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Michael Garcia, CTO, Wall Street English

Wall Street English CTO Michael Garcia tells The PIE about his journey from General Electric to international education, WSE’s investment in edtech and whether the language teaching industry is harnessing technology’s potential (spoiler alert: no).

 

When applied within a strong framework, tech will transform traditional methods to create a truly effective blended learning model

The PIE: How did you start your career in the industry?

Michael Garcia: I started my career in General Electric and worked for 13 years across several units and locations in technology leadership roles, supporting various business processes and functions. I held several global roles there and was based in the US, Italy, France, and Hong Kong – through this experience I developed a love for working across diverse cultures.

“There are no hi-tech shortcuts to language learning”

I then moved to Pearson Education, which is where I was first exposed to Wall Street English, formerly a subsidiary of Pearson.  When Wall Street English was sold by Pearson to private equity in 2018, I decided to remain with the business as CTO, since I believed in the mission and global growth potential of the business. I’ve now been in this position for about three years.

The PIE: How did you develop an interest in the application of technology to language teaching?

MG: As a technologist, I’m always looking to streamline and find ways to simplify the journey with technology.  But there are no hi-tech shortcuts to language learning – it takes hard work and hours of dedication, enhanced by practice and personal interaction with teachers and other students. We are very transparent about this, and it’s something our students appreciate.

Many have tried online-only “freemium” language services before, and they only get you so far. They come to us when they truly want to learn. So I find it an interesting challenge to apply the right level of technology to improve the overall experience, while not expecting technology to automate every aspect of the learning journey.

The PIE: WSE has invested substantially in technology. What are the goals for this investment?

MG: We are committed to ongoing investment in new technology to make sure we stay at the forefront of the language learning market. Our initial $20m was invested from 2014-16 and since then we have invested another $6m.

The enhancements have been implemented and deployed globally over the last two years. All of this investment has helped us enhance our blended learning model with technology to make learning as convenient, enjoyable and efficient as possible.

New learning features including mobile apps and digital books allow our students to learn whenever and wherever they want whilst studying English through an engaging TV series.

“A lot of the technology being used looks good, but lacks vision in terms of the learning design”

In addition to developing student-facing features and support, we have also overhauled our internal systems to allow us to deliver ‘Wall Street English in-a-box’, a model enabling franchises to get up and running, and profitable, as fast as possible.

The PIE: How will the investment be used for the benefit of the students?

MG: The benefits of this investment have been implemented globally with the rollout of our new learning platform… to more than 180,000 students across the world.

All WSE students can now benefit directly from a revised curriculum, improved educational content, and a top-quality learning platform.

There are also a whole host of new features that are coming out of the ongoing development funding. For example, our development team in Chennai, India is constantly innovating and testing out technologies to enhance the WSE experience.

We also recently launched the WSE Digital Classroom in China, which now accounts for over 35% of classes in the region. The platform allows lessons to be held remotely, incorporating a chat feature, screen sharing and the capability to have break out sessions for classes with multiple students.

Class materials are hosted via a cloud solution for ease of use, allowing for an animated and interactive learning experience.

Another development is the Say Hello app that helps learners improve their English confidence by having guided conversations with students and teachers around the world.

Learners choose an English level, a grammar or vocabulary topic to practice, and their preferred conversation topics. Then they use audio, text, and photos, in an Instagram-like interface, to have conversations about everyday life and learn about life in other countries.

The app records all conversations, reminds learners to practice, and allows saving the most interesting or useful conversations for later.

The PIE: Is the language teaching sector fully harnessing technology’s potential? What needs to be done in order to enable schools to fully enjoy the benefits?

MG: The language teaching sector is not fully harnessing the power of technology, not yet.

Although there have been many technological advances – for example for connecting learners with other learners or with teachers online, or speech recognition technology –that are changing the way we connect with our students and give feedback, many of the apps we see for language learning that use these technologies lack a strong underlying pedagogical framework for language learning.

A lot of the technology being used looks good, but lacks vision in terms of the learning design. It is important to have a clear pedagogical vision and take an evidence-based approach to developing new learning products to ensure that they are engaging and effective learning experiences. This has been at the heart of the Wall Street English recent development.

“This is a game changer, pedagogically, as time can be spent practising and using the language in class”

Technology is changing the face of English language learning. As technological advances continue, we are expecting to see further changes in the future.

Technology can facilitate higher levels of student-teacher contact, by using the digital classroom. It should not, however,  be seen as technology vs the teacher.

Technology offers opportunities to strengthen the teachers role rather than replace it, for example by helping teachers identify and track student areas of difficulty and track student engagement with the course.

The PIE: What can technology uniquely bring in a blended-learning model?

MG: Technology allows learners to study at their own pace when preparing for face-to-face classes. Not only is this more flexible, but also means that students can review what they’ve learnt, whilst getting constant feedback and formative assessment. The blended learning model is more centred on the learners, rather than everyone having to follow the same pace.

Technology allows for better monitoring of progress, so we can make sure that students are ready for the class (which is essential in a flipped or blended learning approach, so the lesson is not wasted getting those who haven’t prepared up to speed).

This is a game-changer pedagogically, as time can be spent practising and using the language in class, rather than doing very controlled practice exercises that can be done individually.

Traditional classroom learning does have some benefits in its own right. However, supporting students and teachers with, for example, always-on course resources and exercises provides a completely different methodology with a range of additional benefits for the learner.

Similarly, digital classroom functionality, whereby face-to-face classes can take place remotely, removes geographical barriers and limits the impact of diary clashes – making learning more convenient. When applied within a strong pedagogical framework, technology will transform traditional methods to create a truly effective blended learning model.

 

Online learning is the focus of an article in the upcoming edition of The PIE Review. 

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