Ken May

Have a seat at the cafe

An interview with Dave Sperling

If you have ever looked for a teaching job online, sought out like-minded educators abroad for a virtual chat, or even surfed the Internet for a quick lesson plan moments before class; you are already likely to be acquainted with . It was the first educational website of its kind. Originally designed as a classroom experiment in 1995, it became fully operational in 1996 and quickly morphed in all academic directions. English learners could soon use it to look up phrasal verbs, slang and idioms. Schools advertised for teachers and found them from across the globe. Expatriates logged onto its various forums to spar or provide helpful support; and for many recent university graduates, it was the gateway to Asia leading to their first teaching job.

ESLcafe played an instrumental role in the rise of the English as a Second Language (ESL) industry, as well as English as a Foreign Language (EFL). It also demonstrated the potential for Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). As global communities spread with the Internet, and English became the dominant language online, it was natural for schools and teachers to use this resource to make contact.

The website was pioneered by Dave Sperling, a man who was once horribly intimidated by computers but finally overcame this fear when he realized he could use them for his classrooms. Self-teaching himself on a Macintosh Performa, the Internet is what excited him most, “I was blown away at being able to meet and communicate with others from around the planet,” he says.

And all of this started with a basic teaching job.

Getting experienced
Sperling explains, “Japan was booming in the 1980s, and it really was the place to be,” so he flew to Tokyo, Japan, and scored his first teaching job within weeks.

“Ah the dark ages before the Internet,” he reminisces, “My job was found the old fashioned way: I just flew over to Tokyo, purchased a Monday’s edition of the Japan Times, and began calling school after school until I lined up interviews throughout the city.”

“It was fairly chaotic,” he says of his first English classes, “I don’t remember there being an actual curriculum! I do remember a resource room with a lot of ESL books, as well as a copy machine, so I’d put something together at the last minute. Anyway, I was supposed to teach English conversation, and my students only wanted to talk.”

From this initial experience, the BA degree-welding psychology major saw a niche, which he spun with entrepreneur spirit into co-ownership of a profitable language school.

Well timed for Thailand
After saving a sizable nest egg in Japan, Sperling did what many other English teachers do – go to Thailand! His first vacation here was in 1988, and he immediately “fell head over heels in love with the country.” He rented a house in Chiang Mai, studied Thai, rented a motorcycle and started exploring.

Before long, Sperling’s travels in Thailand led to love once again, but this time it involved something more than the country. In 1989, he got married to his Thai wife, Dao, and become a father to a son, Benjamin, in 1991. His daughter, Shannon, was born much later in 1997. He returned to teaching and raised his family in Chiang Mai. His resume includes local employment at AUA and Chiang Mai University.

Sperling’s stay in Thailand lasted until 1992, when his family decided to leave for California, US. He explains, “I was 30 years old, married, a new father, and I was worried about my future.” He eventually earned a MA in applied linguistics at California State University, Northridge, and figured out how to operate computers. Although Sterling still visits Thailand often and feels deeply rooted to the country, the Internet revolution overcame him.

A virtual café opens
“I had no idea” how quickly the ESL industry would boom in the 1980s, Sperling admits, but by the mid-1990s, he clearly realized the potential for computers in the classroom, “especially when I began getting my students online in 1995.”

“I was working with a group of burned-out intermediate writing students, and the Internet seemed to really get them excited about learning,” Sperling elaborates, “I used to actually bring my computer to class, and I had them working in pairs learning how to use a computer, as well as how to create a web page. We published a class web page in December of 1995, and it was a big hit with the students.”

Managing the new website wasn’t easy. Sperling explains, “Family and teaching consumed a lot of my time, so I’d stay up late into the night building and working the website, sometimes until 3AM. It was something that I was passionate about.”

The hard work was rewarded as the website’s audience expanded. Sperling’s innovations in computer technology for classroom situations led to the publication of his book, The Internet Guide for English Language Teachers, by Prentice Hall in 1997. It was followed by two additional Internet-related books.

In an odd way, he became a pop icon for the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) industry. “It was an exciting time in my life because I was proud of being part of the Internet revolution and being one of the first individuals to introduce the Internet to the ESL/EFL community. I subsequently traveled around the world giving Internet seminars to students and teachers, which was both exhausting and exhilarating,” he explains, so he finally made the decision to devote all of his time and energy building the website.”

“ESLcafe was never meant to become a business,” Sperling insists, “It just became one out of necessity.” The cost of bandwidth was prohibitively expensive ($600-$800 per month, 20-27,000 baht), especially while raising his family with a small teaching salary. He considered closing the website down for awhile due to financial constraints, but decided to accept advertisements to defray expenses instead.

“The first banner ads began in 1998,” Sperling says, and he started charging for this service in April 1999. At first, this financial maneuver sparked a great deal of criticism among viewers, there were cries of sellout, but it was the only way the website could have survived. It was a critical decision, which marked the website’s transformation into a lucrative business. It also marked Sperling’s transition into a new profession. “I quit teaching at the end of 1999, and I’ve run Dave’s ESLcafé full-time ever since.”

Industry snags and struggles
The education industry has hit a recent snag. The global economy is on a downturn and many private schools suffer from the crunch. The Nova corporation, in Japan, went bankrupt, sending thousands of teachers home jobless, and many Korean private schools (hogwons) have gone out of business. Teacher training course providers have also been hurt as enrollments declined.

Moreover, a number of governments have cracked down on foreign teachers with new policies for visas and work permits. Some countries are trying to put the breaks on an industry that is seen as unpredictable and out of control.

“There is definitely a backlash,” Sperling observes, “and the industry has made it more difficult for teachers to secure work visas in many places throughout Asia. In Korea, for example, it’s mandatory to provide sealed transcripts from your university, a health exam and a criminal background check.”

Nevertheless, Sperling admits his support of some alterations in the industry, “We are heading into the direction of increased regulation, which is probably a good thing because it means more of a standard on who can and who cannot teach EFL.”

ESLcafe remains strong despite the weak global economy, new government regulations and competition from similar websites that have spawned. New markets for English learning keep opening up, and poor economies in the West encourage even more graduates to seek teaching positions overseas.

“Korea and China are currently the really big markets for teaching,” Sperling notices, “but there are many growing markets throughout the world: Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia to name a few.” Schools need his website now more than ever, especially when finding a good native-English speaking teacher can make the difference in a company’s failure or success.

Schools still need teachers, and for this reason, the ESLcafe continues to thrive. To place it into perspective, over the past 30 days, Sperling has received nearly 600 advertisements for teaching jobs for South Korea alone.

Taming the Internet
The success of Sperling’s website, however, has caused a type of backlash of its own. There have been complaints of over-moderation on his forums, censorship of posts and undue influence from advertisers. At issue is some particular controversies relating to how the Internet should be controlled.

In 2005, South Korean citizens pressured an expatriate’s website to shut down after an anonymous user posted offensive material about having sex with local women. Other problems occurred over the naming-and-shaming of schools. Users want the right to warn other teachers about bad schools, while schools worry about being attacked anonymously online without the ability to defend themselves.

Sperling responds, “All forums need moderators, and my team has done an outstanding job maintaining a high standard of quality … and I’ve even lost advertisers due to some of the negative comments that were written.”

Critics forget that the website has always been primarily about education. It was created specifically for learning English. At times the open forums can be a distraction to the website’s original cause. While the advertisements do create revenue, the website has remained available to most users at no cost. Students are not charged any fees to review material online, teachers can still post their resumes for free, and anyone is welcome to log onto the forums with no price tag attached. The brunt of expenses continues to fall on schools, private companies and recruiting agencies.

Revisiting the roots
Sperling’s website has gone through a major transformation recently. A new forum was added in response to the burgeoning EFL industry in China, and Sperling hired a designer to give the website a new look.

Returning to the days of 1995, in which EFLcafe was developed as an educational tool, a new section will be added specifically for students. Sperling remarks, “I’m currently working on creating a ‘Tips on Learning English’ section, which will have 300-400 pages of hints on how to learn English.”

For students who want to study English, he suggests, “a lot is up to you, the language learner-- to take advantage of every opportunity to improve. Read anything you can in English; speak to as many people as possible in English; watch movies, television, and videos in English; listen to the radio in English; write email, letters and a journal in English. Do whatever you can to improve -- it's up to you.”

The door is always open at the ESLcafe. There is plenty of room available, so pull up a seat and log on.


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