A Strategic Leap Online

April 15, 2010

Middlebury College has been known for years for immersion-based language instruction and liberal arts education. So when the college announced on Wednesday that it is partnering with a for-profit company to build an online language program aimed at middle- and high-school students, it raised some eyebrows.

The program, to be called Middlebury Interactive Languages, will open this summer with initial courses in Spanish and French. Middlebury professors and faculty at the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy — the college’s highly touted summer program — will develop the online courses. They will be taught online by Middlebury professors , instructors affiliated with the Monterey Institute, and graduates of the language academy, according to Michael E. Geisler, vice president for language schools at Middlebury and director of the new program.

The news from Middlebury arrives as the college's leaders have been talking about the need to explore new economic models to strengthen the college. But it also comes at a time when many foreign language professors nationally are concerned about programs being eliminated, and the replacement of in-person instruction with online education. While some see the latter trend as a way to reach more students (an argument Middlebury was making Wednesday), others fear the impact and have for years held up Middlebury as an example of a college devoted to intense, in-person language instruction of the highest quality.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, told Inside Higher Ed that she finds the move “very intriguing” given the existing skepticism among language instructors about whether you can run a powerful language program without face-to-face or cultural immersion components. “Online language education, as an exclusive medium, has severe limitations from what I’ve seen,” she said.

Faculty reaction at Middlebury appeared mixed, with some expressing concerns about the idea or the way it was developed. Geisler said that faculty members were consulted during the process, but that they were not given the opportunity to formally approve the program. Since it does not involve the college's academic curriculum, he said, a formal sign-off from the faculty was not needed.

Michael Katz, a professor of Russian at Middlebury, said he has questions about whether a program of the quality for which the college is known can be delivered online. When he served as a dean, “What we found is that it was not the nature of the texts and materials so much as the dedication of the faculty and staff and the intensive, immersive curricular and co-curricular program that fostered huge gains in language proficiency,” Katz said in an e-mail from Brazil, where he is currently teaching on a Fulbright fellowship. “I remain to be convinced that anything like that can be achieved by any online course, produced by Middlebury, Harvard, Oxford, or the Sorbonne.”

Another Middlebury language professor, asking not to be named, said she was worried about Middlebury’s association with K12, a for-profit company founded by, among others, William J. Bennett, who was U.S. education secretary during the Reagan administration. Bennett is no longer affiliated with the company.

In an interview with the New York Times, Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, voiced a concern that invariably arises every time a well-reputed college partners with an outside company on an ostensibly profitable online education program: Will it dilute the college’s brand?

Higher education branding experts contacted by Inside Higher Ed — who don't work for Middlebury — were split on the question. Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of the marketing firm SimpsonScarborough, called the move “brilliant.”

“Here’s Middlebury building a new initiative around this brand strength that they have been marketing aggressively for years,” Scarborough said. Expanding its language programs to the online arena, she said, is a perfect example of what brand experts might call “moving the brand” to a new product. “It’s a natural [product] line extension,” she said. “I think most branders would look at this and say, ‘Good job, Middlebury.’ ”

Not Joselyn Zivin, senior vice president for brand strategy at LipmanHearne Marketing and a former associate professor at Drake University (which has had its own language-department controversies of late).

Zivin said she suspects Middlebury is trying to do what she believes many institutions do when taking on a potentially profitable spin-off that does not quite fit with their traditional offerings — that is, “trying to back-fit what are really financial-venture activities into their brand.”

“Middlebury is finding itself in a situation where it is trying to square its money-making activities with its brand identity,” Zivin said. There are other ways the college could have broadened its reach without compromising its immersion-based pedagogy, she said — such as summer scholarship programs for students at middle and high schools with weak language instruction.

“The nature of the channel this activity is going through suggests pretty strongly that this was not first a brand-driven service activity,” she said, noting her surprise when she discovered yesterday that the college was plugging the program on its home page.

Geisler, the new project’s director, said he and his colleagues “grappled” with the question of whether the college should venture into online education, given Middlebury's reliance on immersion and a “language pledge” — a promise from students only to speak in their target languages for the duration of the program — to achieve its world-famous results.

“It would be ludicrous to say that we are duplicating an immersion-based language instruction program online,” Geisler said.

At the same time, he said, the college decided it could beat the other options currently available to pre-college students by using the other “tenets of the Middlebury program,” even without immersion. Those tenets have to do with the way students are taught to study and the incentives the program will create to keep engaging the language beyond assignments.

In the Middlebury-Monterey summer program, students generally have classroom sessions four to five hours per day, followed by extracurricular activities that include fashion shows, art classes, lectures, and other events — all in the languages of study. The new online program will involve only five hours of study per week, Geisler said. But in order to stimulate language-based activity beyond the online classroom, the Web-based learning environment will include a variety of social networking features — and possibly virtual worlds — aimed at keeping online students engaged in their language of study during as much of their leisure time as possible.

When the online students are in class, Geisler said, the program will seek to incorporate teaching methods — such as video-based “contextual” learning, where students will have to parse interactions between native speakers, shot on location in foreign countries; and “task-based” learning, in which, rather than making student memorize words and grammar rules, the program will orient their assignments toward the completion of tasks.

Middlebury has been looking for a way to push its expert language instruction to an online audience for some time, Geisler said. Its partnership with K12, which owns a majority stake in the venture, was a means to realizing that objective with the help of a company that knows the technical and business aspects of online education.

Ron Liebowitz, president of the college, posted a blog item Wednesday in which he said: "Needless to say, this is a big, yet logical step, for the college. It will not only expand access to language learning to so many pre-college students whose schools provide limited opportunities, but it will also allow the college to retain its hard-earned leadership position in foreign languages and culture by offering the best courses available online."

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