English language instruction has long been thought to be best suited for classrooms only; but last fall, UNM’s Center for English Language and American Culture (CELAC) launched an online preparation course for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) – and the results from a successful first year suggest that such long-held notions may be changing.

The online course – initiated by Paul Edmunds, interim director of the UNM Global Education Office (GEO) and CELAC director – is considered a pioneer effort in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL). CELAC has received precious collaborative support from UNM’s New Media and Extended Learning department, which is hosting the course under the guidance of its Director Debby Knotts and Associate Director Becky Adams.

CELAC’s initial participants were current students when the program launched as a pilot project in fall 2013. In spring 2014, the course drew a total of 13 students from Mexico, Ecuador and Albuquerque, including 10 ESL instructors from the Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de la Región Carbonífera, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, who enrolled to learn more about the TOEFL internet-based test (iBT) and prepare to implement the course at their institution.

Though the number of participants might not seem high, the total is a notable achievement for any intensive English program. While many in higher education have begun the process of offering various degrees, programs and courses online, ESL internet-based courses are virtually unheard of.  

Mary Anne Saunders, special assistant to the president for global initiatives, said, “GEO’s special effort to facilitate online learning provides course instruction to students who might otherwise not have access to those academic resources. The success we’ve seen with this endeavor is a strong reminder that we must constantly innovate and continue to present new learning opportunities for international students.”

Edmunds, who travels frequently to meet with partner universities and government entities worldwide, explained he heard from several sources that numerous international students – especially from Mexico and Costa Rica – wished to enroll in CELAC’s on-campus courses but did not have the time or resources to do so. Finally, during a visit with a university in Costa Rica, Edmunds said he was inspired to pitch a new idea.

“I put the idea on the table to create an online academic writing course that would support graduate students,” Edmunds said. “I sort of surprised myself with this remark because I had never thought too seriously about actually creating an online ESL course. Those types of courses are still not very popular; however, the other university was very receptive of the idea.”

Edmunds and his team forged ahead and created the online TOEFL iBT preparation course, which covers four skill sets, including: reading, writing, grammar and speaking. The intent is to expose students to these skill sets first and set them up more effectively for success in subsequent courses.

The course uses an e-book from the Education Testing Service (ETS) as the course textbook, and allows students to build skill sets over the course of several weeks via online practice and activities, and a web conference with instructor Mary Willms Wohlwend. She also conducts weekly PowerPoint presentations that include strategies and tips as part of the course instruction.

“As Paul mentioned, there are not many schools that are teaching ESL online right now,” Wohlwend said. “It is unchartered territory, and it is not easy to find research on best practices. But overall, the students did well with the online format for the course. The TOEFL is administered online, so I think it is helpful for students not only to learn English skills online, but also, for some of them, to gain more confidence in using technology.”

CELAC academic manager Vanessa Vander Galien agreed. “Mary’s weekly web conferences with the students permits them to experience personal interaction with the instructor. Online courses usually do not include this element, but we believe it is a vital aspect for our student population,” she said.

CELAC’s online TOEFL iBT preparation course will be offered again during the fall 2014 semester, from October 1 through December 5. CELAC instructor Feng Luo is also currently developing an online academic writing course tentatively slated to launch this fall. The course will be designed for students who have a basic understanding of English writing conventions, and will also focus on English grammar.

Under Edmunds’ direction, CELAC is also creating a third online course, focused on academic reading, with a potential pilot date of spring 2015. CELAC also plans to offer a certificate program, which would allow students to receive special documentation upon completing all three online courses offered.

For more information about CELAC’s online TOEFL iBT preparation course and to learn more about CELAC’s programs, courses and services,  visit celac.unm.edu or email celac@unm.edu.