By Alison Ascher Webber
Instituto del Progreso Latino achieved a 96% retention rate by Cohort 4 of their Cyber-ESL distance learning program with low-income Latino adults in Chicago by asking the question, “What supports will our participants need to be successful studying English online?”
Instituto knew their target group of primarily older, working adults and parents with an annual income of less than $20,000 would have a low success rate studying English on USA Learns entirely on their own. Yet, they also knew that distance learning would be the only way they could study given that they juggled multiple jobs, family responsibilities and other barriers.
What was their secret recipe for helping learners study online an impressive 12 hours a week and make significant progress in just four months?
Instituto staff offered Cyber-ESL participants supports that included:
- Classes offered every other week at two non-traditional times: Friday nights and Saturday mornings
- Individual 30-minute weekly phone calls with teachers for personalized instruction and coaching
- Check-in calls with student advisors once a month for additional coaching
- Skype sessions once a week with a small group of students for language conversation
- Childcare – 76% of participants were women, and 22% were single mothers
- Computer literacy instruction, a loaner computer, a wifi hotspot, and IT support
This particular recipe of distance learning, which involved 85% virtual and 15% in-person instruction, proved effective. 58% advanced at least one or more grade level in a 16-week period. By comparison, 30%, on average, make a leap of one level in Illinois community college programs (which in general serve a higher economic demographic). 31% of Cyber-ESL students actually advanced two levels!
An intensive evaluation process and full report funded by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation allowed for contrast with a comparison group of students. The comparison group also studied USA Learns online, but they didn’t receive any in-person help or virtual teaching/coaching. Surprisingly, this unsupported group still studied 10 or more hours per week. Perhaps the loaner computer, wifi hotspot, and IT support were all incentives to stay in the program and study. But the high trust and respect Instituto has with its participants and in its community cannot be understated.
The student supports did prove critical for higher learning gains. Cyber-ESL participants gained an average of 26 points in Listening and Speaking and 24 in Reading and Writing on the TABE CLAS-E compared to 6 and 7, respectively, for unsupported students.
Interviews with Cyber-ESL and comparison group students showed that all participants appreciated the ability to study English online whenever they could find the time, to study exactly at their level, and to repeat lessons without fear of embarrassment. Students in Cyber-ESL greatly appreciated the chance to also practice their English conversation with their peers in weekly facilitated conversations on Skype and in-person classes every two weeks. They also spoke to the importance of the individualized instruction they received from a teacher by phone once a week and the monthly calls with student advisors.
I had the honor of helping celebrate the success of Cyber-ESL at an event on September 7th and speak on what we learn from the success of Cyber-ESL. The best practice ingredients in Cyber-ESL’s recipe are multiple and too many for this blog, but include: integrating computer literacy and ESL instruction, personalized coaching and instruction, creating a peer community, providing students wraparound supports including childcare, selecting an online program that is evidence-based and also mobile accessible, and in person classes scheduled at the exact times when students can attend. Additionally, their constant iteration to continually improve upon program design and delivery based on student feedback allowed them increase retention and impact with each new cohort.
Cyber-ESL is also a perfect example of the benefits of distance and blended learning models. One of the participants said it best: “It’s funny that this is a virtual program, but yet there is a lot of human interaction and personal attention to help you. I feel that is a very strong style of this program.”
For more information on Cyber-ESL contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alison Ascher Webber develops and leads innovative projects for the EdTech Center, including advising the new Employment Technology Fund and leading its field testing. She also manages the Mobile Up! Project bringing mobile learning and career coaching to low-wage immigrant service workers.