After the Plague – the post-Covid greening of ELT

Christopher Graham, one of the founding members of the ELT Footprint community, shares his thoughts about the future of ELT in a post-Covid world.
posters showing the message "life is postponed"

As a birthday treat this week, I found myself emerging, bleary-eyed and blinking, into Central London for the first time in months. Our lockdown has loosened, but the area around Tower Bridge was a ghost town. No tourists you see, not a selfie stick in sight. And of course, no purveyors of plastic Big Bens, over-priced ice cream or hot dogs of dubious provenance. What has become of those people?  Further afield, what will become of the hotel staff, airline employees or cab drivers; all dependent upon the tourist trade? Equally, there were almost no locals going to work; many are working from home or are ‘furloughed’ – (the buzzword of 2020 in the UK – when the government pays part of your salary so, in theory, you keep your job). 

But there’s a huge trade-off. Reports tell us that London’s air is cleaner than ever. 

Forbes on 16 June 2020, quoted evidence from the Business for Clean Air Taskforce:

“Maintaining remote working after the coronavirus lockdown in the U.K. could cut two airports’ worth of emissions and eliminate 11.3 billion miles of commutes, a British clean air campaign has found.” These are per annum figures by the way and of course unemployed people don’t commute either. 

This is the dilemma we will all have to face in the post-Covid 19 world. Even if we consider it desirable, it will be months or years (if ever) until the global tourist trade goes back to previous levels, with the attendant use of thousands of flights. Many of those furloughed or laid off will lose their jobs, as will many other workers.  

Yet there is a huge potential environmental dividend, but try telling that to the plastic Big Ben-selling couple who can’t feed their kids. 

Global ELT is, of course, in a considerable state of flux as the Covid-19 pandemic spreads around the world but, unsurprisingly, many of the opportunities, dilemmas and challenges in some way mirror those in the ‘real’ world.  The most obvious so far has been the closure of branches of large educational businesses. The EL Gazette reported on school branch closures on 10 June 2020, and interestingly it seems that it’s the large multi-branch operations, often but not always, private equity-run. The EL Gazette says:

“As one report on private equity points out, very high levels of debt mean that “The company can only be financially viable in a booming market or where revenue streams continue to rise.” When lockdown hits and the cash stops flowing, they’re toast.”

Perhaps it’s the smaller-scale, owner-run operations built on actual financial foundations that will prove to be the sustainable ones. Time will tell.

In order to ascertain how the pandemic may give us in ELT a chance to literally clean up our acts in environmental terms, we need to spend a moment looking at our footprint. Please forgive me if I write this in a rather UK-centric way, but I hope what I say can transfer to other settings. 

There are many areas in which ELT needs to clean up and I look at some of them below, with any post-Covid opportunities. In essence, my main point is that we are likely to see fewer students studying English in the private sector globally – at least face-to-face – and that we need to manage the re-engineering and regrowth of our institutions with due consideration to the climate emergency.

Ah, one other thing, if anyone spots the term ‘new normal’ anywhere in this blog, please have me shot. It has to be the cliché of the new decade.

Online learning

The Covid pandemic has forced the vast majority of ELT institutions to teach online in some form or other and, having personally worked closely with a number of organisations in their (temporary or not) transition, I can tell you it’s been a rocky road for some. We all still have a lot to learn – but learn we will – I think if we as a community continue to develop an understanding of our needs and we learn how to use the tech to meet those needs, it will be a real game-changer. In fact, some degree of online delivery has an environmental impact on most of the other points on my list and is outlined under each heading. The extent to which institutions continue to incorporate online learning into their provision after a return to some degree of ‘normality’ is going to vary a lot, and within government schools will likely be driven by broader ministerial decisions. I really hope that the environmental benefits of online will be a major factor in this decision-making. Let’s take advantage of the hand of cards we have been dealt. Bearing in mind, of course, that online is simply not an option for many institutions in the developing world.

I think it’s going to take us a while to get a grip on online delivery, and this is not the place to discuss approaches and methodology for the online space. That said, this quote from Inside Higher Ed on 10 June 2020 is alarming. It’s not specifically ELT but the point stands, and we as educators need to take heed:

“But for all their differences in age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, citizenship and intellectual preparedness, they universally agreed on their evaluation of online learning: they hated it.”

In essence we need to get on top of this – there’s plenty of good quality training available – but being dragged kicking and screaming online is perhaps the best thing environmentally, and possibly (once we do get on top of it) academically, to have happened to us. How we make the tech. work for us (especially in areas like motivation and assessment) is someone else’s problem, not mine, but it’s vital we do. 

As ever, there is a but, a big but. The huge global servers that facilitate our online delivery are themselves significant contributors to the climate emergency. 

I know. You can’t win. 

It’s a statistical nightmare and way beyond my capabilities to compare the impact of servers with a dramatic reduction in the number of students jetting around the world – see below – but this work will inevitably be somehow done. 

This quote from Data Center Knowledge in April 2019 is encouraging:

“The most important next step right now is simply education – and getting companies to realize the importance and benefits of more eco-friendly data centers. The technologies to counter this growing data center dilemma are available and ready to use, and they deliver the double advantage of optimizing performance while also reducing environmental impact. Our data centers don’t have to harm the environment, if we take the proper actions today.”

Study Abroad 

Now this is the controversial one – but it’s also the big one – many jobs relied on the ELT study abroad market as it was, pre-Covid. Some of those jobs have gone, and probably many more will. Schools have and will shrink and close because of Covid – but let’s use our Covid response to reduce our climate footprint. We need to act somehow, and these figures may give you some perspective. Again, apologies for the UK-centric approach but these are figures I could easily access.

In 2018, 504,868 international students came to the UK to study English (this does not include, as I understand it, students on pre-sessional courses as part of their undergraduate or postgraduate studies). 

Over half came from EU countries.

The average stay was 2.3 weeks for EU students and 5.3 weeks for non-EU.

Source: English UK report 

They put £1.4 billion into the economy and 35,000 jobs depended upon them in 2016-2017.

Source: English UK report 

Assuming they all went home, that means, with a worst-case scenario, 1,009,736 aircraft seats. Or 6731 Airbus A320s a year. Now, of course, not everybody flies. Some will take the train, some will come on a bus. There is an apocryphal story around language schools in Southern England of a German student who hated his teacher so much that he got drunk and decided to walk home to Dusseldorf through the Channel Tunnel. He got almost halfway through before he was arrested, but I won’t count him.

What a dilemma. I don’t want anyone to lose their jobs, I don’t want any schools to close; but that’s a lot of flights, and for short stays. That said, this pandemic is going to force many language schools in the UK and globally to re-engineer their ways of working in order to simply survive.  Let’s take this forced opportunity to make some environmentally-conscious decisions as we re-engineer. 

I have a few ideas, but let’s work to get this debate moving across our communities.

UK-centrically again, let’s work with agents and schools to push EU students coming to the UK onto trains where the journey can be done in one day. Yes, it’s pricier – less so for young people – and if your school is outside the south of England, it may be a long journey. But, climate emergency. 

Can the schools in English-medium countries go to the students, through partnerships with local private language schools or state institutions? There are lots of options, including online input from the UK/USA/Australia across the school year, plus an intensive session in the summer in the students’ home countries or a whole virtual summer school with local partner support for the collegiality and interaction that online loses. I suspect schools are developing and implementing such hybrid models, amongst others, already, and it will be interesting to see how they work out. There is a lovely example here of a virtual ELT course ‘in the UK’ run by The London School in Thiene, Italy. (The link is only in Italian.) 

Are short stays really desirable academically – maybe we should make them unusual? I assume this is already done using long-stay discounts, but maybe again the green arguments can form part of sales messages.   

People will always want to travel to study English, and so they should, but we do need to be a little creative in balancing that with the environmental impact of their journey. Covid-19 has given us that opportunity.  

Buildings 

Private ELT Schools use buildings, and buildings produce waste and consume energy. I think it’s sadly inevitable that post-Covid, private ELT schools are going to need to either save money on their existing premises budget, or consider moving to smaller buildings, simply due to lower student numbers. Students may be reluctant to mingle in groups, albeit with some kind of protection, may not have the money needed to pay for courses and may feel that the new online options, with the time flexibility of asynchronous sessions, suit their needs well. My own sense is that private ELT provision in the students’ home countries is likely to be largely blended, with limited face-to-face class time. The collegiality of being in the same room as other students, albeit behind Perspex, is hard to replicate online and this limited face-to-face time will compensate for that. 

I hope that if private ELT schools are forced to move and downsize, they will not only recognise the environmental benefits of smaller numbers of square metres, but will also take advantage of this opportunity to evaluate potential new buildings from an environmental perspective. Private language school potential students and parents are often impressed by large schools. This can be flipped with the small building and blended learning argument into good environmental PR for the school. Schools staying in the same premises can see what savings may be made in terms of consumption and waste by having an environmental assessment.

Government ELT provision will of course be ministry-led and resource and internet access will be issues in many cultures, but I still think we are going to see plenty of blended work if schools are to enforce some degree of social distancing, largely for logistical reasons. The point around building use will, however, be significant in the university sector in English-medium countries where huge investments have been made in international study centres for students who may now prefer to do their pre-sessionals from the comfort of their sitting rooms. 

Conferences

A lot was being said and written about ELT conferences and their environmental impact, and then Covid came along and many have simply gone online. I have a feeling that, for the foreseeable future, the large international conferences will remain suspended – I’m not sure that whatever measures the organisers put in place, people will feel safe. I think the national and regional conferences that have gone online will thrive and attract a more international audience and set of speakers – hopefully not at the cost of their local identity and relevance. Personally, I don’t enjoy the online conference space as much as the face-to-face experience, and, selfishly, as a freelancer, the networking aspect is important to me. But we all need to change in the light of the climate emergency, and missing out on the big conferences won’t kill us. 

ELT and the jet-set

There seems to be a school of thought that the Coronavirus pandemic will teach us things, make us better people, somehow more tolerant and closer to each other. And hopefully more aware of the climate emergency. I have my doubts, but I see green shoots of tolerance, diversity and understanding in ELT materials and in conference topics. If the post-Covid better-people theory has legs, it would be quite a legacy to see course books reflect the societies we actually live in, rather than some kind of aspirational, globe-trotting, apparently financially ok and largely straight, patriarchal, white world. 

I gather some of the big publishers are feeling emboldened to move in this direction, but the work done by James Taylor and Ilá Coimbra shows the way to go. There’s more here: https://raiseupforelt.com/.

So there you have it, our friend the Coronavirus has given us the impetus to review our green credentials and I hope we will. I also hope that the various ELT stakeholders will flag up and share these credentials as they put them in place.  

Two things struck me while writing this:

  1. The fact that consumers are increasingly aware of environmental issues, and I think ELT generally has been slow off the mark in highlighting the progress we are making and the initiatives we intend to put in place. 
  2. How so much of ELT’s environmental footprint is caused by behaviours in the developed world. Low-resource, locally-delivered teaching seems to be more friendly to the planet. 

Now there’s a thought.

Thanks to:

  • Julie Wallis at the London School in Thiene, Italy for allowing us to link to her virtual summer school. If you want to know more about this project you can contact Julie at director@thelondonschool.it
  • James Taylor at Raise Up!
  • A Facebook conversation with Richard Bradford also helped my thinking around study abroad.
  • Part of this blog is adapted from a talk I did at the International House Academic Management & Trainers (AMT) Conference 2020. I walked there.

Christopher Graham is an ELT trainer and writer, and has worked in the field since 1981 in over 30 countries. He has been involved in curriculum renewal projects for several ministries of education in Africa and the Middle East, worked with the British Council on train-the-trainer programmes in those regions, and written lower secondary EFL materials with the British Council Sierra Leone. He has recently been working with UK universities and the Libyan ministry of education on their response to Covid-19. He is interested in how ELT fits into the ‘real world’, and his environmental concerns spring from that. 

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