At the moment, universities across the US are panicking about a rule change from ICE saying that:
Students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.https://www.ice.gov/doclib/sevis/pdf/bcm2007-01.pdf
Obviously, this is a mean-spirited and counterproductive policy, regardless of what one thinks the purpose of higher ed is (unless you think the purpose is mean-spiritedness).
I want to draw attention to a particular change in policy, or rather discontinuation of exemption to previous policy, that is also counterproductive in a way that is very nuts-and-bolts to ESL teachers.
3) Students attending schools adopting a hybrid model—that is, a mixture of online and in person classes—will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. The above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses (emphasis added)Ibid
Which refers to this section of the rules set out by USCIS’s Student Exchange and Visitors Program (SEVP):
(G) For F-1 students enrolled in classes for credit or classroom hours, no more than the equivalent of one class or three credits per session, term, semester, trimester, or quarter may be counted toward the full course of study requirement if the class is taken on-line or through distance education and does not require the student’s physical attendance for classes, examination or other purposes integral to completion of the class. An on-line or distance education course is a course that is offered principally through the use of television, audio, or computer transmission including open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, or satellite, audio conferencing, or computer conferencing. If the F-1 student’s course of study is in a language study program, no on-line or distance education classes may be considered to count toward a student’s full course of study requirement (emphasis added).https://www.ice.gov/sevis/schools/reg
This was an unnecessary rule before COVID-19, but is severely counterproductive now. To understand why, it’s important to look at institutions’ guidelines for face-to-face classes in the fall and consider them in light of common practice in ESL classrooms.
Although my university and many others are “reopening” on-campus instruction in the fall, the reality of the classroom will be quite a bit different from pre-COVID times. Citing my own university’s guidelines for the coming fall semester:
Faculty, staff and students are expected to wear face coverings as required by the Governor’s Executive Order. SUU will provide masks for those who do not have their own.
To help with contract tracing efforts this fall, professors will keep seating charts and take attendance in classrooms.https://www.suu.edu/coronavirus/classroom-instruction.html, emphasis added
In addition to these mandated countermeasures of masks and assigned seating, any professors with common sense will seat students at least 6 feet from each other if space allows, and will definitely keep at least 6 feet away from the students themselves. By themselves, these measures (required and commonsense) are welcome, but combined with the requirement that language classes be held in person, they create the potential for a very unproductive fall 2020 semester for ESL programs.
Consider how hard this makes many, if not most, of the staple activities of the ESL classroom – basically anything other than lectures, which ESL teachers tend to avoid (as do many pedagogically modern teachers in other fields). I was going to make a list of popular activities that are made difficult or impossible under social distancing rules, but there’d be no point – all of them are. Just imagine trying to do any kind of group work with students covering their faces, seated 6 feet apart, and unable to change seats. In the ESL classroom, for many good pedagogical reasons, “group work” is of course not a side order or a topping over the nutritious main course of lectures, but often the main course itself, including as it does:
- Reading circles
- Discussion circles
- Any other type of discussion
- Peer feedback (at least other than as comments on Google Docs)
- Group presentations
- Group projects
- Information gap activities
- Minimal pair activities
- A million things I’m forgetting at the moment
In addition to the above, I can’t imagine a classroom where I stay stuck at the front, unable to interact with my students on a person-to-person basis during class time. It’s quite hard to judge whether students really get the difference between D-identity and A-identity when I can’t listen in on their discussions or pull them aside and ask them a question or two.
I’m not sure, but I suspect that part of the justification for USCIS’s face-to-face rule for language classes is exactly that real-time practice is so important to language acquisition. In that sense, the rule may have been justified as a way to ensure private ESLs were giving pedagogically sound education to students on F-1 visas. If that is true, then what is the point of requiring face-to-face instruction when most face-to-face activities will be impossible to carry out?
The point of this post is not to decry my university’s social distancing guidelines or even its reopening, but to point out that the combination of reopening, social distancing, and the SEVP rule stating that language classes must be face-to-face mean that ESL teachers and their students are stuck in a worst-of-both-worlds situation. If asked, I’m sure most of us would say that face-to-face classes are preferable to strictly online ones, but that is because under normal circumstances we make good use of the synchronous and immediate classroom milieu. When we can’t be physically in the same classroom at the same time, we can still use many of the same or similar activities synchronously or asynchronously over the Internet, often with similar or even better outcomes. We’ve now had half of spring semester and all of the summer to figure out how to adapt our classes to online delivery, and at least in my experience, it now seems that many classroom activities actually work better online (modeling pronunciation for one – I can’t show them nearly as much of the inside of my mouth in person), and I would continue to “outsource” some of my class time to Zoom, Flipgrid, and Google Drive given the choice. It seems that some combination of remote and in-person classes (in other words, hybrid classes) would be ideal. Forcing us back into 18 hours of face-to-face instruction per week with only lectures as an instructional tool exposes us (students and faculty) to risks with not only no reward, but a severe penalty in instructional quality.