Friday, 21 November 2014

BESIG Bonn: Inspirational talks, quality networking and some great beer - a personal view

Note: this is the first instalment of my report from Bonn. I'm working on some more "content-focused" reports about teaching-related material and developments, which will appear probably on the Riverstone blog and in the Milan Business English Network. This is basically an informal snapshot of my immediate impressions of the event and the experience of being in Bonn itself. RD

The 27th IATEFL BESIG Annual Conference took place in Bonn, Germany on the 14-16th November 2014. It was a great opportunity for business English teachers and other professionals working in the sector to meet, exchange ideas and get up to speed on all the latest developments and technology fuelling our industry.

The event was held at the Sankt Augustin Campus of the Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg, just a short tram ride away from the centre of Bonn itself. The vast majority of BESIG events have been in Germany, mainly due to the fact that the most active members of the organisation are nearly all based in German-speaking countries. It may also be due to the fact that English teachers, like all expats, tend to adapt to their adopted locations and take on the characteristics of the people where they live. So, although there was a BESIG Annual Conference in Milan in 2006, the Italian presence at BESIG has been less noticeable than that of our more dynamic colleagues in the European economic powerhouse of Germany. 

Having said that, though, I did meet Richard Nicholas, who teaches English at Bocconi University in Milan, and took part in his workshop on training students to "hit the ground running" with immediately-useful spoken English skills. Richard drew extensively from his publication "Heads Up", which he co-authored with Mark Tulip and Louise Green.

The IATEFL and BESIG teams all deserve special mention, especially Cornelia Kreis-Meyer, Marjorie Rosenberg , Andrzej Stesik, Rob Szabó, Clare Hart and the many other people who helped to make the event a huge success. I’m sorry if I’ve missed out anyone really important – but I’m basing most of this on my experience as a first-time attendee gradually exploring the hinterland of IATEFL, BESIG and the many other Special Interest Groups. I think one of the interesting phenomena of the digital age is how the full picture of the activities of a group of highly professional people all working in a relatively small sector gradually emerges via various social media channels. This experience then forms the "digital backdrop" to the live international events.

Since I spend an increasing amount of time online it was interesting to make direct contact with so many people that I have come to know or know of through the proliferation of websites, blogs, Facebook pages and tweets, etc that taken together form the ecosystem or cloud of knowledge that we all inhabit these days.

I was also very impressed by the team of helpers from the university itself, who shepherded lost souls from room to room and provided the all-important information about where to find food, drink and other essential amenities.

Paul Emmerson gave a great talk on his new business English venture, BEhereBEthere, which features high quality resources for learners that the best-selling author has made available to students via a site which is 100% under his control. One of the key benefits of BEhereBEthere is the videos of Paul’s own students that he has posted along with exhaustive supporting materials, including detailed language notes and exercises. During his presentation, Paul explained aspects of his developing strategy, which is to build a unique and uniquely useful free resource for business English learners on the web and to gradually introduce premium features. This freemium model is now an established feature of many online English sites, services and apps and the whole question of business models was a recurring theme throughout the talks and chats taking place in and around the conference itself. 

Paul also shared some invaluable insights into how he uses Google Analytics to learn more about where visitors to BEhereBEthere are located. Given Paul Emmerson’s undisputed status as a major star in the business EFL publishing firmament, it was interesting to see how he is making the transition from published author to self-publishing web entrepreneur (webpreneur?). I think the key thing that was clear from Paul’s talk is the passion and commitment he brings to business English – and his genuine interest and engagement with students. Technology and social media in this context become incredibly powerful channels for content producers to connect directly with students (and fellow teachers) – much more directly than is possible through passive media, such as print or CD-ROM. However, as one audience member put it, once the content genie is out of the bottle the question of how content producers can monetize their creations (or, indeed, whether they can at all) becomes critical. 

As perhaps the “most photocopied man in the world”, Paul Emmerson knows more than most people about the problem of piracy and loss of revenue through vast armies of well-meaning teachers whacking his books under the copier. (During one of the dinners at BESIG, I suggested to Paul that he should perhaps consider some sort of deal with Canon, Xerox or any of the other companies that have helped to spread the Emmerson brand around the globe. In fact, he could even produce his own Paul Emmerson-branded photocopier, bundled with exclusive content for any language school that buys one. Another idea we kicked around was having some PE advertising on the underside of the copier’s flap – since there must be at least a million “flap views” a year in various schools around the globe. Why not have some inspirational Paul Emmerson quotes and a link to BEhereBEthere for people to read while they snag pages from Email English?)

Pete Sharma spoke about the development of the business English course book from print to digital. (Fuller report about this talk coming soon.) The last time I had the pleasure of watching Pete speak was a few years ago at the PSA Symposium at the Consulate General in Milan. As well as being one of the leading experts in the world on blended learning Pete is also a marvellous conference speaker and simply a great communicator. He has a sort of magical rapport with his audience and I think this is one of the reasons why face-to-face communication will always be important – despite the onward march of videoconferencing and Skype. His gestures are also incredibly expressive – and, like all foreigners living in Italy, I have become something of a connoisseur of how people talk with their hands. So, if you want to see and hear someone communicating cutting-edge ideas about education in a memorable, absorbing way, I urge you to check out Pete’s forthcoming speaking engagements.

Other highlights of the conference included a talk about the importance of lexical chunks by Jeanne McCarten in the plenary session. Paula Mulanovic's session was entitled "Teach like TED" and offered tips for teachers of business English. Cleve Miller of English 360 spoke about blended learning for business English: how to design it, deliver it and sell it. It was also nice to meet Valentina Dodge from English 360 too. I also ran into Bob Dignen of York Associates, who spoke about virtual teams and virtual meetings as well as presenting "Ten top tips for successful communication" with Ian McMaster. There were so many talks that it would have been impossible to do more than scrape the surface, but that's BESIG, I suppose. The overwhelming impression you get from attending a conference like this is just how diverse and constantly evolving the business English ecosystem actually is. 

One of the great things about a conference is the opportunity for chance meetings which subsequently prove providential. One such random encounter was meeting András Petz of Anglofon, a specialist legal English firm based in Budapest, Hungary. I happened to be sitting near him on the tram to the campus and overheard him asking someone which stop to get off at. I went over and we struck up a conversation, which resulted not only in meeting a really nice person and a dedicated professional but also in attending his presentation and discovering the very impressive range of resources he has created with his team in Hungary. These include a book on the Terminology of Civil Law, which is linked to a wealth of online material specially designed for legal professionals who need to improve their knowledge of English. We both agreed to stay in touch and hopefully collaborate on some interesting future projects. 

Bonn is a truly lovely city, with many historical and cultural associations. As the former capital of the Federal Republic of Germany (or West Germany as it was known before reunification) the city retains a certain gravitas as well as a legacy of imposing administrative buildings and headquarters, including almost twenty UN institutions. My hotel room had a commanding view of the Rhine and the Kennedy Bridge and the occasion also allowed me to explore the historic centre of Bonn. The classical architecture of the University buildings and the Hofgarten (Court Garden) are very impressive and the city is also a place of pilgrimage for music lovers visiting the house where Beethoven was born. The Marktplatz (market place) is dominated by the Alte Rathaus, or old town hall - simply stunning:

It was also great to spend some time chatting to other delegates in the canteen of the Hochschule as well as in some of the city locations. I had a memorable dinner with Alex Taylor of TJ Taylor, the language school based in Milan with centres in the UK and Ireland, at the First Flush Tea Room, which is also – despite the name – a restaurant serving exotic delights such as pumpkin curry (excellent). We also had tea – everyone gets a teapot of a different design – and sampled the local Kölsch beer, which was equally outstanding. We continued our conversation in Brauhaus Bönnsch, a traditional Rhineland pub serving Kölsch in strangely curved glasses, complete with finger-grips to make imbibing just that much easier. I also managed to squeeze in a visit to Cologne to see its massive and overpowering Cathedral, whose twin spires loom above the station and somewhat cramped squares below. Unfortunately, it was raining quite heavily, which just seemed to add to the sense of oppressive  weight towering overhead – and it was actually something of a relief (architecturally speaking) to be standing in front of Milan’s far more forgiving, though equally impressive, Duomo (cathedral) later the same day.

I flew back to Milan with most of the Italian contingent including freelance business English teachers Louise Goodman and Andy Townsend and our BESIG chat continued well after we had touched down. 

Based on my first experience of BESIG I can honestly say that this was a great experience and for any business English teachers - freelance or otherwise - I would strongly recommend signing up to BESIG and checking out all their events, including regular webinars with experts from the field of business English.

I'll post an update soon when I have sifted through all the notes and stacks of material I accumulated during the conference. Stay tuned!