Mel and Irina Rogers are the co-founders of Online Class, the first online English school in Belarus. Mel is not only involved with Online Class but is also the Honorary Prosperity Consul at the British Embassy in Minsk, and is leading the creation of the British Belarus Enterprise Collaboration. During the close on five years he has been in Belarus he has gained much insight into how business is done here and how Belarusian people are different or similar to the British. In this interview, Mel has talked to us about his take on the way people learn and speak English here, about Online Class and its English speaking club SpeakEasy. Back in the UK, Mel had 2 insanely successful businesses he sold to start something new, so here’s a person that knows something about taking risks, reaching your goals and striving for better things yet.
They say you’ve been successful in business.
Well, I think in business I have been lucky enough to see an opportunity and then employ smart people to help me make it a success. I always worked in an environment where the products or services I represented were more expensive than competitors. In one case 3 times more expensive, and the company still came out as a market leader because of efficiency, quality, and excellent customer care. It’s not all about the price, you know. In my own businesses when I employed people I looked for something more than expertise or experience. I wanted people who could express themselves, be creative, innovative, try new ideas and most of all want to be a winner!
When I came to Belarus I was surprised to find out that in many business negotiations, price was the major element, sometimes, the only element! Little attention was paid to features and benefits of options. My experience is that this is frequently dangerous! Every time I bought something that was the cheapest price it eventually cost me more and not only money, it cost time and frustration. There is a reason why the most successful companies are not the cheapest to buy from - they deliver a quality product and offer great service. Questions I always asked were - Why are they cheaper? Have they cut corners? What will I miss out on?
Can this be applied to your language school as well? It’s not the cheapest on the market.
Think about the main resource you are paying for in a language school – the teacher. What is the point of bragging you are the cheapest school around? All it reveals about you is you probably will not attract the best teachers with your salary offer, you are likely to have a streamlined program your teachers follow to a tee, disregarding the customers’ needs, and you most certainly have to have 9 to 10 people in an average group to pay for the teacher’s time. All these things are actually disadvantages, so when you see a ridiculously low price for language classes, think about that. We offer groups of 2-3 people and custom-made study programs, and there is a lot of value in that.
So you pay your teachers more than other language schools do?
I know this for a fact. With offline schools the situation is clear: they are paying for many things we don’t have to cover because of the format. Office rent, heating and lighting bills, cleaning and maintenance services – all this is paid for with your money when you take offline language classes. Then the company charges a sum for itself and the teacher is left with a fraction of the cost. You can see how the teacher is likely to get less than due for their work. And it’s not good news for you as a student. We pride ourselves on employing experienced and professional teachers, and ask them to develop personal programs if clients come in with a request that doesn’t match any existing course or textbook. This cannot come cheap. It’s a whole different level of service.
Do you think many people in Belarus want to study online?
Online education is the fastest growing medium for learning in the world and is rapidly growing in the Russian speaking countries. It started growing here much later than in the West, where the format has been on the rise for the last 15 years. Any high profile university or company trains their people online, and for a reason. You can reach out to your employees and students in any city or country, and provide them consistently with the same high quality education. As an individual, live where you may, you can have the best teachers from your country and beyond. You are not limited to those who live within travelling distance from your house or office. Convenient location is actually not a factor you should base your choice of school on, yet many people do so. Others travel ridiculously far just to get to that one teacher everyone recommends. It’s a waste of time when you could put more hours into actual learning. Also, on a cold winter’s night, do you really enjoy travelling to a school and then back home after a lesson?
But you also have an offline English speaking club?
We have it both online and offline. It’s called SpeakEasy, it’s a weekend meeting where we play games, discuss all kinds of stuff, just for the sake of having fun and speaking English. If you read and listen to reviews people give, native speaker content is apparently an essential part of improving your command of the English language. We currently have 5 native speakers on our team, all of them British and three of them living in Britain. Those who live in Belarus are involved both with SpeakEasy sessions and with online classes you can buy individually or as part of a group. One thing that sets SpeakEasy apart from other English speaking clubs I’ve seen and heard of is we limit our sessions to a maximum of 3 non-native speakers. In that way, they have an actual chance to talk rather than just listen passively like some people do in larger groups. You can listen to recordings or the radio, a speaking club is there for you to speak!
How about regular classes? Is speaking a dominant element?
Absolutely. Well, I know most language schools will tell you the same thing. Most have caught onto what is wrong with the education system in Belarus and the neighboring countries. When it comes to languages in particular, in schools and universities you are taught to pass a test, to complete some exercises, to read and write well. The communicative aspect of the language – the actual purpose of learning a language – for some reason doesn’t come first. That’s why you have university graduates who cannot give you simple directions in the street or make a phone call in English. As an English speaker here, I can tell you it is unfortunately true.
So language schools here are trying to compensate for that.
They claim to. But going back to what we have discussed about salaries, would a teacher develop a program just for you, based on your interests and needs, if they were being paid basically as much as a state educational institution would pay them? No, they would likely fall into the habit of bringing one and the same textbook and course for every group. Would a teacher who strives for self-improvement, travels, embraces every opportunity to master English even better, etc. – would such a teacher take 3 dollars for an hour of work, or join a team where they would be told what to do, by methodologists who develop universal study content? Again, not likely.
You’re harsh on other language schools.
I have talked to many teachers and students so I have gathered a lot of information first hand. Many schools were interested in me as a native speaker when I first came here, so I gave it a try and found out they were actually more interested in the grammar of my language than speaking the language itself, to the point of making remarks about my words or usage of tenses, etc. I often joke that I came to Belarus to learn proper English grammar but it’s ridiculous how much of the joke is actually true. My British friend got a remark on his accent from a Belarusian English teacher. He is a native speaker! We are not academicians or grammarians, and unless YOU are striving to be one, I suggest you lift your head up from grammar books and printouts.
That’s a good note to finish on! Anything else you want to add?
I always say I was positively shocked when I first had to witness somebody in Belarus reject some great opportunity just because it was new, because it was unfamiliar ground. “You will not know until you try it!”, that’s what I find myself saying once too often, whether it’s to my Belarusian wife who doesn’t want to buy coffee from a new coffee place, or to my colleagues at work who stick with the same methods they’ve used for years, without trying anything new. I find that people in the West are a little bit less conservative.
Here, the same reflex of rejection you feel about new things may work when you hear “Learn English online”. Just give it a try, as many of your compatriots have already done! I promise you they haven’t looked back since. Read their reviews, come and take the first free English lesson with Online Class, and see what it is all about. If you’re an English teacher, come help us deliver excellent teaching! I look forward to seeing you join us. I promise that we will never stop looking for excellence of teaching, never stop improving the teachers we have and NEVER stop putting our customers FIRST! You will learn quicker and have a fuller understanding of my language - English, I promise!