Language program enters second year

Launched last fall, a University initiative that allows students to study obscure languages like Classical Tibetan, Dutch and isiZulu is grappling with low student interest.

The Shared Courses Initiative — which brought together Cornell, Columbia and Yale to offer varying levels of instruction in eight different languages — is taught from one of the three universities and videoconferenced with students in satellite classrooms at the other institutions. Although Director of Yale’s Center for Language Study Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl said the initiative is unique among online courses in that it blends a traditional classroom environment with a virtual component, other administrators involved in the program said they have struggled to draw high levels of student participation.

“It’s harder when you don’t have a professor at the school,” said Richard Feldman, the director of the Language Resource Center at Cornell. “Maybe that’s why students don’t sign up.”

The program currently offers courses at varying levels of proficiency in Bengali, Dutch, Khmer, Romanian, Tamil, Ukrainian, isiZulu and Classical Tibetan. Minjin Hashbat, the program administrator at Yale, said the initiative’s combination of traditional and online teaching has resulted in a variety of opportunities for students, ranging from office hours on Skype to cultural get-togethers in New York City.

After the program’s first year, administrators said the Shared Courses Initiative has been successful overall. Van Deusen-Scholl said students participated in the online model with relatively few setbacks, adding that she received positive feedback from students. A student taking Nigerian last year was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to further his studies, said Columbia Director for the Language Resource Center Stéphane Charitos.

Still, Feldman cautioned that the program is still “in flux.” Feldman, Charitos and Van Deusen-Scholl lamented that student awareness of the Shared Courses Initiative remains too low, and Feldman said finding enough students to fill classes remains difficult. Additionally, problems with conflicting schedules — Columbia, Cornell and Yale each have different academic calendars and class times — are a major obstacle. The initiative also encountered technological hurdles with audio and visual systems, but Hashbat said the program uses the most state-of-the-art equipment in every classroom.

Despite these challenges, Charitos noted that enrollment is up in 2013 and students are generally “very enthusiastic.”

Nathan Chan FES ’15, who took “Introductory Bengali” through a videoconference from Cornell, said the administrative staff at Yale ran the course effectively, adding that he recommends the initiative to others.

Still, Chan noted there were “hiccups,” and in the future, better technological training for the professors could be a benefit for the program. Chan added that the satellite classroom made it difficult to connect with other students.

The Shared Courses Initiative has garnered attention within the Ivy League and from other universities across the country, Charitos said. Schools are interested in both the model of remote videoconferencing and the Shared Courses Initiative itself. In the future, Feldman and Van Deusen-Scholl said the model could be extended to small humanities seminars and other less-taught languages. In a course with only three students, collaborating with another peer institution would augment the classroom experience, Feldman said, and Van Deusen-Scholl said the program also allows the three universities to pool their resources and reduce strain on their individual budgets.

Last year, the program offered six languages, adding two more this year.

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