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Online Learning | Spotlight

Middlebury College Takes Language Program Online for Younger Students

In a Web 2.0 world the drill and practice that makes up much of the standard fodder for many online language courses seems quaint. But a start-up promises to immerse high school students online in the same way that certain successful programs do face to face through video, audio, and avatars plunked down into foreign settings. Middlebury Interactive Languages is a joint venture announced in April 2010 between renowned language institute Middlebury College and K12, a company that operates online learning programs for K-12 worldwide. In January 2011 the venture launched its first offerings for Spanish and French, which will be available for fall 2011.

MIDDWorld Online attempts to adapt the experience of young learners who attend the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy. This four-week intensive language immersion summer program for students in grades 8 through 12 is offered on several college campuses around the country each year. According to Middlebury Interactive Languages CEO David Benoit, the college sought a way to expand that program at the same time K12 wanted to expand its virtual course offerings to include a foreign language component. K12 had already acquired Powerspeak, a company that develops online language classes for K-12. It's that development team, based in Provo, UT, that's charged with building MIDDWorld Online.

Virtual Immersion
The new set of programs will feature video shot in multiple cities around the world, which, according to Joseph South, the director of product development, will be a core feature around which to build activities. They'll also encourage students to go beyond rote memorization of words and phrases by placing them into virtual situations in which they'll communicate with the program and other users using the language they're learning. A centerpiece for that will be Passport City, a portal outside of the coursework that includes extracurricular activities enabling students to practice the language in specific settings. For example, Passport City will place the student in a restaurant, where he or she will have to interact with another avatar and other diners in ordering a meal.

The immersion aspects of the courses will also include the opportunity to set up "clubs." That part of the program is patterned after the co-curricular activities of the Middlebury summer school. At the summer school, students might learn about fashion and then hold a fashion show in the language. "We can't do that online, but we can create a club based around visual arts or photography or politics or sports," South said. Participants in a given club can bring in outside experts to do presentations in the targeted language and set up workshops to create something of their own. "A photography club can learn how to take landscape photos and then upload those pictures, rate them, maybe hold a contest," he explained. "Basically [we want to] get the kids working around the topic they find intrinsically interesting, but do it in language."

Online and Blended Models
The programs will follow three models, according to South. A fully online model will include an instructor "at a distance," who will answer e-mail, grade assignments, provide written and audio feedback via the program's learning management system, and met with the students through live online sessions. A hybrid model would allow a teacher to use the MIDDWorld program in lieu of a textbook. And a face to face model lets a teacher continue using his or her textbook but augmenting the class with the rich media provided by MIDDWorld.

Each course will include 160 to 180 hours of study, which, according to the company, is about an academic year worth of curriculum.

The plan calls for the programs to be used by home schoolers and students enrolled in virtual programs. But South said he also expects large adoption in brick and mortar schools. For example, he said, a given school may have the "critical mass" necessary to hire a teacher in one language--such as Spanish. But then, he noted, "you'll have that one student interested in French. You can't support that one student. By bringing in a teacher at distance, you can give provide that class. They'll sit in their own school with a computer, but taking the class at a distance."

Another use case predicted by South is the situation where multiple schools might band together to hire a teacher for a given language, supplemented with MIDDWorld. "The students might use the materials five days a week. But maybe on one of the days, the teacher comes in and works with them. Possibly they could share that teacher across schools. The curriculum becomes the main teaching avenue and the teacher circulates among schools to support it."

"Teachers spend a lot of time on the Internet searching for authentic materials appropriate for their audience and that matches the topics and the levels that their student are at," South said. "By leveraging the resources in our course we preload them with all that material that they'd otherwise be trolling through YouTube to find."

Pricing hasn't been firmed up, according to Benoit. But as a range, he said the company was considering about $150 per individual student per year. If that needed to include an online teacher, the cost would rise to about $350. A site license for a school with 500 or more students taking a course would, he projected, be around $20,000.

The first releases, Spanish 1 and French 1, will be followed by Spanish 2 and 3 and French 2. Eventually, the company reported, offerings will be expanded downward into elementary grades and upward into the community college market and perhaps even four-year schools. And it will expand its offerings into other languages too.

The ultimate goal, Benoit observed, was to see an impact on the number of kids who tackle a second language in school. "We know that only half of kids are taking languages. Of that, most don't follow up and do any more work in languages once they get to college. Most of us as adults remember very little except how to introduce ourselves. We truly hope that not only will we be able to create a volume of students taking foreign languages, but that students will acquire an interest level as a result of reaching that level of fluency."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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