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A Challenging Reality: Transitioning from the classroom to e-learning among English language learners

By Joel Floyd / October 2020

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused e-learning to become the primary means for teaching and learning across the globe. Because of the seriousness of this disease, most educational entities have transferred in class instruction to learning at a distance, giving e–learning an immense moment in the education industry. Some examples of e-learning instruction are represented through video conferencing, such a Zoom, Web Ex, and Skype, in addition to learning management systems like Blackboard, Canvas, Talent LMS and Google Classroom. 

Even though there appears to be a solution for teaching and learning through these various e-learning methods, all student populations do not easily embrace e-learning instruction. As the Chief Executive Director of adult ESL and continuing education at English for a Lifetime Language Institute located in the metro Atlanta, Georgia area, my faculty and I have encountered several barriers that have caused us to question the effectiveness of e-learning as the new mode to learning across all student populations.

Our English Language Learners

English language learners in the United States come from a diversity of cultural and educational backgrounds. Our students come primarily from Spanish-speaking countries and define themselves as either Hispanic or Latino. Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala represent our student population followed by an influx of Venezuelan and Colombians. In my tenure as the program’s director, I’ve learned that more than 90 percent of our students possess very little education. Some of these students have not completed middle school and very few of them have completed high school. As a result, they enter the English language classroom with extremely low literacy skills in their own native languages. Thus, our students require a tremendous amount of teacher to student assistance coupled with strategies for motivating them to persist in their English language course. Further, I’ve discovered due to our students’ commitment to their work life for the purposes of surviving and supporting their family, they need a highly effective and engaging classroom experience. Teachers must be intentional in creating lessons that are relevant to students’ lives in the US and lessons that make learning English as a second language a worthwhile experience.

Implementing E-Learning

When the COVID- 19 crisis became a blaring reality, my faculty, staff, and I had no choice but to decide how to create, contextualize, and implement innovative and distance learning outside the classroom. In the same context, we had to think about the distinct cultural and educational backgrounds of each of our student learners. Given our students’ backgrounds, we had very little time to learn about online tools that would directly benefit them. Further, a major challenge was deciding how to train students for using e-learning technology outside of the classroom in addition to providing teachers with an adequate skill set for teaching online. Ultimately, we agreed that employing live class session through video conferencing would be most beneficial among our student population.

Adult English Language Learners and Issues with E-learning

Over the last few months, the implementation of e-learning has presented the following challenges among our student population: unsuccessful communication, lack of access, and the selection of e-learning tools.

Students have reported having a difficult time understanding teachers in a live online classroom format versus their traditional classroom experiences due to issues with pronunciation and understanding basic instructional commands. We’ve concluded that beginner students may require a bilingual teacher in online live class sessions. Currently, our teachers are not required to be fluent in a second language.

Several students have indicated that not having a computer at home limits their ability to participate in online class sessions. Some students may not be able to afford both a computer and internet services due to income disparities. They’ve also reported that smartphone functionality is a hindrance in live class sessions due to the inability watch the live class session and follow multiple instructional slides that the teacher may be using.

Currently we implement Go to Meeting for live class sessions, and an Off 2 class platform designed for teaching English lessons in English language schools. Students have complained that these tools can be ineffective and/or boring.

Concluding Thoughts and Recommendations for Practice

In the face of crisis, educators must work both individually and collectively to decide the most effective learning techniques among their student populations. Although COVID-19 has caused an abrupt transition to teaching and learning online, the primary question has to be, will such an instructional method meet the needs our students? Unfortunately, as my school’s program director, I feel somewhat blindsided by the continuous e-learning movement buy in. I have come to realize that all student populations and especially our English language learners are not ready for instruction that is driven by technology and a high level of independence.

However, to address some of the common issues that adult education ESL programs encounter with e-learning, the following suggestions are recommended:

  • Adult education ESL teachers should be provided with a consistent training program for e-learning pedagogy.
  • Curricular objectives should focus on the use of technology for teaching and learning in and outside of the classroom.
  • E-learning instruction should align with students’ specific learning goals.

Overall, to overcome some of the barriers to e-learning among adult English language learners, ESL program stakeholders must be committed to expanding the solutions with hopes that e-learning has the ability to serve effectively, and to a higher degree, adult English language learners.

Suggested Readings

For educators interested in further exploring English language learners’ challenges with online learning, I suggest perusing the following research articles:

About the Author

Joel Floyd is the founder and Chief Executive Director of the adult ESL and continuing education at English for a Lifetime Language Institute in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. His current research interests include teacher professional development in the adult basic education (ABE) field, critical pedagogy and equity among English language learners in post-secondary institutions, and student recruitment and retention among non-traditional adult learners. Dr. Floyd is a member of the Georgia Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (GATESOL) and the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE), and he earned his doctorate (2019) in educational leadership at Keiser University of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

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