ESL Department Rises to Remote Learning Challenges, Eyes Outreach in Future


By Sadie Peckens


While City College operates remotely to slow the spread of COVID-19, students and faculty have had varied experiences with remote circumstances. English as a second language (ESL) department faculty and students have faced challenges and found silver linings. Overall, faculty emphasize a need for outreach and marketing to connect with students lost in the transition, and recruit potential students. 




ESL Instructor and Ocean Campus Coordinator Nicki Trahan equates remote instruction to an emergency room. Different than on-line courses, which are carefully planned over time, remote instruction is an emergency measure. Overall, Trahan said, “I won’t prefer this model of remote because it is missing the personal component. I think the students feel that…they can all see me so they feel connected to me, but it’s harder for me. I like seeing their faces. I like knowing who they are.”


Technical challenges have also been a factor for instructors and students. ESL Instructor Jessica Buchsbaum said that transitioning material from a textbook to an on-line format took a lot of time and technical skill from each instructor. In addition, she noted, while some things are similar on Zoom, other things are much harder to replicate. For instance, instructors cannot observe students’ work during class, to see how the work is going. 


Despite the challenges, there have been some positives for students and teachers when it comes to instruction. ESL Instructor Denise Selleck emphasized that the instruction challenges outweighed the benefits, but she did pick up one technique. She learned a new tech-based note-taking method from another instructor, which she plans to use even when in-person classes resume.


Buchsbaum also found a silver lining, saying “I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish because it’s been really challenging, but the good part of it is that it’s motivated a lot of our students to figure out how those [technical] tools work…and now they have a lot more technological skills that they didn’t have before,” Buchsbaum said.


ESL student Anastassiya Zaikina likes remote instruction. She said it is easier for her to take classes this way because it eliminates the time and cost of transit. In terms of learning, Zaikina said she isn’t experiencing a big difference, since she can still contact her instructor. “My experience with Nicki [Trahan] is she is really helpful, if you have any questions you can contact her any time,” Zaikina said. 


Each students’ experience is unique. To pursue remote instruction, students and instructors first need access to the tools and information remote instruction requires. Access varies for students and instructors.

Illustration by Eslupdate_Ozdemir/Special to The Guardsman



ESL Instructor, and Downtown Campus and Evans Campus Coordinator Christa Lewis explained that in order to use Canvas and/or Zoom, students need access to the internet and a computer, and need the literacy skills Canvas requires. Not all students have all three. 


Lewis said, “students not having resources is an equity concern…I was raised by a community college educator so I kind of have this idea that we should be all things to all people, and we’re really not that if we’re not providing people with resources that they can access.”  


ESL student America Osorio was initially concerned about remote classes because of an access problem. Her laptop was not working, so she used her cell phone, which she described as extremely difficult. 


Now that her laptop is fixed, Osorio likes remote learning because she is saving time on transit from the East Bay and she still feels connected to classmates. “If I need help we have many ways to collaborate. For example, we have Remind, we have Canvas, we have WhatsApp. So it is working,” Osorio said. Osorio plans to take even more classes than usual next semester since City College will be remote again.




Looking ahead, the ESL department is discussing increased marketing and outreach, to achieve two goals. One, to bring students back who were lost during the registration challenges of going remote and two, to recruit new students.  


Sources said credit registration remained positive, but non-credit registration was significantly disrupted when going remote, partly because the typical process relied on instructors completing paper forms for each student, which were sent to registration for processing. Due to remote status, the paper forms, a necessary part of the process due to FERPA regulations, were not able to be used. This and other factors led to a significant dip in non-credit enrollment. To get students back, instructors and volunteers contacted students individually, which increased initial numbers, but overall, more outreach could bring more students back. ESL Department Chair Gregory Keech said outreach could also bring in new students, citing a statistic from a budget meeting.


A draft City College multi-year budget and enrollment plan, available in the documents of a Nov. 3 budget meeting, cites a US Census Bureau American Community Survey, which states that in 2018 there were around 147,026 people in San Francisco who identified as speaking English “less than very well.” The document points out that this is a decline from 2011 when the grand total was 170,245 people.


Currently, according to Keech, there are around 9,062 enrollments (not individual students) in ESL credit and non-credit courses combined. Keech points out “There’s a huge portion of San Francisco that we’re not reaching. Maybe some of them don’t need ESL, we don’t know what their needs are. But we aren’t doing enough marketing to make sure that we’re offering them the service of learning English.” 


Steps are being taken to develop outreach. For example, a group in which each non-credit campus is represented has been formed, and Keech is anxious to meet with the new Director Media, Governmental Relations & Marketing, Rosie Zepeda, when she starts.


Instructors shared ideas for outreach, often noting the potential of the student network. Buchsbaum said “I think the key thing right now is that our college needs to do a much, much better job of reaching out to students because a lot of our students are connected. A lot of our students use social media and use messaging apps…so I’m convinced that there’s a way to reach students…but we have to do it in a way that works for students.” 


The Guardsman