August 10, 2016

How Technology is Facilitating Immersive, Cross-Cultural Experiences

EF Education First is no stranger to innovation.

When Bertil Hult first launched EF more than 50 years ago in Sweden, the traditional approach to learning new languages kept students in classrooms and behind books. But after traveling to England, Hult quickly realized that, by steeping himself in English, he learned the language much faster than he could in in a classroom.

After that, it was off to the races: Hult launched EF, quickly expanding it from Sweden and Scandinavia to England, Germany, and France. By the 1970s, it had rolled out intensive English language programs for business professionals in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, and the U.S.

Today, its footprint is massive. It has 500 schools and offices in 50-plus countries, and employs some 40K people. From day one, EF has embraced innovation — its evolution is proof of that. (So are all 10 floors of its 300K square-foot Cambridge office, which cost a cool $125M and first opened its doors in 2014.)

Recently, I had the chance to catch up with Hakan Sjoo, EF’s Chief Information Officer and an employee for more than 20 years. He shared with me how technology has influenced the company and — more importantly — how it helps students traveling via EF better connect with their travel companions and the cultures they experience. Read more in the interview below.

Hakan Sjoo, CIO at EF.

Kaite Rosa: You’ve been at EF for more than 20 years. In that time, how have you seen techology evolve and impact cross-cultural experiences?

Hakan Sjoo: Believe it or not, I started with EF for the first time 22 years ago. I left the company twice and came back twice. I’ve seen this business evolve over more than two decades. The company started out as a direct marketing company and made an enormous shift to what today is very technology-driven.

What we do in North America is all about educational travel for any age group. High school students are a very big portion of what we do. It all revolves around immersive and educational experiences that are very interactive and give them a chance to understand and see sites all over the world — but also understand the culture and the environment.

Technology has become a huge part of that. In every part of the company — how we attract customers, how we interact with them before they travel, and even how we enhance the cultural and educational experience of a tour.

KR: Travelers today are heavily influenced by tech and the on-demand economy. They expect to book trips on the fly and have all the itinerary information they need at their fingertips. How have these needs and expectations influenced how you do business?

HS: We offer an educational, immersive, interactive experience. Our customers expect to be able to interact with us on the web and get all the information they need to sign up in programs and tours and take care of anything from payments to itineraries. That became a hugely powerful part of our business, and it’s a dramatic difference from how we did business 20 years ago.

Twenty years ago, the way we interacted with educators and travelers was through faxes and snail mail. Today, everyone expects a beautiful experience through their mobile phone or on the web. We reach out to all of our group leaders and educators while they’re on tour and get instant feedback. We know every day how all of our programs are going so we can fix things, or plan ahead, or change an itinerary. Because of technology, the whole experience has become much more dynamic.

WeShare — a new program we just launched — engages students two years before they travel, through the entire pre-departure process, during the tour, and when they come home. It’s an online platform that connects the kids’ interests with their travel destination. They develop an essential question or topic and explore it while traveling. It’s a way to make the experience more immersive, interactive, and educational.

Part of that is a social component. Kids can email back and forth with each other about projects related to their experience. Interactions happen organically on WeShare platform and sometimes they ladder up to real-time interactions. Students on tour also use existing social platforms — Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram — to connect with each other.

Our plan is to take that social component and facilitate it a bit more. We want to make it more meaningful in terms of reflection and the educational content of our programs.

KR: Have tech-based advances been better or worse for the kind of immersive cultural experiences you offer?

HS: Better — in so many different ways.

If you're traveling throughout Europe, it’s inevitable you will spend time on a bus. It’s always been a bit of a problem. When they’re on a bus, the kids aren’t engaged.

We’re working to turn that problem into a feature and give kids the chance to play games [through the WeShare platform] that are educational and related to what they just saw. That’s an example of something we’re working on right now that we think can dramatically change the experience.

KR: How do you anticipate new-age tech, like virtual reality, impacting travel? Have you started exploring this kind of technology yet?

HS: Very good question, and such an interesting topic that we’ve started to discuss internally.

Five years ago, we did what every teacher in the U.S. did: We told the students to leave technology at home. We encouraged them to experience travel first-hand without tech. But of course you can’t battle technology anymore.

It’s going to be part of the experience going forward. But it’s a fine line. There is actually a time when you need to put down your technology and immerse yourself in the surroundings that you’re in.

But there’s also an opportunity for things like virtual or augmented reality, where you can use tech to understand what you’re seeing. There’s a place for it, for sure. It’s one big puzzle that leads to the same objective, which is to use technology not to replace the tour experience — I don’t believe that will happen in our lifetime — but to augment the tour experience and make it more meaningful.

KR: What predictions do you have for the future of the industry?

HS: My sense is that the more we can use technology, the more immersive and in-depth the educational experience will be. That, in turn, will lead many more American students of all ages to travel.

That is something we firmly believe in: Giving you something meaningful, where you can reflect on the destination you’re going to and yourself. Our mission is to open the world through education and technology plays a big part in that.

KR: That’s a powerful mission. How does it translate to your employees?

HS: What we’re trying to do for our students is what we’re trying to do for our internal employees. The people who work for EF are very mission-driven. They deeply, deeply care about the educational experience through traveling to different places.

It has a huge impact on our own internal EF culture. Every single EF employee travels to different parts of the world. We try to take advantage of the fact that we have something pretty cool to offer, that we’re making our world a bit of a smaller place.


Kaite Rosa is Director of Content & Marketing at VentureFizz. Follow her on Twitter: @KaiteRosa

Image via Shutterstock

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