Spurred by the rising demand for high-quality, affordable foreign-language instruction for cash-strapped schools, as well as to cultivate new streams of revenue, Middlebury College and K12 Inc. have teamed up to build a series of online language courses for high school students.
The partnership between the well-known liberal arts college in Middlebury, Vt., and the for-profit online education company to fill a curriculum void in schools is a model likely to expand as online coursetaking in precollegiate education grows. And that is especially the case with foreign-language instruction, experts say.
“There’s a huge need nationwide that’s not being met,” said Michael Geisler, the academic-development director for the project and the vice president of language schools at Middlebury, which has an international reputation for foreign-language instruction. “The demand for an internationally educated student even before he or she goes to college seems to be recognized by parents, but can’t often be made by school districts.”
Hiring an adequate number of foreign-language teachers in a multitude of different languages can be too expensive for many school districts, Mr. Geisler said.
Leveraging Middlebury College’s years of pedagogical expertise in teaching foreign languages as well as K12 Inc.’s infrastructure of online course development and distribution, the college and the Herndon, Va.-based company have created Middlebury Interactive Languages, which will start by launching basic French and Spanish courses for high school students during the 2010-11 school year.
Ultimately, the new venture will design courses in more languages, as well as expand its reach to both middle and possibly elementary school students, said Bruce Davis, the executive vice president of world business development at K12.
The classes will be available for any school all over the world to purchase.
‘Best of Both Worlds’
Partnerships between for-profit companies and higher education institutions are not uncommon, said Judy Zimny, the chief of professional development for the Alexandria, Va.-based ASCD, formerly known as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Allowing private companies to partner with colleges or universities allows them to “leverage each other’s strengths,” she said. “You can take the best of both worlds and bring them together. They can actually provide better services to students more quickly and more affordably.”
However, it’s imperative for both entities to share their knowledge and collaborate effectively to achieve the greatest potential, Ms. Zimny said.
“It’s very important for the private industry that’s partnering with the faculty to provide professional development that the faculty needs that honors their content knowledge but at the same time says that this is a different delivery method,” she said.
The surge in online learning in both higher and precollegiate education in recent years played a significant role in establishing the partnership, representatives from both Middlebury College and K12 Inc. said.
More than a million precollegiate students took part in an online course during the 2007-08 school year, a 47 percent increase from 2005-06, according to a report by the Sloan Consortium, a Newburyport, Mass.-based advocacy group for online education.
“The attitude toward learning a language with help from a computer has changed in the marketplace,” said Mr. Davis, from K12 Inc. Much of the existing instructional software for foreign languages, though, is designed for adults, not students.
“We felt that it was important to create courses that were designed for schools,” Mr. Davis said.
In addition to its growing popularity, he said, the delivery of courses online can provide cost savings for schools.
“A well-crafted online course, if it’s an effective and well-designed course, can teach someone at a much lower cost than a regular class,” he said.
Another aspect of online learning that works well with foreign-language instruction is the ability of each student to move at his or her own pace, said Mr. Davis.
“If you fall behind in a language class, ... there’s no way you can ever catch up and pace with the class again,” he said.
Shifting to Virtual
But shifting instruction from a face-to-face environment to a virtual one has forced Middlebury educators to consider the limitations as well as the advantages of online learning.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about, OK, given the fact that this is not an intensive immersion class, ... how can we take as many of the primary features of the Middlebury language schools and translate into this program?” said the college’s Mr. Geisler.
Educators identified several important elements to incorporate into the online courses. For example, in the face-to-face classes, students in Middlebury’s foreign-language courses commit to only using the target language in class when speaking to classmates or teachers. That immersive experience is challenging to re-create online, but the online courses are designed to use the target language as much as possible, said Mr. Geisler.
Another aspect of foreign-language pedagogy that educators wanted to incorporate into the virtual classroom was using the language in authentic contexts instead of textbook situations or examples.
“Using authentic language teaches kids to look for what they know rather than what they don’t know,” Mr. Geisler said.
Likewise, the courses aim to help students and teachers work collaboratively to practice the language through task-based learning rather than memorization, he said.
“Middlebury doesn’t have some kind of magic potion [to teach foreign languages],” said Mr. Geisler. “Students use the language outside of the classroom when talking to each other or other teachers—that is the secret. We are trying to bring out as much of that as can be done in an online environment.”
The courses will include multimedia, such as animations, music, and videos to make the experience interactive.
K-12 Teaching Experience
Although it is the first time Middlebury will be tapping into the online-learning arena, it is not the first time the college has designed foreign-language programs for precollegiate students.
In 2008, it created the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy—a residential summer language-immersion program for 8th to 12th graders. The four-week sessions include Arabic, Chinese, French, German, and Spanish and take place at four higher education institutions: Green Mountain College, in Poultney, Vt.; Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio; Pomona College, in Clarement, Calif.; and Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass.
Mr. Geisler recognized, however, that not all students can afford to come to the language academy, and each year Middlebury receives about 3,000 applications for 1,500 spots, he said.
Creating online foreign-language courses will make it easier to reach out to more students at a more affordable rate, he said.
“We want to make foreign language learning easier and better,” said Mr. Davis from K12. “We want to make something better and affordable for a lot of people with no geographic limitations, so that anyone anywhere in the world can take a Middlebury language course.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week