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Volume 8, Number 7: April 29, 2002

Language Instruction: A System Approach to Distance Delivery

by Lauren Rosen Yeazel
Collaborative Language Program, University of Wisconsin


The University of Wisconsin Collaborative Language Program (CLP) developed a model for teaching less commonly taught languages (LCTL) to students throughout the state of Wisconsin using distributed learning technologies. Our successful use of classroom-based videoconferencing (CVC), coupled with web-based course tools, provides students on campuses without LCTL instructors access to languages deemed critical to national and state interests. This article discusses policies and approaches chosen to guarantee successful results and sound pedagogy, enrollment and attrition data, student achievement, and student opinions about the courses.

CVC was chosen as the primary method for instruction due to its close simulation of the traditional classroom environment. This technology allows for group settings and extensive spontaneous oral communication, an essential element in the early years of language study. It is noteworthy that LCTL instruction, unlike other languages, begins orally as students are not already familiar with the character sets or alphabet required in order to write in these languages.

Chinese, Japanese, and Russian are currently being taught through CLP. Ten campuses are participating in either sending and/or receiving instruction in one or more of these critical languages. In the last year, our program has more than doubled its student body and the number of courses offered.

As a system-wide program, CLP steering and curriculum committees consider the needs, technology, and restrictions of all campuses involved. Traditional language courses are open to a maximum of 25 students per section to allow for sufficient student interaction; it was decided that CLP courses would also allow for 25 students per section, including all connected sites. Additional students are enrolled by permission from the instructor. Students often find these languages difficult to learn, yet it is particularly important to maintain a large enough class size to have sufficient numbers at local sites for small group and pair work. Additionally, initial class size contributes to our ability to build and sustain a five-semester course sequence. Because interaction is essential to the course, the number of sites connected to any one section is limited to two receiving locations. In doing so students have ample opportunity to interact orally with each other and with the instructor.

One of the greatest challenges in working with a system-wide program is the lack of consistency in campus calendars and class hours. Since not all campuses have the same start and end dates or the same vacation schedule, our instructors find ways to keep students from getting behind during times when the send site is meeting and the receive site is not. In some cases instructors teach during their spring break so that the receive sites do not miss classes. In other cases, the target language speaking facilitator at the receive site conducts class during breaks. Another challenge is the difference in meeting times for class sessions on each campus. It was determined by committee that the origination site sets the time schedule for the course, which the receive site observes. The hardship falls on the students at the receive site who need multiple class hours available in order to meet the time schedule to which their campus must adapt.

Because the majority of our students are undergraduates with other language options, no extra charge is assessed to students for these courses. Cost should not affect student choice in language courses. It is believed that undergraduate students generally will not pay extra to study Japanese in a distance classroom when Spanish is less expensive and the instructor is live. All students earn credits from their home campus and tuition dollars remain there.

All of the aforementioned factors contribute to our increasing enrollment, but the most essential piece of the puzzle is the instructor. It is important that CLP instructors employ a communicative interactive approach to language learning. Students at receive sites look at a screen, which can be mesmerizing if they are not driven to interact with each other and provide feedback. Through feedback the instructor monitors student comprehension. CVC amplifies an instructor's ability and enthusiasm; thus, sound instruction becomes even better, and poor instruction becomes significantly worse. A seasoned instructor who draws in all students is more aware of her distance students and is far more likely to include them equally in participatory activities. She is also more likely to use camera movement to allow students to see others and to employ techniques for building communities across campuses so students feel they are one class rather than two or three separate entities.

Another essential element is the support at the receive sites. CLP policy requires a target language speaker as facilitator in each of the receive site classrooms. Facilitators are often graduate students in unrelated disciplines who typically have no background in language pedagogy. However, their ability with the target language allows them to assist the instructor during small group and pair work, serve as on-campus assistants to struggling students, and provide a local connection to the target culture. Their presence both in the classroom and during office hours keeps the receive site sections running smoothly, participating equally, and achieving (on average) as well or better than students at the origination site. Our first-year Japanese course, originating at UW-Oshkosh and running the longest of all of our courses, is one example of a successful instructor/facilitator pairing.

Overall students at both origination and receive sites seem pleased with the courses. A second year Russian origination site student noted, "It's a good program. It obviously benefits the students at the universities without a Russian program to begin with much more than us, but its not at all detrimental to us. So, I would have to give the program a thumbs up." A receive site student from Stevens Point, sent an email to his professor stating, "You made class fun and I was surprised how effective you were long-distance. I was skeptical at first of the technology but now I believe it works. I am glad we had the opportunity to speak Japanese often. I liked the pace of the class which was slow enough to absorb a lot of information but quick enough so that I was never bored."

Each semester students, facilitators, and instructors complete surveys about their experiences. These surveys help identify many of the technical issues that occur and perfect course management and pedagogy. As a result of these changes, students now have more opportunities to build a language learning community. A Japanese student at UW-Superior, an origination site, commented, "I like [the] videoconferencing class [because it] gives you lots of opportunities to interact with different campuses and people. It is a very good and fun way to learn." Some facilitators organize language tables and gatherings, giving students further exposure to the target language and culture.

Over the last two years, LCTL pedagogy specialists with technology integration experience have been observing our classes. Their numerous suggestions led to many positive changes. One such change is that students across sites seem to be more connected with each other. In the past year, a few instructors began using the Blackboard course tool to provide a forum for students. The discussion board is used to address cultural issues, thus leaving conversation practice for the physical class sessions. These discussions help build a connection between students as they get to know each other on a more personal basis.

One of the challenges with the use of course tools is preparing students to write in the target language where the character sets are not romanized as with English. In most cases, especially in the first years, students are primarily writing in English rather than the target language. By closely monitoring the topics, the instructor is able to facilitate oral discussion in the target language during class so students can begin expressing their ideas in the target language prior to having sufficient writing skills for online discussion. The online aspect, in the case of Japanese, also offers an opportunity for students to communicate with Japanese students in a sister school in Japan. This additional exposure to native speakers sharing their experiences makes the topics at hand even more tangible.

In sum, CLP provides students around the state with opportunities to learn languages considered critical to economic growth and national security. With our proven model for teaching languages, we hope to expand into Arabic and perhaps other languages currently unavailable on many of the UW System campuses.



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