MADRID — The most common way to spend your Sunday afternoon is on a tapeo in the barrio La Latina. You go from bar to bar, buying cañas that come with free tapas, usually just a small slice of bread with jamon or queso or some mayonnaise-y salad. What if education worked in this delicious way? Micro-learning is trying to tempt you with just that right amount of satisfaction.
From the Khan Academy and Coursera to the Dummies series, we are all looking for a faster, less expensive way to learn, especially on-the-move and preferably online. Like tapas, we are relearning to learn, bite by — well, byte. Stuart Thomas spread this delicious tradition on top of modern educational theory and created ClassBites.com.
“Small, bite-size chunks of learning are much easier to digest. You can’t eat a five-course meal, and, if you do, it’s not going to be good for your digestion,” Thomas says. Learning is like “tapas throughout the day. It’d be much more digestible to have ten small tapas than one big meal.”
Thomas — a Brit who has been an English-as-a-foreign-language teacher in Madrid for nearly a decade — based this on the common TEFL theory that instructors should present no more than seven new vocabulary words in a day. Otherwise, some will be lost, since our brains have only so much capacity to learn new things.
There is no doubt that in Spain, there’s an obsession with learning English. People and businesses spend hundreds and thousands of euros a year for many years just to learn it. “The EFL market in Spain is enormous,” Thomas says.
But they aren’t seeing a return on their verbal investment. Spain is rated the worst country for speaking English in the E.U. “You ask them, how long have [they] been learning English,” Thomas says. “[They reply,] ‘All my life.’ They spend 10 to 15 years learning English.”
Thomas thinks it’s a particular problem here in Madrid because folks travel so far for their jobs in this widespread city. “Most people don’t have time to learn English,” he says. A long commute, on top of a typical 12-hour work day and family obligations, means that native Spanish speakers just don’t have time to practice English. Traveling to and from class can take another three-hour chunk out of their busy schedules.
“I think most students sign up for a year of classes and go to about one in two of these classes, because they just don’t have enough time,” Thomas says. “If their boss asks them to stay later, they have to. Education is the first thing cut.” This falls very much into the culture of “mañana, mañana,” constantly putting off hard studying and immersion. “Knowing so many people [in Madrid] who try to take on so many things, they are in complete chaos,” Thomas says.
Before his entrepreneurial venture, Thomas was managing the office at one of the biggest academies in Madrid, the Wall Street Institute. “Their message is based on offering complete flexibility for students. [The academy] can fit classes in any time of day and also they have the e-learning,” he says. “Students had to book a class a week in advance, and could change [their schedules] every week.”
Even with all this flexibility, only about two-thirds of the students came to class. “Getting students to come to class was still really difficult, even with a centrally-located, organized academy.”
This was when he had the light bulb of ClassBites. It’s based on micro-classes, a way of learning, anywhere, anytime. Using mobile-based technology, Thomas has created five-minute micro-classes, often starring himself. “YouTube is the second-biggest, most-frequently-used site on the Internet,” he says. “That’s why I thought videos would be more popular for presenting English classes.”
Spain has the fifth most smartphones per capita in the world. “There’s always five minutes available in a day, at least once. In many cases, it’s three, four, five times a day,” he says, such as while traveling to and from work. “An hour is often too much” to commit to, he says.
The students basically interact with the five-minute videos, with a “very visual” introduction, followed by a fill-in-the-gap review. Then students each have a blog, where they practice writing and post embedded recordings of themselves speaking. Teachers leave comments underneath.
He has combined these classes with a social network that he describes as having similar functionality to Facebook. Madrid sees tons of intercambio language exchange nights, based solely on the premise that people want to socialize in English. Adding aspects of a social network, like chat rooms and messaging, to the classroom, “provides an opportunity to practice the language,” while meeting people of other cultures. Part of each Unit assignment is to practice a conversation with at least one other student. ClassBites is in the process of testing videochats to further the social networking and language practice.
FInally, to complete each unit — made up of nine five-minute micro-classes — students take a test. Right now, there are units for levels beginner up to advanced, as well as topic-based like travel and business English. He intends to expand to the coveted Cambridge First Certificate and Advanced levels soon.
Everything is done at the student’s pace. “It’s a time-lapse way of teaching,” Thomas says. “They could live in Chile, but I could actually correct them in-person, indirectly.” Students can take classes whenever they want, even on their smartphones in the metro. “[It's] completely flexible, really,” Thomas says. “They can turn up anytime they want, and they can finish any time they want.”
This flexibility — blended with the message of “meet people and practice English online” — seems to be working.
So far, this just one-man-show already has 7,000 students. Even though his inspiration was the Spanish people, about 75 percent of his students are from India and Sri Lanka.
His business can grow worldwide because he doesn’t limit himself through translation. “To learn without needing to translate in any way — to promote the language very visually, with grammar, setting a context for a situation explains it perfectly,” Thomas says. This also helps open the business up to speakers of other languages, such as the Southeast Asian users that are dominating his web site.
The biggest name in English in Spain is certainly Vaughan. The Vaughan name — mispronounced by many Spanish people as “Vaw-gan” — is know for its TV and radio channels, as well as its face-to-face classes and its English villages and trips. But the service is intended primarily for native Spanish speakers, especially Castillians. Like the Spanish Official School of Languages, “you give instructions in the native language and only 50 percent of the time you use the language they’re learning.” Modern English courses, like the world-renowned CELTA, teach without translating whenever possible.
“If you teach students to think in the new language they are learning, they will be better learners,” Thomas says. He does admire the Vaughan Systems’ multimedia methods, which he hopes to use more and more as he expands his company.
No matter what you are learning, it’s clear that the learning of the future will be mobile.