At TIEC’s headquarters in Austin, the Texas Intensive English Program’s Spring 2020 ACCESS and Texas University Pathway Program courses were set to begin just as COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders took effect. TIEP quickly shifted gears and converted both programs to fully online delivery. At a time when TIEC is advising different higher education institutions around the world on distance learning, two of TIEP’s faculty members shared their insights on what a move to virtual learning has meant inside TIEP’s own classrooms.
How was TIEP able to pivot in just a few weeks to fully online class delivery? Even before shelter-in-place orders made it a necessity, online learning was already a part of TIEP’s educational approach, explained Angelique Pearson, TIEP’s Program Support Specialist.
“We have built online learning into our programs, because we are largely preparing students for futures that require advanced online skills. We wanted to give our ESL students the technological skills that they need so that, when they move on to academic or career roles, they will be ready to jump right in,” Angelique said.
The integration of an online learning management system, Schoology, and other online learning tools and assessments were key TIEP initiatives over the last few years. Having a strong foundation already in place made it easy for students and faculty to make the switch to online.
“Online learning will be beneficial for the students, because they are going to have to learn how to function in a post-COVID-19 world,” said Joseph Moran, a faculty member. “This will be training for our students on how to conduct themselves digitally.”
TIEP employs a largely flipped classroom model, which puts students in an active and hands-on role as learners. The instructional approach turns the table on when each step of learning happens, with students doing much of reading, writing, and listening tasks at home rather than during class time. Students work at their own pace until they understand the material, and they discuss and apply their knowledge in class. This method leads to a more individualized experience for each student. Joe explained the student-centered learning approach lends itself well to an online classroom environment.
“Our online classes have been great! Students are able to hear each other clearly during their main conferences while focusing on just one presenter at a time − typically me − but we give the role of presenter to students for various activities like presenting speeches,” said Joe. “Our conferencing interface, Big Blue Button, allows for students to do group work via breakout rooms, has a chat and survey feature, and provides a digital whiteboard for shared note-taking.”
“It has been much easier to assign different activities for students to do on their own or in small groups. This provides the opportunity for students to interact with their own unique pieces of media and then adopt the role of instructor as they share what they learned with their classmates, who had different assignments,” said Joe.
The shift to online instruction has improved Joe’s own teaching skills as well. “I have gotten better at using authentic, primary sources (available online) and pulling learning aims and materials from them,” since the switch to online learning, he explained. But there have been downsides as well.
“The most challenging aspect of transitioning to online teaching has been adjusting to the lack of face-to-face contact,” he said. Although there have been no major issues with connectivity or communication within his online classes, “I do miss the familiarity of conducting classes in person and running into students between or after classes at school,” said Joe.
Angelique believes that, although online instruction may have once been seen as secondary to in-person instruction, improvements in instructional tools, methods, and technology have made online instruction just as rigorous as face-to-face instruction. COVID-19’s continued threat will require educators around the world to be flexible and innovative in the ways that we approach learning and teaching, according to Angelique.
“Our course of action will involve looking into new and innovative ways to conduct learning experiences and virtual exchanges. We will also be developing TIEP’s Online Global Community, a professional learning community for ESL teachers worldwide, into a more robust vehicle for the exchange of best practices and innovations,” she said.
COVID-19 will continue to impact educational policy and outcomes for the foreseeable future, promising some difficulties for both educators and students. “The gap between students who have access to technology and those who do not is going to be clearer going forward, as districts struggle to make online learning accessible to all students. This will greatly affect learning opportunities for millions of students around the world,” said Angelique. “We are thrilled to offer quality online intensive ESL courses for international students, many of whom are stuck in apartments with few options for continuing study during shelter-in-place orders. We plan to continue to offer our IEP courses online for summer 2020, returning to in-person classes when allowed by the City of Austin. Our primary concerns are the safety and learning of our students.”
To learn more about TIEP’s now entirely online intensive English programs, visit www.tiec.org/texas-intensive-english-program.