Innovations in ESL: Leslie Criston on Hybrid, Stand-Alone Courses

By: Sarah Whitesel

When Assistant Professor Leslie Criston was a child, she may not have recognized how her family’s small business would help to shape her future, but now, as an English language instructor who specializes in business English classes, the connection is clearer. An inveterate learner, Criston says that her experience as a child gave her an early, “inside” understanding of daily business operations.

As she says: “I always tell students that I don’t have a business degree! I am an expert in English! What I know about business, I have learned over many years by reading, by studying, and by learning from students in the class who add to the content.”

Citing the many individuals she has met from all over the world during her 35 years as an English language instructor, Criston sees the ESL classroom as a reciprocal place, where the students and instructor alike learn from each other.

“In many ways, the ESL classroom is as much about learning about and respecting our diverse backgrounds as it is about learning the intricacies of language,” she explains.

One of the intricacies of language that Criston emphasizes in her classes is non-verbal communication. Drawing upon her undergraduate degree in anthropology, Criston impresses upon her students the importance of body language, eye contact, and physical distance, among many other topics, to help them learn the unspoken elements of English. This, in turn, plays an important role in her Business English classes, where the emphasis is on helping students develop into effective communicators in any English business setting.

In addition to her undergraduate degree in anthropology, Criston as has a M.A. in TESL. Both Criston’s degrees are from The University of Arizona, where she has also taught, in addition to teaching at Harvard University, Saint Joseph’s ELS, Vanderbilt University, and ELS Sao Paulo, Brazil. However, the majority of Criston’s career has been at the University of Delaware English Language Institute (ELI), where she has taught for the past 28 years. Early this year, Criston will teach a brand-new business English class at the ELI, simply titled Business Communication. The class will feature a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous instruction with a curriculum that teaches the language of business through practice with real-life business scenarios.

To explore some of the themes that came out during the development of this course, Criston held an interview with me in late 2020 that we completed the same way almost everything was completed in 2020 – we met online. Through the following email interview, Criston explores the role of innovation throughout the past year, while she also highlights some of the unique opportunities presented by hybrid and stand-alone courses. Please enjoy!

Whitesel: From pre-K all the way to the university level, educators have seen a great need to innovate during 2020. As one of those educators, what role do you think innovation in general has in the profession? In addition, what have you observed about educators’ use of innovation specifically this year?

Criston: Well, I have to say, I don’t think many educational programs would have survived without the tech platforms that we have grown to have a love/hate relationship with. As many educators with a rather rudimentary understanding of technology, I had to first learn how to use various platforms in general. After that, and still, we are taking content and developing ways to use it effectively online. Then comes the task of working with students to help them navigate on-line courses and how to best participate on face-to-face (F2F) platforms such as Zoom. ELI was very quick with its response to the pandemic in terms of creating teams of tech savvy educators who set about to train the rest of us. It was and is quite remarkable and ongoing.

Whitesel: This spring, you’re going to be teaching a brand-new online business communication class. Can you tell us a little bit about that class and describe in what ways it’s a response to the needs of learners in 2020?

Criston: Yes, Business Communication was developed to meet the needs of students who are business professionals, many of whom are former ELI students – alums! Students have told me – even prior to Covid – that there is a need for them to stay current with their English after returning to their jobs. They want to practice their English in ways that relate to what they are doing in their professional lives: participating in meetings, analyzing a trend, pitching an idea to a prospective client, etc. The lessons [in Business English] are still about learning English – in the context of business. Another point that is often overlooked is the cultural aspect of language. We look at how the language that is used with your friends in terms of vocabulary, slang, non-verbal aspects, etc. can differ quite a bit from that which is used in a professional setting. To be effective in the workplace, learners need to know which code to use, depending on who they are speaking to, the environment, and the purpose of the communication.

Whitesel: A unique feature of this class is that it’s stand-alone; it’s not connected to a particular curriculum. Thinking of stand-alone classes in general, what unique benefits do you think they offer?

Criston: A stand-alone course allows more flexibility. Since the course is not tied to a specified curriculum, course designers are better able to tailor the course to the needs of learners – in this case, professionals. Another element that might attract students in this course is that while there is a significant amount of feedback that each student will receive, there are no grades, so that kind of stress is removed.

Whitesel: When designing this course, or any other online course, one of the big design decisions is the ratio of synchronous to asynchronous instruction. What factors do you consider when making that decision?

Criston: One of the most significant benefits of a hybrid format is that it offers learners more control of their time, more flexibility. Since learners are business professionals and may also have families or other responsibilities, being able to attend F2F courses twice a week (instead of every day) and work independently in between is very attractive. ELI regular courses are very intensive – every day has lots of homework, tutoring, etc. ELI is proud and excited to offer a more manageable schedule for our busy professionals.

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