There’s no denying that we live in a digital age. In fact, the average American spends more than 10 hours each day staring at a screen.¹
It makes sense then that digital literacy skills have become increasingly necessary in the workplace and in everyday life: job applications are often only available online, and many schools have adopted the use of personal devices to support the learning of children as young as five!
As the times change, so does the English Learning Center. At the end of last summer, we welcomed our very first Americorps VISTA staff member, Marlee Davis. She spent the past year building a distance learning program to help our students gain the skills they need.
Distance learning, however, goes well beyond increasing digital literacy. It gives students agency around when, how, and where their learning takes place. No longer limited to a physical classroom, students can study and practice English anywhere there’s a computer (or phone!) with internet connection. Our students are adults with busy lives and multitudinous responsibilities. We want to offer learning opportunities that are both engaging and responsive to the demands on their time.
In true tech fashion, the distance learning program has evolved quite a bit since the pilot class started in the fall of 2016. We began with nine students in a morning class. By January, we were ready to expand to a second class in the evening. We also recruited and trained our first distance learning volunteer teacher, who meets with students on-site to offer support and troubleshooting and who is continuing with us this summer.
We’ve already begun to see exciting outcomes and enthusiastic engagement. During the three-week break between our spring and summer terms – a time where students have previously been unable to access any educational opportunities at the ELC – three of our distance learning students were able to put in significant time on their lessons even though class wasn’t in session. Another student returned after taking a few months off to be with her infant son. She was delighted to learn that now she can continue to study even when she needs to be home with a sick baby. These opportunities are exactly what we hoped to offer students.
Individual achievement has also been impressive. The online platform we are using, USA Learns, is best-suited for students in our level three classes and higher. However, one level two student, Ikran, was so eager to participate that she joined the morning distance learning class this spring and has soared to the top of her class. Another student, at the age of 66, has tackled more online lessons than anyone in the entire program!
These successes help shape our plans for future growth. Marlee completes her Americorps year leaving behind a strong foundation. Her successor, Ellie Laurella, will focus on deepening partnerships with community resources to help students access free and low-cost technology and internet. She will explore adding another platform to engage lower level students in distance learning opportunities, and she will help us refine our recruitment, orientation, and support of new distance learning volunteers.