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Solving Problems with Computer-Assisted Instruction at the East Texas Literacy Council

Solving Problems with Computer-Assisted Instruction at the East Texas Literacy Council

Computer-assisted instruction helped solve scheduling problems and build community among learners and volunteers

by Kelley Snowden
The East Texas Literacy Council was established in 1987 in Longview, in the heart of east Texas. An affiliate of both Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy Action, we cover Gregg County, which includes the city of Longview and surrounding rural communities. In 1999, together with 158 community volunteers, we served 554 adult learners. Over the years, as our student numbers grew dramatically, we had become frustrated by how long it took to match a tutor with a student: almost three months. The students were even more frustrated and began to drop out. We were also concerned about the intensity of instruction our students were receiving. For some, two hours a week was all that their stressful, busy schedules would allow. But many others wanted more instructional time. We felt that both concerns could be addressed by the development of a computer-assisted learning center. They could.

Computer-assisted instruction has been an integral part of our services since 1992. Using computer-assisted instruction, students may begin their program of study immediately without having to wait for an available tutor or class, and may significantly increase their hours of instructional time each month. Now, working with a tutor, in the learning center, and attending classes, students may log upwards of 20 hours of instructional time a month.

We offer two programs: basic literacy and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). In the basic literacy program, we match students one-on-one with trained volunteers to help them learn to read. In the ESOL program, we offer English classes in a family literacy format. Once students transition out of either the literacy or ESOL program, they may study for the tests of General Educational Development (GED) working one-on-one with staff or a tutor in pre-GED and GED materials. In addition, we offer workplace literacy classes for both basic literacy and ESOL students. These classes are held at our office or at the workplace, depending on the needs of students and their employers.

When potential students come to us we first help them identify their educational goals. Based on their goals, we determine which program (basic literacy or ESOL) will be most appropriate. Once placed in programs, we work with them to create individualized learning plans designed specifically to address their immediate educational needs and help them meet their long-term goals. While each student's learning plan is unique in content, all learning plans include computer-assisted instruction in combination with classes or one-on-one tutoring. 

All students enrolled at the Council have the opportunity to work on assignments in a 10-station networked computer learning center. Literacy students use educational software packages designed to help them improve their basic skills. We are in the process of upgrading our networked, basic literacy software. ESOL students use The Rosetta Stone, a program published by Fairfield Technologies. We found this program to be affordable, flexible to student levels, and enjoyable to use. A variety of other educational software is available in the learning center including math games, vocabulary builders, and even a typing tutor. In addition, we have an independent, single-user workstation where a student may study for his or her GED examination, independently or in conjunction with staff or a tutor, using the Pre-GED 2001 and GED 2001 educational software published by Steck-Vaughn. The learning center and GED workstation are open and available to students during our regular office hours and two nights a week. Currently the learning center, including the GED workstation, averages 600 hours of use per month, with an average of seven students in the lab at any one time.

Off-Site Option

Students need not come to our office to use computer-assisted instruction; however we have taken the technology to the students. In the ESOL program, some students attend English classes offsite at locations throughout Gregg County. In addition to ESOL classes for adults, childcare and children's activities for children ages three to 11 are offered at all sites. In these programs, adult students and their children can study in a portable learning center equipped with eight lap top computers. While adults are in class, children use the computers. We have taken these labs and classes to churches and schools that our clients or their children are already attending. This allows us to introduce the computer to those most likely not to have a computer in their home or to use one in the workplace.

Other Benefits

Integrating computer-assisted instruction into our program has helped us expand the instructional services we can offer our students, speed up our learner˝tutor matching process, and increase the instructional hours we offer. In addition to program benefits, we believe that the use of computer-assisted instruction has other direct benefits to students, staff, and volunteers. Students working in the learning center set their own schedules, making it possible for them to balance work and school more easily. Many of our students, especially ESOL students, have work schedules that change from week to week. This makes it difficult for them to attend a class consistently. However, because the learning center is available both days and evenings, these students are able to find times to study.

For many students, the classroom is a particularly difficult environment. Some students may not understand the social norms of American adult basic education classrooms. Others do not want anyone to know that they cannot read or speak English. Working in the learning center gives these students a chance to develop their skills independently, without the additional pressures of the classroom or potential for embarrassment. 

This was certainly the case with Petra, who is in her 60s and recently immigrated to the United States from Colombia. She attended school there for three years as a child and spoke no English when she first came to us. After talking with her, we placed Petra in the learning center and a bilingual English class specifically for students who are recent immigrants and speak no English. We believed she would be comfortable in this class, where she could immediately meet other people with similar backgrounds. Far from seeing the class as an opportunity, however, Petra was too embarrassed to attend, afraid that the other students would laugh at her for being "so old" and not knowing any English. Therefore, to prepare herself to attend this class, Petra came to the learning center in the evenings and worked on improving her English using The Rosetta Stone. As a result of her hard work, Petra has now moved from level 0 to level 1 on the Basic English Skills Test (BEST), an ESOL evaluation tool that includes an oral interview and a reading and writing section. She is looking forward to joining a class in September.

Peer Interaction

Working in the learning center gives students the chance to meet and work with other students. We have observed that as a result of this interaction, students become more cohesive as a group. For example, our ESOL learners are from many different countries. These students cannot communicate with each other in their native languages, so they must speak English to communicate with each other at all. Recently we had a trio of students who consistently studied together in the computer learning center. One student was from Mexico, one from Israel, and one from Iran. They arrived at the Council at the same time every morning and ate lunch together at noon. They were fascinated by each other's cultures and made great strides in their English through the process of getting to know each other. This dynamic was a new one to our program; one might say that they created an impromptu student support group. This would have never happened if we had offered only one-to-one tutoring.

Computer Skills

As students study in the learning center, they learn to manipulate the computer operating system and a variety of different types of software, which helps them acquire computer literacy skills as well as increases their self-confidence. We serve a wide variety of clientele, including some severely developmentally disabled students who are referred to us through state agencies. These students have never used a computer, and some initially do not even have the coordination necessary to operate the mouse.

Harry is in his 50s and lives in a supervised group home. He has poor coordination, and the medication he takes causes his hands to shake so severely that he is unable to hold a pencil. When Harry first came to us, he was withdrawn and quiet. He was fascinated, however, by the computers, and liked to watch other students use them. When asked if he would like to learn to use the computers, he said he was "too stupid" to learn. Based on that comment alone, we were determined to help Harry learn to operate the computers. It was a slow journey but, with time, Harry has learned to operate the mouse and navigate through various software programs. He has even learned to type (albeit very slowly) and is now able to write short notes on the computer. Harry now loves coming to the learning center, and especially enjoys announcing to staff and volunteers what he would like to work on that day and later showing off his completed work.

Benefits to Staff

When students enroll at the Council they are immediately assigned to the learning center as part of their individualized learning plan, prior to being matched with a tutor or placed in a class. This affords several benefits, giving staff the opportunity to

Once students have been matched with tutors or placed in classes, they are expected to continue their attendance in the learning center. This allows staff to maintain personal relationships with students and easily monitor their progress.

Expanded and Immediate

Another benefit to the program is instant gratification for the tutor. Following tutor training, while volunteers are waiting to be matched with students, they are encouraged to assist in the learning center. Learning center volunteers are given a software operations manual and are trained by either the literacy or ESOL program coordinator on a one-to-one basis. Volunteering in the learning center gives the new volunteer the opportunity to become immediately involved in our program without any delay following training. It gives volunteers not necessarily interested in tutoring or teaching a class the chance to work regularly with students without a long-term commitment. In addition, learning center volunteers have the opportunity to help both ESOL and literacy students, making it possible for them to get to know many students.  Over time, as relationships develop, volunteers and students may "self-match" and a one-on-one tutoring relationship or even a small group may form. This is not necessarily a goal for either volunteers or students working in the learning center, but these "self-matches" evolve out of established working relationships, making it more likely for the match to succeed in the long term.

For example, Mike is a tutor in his 60s who has been volunteering with us for a number of years.  He has had several successful student matches, but recently decided to volunteer in the learning center to accommodate his schedule. While volunteering in the learning center he met Ross, a student also in his 60s. These two found they had a lot in common and enjoyed meeting to talk. Mike enjoyed working with a student closer to his age, and Ross likewise enjoyed working with someone to whom he could easily relate.  They now meet on a regular basis to work together: the self-made match has been successful.

Challenges 

While computer-assisted instructional technology has its benefits, we have also discovered that certain challenges are involved, such as the cost of purchasing and updating equipment and software. It has taken us many years to create our learning center because the technology and its upkeep are so expensive. We saved money for three years before we could purchase our first two computers. Later we bought additional equipment with funding from community development block grants and the Junior League of Longview.  Only in the past two years have we been able to purchase the equipment for our portable learning center, with funds from the GTE Corporation and the Junior League of Longview.  To offset the cost of buying new equipment in the past we have accepted donations of used computers. However, in most cases we have not been able to load our software onto these older computers. We now try to avoid these well meaning in-kind contributions and purchase new equipment whenever possible.

We have also found that, because technology changes so quickly, it seems that as soon as we have it installed it is obsolete. Over the years we have had to learn to invest wisely in equipment and software, knowing it would be some time before we would be able to update. Our learning center is now almost 10 years old and we are currently seeking funding to replace our old equipment and software.

While integrating technology into our programs and services has come with certain challenges, we feel that it has helped us strengthen our program overall and made it possible for us to meet the needs of our students, volunteers, and community better.  The use of technology has made it possible for us to expand our range of services and opportunities within the community, particularly with the availability of our portable learning center.

About the Author

Kelley Snowden has 12 years of university teaching experience. She was the ESOL Program Coordinator for the East Texas Literacy Council for the past two years.