October 2016
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HITTING A MOVING TARGET: BRINGING ENGLISH FOR OCCUPATIONAL PURPOSES TRAINING ONLINE
Jaclyn Gishbaugher, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA

Over a year and a half ago, I coauthored the article “EOP and Technology: Beating the Pain Curve” (Gishbaugher & Eckhart, 2015) about the challenges that arose from developing an online English language training course for automotive manufacturing. In year three, a successful program is emerging phoenix-like from the ashes of several iterations that have come and gone in the interim. Each iteration solves old challenges and presents new ones, getting us one step closer toward the ultimate goal—effective learning in a digital landscape. Here’s the problem: That ultimate goal is a moving target. Technology platforms change rapidly as do users’ expectations of interaction with them. So the real challenge is finding a way to manage inevitable change in a way that aligns us with sound learning.

Different bodies of knowledge have tackled learning in the digital frontier, coming up with guidelines and rubrics by which to measure course architecture. However, I believe none has gotten closer than ELTjam’s Nick Robinson in his article “We need to talk about LX” (2016). His simple diagram shows how the overlapping of high-quality content, human interaction, pedagogy, and user experience creates an amazing learner experience. This model has become central to decision-making for our program, especially when it comes to choosing technology that is not just on trend but also on point when it comes to our learners’ needs.

Content

Needs analysis remains at the heart of content development for English for occupational purposes (EOP), but finding a way to make that content more fun and dynamic is nearly as important when the learner is engaging it alone. Fun and dynamic usually translates into budget-busting technology and talent, making it difficult to stand out against international language services even if the content more accurately fits the learners’ needs. Creativity, however, can be an effective stand in, especially if you have a whole team of multitalented instructors like I do.

Speaking Practice

I mentioned in the last article that we planned on using Michigan State University’s Rich Internet Applications to allow for asynchronous speaking practice. Since then, we have successfully integrated the (free!) technology into the program. Learners can read and listen to dialogues from their self-study lessons and then watch a video of their instructor (in authentic costume and character, of course) performing one half of that dialogue. The learners record themselves filling in the other half. Instructors are able to watch and provide detailed, written feedback on pronunciation and fluency. We’re still refining this practice and looking at new technology options that allow instructors to provide video-based feedback. Free video chat apps like Glide offer similar functionality and may facilitate learner-to-learner engagement as well.

eFlashcards

Our self-study lessons contain vocabulary lessons and practice, but stakeholder feedback revealed that our lower-proficiency learners needed additional vocabulary acquisition support. Now, we’re in the process of developing eflashcards using Articulate Storyline 2 that learners can practice any time and place.

Audio and Video

With the help of talented Theatre Department students and state-of-the-art sound studios at our university, our self-study lessons now contain professional-grade audio recordings of authentic dialogues, the importance of which cannot be underestimated in language learning. In a YouTube culture, though, we are planning on adding videos for live-action role-play and grammar mini-lessons. We’ve already developed one promotional video using VideoScribe, and we’re exploring other animation software such as Powtoon,GoAnimate, and Moovly.

Human Interaction

Human relationships provide essential support, motivation, and accountability, but finding ways to bring learners and instructors together in real time can be challenging both in terms of technology and learner apprehension. Decisions must be made to force that interaction from the outset and to construct the learning path so that subsequent meetings are linked to program progress.

Intake Interview

Intake interviews at the start of the program allow instructors to establish a critical instructor-learner bond as they seek information about the learner’s proficiency level, goals, and current communication needs based on their job. It also enables instructors to develop a personal relationship by asking about learners’ families and interests. The learners book an appointment through youcanbook.me.com and then meet their instructor in real time via Adobe Connect for 20 minutes. This first interview is also aimed at reducing learner anxiety about interacting in a digital platform. The instructors use a detailed, interactive PowerPoint presentation to show learners how to use the program features and how to troubleshoot audio and visual problems.

1-on-1 Interviews

We also use this one-on-one space to conduct mini-lessons for TOEIC preparation. We configured the self-study lessons so that they release only after the learners have completed the mini-lesson with their instructor. This interaction provides critical test strategy monitoring and immediate feedback that could not occur through self-study alone.

Blog

The instructors write twice-weekly blogs as yet another way to connect with their learners, albeit asynchronously. Blog topics vary from North American holidays and culture to language and test-taking tips. Instructors write from personal experience and often share stories about their families. Learners, in turn, can leave comments and even use these blogs as conversation starters with their local coworkers.

Pedagogy

Steering and motivating learners successfully toward learning objectives can be daunting without the constant dialogue of a face-to-face classroom. Steps must also be taken to ensure that learners know why they got a question right or wrong, what criteria they must meet to move on to the next lesson, and where to go once they’ve completed a lesson. Without instructor presence in the traditional sense, even praising learners’ achievements becomes problematic.

Feedback

This element was missing from our self-study content in its earliest stages, and our learners let us know. Their frustrations led us to put in immediate feedback for each question in both English and Japanese. These lessons now allow learners to get three tries for each question. They receive feedback about the question on the third try whether they get it right or wrong. They also have the opportunity to review all of the questions in a lesson after they complete it.

Motivation

We recently took a cue from the world of gaming and decided to incorporate digital badging into our program to see if it positively impacts learner motivation. The badges are varied and cover accomplishments like content completion, blog commenting, score achievements, and leveling up.

User Experience

Taking a course online means treating it more as a product and less as a service. If the course feels broken to a user because the navigation is too cumbersome, the audio quality isn’t good enough, or an answer is automatically scored incorrectly, he or she will stop using the product and never come back. Many resources must be devoted to quality control throughout the lifetime of the product.

Navigation

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk famously stated, “Any product that needs a manual to work is broken” (Valdes-Dapena, 2013). And he’s 1,000% right. We traded in our lengthy PDF manuals for one simple infographic (below) to help learners get started in the program. Easy-to-use infographic creators like Piktochart help make course navigation a breeze and meet the expectations of users who are used to a plug-and-play lifestyle. To continue support for learners throughout their studies, we also built in seamless how-to tutorials that take learners on a click-by-click tour of their lessons. The interactive tutorial remains in the background as a constant resource just in case it’s needed.


Quality Control

This is the area where my team and I have grown the most in the past year. We’ve learned that good quality begins with good project management. Each of the innovations discussed above needed to be thoroughly explored as a team so that we had clear expectations of tasks, performers, and target end dates. Getting creative with new technology platforms is exciting, but it can quickly turn against a program as well if allowed to balloon without parameters. We now rely heavily on work breakdown sheets, incident reports, and user testing to ensure we offer a high-quality product.

Conclusion

Being mindful of these four elements—content, human interaction, pedagogy, and user experience—has helped this program keep the moving target (serving a tech-savvy learner population while staying on course with effective language learning practices) in our sights. We’re also acutely aware of the need for data to back up these decisions and to prove program effectiveness. These data need to come from careful collection of both the quantitative and qualitative impact each new technology or model change has on our learners. This information helps us to show return on investment to our client through increased participation and effective communication.

Most importantly, we need to build the body of knowledge about developing EOP online courses so that research-backed best practices exist to help EOP practitioners communicate technology needs that complement the four areas above. The digital landscape of EOP teaching and learning is shifting. Using these elements as a compass and having a little creativity, a willingness to retool (project management skills are key!), and a lot of informed trial and error can help us navigate every new turn.

References

Gishbaugher, J., & Eckhart, R. (2015, February). EOP and technology: Beating the pain curve. ESP News. Retrieved from http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolespis/
issues/2015-02-06/6.html

Robinson, N. (2016, February 9). We need to talk about LX. ELTjam. Retrieved from http://eltjam.com/learner-experience-design/

Valdes-Dapena, P. (2013, April 26). Tesla offers idiot-proof battery warranty. CNN Money. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2013/04/26/autos/
tesla-service-gaurantee/


Jaclyn has been working in the field of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) for eight years in an array of professions including: medical care, law enforcement, and manufacturing. She is the Immediate Past Chair for International TESOL's ESP Interest Section and the Director of the Automotive English Program at Ohio State University. Prior to this opportunity, she was a US Department of State English Language Fellow in Jakarta, Indonesia for three years where she developed an English training curriculum for the National Police that is now being adapted for several other countries in Southeast Asia. Jaclyn has also taught English in refugee resettlement and at the Intensive English Program at Akron University, her alma mater.

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