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Leading the Charge of Distance & Blended Learning

by Sharon Hetland

In 2019, Amy Judd, program manager of Region 7, wrote an Innovation and Opportunity Grant applying for funds to develop a site plan to implement distance education. The awarded funds were used to engage in a professional learning circle with the IDEAL Consortium, offer an on-site workplace English as a Second Language (ESL) class with blended learning, and implement a stand-alone distance education program for students seeking the GED® credential.

Dr. Jen Vanek of the IDEAL Consortium facilitated the course for five instructors and the regional specialist. Jen led the group though a series of webinars and online modules over the course of eight weeks. The work was intentional and delineated the essential components for an effective distance education program. Program needs were assessed, and specific strategies were defined for recruitment, screening and learner readiness, orientation, curriculum, and assessment.

A main factor of recruitment for us was to more fully utilize all social media and inform all our instructors and partner agencies. We developed a link on our website with an online survey for interested students to complete. The form goes directly to the distance education coordinator and begins the screening process as a potential student completes various digital literacy tasks.

Screening and learner readiness is key to successful distance education. Students must have access to technology on a reliable basis, have technology skills, have time to dedicate to studying on their own, be able to work independently, and be academically prepared to handle the rigor. That’s a tall order!

The orientation process is, in many ways, a continuation of the screening process. Since there must be 12 in-person contact hours, orientation allows the instructor to meet the student, discuss goals, and start assessments.

Using TABE Online helps us see students’ comfort level with technology, as well as their academic skills. In the blended learning pilot, students took a technology skills assessment in addition to CASAS. During orientation, students are introduced to the software and online curriculum they will be using and get some practice with those programs.

The advice from IDEAL is to use one primary curriculum. This simplifies things for students, and it allows teachers to be fully versed in all the program content. Our program uses GED® Academy and USALearns, and we supplement with Khan Academy and Stand Out.

Of course, we follow the state assessment requirements for pre- and post-testing. This sometimes means arranging to travel to the student or having another instructor closer to the student meet to do the assessment. Formative assessments are critical along the way to gauge student progress. The blended class used Kahoot, Quizlet, and Google Forms to aid in assessment. With distance learners, there is frequent contact between them and staff about assignments, results, and progress.

Implementation: ESL Blended Learning

The blended learning ESL class was piloted at a workplace site, Sysco. The class met for 16 weeks with employees who came to class prior to their shift. There were two instructors, and learners were divided into an lower and higher academic group. The learners used Chromebooks and the station rotation method of blended learning. Lower level learners primarily used USALearns and more advanced learners used Khan Academy. The class had excellent attendance and all students made learning gains or improvements. Student surveys showed great satisfaction and the desire to continue learning. Some distance learning was completed at home, but many students expressed that they did not have time to work outside of class.

Workplace classes present unique obstacles as production needs can interfere with attendance. Technology needs can also be problematic with corporate internal firewalls and restrictions. It is critical to work through this in advance and do several “trial runs.”

Distance Education

Initial response shows that we were correct to anticipate a desire for distance education. As of March 6, we have had 112 adults submit the online survey with 67 of those starting the process and 38 following through to be assessed and start the program. The students range in age from 16 (released from compulsory education) to 67. Learners have primarily entered at EFL levels of 3 or 4, but a few learners with EFL 2 have been successful in the program. We established a requirement of five hours of work per week. The average seems to be around three hours, but those completing tests quickly are sometimes putting in six to eight hours. Twenty-six GED® test sections have been successfully completed with five GED® completers. The Distance Education Coordinator logs approximately eight hour per week in assessing, communicating, providing instruction, and documenting student contact hours and progress.

Conclusion

Jen Vanek prefaced the course with these remarks, This is really more of a program development plan than a course. Know that this is very real, and it will feel like work, but when you are done, you will know how to implement distance learning and have the materials you need to do so.

Jen’s words could not be more accurate. We did indeed develop concrete site plans and useful materials for ESL and high school equivalency (HSE) education, but we also experienced the exhilaration of creating something new that we believed would be useful to our students and to our program. All the participants valued the process and are major stakeholders in the success of the program.

Resource

IDEAL Distance Education and Blended Learning Handbook


Sharon Hetland

Sharon Hetland has been in adult education for more than 20 years. She has taught GED® prep, ESL Bridge, and Workplace Readiness classes. In her role as regional specialist, she provides professional development, support, and guidance to more than 30 instructors. She served as the Virginia Association for Adult and Continuing Education (VAACE) President from 2013-15 and continues to advocate for adult education providers and learners.


UPDATE Now that distance learning is the “new normal,” all programs are working hard to get students involved in online platforms. It might be helpful to use one main curriculum with which students are already familiar. This also allows instructors to help one another. This is the time to rely on the “experts” in your program. Those instructors who regularly use Zoom or Google Classroom can take the lead. One ESL class just conducted in Zoom was a joyful experience for students and teacher. They were delighted to “see” one another, and it was a comfortable and safe oasis in the midst of the COVID-19 chaos. The human connection helped those students who were feeling isolated.

We are learning now what we must do in the future with all students: deter-mine technology access and ability when enrolling students; get every student in online programs and give them time to practice in class; integrate distance learning into every classroom; and investigate loaning laptops. We are all lifelong learners.