Adios to Spanish 101 Classroom

October 21, 2009

After several years of experimenting with “hybrid” Spanish courses that mix online and classroom instruction, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has decided to begin conducting its introductory Spanish course exclusively on the Web.

Spanish 101, which had featured online lessons combined with one classroom session per week, will drop its face-to-face component in an effort to save on teaching costs and campus space in light of rising demand for Spanish instruction and a shrinking departmental budget.

“We were seeing that there was just a lot of demand on our resources, both monetary and space-wise, due to Spanish,” said Larry King, chair of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department.

Meanwhile, the department’s budget was slashed by $150,000 this year. It had been planning to shift its introductory courses online even before the recession hit, King said, in hopes of freeing up money to hire another instructor. Instead, the anticipated savings from the move have so far spared his department from personnel cuts.

Foreign language classes, like those in just about every subject area, have of course been offered online for years. And online courses have become a key way for some languages to be taught at smaller colleges that might not produce enough students to fill a section. For example, the Sunoikisis program -- started by the Associated Colleges of the South and now part of Harvard University's Center for Hellenic Studies -- offers courses in Greek and Latin that many small colleges would find impossible to support. But advocates for such courses have generally said that they are essential when in-person instruction wouldn't otherwise take place. What makes Chapel Hill's announcement notable is that it's about Spanish. And if there is one foreign language at American colleges and universities that never struggles to produce demand for in-person sections, it is Spanish.

Under the new system, a single professor would preside over four sections of the class, with support from graduate assistants.

Some students reacted negatively to the news that the introductory course would move to the Web, even if it meant more students would be able to take it.

“The speaking aspect of the language is the most difficult to learn,” Kate Guilfoyle, a Chapel Hill sophomore who plans to minor in Spanish, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “…If classes were taught online, students would never have practice actually speaking words out loud, learning the accent and correct pronunciations (which really is important if someone plans to study or travel abroad).”

Guilfoyle added that an online course might be less likely than a face-to-face one to inspire students to study Spanish further. “Part of what caused me to get so interested in the language was communicating with classmates and my professor. If students are just sitting at a computer to complete a course, this will undoubtedly be a tedious task, and I don't see how it could possibly interest anyone.”

But department officials said they don't expect the online-only format to hamper learning. Hosun Kim, director of the college’s Foreign Language Resource Center, said survey data gathered by the department revealed that while students in traditional courses said they thought they mastered the material better than their peers in hybrid courses, a comparative assessment of learning outcomes showed no difference between the two.

The syllabuses for the online component will be same as in the hybrid courses, said Glynis Cowell, director of the Spanish Program. “The instructional Power Point that we are using right now,” she said, “-- we have a program we can use where we can actually capture that, and there is the sense that the professor is speaking to the students.”

And if students require additional help, they would be able to visit the professor during office hours -- either in person or by video. Meanwhile, Cowell said, students would be able to manage their “class” time according to their own needs. “The students who have had two years of high school Spanish, if they place into 101, really what they need is a quick review to get them up to speed,” she said. “An online program like this would allow them then to sort of tailor their review so they could spend less time on what they know well and more time on what it is that they need to review.”

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said she did not know enough details about the Chapel Hill case to comment on whether the change might affect learning outcomes, noting that “there’s nothing inherently right or wrong about using technology for learning.”

She did, however, caution against letting teaching decisions be guided by thrift. “The question of ‘How can we reduce the cost of delivering instruction’ is not what should be driving the decision, even though we all understand that universities are facing hard financial times,” Feal said. “A lot of tough decisions must be made, but those must always be made in thinking about what are the best instructional environment and opportunities for our students.”

Chapel Hill plans to measure the effectiveness of its online introductory course by administering the same placement test it uses before enrollment at the end of the semester. Cowell and King both said that poor results could prompt them to reverse the move, although they said the possibility of that happening is so remote they aren’t giving it too much thought.

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