Outsourcing Language Learning

A decade after Drake U. pioneered system favoring native speakers over traditional faculty, a few other colleges are trying the approach and the university is taking its concept online.
January 22, 2010

Almost a decade ago, Drake University stirred up controversy by eliminating its foreign language departments and thereby the jobs of faculty in French, German and Italian, even those with tenure.

Traditional lecture and language lab instruction was replaced with the Drake University Language Acquisition Program (DULAP): small discussion groups led by on-campus native speakers, a weekly session with a scholar of the language, a one-semester course on language acquisition and the use of several Web-based learning technologies.

Critics feared the evisceration of language departments, the elimination of countless tenure-track and adjunct jobs, and the prospect of students not actually learning the languages they’d signed up to study.

But not everything that could go wrong, in critics’ eyes, did go wrong. Other institutions haven’t followed suit by dramatically dismantling their language departments and firing faculty en masse, though some departments have shrunk under budget pressures and waning student interest. For them, and for institutions that hope to expand their language offerings but can’t hire new traditional instructors, the Drake model may offer a way for students to learn foreign languages.

“Facility with a language other than English is a general education goal that every institution should have,” said Richard H. Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges. “Not to be cliché, but the world is being globalized. Understanding contemporary cultures of other countries, being able to understand their newspapers and television, is an important part of that language education.”

Though Ekman said he “would argue that a good education would include literature in English and in another language,” he thinks students not planning to pursue academic or literary careers would be served well by conversational knowledge of a language.

Ekman’s is an acknowledgment that practical language learning is what many students want and need. With a three-year grant from W.M. Keck Foundation – which ends this spring – CIC has supported the Network for Effective Language Learning (NELL), offering about two dozen member institutions a chance to learn about DULAP and to use as much or as little of Drake's model as they like for their own language programs.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, declined to comment on specific programs, though she did offer a general statement: "Clearly, giving students access to less commonly taught languages is important, and if that access comes by means of a well researched, academically sound program, then students will benefit."

Taking on the Drake Model

The Sage Colleges, with campuses in Albany and Troy, New York, adopted the Drake program’s structure last fall to begin offering Italian. Students were interested in studying the language – many so that they could communicate with Italian-speaking family members.

Sharon Robinson, dean of Russell Sage College, said the institution “just couldn’t afford more full-time language faculty.” Because “adjuncts are really tough to find in our area,” the DULAP model presented a way for Sage to offer new languages.

Sage wasn’t trying to eliminate its Spanish and French programs and faculty, said David Salomon, chair of Sage’s department of English and modern languages, but to add to them without incurring costs and logistical challenges it was unprepared to face. “We didn’t do this to replace anything,” he said. “This is additional.”

During the first semester of the Sage Language Acquisition Program, students met three days each week for conversation with a native speaker “language partner” and a few other students, one day a week with an “outside examiner” – a Ph.D. in Italian -- and one day to discuss language acquisition strategies and course technology with the college's French professor. As it played out, Salomon said, the course was “not an independent study, not an online course, not just a discussion group, but kind of a blend of those things."

Four groups of four or five students each met with Ivana Garita, a Fulbright fellow with two master’s degrees from Italian universities, one in teaching methodologies and one in the teaching of secondary school English. Each week, Garita led three hour-long conversations for each group, creating what she called “a more direct and comfortable learning environment” than a traditional classroom. “Students,” she added, “feel less frustrated by participating in the learning activities and all of them have the chance to say something.”

Over the course of the term, most students went from having “zero” knowledge of the language to now being “able to say some sentences,” Garita said. “They’ve learned to understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases.” They can introduce themselves, ask questions and “interact in a simple way.” Though the changes have been “small,” they have been “very satisfying” for Garita and for the students themselves.

At the same time they worked with Garita, the students also had a weekly session via Webcam with an outside examiner who offered instruction on grammar, proctored oral exams and advised students on how to improve their written and spoken skills, which were collected using the Mahara e-portfolio platform. Robinson and Salomon declined to identify the outside examiner, who was not rehired at the end of the fall semester for reasons they would not disclose.

They decided to take on the Drake model after experiencing it firsthand, at CIC’s summer 2008 NELL meeting at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., where they got a taste of the program with introductory sessions in Russian. “It was totally non-intimidating,” Robinson said. “It was a little bit messy in comparison to traditional language learning but it didn’t matter because we really got to dive in and actually learn.”

Harland Rall, chair of Abilene Christian University’s foreign language department, was not a part of NELL, but decided to adopt the Drake model as a way to expand limited language offerings. “We had economic constraints and faculty constraints to teach languages other than the most common ones,” he said. “Complete online instruction wasn’t what we wanted, so DULAP was a good solution.”

Abilene Christian piloted Mandarin during the 2008-9 academic year using the Drake model of a supervising professor and a native speaker conversation partner. The professor, Rall said, was in Beijing, and on-campus graduate students fluent in Mandarin led discussions. Arabic is taught by a professor in Tunisia.

Just as at Sage, the Drake language model is a means for expansion, Rall said. “It doesn’t threaten our hiring policies for the languages we are servicing. It’s a way of extending our department and we’re thrilled to be able to do it.”

That, too, is how Ekman, CIC’s president, sees the model working. “Some places have pretty healthy language programs but want to offer more,” he said, “and others have seen their language programs getting worse and worse and worse, with students not drawn to languages and budgets cut to the bone.”

Drake-based programs, he added, aren’t intended to help colleges pare down their language faculties but, rather, “to reflect the realities” at institutions with limited resources that want to be able to offer students the languages they want to study.

Are They Learning?

Despite the heaps of criticism that were leveled against Drake’s program for its first half-decade or so, CIC opted to work to spread it because, as Ekman told Inside Higher Ed in early 2007, it "is a winning approach, in which students have greater progress and reach a level of functional competency earlier."

For Abilene Christian and for Sage, it was the speed of learning and the conversational skills that convinced them to take on the Drake model.

There has been no comprehensive study of how Drake’s students compare to students who learn languages in a more traditional way. But the anecdotal evidence is there, many times over, said Jan Marston, director of DULAP from its founding until last year.

When students trained at the Des Moines, Iowa, university study abroad, she said, “they’re placed in classes way above where the seat time would indicate they should be.” Students report back that while other students in their programs abroad speak English to each other, “Drake students are speaking Russian to the Russians.”

Marc Cadd, who directs Drake’s World Languages and Cultures program -- DULAP’s successor -- said students are generally placed two semesters ahead of where they would be at Drake when they study elsewhere. For instance, students who had finished Drake’s Spanish 101 and 102 classes would likely be placed into a third-year language class when studying abroad in a Spanish-speaking country “primarily on the strength of their speaking skills.”

The argument, Cadd said, “isn’t that this is a better model than anything else,” just that it works for many students who are interested in using a language for business, travel or family interactions, rather than to become scholars of French or Japanese literature. This spring, about 130 of the university’s 3000 undergraduates are learning languages using the DULAP method. Most majors don’t have a foreign language requirement, nor does the university have a general education language requirement.

Drake offers no language instruction option other than DULAP, but when students find that DULAP doesn’t work for them – or they don’t want to try it – they can choose to take languages at other Des Moines-area colleges and universities. “A few do that each semester, just because it’s a mismatch of teaching and learning styles,” Cadd said.

Only Online

DULAP's success helped Marston win a $788,177 grant last yea from the federal government’s National Security Education Program to start the Virtual Language Studies (VSL) program, a fully course that builds on her DULAP work.

Drake is, so far, offering Mandarin and Russian through entirely virtual means. Just as with DULAP, students meet three times a week with language partners and once a week with a professor with an advanced degree in second language acquisition or the language being taught. Group sessions are conducted using Adobe Acrobat Connect and one-on-one meetings with professors are conducted using Skype. “We’re reorienting our thinking to take advantage of cloud computing,” she said, “to think about how to teach and learn when we’re not bound by place.”

Especially with less commonly taught languages, Marston said, small colleges may struggle to find even the four or five students necessary to run a DULAP-like program or to have a qualified native speaker who can lead discussions. With VLS, she said, it’s possible that “the professor will be at one institution and the four students in the group will be from four different institutions and they all see each other and interact with each other.”

Students at Abilene Christian are learning Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin and Russian through VSL. Sage will begin offering Mandarin this spring and Arabic and Russian in the fall.

Seven students at Southern Vermont College will begin studying Mandarin through VLS this spring, said Charles Crowell, an associate professor of business and director of the college’s Build the Enterprise program. The college first learned about DULAP and VLS through the Council of Independent Colleges’ program last summer.

In addition to coursework through VLS, Crowell said, students will also do supplementary work using college-provided Kindles and iPhones or iPod Touches, part of his broader effort to bring mobile technologies into collegiate learning.

“It’s about innovation, new ideas, making learning more vital, more alive, more engaging for young adults who are emerging out of the current digital culture,” he said.


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