Using Livemocha to Supplement College Preparatory English Curriculum
Kim Niezgoda, Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA
Kimberly Niezgoda is Assistant Director for the Wilkes University Intensive English Program, which prepares international students with university-level language skills.
Wilkes University often offers conditional acceptance at the undergraduate level, based on a score of 60 on the TOEFL or 5.5 on the IELTSs. The Intensive English Program places students in one of five levels according to their skills, ranging from beginner to advanced. The student graduates the program after Level 5 and, with the appropriate TOEFL or IELTS score, begins University.
The students receive 27 hours of face time with instructors each week, developing a complete array of strengths, such as TOEFL prep, study skills, grammar and writing. Each day, students spend two hours in an independent study lab to focus on areas of improvement. Since founding the program in 2006, Niezgoda searched for a system that would create a solid independent lab environment for learning reinforcement. Finally, in summer 2010, she found Livemocha.
Niezgoda anticipated achieving three main goals with Active English:
1. Fill the program’s need for a stand-alone tool that requires little supervision or support.
One supervisor is responsible for the entire lab, so some structure was needed given the lack of human guidance. With 58 students, “we needed a solid independent lab,” said Niezgoda.
2. Differentiated, self-paced learning
Not only do students in the lab range in skill level from beginner to intermediate, but their strengths and limitations vary as well. Active English offered the flexibility for students to individualize study and target personal weak points.
3. Student satisfaction with time spent in lab
The two hours of lab each day is a growth opportunity for students, and given the right program, it can “train them to be independent and responsible in their learning.” As a stepping stone toward the completely self-regulated study that will be expected of them at university, each student’s sense of attainment is key. Niezgoda hoped that students would find it helpful particularly in terms of effective practice and skill reinforcement.
Active English is used during Independent Lab for all students in Levels 1-3. Each quarter, students are required to complete the Active English course section equivalent to their internal level. For instance, students in Level 1 will have 13.5 weeks to complete the Starter series. The following quarter, this cohort will be in Level 2 and will be expected to complete the Intermediate series.
The only external support provided is a lab TA to familiarize the students with the software and answer any questions that arise. Student satisfaction is measured through post-quarter satisfaction surveys. Lab practice is entirely student-driven; while the breadth of material to be covered is non-negotiable, individuals may delve as deeply or shallowly as they choose. Each student makes an informed decision about his or her own learning needs, which becomes an exercise in discipline and personal accountability.
Teachers assess each student’s progress in class in order to provide direction for independent lab. If the student’s speaking skills need improvement, the teacher may recommend focusing on Role Play that week. Or, if the student needs to drill in a particular grammar rule, the teacher may suggest studying the relevant grammar section. This helps the student focus effectively during practice.
Adam Burke, the lab supervisor, said that student demand in the lab is very manageable despite the fact that he is their only available human resource. “During the first week, I help familiarize the students with the technological and interactive elements of the product, such as writing and speaking exercises. After that, I am rarely needed to help with questions,” Burke said.
The price is a powerful incentive for using Active English as a lab tool, as Niezgoda’s technology budget each semester is $100 per student. In a financially strapped academic market, the affordability of Livemocha is unparalleled. This makes it the perfect supplement for a curriculum that has limited resources to apply toward independent study.
Differentiated, self-paced learning
Active English fills an important gap in the Intensive English curriculum: building the life skill of self- study. Some students take their time writing down vocabulary and taking notes, Niezgoda said, while others “pound through the assigned lessons”. For these students, the ability to understand their learning preferences and apply themselves accordingly will be essential for success at the university level.
Niezgoda said it also comes as a much-needed reality check for those who have an overinflated sense of their own fluency. A student may believe her listening comprehension skills are at a high level, when in reality she may be missing certain fundamentals from a lower level. Active English tests a student’s capacity to apply the skills learned in class, which can be humbling. The crucial element here is the program’s structured format: if a student jumps into a level for which she believes she is prepared, and finds that she can’t understand the conversational videos, she must backtrack to lower levels and solidify those building blocks. Thus, Active English develops not only language skills, but life skills and academic skills as well.
The response from students based on satisfaction surveys, is overwhelmingly positive. Students welcome having control over their own results and the freedom of self-pacing. Active English bolsters learning in an empowering way, helping each student get the maximum possible value out of the Intensive English Program. Niezgoda has found that it fits her students’ needs exceptionally well, better than any other product on the market. She recommends Active English for any language learning program that needs a supplementary tool to thoroughly and independently reinforce skills learned in the classroom – at any level.
Niezgoda plans to continue using Active English as the primary tool for the program’s independent lab. Her advice for anyone hoping to implement a similar program: “First, familiarize yourself with the course. Then, align your internal curriculum with Livemocha’s levels to ensure proper placement for the student. With minimal preparation and curriculum mapping, you’ll be able to drop students into the course and watch them flourish.”