21st Century Curriculum | February 2013 Digital Edition

From Beijing to Wichita: Mandarin Courses Beam Into US Classrooms

A growing number of students in Kansas and across the country are discovering Mandarin through new distance ed programs that feature native-speaking teachers, lower costs, and plenty of flexibility.

This article originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's February 2013 digital edition.

Kansas students and Beijing teacher
Chang Liufrom the Confucius Institute teaches a second-grade Chinese class to studentsat Pray-Woodman Elementary School in Maize, KS.

In rural Kansas, five high school students take seats in their school's distance learning classroom for a Mandarin language class they share with students at four other schools around the state. In Atlanta, an entire class of kindergartners sits in front of a big screen, speaking to their teacher in China. The students laugh, raise their hands, and respond to questions as if the teachers were present, not thousands of miles away.                   

These days, a growing number of schools are turning to distance learning options for teaching Mandarin when budgets, small class size, or a lack of local Mandarin teachers mean they wouldn't otherwise be able to offer it. They have been especially committed to offering it since 2006, when President Bush introduced the National Security Language Initiative, a program that provided funding for teaching critical languages including Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Hindi. According to Michael Cheng, president of Mando Mandarin, a distance-learning Mandarin language program, the number of Americans studying the world's most spoken language has grown from 50,000 in 2007 to around 100,000 in 2010.   

"Parents are well informed," Cheng says. "They see the importance in their kids learning about China and learning the language to prepare for a global community, and to become global citizens as they grow older."

The purveyors of these programs point out that affordable distance learning can turn even the most remote students into members of the global community and increase educational equity in the process. For schools still staggering from recession-based budget slashing that decimated language programs, distance learning programs might be the only way to keep up with the growing demand for Mandarin learning in the K-12 sector.

Small Costs, Big Benefits
Mando Mandarin and Southeast Kansas Education Service Center, a Kansas educational organization, known locally as Greenbush, that operates community learning centers and offers alternative education programs, have both committed serious resources to creating distance learning Mandarin language programs. While these two organizations have little in common, their Mandarin programs share many essential characteristics. Both provide live, native-speaking teachers from China connecting via webcam and distance learning software in real time. In addition, as of January 2013, when Mando Mandarin expects to become accredited, students will be able to earn course credits through both programs.

Cheng attributes some of the success Mando Mandarin has had with their school program to flexibility. "We customize the curriculum we provide to be in line with a school's scheduling and guidelines, depending on what the budget is, how many times per week they want to meet, and how long each lesson will be. We can work with them," Cheng points out. "It's hard to find a teacher who is willing to come in to a school and teach one class a day."

Of course the savings are another reason that many schools are turning to distance learning. Cheng estimates that it can cost "upwards of $40,000 per year to hire a full-time Chinese language teacher." In contrast, a school can hire a Mando Mandarin teacher for $10,000 or less per year. The savings come from hiring and working with teachers based in China, where Mando pays a Chinese salary.

Greenbush added its distance Mandarin program to a broad roster of educational efforts, many of which are designed to provide educational opportunities where they see a lack. The impetus for teaching Mandarin in Kansas came out of the National Security Language Initiative and the fact that it was difficult for parents to find local instruction in the language, says Carol Woolbright, coordinator for Greenbush's Mandarin distance learning program.

Since 2006, when the language was added to its existing distance learning offerings, Greenbush has collaborated with the Confucius Institute at the University of Kansas (KU) to recruit teachers through its sister school, Huazhong Normal University in Wuhan, China. The teachers are initially vetted by Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters in Beijing, and then travel to KU for further training. Many of the Greenbush teachers are located in Kansas--some even relocate from China--but they can technically live anywhere.

For several years, Greenbush had been able to offer the Mandarin program at a low cost due to Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grants. As a result, the program once grew to more than 1,100 students. After the government pulled funding for FLAP in the 2012 fiscal budget, the program was forced to raise costs and lost some students. Still, with 817 students remaining this year, the Greenbush Mandarin program remains robust.

Mobile, Interactive Teachers
Woolbright notes that a distance learning teacher can teach three classes in different districts simultaneously. This flexibility has obvious advantages for schools with only a handful of students wanting to learn the language; they can split the cost of the course. Often those districts are within Kansas, but Greenbush has worked with consortia of schools in states like Missouri, Arkansas, and Ohio as well. 

Both Woolbright and Cheng tend to use words like "fun" and "energetic" to describe the teachers in their programs. Given the limitations that the teachers face--they can't walk around the classroom or stop by a student's desk to do a quick check of the students' progress, for example--they note that classes must be lively and interactive, or students will tune out. In addition, if students have questions outside of class, it's unlikely they'll find someone in the school who can answer it. Therefore, teachers have to be on call to answer students' questions via e-mail, LMS message boards, or a scheduled meeting.  

The courses also have on-site facilitators who help keep things working smoothly in the classroom. These aides don't deliver content or grade student work, but they turn on the distance learning system in a classroom, supervise tests, and help to keep communication flowing between students, teachers, and even parents.

While distance learning isn't always a district's preferred teaching method, the technology has some benefits that students might not get out of a regular face-to-face class. In most cases, teachers post recordings of each class on the learning management system so that students who were absent or want extra practice can replay new terms and practice pronouncing them. In a face-to-face class, this kind of recording is rarely provided.

 "The students don't want to miss class to go on vacation," says Elaine Shuck, director for education at Polycom, which provides the videoconferencing infrastructure for Greenbush, among others. "They make sure they have the mobility app installed so they can videoconference from their trip."

With the Polycom technology, Greenbush participants dial into a virtual meeting room--called a meeting bridge--that connects with video and voice. The tools enable the teacher and students to share their desktops, either virtually (by means of the Microsoft Lync software that connects them to the meeting) or physically (by means of a document camera).

Learning Culture
Many of the challenges with teaching Mandarin remotely are inherent to teaching Mandarin, period. The first of these is the cultural differences. Both Cheng and Woolbright say that their programs have included training teachers to work with American students. Woolbright says that the Chinese teachers who were initially trained by Hanban had some misperceptions about how students are allowed to behave in American classrooms--namely, that poor behavior in class is more acceptable.

"They were highly tolerant of behavior that wasn't conducive to a learning environment," she says, but once Greenbush worked with teachers to reset expectations, the problems decreased and the classroom dynamics were no longer an issue.

Cheng says Mando Mandarin provides an East-meets-West combination. "A lot of Chinese-based education methodologies have failed, because the learning style is very different. It's based on memorization. Keeping American students engaged is challenging for Chinese teachers, but we've been able to combine more fun and engaging approaches with the Chinese methodologies."

Another challenge for all Mandarin classes is teaching writing. "Chinese characters are written in a very specific order. Each mark has to be made the right way in the right order," Woolbright says. Because it would slow down the class too much to have the teacher watch each student make the characters one by one, Greenbush relies heavily on peer review, and uses the document camera quite a bit as well. Greenbush is currently investigating using iPads to work on both writing characters and composition, the area in which most students struggle, no matter the type of classroom.

Scheduling and Engagement
One area that can get complicated for distance learning programs is scheduling. Schools have a lot of disruptions to the regular schedule, from late starts to pep rallies and other school functions. Because teachers are often working with multiple schools throughout the day, it can be hard to make up for those lost periods.

On the other hand, that flexibility can be an asset, one that makes distance learning a workable solution for a number of approaches to language learning. At Hosford Middle School in Portland, OR, Kojo Hakam, a curriculum specialist for the school's Mandarin program, is currently assessing the effectiveness of the blended format they've been using at the district's high school level. Currently, Hakam's students work through an online curriculum that he and his associates created with Moodle, in addition to their lessons with an in-person teacher. Their goal was to create courses that would accommodate students working at different paces, and would provide them access to Mandarin materials even on days when they're not formally scheduled for class.

As Hakam has observed, however, students don't take the online class as seriously as their face-to-face classes. Even though the online curriculum tries to emphasize tech-friendly listening and speaking components, he says that only students motivated to work outside of normal class times (which is a minority) are making satisfactory progress.

He has also noticed that his Mandarin teachers' enthusiasm for the online approach and comfort with the technology play a role in how well the students perform. In searching for a solution to the engagement problem, he's working with the teachers to determine if this problem can be mitigated with their help, or perhaps if they should invest in giving students access to teachers on demand via distance learning. He may just find that distance learning offers the flexibility he'd like, with the live teaching element that would better motivate students.