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Workshop helps Facilities employees improve computer skills

ESL volunteers develop Computer Basics workshop for MIT Facilities staff who aren’t native English speakers.

One good thing leads to another, whatever language you say it in. A perfect example is a new Computer Basics workshop for MIT Facilities staff who aren’t native English speakers. The workshop, an offshoot of MIT’s English as a Second Language (ESL) Program for Service Employees, covers computing essentials through hands-on training.

First, though, the back story. The MIT Women’s League, 100 years old this year, has been offering English conversation classes to foreign spouses and partners for half a century. One of its volunteers, Nancy Kelly, heard a story on NPR about Stanford’s Habla, an ESL program that connects student volunteers with janitors through one-on-one tutoring sessions.

“What a great idea!” thought Kelly, who felt MIT could benefit from a similar program. She soon discovered that fellow volunteer Marlyse Lupis shared this view. They got in touch with John DiFava, director of facilities operations and security, who was very receptive to the idea of ESL classes for his employees. Both of DiFava’s parents were immigrants, so he immediately understood that language tutoring could help build confidence and morale.

The MIT ESL Program for Service Employees, which got under way in 2009, now tutors 26 staff from Facilities. The program offers an hour of teaching or one-on-one tutoring twice a week. Teachers and tutors are all volunteers, while the employees come from many backgrounds and speak a range of native languages, including Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Tibetan.

Getting with IT

Some students in the MIT ESL Program mentioned that they could use help with computers, especially with services like email, Skype and Google searches.

In response, the ESL program administrators explored the idea of offering a Computer Basics workshop. They sent mail to custodial supervisors to find out which employees might be interested and asked their volunteer tutors to check in with their students.

Once the ESL administrators confirmed a strong level of interest, they began planning in earnest. As luck would have it, a substitute tutor for the ESL Program, Bronwen Heuer, is a member of IS&T’s Training Team. She requested and got permission to use an IS&T training room in W92 for the Computer Basics class. The room has several desktop computers and can accommodate both Windows and Macintosh users.

The first workshop was scheduled for two days in November, with sessions from 1 to 3 p.m. and 3 to 5 p.m., so that day workers could attend at the end of their shift and evening workers could go before their shift began.

The custodial supervisors were very supportive, providing transportation to and from W92. All told, 12 employees in the ESL program received one-on-one tutoring on desktop computers. In addition to email, Skype, and Google searches, they learned about icons and toolbars, choosing passwords, web browsing, clearing caches, translation services and more.

Afterwards, one of the tutors, Kate Goldstein, commented in an email, “I think the students left pretty changed today. What a difference a few hours can make.”

The one-on-one format worked so well that it will be used for future sessions. Two of the volunteer tutors, Elaine Aufiero from IS&T and Monia Doandes, a former MIT employee with a background in computational linguistics, are coordinating the next Computer Basics workshop, planned for the spring.

An Open Opportunity

The ESL Program for Service Employees welcomes new volunteers. For more information, email:

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