Teaching Foreign Languages Online: A Shining Light in Desperate TimesZack Underwood | Director of University Studies, Virginia Tech
Study of foreign languages at colleges and universities is decreasing, the Modern Language Association reported last year. This means foreign language departments across the nation are investigating the need for certain languages and funding for those languages. This idea pushes institutions to envision a different future for foreign languages, either dropping foreign language programs, merging departments or adapting them. One possibility is moving courses online.
At first glance, a foreign language classroom may not be the optimal candidate for online education. Colleges and universities could be hesitant to offer online foreign language due to the student need, communication difficulties, and the pedagogical nature of learning a language. However, the University of North Carolina (UNC) System, which consists of 17 public universities, has taken a different approach to teaching foreign language since 2000. They created a statewide online system called UNC Online to enable learning as well as majoring in a foreign language amongst many other subjects. UNC Online encourages collaboration for teaching foreign languages in an era of financial instability and inconsistent student demand.
While some foreign language departments and specific language disciplines fall under scrutiny due to low numbers, professors across the UNC System united to overcome these critiques. One example is the German Consortium of North Carolina, established in 2000 as part of UNC Online. The Consortium includes all German faculty within public universities in North Carolina (except for The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) who teach through UNC Online.
“We have the largest German faculty department in the United States,” says Dr. Raymond Burt, head of the German Consortium for North Carolina, because faculty members see themselves as one large department statewide. German professors combined forces to offer consistent curriculum for students majoring or just interested in studying German. By combining forces across the state, departments are able to continue offering majors, minors and a variety of foreign languages.
German Studies is not a top choice major for many students at UNC institutions. In 2015, German ranked as the fourth most popular language in higher education. Though not as popular as Spanish or American Sign Language, German is still offered as a major and minor at institutions. At some institutions in North Carolina, there is only one German professor, if any, at the university. For example, at Western Carolina University, one faculty member maintains the German minor. Numbers for the minor are inconsistent, but WCU’s Dr. Will Lehman is able to maintain interest and enrollment in the minor thanks to German Consortium courses. His students can explore German with professors from other institutions that offer consistent online courses working towards the German minor.
Institutions that offer majors in German such as University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) benefit from students taking courses online, as students from other UNC institutions can enroll in German courses at UNCW through UNC Online. Between Fall 2013 and Fall 2017, 46 students from other institutions took courses in German through UNC Online. This may not sound like many students, but it demonstrates the variety of students taking these courses—courses that may not have existed otherwise due to low enrollment.
Online modalities for UNC Online foreign language courses primarily run on synchronous technology. This is not state-of-the-art technology, but consistent video streaming technology that works. Each institution maintains a number of distance learning classrooms where students interact with peers. Each class requires a technology representative to run the video streaming technology per class. Professors hosting the course teach face-to-face to students at their main campus and broadcast the class session to other campuses. Students can see their professor, their classmates, and even the physical classroom space of the hosting campus. Distance students might be the only physical students in their classroom at their home institution, but there is still room for class bonding virtually.
Professors who taught in the consortium speak about how the format of distance learning provides opportunities for group work, cohesiveness among cohorts of German students, and the opportunity to teach to a broader audience of students. Faculty are able to create groups that include students from multiple campuses, which gives the classroom a diverse community. The distance classroom gives professors the ability to reach students beyond their own university.
In a time of competition for admitting and enrolling students, UNC Online gives equal opportunity to students. Instead of being limited to only taking courses from their home institution, students are given the option of taking courses at any of the 16 public universities. Foreign language offerings give students an expanded curriculum with unique languages, different times of day, and different teaching formats (synchronous or asynchronous in some cases). Tuition is the same cost as the student’s home institution (so long as students are enrolled full time) and course offerings change each semester. Credits are easily transferrable and appear on a student’s transcript as if they were taking the course at their home institution.
Foreign language collaborations via UNC Online stand as a model for online education. German is one example of success, but there are several more shining lights for foreign language within the UNC Online system. Courses are offered in standard languages such as Spanish and French as well as less frequently taught languages such as Cherokee and Hindi. The variety of courses gives students more choices. For example, if students must take Spanish 201 at their home institution and all in-person seats are full, they could instead take the course via UNC Online from an institution in a neighboring city for the same tuition as taking it in-person.
This model could be duplicated by states or by secondary schools to expand foreign language offerings. Expanding collaboration across multiple institutions could maintain interest as well as share resources. The UNC Online foreign language system has maintained a rich history of success since 2000. Foreign language offerings through UNC Online might be the best kept secret of the University of North Carolina system.