Universities Turn to Online Foreign Language Learning

Foreign language programs have rarely been in short demand – they’re a common requirement for most entering freshman, and provide a means for working professionals or travelers to brush up on their French, Spanish, or Mandarin. Now, these programs are becoming available to even more learners as higher education institutions across the country experiment with online language instruction. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a number of schools nationwide are “starting to map an online future for teaching languages,” with a number of programs implemented in the past year.

These innovations come at a time when foreign language learning is on the rise. According to the most-recent figures from the Modern Language Association, course enrollments in languages other than English reached a new high, growing 6.6% between 2006 and 2009. This follows growth of 12.9% between 2002 and 2006, and continues a rise in enrollment in foreign languages that began in 1995. At the same time, however, many public colleges and universities are putting their language programs on the chopping block amid cuts in state aid. For institutions looking for an affordable means to continue foreign language instruction, online models could help. According to the Chronicle, cost savings is one of the reasons why schools have started online foreign language programs. Additionally, they were implemented to help meet high demand for a popular class, and, conversely, provide a way for students to take an unpopular class that may have been canceled due to low registration by meeting asynchronously, regardless of schedule.

There are a number of ways these programs are being implemented. Through various Web-conferencing software, students can access lectures, homework, and quizzes online on their own time, and then communicate with each other and their instructors online during live chats. Programs like Elluminate feature text-chatting so students can communicate with each other and ask questions, and live audio so the instructor can lecture, answer questions, and speak the language. Other programs enable both students and instructors to record audio clips during a session, or feature a live video feed of the teacher leading the discussion. Some schools have also found success with a hybrid model, featuring both online and face-to-face learning. In this scenario, students similarly can complete reading, writing assignments, and vocabulary preparation on their own time, and then spend time in class communicating orally.

These hybrid classes bring attention to one of the main challenges posed by this online model, as human interaction is key for foreign language comprehension by providing consistent oral communication and visual cues such as hand gestures and body language. There is progress, though, thanks to software that enables live video, and soon, improvements in technology will enable real-time conversations, according to the New York Times. With these innovations, as well as strides made by pioneering schools, online foreign language instruction is likely to become more common among a number of higher education institutions, rather than a rare few.

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