Interview with Simon le Maistre, Director of LearningPosted: July 31, 2013
How did you get started in ELT?
A friend of mine recommended that I do a TEFL course. I had just left university, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do next, and I liked the idea of earning some money living abroad for a year. But I was so blown away by the style of training at International House (IH) that I decided there and then that I wanted to become a teacher trainer.
A fine choice! Which countries did you teach in?
My first job was in Genova, Italy. I then moved on to San Sebastián in Spain. After three years, I returned to London and was lucky enough to train as a teacher trainer with IH. I then ran courses in South Africa, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as London.
And how did that lead to you working for Reallyenglish? How did you make that jump out of the classroom?
While I was in London, I got involved in a writing project with Pearson. Language to Go was the first four-level course to be released at the same time, and I co-wrote the Elementary version. So I was starting to get interested in writing. I was then approached by the brother of a friend of mine who was setting up an internet business while he was studying at Harvard Business School. He was looking for a content expert who could manage the educational side of a new start-up business. It seemed like a great fit.
So your job title is Director of Learning. How would you describe what that job involves?
I would describe my role as more of a Product Manager. I’m responsible for defining the vision of the product. We actually see it more as a service. Once we have the vision, I’m then responsible for getting it implemented. I’m the interface between our stakeholders and the Developer team. And I make sure we make the right thing for the right people at the right time.
The stakeholders being the customers? The end users?
There are lots of stakeholders. Our service is aimed at busy professionals who need to improve their English so that they can operate as global employees. So yes, the stakeholder is the student, but also the HR person who purchases training for the students, and also our own sales people who are constantly talking to HR and students about what they feel their problems are. It’s our job to then come up with a solution to solve those problems.
And do you feel like your background as a teacher, teacher trainer and writer helps you in your job now?
Yes. Our service is primarily about learning, and so you need to have a background in that to make informed decisions. At the start, back in 2001, we wanted to create a comparable experience to the classroom, but online. So we tried to take all the best elements of classroom learning and apply them to an online lesson.
That must have been quite difficult, I imagine.
Yes, but we have a great team with a lot of imagination! A lot of learning companies are very tech-driven and implement very technical solutions to problems. At Reallyenglish, we like to combine content expertise with technical expertise to create something that learners want to use. So my writing and training background is very useful for making sure we have great content. You need to surround yourself with a team of great editors and writers, and obviously having experience in that field helps you get the best people.
So moving from teaching, through writing, to what you do now, you must have seen a lot of changes in the world of English language teaching. What do you think the future holds? What’s coming next?
There have certainly been a lot of changes. When I first started writing course books, I used to go down to Brixton library and research topics in books. Until somebody told me about this thing called the Internet! So technology is clearly a massive driver of change. As for what’s coming next, my area of expertise is primarily the self-study market. Busy professionals, working long days, who maybe don’t have time to get to a classroom, and who need to improve their test scores or certain communication skills at work. What we’re seeing is a big demand for being able to study on any device. They might start off using a smartphone on the way to work, they study a bit more on their desktop at lunchtime, and then come home and do a bit more work on a tablet device. So I think content delivered on any screen size is going to be important.
I also think that we’re going to start to see more crossovers. The book mentality has had a backwash effect on pedagogy, I think, and we’re going to start seeing new approaches to learning as people get to grips with the constraints of the new media. So gamers might get together with language experts to create something truly different.
Collaboration is the word that comes up again and again.
Yes. We work in very cross-functional teams, with programmers and designers all having input into solving the problems. So I can easily see how adding new experts into the mix can really help push forward new ideas.
I also think that data is going to become increasingly influential.
Interesting. How so?
Being able to track a student’s performance — how long they studied, what they studied, what they got right and what they got wrong — can bring a whole new level of analysis of what works and what doesn’t for each student. We’re looking at how we can start using this information to improve the learning process. If someone’s struggling in a certain area, we can recommend easy material that covers the same point. Or if someone ‘s interested in a particular topic, we can recommend more of the same.
Making it more emergent and learner-centered, I suppose.
Yes, absolutely. Software companies are doing this all the time in order to improve their services, and I can see this being applied to learning
OK, final question. There are lots of online learning companies out there. What do you think makes Reallyenglish different?
Our goal is to offer learners the most efficient and personalised way to improve their English online. What differentiates us is our depth of content and our level of personalisation. A lot of competitors test their students and put them in one level for all skills. At Reallyenglish, we think that students might be at different levels in each skill, so we give them chance to study low-level listening lessons but much higher-level writing lessons, for example.
We also think that our skills-based courses offer much more depth. Some competitor writing or speaking lessons consist of simply writing or recording a sentence. We like to put the learners in a real-life situation and then take them through a step-by-step process to make them a better writer or speaker for that context, really looking at what skills or language they need in order to become more confident.