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Would You Like Fries with That? Workplace ESL at McDonald's

Posted on 07/13/2009

Blended Learning

For the past two years, McDonald's restaurant chain has been developing an on-site workplace ESL program called English Under the Arches. Paid for by local franchise owners, English Under the Arches is now going nationwide, with the company hoping to recruit community colleges to set up branches of the program. Known to promote from within, McDonald's has recognized the need for all levels of employees to increase basic English speaking, reading and writing skills in order to provide services, work with other staff and become 'promotable.' 

The classes are offered on site, and include both in person and on-line components.  Early evaluation results indicate substantial improvement for participants in several areas, including speaking with supervisors and co-workers and reading and writing in English. The on-site workplace ESL program was designed to ameliorate the challenges associated with McDonald's increasing reliance on non-English-speaking employees, as well as the challenges some employees faced in attending regular adult education classes.

Ingrid Greenberg and Steve Gwynne, both Associate Professors of ESL for the San Diego Community College District's Continuing Education Division, worked on a pilot of the project in Southern California. The two worked as a team first as teachers in the pilot, then as developers designing on-line curriculum and support materials. They also trained other teachers to use the online resources. 

In recent interviews, Ingrid and Steve talked about their involvement in the project, the lessons learned and their hopes for the future of 'hybrid' online ESL instruction.

Ingrid, who has extensive experience with ESL in the workplace, stated that the project was "one of the best online hybrid models of instruction I've ever worked with."  Ingrid and Steve shared some of the important features of the program:

  • Multi-level, with 10-20 students per class
  • Combined traditional face-to-face training with synchronous (real-time) on-line classes 
  • Teaching team traveled to a central location every few weeks to offer traditional, classroom -based instruction
  • This was followed by several weeks of on-line virtual classes taught by Steve and Ingrid, and attended by workers at different worksites in Southern California  
  • Web-based Conferencing software and telephones were used for the on-line classes, allowing students from many different locations to participate in the class at the same time 
  • Teaching team integrated traditional ESL techniques- drills, conversations, and pair work, for example- but instead of presenting and practicing in the classroom, students used the telephone to listen and practice, all from a distance

"Steve and I developed new strategies for conducting an ESL class online.  One strategy was to go down the roll book and call on each student… this way we made sure that everyone would participate. This strategy increased student participation.  In fact, students would say {on the phone} 'hey you did not call on me."  Ingrid and Steve both apply this technique to their regular classes now, making sure that each and every student is expected to participate on a regular basis. They also made sure to create a community of learners by posting photos of student's on-line and encouraging interaction.

There were also challenges. As Steve states, "On the teaching end, the students were …usually very tired from their jobs. But they put their hearts into it.  We had to keep things moving and dynamic. I learned to deal with adversity - from technological glitches to background noise in the restaurant.  You also had to adjust to teaching over a headset on the business teleconferencing line. "But attendance statistics were impressive — 100% retention over a 5-month period, attributed to the great support from the employer and all levels of management, the excellent design of the project and the hybrid delivery system.  Students were able to take classes right at their worksites. Ingrid shared the story of a student who traveled to Mexico for a visit during the class.  The teachers used the web-based conferencing software to call her phone-number in Mexico, and she able to attend her classes via telephone, never missing a class.

Both Steve and Ingrid were impressed with McDonald's commitment to developing employees, cultivating managerial and leadership skills and focusing on promotion from within. They both recognized Betsy McKay, director of bilingual leadership at the company, and Suzanne Liebman of the development team, for their commitment, support and leadership. 

Finally, while both teachers came to the project with outstanding teaching, training, and writing skills as well as a history of using technology in the classroom, they both reported that working on the project increased their skills and confidence, and motivated them to continue to work in this area.  They both hope to see the hybrid, online model of instruction spread to other adult education settings.  Ingrid is currently working on developing a hybrid ESL writing class for her agency. Steve continues to integrate what he learned from the project into his classes every day, and he is dedicated to sharing his knowledge and skills with his fellow teachers as a trainer.

Concludes Steve, "Bringing ESL into the workplace isn't new.  But distance learning and finding new ways to bridge via the Internet is new.  I hope that we can explore that more and create new relationships with industry. The McDonald's model is just one way. We need some forward thinkers to make it work and iron out the details."  

Read more about the project at English Under the Arches