Expanding Language by (Online) Degree

To broaden language offerings amid massive budget cuts, Pennsylvania higher ed system says it will offer distance degrees in Arabic.
April 25, 2011

Arabic is not a universal language, least of all in Pennsylvania. But by developing a fully online undergraduate degree in Arabic language and culture, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) will soon make Arabic universally available across its 14 colleges and universities — with other online language programs to follow.

The plan comes amid efforts by PASSHE administrators to consolidate resources across the system by cutting programs at some institutions that can be offered online by others. A pending budget proposal by Governor Tom Corbett would cut the system’s funding by more than half in the coming year, and language programs on a number of campuses have already been shuttered.

Administrators at some colleges in recent years have talked about taking foreign language instruction online in place of existing, face-to-face classes. That is not the case here, since none of the 14 PASSHE institutions currently offer degrees in Arabic. The plan to offer a fully online Arabic program is not an attempt to consolidate existing resources, but rather a bid to diversify the system’s language offerings amid the current regime of budget cuts, system officials told Inside Higher Ed.

Even though interest in the language — which is spoken by nearly 200 million people worldwide, including those in many geopolitical hot spots — is growing, trying to get funding for a new program at any single PASSHE institution would be a tough sell, says James Moran, the system’s vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

But one PASSHE institution, California University of Pennsylvania, does offer a pair of face-to-face introductory Arabic courses. By moving those courses online and adding intermediate and advanced courses, the system believes it can expand those Arabic courses into a full program that would be offered at all 14 of its campuses, which enroll a combined 120,000 students. Under the new plan, a student enrolled at Shippensburg University could graduate with a major in Arabic earned by taking online courses through California, says Moran.

All the courses would be taught by existing faculty at California, with a major technology assist. Odeese Khalil, who teaches the current Arabic courses at California and has been tasked with developing the online degree program, says the courses will rely heavily on synchronous communications tools such as video chat.

Khalil says she requires some online work in the current, face-to-face versions of elementary Arabic at California, including having students record themselves speaking and then submitting the audio files electronically. She says his students typically seem “much more involved” with the online activities, if only because they are held individually accountable. Online, no one can hide in the back of the classroom.

At the same time, PASSHE faces the usual doubts about fully online language instruction — especially in the context of a whole degree program, which would theoretically shepherd students all the way from ignorance to proficiency without ever having them cross the threshold of a classroom. Without real-life immersion, how can a student truly learn a language?

“Everybody asks that question, as they should,” says John Cencich, dean of graduate studies and research at California. “I mean, how do you teach swimming online?”

But to characterize the new online program as a bunch of students racking up credits alone in their bedrooms in the lone company of a lifeless machine is not quite right, says Cencich, who is helping out due to his experience administering the university’s online graduate programs. The new Arabic major would comprise 30 credits, 18 of which students would accrue in online courses. Students would earn the final 12 through study abroad or internship programs, where they would have to hone their Arabic skills amid the gantlet of real-life social interactions. (There is one scenario — an independent study — that would permit students to earn those 12 credits while ducking social immersion. But that option will probably be reserved for adult learners whose other responsibilities preclude globe-trotting or interning, says Cencich.)

As for those other 18 credits, Cencich and Khalil say they are confident that students will learn just as well online as they did in the classroom. And besides the two elementary Arabic courses at California, the new online degree program will not replace any offerings that already exist in a face-to-face format.

For students at the 13 other PASSHE colleges, it would be either Arabic online or no Arabic at all. For professors, it means that no one would be losing his or her job — for now, anyway.

The ultimate goal will be to create similar online programs for other languages, such as Chinese or Russian, university system officials say. But some professors are wary of offering degrees for online programs that fail to deliver what they think a language program should, even if the alternative is no program at all.

At East Stroudsburg University, where an online Chinese program is in the early stages of development, professor Wenjie Yan says he would feel comfortable teaching the language online only if the other universities rigged up classrooms with multiple cameras and a projection screen, in order to essentially simulate a traditional classroom but for the presence of Yan himself. For students, that means no sequestering themselves with their laptops and logging into “online learning environments” (as students will be able to do in the new online Arabic courses). Also, Yan says he would periodically want to travel to the other campuses and check in on his students in person.

“The way you teach a language is not about grammar; it's about communication skills,” Yan says. “So that face-to-face aspect has to be there…. It should never be done by students checking out a website and doing drills. That is not my idea of an online course.”

Jeff Ruth, chair of the foreign languages department at East Stroudsburg, agrees that any online language courses would have to take greater-than-normal measures to re-create a classroom environment — which might mean holding the remote class sessions in actual classrooms.

Even then, teaching language to faraway students is “a stretch,” Ruth says, “because you lose out on some body language, you have technology [malfunctions] — it’s less productive in terms of skills acquisition.”

It is a message that does not always resonate in administrative offices, Ruth says. “The further you get from somebody who knows the mission and details of language instruction the more you’ll find people talking about technology as a panacea,” he says. (Ruth adds that his own administration at East Stroudsburg has been a pleasant exception.)

But in general Ruth, who teaches Spanish, says he remains wary of where offering online degrees in relatively low-demand languages might lead. “We don’t want this to leak into the areas where real interest lies and where real instructors are,” he says.

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