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Learning Circles and XPRIZE Apps: One Program’s Perspective

by Maryann Peterson

In the December 2018 issue of PROGRESS, David Rosen describes a Learning Circle as “a non-formal, organized study circle that includes an online course or other online resource.” This spring, the Thomas Jefferson Adult and Career Education (TJACE) program at Piedmont Virginia Community College piloted Learning Circles using the XPRIZE Adult Literacy apps as its resource.

Following the English Now! model adopted by World Education, the TJACE Learning Circles are free, inclusive, learner-led, and open to ESOL students of all levels. Our Learning Circles have met a need by engaging students on the waiting list, extending learning for students enrolled in traditional classes, and providing an alternative option for students who cannot attend traditional classes due to time or financial constraints. Enrollment is open, meaning students can join at any time during the term.

The English Now! Learning Circles Implementation Guide provided a flexible model for our pilot program. Through some trial and error, we developed the following strategies, which could easily be adapted to serve the needs of other programs:

  • Consider space and resource needs. TJACE Learning Circles meet in a small conference room with WiFi, where students gather around a table instead of sitting in traditional classroom rows. This arrangement encourages conversation and connection. Students face each other rather than the facilitator or the board, and the facilitator is able to join students as a member of the circle.

  • Survey students on access to technology. In order to access the apps, students need to bring a charged smartphone to class each week. We have surveyed our students using the English Now! Digital Skills Self Assessment and found that all of our students own or have regular access to smartphones; more than half of our students have iPhones; and most of our students use their smartphones, rather than a personal computer, for computing needs.

  • Establish a sense of community and camaraderie. Because attendance is encouraged rather than required, it’s important to establish a sense of community and belonging early on. Welcoming and greeting rituals are important. For the first few meetings, the facilitator modeled these introductions; soon students themselves were leading introductions and warm up activities, welcoming and orienting new students, and bringing concerns and suggestions before the group.

  • Prepare meaningful learning activities. In addition to lessons on the apps, which students complete at their own pace, each Learning Circle includes an instructor-led lesson. At TJACE, we focused on digital literacy and included a smartphone orientation, which prepared students to use the apps.

  • Designate class time for using the apps. We have found that giving students a flyer about the XPRIZE apps and the communities competition access code isn’t enough. Rather, we help them download the apps (experienced students can help new students with this), devote class time to completing at least one lesson on the apps, and debrief by asking students to provide written and verbal feedback about their learning experience. At the end of each class, students set a learning goal or intention for using the apps in the future.

  • Encourage student leadership. As the first in our program to try the XPRIZE apps, the Learning Circles students serve as “app ambassadors,” visiting traditional classes and helping their peers launch the apps on their smartphones. They recommend the apps to friends and family outside of class. By providing feedback, our students are educating us about the benefits and limitations of mobile learning.

  • Keep the conversation going outside of class. Students are encouraged to text the facilitator and each other between class meetings if they have questions or need support with the apps.

What TJACE students are saying about mobile learning and the XPRIZE APPS

Thank you for the information about Cell-Ed. I studied it 30 minutes tonight. It was very good and for me. It seemed like listening to [an] English class. I was interested.


I like the conversation. I like the questions. I can send the answer. I remember.


I am learning how to talk in some common situations. Like in shopping. I would recommend this app to another student because it is easy to apply and it is convenient.

Learning Circles are not a replacement for traditional classroom instruction, and apps are not a language-learning panacea. Because students have not completed enough hours for post-testing, it is too soon to say if students who participated in Learning Circles and tried the XPRIZE apps will show learning gains. However, students who participated in the TJACE pilot report that they are grateful for this free and convenient resource, they appreciate the face-to-face support and sense of community, and they feel confident using the apps to support their learning.

You can find more details about the English Now! Project on the EdTech Center@World Education website and learn more about the XPRIZE Communities Competition at the Team WorldEd page. English Now! Learning Circles for English Language Learners is a project of World Education’s EdTech Center, funded by Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

Maryann Peterson is an ESOL instructor for the Thomas Jefferson Adult and Career Education program at Piedmont Virginia Community College, where she facilitates the new Learning Circles program.