The English Language Institute (ELI) had two days to reimagine an intensive program students travelled from all around the world to attend. As FIU moved to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the institute’s staff created a remote curriculum they had envisioned for many years but never thought would see manifested in 48 hours.
Going online was an effort the staff had been considering for some time. Other English programs had tried but with little success. “We wanted to be pioneers,” says Laura Lamour, ELI’s director.
In mid-March, Lamour and her team set out into the unknown of remote learning and charted a course the staff believes will have a lasting impact on how the institute and its programs are offered in the future.
“We began thinking out of the box,” Lamour says. The team trained in Canvas (the learning management system used by FIU) and Zoom; interviewed teachers with online backgrounds; and conceived of different ways students could maintain a daily dialogue with advisors and professors.
Eighty-five students from around the world—Venezuela to Angola— are enrolled in the institute's Intensive English language program—an academic course designed to help international students make the transition to American academic life through full-time instruction in English as a second language. Normally, these students attend classes at Modesto A. Maidique Campus in the ELI building, eight hours a day.
But with remote learning, the schedule needed to be different. Students couldn’t maintain eight hours in front of a computer. After eliciting feedback from students, the staff developed a new schedule with the first part of the day focused on grammar, reading, writing and communication as usual. The latter part of the day, students chose from communication electives that ranged from business communication to American culture to test and college prep.
“We feel as a result of these courses, the students have gained more skill sets that need reinforcements,” says Program Manager Nancy Garcia.
In addition, the institute offered online tutoring sessions for beginners, conversation partners and a townhall meeting with the director for participants of the English language program as well as the community outreach program, which tailors to local community members and professionals looking to improve their English skills.
“They could ‘come in’ any time and share what was on their mind,” Garcia adds.
The institute encouraged direct relationships with staff, offering easy access through email, Zoom, cell phone or chat. “We made sure we were available to them in whatever form was best for them,” says Mark Roldan, program coordinator.
Many of the international students are in Miami alone pursuing their education. The institute often serves as more than just an educational provider. Staff also try to help students navigate living in a foreign country.
“At ELI, you learn not only English but also about life. And it feels like being at home— like a family.”
Accepted as a Global First Year student for two semesters to study chemistry, Guisse hopes to continue her undergraduate education at FIU.
Tianqi Yang moved to the Dominican Republic from China more than 12 years ago. There, he learned Spanish and earned a bachelor’s in civil engineering. For Yang, FIU was the perfect place to learn English. He felt right at home.
“I appreciate Laura a lot. ELI is like a family and every professor is like a parent,” he says.
And when the institute moved to remote learning, he says they didn’t skip a beat.
“It’s like a real class. It's just that we are home, and they are home. Wonderful,” Yang adds.
At the ELI, Yang perfected writing research papers, which will be very useful in his graduate program in engineering management, which he starts at FIU this summer.
Students have also bonded with each other, communicating often using WhatsApp and celebrating their accomplishments together. In April, the ELI held a virtual ceremony for the graduates of the English language program. Eighty percent were in attendance. After the virtual celebration concluded, many students lingered in the Zoom chat to say thank you.
“I feel this platform has helped our students connect in an even deeper way. They are living this unique moment in history together—while studying abroad,” Roldan says.
Outside the classroom, ELI staff also embarked on a new marketing approach. They transitioned from traditional to social media marketing to great success. They launched a new campaign, #DiscoverFIU, which introduces FIU to the global community.
“We'd been involved in the ‘You are welcome’ campaign. But now with this pandemic, we are saying, ‘you are still welcome here.’ We're adopting,” says Mery Olivera, recruitment and marketing coordinator.
In one weekend, the ELI account went from 1,500 to 4,500 followers.
Although remote learning was unexpected for the ELI staff, the team feels it was a jolt in the right direction. The result may be “a full-fledged online division that we didn’t have a month and a half ago,” Garcia says.
After their success with remote learning, the team feels confident that they can pursue global cohorts sooner than they thought possible.
“We are stronger, more intelligent, more resilient than we know,” Garcia says.
“The future is very promising at the ELI,” concludes Lamour.