Nov 13 2020

How Colleges Help ELLs Through Technology During Remote Learning

In online curricula, colleges optimize instruction for students with limited English proficiency.

For English-language learners in college, especially those studying remotely, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented myriad educational challenges. Time zones, language barriers and the lack of classroom connectedness all pose difficulties for ELL students logging in from locations overseas.

The stakes are high for colleges seeking to keep these students engaged. International students make up only 5.5 percent of U.S. higher education enrollment, according to the “2019 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.” But they account for a significant percentage of tuition revenues for many universities. For this reason, and to help these students continue successfully in their academic progress, colleges are eager to support this key population.

“When you have class in real time, you can answer questions in class, you can go over assignment details,” says Jared Campbell, head of IT for Evans Library at the Florida Institute of Technology. “When you try to do that with students who are in another country, accessing your class at 3:00 in the morning, that can be a challenge for the teachers and the students.”

Institutions are using a range of technologies to support TESOL, or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, as remote learning continues to evolve.

Technology for ELL Students Aids Learners and Faculty

At the University of Richmond, Economics Professor Saif Mehkari has gone global. “I’m literally all over the place, from Peru to China, with Europe and Africa in between,” he says.

Time zones create a significant hurdle, and Mehkari sometimes teaches the same class multiple times in a day, in order to reach everyone. He also records lectures using Camtasia video editing software. “When you are prerecording a lecture, you don’t want to have any mistakes in there,” he said. “The software allows us to record a lecture, and go back and edit.”

He is also leveraging technology to convey the full classroom experience to ESL students and those with limited English proficiency.

“I’m writing on a whiteboard or using projectors, but how do I get that across to them? Teaching is like a show, and I need to convey all that information to the students,” says Mehkari.

To that end, he has deployed multiple HuddleCamHD Go cameras around the lecture hall. “I set up the room to offer multiple views, with a camera on the whiteboard, a camera on the class, another on my iPad and another on me, so they can dynamically choose what they want to see,” he says.

Virtual Workspaces Create a Secure Environment for ELL Students

Desktop as a Service and virtual desktops offer another means to support these learners and their instructors.

“DaaS solutions like Nutanix’s Xi Frame allow application access on any device, granting students full access to their university network and classes regardless of their location and without installing any hardware onto their personal computers,” says John Pelletiere, senior director and general manager of state, local and education for Nutanix.

“DaaS also provides a completely secure working experience, operating as a separate application in a controlled working environment that’s independent of remote students’ personal activity and weak points within their individual networks,” he says. “This enhanced security ensures that students’ intellectual property is safe from any disruption.”

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The Right Tools Facilitate Instruction for ESL Students

At Florida Tech, learning management systems are another key piece of technology in ESL instruction. With students dispersed around the globe, Campbell leverages the Canvas LMS capabilities to ensure all students have equal access to information.

“When I get asked a question by even a single person, I will assume 10 other people need that same answer, so I will record the answer with my webcam and send it out to everybody,” he says. “The LMS becomes your distribution service. It’s how you get the information to your students.”

Campbell also uses Zoom, both to broadcast and to record lectures. Although this broadcast capability ranks high among ESOL technologies, it’s an approach that requires quality video and audio inputs to achieve its maximum educational effect. Campbell turns to the Logitech C920 HD Pro Webcam to meet that need.

“Those have a good price point, and they have a microphone with high definition. The instructors use them, the staff use them — anybody who wants to record themselves,” he says, noting that the high-fidelity cameras play a key role in supporting international learners.

“Teachers are motivators,” Campbell says. “They are skilled at conveying the information, but they still need to motivate students to take that information, to learn it and apply it. To do that, you need a full communications capability, not just voice. You need to see the person well enough so that if someone raises an eyebrow, the student understands that this is something important, and they need to pay attention.”

“You don’t need super high production for your presentations,” he continues. “You don’t need a movie studio. If you have engaging content and a good webcam, that will enable those teachers to connect with their students.”

Technology for ELL students may also include automated transcription software, such as that offered by Dragon. International students who have the opportunity to read back through a presentation may be better able to understand the material.

“Transcription can be labor-intensive, but with the artificial intelligence tools, it’s much quicker,” says Campbell. “The English learners can look up the words, they can review what was said. It helps them understand the content. It helps them build vocabulary and see how English is actually spoken, at least in an academic setting.”

For those looking to implement these and other ESL technologies in support of international learners, Pelletiere recommends a collaborative approach. It’s important for campus leaders to work with both on-campus IT and academic specialists to help ELL students, he says.

“If universities feel unequipped to support these remote students, they should not hesitate to tap into resources available from other institutions or online learning sites,” says Pelletiere. “While COVID-19 has created immense challenges, it has also presented an opportunity to leverage what the world can offer students, instead of just relying on the technology and expertise available on a specific campus.”

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