How has the pandemic changed virtual ESL learning?

Students and teachers turned to ESL learning apps when in-person classrooms closed. But this approach doesn't totally bridge the gap for students.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer on

Twelve years ago, Google first piloted Chromebooks in classrooms. Today, technology and apps are a regular part of learning experiences in every subject, including English as a second language (ESL), for students from kindergarten through college.

Language learning educational apps and software began emerging in the 1990s. Back then, some of the platforms were desktop-only or powered by CD-ROMs. Later, web-based and mobile-based apps became the standard.

Keep reading to learn more about the issues influencing the use of digital language learning apps.

A growing need for access to virtual ESL education 

The pandemic greatly expanded and normalized the use of technology in education. In 2020, venture and equity financing for education technology startups grew to more than $12 billion, up from $4 billion in 2019. About 5 million of America's 50 million K-12 students are English language learners (including students learning English as a second language). That number has increased by more than 1 million kids in less than 20 years, according to federal data.

Though the US doesn't have an official language at the federal level, English is the primary language. Most official government communications, business matters, and public education are in English. About 80% of America's 332 million people speak only English

Terminology matters when describing students whose first language isn't English. In general, programs and organizations are described as teaching English as a second language (ESL), while the people learning the English language are frequently referred to as English language learners (ELL). Educators and organizations have developed additional terms that identify the specifics of a person's language abilities and learning situation.

ESL education can build and strengthen connections between students and their communities, and being bilingual can boost academic achievement. Students interested in college can also benefit from ESL. That's because an ESL education can prepare students to take the TOEFL. Students with an ESL background usually take the TOEFL or another test to show their English fluency.

In the United States, being multilingual (with English as one of the languages) can increase your job prospects and career advancement. But perhaps most importantly, the inability to understand English can be more than frustrating if you live in the US — it could be potentially hazardous to your health. One report gives an example of how communication barriers cause some people to miss critical pandemic-related public health information.

"So much start and stop"

Clearly, ESL education has many benefits. When the coronavirus pandemic hit the US in early 2020, schools and students turned to online learning to supplement or replace in-person ESL learning.

"If you think about the last academic year, there was so much start and stop to in-person teaching," said Kris Jagasia, CEO of Off2Class, a company that provides virtually-based ESL curriculums and assessments. "District teams really needed something that worked interchangeably" with in-person and virtual learning. Jagasia said use of Off2Class more than doubled over the last 12 months. That's a 125% year-over-year growth in active student count. 

Off2Class was established in 2014 and is used today by about 72,000 students, 6,000 ESL tutors, and about 100 K-12 public school districts in the US. In addition, Jagasia said the platform also powers several international online ESL schools, including OTO in the Middle East and Fluentbe in Poland.

In short, the platform works like this: Teachers visit the website and sign up for Off2Class's services "like they were buying a Netflix subscription," Jagasia said. While Off2Class isn't a school and does not offer instruction services (virtual or otherwise), it does provide tools that teachers and students can use.

Staffing shortage affects schools and apps

Jagasia said educator staffing shortages are also driving the popularity of virtual learning.

"There are staffing shortages across every sector in North America right now, but I think it's particularly acute for teachers," he said. Many teachers are leaving the profession. At the same time, students' learning momentum has slowed, and they could use some extra teacher support. This further exacerbates staffing shortages.

While digital platforms will never replace teachers, Jagasia said they could help bridge the gap during a tumultuous time when many aspects of education continue to feel uncertain and ungrounded. "I think during the pandemic, there's been hopefully a renewed focus on the importance of the teacher in the language learning equation," Jagasia said.

Education at all K-12 levels and in all fields is profoundly affected by staffing and talent shortages, according to a recent report. The report provides a snapshot of education employment from July 2021 through the end of last year.

As a result, Jagasia said Off2Class is "constantly recruiting for all positions." The company is focused on identifying people with skills that would complement language learning, even if they don't necessarily have a background in education or technology.

One of the most popular virtual language-learning companies, Duolingo, offers a free platform designed especially for K-12 language teachers. Through Duolingo for Schools, "teachers can customize lessons, assign homework and track their students' progress," said Sam Dalsimer, Duolingo's global head of communications.

"We developed this in response to the large number of teachers that were already using Duolingo on an informal basis," Dalsimer said. "From surveys and market research we've done, we believe that around 40% of foreign language teachers in the US are using Duolingo in some form."

Duolingo was established in 2011. Dalsimer said Duolingo is primarily a consumer-oriented "product that focuses on being fun and engaging for learners around the world and of all ages." 

Although intended for a consumer-focused audience, Duolingo does have a presence and influence in higher education. About 3,500 colleges and universities accept the Duolingo English Test for student admissions purposes. In a recent blog post, Duolingo said it has about 40 million monthly active users and over 500 million total users "representing every country in the world."

ESL students face familiar challenges

The use of language learning apps continues to grow. And like all virtual learning platforms, using ESL apps comes with limitations and challenges that affect students.

"I did notice there was an influx of students and teachers who landed on the platform during the pandemic," said Regan McNeill, a marketing analyst at Toronto-based Off2Class. She's tutored and taught more than 1,400 ESL students since 2017.

But when the pandemic forced nearly every aspect of education and life to go virtual, encouraging students to make the most of virtual learning sometimes became challenging, she said.

Sometimes, students were exhausted and overwhelmed by the time she'd connect with them.

By the end of the day, "they're just physically not able to sit there … they're just distracted by other things. With access to a digital device all day, students can get easily distracted by other things, McNeill said. "And that is a major issue, which I have noticed, especially with the later [evening] classes, because they just don't want to stare at a teacher at the end of the day."

In addition, McNeill said, sometimes students didn't remember the concepts she was teaching. "So we spend a lot more time on the same concepts and repetition because, essentially, they were experiencing learning loss." Regardless of the subject, surveys and studies showed a global increase in student learning loss during the pandemic.

Although most K-12 students attended in-person school in some capacity in late 2021, Jagasia said many students, especially English language learners, lost momentum, "and there's a lot of catch-up that needs to happen. Having a tool that supports teachers and allows them to identify students that need a bit of extra help is really attractive right now."

Despite the challenges, McNeill plans to continue teaching.

"I enjoy teaching ESL — it is a passion of mine," said McNeill. It's such a passion that she's considering volunteer opportunities to teach ESL to Toronto newcomers. After about two years of virtual work, learning, and living, teaching in-person would be a much-appreciated change. 

"I've done so much online work that I'm wishing for more human contact," she quipped.

This article was reviewed by Laila Abdalla, Ph.D.

Laila abdalla, a woman with curly hair, looks at the camera

Laila Abdalla obtained her Ph.D. in English from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She taught undergraduate and graduate courses in English and successful writing at Central Washington University for over 21 years. Abdalla has devoted her teaching and leadership to matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Above all, she is committed to her students' complete experience, raising awareness of BIPOC issues in language, community, and culture. Abdalla leads with equity in management and nonprofit volunteering and develops her own understandings of these complex issues both professionally and in her lived experiences.

Laila Abdalla is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

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