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Learning with Computers Requires New Skills for Immigrant Students


Teleconference with Necole Durham, Nicholas Rhea, and Mary Mikulski
Learning with Computers Requires New Skills for Immigrant Students
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The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting education in many countries. Some immigrants to the United States are having to learn new skills to begin taking classes online. That is not always easy because of language difficulties and education cut short by earlier events in their lives.

Necole Durham is a teacher in an adult education program in Atlanta, Georgia. She says it is hard to keep her English learners’ attention.

Necole Durham
Necole Durham

“There have been ups and downs with the online learning. I feel like I am more of a television production artist when I'm doing my classes. I feel like it has to be so entertaining ... because they have told me that there are days when they just don't feel like getting on the computer and looking at a computer screen... that's my job to figure out a way to make it so that they want to be there.”

Nicholas Rhea teaches in a program for English learners in Nashville, Tennessee. His students are mainly refugees and recently arrived immigrants. His team works with students whose education had been cut short.

Nicholas Rhea
Nicholas Rhea

Rhea said the biggest difficulty in starting to learn on computers at-home is teaching the students how to use the internet and the computer itself. He told VOA he had to teach them special keys to press, that is “to hit control-alt-delete to log into the computer.”

Before joining the program, some of the students had never used e-mail before.

Mary Mikulski works in a general education, or GED adult program in Springfield, Virginia. Her students come from all over the world. They are adult learners whose first language is usually not English. Like Rhea, Mikulski found that she had to spend a great deal of time teaching her students how to use the technology they would use in class.

Mary Mikulski
Mary Mikulski

Change in given work

The teachers we spoke with found they had to choose different kinds of work for students to do at home. Durham noted that asking students to write as if they were in the classroom did not seem to work after going online. Few students did the homework and correcting it made a lot of work for her.

So, she decided to use software applications, like iSLCollective and Kahoot!, that give corrections immediately. She said these apps are easy on the teacher and keep the students’ attention.

Getting connected

After Rhea started offering classes online, he recognized that some of his students did not have the internet or a telephone. Luckily, the local school system has a “one-to-one" computer policy for students. This means that the school system gives a computer to each student if they need it. Also, if the family does not have internet connection, they can receive a device that provides one.

Rhea also had to find ways to communicate with the families of his students. He and other teachers use apps like Remind or Talking Points to send messages to students and their parents. These programs change the language from English to the first language of the student. At times, he visited the families at their homes to give them information on how the classes would work online.

Rhea said that he wants to give his students the tools to be able to work online. He wants to show them how to use an email, how to join an online meeting, and how to be independent learners.

Communicating with pictures

One helpful thing with messaging online, he notes, is that students can use small pictures, such as GIFs or emojis, to send messages without using English.

“Like 'How are you feeling today?' and then they post up some emoji or something like that - really accessible.”

Assorted Emojis (small images used in messaging)
Assorted Emojis (small images used in messaging)

Rhea thinks the pictures help students stay involved with messaging online when they do not know the words to show how they are feeling.

Rhea understands the feeling of tiredness many students have from long video calls. To help them, he made some activities that involve traditional writing instruments, such as a pen.

“…So just going outside and writing down, drawing pictures of what they see, and then they can just hold that up to the camera later or take a picture of it and upload it to the discussion, so the main activities aren't actually online, they’re outside.

For example, one of his students counts ten things he sees during a walk to help learn new words. Another student works at a market and learns new words by remembering the names of the products being sold. Rhea thinks it is important to find ways to keep the students’ attention without using a computer.

Teachers and students alike learn new ways

Shortly after the pandemic was declared, Mikulski spent most of her time helping students learn how to operate computers. For example, some of her students did not know what a ‘tab,’ or window in a computer application, was. Many of her students were using their phones for everything, so they had to learn from the beginning how to use a computer.

Many teachers also found that they learned from each other. Mikulski said in one meeting with teachers, she noticed a new way to have students be more active in the class. She saw how other teachers permitted students to write their answers on the same image the teacher is showing.

”It was like an ‘aha!’ moment: 'Oh, you give them a link to your Google slideshow instead of the present mode.’ And then they stay on their copy."

She notes that social-emotional learning is important as well. After Mikulski taught her students how to use the computer, she recognized her students were missing the connections they would have had in class. She permitted her students to interact with one another during her office hours.

Mikulski said that developing relationships with the students and the local community is a top concern. She said that an important consideration for teachers is “knowing your students so that when you teach, you can reach more people.”

Durham noted that one appealing thing about her adult classes has been the chance to meet people and make friends. In the online classes, she builds the feeling of community by giving students time to talk with each other in breakout rooms – a way to form a small group within a larger online meeting.

I’m Jill Robbins.

And I’m Gregory Stachel.

Gregory Stachel and Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

entertain – v. to perform for (an audience) : to provide amusement for (someone) by singing or acting

screen n. the usually flat part of a television or computer that shows the images or written material; the part of a television or computer that you look at when you are using it

figure out phrasal verb. to understand or find (something, such as a reason or a solution) by thinking

application n. a computer program that performs a special operation (such as word processing)

feedback n. helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product

accessible adj. able to be reached or approached

drawingn. a picture, image, etc., that is made by making lines on a surface with a pencil, pen, marker, or chalk

moment n. a very short period of time

mode n. the state in which a machine performs an operation

Are there refugees or immigrants in your country? During the pandemic, how are people helping them to live in your country and speak your language? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

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