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What's next in the world of ESL online?

Out of necessity and intent, the use of online learning apps surged during the pandemic. For ESL students and educators, that growth will likely continue.
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Written by Nate Delesline III, Contributing Writer on

In less than two years, the pandemic expanded and normalized online learning in America.

Ninety-three percent of households with K-12 students participated in online learning in the summer of 2020. US Census Bureau data also showed that children from higher-income families were more likely to have access to — and use — online learning resources.

When in-person classrooms closed, school administrators, teachers, and students faced lots of changes. Unfortunately, teachers found that equity issues facing their English language learners meant that these students were more likely to lack the required devices, internet access, or digital skills to access online learning. The pandemic's impact on ESL learning has been challenging and remarkable.

What's next for online ESL learning?

Based only on the numbers, more growth is likely ahead for online ESL learning.

"In terms of technology and language learning, the pandemic has simply accelerated shifts that were already happening," said Sam Dalsimer, global head of communications for Duolingo, one of the most popular language-learning apps.

"For example, historically most language learning has happened in offline settings, like schools or language institutes. For the past 10 years, much of that offline learning has been shifting to online environments with apps like Duolingo."

Dalsimer said this trend accelerated during the pandemic. Duolingo saw the largest impact on growth at the pandemic's outset in March and April of 2020. The app gained 30 million new learners during that time. That represents a 67% increase from the same period a year earlier. The company's growth continues but has since leveled off to pre-pandemic levels.

"More people picked up language learning as a new hobby or shifted from learning offline to online," Dalsimer said. 

Online learning has some advantages in convenience and accessibility. In theory, all you need is a device and an internet connection — and offline practice. But those aspects can also disadvantage students who don't have those resources or support systems. As a result, some students may struggle to learn or thrive in virtual classes.

Chinese crackdown affects thousands

The international language learning community also faced recent non-pandemic challenges.

Bloomberg recently reported that a Chinese government regulatory crackdown has affected multiple business sectors, including education technology and the gig economy. Some language teachers operate in a gig-based economy rather than traditional full- or part-time roles.

Kris Jagasia, CEO of Off2Class, said China's decision affected students, teachers, and people in the education tech world. Off2Class provides virtually-based ESL curriculums and assessments.

After the Chinese regulatory changes, some tech-based language learning companies went out of business. Others chose not to continue operating in China or let employees go. In response, demand for Off2Class's services increased.

Some tutors, Jagasia said, removed their students from platforms the Chinese government shut down and placed them on Off2Class. Others have used Off2Class to get their own independent students.

Duolingo was affected too. The app is not available for download in China right now "but does remain available to use for all of our existing learners there," Dalsimer said. "We're working towards having Duolingo reinstated and believe we will be available for download in China again in the future."

Looking beyond next year

ESL educators, too, will experience industry changes.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment of adult basic, secondary education, and ESL teachers will decline 5% from 2020 through 2030. However, despite that anticipated decline, the BLS said about 5,100 job openings will exist each year. Those job openings will result from people switching to other jobs or retiring from the workforce.

Jagasia said live teachers should always be part of learning experiences.

"As that digitization starts to happen, I think it's really important to focus on ed-tech products that keep teachers involved," he said. "From a motivational perspective alone, there's a really important part that humans play."

When the pandemic subsides and the time comes where people feel comfortable with resuming international tourism, "we would expect to see an increase in people using Duolingo to learn languages before travel," Dalsimer said.

"In a scenario where the pandemic continues in 2022," Dalsimer continued, "we expect there will be continued interest in learning languages for many of the same reasons that led to increases in 2020 and 2021: remote school, connecting with other cultures, and finding productive uses of extra time spent at home."

This article was reviewed by Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Laila abdalla, a woman with curly hair, looks at the camera

Laila Abdalla obtained her Ph.D. in English from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses in English and successful writing at Central Washington University for over 21 years. Abdalla has devoted her teaching and leadership to matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Above all, she is committed to her students' complete experience, raising awareness of BIPOC issues in language, community, and culture. Abdalla leads with equity in management and nonprofit volunteering and develops her own understandings of these complex issues, both professionally and in her lived experiences.

Laila Abdalla is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

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