Language classes expand remotely

Students at Yale, Cornell and Columbia will see new languages taught this fall — but they won’t necessarily meet all the instructors in person.

In an effort to expand its language course offerings, Yale’s Center for Language Study is partnering with Columbia and Cornell to offer videoconference-based classes in eight uncommonly taught languages. Each of the classes, which meet on a regular basis, are taught by instructors on one of the three campuses and streamed live in designated classrooms outfitted with videoconferencing technology. This fall, the shared course initiative is bringing four brand-new courses to Yale ­— elementary Bengali, advanced Indonesian, elementary Romanian and intermediate Tamil — and expanding language programming at relatively low cost to all three universities.

“Columbia, Cornell and Yale are academic centers with genuinely global reach in their research and teaching activities, which means being able to offer instruction in a very broad range of language and cultures,” said Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, professor of linguistics and director of Yale’s Center for Language Study. “This initiative provides [students] with access to languages that might otherwise not be available at their institutions, which is an incentive for students to enroll in a course.”

For its part in the collaborative project, Yale instructors will teach classes in elementary Dutch, intermediate Modern Greek and advanced isiZulu. The first two will be live-streamed to students in Ithaca, while the last will be offered to those in Manhattan.

The shared course initiative was piloted during the 2011-’12 academic year, when Yale taught a class in intermediate Dutch and streamed it live for Cornell students, while Columbia University made its classes in elementary Romanian available to the University of Pennsylvania. Cornell also used videoconferencing technology to offer its students classes from Syracuse University in Turkish, Bengali and Tamil.

These pilots, Van Deusen-Scholl said, helped her and the language center directors at Columbia and Cornell gather information about optimal teaching methods and remote-learning technology. She said the pilot programs received overall positive feedback from both instructors and students who participated in the courses.

“They seemed to adapt easily to the videoconferencing and enjoyed interacting with the students at the other institutions,” she said.

Richard Feldman, director of the Language Resource Center at Cornell, said the shared course initiative will help diversify conversation in language courses, with students and professors from multiple universities interacting over webcams — unlike the independent nature of many prerecorded online courses. The program is funded through a grant that covers the videoconferencing equipment and the instructors’ salaries, he added, thereby allowing the three institutions to expand their foreign language curricula “at relatively little cost.”

Even though the pilot programs received positive reviews, Van Deusen-Scholl cautioned that these videoconferencing courses still require “extra commitment and a certain degree of flexibility” to address the challenges inherently related to remote education. She said Yale, Columbia and Cornell are currently in the process of developing a “compatible technological infrastructure,” with classrooms specifically designed for videoconferencing and distance learning.

“Our goal is to create a synchronous, interactive and learner-centered environment that will closely emulate a regular language classroom,” Van Deusen-Scholl said.

Feldman said all three universities are training their instructors so that they can make the most of the equipment and handle any technological issues that arise.

“Sometimes technology can get complicated,” Feldman said. “We are working to make the installation as smooth and transparent as possible.”

Dutch professor Chrissy Hosea, a former instructor at Cornell, is teaching classes in Dutch at Yale as part of this year’s program after participating in the pilot. Hosea said that live-streamed courses do raise some challenges and take “a lot more planning than a normal classroom, because of technology involved.” But she added that she strives to “make the class as normal as possible,” and that teaching a class with students from different institutions is academically stimulating.

Dashiell Turner ’15, who was enrolled in Hosea’s class last year, said the videoconferencing program turned out “surprisingly good,” and that he welcomes additional remote-learning courses in the future.

“The prospect of more long-distance learning classes is very exciting,” he said.

All together, Yale, Columbia and Cornell offer more than 100 language courses.

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