Adult Learning: Bridging the link between non-traditional and traditional learning enviornments

Samantha Leon, Staff Writer

Erin Vobornik and her students in the ESL Level 10 class give feedback to one another on their recent project on Oct. 12. (Samantha Leon)

Elgin Community College has been working towards a very specific goal: capitalizing on diversity.

Derived from the Latin word “nova,” meaning “new,” the NOVATION project was designed to strengthen ECC’s experience in equity, diversity and inclusion through its focus on non-traditional students such as English as a Second Language (ESL) Learners and high school equivalency students. By combining certain adult learning courses, such as ESL Level 10 and CMS-101, become linked to form a different kind of learning community. 

The NOVATION project is a student-driven effort that seeks to bring students from the Adult Basic Education Center (ABEC) in Building K closer to a more traditional academic community. By using service learning as well as these learning communities, the NOVATION project is able to use ECC’s strengths to emphasize areas that are already positively impacting students. 

The ESL Level 10 and CMS-101 joint courses have been running since the fall of 2019. Students who sign up for one course sign up for the other. This creates a community of students who complete correlating projects in either class with professors that work together to use the two topics to heighten the quality of these students’ educational experience.

This semester, the ESL Level 10 and CMS-101 linked class consists of six students who are a part of the larger adult learning community in ABEC, which is made up of roughly 1500 to 1700 students. 

One of those six students in the course is Aurora Aguirre, a student currently a part of the ESL program. Aguirre expressed enthusiasm for the learning opportunities that ECC offers students like herself.

“I remember that this ESL program used to be a little bit different than what it is now,” Aguirre said in an email. “I found out that this program is a combination in level 10 with 101 and [to] whoever created this brilliant idea, I would like to say a big thank you! If I did sign up for a class similar to this, I’d have to pay. But this class on level 10 is for free which makes me so happy!”

The programs offered to adult learners are free through grant funding. This is to give such students opportunities and to encourage them to pursue their education. 

“I thought that signing up for classes was just to take class and do homework,” Aguirre said in an email. “But to my surprise, while I’m taking classes, I’m learning that ECC has a lot of benefits for us as students. I didn’t have any idea that someone like me would qualify, regardless of [my] legal status. That empowers my energy to keep ahead and sign up for future classes. I loved it when I heard that ECC has scholarships for students like me. As a mom, I have to work and support a family. Besides working a low-income [job], I have to be very careful with my money. So noticing now that I can apply for some of these assistance[s] makes me so happy!” 

These learning communities have a lot to offer for a minimal price but the benefits do not end there.

Linh Le, another student from the double learning course, has been attending ECC since 2019. According to Le, this style of learning has impacted her skills outside of school.

“I think that being in this community of ESL learners has helped prepare me for plans beyond ECC,” Le said in an email. “Since I started studying ESL level four at ECC in 2019, my English has gotten better. As a result, my communication has improved. Thanks to that, I got a part-time job at a restaurant. I worked as a waitress and I feel more comfortable speaking in English with my customers.”

The faculty behind the scenes has made these students’ success possible. Le expressed gratitude for her instructors’ support, despite the class being entirely remote.

“Honestly, I love distance learning,” Le said in an email. “Although I study remotely, I always receive enthusiastic support from my instructor. Whenever I have a question, I email my professor. She always responds to it in detail and thoughtfully.”

That thoughtful professor is Erin Vobornik. She is an ESL faculty member who teaches the ESL Level 10 half of the double learning course. The six credit hour ESL joint class is the only learning community course she teaches. According to Vobornik, there are both benefits and downsides to the remote nature of this class.

“When your classroom is at home, you can hear the kids who are in the other room, or you know it’s so easy to turn off the camera and just relax and not quite pay attention,” Vobornik said. “So it’s kind of hard to step away from those kinds of conflicting priorities. But in terms of studying and participating in class, I think it also creates more access for someone who says, ‘I can take class online for an hour and a half.’ Previously, our classes were three hours in person. So what I’ve noticed is [there are] more parents of young children who are able to take [this] class because it is fully remote.”

She also touched on how working with another instructor to further connect the two classes has been a unique experience.

“So, I strongly believe in collaboration as a teacher and I believe in working with other teachers, especially in other departments,” she said. “John has been incredibly helpful to see how other people do things to see how other departments do things.”

John Karnatz, adjunct professor of communication sciences at ECC, teaches the CMS 101 side of the connected courses. Karnatz has worked at ECC for over a decade and is currently teaching three classes at ECC and three courses at the College of DuPage.

Karnatz said while the students benefit from the ESL double learning community, the students themselves have many experiences and skills to bring to the table. Learning becomes a two-way street, especially when there are students with high potential.

“I think the thing that happens is that a lot of times people think, ‘Well, what if the campus did more things for those people over there?'” Karnatz said. “Well, the truth is, they can do a lot for us too! They are great role models of persistence. Many of these people have overcome extraordinary things throughout their life to keep going.”

Many ESL students and adult learners in general have families, work, and other priorities outside of school. These experiences bring different perspectives to ECC.

“We can learn a lot from them,” Karnatz said. “We want to create more opportunities for cross-talk because everybody benefits.” 

That is where service learning enters the picture. Service learning is a form of learning that helps educate a group of students while providing them with opportunities to serve their community. 

“In a service learning environment, because we are gearing everything around a project, we’re a lot more careful or deliberate about the topics that people choose,” Karnatz said. “What it does is it allows you to think about your subject and then do things that are practical and real and give people more than one learning opportunity because then they can learn more.”

Overall, the hope for the NOVATION project and these new diversified learning communities is to demonstrate the learning opportunities colleges like ECC have to offer diverse groups of people. NOVATION also helps to integrate struggling adult learners into the traditional learning community.

“We don’t want them to have to be afraid or to be worried they may not be able to do it,” Karnatz said. “We want them to have the experiences where they know they can. And that they’re exposed to all the different ways that the college can support them.”

Karnatz thinks many people in the community would be surprised at the various approaches college learning can have.

“I think many times people might have the idea that you sit in a lecture hall, somebody talks AT you, and that’s how everything works,” Karnatz said. “But it doesn’t need to be that way. The best practices that people can use are the whole business of engaged learning where people have a counted purpose. They have a reason to be together because that is just not them learning from a professor, they’re also learning from each other and that is really cool when that happens.”