniques for teaching Business English (BE). I post to it occasionally, when I have time. You might be reading this article from that site right now. The site has been moderately successful in raising my profile and doing a little brand-building for my print books. After the site had been going for a year or so, I began to think about having a site for learners, an eLearning website for Business English. The following thoughts were vague concepts going round in my mind at the time:  Print is under threat, and therefore so is my livelihood as a print author.  I would like a final big challenge for the last period of my professional life (I’m a baby boomer).  My print books are self-study, and eLearning is a self-study medium. So there should be a good match of skills and strengths.  I am a very experienced BE teacher – my students often tell me how I am ‘best in class’1. Somehow there must be a way to bring that experience into eLearning. I was realistic, and knew from the beginning that an eLearning website is a stool that stands on three legs: content, technology and marketing. I had lots to offer on the first and nothing to offer on the second and third. I would deal with that later. Next, I needed a name for the website. All the domain names with combinations of real words are long taken. I decided on BEhereBEthere. ‘BE’ for Business English. ‘Here’ and ‘there’ to get across the idea of learning here at your computer and using the language there in the real world. It sounded kind of catchy. And the domain name was available. I set up a holding page on the web in early 2012 with a lead capture form to get subscribers’ emails. I added a clickable box at the top of my teacher site that linked to the holding page. 1 Pun intended.
  3. 3. 3/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. I took my first steps to create content. I started doing video interviews with my real students. I knew that their knowledge of the business world, and use of business language, would be interesting to other learners of English. We did the interviews at the end of the day, and after I had got to know them personally in class. Today I have around a dozen interviews, of which Tobias is the first to make it on to the site. I took my first small step to market the site. In early 2012 I was working on a self-published book called Management Lessons, which was a photocopiable resource book. I put some small text at the bottom of every worksheet that said ‘For students:’. I imagined teachers using the worksheets in class, and afterwards the students going to the site to have a look. Some did – I got a small but steady stream of names in the email subscription list. I did little else on BEhereBEthere for a while. I spent most of 2012 writing the 2nd edition of Email English, and of course teaching. Shocked and bored at lunchtime The next important moment was early 2013. At that time I had two students in my classes who mentioned in passing that they had access to eLearning websites, paid for by their companies. I showed interest, and we logged on over several lunch breaks. I had a good look. The sites were English Town (owned by the EF language school chain), and GlobalEnglish (which had been bought by Pearson just a few months before – too soon for them to have made any changes). I was shocked by what I saw. There was lots of material on the sites, true, but it was all just so boring. The term ‘bulked up boredom’ describes what I saw. The presentation stage would be a ragbag of words, grammar items or phrases with no clear context. The practice stage would be very easy quizzes leading to an inevitable big green tick and ‘Completed’.
  4. 4. 4/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. I am a print author with over a dozen books to my name and I know what it is like to send off a first draft, think it near-perfect, and get back a tsunami of comments. I am sure that the content I saw on those two sites had not been through a proper editorial process. The content had been farmed out on a fee basis to someone with little experience of writing and no personal incentive to do the best possible job. I also realized the importance of the Learner Management System (LMS). I saw that the user experience (UX) was mediated as much by this as by the content itself. The LMS is the platform that holds all the courses: you log on via the LMS, you navigate around the various courses inside it, it tracks your progress, it keeps your scores, it allows you to communicate with a tutor, etc. These days an LMS would also have some social tools for learners to chat to each other and build a sense of community, and the best also provide a tool for live online lessons using webcams. Is Bore And Score disruptive? What was going on here? Both the sites I had looked at were very successful. Let’s stop for a moment and think about eLearning in general. During 2013 I had lots of discussions with colleagues who knew much more about eLearning than me2. I started reading eLearning blogs – general eLearning blogs, nothing to do with English Language Teaching (ELT). The phrase ‘Bore and Score’ kept repeating. It seems it was a well-known problem in the industry. Everyone was trying to tackle it. Blog posts with names like ’10 Tips to Make Your eLearning More Engaging’ were everywhere. A typical ‘Bore-and-Score’ course looks like this: read a Powerpoint slide (perhaps with fancy graphics, perhaps not), press Next, read another Powerpoint slide, press Next. At the end do an easy test where you get a high score. The course shows as ‘Completed’ on the LMS. One week later you’ve forgotten 60% of what you read. One month later you’ve forgotten 90%. No- 2 Thanks for all your time and input, David. Much appreciated.
  5. 5. 5/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. one cares or even notices. But you feel that somehow you have ‘done’ some eLearning, which must be a good thing. You’ve jumped through some hoops. Here’s how it plays out in real corporate life. You failed to follow our company’s compliance procedures? It’s your fault. We gave you everything you need to know on our eLearning platform. The LMS shows you completed the course. And it’s there for you to go back to, any time. The company has no responsibility for your failure. In the old days a trainer would stand in front of a flip chart and train. Trainees would make notes in a ring-bound folder. There would be Q&A, interaction, people working in small groups to apply the input to their own situation. The small groups would report back, and short discussions would follow. Coffee breaks with crunchy biscuits would punctuate the proceedings. The social presence of colleagues was a motivator. Mental processing of the input by trainees would happen in a dozen subtle ways: active listening in order to decide what notes to write; doing the writing; deciding which questions to ask; listening to the answers; mobilizing the information in your mind in order to discuss with others; thinking how to apply the information in the input to your own concrete situation; discussing that personalization and how true or relevant it was; reporting back; listening to other report backs; etc. In the eLearning world, the trainer has gone. Too expensive. Too inefficient to repeat input again and again. Instead, the contents of the ring- bound folder have made it onto the LMS. You can read them anytime anywhere without the tiresome bit of going to the training room, listening to the trainer, being provoked by their questions, and interacting and discussing with everyone. Much cheaper. But a disruptive technology that will revolutionize learning? Possibly, eventually. But only if a way can be found for the level of cognitive processing to be much deeper than just passive reading, on your own, in front of a screen, with an easy quiz, and rapid forgetting. And disruptive technology can fail if the future disrupts it. I remember when we were all going to be living in Second Life, and I remember a language eLearning start-up in that space. Turns out we want to live in First Life + social media. I remember how the mobile revolution meant we were going to be consuming most of our eLearning content on smartphones, and so native mobile apps were the future. Turns out we want to continue a course across time and across different devices, so it has to be web based.
  6. 6. 6/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. Questions and stories So, returning to the two eLearning language sites I had seen, I think I could now explain what was going on. Inside a company the training manager has a legitimate question: Why should I buy subscriptions to an eLearning language site for all our employees?. The answer to this question is not ‘To help them communicate effectively in an international context’. That is a story that training manager and company employee both need to believe, and need to be helped to believe. Modern marketing, as my students never tire of telling me, is all about helping us to tell stories to ourselves that we want to believe. The real answer to the question is this: To give our employees something when they come asking for English language training that is cheap, looks like it will help them, and means that they will go away and stop bothering us. The word ‘cheap’ in that last sentence needs qualifying. As an example, we are talking about spending mid six-figure USD for access to eLearning for low five-figure numbers of employees worldwide. That first headline figure looks a lot, but it works out about $20 per employee per year. Compare that with the cost of having those employees taught in classes by teachers from a local language school: $20 per employee might buy a couple of hours of teaching time, once, for a small group. The business case for eLearning of English is therefore very, very compelling from a company’s point of view. Never mind that the content is boring, and that mental processing happens almost entirely in working memory with little transfer to long-term memory. It’s much cheaper than face to face. End of story. Now I understood something else. Both the sites I looked at had a ridiculous number of ‘levels’, I think 12 for one and 15 for the other. The students who had given me access to these sites said they were under a lot of pressure inside the company to move to the next level. For example, in their
  7. 7. 7/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. annual performance reviews they were always told that moving up to the next level on their eLearning platform was a target for next year. So that’s it. The training manager, or HR department, has to show Return on Investment (ROI). Having employees move to the next level is the metric that shows the R bit of that. “Move up a level, please. We managers spent money on this and now we need our own personal story to help us believe it was justified. We need to believe it was an investment not a cost.” And while we are telling stories, here’s another. I heard it directly from an eLearning sales person who was introduced to me by a colleague. One day this sales person was pitching an eLearning language product to a corporate, and on that particular occasion he lost out to Rosetta Stone, who got the contract. On asking the training manager later why RS had won the contract, he was told that they had a team of ‘motivators’ whose job it was to check the LMS activity of employees. Any individuals showing low levels of activity would be called by the motivators and given an inspiring, motivational pep talk on the phone about why they should spend more time on their eLearning. Amazing! We make rational decisions about how to spend our limited time, but the vendor needs to get their contract renewed, so they offer a desperate solution like this. And the corporate customer thought it was a good idea. ‘Completed’ does not mean ‘Learned’ Another thing struck me as I investigated the world of eLearning. Everywhere I looked, there was an implicit assumption that a course showing as ‘completed’ on the LMS means that the material has been ‘learned’. At the extreme end of this, there were sites where ‘Completed’ generates a certificate to show you have learned something, with no external validation, no chance to fail, and no need to show active use of the information in the course. Take a moment to think about learning to play a musical instrument. You might study the notes of a particular tune, go over small passages again and again to practice, and then finally ‘complete’ the playing of it. You would do so carefully and laboriously with the instruction fresh in your mind. But it’s
  8. 8. 8/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. another matter to play that same tune freely and fluently at an unplanned moment. Or take learning how to drive. You might understand how to do a difficult maneuver like reversing round a corner, and you might ‘complete’ it on your first or second try, but it doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. The crucial thing here is the distinction between passive understanding and active use3. An eLearning website, by itself, can help with passive understanding. A lot. No question. But active use in the real world is altogether another thing. Active, spontaneous, fluent use of language happens after revision and recycling of the input, and after a lot of speaking practice and interaction in real time with others. Active use of a particular language item can happen weeks/years/never after passive understanding. Yes, I do agree that moving from passive understanding to active fluency can be helped with the use of a good eLearning platform (eg speaking practice in virtual classrooms using webcams4). I just ask that claims of learner progress should have integrity, that learning should be recognized as learning only when it is deep and long-lasting. What I see is that many eLearning companies are built on ‘completed means learned’. The market accepts that claim willingly – customers need to believe the same story. They want a quick fix to their learning needs. But I have to tell it as I see it, from an experienced classroom teacher’s point of view. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve has not been surgically removed from our brains. Learning is not a straight line through levels. There are sudden advances, long plateaus, frustrating reversals. Learning something difficult all the way to active use is a long, slow, messy process. Many people won’t make it. Completing a course is just a small stepping stone, not the destination5. 3 More accurately, the stages in learning a language item are: awareness  understanding  ability to manipulate in a practice exercise  slow laborious production with errors  further practice of the previous two stages fluency with spontaneous and accurate use. 4 Be careful hyping this up too much. Drop-out rates in this kind of course are very high – the user experience in front of a screen looking at the webcam faces of the teacher and other class members is very different to being face to face. Online meetings were meant to kill off business seats on airlines, but they haven’t. 5 With the BEhereBEthere LMS I have options to show a course as ‘Completed’, print a certificate, and much else that gives an illusory sense of learning and discourages spaced repetition. I had great pleasure in unchecking the boxes for all these options. And I explicitly encourage spaced repetition in an FAQ.
  9. 9. 9/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. A black box In conclusion, I spotted a common thread to all of this. The eLearning vendor and the eLearning corporate customer were both speaking the same language: ‘competitive edge in a globalized world’. The issues of eLearning as text-based soon-to-be-forgotten Bore And Score, or the validity of ‘completed means learned’, were uninteresting and unwelcome questions for both sides. The customer wanted a low-cost response to their employees requesting training, and the vendor could supply it. Win-Win. The eLearning content was of little interest. A black box. I confirmed this conclusion easily. I looked at the websites of the corporate eLearning providers. Were they proud of their great content, inviting potential customers in to have a look? No way. It was all articles in MBA-speak about English as a global language, ROI, etc. The website was there to argue the business case for buying the eLearning. These arguments were designed for spoon feeding to the training manager, who could then take them in turn to the Finance Director for the final decision. Remember: I am recounting my thoughts and experiences during the start of my adventure in 2013. The websites I refer to must be better now. My eLearning is cold but I don’t blame the restaurant There was just one piece of the puzzle missing in my mind: why did my two students (the ones who showed me the websites) not complain? They didn’t think the sites were brilliant – after all they had come all the way to Brighton to learn English with me – but they weren’t complaining. In fact, no users of any eLearning products I have ever spoken to have ever complained.
  10. 10. 10/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. I now have three interconnected answers for why users of eLearning are not more demanding. I think these points apply to all eLearning of any type and within any sector (corporate or academic or private). First, ‘What You See Is All There Is’. This is a powerful mental process, named and described by Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast And Slow’. It describes how and why we fail to look for alternatives in our current situation. It’s because of mental laziness6. In a corporate context, if an eLearning subscription has been bought for you, then you are grateful. It’s better than nothing. You are not aware of alternatives, and are not given a chance to evaluate them. What You See Is All There Is. In an academic context, you are simply told to use one particular product by your university and you have no choice. What You See Is All There Is. And in a private context, the local language school (if one exists) may be too far and too expensive. So you are grateful there is an online alternative. And once you’re hooked by the free trial, then the site provides you with comfortable familiarity. What You See Is All There Is. After a time you even begin to feel part of the tribe of other site users. That’s your tribe now. Second, ‘I need to prove to myself that I have good intentions’. eLearning depends on what a student of mine once called the ‘good intentions’ business model. Fitness centers and gym clubs work on good intentions. You sign up, pay your money, and go once or twice. Then, after some initial easy progress, you realize just how difficult it’s going to be. It rains on the evening you’re due to go, and you give up. But here’s the thing: you don’t blame the fitness center. You blame yourself. You were never good at exercise. Your body shape isn’t right. You have other demands on your time. The situation with eLearning is very similar. People give up. But they don’t blame the website, they blame themselves. You never were good at languages. You’re too old to learn. You have other demands on your time. The ‘good intentions’ business model is tricky to criticize. After all, some people will indeed benefit from the fitness centre – it might even change their lives. The fitness centre has every right to exist. I think the clue is to look at the pricing policy. If the fitness centre, or the eLearning provider, over-promises at the start, takes your money, and then under-delivers, it is showing its true colours. It has a business model based on inactive users not cancelling. This kind of provider needs the user to say: ‘I have good intentions. My subscription 6 Every time in your life that you said ‘I should have done it sooner’ you were a victim of WYSIATI
  11. 11. 11/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. proves it. It tells me a story about myself that I want to believe in. I’ll go to the gym/do some eLearning … tomorrow’. And note this very important point about pricing policy in a ‘good intentions’ business model. Many eLearning sites will offer you a low-cost trial period, but only AFTER you’ve given them your credit card details. You have to actively unsubscribe after the trial period. Are they hoping you will forget? Well, it’s fine with them if you do forget. But it’s actually much more subtle than that. They know you are unlikely to unsubscribe, even at low levels of site use, because by doing so you are telling yourself the story: ‘That’s it. I’ll never learn English’. No-one wants to tell themselves this story. My third reason why learners don’t complain is ‘I don’t have the usual set of questions I would ask about other products’. eLearning is a new industry, and users don’t have an established set of questions about the quality of the product. Such questions might be:  Is my attention held by this site? Is it fun and engaging? Is there enough variety as I move from course to course and section to section? Is there video and listening and speaking alongside text?  Is the presentation of new language clear? Are the explanations good? Is there a clear context for new language or are words and grammar presented in isolation?  Are the practice exercises and quizzes well implemented? Do the exercises challenge me at the right level? If I get an answer wrong, do I get feedback?  Are there plenty of opportunities for recycling in new contexts?  Does the site have integrity in how progress is presented to the user? One final blast While I have your attention, I will give one final blast from my soapbox. If you ever see the words ‘Learn a language just like you did when you were a child’, you know you are in the presence of fools. Please think about any first generation immigrant community in any country in the world. Language-wise
  12. 12. 12/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. they are like children there, surrounded by comprehensible input, highly motivated, and engaging in endless real-life tasks. How easy is it for them to learn the language of their adopted home? It’s hard. Very hard. The truth is this: our learning processes are completely different before and after puberty. Before puberty, we soak up language like a sponge, with little cognitive effort. After, it’s cognitive effort all the way. First generation immigrants will confirm. Just do it So, picking up my chronological story, it’s 2013. I have identified the weaknesses in the Bore And Score ‘reading and forgetting’ eLearning model. In response, I have a vague idea of bringing experienced teachers such as me to the screen, and drawing on that experience to eTeach. Time to write a proto Business Plan. I’m looking at it right now. Detailed, enthusiastic, but naïve and over ambitious. I put a lot of energy and time into it7. Soon after writing it, I read a blog post on Seth Godin’s blog8. It said something like this: business plans are useful as a brain dump, but little else; all business plans look out of date a year later; what matters is putting something out there; just start – produce something, get a reaction, and iterate and iterate; let the business opportunities emerge by themselves. Or something like that. I agreed with it. I tore up the business plan. Now it’s summer 2013. I am teaching at my language school. At the end of September I am going to receive my royalty payment for my print books. If it’s big enough, I can finance our family for six months over the winter and start unpaid work on BEhereBEthere. We have already taken some steps to reduce costs: no replacement for our 12-year old Toyota Yaris, a switch from a repayment mortgage to an interest-only mortgage, no holidays for a while. The royalty arrives. A nice surprise. Who said print was dead? We’re off. A self-financed journey into the unknown. I’m focused and ready. 7 Thanks for taking the time to make all those detailed comments, Vicki. Much appreciated. 8 which I get in my Inbox every day and read and savour like a fine wine.
  13. 13. 13/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. SMEs and IDs First, some background. In the world of eLearning there are two important roles: the SME and the ID. Let me explain. SME stands for Subject Matter Expert and is the person with the specialist information in their head that needs to be transferred to the screen. In the ELT world, someone like me, an author (or ‘content creator’), is an SME. ID stands for Instructional Designer and is the person who brings the SME’s information onto the screen in the form that the site user experiences. Instructional Design is a well-established and well-paid job category in the US, with its own professional association called the eLearning Guild. In our ELT world, the ID role would combine some conventional print roles such as content editor, copy editor, graphic designer and project manager with other non-print roles such as knowing how to use authoring software and an LMS. The SME and ID work closely together to get the knowledge in the SME’s head onto an eLearning platform. The SME hands over to the ID in the form of Word documents or Powerpoint decks or (increasingly) head-and-shoulders video with the SME talking direct to camera. For the SME that’s largely job done, perhaps just reviewing later. They don’t get their hands dirty with the authoring tool and the Learner Management System. The ID does. The ID starts work: bringing the text or slides to life on the screen, doing page layout and graphic design, creating branching scenarios to take the user through the material, creating quizzes to test knowledge of the material, and generally creating all the images and interactions you see on the screen as a user9. 9 With a Bore And Score course the ID has the unenviable role of putting lipstick on a pig.
  14. 14. 14/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. eTeaching: a dual SME/ID role With BEhereBEthere I am both SME and self-taught ID. For me there was no option to work with an ID: I didn’t know any IDs, let alone ones willing to work for free. But, more importantly, I was absolutely sure that I, the experienced classroom teacher, needed to make my own decisions about how to deliver my content in this new medium. Remember, I want to do eTeaching. I knew from the start that I wanted to bring into eLearning my authentic teacher’s ‘voice’ and presence in the classroom. This would be a major USP for my project, missing elsewhere10, and relatively difficult to replicate. Here is what I am good at: selecting language, explaining it, getting students to notice it and internalize it. When I am at the whiteboard, in class, I am completely in my element. I know how to make my input motivating and engaging and focussed and relevant. Ever since leaving university I’ve been a teacher, and for nearly forty years students have been telling me how much they enjoy my lessons, how much they are learning, how they finally understand something, etc. So, for me, eLearning is a way to deliver my classroom teaching style and experience on a screen. The ‘e’ part means that someone somewhere can learn without me being physically present. I’m simplifying of course, but that was my thinking in October 2013. Let’s take a concrete example of how I worked in those first few months, to show the mix of SME and ID skills. It’s a ‘behind the scenes’ look at me working at my desk as an eTeacher. My example will be those Vocabulary Development videos that appear in both Talk Business and Business Bites. 10 except perhaps for the Khan Academy
  15. 15. 15/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. 1. I thought up the idea of using a whiteboard as a background for slides in Powerpoint. I’ve spent all my life in front of whiteboards, and the whiteboard background image helps me the eTeacher, and the elearner, to activate the roles and mental states associated with teaching, learning and paying attention. 2. I chose which language to present on the slides, according to level and the topic being taught. 3. I chose how to explain this language, according to level. 4. I experimented with how to actually present text on the slides (lots of dead-ends here). 5. I experimented with how to reveal blocks of text one click at a time, and how much to reveal with each click. 6. I experimented with how to ‘audio narrate’ the slides. Many options here, both technical and pedagogical, and many dead ends. Unexpected issues: noise from the computer fan or from cars going past, a bad cold that gave me a strange voice and halted my workflow for a few weeks. 7. I experimented with how to edit the narrated PPT slideshows after completing them. 8. I experimented with options for how to pull the narrated slideshows from the private YouTube channel where they are uploaded into the website. 9. I thought of quizzes11 that tested both the content of the text on the slides and the content of the narration that I spoke. 10. At several points in the above process I asked an editor (someone I had worked with on my print books) to look at things. I implemented her suggestions. In all this, there was a constant process of experimentation and iteration and feedback. It was all new and a lot of fun. Authoring tools and LMSs Chronologically, we are now around January 2014. I have the Tobias videos and the Inbound videos that you see on the site all done. The next step is to pull these in to an authoring tool to create the on-screen layout, create the navigation through the course, etc. I also need to write the quizzes and implement them in the authoring tool. The finished courses then need to be uploaded to a Learner Management System to host them. 11 The word ‘quiz’ is used in eLearning, but in ELT we would call them ‘controlled practice exercises’.
  16. 16. 16/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. So, a decision: which authoring tool to use? I wanted an established name with good technical support. There are three ‘big names’ – Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate and Lectora Inspire. I chose Lectora. A 400 page manual, tons of online help videos. A very steep learning curve. I spent January and February getting to grips with it. But then, after a couple of months, I abandoned it completely. Why? Two reasons. First, the overall look and feel were old-fashioned and over-complicated. Second, the finished, published output is not ‘responsive’ to screen size. So it looks great on a PC, but on a smartphone some of the screen is missing off the bottom and you have to flick up a little to see the navigation arrows. Not good. What now? I looked at a ton of new cloud-based eLearning authoring tools. The cost is reasonable, the functionality is good, and the look is clean and modern. Also, they combine the role of authoring tool and LMS, so that once the course is created it can sit right there on the same platform. You can put your own URL so that it appears on the web as your site, but behind the scenes you are using their platform as your LMS. Great! Much better. But there is a catch. You, the website owner and content creator, pay for the number of learners that access the courses. Of course you get a certain number free, but after that you pay per user. Hopeless for me. I wanted unlimited access for tens of thousands of users, many of them just one-time interested experimenters. I wanted users to be able to browse and click around freely without any need for log in. Just like a regular website. I looked at one provider after another, sent emails. Not possible. Then the solution came along. Like most solutions to complex problems in life, it was very simple. Here it is: use Wordpress (WP) as the platform for the website, and use a WP plug-in as the LMS. WP is best known as a blogging platform, but more and more it is being used for regular websites. Is there a WP plug-in that functions as an eLearning LMS? Yes. It’s called LearnDash, it costs around $100, and once you’ve bought it, that’s it – there is no issue of anyone charging you per user because the users are just visiting a normal Wordpress website. Other advantages: I was already familiar with the WP dashboard because my existing site for teachers is a WP site. WP is a robust platform, and there are tons of other plug-ins for whatever future functionality you need. Also, freelance techy help is widely available. You need a good techy, a fellow freelancer, to design and set up the site. They hand the site over to you as a Content Management System (CMS), so you can
  17. 17. 17/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. upload further material yourself without the need to get back to them too often. Great! A solution to the ‘technology’ leg of the three-legged stool that I referred to at the start. LearnDash. Cheap, a clean and modern-looking user interface, and other freelancers around to build the website and set it all up. But what about the drawbacks and risks? Well, there is one of each. The drawback is that it is a new tool, still a little buggy, and still missing some features that a more expensive product would give you. For example, the quiz types (T/F, multiple response, drag and drop, Cloze) are given by LearnDash and you are limited to how they work there. An example: drag and drop to complete a sentence? Sure – you’ll see that often in BEhereBEthere. But drag and drop to the middle of a sentence? No, it can’t be done. What about the risk? That’s easy. It’s the baby of just one developer, Justin Ferriman. I’m sure he has a team of collaborators, but if he ever loses interest and goes off to work on something else, then we LearnDash users are left up the creek without a paddle. Having said that, Justin responds to queries quickly. Amazing really as he also blogs about eLearning and is developing the tool and adding new features all the time. Obviously, a bit of a hero. Launch and early marketing I finished the content for the launch site in April 2014, but there was still a lot of LearnDash web development to do. I went back to teaching over the summer, and my tech guy got to work on the web stuff. Another September comes, and I get another good royalty payment. That means I can self-finance for another six months over this coming winter. Now we are up-to-date. Today is Friday October 10th 2014 and BEhereBEthere is due to go live next week. Let’s now take two paragraphs to explore the third leg of the eLearning stool, marketing. My initial ‘marketing’ will be to email my subscribers, email my existing BEhereBEthere subscribers, email my past students whose business cards I kept, post an update on LinkedIn, post to my LinkedIn groups, write a press release, and speak at the next BESIG conferenc.
  18. 18. 18/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. That’s it. I don’t want to do loads of social media promotion just yet because there isn’t enough for learners to do once they get to the site. I need to manage expectations downwards a little in the early days. I need to tell people explicitly that the site is ‘under development’ (I do this on the homepage). Over the next year or so content will build. I have ideas for grammar, meetings, report writing, and much else. And I could go on adding more Talk Business and Business Bites courses for ever. At some point I hope that word of mouth will start to kick in. This needs to be both ‘learner to learner’ and ‘teacher to teacher’. There are Classroom Activities, so the site is suitable for learners working alone or blended learning with a teacher. So, that’s my marketing plan. It might not look like much, but the total cost is zero12, which by coincidence is exactly my budget. The future One of your questions is probably ‘how will he make money from this?’. It’s a good question. I self-financed last winter to get started, and will now self- finance again for six months to build up the site a little. That’s all coming off the back of my print royalties. I can’t keep doing that for ever. I need to repay that mortgage and get another car at some point! I have two vague scenarios in my mind. The first is that BEhereBEthere acts as brand building for my name, just as my teacher site does. This will, in theory, have a direct impact on my print book sales. If my print sales doubled as a result of BEhereBEthere, the extra royalties would allow me to work for a reasonable time every year on the site. For the last fifteen years or so I’ve been writing a print book for half the year and teaching for half, so in a way this would simply be a continuation of my previous lifestyle. The second scenario is more ambitious. It means expanding what is on offer and involving other content creators. These folks will need paying, and if possible I’d like to give them some kind of ongoing royalty as well, not just a 12 The conference is paid for me by my language school. Thanks, Peter!
  19. 19. 19/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. fee13. A significantly expanded site will also mean more work for my small team of freelance collaborators: editor, web development, someone to do my social media, etc. To raise money for all this, I would have a freemium model of some kind: many courses still free, but a small annual subscription unlocking greyed- out courses and perhaps other premium elements. That’s several years away. What about start-up venture capital (VC), perhaps in a couple of years, if the site does well? That would mean giving away my shares to outside investors who have no interest in English language teaching. The way VC works is that they take a risk and give you money, in exchange for some of your shares. After a few years they look for an exit, at a profit. Their exit strategy is to sell their stake in your company to a dinosaur company who missed out on a market trend and/or has no internal innovation process. The dinosaur needs to keep buying start-ups to stay in the game. No thanks. I want to play in my corner of the sandpit without a grown-up telling me to stop making a mess. And remember that we are moving into an era where Coursera, Udacity and edX offer online learning for free14. In this brave new world where no-one expects to pay for learning, we will see what happens to the dinosaurs and their paid-for sites. It might be that VC has no-one to sell to in ten years’ time. In ten years’ time the world may also be awash with eLearning ‘certificates’ that certify that on one occasion, some years ago, someone read some text on a screen and did a quiz. In a world where everything is free and easy, nothing has any value. In the famous ‘Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies’ my feeling is that we have passed the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and are on our way down to the ‘trough of disillusionment’. The ‘plateau of productivity’ that awaits, beyond that, will be an eLearning with deeper levels of cognitive processing, more rigorous certification, and blended rather than online-only solutions. Paul Emmerson, October 2014 Version 1.3 08/11/14 Postscript. A colleague suggested I include some good language websites that are providing a positive user experience. The following, in alphabetical order, 13 Without any income to the site I’m not exactly sure how a royalty would work, but that’s another question. 14 They haven’t taken over education quite yet. Drop-out rates for their courses are incredibly high (>90%). For learners in developing countries they are undoubtedly a good thing.
  20. 20. 20/20 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated. all have a good reputation amongst people I trust: BusinessEnglishPod, Busuu, EnglishCentral, EnglishUp, Newsmart, SimpleEnglishVideos.15 Some others, which you might expect to find in the list, I find too gimmicky, or too focussed on learning lists of individual words. 15 It would be nice, with all eLearning websites, if we could look at sample content with no login (not a promo video or ‘tour of the site’). This would give us a feel for the UX and the learning process before we give our email and/or credit card details for a trial period. I’m not holding my breath.