I deal with a few conventional language schools which sell and run online courses very effectively but unfortunately, they are among the minority. So recently I have spent a lot of time thinking about why so few conventional language schools offer online courses as part of their range of products and why many of those that do don’t seem to sell very many of them or be very comfortable about doing so. In my experience the most successful organisations that sell and run online language materials tend to be training organisations specialising in online learning rather than conventional language schools. Which begs the question, are the skills required to manage online courses so different from those required to manage face-to-face classes that most organisations can only do one or the other?
I think there are many reasons why conventional language schools feel uncomfortable about including online courses in their product catalogue and why they struggle to make them work. None of these issues though are impossible to overcome or justify language schools not taking part in what is a rapidly expanding market.
One important factor is the importance of the presence of a project manager in running online courses. Setting up and running an online language course is, to all intents and purposes, project management and requires the associated skills. And although language schools characteristically have directors, academic managers, directors of studies and administration managers, it seems to me that the position of project manager does not slot comfortably into any of these positions. While there is obviously a certain amount of project management in the setting up and running of face-to-face classes especially ESP classes, these skills don’t seem to be easily transferred to the online world. Indeed at a recent DoS conference, many DoSes commented on how the idea of setting up and running online language courses took them way out of their comfort zone.
As each school is different and the role and scope of managers will vary depending on the institution, it seems most practical to briefly outline what the role of a project manager would be in managing online courses so that organisations that are contemplating broadening their offer to include online courses can reflect on how to best fill this role.
The project manager, in broad terms, will be the person who oversees the setting up and running of the course from start to finish. She will be the one person who has a vision of everything that is involved in the process. She will decide the support the client will need both before and during the course in order for the course to be a success. She will understand the structure and content of the course material. She will timetable and monitor tracking and reporting services. She will ensure that administrative and technical support is provided. She will make sure that suitable teachers are contracted, trained and supported. She will implement quality control measures and ensure that effective feedback procedures are in place to evaluate the success of the course. And, most importantly, she will manage client expectations to bring them in line with the course they will be doing.
A successful project manager will have great people skills. She will be organised, enthusiastic and capable of transmitting the belief in the project to clients, tutors and support staff alike. She needs to be prepared to deal with a certain amount of resistance from both within the school and possibly amongst the clients. Moving from face-to-face classes into the online world involves significant changes and inevitably change generates resistance. As a result, it is important she is flexible and is prepared to adapt and learn as the project progresses.
To a greater or lesser extent a lot the tasks a project manager needs to carry out already happen in a face-to-face environment. However, in many cases these tasks are carried out by and are the responsibility of different management figures rather than one person. In the case of online courses, it is initially very important to have one figure overseeing and managing all these components and bringing them all together. In many ways managing online courses is analogous to performing a symphony, it requires a conductor who can bring everything together, somebody who both understands and is sensitive to the music to be played, the musicians who will play it and the audience who will partake in the experience.