During COVID-19 restrictions, UNSW’s Personalised English Language Enhancement (PELE) course quickly and successfully moved its inspiring and supportive learning community to an online environment.
PELE is designed to enable students to improve their communication skills through a unique model that allows them to build skills in a communication area they choose, such as speaking, writing, listening, reading or vocabulary. As well as classes, students meet to practise their English in regular social clubs involving board games, singing, book and conversation clubs.
Mira Kim, Associate Professor in Translation and Interpreting Studies at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture (ADA), is the brains behind the PELE course.
“International students from non-English-speaking backgrounds are very valuable members of our learning community. We need to provide a safe and supportive environment so they can feel motivated to practise what they already know and can do,” she says.
“In PELE, they analyse where they need to build their English communication and they choose an aspect they want to improve substantially. For example, they can work on structure or verb tenses.”
A/Prof. Kim says 2020 was a challenging year for PELE, particularly for a course that depends on group work and social clubs, and also because she hadn’t taught a course fully online before. She could, however, see that teaching PELE online was inevitable and had previously applied for funding to create online resources including an interactive platform.
“From the beginning of Term 1, we had one online tutorial for around 20 students who hadn’t been able to leave China. Then we put everything online, using Zoom.
“I was concerned about the students’ wellbeing. I attended every social club and created one called ‘I am here for you’, intended for those who just wanted some human connection. It turned into a study club where we would talk for a few minutes at the beginning and then spend an hour studying together,” says A/Prof. Kim.
The PELE model has depended on student surveys to refine the course since it began in 2016. In Terms 1 and 2 of 2020, A/Prof. Kim found very high satisfaction rates for both students in China and in Sydney. She says she was overwhelmed by the students’ appreciation.
“Students kept mentioning 'a safe environment', it is ‘non-judgemental', they feel ‘encouraged to express their ideas’, they feel ‘free to talk’ and they are ‘accepted’. They described the course as a 'supportive and friendly community', with 'engaging and inspiring teachers' and 'enthusiastic mentors'.”
A/Prof. Kim says the continuing involvement of alumni in the PELE mentoring program shows how strong the community is. Past students are very happy to come back and help current students. They are highly motivated, and also want to continue to improve aspects of their English.
Meanwhile, PELE is forever evolving. A/Prof. Kim is designing a new course to accommodate mentors' needs, where they can continue to improve their communication in English and also develop leadership skills. She has plans to create a pre-PELE course, for students who need more “scaffolding” before they take PELE. She can also see the possibility of PELE being developed into a minor program that can be attached to major programs, like Business and Engineering.
A/Prof. Kim says she is enormously grateful for the support she has had from the University for PELE.
“I am really blessed to work at UNSW, and now I hear PELE students say they are really proud to be a UNSW student because PELE is at UNSW.”