The Ongoing Transformation of Adult ESOL Learning

July 15th, 2021 | Blogs


The COVID-19 pandemic has been a shock to the economy and our way of life.  Its effect on Adult ESOL learning has been equally disruptive, but ultimately, it has accelerated program innovation and transformation and possibly system level recalibration, potentially making learning more flexible and attractive to adult learners. Most importantly, ESOL providers stepped up to develop feasible education opportunities remotely. It was a learning process for them and their students, one which they honed over time.  The field has learned much about the  approaches employed to sustain teaching and learning during the pandemic. We at World Education investigated the efforts to sustain adult ESOL programs, with the goal of improving and scaling promising practices and to meet a potential growing demand for English language education under pending immigration reform.

Our Research Project
Fifty-two (52) programs responded to our national call for applications and nominations for our Remote ESOL project.  In all, 35 programs, reflecting different institutional settings, organizations, student populations, geographies, and approaches, were selected for interviews and an analytical review process.  These programs represent segments of the adult ESOL ecosystem both with and without public funding. Each program integrated some combination of key features identified as leading to ESOL learner success in a remote learning experience.

What We Observed

Our six-month landscape scan revealed an array of tech tools and approaches being used by Adult ESOL providers at a growing level of sophistication. Our analysis made visible several key implementation areas that buoy starting, scaling, or improving current implementation:

  • Student recruitment and orientation;
  • Instructional platforms, materials, and approaches;
  • Student persistence strategies;
  • Student access to digital skills, devices, and internet;
  • Support for students’ basic needs;
  • Professional development and support for staff; and
  • Partnerships and leadership.

Benefits of Remote Instruction. Remote Adult ESOL services solved to varying extents the design shortfalls and opportunity constraints of set schedules of in-person programming. We learned that remote designs are conducive to more flexible, multi-faceted and frequent learning opportunities and to leveraging technology for more differentiated/personalized instruction. Remote programs can facilitate higher levels of participation, promote persistence, increase intensity of instruction, and can lead to achieving greater gains in shorter periods of time. Several programs we interviewed showed it is possible to transition integrated support services to a remote environment and use various applications and strategies to communicate with and refer students to services to help them meet their non-academic needs.

Digital Literacy Imperative. All programs acknowledged and found ways to address the need to treat digital literacy skills not only as key foundational skill to facilitate remote learning but also to navigate daily life, support their children’s remote learning, and increase the competitiveness of students in the labor market, as digital literacy skills are now expected of workers and in most spheres of life. Program approaches varied in how much they integrated digital skills instruction into ESOL instruction. Some simply provided distance learning supports to enable access to ESOL instruction but didn’t necessarily continue to intentionally teach digital skills and resilience. Others did both. It is clear that digital literacy is no longer an optional nice addition to program offerings but an essential skill.  Funders’ policies need to reflect that.

The Future of Remote ESOL. While remote ESOL services are likely not a wholesale substitute for in-person delivery for all students or a panacea for current system capacity and performance shortfalls and variability in program effectiveness, they can be a great way to complement the capacity of in-person programs and add new capacity through remote learning only. Our findings also point to what supports programs may still need to fully leverage the power of technology to increase the reach of who can be trained and to accelerate learning through strategies such as personalization, differentiation, and embedding digital and other essential skills into ESOL instruction.

Resources to Support Scaling or Starting Up Remote ESOL Instruction

The Remote ESOL project resulted in several resources that reflect these findings:

Check them out on the project website:  You may also be interested in the recent webinar that shares broadly the policy and practice findings.

Why This Matters

We believe that these findings and resources are also useful as Congress considers ways to fill the existing gap between demand and supply for ESOL services and to build the necessary capacity to satisfy any English language requirements that might be part of a major legalization effort and pathway to citizenship. We also hope that the findings encourage philanthropy and state/local policymakers to invest in ESOL education opportunities.

We come away from this study with deep appreciation for the tremendous effort ESOL programs made to rapidly redesign their programs for the COVID-induced remote learning environment. Across the country, adult education programs went well beyond the call of duty to respond to the crisis to not just ensure the continuity of access to education, but also to meet students’ basic needs for food, avoiding eviction, filing for unemployment, and accessing health care during the pandemic. And while doing that, they innovated, rethinking how adult education programs can be designed using diverse technology tools. It was a lasting learning experience for us all and one that continues as programs now make decisions about their design and services for the next academic year.  Many, perhaps even most, programs have permanently changed their designs to include more technology-enabled options and flexibility that expand access to learning.

World Education and the Remote ESOL Team thank all the ESOL programs who responded to our call and took the time to submit their information. We are especially grateful to the programs whom we interviewed, who reviewed our drafts, and shared so much about their approaches and their own and their learners’ experiences.

Authors: Johan Uvin, Silja Kallenbach, Annalisa Crowe, Catalina González, Navjeet Singh, Jen Vanek, Alison Ascher Webber

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