Meet Some of Our Faculty

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Dimitris Tolias

“Dimitris serves as Director of the M.A. in Applied Linguistics-TESOL, a position he assumed in 2021, having taught in the program since its introduction in 2006. It was a fortuitous appointment given Dimitris’s expertise and passion for digital learning.”

Even before assuming the role of the University’s Dean of Digital Learning and Education Innovation, Dr. Dimitris Tolias was instrumental in shaping aspects of the learning environments—both physical and virtual—of many Hellenic American University students. In his early years at the University, he helped create the institution’s Writing Center, one of the first in Greece to offer online assistance, and where many of the undergraduate academic writing classes are held today. Later, but well before the COVID pandemic, he spearheaded the introduction and then the upgrade of the institution’s eLearning platform, an investment that was to enable the University to quickly respond to the need to shift to online video classes during lockdown. Then, with the return to onsite instruction but with social distancing regulations still in place, he led the effort to refurbish the Athens campus classrooms for hybrid instruction so as to accommodate both in-class and online students in the same learning community.

Dimitris has been long interested in digital technologies and virtual learning environments. As early as 2000, he had worked with a team of content developers, language experts, and programmers to design an online language and cultural learning program for Modern Greek. In the dissertation he wrote for his Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics (Hellenic American University), he explored the challenges in moving from the traditional classroom to eLearning delivery.

ChatGPT in the service of effective teaching

The recent arrival of ChatGPT and other generative AI technology is the latest but perhaps the most significant challenge he is facing. “ChatGPT is a game changer as far as the assessment of student learning goes,” Dimitris says. While he recognizes that some instructors are worried about what the technology means for traditional means of evaluating student learning such as take-home exams and student essays, he sees this moment as “an opportunity to rethink the way we measure students’ achievement of learning outcomes.”

As the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, a resource and faculty development center he helped establish in 2022, he is eager to guide faculty learn in how to use ChatGPT in their teaching, from planning lessons and creating engaging learning activities to helping students improve their writing and problem-solving skills. A series of faculty training workshops on the technology will be held the coming academic year.

Directing the MAAL-TESOL program

Dimitris also serves as Director of the M.A. in Applied Linguistics-TESOL, a position he assumed in 2021, having taught in the program since its introduction in 2006. It was a fortuitous appointment given Dimitris’s expertise and passion for digital learning—and the program’s own history: the MAAL-TESOL was the first of the University’s programs to be offered entirely online.

The MAAL-TESOL program thus had a head start in refocusing the learning experience specifically for eLearning modalities, well before the shift to online learning during the COVID confinement. Moving to an online program has made the program much more accessible to potential students outside Athens. In fact, the Athens students are now a minority. The current cohort includes students from Patras, Nafplion, Lefkada, and Thessaloniki, as well as students from the US and Cyprus.

Dimitris recognizes the seeming paradox in delivering a graduate program in TESOL online. Despite the inroads made by online and hybrid learning, teaching English to speakers of other languages remains very much an on-site, face-to-face experience in most foreign language schools. How does the program deal with the apparent paradox of how does an online program teach teaching?

A rigorous and rewarding teaching practicum

“The answer,” Dimitris says, “is the teaching practicum, which lies at the heart of the MAAL-TESOL.” He explains that all students in the program do about 180 hours of supervised teaching practice, which begins with observing experienced teachers in the classroom, and reflecting on the observations with their teacher mentor. Eventually, the student herself will prepare and teach classes, and again reflect on and get feedback from their performance with their mentor. “That is a great deal of contact hours,” he notes. Given the extent and quality of the practicum, students who do not wish to do the entire MAAL program but who complete a certain number of courses, can earn the Level 7 Advanced Diploma in TESOL, part of the European Qualifications Framework.

Ensuring ongoing relevance

The MAAL is also consistently one of the University’s degree programs with the highest rates of student satisfaction, judging from the end-of-term course evaluations and the exit survey that all students take before graduating. For Dimitris this success is due in large part to the program’s highly experienced and dedicated team of faculty, who are teachers, teacher trainers, and researchers at the same time. “The core faculty are the ones who designed the program in the first place—and we’re still teaching. And we’re committed to ensuring that the program remains relevant to the needs of our students,” Dimitris says.

By way of illustration, he points to the changes that the program has undergone in recent years in response to developments in the field and society itself, such as a stronger focus on critical discourse analysis and intercultural communication, and the introduction of courses in teaching and testing online. Not surprisingly, he is now coordinating the newest addition to the program: the use of ChatGPT in TESOL instruction.