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Interview with Ian Butler

Ian Butler I recently met up with Ian Butler, the Irish founder and CEO of LingleOnline.

The Dublin-based educational startup already has users in 118 countries, a partnership agreement with the British Council, and a product that makes immediate sense to anyone who has ever taught English.

Ian has a wealth of educational and technical knowledge and...well, I'll let him speak for himself.

Mark McBennett, ELT News Editor, August 2013

Mark McBennett:
Before we get on to your current business can you let us know a bit about your background?
Ian Butler:
I started out as writer, creating technical manuals many moons ago. Then after a brief sojourn into teaching I settled, mostly, in the language services sector. For most of the past 20 years I’ve worked in the international language services industry helping customers adapt their products for sale internationally. I’ve spent most of that time working on e-learning, online and multimedia products. My combined knowledge and experience of language services, international business, e-commerce, and education were what led me to Lingle and where I am today.
Mark McBennett:
How did LingleOnline come about and, apart from yourself, who is behind it?
Ian Butler:
LingleOnline grew out of a research project supported by the National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) in Dublin. The NDRC run various programs for startups, entrepreneurs, and universities trying to commercialize research, ideas, and projects. I got involved with the NDRC in the early days of the project helping to explore its commercial potential. I led a seed investment round securing additional investment from private investors, Enterprise Ireland, and the NDRC and together with co-founder Greg Kennedy established LingleOnline Ltd. in 2011.
“Lingle...provides teachers and editor with the tools to rapidly create a personalized, curated learning experience for language learners.”
Mark McBennett:
Without getting too deep into the technical details, how does LingleOnline work?
Ian Butler:
Lingle is a web-based English Language Learning service for teachers, schools, and publishers. It provides teachers and editors with the tools to rapidly create a personalized, curated learning experience for language learners. With Lingle users can create language learning materials using current news articles or their own text.

There are three main elements to Lingle which represent the three main steps in creating materials; Find, Analyze, Create. Users can rapidly find suitable materials from our corpus of over 100,000 articles with search filters by level, keyword(s), grammar point, date of publication, topic, and publisher. We update our corpus every 10 minutes with news from around the world. Every article in our corpus (or uploaded by a user) is analysed for complexity, vocabulary, and grammar.

When you choose an article or video Lingle will tell you the Level - pre-intermediate to Advanced, or A1 – C1 for the Common European Framework - highlight key vocabulary, summarize and highlight key grammar in context.

Then with a couple of clicks you can automatically create print and interactive exercises for learners.
Mark McBennett:
Every teacher at some point has gone online to look for worksheets, lesson plans, crossword generators, suitable text or video on a given topic, and so on. And then the laborious process begins of wading through poor quality content, broken links, enticements to join here, pay there. It sounds like you have the technological capability to really shake that up. Did you consider the "freemium" business model?
Ian Butler:
It’s something we continue to review, I’d love to find a way to make it work. Right now our biggest issue is the cost of acquiring content rights. We have to bear the cost associated with acquiring the rights to the news content we provide. Until such time as quality content for education has a lower cost this is likely to be a concern.

We’re also very focused on ensuring a quality user experience. If products are not easy and quick to use, educators are less likely to adopt them. If we transition to an advertising model that supports freemium content this will adversely effect the user experience.
Mark McBennett:
Do you see Lingle and other online innovations supplementing or supplanting textbooks?
Ian Butler:
In the short to medium term I see them as a supplement to the traditional materials, though we have seen Lingle used as a complete replacement.

Educators are generally slower to adopt new technologies. Industry feedback indicates that teachers are adopting technology because their students are pushing them to do so. Just as we see with music delivery, when consumer experience evolves through the generations away from a physical medium (vinyl, cassette, mini-disc, CD etc.), the virtual becomes more acceptable and ‘normal’. I see the same happening in education with online technology. The textbooks won’t go away, some will exist in very similar forms, others will evolve to integrate the new dynamic online elements.
Mark McBennett:
For a teacher you're cutting out two major sources of hassle: finding suitable authentic material for language lessons; and creating out-of-the-box activities based on that material. What's not to love?
Ian Butler:
Good question, we love it all, we just know how much more we can do and want it all faster!
Mark McBennett:
When it comes out the other end, what does a typical lesson plan look like?
Ian Butler:
I posted an example on our blog here. For subscribers we create free, ready to use lessons nearly every day, and these are available to valid subscribers including our free 30-day trial members.
Mark McBennett:
How much flexibility or control does a user have over the kinds of activities that are generated?
Ian Butler:
All our automatically created activities are customizable. Users can edit instructions, lesson titles, word selection(s), example sentences, dictionary sources, definitions, grammar selection, position & order, choose their own text, embed images, embed video clips, and custom create activities.
Mark McBennett:
Your website features prominent logos for the British Council and Cambridge University press. What's the connection?
Ian Butler:
The British Council is a customer. We provide the technology behind the Teaching English web site “exercise generator”.

We’ve worked with Cambridge University Press since the initial research began and worked closely with them on the dictionary API beta program. Amongst other dictionary sources we provide definitions and pronunciations from Cambridge Learners and Advanced Learners dictionaries through their API services.
Mark McBennett:
Are you aiming the service primarily at administrators, teachers, or learners?
Ian Butler:
Learners are the main beneficiaries with Lingle. I believe a learner needs support to activate knowledge so Lingle is aimed at teachers, academic directors, and publishers.
Mark McBennett:
What has the feedback been like from end users? And what does the future hold for LingleOnline?
Ian Butler:
For the future, aside from the long list of new features and exercises we’re implementing, we plan to provide Lingle in multiple languages.

Feedback has been great, teachers really love how up-to-date our articles are and how quick it is to create materials. Without doubt the most common reaction we get from teachers is “Wow”!
Ian Butler
Ian Butler (right) and LingleOnline CTO Greg Kennedy

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