Photo credit © French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)

When schooling changed to online for most of the world due to strategies to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the Alliance Française chapters did the same with their French language classes and events. The result was mostly positive and actually increased participation in adult learning and gave online conversation and special events a creative boost.

“During the lockdowns in 2020 many people came back to the language and they were happy to find the convenience of online classes with their highly qualified Alliance Française instructors,” said Linda Witt, President, Federation of Alliances Françaises USA. “It was a paradigm shift to online and the Alliance Française embraced it early and well. Importantly, because we are a network, we can drive more people to our national and regional events and classes.”

Apéro National French Conversation Group. Photo credit © Federation Alliances Françaises USA

The result for the medium and larger size Alliance Française (AF) chapters was an increase in class attendees and thus business, especially adult classes. This was a year where fund raising events such as big galas were scaled back, so the increase in paying language students was appreciated. Some of the smaller AF chapters that don’t have extensive class schedules reported flat or slightly lower business, but still had a positive online experience with French conversation groups and workshop events.

“We lost a lot of the younger kids to Zoom fatigue and parents who wanted to get them away from screens since their schooling was totally online,” said Isabelle Leroux, President/Executive Director, Alliance Française de Los Angeles. “But we gained a lot of new adult students because they didn’t have to deal with traffic or parking. In fact, we opened more classes at different times during the day, early morning or evening and they are very successful.”

“This was a time of reinvention and we jumped at it,” said Marie-Monique Steckel, President of French Institute Alliance Française (FI:AF) in New York, the largest AF in the US.

Photo credit © French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)

Edith Boncompain, Vice President, FI:AF Language Center, agreed. “The silver lining is that we had no other choice,” she said. “We had 70 teachers and 10 days to give them computers if they needed them, train them on materials to teach online … even how to share a screen. We wanted to stay in touch with our public and students and continue doing what we know and what we love and for that we had no other choice.”

The choice was also positive for adult students to participate in AF classes and events. The Alliance Française in Washington D.C. saw a 30-40% increase in participation in adult classes and even higher growth in event attendance; many other chapters also experienced increases. Adult learners chose the freedom of learning French online for a variety of reasons, including ease of getting to the classes, an escape from their stay-at-home environment, a way to meet others, even the good online auditory experience.

“One of my online students said (online classes) were her dream because after an accident she could no longer manage climbing stairs in our building,” said Sarah Diligenti, Executive Director, Alliance Française Washington D.C. “We’re in an older building and there is no elevator.”

Photo credit © Alliance Française de Washington DC, Facebook

Another big online success was the events offered by each AF chapter. Losing geographic bounds of events resulted in not only expanding topic creativity but it was easy to have speakers from anywhere in the world, along with worldwide attendees. An example is FI:AF’s Animation First film festival which just ended. The online edition attracted over 10,000 viewers of the films from 47 U.S. states, plus international, and 2,500 passes were sold for the entire 10-day event.

“This is the crown jewel of what can happen in a virtual experience,” said Steckel. “The success truly shows the beauty of a virtual programme. We probably will continue having the event online as it’s a great way of multiplying your audience. We can see an upgrade of more people being able to see the films than when we were restricted with (attendance in) our theatre.”

The Alliance Française Silicon Valley (AFSCV) had many popular online events and workshops that attracted participants beyond the San Francisco Bay Area. The events included a series on hygiene – Le bain et la toilette à travers l’art – that was put on by a historian at the Louvre; a Netflix Emily in Paris discussion; art workshops around portraits, Pop Art and contemporary art and many others that proved to attract a large and geographically diverse audience. According to Upi Struzak, President of AFSCV, the 44 online events offered in 2020 were seen by participants all over the U.S. and Europe, including France, Holland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.K. Being online, information about the events was shared via social media and other online communications.

Photo credit © Alliance Francaise Silicon Valley

“Marketing (online) wasn’t so difficult because we were already offering quite a bit of visuals everywhere, and it was, in effect, easier because we could offer much more,” said Struzak.

One of the key reasons that the AF move to online classes and events did so well was the spirit of the Alliance chapters that came together and did the needed job.

“Our teachers have other jobs but when this happened, we had meetings every week and they were all on the Zoom meetings,” said Leroux. “They needed that to exchange information and learn the technology. . . and it was a human experience.”

That spirit was also felt by the support of the Federation that not only offered events and workshops that every AF could use but also posted AF workshops on their national website so any AF in the U.S. could share them with interested members.

Photo credit © Ekaterina Bolovtsova, Pexels

“There is much more of a spirit of sharing among the AF in the U.S. and that is positive,” said Steckel from FI:AF.

What is the future of teaching classes and events at AF? Like many organisations, AF is discussing this amongst the different chapters and the result will probably be a hybrid mixture of online and in-class that works best for each chapter.

“We have student bases that are completely sold on the efficacy and the ease of online classes,” said Witt. “After the pandemic when in-person classes open up there will be students who will prefer to stay online, and others who will prefer to return to the traditional classroom.”

That is balanced by Struzak’s experience. “About 95% of our teachers want to go back to in-person,” she said. “But … some of our classes will always be online, for example, our beginner and one intermediate classes. I would like to keep the workshops and the events online because it seems like we can reach more people.”

Stay tuned to your local AF chapter to experience their changing plans for classes and events in 2021.

Photo credit © Federation Alliances Françaises USA, Facebook
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Martha Sessums is the France Today Ambassador for San Francisco. Intrigued by France since her first stroll along the Seine, Martha and her husband often travel to Paris to explore the city and beyond. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, delighting in its strong Francophone and French culture community. She was a high-tech public relations executive and currently runs a non-profit continuing education organization.

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