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Universal Language: Krisztina Domjan Uses Technology to Help ESL Students

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Earth with lights to indicate cross-cultural communication.
While teaching international students, Krisztina Domjan uses technology to facilitate communication and simplify the learning process.

If English is your second language, attending college in the United States can be daunting. There’s less familiarity with coursework vernacular, and even finding your way around campus poses challenges. Krisztina Domjan, an American University professorial lecturer, devised a way to make life a little easier for ESL students. In a nutshell, she blends various technologies and apps to simplify the learning process in a diverse classroom.

For her efforts, AU’s Center for Teaching, Research and Learning recognized her with a Jack Child Teaching with Technology Award. “I was super proud and just humbled,” says Domjan, part of AU’s School of Professional & Extended Studies.

Among the best parts of this experience? At the CTRL luncheon in May, she got to explain her interactive teaching, and she’s hoping other professors will adopt similar methods.

“I gave a presentation so colleagues could understand what the award was for, and I was happy because people were taking pictures of the slides,” she says. “So I thought maybe they’re going to try this.”


One-Stop Learning


Earlier in her teaching career, Domjan noticed limitations in using Microsoft Word. She has nothing against Word—people take their technological preferences quite personally!—but she wanted a system with fewer document attachments. For assignments, Word docs were frequently misplaced, the wrong attachments were occasionally sent, and other technical problems arose.

“I thought, ‘What if I don’t use separate documents for every single assignment? I can let my students just compile everything in one portfolio,’” she recalls.

After reading about Google Docs, she felt it allowed more flexibility. She incorporated other apps, such as Google Keep and Screencastify, to facilitate a one-stop, interactive learning destination. With every major assignment in one place, the professor can measure the student’s growth, and the student can track their own progression. In addition, Google Docs enables hyperlinking, so she included instructional videos in the template.

“It’s basically just using all these tools, so students can stay organized and focused,” she explains.


Understanding the Technology


So far, the feedback from her students has been overwhelmingly positive. “At first everybody’s confused. They think, ‘Why is there only one document? We’re used to creating separate ones.’ But I have a 60-page template, and the essence of each course is already in the template. So it’s almost like they just have to fill in the blanks,” she says. “Once they see that, they say, ‘Oh, OK. So this is what we use for the entire semester.’”

Domjan uses this for AU’s English Language and Training Academy, a full-time, intensive ESL program. She teaches academic writing and research writing—subject matter with ancillary benefits to students as they take other classes.

They’ve also analyzed other forms of technology during class. She assigned her students a paper on social media, and they researched issues such as cyberbullying, internet addiction, and how false information spreads.

Even in a non-online, face-to-face class, she believes that sharing information digitally is sometimes more efficient. Communication during office hours is ephemeral, whereas this template empowers students to learn at their own pace.

“Especially when ESL students come to my office, if I give them too much information—or I use a word they don’t understand—then it’s not as helpful,” she says. “But if I give them the same feedback with a video, they can listen to it and look up the words that they don’t understand.”


The International Experience and Mentoring


Domjan teaches mostly international students at AU. She’s well-positioned to mentor them, because she’s walked in similar shoes and can relate to their experiences. Domjan grew up in Hungary, earned degrees in the United Kingdom, and immigrated to the US in 2003.

“I can definitely connect, because I know what it meant to live in different countries. Learning what the locals do and how they do it. When you arrive in a new country, there are probably 100 people telling you 500 things that you should definitely do,” she notes. “But it’s the practicality that they need. Sometimes students ask me, ‘I lost my passport.’ ‘I can’t find this.’ ‘My laptop is broken.’ ‘Where do I go?’ So they need a person who just says, ‘OK, do this, do that. Here’s a number.’”

In her teaching of English, she’s hoping to improve upon how she was taught in Hungary. She thinks ESL pedagogy in the pre-internet years was flawed almost everywhere, but again, technology changes everything.

“You were given a list of vocabulary words, and then you find an English equivalent, memorize everything, and then you test,” she explains. “I realized that doesn’t help anyone. So the first thing that I did was try to find pictures. Then thanks to Google Images, we find out much more about the words, and it sticks a lot faster and easier.”

Living in a rapidly changing society, Domjan is a strong advocate for lifelong learning. As a student, she might pursue an AU certificate in instructional design and learning analytics. Having worked with instructional designers in the past, she’s discovered that idea maps, visual images—or any nonlinear teaching techniques—are worth exploring.

“I know that every student has a different approach to an assignment, and I just try to reach them through various channels.”