USA Learns, the free English-learning site that’s on a bunch of my “Best” lists, has just launched a rebuilt version/upgrade.
I interviewed Andrea Willis, the project manager of the USA Learns website, who works at the Sacramento County Office of Education:
LF: USA Learns has been one of the best online learning sites for English for several years. How many teachers have set up free virtual classrooms during that time, and how learners have used the site?
Since the site launched in 2008, the USA Learns website, has had about 1.5 billion page views from adults around the world. It has been visited by nearly 40,000 teachers who have created online English classes based on the three USA Learns courses, and there currently are about 16,000 students and self-guided learners – all using the website to learn English.
Building and maintaining the USA Learns website is a labor of love for the staff of the Sacramento County Office of Education.
LF: How is the new version of USA Learns the same and different from the old one?
With this rebuild, we tried to keep everything that was working well, and improve the things that could benefit from the new programming tools and knowledge that are available to us now.
Here are several key differences between the old and new site:
- Tablet Friendly: The new site uses HTML5, meaning that it works well on tablets, computers and laptops. Responsive design has also been implemented so the interface changes for optimum viewing depending on the device being used.
- One website: Teachers, students and independent learners will all go to org. There will no longer be three websites which makes Sign In for everyone as well as class management (for teachers) much easier!
- Class key: A class key will be generated for every class created by teachers – they will no longer have to create a unique class password. This technical upgrade ensures that students are enrolled in the correct class.
- Messaging: Teaches can now communicate directly with individual students OR send messages to an entire class.
- Time tracking: The amount of time spent on activities is being tracked. This will also be an addition to the teacher’s gradebook where they will see how much time students spend doing each activity.
- Writing assignment notification: An easy to find notification has been added to the Teacher home page to indicate when a writing assignment is ready to grade.
- Gradebook: No more waiting for a downloadable PDF only gradebook. Instead, teachers will be able to copy grade data info for individual students or a class and paste the data into the program of their choice.
- Email Validation Required for Teachers: Teacher’s emails must be valid. After registration, they will need to confirm their email by selecting the validation link sent to their address before they can start using the site. Students also receive an email asking them to confirm, but they are not required to complete the confirmation process.
- New Technical Infrastructure: The new site is built using .NET and SQL Server, both being heavy duty programming tools. This new technology will enable us to add new courses and activities in the future.
Here are several resources that will help teachers and students transition to the new site:
- ‘What’s the Difference?’: A web page for teachers, which outlines some key differences between the old and new sites.
- Teacher Instructions: Includes details about how to create a class, how to manage classes and students, and the technical requirements of the site.
- WorldEd webinar: John Fleischman discusses “what’s new” at about 36:03, so feel free to fast forward to that spot.
- How to Start Learning English Free: A video that teaches students how to register, sign in and select a course.
- How to Study the English Courses: A video that you can share with your students to teach them how to use the menu pages, move between activities, and how to ready one’s scores.
- Need Help?: A list of FAQs for teachers.
What’s the same? We tried to keep everything people love about USA Learns the same, with some interface improvements. Here are some examples:
- We still have the same three English courses. However, the Practice English and Reading course already has more than double the number of stories.
- The activity content and layout is the same, but we have been working on several new activity types, which we plan to add during an upcoming phase of development.
- The user-friendly navigation is the same. Students can still move through the activities using the easy Next button or by selecting the menu buttons.
- Students and teachers still have a My Home page. These new pages are more user-friendly, with more obvious access to everything students and teachers should need.
LF: How can you financially support having such a widely-used site available for free?
There is a real cost to running USA Learns. Considering the significant staffing costs to rebuild, maintain, host and support the site, we needed a way to bring in some income to keep the site up and running. A couple of years ago, we made the hard decision to add some Google AdSense ads to the site, so that we could continue making the site available for free. We have tried to keep the ads as unobtrusive as possible, in order to not distract students from their learning goals. With the rebuild, we have also added a small amount of affiliate advertising, in which we are linking to some carefully selected businesses that offer services that may benefit our users. We are partnering with Jason R. Levine’s Weekly English Workout (teaches English speaking) and ICAL TEFL (provides training for ESL teachers). When a user purchases a service from these businesses, USA Learns will receive a small commission for making the referral.
LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share?
When the federal Office of Vocational Adult Education (now OCTAE) originally asked us to build this site, it was only going to be a small test to see if adults could independently learn English online and if this approach was worth pursuing. As we built the original site, it was not intended to be a long-term project that would serve millions of learners and teachers around the world. We had expected to have 100 or so people try it out and give us some general feedback about if this online learning approach was worth pursuing. After over 7,000,000 site visits later, we’re thinking that online learning is a viable way to help adults learn English, especially with the support of a dedicated English teacher.
We also want to extend our sincere appreciation to all of the teachers who have worked with us over the years, and especially our “power users” who volunteered to test the new site and provided much needed and appreciated input. A big shout-out to: Margaret Lanen in Massachusetts, Ryan Hinz in Nebraska, Shelley Seavers from Texas, and Jenna Rose Bondeson in Minnesota. We truly appreciate all of them and their hard work!
LF: Thanks, Andrea!