Virtual Language School. Distance learning made easy.

As trends towards mobility and globalisation continue, learning a foreign language is an important skill. But it’s not always easy to meet the logistical requirements of language learning – finding a class at a time and place that suits you, for example. On the other hand, learning at home using CDs or DVDs can be an isolating experience and deny you the interaction vital to foreign language acquisition.

By making use of some of Apple’s most popular and versatile technology, the Virtual Language School has created a language-learning solution that ticks both boxes for flexibility and interaction. Based in Zurich, Switzerland, but available throughout the world, the Virtual Language School is the brainchild of English teachers, Daniel Shalom and Emily Stears.

Shalom, founding partner/managing director of the Virtual Language School, explains: “We were teaching English, mostly in banks in and around Zurich. But we wanted a job that would be location-neutral, one where we could pack up our notebooks and then open them up and carry on somewhere else”.

In order to achieve this, Shalom and Stears came up with the idea of giving classes online; at about the same time, they migrated to the Mac platform from a troublesome PC set-up. “That was in September 2005”, says Shalom. “Almost immediately, the Mac came into its own as a way of spreading the word about what we were doing”.

Stears, founding partner/director of studies at the School, says, “We were already fans of podcasting, which we had been introduced to by the iTunes music store after purchasing our first iPods a few years earlier. Then, as we began to experiment with iMovie and GarageBand, we had the idea of making our own podcasts as part of our marketing strategy – to spread the word about our school”.

Shalom adds, “Working with the Macs seemed so straightforward – we were in the extraordinary position of feeling we could manage most things with only minimal outside help”. Other start-up tasks facilitated by the Mac included building a website (which Shalom and Stears still maintain themselves) and creating a database of students and teachers.

Meanwhile, the five-minute English grammar podcasts they created were submitted to the iTunes store and duly accepted. “At first, we got hundreds of downloads, which I thought was remarkable at the time, but that very quickly became thousands”, says Shalom. “Then we started getting emails from places like Mexico and Saudi Arabia”.

The podcasts acted as a taster for potential students, and many of the people who got in touch wanted to take up the option of classes with the Virtual Language School. “The whole thing snowballed”, says Shalom, “and we started putting together systems for organising and delivering classes”.

Such has been the success of the venture, it now offers online language training around the clock, 365 days a year, to anyone, anywhere in the world. The only requirement for learning is Internet access. “The advantage of learning online”, comments Stears, “is that it opens up access to teachers from all over the world. You can find just about any language you might want to learn – plus, because you can have classes with people from other time zones and cultures, you can do so at any time or on any day you want”.