The Next Billion Learners: Disrupting English-Language Education Programs

For the next billion English-language learners, free mobile apps will teach vocabulary, grammar, listening and reading. Meanwhile, domestic-based teachers will improve their speaking and writing skills thanks to emerging-country startups.


IELPs at American universities and domestic English-language learning centers currently dominate the English education market in the Global South, but growing online options and improved technologies could soon change that.


Companies that start out providing service training for less-advanced skills will, over time, catch up with universities in terms of quality and branding through sheer scale. They will, ultimately, disrupt the entire global English-language education marketplace.

Some of the best English-language training in the world has been provided by International English Language Programs (IELPs) housed at American universities. On a beautiful West Coast campus, top-quality business English programs are often offered for almost $1,000 a week. Many students make spectacular progress during these courses, but not everyone does. In fact, in my own experience, one group of government officials from an emerging country hardly showed up for half of the expensive sessions; they were on an incentive study trip covered by a private corporation, and were trying to balance study with sightseeing and shopping.

American universities can obviously only serve wealthier English learners within a limited geography. Sending professors offshore expands their reach only a little bit; costs may be more efficient, but there are only so many trips a professor can make each year. Domestic English training centers in emerging markets, therefore, are in better position to serve local students. As workers around the world face pressure from globalization, thousands of English-language centers are finding success in Hanoi, Sao Paolo, Accra and Budapest alike.

However, looking at the next billion learners, these face-to-face centers can still only serve a tiny fraction. They are only really viable in bigger cities, as the expat native-language speaking teachers and more skilled local teachers rarely want to live in the countryside. Even in the cities, many busy professionals are reluctant to sign up for classes scheduled for fixed times twice a week or more, when they would have to battle rush-hour traffic to get there and their hectic schedules could change anytime.

It’s no surprise that hundreds of online English training services have popped up, with the highest growth coming from people accessing sites or apps from inexpensive smartphones. Software is now sophisticated enough that vocabulary, grammar, reading and listening can be taught effectively without human teachers. For these skills, software can serve up learning nuggets for self-study, and provide the instant feedback needed to engage students. Gamification solves the motivation problem. More importantly, popular apps such as Duolingo have figured out good ways to monetize training, such as leveraging learners to offer crowdsourced translation services to third-party websites and therefore allowing it to provide learning for free to users and maintain explosive adoption.

Pressure from these ‘freemium’ services, and practically zero variable costs, mean the price of learning content everywhere is trending toward free, and most players will eventually have to adopt ‘freemium’ models. This (combined with quickly-improving data connections, even far into the countryside) enables ever larger audiences to learn via ubiquitous and inexpensive smartphones.

For teaching speaking and writing skills, software is still limited by the inability to provide valuable and timely feedback, as speech and text analysis algorithms still have room to improve. Human teachers are still required here.

In the Philippines, there are millions of potential teachers with near-perfect American accents, available at very affordable costs. Online virtual classrooms can connect them to students anywhere in the world. While higher-income urban learners may still prefer native-speaker white teachers, more price-conscious students everywhere, including China and even Japan, are flocking to services such as TutorABC and Rarejobs that offer the opportunity to learn English from high-quality Filipino teachers.

This is a classic recipe for total industry disruption. When Toyota started making affordable subcompact cars with basic functionalities, the Mercedes’ and GM’s of the world did not see them as a serious threat to their high-end vehicles with more sophisticated features. Toyota gradually improved to eventually compete on quality, and even created their own high-end brand, Lexus. IELP providers in the United States and urban premium English training centers in emerging countries today still justly pride themselves on providing high-end immersive learning experiences. Online language educators are still only able to train students for less advanced skills. Gradually, however, with incremental improvements and innovations such as Topmito Glass — the first Google Glass app for immersive speech tutoring — online services will catch up in quality, and may even create their own Lexus brands.

The Evolllution