A year ago I posted an interview with Ann Foreman, who coordinates the Teaching English-British Council Facebook page, the most popular site in the world for English language teachers (see Interview With Ann Foreman, Coordinator Of The Most Popular Site On The Web For English Language Teachers).
Since that time, the popularity of that site, along with British Council sites for English Language Learners, has exploded.
I thought it was time to visit again with Ann, along with her colleagues Paul Braddock and Neil McLaren.
LF: I can’t remember exactly how many “likes” the TeachingEnglish – British Council Facebook page had when we spoke about a year ago , but I know that you’ve had extraordinary growth since that time and are approaching 3 million “likes.” Have you been doing anything differently over the past twelve months, or is that dramatically increased popularity just coming naturally? The only things that I’ve noticed is that you might be sharing more online videos for professional development and I know that you’ve created more of a regular Teaching English blogging community (that I’m happy to be a part of).
Yes, ‘likes’ for the TeachingEnglish Facebook page have skyrocketed. From 200,000 in September last year to nearly 3 million at the moment – a growth of 1500% – quite a phenomenon!
What have we been doing differently? I’m not sure there’s a simple answer to that one as you always have to keep on your toes and be doing something different on social media. People get quickly tired of one approach and soon move towards something new. So we are constantly on the look out for fresh materials and ways to talk about them. What’s more, Facebook is continuously changing its algorithms: the way they calculate which posts show in people’s newsfeeds. Recently they’ve been favouring paid posts much more than ever. And as we rely on the organic growth of our pages and don’t pay to promote our posts, that means that we face increasingly stiff competition to get our posts seen – even by the people who have indicated that they like what we do.
One of the main reasons for our constant growth is, I think, because so many teachers like to feel useful and help out their colleagues. When they see something that looks like a good or innovative way of approaching a teaching problem or some content that they think will go down well with students, their first instinct is to share it with their friends. That’s basically how the word has got around and resulted in so many people liking the TeachingEnglish page. So, for example, a recent post with suggestions about how to prepare students for the IELTS writing exam received 3,745 ‘likes’ and was shared on more than 2,000 times!
I also think it’s important that we’re not publishing just about our own British Council content. While we have excellent materials on our British Council websites and we’re proud to post about them, we also welcome posts on the page from teachers from all over the world who have nothing to do with the British Council. There are now some really excellent blogs written by teachers of English and their contributions enable the TeachingEnglish page to reflect the ideas and experiences of teachers working in a wide range of different educational contexts and to keep pace with emerging tendencies in teaching. This is something that we simply wouldn’t be able to do if we relied uniquely on our own devices and resources. We like to think that TeachingEnglish has a symbiotic relation with the best current ELT bloggers worldwide. We feature their posts prominently on the Facebook page while the Featured blog of the month and our Community of bloggers sections of our website have proved to be increasingly popular with users.
LF: In our previous conversation, you mentioned that you wanted to expand professional development opportunities for English teachers at the Facebook site. How is that going, and what other future plans do you have?
Paul Braddock from the TeachingEnglish website:
Our plan is to provide a professional development opportunity in a game-based format and we’re looking at how we can use a combination of the TeachingEnglish website and social media to achieve this.
The first step to making this happen is an extensive tagging process on the website: all our content is being matched to 12 key teaching ‘competencies’ (Managing the lesson, Planning lessons and courses, Understanding the learner, etc.). On the site, teachers will be able to choose a particular competency they are interested in, or have identified as an area for development. They will click through to a page containing all the articles, blog posts, videos, seminars, publications and training modules or courses that relate to their area of interest. With this in place we aim to be able to provide a supportive and engaging scaffold for professional development.
LF: The LearnEnglish – British Council Facebook page, for English learners, is pretty popular, too. What is your strategy for how you use that site and have English learners benefit from it, and what are future plans?
Yes things are going well, with 1.7 million ‘likes’ at the moment, one and a half million of which have been added in the last year alone. Not only that, but LearnEnglish Teens, our ‘youngest’ page, has gone from fewer than 50,000 to 650,000 in the same period – a growth of 1300%.
The strategy we follow is to provide learners with a daily dose of free resources and engaging activities at different levels so that they can follow their own path in exploring topics and work on developing their skills. It’s very much a two-way process, and the strong community feel which has developed on the page really helps in this.
Our single most popular feature is our Language Clinic which we run 2-3 times per week and we get a lot of inspiration from that. It has a huge reach and we can get anything up to 200 questions in a single 90-minute session. Topics range far and wide from simple grammar questions up to subtle nuances between word choices from journalists and academics.
This feeds directly into what we then share on our Facebook page timeline. Common themes, topics and areas of difficulty emerge, and we then bring together resources from across our online offer – the LearnEnglish, LearnEnglish Teens, ESOL Nexus and TeachingEnglish websites. We also include third party learning resources and authentic content not specifically aimed at language learners. We know very well from the questions that we get asked that lots of learners have trouble navigating the vast sea of online resources available, and in discerning which resources are authoritative and reliable, so we see providing them with guidance as part of our role. By engaging in discussion we can clearly identify their specific needs and so point them in the direction of the best available resources.
We’ve experimented with user-generated content too, such as collaborative story-telling, collaborative music playlists, an online writing clinic and more, and we’re always looking for new ways to promote engagement. It’s been great watching the page grow organically and extend its reach. For example, in the last year Vietnam has shot up from nowhere to become our fourth biggest group of followers, and Myanmar has gone from almost zero to 70,000 followers in the same period. This truly global spread, with regular contributors from Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa, leads to some great discussions, and the development of online friendships across cultures which I find particularly rewarding.
LF: The British Council seems to be on the cutting-edge of technology and English language development. Can you share briefly about your other tech projects — MOOC’s, mobile apps, laptop initiatives in developing countries, and others?
Indeed! The recent Exploring English: Language and Culture MOOC, which the British Council partnered with FutureLearn, proved fantastically popular and was referred to as ‘the biggest English language learning class in the world’. 122,583 learners joined it and more than 60% of them participated, with 54,928 of them being classed as active learners. In fact, 50% of learners made comments, leading to a total of more than 357,000 posts on the page.
We are following up the success of this MOOC with one for teachers: Understanding Language: Learning and Teaching which has been developed jointly by the British Council and the University of Southampton. We are very excited about the prospect and looking forward to the start of the course on November 17.
We will also be running another Exploring English: Language and Culture MOOC for learners in February 2015, and, in addition, have in the pipeline another MOOC to help students who are preparing for the IELTS exam.
As you mentioned, the British Council has also been involved in an exciting educational project in Uruguay – the Ceibal project – which aims to provide a laptop to every teacher and every child and so start bridging the digital gap that exists worldwide.
British Council Uruguay has taken responsibility for providing remote lessons to Primary school children with the aim of improving their level of English. The Ceibal English project began in July 2012 by providing some 50 remote lessons each week in 20 urban schools outside Montevideo, using teachers based in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. By the beginning of the 2014 school year, the number of remote lessons had reached over 2,000 each week. Our target is to provide over 4,000 remote lessons each week by early 2015, thus reaching around 90% of schools in the country. If you’d like to, you can read more about the project here British Council – Uruguay Report of the Ceibal English project.
There has been huge growth in smartphone adoption and smartphone usage over the last two years and the British Council’s LearnEnglish apps have seen a huge increase in downloads. Since 2011, we have had 9.5 million downloads and we now have a wide range of apps that cover language skills practice, listening practice, educational games and resources for children.
Our most popular app is LearnEnglish Grammar (UK Edition) which has reached number one in the educational app store charts in 24 countries and top ten in 82 countries. The app has been really well received by users with hundreds of 5 star reviews in the app stores and educational app review sites such as AppoLearning giving the app top marks for the wide range of activity types that create an engaging experience. Other really popular apps include our listening practice apps – such as LearnEnglish GREAT Videos and LearnEnglish Audio & Video.
In some countries we also provide English language learning material through SMS (text) and pre-recorded interactive lessons over the phone using technology such as Interactive Voice Response. In these countries you often find that mobile is the main source of information for people wanting to learning a language.
LF: Thanks, Ann, Paul and Neil!