Classroom Matters

UNC-Chapel Hill plans to scale back controversial online Spanish 101 experiment after three semesters.
February 9, 2011

Online Spanish courses are perfectly adequate for jogging the memories of college students whose high-school Spanish has slipped away from them. But those taking the language for the first time are better off spending at least some of their seat time in a traditional classroom.

So say officials in the languages department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is two semesters and change into an experiment that has had members of its language faculty teaching Spanish 101 fully online -- with no options for traditional classroom instruction. And even though it has analyzed only one semester’s worth of results, the languages department has already decided to move “true beginners” into a “hybrid” introductory course that uses both online and face-to-face components.

“The majority of students who had Spanish in high school found it helpful,” says Glynis Cowell, director of the Spanish program there. However, she added, “For the true beginner it probably wasn’t as smooth a transition.”

The university attracted a lot of attention a year and a half ago when it announced it was going to start teaching entry-level Spanish only on the Web. The languages department was trying to navigate a $150,000 budget cut, and department officials thought moving introductory courses online would allow them to avoid cutting more highly enrolled courses at the intermediate and advanced levels.

Nevertheless, Chapel Hill endured a great deal of criticism for the move. Many public institutions have embraced Web-based learning in certain disciplines as a way to enroll more students without having to build new classrooms; but because language instruction relies heavily on conversation practice and immersion, many have doubted how well it might translate online. Accordingly, many observers were appalled by the announcement. The Daily Tar Heel called the move “shameful” and wrongheaded. “Face to face, verbal interaction with other Spanish speakers in a classroom setting is vital,” wrote the student newspaper in an editorial. “So students — especially the minority taking Spanish for the first time — are at a clear disadvantage thanks to this move.”

A year and a half on, the results of the experiment are not sensational, one way or the other. Comparing student grades from the first semester of online Spanish 101, held last spring, to hybrid and face-to-face versions of the same course from 2007 suggests that the online course may have been less effective, though not clearly so. The average final grade in the face-to-face version was a B; in the hybrid version, also B; and in last year’s purely online version, B-.

A single trial hardly proves anything, but department officials say that between student feedback and their own intuitions there was reason to believe the online format handicapped students who had no previous exposure to Spanish. “They haven’t been exposed to listening practice, haven’t had any exposure to rules of pronunciation and so forth, so it’s not a review for them,” said Larry King, chair of the Romance Languages and Literatures. “So more contact with a teacher would be helpful.”

Before last fall semester, the department made some tweaks to the online course: It dropped the video-lecture component, which had not impressed the first round of students; it required students to attend weekly study groups where they could practice speaking; noting complaints about a lack of “community” among novices, it created an e-mail listserv moderated by language center staff where the online students could interact and ask questions; and it offered walk-in tutoring services for students who were struggling to master the material online.

Still, department officials did not wait for the verdict from the second trial before moving to scale back the purely online portion of the experiment. A new, hybrid course — aimed specifically at students who have never taken Spanish before — was recently approved. Beginning next fall, the only Chapel Hill students taking Spanish 101 completely online will be those who took Spanish in high school but failed to pass out of the novice course upon enrolling at the university.

The hybrid format of the new “Spanish 100” course should allow the university to accommodate twice as many “true beginners” in introductory Spanish as would otherwise be the case, says Cowell. Since hybrid courses typically require half the faculty labor-hours to teach that a fully online course calls for, she says, the department will be able to teach twice as many sections of the new introductory course as it would have if the course were being taught completely online. So even if the online version of the course does in fact produce equivalent student outcomes, the point is moot, says Cowell. Hybrid is more economical. (And, according to an oft-cited 2009 study by the U.S. Education Department, it might in fact be more effective than either alternative.)

Meanwhile, this latest move will shrink the population of the much-ballyhooed online Spanish 101 course to marginal levels. Last spring, only 6 percent of all Spanish students at Chapel Hill (110 out of 1,806) placed into the online introductory course. Last fall it was 4 percent (91 out of 2,187). With the “true beginners” gone, that number stands to shrink even more.

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