Colleges Experimenting with Teaching Foreign Languages Online

As online learning begins to play a bigger role in the education landscape, some have questioned if foreign language instructional courses can make a similar transition and be successfully taught over the internet. Recently, James Madison University became the first institution of higher learning to offer comprehensive online foreign language instruction by partnering with language software maker Rosetta, the company behind the successful Rosetta Stone franchise. The move has caused other education professionals to consider the internet as a medium for language instruction.

Inside Higher Ed reports that education veterans have doubts that the internet language courses can deliver the same high quality results as those achieved via traditional method of instruction, and schools that are too eager to chase the future and the promised financial savings that come with moving courses online, risk offering their students an inferior product.

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, said James Madison’s online course is “scandalous.”

Still, even doubts aren’t slowing the shift from classrooms to computer screens. Oregon State University has already announced an imminent launch of a degree program in German that will be offered exclusively via the internet. The program will begin enrolling students this fall, and the will take advantage of video to expose students to an increased amount of spoken German.

The program, which will begin this fall, will use a wide variety of technologies to ensure students spend a significant amount of time hearing and speaking German. 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 programs, he explained.

Since becoming more mainstream several years ago, online education is now growing at a faster rate than the growth rate of higher education as a whole, so those programs launching now are jockeying for position in what is surely to become a very crowded field. Even with doubts remaining that online students will get sufficient experience interacting in the new language to ensure fluency, it’s easier to imagine that colleges and universities will adjust their programs in order to give students additional conversational practice than that schools will abandon all efforts at online language instruction.