Interview with Matthew Barnard, EducationalistPosted: January 15, 2014
How did you get involved with Reallyenglish?
It was the height of the dotcom bubble and there was this guy with a vision of online language teaching. It seemed like an exciting opportunity, and the idea of being a part of it alongside a couple of old friends / teaching colleagues, well, it wasn’t the hardest decision I ever had to make. The guy with the vision is the CEO today.
Tell us about your pre-Reallyenglish experience.
I was a teacher and teacher trainer more or less from the word go, and I’d been Director of Studies in several schools, including International House London, which was a particular privilege, working with so many hugely talented teachers and writers. I’d done some writing and quite a bit of of design work, though I was never really trained in design. I’m one of the generalists on the team and I find my role has shifted quite a lot over the years.
Which products did you have a major hand in producing?
Well the ones that you can most clearly see my hand in are the earlier products, like Effective Reading, Speed Reading, Business Writing and IT English, as well as Practical English. I was involved in the course design and I worked on specific activities and I did a lot of the illustrations and simple animations in the teaching stages. I was very fortunate in the people I was working with, who not only taught me a great deal, but were able to help me realize what was in my head.
So you were responsible for Effective Reading, which a Japanese publisher went on to make a book version of?
I was involved in that, yes. Though to be honest a book was never part of the plan. Paper publishing was so far removed from what we were trying to do, but in the early days it was hard to convince people that what we were selling was really worth buying, unless it came with some sort of print out or paper backup. Having said that, Effective Reading lent itself quite well to classroom use and blended learning because the activities are generally quite fun and have a sort of game element, which can work particularly well in a class. Also, the reading skills we focused on were really practical – they were kind of obvious and easy to grasp, but just the sort of thing that we so often forget to use when we are working in a foreign language.
Looking back, can you think of any unexpected challenges?
Well, there have been a few! I think one of the important ones has been technology. Online learning was very much in its infancy when we started out and we have been working with technology more or less as it was developing. But it’s not so much that we struggled to get it to do what we wanted – the challenge has often been to push back on stuff that just wasn’t ready. I think a lot of people rushed into things like speech recognition, for example, when the technology really wasn’t up to the job. You have to be confident enough to say ‘No, the time isn’t right for us to do that’, and somehow manage people’s expectations. Surprisingly, perhaps, mundane things like bandwidth and audio and video file sizes can still be an issue sometimes – especially as we move into mobile applications.
The tech world is always buzzing with new ideas, obviously, and it’s very exciting. But you have to get your timing right and keep in mind what you ultimately want to achieve – which in our case is to provide the most effective and efficient learning experience, not just providing a lot of bells and whistles.
What do you think the best approach is to meet users’ needs?
Obviously – to me at least – great content is the most important thing. Things can be as swish as you like, but if the content isn’t good, or relevant to you as a learner, it’s a waste of time. Every now and then I sign up for a free online course to remind myself what it’s like to study a new language alone (actually, it’s nearly always Spanish in my case, but I make so little progress it’s almost like a new language every time); it’s extraordinary the sort of nonsense I am expected to repeat or translate. The women eat the sugar, for example. Did you know that? And I eat the apple and the turtles drink water. Comments like that might be quite arresting in a business meeting, but ultimately they don’t really move things on.
So, content is really important. As is motivation, which is why a good coaching system is crucial. It’s not enough to provide shed loads of material, either – you need to ensure that learners can access exactly what they need, effortlessly, and that is down to intelligent diagnostics and a good user experience.
What was it like the first time you saw learners using the product?
It was during my first visit to Tokyo, and we had a number of users come in and try out some lessons while we just watched. I remember being really proud of some of the activities we had created, and the amount of interactivity and self-discovery we’d built in. Unfortunately, the users didn’t fully understand how to navigate the product so we actually learned from them, how important usability testing is from the early stages of product development. Of course that kind of bewilderment can happen in a classroom, too, but a teacher or fellow student can jump in and help immediately, so it’s not an issue. We got a better understanding of what you’re up against all the time with self-study programmes. Mind you, it’s a measure of how far we have all come in terms of how we interact with computers and other devices now, when you look at how people use smart phones and tablets these days. I guess we were just ahead of our time for a while!
Where do you see the company in 5 years from now?
I’d like to think that we will still be innovating and making the most of new technologies, but that quality content and empirical learning will still be the main focus. I expect that we will be an even more global company, too. Our experience in Asia has been tremendous and I think we can build on that when we open up to a wider user base.