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Can foreign languages go digital with online education?

Today, enrolment in online courses is growing at a faster rate than that of higher education overall, and more schools are striving to increase their web-based programmes. However, while many courses made an easy transition to online instruction, educators have struggled to create high-quality, foreign language courses and even foreign language degree programmes offered exclusively over the Internet.

Recent articles from US News & World Report and Inside Higher Ed provide several examples of schools experimenting with online language learning models. Not surprisingly, the schools cited are all based in the US, which is known to be the undisputed leader in online education in the world today.

Yet some professionals are questioning whether foreign languages in particular can be studied exclusively online. Learning a new language requires a great deal of speaking, hearing and social interaction, which some say simply cannot be provided through the web.

Despite software development moving apace, and partnerships such as the ones we will highlight below, many academic professionals are still considering whether foreign language can and should be taught online.

There are individuals who have their doubts.

David McAlpine, president of the board of directors for the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said students cannot learn as much as their peers if they only learn online, and that web-based Spanish courses threaten the academic standards of classroom instruction.

Additionally, Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, declared that James Madison’s online course is “scandalous”.

The shift towards online foreign language learning

James Madison University made history when it became the first college to partner with language learning software company Rosetta Stone. Through the partnership, the school offers online for-credit foreign language courses based on Rosetta Stone’s software, therefore marking a significant shift in how languages are taught to students and whether the level of learning is sufficient to earn course credits.

Rosetta Stone continued to make waves in the language learning space by recently launching a new iPad app, called Studio HD, which connects native speakers to language learners on the tablet device. It provides a live, interactive space where up to four people can speak directly with a native speaking tutor in a learner’s target language in sessions lasting 50 minutes. Sounds exactly like a small, live classroom, doesn’t it?

More examples abound – Fort Hays State University drew faculty criticism in 2009 when it began offering US$99 classes through the for-profit company StraighterLine.

And going a step further than James Madison, two years ago the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved all of its Spanish 101 instruction online (however, they use faculty and graduate assistants instead of an external provider).

Online language learning is also prevalent amongst community colleges – six such institutions in Western Kansas offer a series of online classes in all subjects. Known as EduKan, the group has offered online Spanish courses through Rosetta Stone for three years, combining them with scheduled phone calls with an instructor and traditional assignments.

Mark Sarver, EduKan’s executive director, is pleased with student performance, noting: “Our enrolments in Spanish 1 has increased 46% over the comparable terms using a textbook. Additionally, our retention has remained high through the conversion (84.62% with a textbook and 84.21% with Rosetta Stone). We are launching German 1 and 2 this fall, and although we have had success using Rosetta Stone, we will be switching to Tell Me More because of better pricing.”

Making online language degrees work

Although some professionals doubt the value of online foreign language courses, a multitude of schools are trying to find new and innovative ways to make them work – and not just a few courses, but full degrees.

For example, at Liberty University Online, administrators feel they’ve found solid middle ground in the debate. The college offers online courses in a variety of studies, including Spanish, German and English as a second language. Geared mainly toward its 82,000 online students, Liberty’s courses combine Rosetta Stone software with faculty member interaction. A couple sections are also open on a trial basis to the 12,500 students on the Lynchburg, Virginia campus.

More than 600 students enroled in the first batch of classes, a university spokesman said, and others wanted to get in. Like James Madison, Liberty’s Rosetta Stone classes are listed as conversational classes. But unlike at JMU, where degree-seeking students don’t take the class, Liberty markets the courses to its own students in subjects like law and international business.

Provost Ronald Godwin thinks the combination of faculty interaction and the software creates the potential for success while keeping Liberty in control of the course.

Meanwhile, in June of this year, the university announced a partnership with StraighterLine, offering transfer credit to those students who have successfully completed StraighterLine’s online college courses (which includes language courses).

But perhaps the real game changer is Oregon State University, who announced that it will launch an online bachelor’s degree in German, which it believes will be the first programme of its kind in the US.

The programme, which will begin this autumn, will use a wide variety of technologies to ensure students spend a significant amount of time hearing and speaking German. The choice of German as the ‘test’ language is particularly interesting given that in the US, American students’ interest in German as a foreign language has declined significantly.

Professor Sebastian Heiduschke said in a press release that students will use video chat to speak to their instructors one-on-one for 20 to 30 minutes each week. This is more face-to-face time than most students receive in campus-based degree programmes, he explained.

“Students need to practice speaking and hearing a new language in order to learn it, and that can only be done with a partner. This programme provides that,” Heiduschke said. “We interact easily with Skype, Google Hangouts and other online programmes. It’s all very effective.”

So while some schools are offering one or more online language courses, others are steaming ahead to offer full blown language degrees online. For the moment there seems to be no firm position on the most effective role for web-based language learning; however, most can agree that a blended model combining online self-study and some form of human interaction (whether face-to-face or via the web) could be the happy medium.

Sources: US News & World Report, Inside Higher Ed

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