Language, in Depth: The Digital Scene

Middlebury_Mouse-WEBIn the late 1980s, when Jane Swift arrived as a freshman at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, after attending public schools in western Massachusetts, she says it didn’t take long before she noticed a “vibrant, Technicolor gap” between her precollegiate preparation and those of her peers who had attended private schools; it was most pronounced, she says, in the realm of language education.

“I have this distinct recollection of having a steeper learning curve,” says Swift, the former Massachusetts governor and current CEO of Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), the joint commercial venture between Middlebury College and K12, Inc. “It opened my eyes, and it later became my focus in public office and in the private sector: how can we better facilitate access to high-quality education in the United States? Technology and its innovative applications seemed to be this untapped area where we could vastly broaden our reach in an affordable way.”

And this access—or lack of it—has had a profound impact on language learning, says Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz. “There is a huge language gap in the United States, a crisis in terms of the number of people who are proficient in foreign languages,” he says. “We’re not adequately preparing our next generation; students typically need to wait until the age of 18 to begin the study of language in any serious way. That’s a problem.”

With education budgets being slashed across the country—according to a recent analysis by the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 35 states are spending less per pupil than they were five years ago—there likely will be fewer language instructors in this country’s public schools in the years ahead, not more.

While this trend may be troubling, many agree with Swift that an innovative technological approach would not only lessen the impact but would also make language learning in our nation’s public schools more effective.

“A comprehensive online solution is everyone’s holy grail,” Phil Hubbard, a senior lecturer in linguistics at Stanford, told the Pacific Standard magazine’s Bonnie Tsui for a story titled, “What’s the Secret to Learning a Second Language?” “A lot of people developing these programs have a good idea, but no particular experience in language teaching,” he added. “They leverage one part of it, but don’t do the other parts well.”

It was with this in mind that Middlebury partnered with K12 to launch MIL in 2010. K12 is a leader in educational technology and would bring the digital expertise; Middlebury language instructors would design the curriculum, and, most important, would attempt to translate Middlebury’s century-old intensive immersion philosophy to the online realm.

“The drill-and-kill approach . . . doesn’t work,” Vice President of Language Schools Michael Geisler told Tsui for the Pacific Standard story. “Scripted dialogue and picture association . . . [are] not going to teach you the language.”

“Contextualized learning is the key,” Geisler told me in a conversation we had in December about the development of the programs. “We spent a lot of time talking about how to introduce this philosophy into an online curriculum,” he said.

By contextualization, Geisler means using clues that come from the context of the experience to acquire the information one needs to truly understand a language. He considers this to be one of four key principles to language learning. To attain contextualization online, MIL has developed video tutorials and virtual worlds using authentic material that will provide students with body-language clues, recognizable surroundings, and visual and verbal tone. “We’re trying to teach students to look for what they know (cognates, creative guesses),” Geisler said. “Not for what they don’t know.”

Geisler acknowledged that contextualization doesn’t come as easily online as it does face-to-face. In person, if you say something, you can see instantly how your message was received. (“As the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, ‘Once the arrow has left the bow,  it is no longer the archer’s,’” Geisler noted.) Facial recognition isn’t as intuitive in a virtual world, though Geisler added that by using an application such as Skype to communicate with an instructor or a peer, this disadvantage is greatly lessened.

This speaks to another of the four key language-learning principles, interaction with others. (The other two are using the language and using it for a purpose.) “But online, you can do it at your own pace, which is very useful for people with different learning styles,” Geisler explained.

“Think about the shy student, the student who needs more time. This person can ease into interaction online at their own pace, when they are more comfortable. They’re not under the same pressure they would be in a traditional classroom. Of course, when they are more comfortable, we do want them to seek out this personal interaction.”

I asked Geisler about the traditional  classroom. Is there a concern that if this online model is as successful as they believe it will be, it will hasten attrition among foreign language instructors? That is, will machine replace man?

“Not if things go right,” he said. “We see online learning as providing more foreign language resources in a more cost-effective manner. Once school districts find out that they can deploy teachers more efficiently, to reach larger numbers of students, there will be an incentive for bringing back some languages that are currently threatened by tight budgets.”

MIL offers three delivery models—a stand-alone model, a supplemental model that a student may use at home to enhance his or her classroom instruction, and a hybrid approach in which the foreign language instructor incorporates online learning into his or her curriculum. Geisler and others believe that the hybrid approach is the most effective way to learn a language. But the supplemental and stand-alone models exist for a reason. The hybrid approach may be optimal, but if it’s not feasible within certain schools, providing students with other options is better than having no options at all.

“Think about it this way,” Jane Swift says. “Let’s say you have access to the very best teacher possible. Well, you can never replace that. But let’s say you don’t have that teacher as an option. Let’s say your school is going to cut Spanish. Or let’s say you want to learn Russian and your school doesn’t offer it. We can replicate that instruction in a fashion.”

She continues: “We can give you a quality learning experience—whenever you want it and at your own pace. It might not be the same as having that specific teacher in your classroom, but how many schools have that? Fewer and fewer. For those that don’t, we can help fill that void and close that gap. And for those that do, well, these programs will only make that instruction even better.”

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  1. I was blessed with a wonderful French teacher for the first three of my four years in public secondary school, in a school system that valued foreign language learning. I thus entered Middlebury reasonably well prepared to major in French. I know I was lucky; good access to good teachers in a variety of foreign languages has never been something that a child attending public schools in this country can take for granted. So I’m pleased that Middlebury is trying to do something about that.

    At the same time, I worry that, despite all good intentions, school districts will see MIL as a magic bullet—and a way to hire or retain fewer language teachers. I also worry that the

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    use of what amounts to a K-12 language MOOC will, in Aaron Hirsh’s words, cause the collapse of the “educational triangle among…the student, the teacher, and the world that student and teacher investigate together.” In online courses, he says, “the patch of world under examination is highly curated…. In short, the pedagogical triangle gets collapsed into a binary relationship between student and teacher.” [“The Pop! of the Wild,” Aaron Hirsh, The New York Times, Sept. 8, 2013;

    I know that Middlebury language instructors know that language learning is about far more than language. I know they understand that it’s also about discovering different cultures, with their different worldviews, perceptions, and communication styles. But I have to say that I doubt that MIL’s “contextualized” approach, as fine as I expect it is, can fully overcome the necessity for an online instructor to curate the students’ language-learning world, limiting opportunity for wider discovery.

    I’m therefore glad to see VP Geisler advocate for a hybrid model as the “most effective” way to learn a language. I would, however, take it a step further: I think a hybrid model is the only way to go.

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