February 2015
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EOP AND TECHNOLOGY: BEATING THE PAIN CURVE
Jaclyn Gishbaugher, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA & Robert Eckhart, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA

 
Jaclyn Gishbaugher
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio, USA


Robert Eckhart
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio, USA

In November 2013, we began meeting with representatives of a large Japanese manufacturer who wanted to centralize their English language training program for transfer employees in North America. The company had been operating in North America for decades, but each factory had contracted out their own language training for transfer employees, who came from Japan for 2 to 5 years at a time. Local autonomy had its benefits, but after the CEO of their worldwide operations announced that the official language of their company would be English, this raised the stakes for administering a single, cohesive program, and their North American division solicited proposals for a sole organization to provide English language training to all factories in North America. The Ohio State University Combined ESL Programs—in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the College of Education and Human Ecology—submitted a proposal and was selected in early 2014 to offer a technology-based EOP training program.

Our proposal was based on creating online modules tailored for learners at several levels, with the modules about workplace English, everyday/casual English, and TOEIC prep. Borrowing a term from project management, our biggest finding to date is that there has been a large pain curve in teaching exclusively with technology in an EOP language training program—it’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Our team—a project director, four full-time teachers, a graduate assistant, and several student workers—is in its eighth month, and we are still learning every day better ways to use technology to benefit our learners.

Our program reaches more than 300 learners who are employees at one plant in Canada, eleven in the United States, and two in Mexico. They all share Japanese as a first language, but they represent a variety of departments, positions, and English proficiency levels. The client’s goals for the program are threefold: improved workplace communication, increased TOEIC test scores, and a higher quality of life outside of work. It’s an ambitious project, and thus far it has presented a variety of challenges. We’ve woven together best practices from ESP and online learning and come up with some of our own that meet the specific needs of these learners. This article talks about the four biggest hurdles of creating a totally-online EOP language training program and the effective practices we’ve developed along the way.

Self-Paced Learning vs. Supervisor Reporting

The first challenge involves packaging a training program that allows learners to move at their own pace but keeps their progress accountable to onsite supervisors. The client knew from previous attempts at on-site language training that attendance suffered because learners were frequently pulled away by spontaneous meetings or business travel that took them out of state or country. They wanted a more flexible program that learners could approach when the time was right for them, but they also wanted supervisors to have access to learner progress so that they could encourage or enforce learning, depending on their management style. We’re still finding a balance with the client and their role in language training, but we’ve learned that more success is met when the supervisors and the program are perceived as promoting learning and not enforcing it.

From the program side, our strategy has been to introduce autonomy into the training. Our training runs in 8-week quarters, with one themed-unit of training per week. Moving from one unit to the next is contingent on the learner passing the unit quiz. However, after a quarter is over, we remove this restriction and allow learners to choose the units which are most pressing or interesting to them instead of progressing linearly through all of them. This relieves the pressure of catching up in their studies when they are far behind, and it also allows them to start on-target at the beginning of each quarter. The first time we attempted this, we saw a notable increase in participation and lesson completion, particularly at the start of the new quarter. On the plant-side, Human Resources managers have found success in creating group challenges, sharing testing tips and testimonies, and showing statistical increases in the plant’s overall test scores. We’re hoping to adopt some of these practices into our program to make learning English a fun extension of their work day.

Traditional Learners vs. Nontraditional Learning

The majority of the learners are males between the ages of 35 and 54. Most of the participants have at least a bachelor’s degree but haven’t been in the classroom for a while. They are accustomed to and prefer a traditional, lecture-based, grammar-focused classroom. Unfortunately, the reality of the learners’ work is that they are anywhere but a four-walled classroom. They are mostly middle to upper management whose work space and time extends over several countries and time zones. They are frequently on the road for business trips and in the office late hours on conference calls with Japan. Even the company’s philosophy, which encourages everyone, no matter position or seniority, to contribute to the car-making process, means that the physical offices are large open spaces, uninhibited by walls. Our challenge was to create a virtual classroom to bring the lessons to these busy learners but package it for them as a traditional learning space.

To do this, we balance out the links and break up the scrolling by inserting real, live faces and conversation. This meant structuring the program to allow for some synchronous communication. So apart from posting pictures of the instructors and instructional videos around their virtual classroom, the instructors also teach a live lecture twice a week after work hours. We utilize video conferencing software to reach across time and distance, and we surveyed the learners to pinpoint the best times to have the lectures. The live lectures have transformed during the time of the pilot. We reduced them from 60 minutes to 30 minutes with an optional 10 minutes of open “Q&A” because of feedback that the format couldn’t hold the learners’ attention for a full hour. The instructors also maximize the use of interactions through anonymous polls, feedback boxes, and live chat to engage the learners. As a general rule, instructors ask the learners to interact with the lesson at least every 5 minutes. All of that is tied together with PowerPoint visual aids that motivate and enhance learning. In the final quarter of the pilot year, we hope to extend the learning space even further by adding a podcast that learners can listen to while they’re commuting or traveling.

Face-to-Face vs. Saving Face

The live lectures don’t work exactly as you might expect. Through our learning management system, we can see that many learners watch the lecture, but they watch a recorded version after it’s been uploaded. The actual live session only gets a handful of participants per class level. This means that the instructors are often forced into what we’ve dubbed “Dora-the-Explorer” mode, asking questions to an invisible audience and praising the correct answers that they themselves supply. It also means that the learners are depriving themselves of critical interactivity that helps them become connected to the learning and increases their understanding of the lessons.

We’re trying to learn more about this issue through an upcoming survey, but we have our theories. One might be that learners are simply still at work even though the first lecture begins an hour and a half after the close of business. We’ve recommended that the client provide time during the work day for the lectures, but arranging time and a physical space for the learners to attend seems an insurmountable challenge at this pilot stage. Another is that the learners are behind in their self-studies, and they don’t wish to hear a lecture about a unit they haven’t begun yet. This theory is supported by the fact that some of the recorded lecture views happen several days or weeks after the lecture. The final theory, however, is that a cultural barrier is the culprit. The concept of face is very strong in Japanese culture and influences many aspects of our students’ daily lives, including education. The learners’ names appear in a participant list in the video conference format. Their comments in the chat box appear next to their names as well. The learners may feel like they are being put on-the-spot, especially because any answer or question they submit is associated with their name. To remedy this, the instructors have built in anonymous interactions through polls and other widgets, but live viewing remains low.

Once we gain more information from the learners, we’ll have a better chance at creating some corrective actions. The solution may be that the live lecture format is not suitable and should be substituted with shorter instructional videos and greater emphasis on one-on-one conversations between instructor and learner, as described in the next section.

Speaking Needs vs. Reading, Writing, Listening Format

Technology and the Internet have taken us far, but limitations still make it less than ideal for EOP training that focuses on spoken communication. Chat rooms, discussion forums, and podcasts favor reading, writing, and listening skills, but programs that develop speaking skills are just starting to surface. The programs that do exist are often prohibitively expensive, so we have to be creative in our approach to enhancing speaking skills. To build in active speaking practice, we adopted a program design from our university’s individualized language instruction program: one-on-one speaking assessments. For 15 minutes, the learner meets virtually with his or her instructor using headset microphones, webcams, and video conferencing technology such as Skype. The instructor asks questions and runs dialogues based on previous unit materials. Learners schedule their assessment time via a free online scheduling tool (youcanbook.me) or by contacting their instructor directly.

To date, appointment-making has encountered issues on both ends. Learners are apprehensive about making appointments because they lack knowledge about what they will be expected to perform and lack the equipment to complete the interview. As a program still developing lesson content, we also have insufficient time and resources to meet the demand of nearly 350 learners. To combat these problems, we changed the purpose of the interviews from speaking assessments to needs assessments for the duration of the pilot year. The instructors invite learners to an interview to offer them support about the program and just to get to know the learner and his or her language needs. We’re heartened to see that participation in the self-study portions of the program have increased after learners have an interview. In addition, we’ve been able to target reluctant learners and help them get started by removing technical barriers. To reduce performance anxiety for future speaking assessments, we also plan on using free rich Internet applications through Michigan State University’s Center for Language Education and Research. The applications allow instructors to make an audio/video recording of one side of a conversation and embed them in our learning management system. The learners can then watch and record (and rerecord) their responses to their satisfaction before submitting. We hope this low-stakes activity will help the program achieve its spoken communication goals.

Conclusion

Thus far, our journey of merging technology into EOP—or is it EOP into technology?—has been a story of contradictions. Luckily, we haven’t had to travel alone, and that has made all the difference. ESP practitioners already wear many hats, but the combination of being an excellent instructor, a content researcher/developer, and being okay with the challenges of putting learning online makes it even more difficult. Fortunately, in the Combined ESL Programs at The Ohio State University, we have a whole team of people who have reinvented themselves to fit the bill, and together we appreciate the great opportunity in front of us to go where our program has never gone before. We are confident that solutions will continue to emerge through the combined efforts of the instructors, our learners, our technical support at the university, and our supportive client. We all look forward to what future technology brings to our EOP training program.


Jaclyn Gishbaugher has worked in the field of English for specific purposes for 7 years. She is honored to stretch her boundaries further as the chair-elect for TESOL International’s ESPIS and as the director of an online English for Occupational Purposes language training program at The Ohio State University. Previously, Jaclyn was a U.S. DoS English Language Fellow in Jakarta, Indonesia. There she developed an English curriculum for the National Police that is now being adapted for several other countries in Southeast Asia. She also taught English in refugee resettlement and intensive English programs at OSU and Akron University, her alma mater.

Bob Eckhart is the executive director of the Combined ESL Programs and has taught at The Ohio State University (OSU) since 1993, when he started as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the English Department while studying for an MA in comparative cultural studies. He also has a JD from OSU and was a lecturer in the Combined ESL Programs for 9 years before becoming the director in 2013. In the last 2 years, the ESL programs at OSU have shifted their remedial focus to one based on technology-enhanced learning and computer-assisted language learning, but no aspect of the combined programs is more tech-focused than this newly-created English for Occupational Purposes program.

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