Through English Corner Online, users sign up for free and create a personal profile, as they would on Facebook. They then search for likeminded members to converse with via a VoIP platform of choice, such as Skype or Windows Live.
“The main goal is to help students practise speaking English outside the classroom,” said Jonathan Dykes, chief executive of the IHLS Group, which runs 20 ELT schools and companies worldwide under the IH banner.
“We also think there’s a real need for students to be able to practise speaking with other students from all over the world,” he added. “We all have accents and learning to deal with them in real-time is another major challenge.”
Anyone over the age of 16 can access the site and there are currently more than 3,000 users from over 100 countries. As well as scheduling conversations, students can undertake writing projects and use free interactive apps.
“From a business perspective the goal is to drive some of the users towards some of the other services we offer in our group of companies – courses at Net Languages, courses in one of our bricks and mortar schools, that sort of thing,” added Dykes.
“The goal is to drive some of the users towards some of the other services we offer”
“In due course we will also be looking at the possibility of providing advertising space to other ELT service providers.”
Social networks are becoming increasingly important to language learning firms. Seattle-based Livemocha claims to connect 11 million language learners across 190 countries. Boutique operators such as Canadian firm ESL explorer are also emerging; the company’s platform connects students with language programmes and works with 250 schools worldwide.
Said Dykes: “Social networking is very much in its infancy in the language teaching business, but given the global reach of the internet, it obviously has huge potential.
“English Corner Online is like a grain of sand in the Sahara compared to Facebook. But we think there is a niche out there for a service of this kind, and the response we’ve had from users so far has been very encouraging.”