Say ‘oui’ to online language learning

Online course sharing allows Michigan State and partner schools to offer less popular languages

Active learning labs are great for bringing together instructors and students for classes on popular languages, such as French, Spanish and German. For students interested in less common languages, the spaces might not work as well, according to Felix Kronenberg, director of the Center for Language Teaching Advancement at Michigan State University.

“How do we teach a language when there aren’t enough students for a full program or an instructor certified to teach the language,” he asks.

A $1.2 million grant through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded the less commonly taught languages (LCTL) partnership, which is helping to address the issue.

As part of the three-year grant, which ends in August 2019, partner institutions from the Big 10 Academic Alliance, including the University of Illinois, Northwestern University in Illinois, Purdue University in Indiana and the University of Michigan, have worked toward creating curriculum, webinar templates and best practices for online language classes. Their focus is on LCTL, including Swahili, Hindi and Hebrew.

“Offering classes online lets us bring together one instructor and students from multiple [universities] into a class so we can scale up the numbers and make those less commonly taught languages sustainable long-term,” Kronenberg explains.

The course-share program is part of a Michigan State University goal to collaborate with peer institutions, to expand the number of people taking languages and make instruction more efficient.

While the courses are offered online, the curriculum was designed to encourage active learning. Students can go online and select whether to write a paper or go out into the community to speak the language.

“We need to give students some choices about how they want to learn, even when the classes are online,” says Kronenberg.

As the grant-funded program gains traction, Kronenberg admits that the technology is more advanced than the infrastructure required to administer a multiuniversity course-share program.

“We have to answer questions about who sets the standards, who accredits the program, and who collects the tuition,” he explains. “There is a lot of potential, but there is a lot of work to be done, and when it happens, the possibilities are going to be incredible.”

Main story: Active learning in the language lab

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