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Jim Clark, Owner, Canadian College of English Language

Jim Clark decided to take Canadian College of English Language into the digital age and go ‘paperless’. What developed was the Smrt curriculum which is now used around the world by 70,000 students studying online from 162 institutions. He tells The PIE about the growing pains and ultimate benefits to the online transformation.

The PIE: Tell me about Smrt, what made you come up with the concept in the first place, having run an English language school before?

Our students typically will end up spending one to three hours a night online

JC: I started the college of English language in 1991, so for 25 years we have been doing the traditional kind of language school, with traditional classrooms, traditional marketing, traditional everything. Then my son and his friend came on board and they are digital natives, so they looked at the way to do education and said, time for a change. That was the shift– my generation allowing the younger generation to have a say in the future and have a say in the fundamentals of education and marketing.

The PIE: How did they learn what students at your school wanted from a digital classroom?

JC: They were just going around the classrooms and seeing that basically students were bored with the textbook, the handwriting, the spelling, the dictionary, this whole thing just didn’t fit with their lifestyle outside the classroom. The way they were learning was the same way I learned when I went to school, studying the diaries of Anne Frank, getting marks off because of your handwriting and spelling being super important. Whereas outside of the classroom, it was all digital, it was all keyboard and screen.

The shift was my generation allowing the younger generation to have a say in the future and in the fundamentals of education

The PIE: How did you develop the Smrt syllabus?

JC: We spent a lot of time with teachers, faculties, students and even brought in parents and businesses to ask what skills they really want the student to have. Basically it is language communication through speaking, obviously, but through digital means like keyboard and screen. Integrating those skills, integrating Skype and Google Hangout and Facebook and social media into teaching communication, to make it relevant, to make it real.

The PIE: Tell me more about how you deliver that product then, digitally. Did you deliver it first in the classroom and then sort of exported it as product?

JC: First we decided to do the environmental pitch. We gave ourselves a three year goal for all our schools to be paperless, no paper, no books, no libraries. But that didn’t really work. What happened was we started a couple of paperless classrooms where we beefed up the wifi. Students had to bring their own device, so we didn’t need computer labs, then allowed them to start using digital books and digital material off the internet to teach English.

But what happened was the first classroom attracted the tech savvy teacher who attracted the tech savvy students. So suddenly the best students in the school wanted to be in this class with this 35 year old new guy and not in the grammar class or the writing class with a teacher from my generation. Within a year, the whole school had shifted to the blended classroom and within a year our colleges were paperless, no paper, no library, no photocopier, no handouts, no dictionary.

The PIE: That’s sounds quite successful. What do you mean it didn’t really work?

JC: The motivation of doing it for the environment didn’t work, but what happened was the students were more engaged. They loved the material and the fact they were using technology that was on their laptop or their tablet. Basically all the grammar lessons were turned into videos which we put on YouTube and out there for free. We have had three million hits in three years.

All the grammar lessons were turned into videos which we put on YouTube and out there for free. We have had three million hits in three years

Students could listen on their smartphone to the lesson, they could revisit it, so its very easy and very affordable. Students could integrate their learning in the classroom outside of the classroom and they loved it. It was the engagement of the students and the engagement of the teachers so that suddenly it wasn’t ‘chapter 12 in this textbook on London’.

The PIE: So what you have designed essentially is a structured syllabus around digital learning materials. How do students actually submit their work?

JC: We use Google everything. The student’s exams are online, their assignments are online, or their reading is online or the listening is online. For example for an advanced student, tonight’s homework might be go to CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera English news, watch the news tonight and report on something in Syria or something like that. So watch the three TV channels and write an essay on the differences in reporting between CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera on a particular topic.

What will happen is a student will do that in a half hour period but they will see that the BBC has got Doha debates or something coming up so they will go back to BBC and watch some more television. They might end up watching some football or some awards show, so yes the assignment was to watch CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera but now we have introduced them to this and maybe every night they are watching a show on CNN, or a show on BBC.

Our students typically will end up spending one to three hours a night online, reading, watching TV, watching movies, downloading movies and these sorts of things. So now, instead of the English lesson being in the daytime, the usage, listening, reading and writing suddenly happens for two to three hours a day.

The PIE: Have you noticed that your students are actually learning more quickly than before?

They can get immersed in English online, watching TV, watching movies, reading digital books, downloading books, downloading music, all in English, English, English

JC: Yes, just on the amount of time it takes them to go through the levels has reduced at least by 25%. Now we are delivering offshore, a lot of the students are at universities around the world, maybe taking five to 15 hours a week of English. They can get immersed in English online, watching TV, watching movies, reading digital books, downloading books, downloading music, all in English, English, English. We can immerse them outside of the classroom. Schools and universities around the world that are using our product are getting students racing through the levels, two to three times faster than the norm. It’s all about engagement.

If you can’t engage them in the process of wanting to listen to and read English it is as much a struggle as we have trying to stimulate the 15 year old student in Vancouver to listen to French music, French radio, French culture. But the internet is the perfect tool for that because you get them watching soccer in English or watching awards shows, or Survivor or Amazing Race or America’s Next Top Model or downloading magazines into their libraries, or digital books and getting them reading.

I was visiting recently a Grade 12 class in Mexico and there were 20 students who were graduating from Grade 12 who had been using Smrt. I asked how many had downloaded a book and read it off the internet in the last six months and they all laughed and said of course we have. And these were really good books that they were downloading very affordably and reading them. So then I asked what TV series are you all watching? And they were all using Netflix, watching Orange is the New Black, House of Cards. They are watching them all. And these were Grade 12 kids in Mexico.

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