How Personalized Learning Became the Norm for One TESOL Instructor at UCSD
Now heading into her fourth year as a TESOL instructor at UC San Diego’s English Language Institute with classrooms full of international non-native English speakers, Rebekah Palmer teaches the whole gamut: English grammar, reading, writing, speaking, listening, and pronunciation—often all to the same groups of students.
With so many topics involved, each with their own types of student evaluations and materials, Rebekah needed to find a learning management system (LMS) that could centralize everything she and her diverse groups of students needed. However, when she relied on the same open source learning platform the rest of her campus was using, Rebekah ran into issues with the user experience and lack of features, which trickled down into problems working with her students.
Then, in the summer of 2013, Rebekah was working privately with a German law professor who also happened to be searching for a quality web-based LMS. After some thorough searching and vetting, Rebekah found a solution that would soon become her go-to for everything: Schoology.
Rebekah’s classes are always a vibrant mix of students from around the world who want to learn English to varying degrees. On average, about half of her students are from the Middle East, another third are from Asian countries such as South Korea, Japan, and China, and the rest are a mix hailing from countries across the globe, including Kazakhstan, Russia, Brazil, and countries throughout Central America.
With the program’s enrollment averaging between 500 and 600 students and with a workload of up to six simultaneous courses of 15 to 18 students, Rebekah needed to find a single LMS that could work with large and diverse groups and do everything she needed, and she thinks she’s found it—“I use Schoology as much as possible.”
After initially starting by using Schoology just to post grades and host some homework documents, Rebekah soon became comfortable with the system and started using it for nearly all aspects of teaching and learning in her courses.
Alongside hosting every single document and assignment in her various Schoology courses—Rebekah will often craft all the materials students will need in a free-to-access pack on Schoology, saving students money at the bookstore—she routinely uses the Schoology platform for a wide array of interactive in-class activities. “I do everything on Schoology, so my students always know where to go for all of our activities,” Rebekah says.
Students complete discussion board activities so that everyone else can follow along, and students actively post live responses, answer questions, and provide feedback and comments on each other’s work as they complete assignments. This kind of active collaboration is especially helpful because it allows her non-native English speaking students to feel more comfortable working together and supporting each other across language divides.
To help orient students to the English writing system and style conventions, Rebekah distributes “starter documents” directly into the course’s materials area in Schoology to point students in the right direction before they submit drafts of their papers. Because students are submitting their drafts electronically, it’s easy for Rebekah to access their work through the cloud and make edits and comments as students follow along.
Outside of their written assignments, Rebekah’s students also record videos of themselves completing oral assignments, which has been helpful for the population of ESL students working on critical speaking skills. Though submitting videos might seem complicated, the easy-to-use Schoology interface simplifies the process, offering an otherwise unavailable resource for Rebekah and her students to improve their language skills.
While Rebekah has primarily relied on Schoology’s web platform to optimize and enhance her courses, she notes that her students have been particularly fond of using the mobile app. Though she always notices some students can be resistant to learn the system at the start of a quarter, through gentle encouragement—“It’s as easy or easier than Facebook,” Rebekah says—almost every student ends up regularly using Schoology’s mobile app, which has made accessing course material very easy.
Another factor Rebekah struggled with initially was the wide variety of students coming to learn English with different objectives. Some are looking for full fluency to enroll in an American university, while others are just looking for a basic course or a shortterm brush-up. Because of this, Rebekah grappled with how to track progress on learning objectives as students come and go so quickly and their level of engagement varies. But for the students who are more engaged, Rebekah has found that she can offer extra material through Schoology to help students tailor their own learning experience.
If some students want to go past the required assignments and push themselves to learn more, Rebekah can simply host more materials and quizzes on Schoology, effectively opening the door for students to engross themselves in the course, take greater ownership of their education, and personalize their learning experience in ways they otherwise couldn’t. And with more practice and a body of materials tailored to their needs, students’ English skills only get better.
Faculty Utilization: Rapid Growth Department-Wide
With over three years under her belt using Schoology, Rebekah is fully committed to the platform and has found herself trying to spread it through the rest of her department. Over time, many teachers at UCSD’s English Language Institute have switched to the platform, and a large percentage of Rebekah’s coworkers and colleagues have begun using Schoology for nearly every class and also to collaborate and share resources with each other outside of the classroom.
Because of this spreading adoption, a new culture of collaboration has grown such that faculty members can easily pull in resources from their colleagues and simplify their course administrative duties, which frees them up to spend more time focusing on their students and improving instruction.
Coming to a new country is always difficult, and for Rebekah’s students it’s only amplified by the rigors of learning a new language and educational system. Attaining any sort of higher education degree is always daunting, but doing so while trying to understand a new language in a foreign country is that much harder. But, by employing a thoughtful use of technology, she is able to eliminate any extra burdens students might be facing so they can focus fully and take total ownership of their education.
* Rebekah’s views and procedures do not represent the entire UCSD English Language Institute.
Rebekah Palmer is an instructor at UC San Diego’s English Language Institute. She has taught English in Latin America, Europe, and San Diego. Her experience in these environments has enhanced her awareness of the effects of intercultural and inter-language transfer in communication, and she shapes her teaching based on this awareness, especially when working with international students.
Rebekah’s teaching approach and methodology is informed by current academic research in the fields of linguistics and language acquisition. She has taught all levels of English language in many subjects, such as academic writing, business writing, technical writing, reading skills, oral communication, presentations, business communication and correspondence, everyday conversation, native speaker conversation techniques, pronunciation, idioms, university study skills, and grammar.