Oregonians Learning English Overcome Barriers to Online Education


Clackamas Community College goes above and beyond to ensure English Language Learners can access the courses they need complete their Associates Degree

OREGON CITY – In the wake of COVID-19, educational institutions face logistical hurdles to pivot from in-person classrooms to virtual learning. English Language Learners (ELL; also called ESL) programs face additional barriers as students read, write, and speak limited English. Teachers must develop online learning tools which students must learn to navigate. In addition, the personal interactions that make up a stimulating classroom environment must be created remotely.

Clackamas Community College’s (CCC) ELL department has risen to meet this challenge. Prior to the spring 2020 term, their program was paper-based and managed with face-to-face interactions. Typically, staff hosted registration events to advise students individually on course selections appropriate for their academic level and education goals.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Governor Brown enacted the Stay at Home order just days before CCC had scheduled in-person registration events. In order for the semester to continue, staff needed to quickly change their student engagement strategy.

Everyone pitched in. The ELL faculty and support staff, as well as institutional research staff, developed a survey to gauge student interest in online classes, their internet access, and the types of devices students used to access their classes. After overcoming their first challenge of getting the survey out to students, many of whom didn’t use or didn’t know how to use their school email addresses, staff compiled survey responses and class placement information.

Within two weeks, the faculty called each interested student, provided course advice, completed registration, and emailed course confirmations and instructions for accessing Moodle, their online learning platform.  

The outcome: the department placed 156 students, about 50% of the students typically expected for the spring term, into online courses. As Suzanne Munro, ESL Instructor and Department Chair, shares, “It was a very time-consuming, challenging process. But in the end, it feels like a great success!”

CCC students during pre-COVID in-person classes.

Moving forward, the support continues. Instructors are documenting which students successfully enter their classes and who needs additional support. And then, staff are following up with those who need it, coaching them over the phone on how to use the online platform.

Instructors have learned key insights as they go. “One silver lining is that the new platform is empowering students to feel confident about using technology to achieve their learning goals and developing technical skills,” Munro said. 

Clackamas County is rural with limited public transport infrastructure. Another upside is that instructors are also seeing how the online platform provides a way for students who do not own a car to access higher education.

The department has invested time in building community around the program in recent years. Students diverse in ages and languages develop long-lasting friendships. Now the challenge is keeping that going and figuring out, “How do we continue the deep sense of community and belonging in a virtual environment?” said Munro.

Through their extra efforts, the faculty and staff are achieving their mission to help ELL students read, write, and speak English – and empowering them to reach their educational, professional, and personal goals. They hope to build more virtual communities and encourage online friendships moving forward.

For more information on the program, please visit the CCC’s ESL Department website.

About Author

Lisa Appel is the Conservation Outcomes Specialist at Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

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