Adult literacy students use remote learning during COVID crisis

May 4th, 2020
Amanda Bellestri, a teacher with Southwest Solutions’ Adult Learning Lab, conducts an ESL class via Zoom. Amanda is in the top frame on the right. Below her is student Citlalli Paniagua.

Citlalli Paniagua aspires to be a kindergarten teacher in the Detroit area. “I like to work with little kids because they are bright and very cute,” she said with a smile.

Citlalli earned her college degree in education in Mexico. Her goal is to take the Michigan teacher certification test next year, but first she must improve her English skills. So last year Citlalli started English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at our Adult Learning Lab in southwest Detroit. She was making steady progress. Then the COVID-19 crisis hit, and the Learning Lab had to halt in-person classes. The Lab quickly implemented a remote learning initiative so that students like Citlalli could continue to work toward their education and career goals.

A selfie of Citlalli Paniagua

The Learning Lab currently serves 285 students through its ESL, GED, and other programs. Until students are permitted to return to the Lab, staff are only interacting with students via video conferencing, email, phone, and texting. The Lab is also mailing lesson packets to students so that those who do not have adequate access to the technology needed for online learning can still move forward with their assignments.

“For our remote learning, we are going more high-tech, but we are also making low-tech arrangements,” said Caitlyn Pisarski, who manages the Adult Learning Lab. “We are exploring many ways to keep our students engaged. We think that 40 to 60% of the students will continue their learning, and we’re seeing a particularly strong response from our ESL students.”

The Learning Lab has been surveying its students about the remote learning opportunity and their challenges. More than 40% of the respondents have lost their job since the COVID crisis resulted in a shelter-in-place order in the state. The survey indicates that inadequate technology is the biggest obstacle that students face to do online learning readily.

43% of the students don’t have internet access at home. For those with internet, the bandwidth is often not strong enough to support video conferencing. 45% of the students do not have a computer at home, and among those who do, one quarter are sharing that computer with other family members.

“The COVID crisis has shown how ugly and unjust the digital divide is,” said Caitlyn. “This divide is really affecting our students and limiting what they can do to access the tools they need to improve their skills so they can achieve their goals for a better future,” said Caitlyn.

To help bridge the divide, Learning Lab staff are working with students to connect them to Comcast Internet Essentials, which is free for two months and then $10 per month for income-eligible households.

Citlalli has internet at home and she uses her phone to participate in the ESL class taught by Amanda Bellestri three times a week through video conferencing.

“The classes enable the students to stay connected to their lessons and to each other, and to practice their English,” said Amanda. “The pedagogy is not the same as in-person classes, but it still supports and nurtures learning.”

Citlalli feels that the online classes are valuable so she can remain on track and not lose time.

“The classes for me are excellent, my vocabulary has increased, and my teacher and my classmates have helped a lot,” said Citlalli. “Times are hard now, but I will not give up my dream of being a teacher.”

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