Lessons From Sperling: ESP With a Supersized E!

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

I was recently inspired by an article by Heather Hiles about the life of John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix. Sperling was focused on meeting the needs of “nontraditional” students. For ESPers, I think that there are lessons here about “building the workforce of tomorrow” (in the words of Hiles).

As a teacher of undergraduates in the International Business Career (IBC) major of the Department of International Communication (IC) at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) in Chiba, Japan, I have been focused on preparing my students for success in the global workforce. Leaders are often models of such success so my doctoral research has involved the investigation of leadership discourse. Accordingly, the title of Hiles’ article (“Picking Up Where John Sperling Left Off: Building the Workforce of Tomorrow”) immediately caught my attention.

There are three lessons in the article above that I would like to share with you; I’ve included quotes below:

  1. Recognize an opportunity!

In the 1970s, no one was targeting older, working adults who wanted to earn degrees and advance in their professions while juggling the complexities of life. At that time, it was a novel idea.

  1. Reflect on your own needs!

Like many successful entrepreneurs, John Sperling saw his own unmet need and created a solution in the form of a product. A self-taught and self-made man, Sperling was himself a nontraditional student.

  1. Take on the Herculean challenge!

Sperling was one of a small handful to take this on this contemporary, 21 century population, and whatever one may think of the business model, it is hard to argue that it wasn’t driven by the right intention: bringing education to the masses that traditional universities were woefully under-serving.

As ESPers, we are very familiar with conducting a needs analysis that takes into consideration the views of various stakeholders. We identify specific learner needs on a relatively small scale and focus on meeting those needs. Sperling’s work is inspirational because he was an educator with a big vision! (Sounds like leadership to me!) If he had been an ESPer, he would have been doing ESP with a supersized E; e.g., think of an ESPer with a big dream and a personal mission to meet an unmet need for English for medical purposes (EMP) in his or her country.

One quote in the article especially stands out to me:

Today’s learners are cobbling together a story that includes work experience, apprenticeships, raw talent, formal education, certifications, and training programs. They are continuously trying to prepare for and showcase their readiness for new opportunities. They need a set of tools that allow them to design and navigate their own pathways, and to truly own their destinies.

I see the description of my own students in the above. As a result, I feel the need to provide the set of tools that they can use to achieve success!

You might recall that I mentioned Ronna Timpa’s work as an EOP (English for occupational purposes) professional in a previous TESOL Blog post. Ronna, who is a leader in the TESOL ESP-IS, recently sent me an e-mail with testimonials about her hotel English online training. Check them out! It is great to hear from the various stakeholders how an ESPer is providing the tools that learners need to achieve success. Ronna is focused on “building the workforce of tomorrow” in the hotel industry.

Through such sharing of our successes, we have the opportunity to learn from (and become inspired by) each other; i.e., a form of professional development. What is your supersized ESP vision? Let us all know!

All the best,


About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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