Adapting to Changing Times: TESOL Teacher Training Goes Virtual

By Jeff Nazzaro

Long a staple of UCR University Extension’s impressive catalog of open-enrollment offerings, the Professional Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) has, since 2018, functioned as a custom program. In the fall of 2019, UCR University Extension hosted a cohort of 12 students from Zhejiang Normal University, in Jinhua, China, for an intensive, 15-unit course spread over three months of study and culminating in a Professional Certificate in TESOL. They were the last. Covid-19 struck that winter, closing off study abroad programs worldwide, like the TESOL custom programs at UCR University Extension.

“Covid-19 struck…closing off study abroad programs worldwide…”

Teacher sitting at desk pointing at Lesson plan in front of computer But as Covid-19 has forced so much of the educational and business worlds onto solely online platforms, the wholesale shift has also changed perceptions of how effective online programs can be and opened up new possibilities for institutional, governmental, and student participation. That custom program from Zhejiang University hosting a dozen students? It has bloomed to 50 future English teachers across three separate cohorts taking a modified, 8-unit version of the Professional Certificate in TESOL program, conducted entirely online—a first for both institutions.

“It’s very much a response to the pandemic, and, specifically, Zhejiang University wasn’t considering online education through an international institution in general,” said Dr. D Dayton, UCR University Extension’s Academic Director of International Custom Programs. “They really weren’t interested, and they wouldn’t accept online versions of courses, so it really was a matter of changing their perspective on the online format and, ultimately, for the funding, which previously wasn’t eligible for online courses.”

“Online education became necessary due to the pandemic.”

Seen in part as an inferior modality that inhibits the traditional lecture style favored by most academic institutions in China, online education became necessary due to the pandemic. This audition, if you will, paved the way to a reappraisal that led to provincial subsidization of online international programs, including UCR University Extension’s Professional Certificate in TESOL program.

“The government in Zhejiang Province has shifted it to allow funding of online programs, so we now have a lot more students,” Dr. Dayton said. “It’s really the biggest benefit of the online offerings in general: we can offer access to a much greater number of students and do it at a much cheaper cost.”

“We can offer access to a much greater number of students…”

At the heart of the matter is that administrators at Zhejiang Normal University see tremendous value in UCR University Extension’s TESOL program, and were eager to get as many of their students as possible back in the classroom--virtual or otherwise.

Male Asian teacher showing assignment in front of camera to online students “Practically speaking, the funding from the provincial ministry of education that’s really fueling this has been provided because they see this as a beneficial credential that will help with student teachers who are the future English teachers in China,” explained Dr. Dayton. “This is, in a sense, an added credential for them. That’s how they’re incorporating it, and that’s where the government funding really comes in. It adds value to their own teaching credentials.”

While this is the first time UCR Extension has offered its TESOL program in a 100 percent online format, the results have been overwhelmingly positive for students and instructors alike. Held on Saturdays and Sundays over five weeks, courses cover Foundations of TESOL, to provide students with a comprehensive theoretical knowledge base; and TESOL Frameworks and Methods and Speaking and Listening Methods, to reinforce practical applications of that knowledge.

"This is a beneficial credential that will help future English teachers in China.”

Lead instructor Matthew Kutter, a veteran of UCR University Extension’s on-campus TESOL and Intensive English Program classes, said that as a trial run, the online program has proved to be a success. One concern he had going into the new format was whether or not he could get the same level of interaction with the material he was used to getting from students in person.

“It has gone very well, and as far as my impressions of the students, they’re feeling pretty happy with it, and they are engaged with the material,” Matthew said. “One advantage with this group being all together at the same university in China is that they can actually get together between classes; if there’s something where it works better for them to be face-to-face and do a little demonstration, then they have that option outside of the classroom.”

"As a trial run, the online program has proved to be a success.”

Teacher holding a textbook in front of the laptop to show online students As the world slowly returns to a new normalcy, Dr. Dayton envisions the TESOL program retaining a significant portion of its new online identity, as well as an opening up of some of the custom TESOL programs to additional students—a limited return to open enrollment, in other words. “The end goal, of course, is a sustainable future for the program following the last few very unpredictable years. And that is looking more and more like it will come in the form of a hybrid approach,” Dr. Dayton said.

Offerings would be online, particularly for the first half of the certificate program, followed by the opportunity for students to finish up in Riverside, enjoy Southern California, and participate in site visits at area schools (as that last cohort did in 2019). The on-campus portion could function as a capstone for students, after they’ve completed all the other work required to earn their professional certificate.

“The end goal is a sustainable future for the program in the form of a hybrid approach…”

“That combination is really the future,” Dr. Dayton said. “We can get a lot of students interested in the program, we can provide them with all the different kinds of teaching opportunities and classroom observation, as well as the theory and, very importantly, I think, all teachers now have to have some competency in online instruction, so we can address all of those issues. In my view, it’s a win-win.”