Last spring, Middlebury College in Vermont and online course provider K12 Inc. launched a partnership to create and distribute high-quality, interactive online foreign language courses to high schoolers. And earlier this week, I got to see first-hand what those courses look like and how they’re being used.
The partnership has formed under Middlebury Interactive Languages, and so far, Spanish I and French I courses are being piloted in several schools. The betas for both of those courses will be available in January, said representatives from the company.
A main goal for the courses was to re-create as much as possible the authentic, immersive environment online that students get from Middlebury’s face-to-face language courses and programs, they said. In order to reach that goal, the course is broken down into three parts: the course itself, which has modules that are based around videos shot in countries where the target language is spoken; passport city, which is a social network created for the course where students can have discussions with each other; and a 3D game students can play that requires students to know and use the language in order to progress.
For example, in the Spanish I program, the game starts with the student being a waiter in a cafe who has to take orders, put the orders into the kitchen, then remember who ordered what in order to keep customers satisfied. The waiter also has the option of making small talk with the customers to increase their satisfaction.
Putting students in authentic situations, such as ordering food at a restaurant, was a main goal when the course was developed, I was told. Even the activities in the modules are based around possible real-world situations. One I previewed had students practice numbers by challenging them to dial into their voicemail on a virtual phone, retrieve the phone number of the person who called, and call them back. By allowing students to learn the language in an authentic environment, rather than through drill-and-kill or strictly memorization, it alerts students to listen for what they do know rather than to focus on all the words that they may not know, the course developers explained.
“Less than fifty percent of kids [in the U.S.] take a foreign language,” said David Benoit, the chief executive officer of Middlebury Interactive Languages. “One of our goals is not only to make it fun and accessible for teachers, but to see that number start to tick up.” Creating courses that are affordable and accessible for the average school is a big part of that, he said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.