EF, the world and the web: Celebrating 25 years of online language education

24 November 2021

Few other businesses can claim they have been operating online for 25 years, but SCC patron EF was one of the early adopters. When launching its first online language learning platform in 1997, it was the first online English school in the world. The Link spoke to Peter Burman, President of EF Digital Learning, about the most important lessons learned during its long presence both on- and offline, and how one single trip to the UK resulted in the creation of the largest privately held education company in the world. “It’s been 25 years of learning and experimenting. Creating experiential learning online is more challenging compared to in a physical environment.”

“In general, learning comprises of both cognitive abilities and individual, social and contextual forces, which means that learning a language takes more than just learning the words and rules, but these social affective forces naturally don’t exist online.”

EF is known for its forward-thinking methods in language learning, which have placed EF among the most popular language schools in the world. But Peter admits that it has been a challenge to bring these methods from a physical classroom to an online platform.

“We have had to work harder to make the online learning engaging, by not only focusing on top notch content, but by integrating social stimuli into the experiences, using things like group conversation classes and peer to peer activities. Let’s put it this way: to throw together an app with some exercises is not enough to guarantee that a student stays motivated and learns, there is quite a lot more that goes into it.”

From Sweden to the UK…
Founded in 1965, EF’s experience in language learning dates back more than 50 years. The idea to combine language courses with trips was first born when founder Bertil Hult was travelling to London, and the UK soon became the very first language school location.

Being dyslexic, Bertil had always struggled with school and, not least, with language learning. But when he arrived in the UK, he realised that he was learning English much quicker and easier than he ever had during his school years. “Traditional classroom-based teaching at school had always been a challenge for Bertil Hult. However, when he travelled to London, he was surprised by how effortlessly he picked up English. This experience ultimately prompted his idea of learning a language where the language is spoken.” The first year, Bertil brought 406 Swedish high school students to study on the south coast of England, starting EF’s very first business: EF Language Travel.

… and the rest of the world (wide web)
EF went on to expand throughout Scandinavia, and later launched in Germany and France. In the years that followed, EF continued to widen its range of services offered to learn and improve English. In the 1970s and 1980s, EF started giving classes in business English, created high school-exchange years abroad and collaborated with the BBC to enhance classroom instruction.

The idea of an online platform for language learning was first born in the 1990s. By making the courses available online, Phillip Hult, son of Bertil Hult, saw an opportunity to reach a wide range of new people – people that for various reasons couldn’t access physical schools.

At the time, the surrounding technology was still at an early stage, and EF started exploring different ways of transforming its courses, initially offering courses via CD-rom, then quickly moving them online to create the world’s first online English school. “EF partnered with Apple to collaborate on computer-aided language learning initiatives, starting with CD-roms. However, it soon became clear that the internet was the next big thing. It was already in our DNA to offer these transformative experiences in person, and we saw the internet as an opportunity to deliver such experiences to those who were unable to go overseas. So, in 1997 we started our online journey and launched Englishtown.com, the world’s first online English School.”

As the prediction about the rise of the internet came true, the initiative turned out to be a success.

Finding its place in the new normal
Today, EF is present in 114 countries with a total of 52,000 employees, and it is the world’s largest privately held education company. Only in the UK, EF runs a dozen English schools, the Hult International Business School London campuses for undergraduates and postgraduates, and a regional office in central London. Still, Peter says that EF continues to expand and develop both on- and offline. “We continue to embrace new initiatives and innovations to make sure we stay ahead, and use the available technology to make the learning process effective and enjoyable. Our research teams are focused on using AI and other emerging technologies, setting us up to be ready for what is to come. The end goal is the same – to make relevant and enjoyable learning experiences adapted to each individual learner, wherever they are and whatever their desired leaning outcome is.”

While many educational companies were caught off guard and slow to adjust when COVID restrictions prevented traditional in-person learning, EF was well prepared. According to Peter, being able to offer courses online has created opportunities of great value. However, the purpose of the online platform is rather to complete than to replace the physical classrooms. “Taking education online has allowed us to scale our business and to deliver high quality learning in cross-cultural learning environments for our students anywhere, at any time. The human need for affective connections, however, remains a challenge when shifting to delivering education online. We strongly believe that the role of technology is not to replace human contact but rather to enable better learning experiences through technology, and still with real-life teachers and classmates as a vital part of the programme.”

Instead, Peter thinks that the two worlds – the digital and physical – will continue to coexist, to approach and complete each other. “With a new wave of technological advancements becoming more prevalent, such as AI and the metaverse – a synthesis of digital and physical worlds – we are at a point where online connectivity will transcend looking at a 2D screen. For online education, this means that we can get closer to a truly immersive experience by combining the digital and physical realms. As well as bringing you to New York, we can bring New York to you.“

“Taking education online has allowed us to scale our business and to deliver high quality learning in cross-cultural learning environments for our students. The human need for affective connections, however, remains a challenge when shifting to delivering education online.”

To the future, and beyond
When looking ahead, Peter says that the goal is to continue to break new ground, both with new content and by exploring new markets. “We aim to continue to grow and develop our programmes, both in existing and new markets. Just this year we are launching new content and more languages, as well as a completely new virtual classroom and advanced speech scoring technology into our online programmes. We are also bringing our AI-driven, chat-bot based app EF Hello to more markets to give the more casual English learners a taste of the EF magic. For our corporate clients, we are widening our offer beyond language learning by integrating executive education content from Hult International Business school into our platform.”

Peter shows no interest in slowing down. When asked how EF will celebrate the upcoming jubilee, the answer is clear. “By planning for the next 55 years of EF! 25 years of online education at EF has meant 25 years of passion, experimenting and learning. We believe in celebrating every day that helped us get to where we are today. This jubilee is just one of many more milestones to come on our ongoing journey of opening the world through education.”

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