ESP Project Leader Profile: Debra Lee

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

In this ESP Project Leader Profile, Debra Lee shares her expertise in online course development in business English for Ukrainians displaced by the Russian/Ukrainian conflict.

Her bio describes her as follows:

Debra (M.A., Teaching English as a Second Language, Memphis; J.D., Tennessee College of Law; M.S. Instructional Technology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville) is a language teaching specialist and technology coordination at the English Language Center, Vanderbilt University. Professional interests include e-learning, use of technology for learning, and English for specific purposes (ESP). She has designed and taught online courses in synchronous and asynchronous formats since 2002. She has also consulted with the U.S. Department of State in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East on curriculum and materials development as well as legal-English program design. She is co-author of American Legal English.

Debby is the second ESP project leader to be working at Vanderbilt University. (The first was Susan Barone.) She is also one of several ESP project leaders who have been involved in projects with the U.S. Department of State. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section, I worked together with Debby to monitor the mailing list when she was community manager. Debby has also been ESPIS chair. (Here is a list of all ESPIS chairs.) Further, Debby was the first ESPIS representative in a leadership exchange program with the IATEFL ESP Special Interest Group.

Debra Lee, PhD candidate, M.A., J.D.
Language Teaching Specialist, Vanderbilt University


How would you define leadership?

Leadership is communication and empowering others as they develop professionally or personally. Communication is the willingness to value opinions other than your own. When two-way communication is the norm, people are more likely to understand why a leader must occasionally make decisions that are not universally liked.

Tell me an ESP project success story. Focus on your communication as a leader in the project. How did you communicate with stakeholders to make that project successful?

Project: Career English Online (CEO) for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Ukraine

With Ukrainian teachers, I helped create an online course to teach business English to Ukrainians displaced by the Russian/Ukrainian conflict.

Project Background

The Regional English Language Office (RELO) in Ukraine asked me to work with Ukrainian teaching professionals to create an online course for people displaced by the Russian/Ukrainian conflict. Levels of the students were anticipated to be A2/B1. Four developers learned how to use the free version of Canvas, a U.S.-developed learning management system (LMS), created course materials, and then acted as lead teachers for two other teachers during the pilot of the CEO program, which had a total of twelve teachers teaching 20–25 students each.

Project Steps

  1. Reviewed potential LMS platforms, checking bandwidth and other issues for use in Ukraine. Chose Canvas (free version).
  2. Informal needs analysis of IDPs during a face-to-face meeting in Ukraine.
  3. Ukrainian teachers wrote and tested pilot program (1 week course introduction, followed by 8 modules of two weeks each). Blended course with asynchronous, synchronous, and face-to-face meetings. Student recruitment by Ukrainian NGO. During the pilot program, I worked with the four lead teachers helping them with issues and questions. Many of the twelve teachers had never taught online before.
  4. Revised pilot program based on student and teacher feedback. Ran course a second time with same twelve teachers. Recruitment by NGO continued. Levels of B1/B2 were most likely to complete the course. Took this into consideration during the revision.
  5. Revised a second time, shortening to four one-month programs fully online in asynchronous/synchronous form, with option for students to take one or more one-month modules. Recruitment by teachers and developers with assistance by the RELO office. Program is currently ongoing and will likely continue in the future.

Final Deliverables

  • Ukrainian-developed and -delivered Career English Online course that has numerous applicants each time it is offered.
  • Additional Ukrainian online course developers and teachers with confidence to create and teach their own online courses.

Key to Project Success

Listening to needs of teachers and students. Being a colleague and understanding that local teachers’ understanding of the situation and the course was much more complete than mine ever would be no matter how many needs analyses and course reviews I read.

Communication with Stakeholders

For online course developers, autonomy is key. Help when needed and no more. Stay in communication with funders and work with them to discuss potentially sensitive issues, such as language capabilities or plagiarism by developers. U.S.-funded projects follow U.S. plagiarism guidelines, which are different from many other cultures.

Debby’s responses above illuminate how to achieve success in an international project funded by the U.S. Department of State. In connection with communication and needs analysis, I was inspired as I read how highly she valued the local teachers’ perceptions of the situation. It was also interesting to read how she needed to communicate to her students the importance of U.S. law related to communication. With her background in law and her expertise in communication and online course development, it seems to me that she was an ideal leader for the project.

Do you have any comments or questions for Debby? Please feel free to contact her directly.

All the best,

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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2 Responses to ESP Project Leader Profile: Debra Lee

  1. Nahida El Assi says:

    Hello Debra,
    Your topic is very interesting.
    I live in Montreal, Canada. I am a teacher trainer. I am transforming my 6-credit in-class course into a 117-hour online course divided into three parts: 6-hour assessment test, 91-hour of synchronous, asynchronous sessions to teach 13 different competencies, and 20-hour in-class practicum.
    I have already written about 90% of the course content. I am currently working on the online course design.
    I am just wondering if you could give me some advice in this respect.
    Thank you,

    • Debra Lee says:

      Hi Nahida,

      What platform do you intend to use? What issues are you most concerned about if you have not already chosen an online platform?


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