Student success is at the heart of Southeast Missouri State University’s Intensive English Program (IEP) – and when classes were transitioned online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and staff sprang into action to make sure the program continued to help students thrive in the new virtual format.
IEP faculty and staff already used a variety of online tools to supplement the in-person classroom experience, which have allowed spring and summer classes to thrive completely online, said Breanna Walling, director of IEP and associate director of the University’s Office of International Education and Services (IES).
“Armed with those tools and a solid understanding of how languages are learned, our faculty created activities and experiences that would help students continue progressing in their English proficiency,” she said.
Southeast’s IEP, accredited by the Commission of English Language Program Accreditation (CEA), serves English language learners by providing coursework in listening and speaking, reading, writing and grammar. The program emphasizes the linguistic skills, cultural awareness, and critical thinking skills necessary to succeed at an American university.
IEP faced the new challenge head on by rethinking the overall approach to the classes, reaching out to students to ensure they were supported and able to use the technology, and moving assessments online.
“Good teaching is more about principles than specific tools, so our faculty started by thinking about what experiences students would need,” she said. “We collected resources that would create the right environment for using language skills in their specific class.”
Knowing students need connection and interaction, while also participating in a different time zones with different levels of internet access, was a challenge. IEP classes used a combination of synchronous Zoom meetings and asynchronous work through Moodle and other web tools, such as Flipgrid, which allowed students to post short asynchronous video comments and responses, much like a video forum.
IEP was also mindful that the abundance of online tools can be overwhelming to students without a teacher to guide them, and to faculty who put in extra time and effort to research materials that would effectively support students’ studies.
“Most students know that videos can be helpful for improving their listening skills, but finding a video that’s just the right level can take hours of searching, and it’s hard to know if your understanding was accurate, or how to improve,” Walling said. “By curating publisher supplements and other online materials, and creating new resources specifically for their web classes, faculty created an online experience that helped students practice specific language outcomes at the right level. Then students get individualized feedback on strengths and strategies for improvement.”
Students’ responses to the new online format was positive.
“They appreciated the ability to complete some work at their own pace,” Walling said. “They can view the teacher’s grammar instruction video multiple times until they feel confident. They can also move quickly through some activities that are easier for them and focus their study time on the skills that need the most work at that moment.”
In May, IES and IEP celebrated 14 students completing the program through a Zoom ceremony.
“Our students and faculty are incredibly creative, resilient and generous,” Walling said. “Faculty showed their expertise by reimagining class processes to meet the same course outcomes, and students worked hard to keep progressing toward their language and academic goals. Everyone showed a lot of patience and grace while we were learning how this would work. I’m proud of this community.”
The transition to online classes was unexpected, but student and faculty rose to the challenges, and some positive outcomes will be seen during the online summer sessions and fall when in-person classes resume.
“We’re rethinking ways to hold orientation and welcome them to our community,” Walling said. “It’s an exciting chance to think about what we do and all the different ways we can achieve the same goals.”
IEP is also developing new short-term programs online, which will allow students to spend a few weeks practicing English skills through online coursework, interacting with U.S. Conversation Partners, and learning about U.S. culture through lessons and projects. This provides opportunities for students to experience U.S. language and culture even if they’re not able to travel outside Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
“We were already thinking about what we could do online, and this semester created a push to move those initiatives forward more quickly. We learned so much from this experience, and we’re excited to use that experience to serve students virtually. Starting this fall, we’ll be able to offer conditional admission for online students. They’ll be able to demonstrate their language skills through our online coursework instead of taking an English test for admission.”