Challenges met with online opportunities for adult education
When Iowa went face first into the pandemic, all educators were left scrambling to improvise teaching in a world they had never seen before. Community colleges certainly weren’t exempt.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect community colleges faced, however, was trying to reach out to the adult learners and, in particular, students who were working on their high school equivalency degree (known as HiSET) and those whose native languages aren’t English (English as a Second Language, or ESL).
Adult students, of course, face their own unique challenges, from work to families. ESL learners also face those challenges – plus learning a new language. Add those challenges to a lack of tech savvy and access to device and internet connectivity, and you’re facing a real problem.
The staff at Iowa Central Community College (ICCC) learned these dilemmas pretty immediately.
“We had to move really quick with very little training and not necessarily the proper technology that we needed,” said Abby Underberg, adult education and literacy director at ICCC. “Instructors realized quickly that what they used in class may not work in an online format. They had to be very creative in presenting their materials online to students.”
Frustrating their efforts were the students themselves.
“There are a lot of people in crisis mode,” Underberg said. “They may have lost their job, or were sick with COVID either personally or a family member. There were a lot of fears within our population, and school may not be their primary focus right now.”
Online instruction can’t happen without at-home devices and internet connectivity, so ICCC applied and received funds from the Iowa Department of Education to purchase 27 devices for ESL students to use.
“We know that not all of our students have computers at home,” Underberg said. “We received some funds to purchase sets of technology. We will be able to check out the technologies to our students. I think it will be a model for our HiSET students. There’s a need for distance learning for that individual, but there’s lack of access.”
As access to devices were being considered, online instruction was unfolding simultaneously.
ESL Coordinator Erin Guddall, who teaches English language, said the rapidity of going from in-person to online instruction was somewhat overwhelming for students and some faculty.
“We started using Zoom for online instruction after COVID, and that was a challenge because it was new for instructors and students,” she said. “In my class, we did a tutorial on Zoom right before COVID hit, and we were able to continue the class without a break. We used my class as a guinea pig and instructors would drop in and view my class. All the while, teachers and students were giving me input.
“I had one elderly lady who really struggled with technology and no one was at home to help her. But she stayed with the class and she has finally gotten through it. One thing I will say about our ESL students is, when they want to learn, they will learn.”
Erin Broich, who teaches both HiSET and ESL, said the HiSET students were particularly challenging.
“Our classes typically run five weeks and if they have to do extra work, they will stick around,” she said. “The challenge I found is making connections quickly when you’re navigating Zoom. You are working with the material and it’s difficult to focus on the people side.”
That’s when ICCC got creative. Initially, they broke the class into two different hours: One for content, the other for questions. However, they found most students didn’t stick around for the question segment.
So they created a co-teaching classroom in which one teacher presents the material while the other teacher keeps an eye on students, paying attention to faces that show confusion or students who are not participating, indicating lack of engagement.
“Once we started doing this, the class became far more engaged, the students were asking questions, giving input,” Broich said. “When we finally hit our stride using two teachers, I thought, ‘why weren’t we doing this before?’”
Underberg said instruction is experimenting with expanding to include Facebook Rooms, which function similarly to Zoom.
“Students are familiar with Facebook, so it makes sense,” she said. “It increases connectivity.”
Everything the community college has done so far is serving as a launchpad for the future, Underberg said.
“We know that we lack professional development in technology for our instructors, and we’re working on training both instructors and students,” she said. “Initially we had to do it so quickly and on the fly, we were just in survival mode. We now have a better idea of what’s successful and what is not.”
“When everything started, I didn’t think it would go well,” Guddall said. “But with patience and perseverance, it’s worked. About 50 percent of the students have been participating, which I am proud of. I am confident that number will grow in the future as we learn more and give students and teachers more instruction.
“I’m excited about what the future holds, because with this technology, we will be able to reach more students who have not been able to come to our classes in person.”
There have been some surprises along the way, too.
“For me, seeing some of our lowest level proficiency students doing well just amazed me” Guddall said. “Some of them were not familiar with technology at all. I was surprised they stuck with us and their attendance has been great. I’m not sure they would have stuck with us in a traditional class because of transportation and family challenges.”
In Broich’s online class, her students come from a larger geographic area than normal, including students from Storm Lake and Fort Dodge.
“It’s a far more diverse class, which is really good,” she said. “Students see all the different people joining the class and it builds confidence. They think, ‘it’s not just me.’”
Going forward, the educators agree their instruction will evolve.
“We’ve learned that not everything is translatable from face-to-face to Zoom,” Broich said. “We are not as strict about what needs to get done today. We’ve learned to be more flexible and say, ‘OK, how far can we go today?’”