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Online Adult Ed Has Challenges, But You Can't Beat the Commute

On a recent Tuesday morning, the English For Advancement class at Jewish Vocational Service was reviewing a lesson on team building. Like most academic classes this year, this English class for adult learners was also happening through a screen.

“Alright, we’re going to have a team meeting because you want to try to build your team’s confidence,” said teacher Wayne Griffin to the group of students appearing in boxes on the screen.

“I heard Edwin say he can accept criticism if he’s in a good mood,” he highlighted jokingly as the class discussed the activity.

“From you, I’ll take it,” responded student Edwin Rivera.

Rivera is one of seven people who logged on for this class, which is offered every Tuesday and Friday. He has a large family, so a quiet corner of his basement is usually where he joins, using the only device that’s available in his house: his smart phone.

Rivera has wanted to improve his English for years, but he never seemed to have the time. For the last seven years, he’s been working about 65 hours a week as a restaurant server and barback. But when the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the state this spring, Rivera lost both jobs.

“At some point I said, ‘I need to do something,’ ” he said. “I’m not going to waste my time.”

He’s been attending English classes at Jewish Vocational Service, a nonprofit that provides workforce development and language classes, for about three months now. Eventually, Rivera hopes to become a medical interpreter.

“I’m going to stay confident because I’m learning a little more English so I preparing myself to see what happens later,” he said.

When English classes here initially went online, officials at the agency feared a lot of the students would drop out. And while some did, there were also a surprising number of new students like Rivera.

“There was a greater number of students who had more access to attending ESOL [English to Speakers of Other Languages] classes because they were no longer working at their jobs,” said Amy Nishman, the nonprofit’s senior vice president of strategy.

She added online learning also removes a few other barriers to learning like transportation. One student from Rivera’s class said she used to spend hours on public transportation commuting to and from her in-person English classes.

“Being in a remote environment pushed us to meet students where they are in their homes,” Nishman added.

At the International Institute of New England, officials said they were pleasantly surprised at their level of student retention during the spring. The group began in January with 148 students. Only 25 dropped out by the end of the term, which is about average.

“I’ve seen more demand for beginner level classes and better participation for those,” said Alexandra Weber, the nonprofit’s chief program officer. “Online classes have been an escape for our students. It’s been their way of interacting with other people and sort of taking a break from what’s happening outside.”

But while some English language classes in Massachusetts had increased demand, participation in other programs, like the ones offered at Catholic charities, plummeted.

“Definitely, people have lost access,” said Patricia Kennedy, the ESOL program manager at Catholic Charities North.

But Kennedy added she’s also seen some growth among certain student groups, like moms at Catholic Charities nearby domestic violence shelters.

“It’s very sweet. Their children are at the shelter with them,” she said. “I see their children there helping them to get onto Zoom.”

Leaders in the field are quick to point out that online learning doesn’t work well for everyone. Tech skills have been a huge barrier for much of the population, who are often refugees.

“Some of them just couldn’t understand the concept of internet,” said Roberta Soolman, the president of the Massachusetts Coalition for Adult Education. “And one woman in particular kept turning off the router because she didn’t understand what it was for. It was warm to the touch and she didn’t want it to start a fire in her house.”

Still, being forced to use this platform has had some benefits. Soolman explained a lot of organizations had been thinking about offering courses online for a while now but never had the time or funding to try it out.

“I mean, it’s the same reason that people get their college degrees online. It’s just brought that level of accessibility to English learners,” Soolman said.

She said the next step is figuring out how to make these online lessons the same quality as in-person classes. And with the state recommending that most adult education classes stay remote this fall, it looks like many programs will get the chance to do just that.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

JVS's English for Advancement class been running online since March. (Screenshot)
JVS's English for Advancement class been running online since March. (Screenshot)

Copyright 2020 WBUR

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