Virtual Language School

Distance learning made easy.

Virtual Language School uses Apple hardware and software to create compelling lessons for language students worldwide.

“Working with Macs seemed so straightforward — we were in the extraordinary position of feeling we could manage most things with only minimal outside help.”

Daniel Shalom, Founding Partner and Managing Director, Virtual Language School

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, the Founding Partner and 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 — September 2005 — they migrated to the Mac platform from a troublesome PC setup.

“Almost immediately, the Mac came into its own as a way of spreading the word about what we were doing.”

Daniel Shalom, Founding Partner and Managing Director, Virtual Language School

Creating a multimedia teaching experience

Stears, Founding Partner and 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.”

Other startup 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 iTunes 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.”

The VLS podcasts have recently passed one million downloads. “We never dreamt they would be so successful,” says Shalom. Spanish, Italian and Mandarin Chinese versions are planned.

Global connections, global opportunities

Such has been the success of the venture, it now offers online language training, in 20 languages, around the clock, 365 days a year, to anyone, anywhere in the world. Shalom reckons to have students in 50 countries, and averages 50 classes per day. 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.”

Potential students contact the Virtual Language School and a face-to-face interview is arranged and conducted via FaceTime or Skype. “It’s a needs-analysis interview,” explains Shalom. “We try to establish what level you’re at and what your goals are. We then identify a member of our team to teach that course.” The School puts the teacher and student in touch with each other and they arrange face-to-face classes.

Once the relationship has been established between teacher and student, administration falls to the Virtual Language School. This could present difficulties when you consider the outfit’s 32 employees and teachers are based all over the world but, thanks to Apple technology, the process has proved remarkably straightforward. Shalom and Stears communicate with staff using Mail, FaceTime and Skype.

“We also use IMAP email, which allows us to organise our correspondence into folders that can be accessed by everyone and ensures we are always in sync. We all use iPhones and iPads and can access our mail at anytime from anywhere.”

Emily Stears, Founding Partner, Virtual Language School

A virtual school, run as a virtual business

In fact, when travelling, Shalom and Stears tend to make greater use of their iPads and iPhones than of their notebooks. Shalom says, “When we’re on trips, we rarely take our notebooks with us. We can communicate with our team and clients, access our documents, log on to banking services and social networks — all from a mobile device. One of the ideas we had when starting the business was being able to run VLS from anywhere in the world. That’s now a reality for us. We love the freedom that brings.

“The quality of camera on the new iPads has transformed the video-calling experience. We’re using FaceTime a lot more now, as more of our users tend to have Apple products.”

The School continues to make podcasts, such as ‘English TO GO’, which is available for free on iTunes. Shalom says, “We record audio in Soundtrack Pro and now edit video in Final Cut Pro. We then add chapter markers before encoding the finished article in QuickTime Pro. Next we load the videos onto our iPods and iPhones to check that everything is as it should be and that it works on the various different platforms, before FTPing final versions onto our server.” He adds, “All the apps work together very well, which gives us the sense that we’ve got everything covered.”

The podcasts are created in both full HD and iPhone versions. “Producing a variety of feeds is very easy to do,” explains Shalom. “Really, once the editing is done, we simply run an AppleScript to export to the various different files, then we leave it alone and go and do something else, and when we come back, it’s ready to be uploaded onto the server.”

He is looking at a possible paid-for Premium model, where customers subscribe to and receive bonus material. Already underway is a plan to create course books, using iBooks Author.

“It works well for education material,” says Shalom. “We can drop audio or pictures into the text — anyone can produce this and it’s not intimidating for students. You don’t need a Computer Science degree to get started. We’re already using iPads for some of our face-to-face sessions here in Switzerland.”

A secure solution

Apple technology also provides an important backup facility for the School. Shalom says, “Our individual machines and our Time Capsule are backed up onto external hard drives using Time Machine and SuperDuper. These backups are set to run automatically, meaning they are always up to date, and synced with our CRM system. This gives us peace of mind that our data is safe with next to no effort from us.”

Diary booking, course attendance and students’ performance notes are kept and managed via iWork. “Pages and Numbers mostly,” explains Shalom, “and, again, we can access from wherever.”

The Virtual Language School is now teaching approximately 20 different languages and bringing students and teachers together from all over the world — one instructor in China is teaching Mandarin to a student in Venezuela. Overall, Shalom and Stears agree, the beauty of the Apple technology has been the way in which it has supported their venture at every stage of the process — from the original idea to creating course materials to promotion and facilitating the actual language learning. Shalom says, “At every stage, we have felt inspired by the tools at our disposal, and we still do.”

Company Snapshot

Toolkit

Hardware:

  • Mac
  • iPhone
  • iPad
  • AirPort Extreme
  • Time Capsule

Software:

  • Numbers
  • Pages
  • Keynote
  • GarageBand
  • iMovie
  • Calendar
  • Final Cut Pro
  • Soundtrack Pro
  • Time Machine
  • FaceTime
  • Skype
  • Dropbox
  • iCloud
  • Scrivener
  • iTunes
  • Evernote