CultureWorks’ teachers and e-learning specialists have been researching, designing, developing, and teaching our online program for more than 6 years.
As a result, we have succeeded in refining a number of key design principles to ensure that we can provide students with the best online learning experience possible. UFirst isn’t simply a traditional EAP program converted to an online delivery format. Every aspect of its design has been carefully planned and implemented with the learner in mind so that they can get the most out of their time and effort.
Key Design Principles
Our first key design principle is community building. This is vital to online language learning so that learners can connect with their teacher and fellow classmates, collaborate meaningfully, and use the target language authentically. We offer a unique hybrid delivery featuring face-to-face classes complemented by asynchronous study so that students have the benefit of interpersonal interaction combined with flexibility and autonomy to work at their own pace. We also employ a focus on multimodal learning strategies. We leverage a variety of educational technologies to create multi-faceted, engaging, and visually supportive learning resources paired with interactive teaching methodologies.
Further, we embed consistency into all aspects of our online program, from how we build each level and organize our LMS, to how we design each module, individual resource, and assessment. As an extension of this, we prioritize clear messaging to students, maintaining an on-going communication loop prior to, during, and after each class between the teacher and students. This is also reinforced through formalized conferencing and feedback processes during class, and via our online evaluation tools. Crucially, all of our course content, including formal assessments, is designed with academic integrity in mind. We focus on current events and themes that students relate to, and we utilize an academic advisory system to ensure that students receive customized, one-on-one support from their teachers throughout their studies. These design principles make for a student experience that is unmatched.
Community Building. UFirst is a face-to-face program where students interact with their teacher and peers everyday during live classes. Throughout each level we promote a collaborative experience through interactive activities, pair and group work, active participation in academic discussion and debates, weekly assemblies, as well as student-led exchange of ideas and opinions based on their individual meaning perspectives and areas of interest. This emphasis on stimulating and sustaining communicative practice allows students to connect with one another and facilitates meaningful learning.
Flexibility and Autonomy. In addition to live classes each week, students are afforded the benefits of access to all course materials 24/7 so that they can work through each skill at their own pace, repeat lessons, take practice quizzes, read/listen to the course readings and listenings and develop their understanding of key vocabulary, etc. Students also receive a student manual that contains all of their course materials and practice exercises in one place, which they can access offline or during class time for added support.
Multimodal Learning Strategies. UFirst leverages the affordances of online learning that are not always available in a traditional classroom by offering a variety of audiovisual materials including captivating video lessons, teaching aids, practice activities, and other course content. We maximize the benefits of visual cues through image and text-based input for students during class time, and to support complex readings and listenings based on academic vocabulary. In order to ensure students are engaged with these resources, each item is designed to be brief and high-impact, allowing students to concentrate on necessary skills and switch tasks as needed.
Consistency and Clear Messaging. We understand that online learning is new to many people, so making the experience as familiar as possible is essential. Therefore, we maintain a consistent approach both across and within each level. Each level includes 8 individual modules, all based on one theme that is threaded throughout every aspect of the learning materials. In each module students are presented with a reading or listening, or both, lessons to target specific skills appropriate to the level, practice activities and quizzes connected to each lesson. All course materials are available to students through our LMS, and students can access everything through our user-friendly design that is set up the same way at each level. From a teaching perspective, we also emphasize the importance of clear message to students. We maintain a communication loop with students so that they know what to expect before, during, and after each class. Instructions are reiterated through several different channels, both synchronously, and asynchronously, so that students remain focused and informed.
Academic Integrity. All of our course content is designed with academic integrity in mind. We focus on current events to ensure that the topics of study are varied and up-to-date, and we select themes that are relatable to students to encourage them to share their own ideas. All student evaluations, including online quizzes and culminating assessments, are designed to ensure that students have the opportunity to demonstrate their language competences and develop their academic language skills.
Academic Advisory System. We utilize an academic advisory system whereby teachers are paired up with individual students each term to focus on goal-setting and individual awareness about their strengths and weaknesses. This ensures that students receive customized, one-on-one support from their teachers throughout their studies, it builds self-efficacy, and it means that students have a specific point person to help guide them in their academic pursuits. It also gives the teachers and students the opportunity to connect outside of formal time to answer questions and offer up additional learning resources.
Meredith McGregor, PhD