Students at Yale University enrolled in elementary Bengali meet four days a week in a campus classroom, just like they would for any other course, but there is one big difference: their instructor is almost 300 miles away, in Ithaca, N.Y.
Yale, Cornell University, and Columbia University, backed by a two-year, $1.2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, have launched a pilot program to conduct classes in uncommonly taught languages, including Indonesian, Yoruba, and Zulu, across the different campuses using videoconferencing technology. In doing so, they’re reviving not only language programs on the brink of extinction, but also a familiar concept in distance education. At a time when asynchronous instruction reaching hundreds of thousands of students is increasingly common, these universities are returning to a mode of distance learning geared toward small classes in which students all meet at the same time.
“It’s been a while since videoconferencing has been in education,” Dick Feldman, director of Cornell’s Language Resource Center.
The project evolved after a round of federal budget cuts in 2011 essentially gutted foreign language programs across the country, taking 47 percent of the budget for National Resource Centers, hubs of foreign language and cultural study. The language directors at the three universities, who knew each other through other collaborations, realized as the cuts began to hit their campuses that they had an opportunity to join forces and preserve some of the rarely taught languages.
“We each had a fair number of languages and it seemed like we also shared the stress of continuing to support our languages because of the federal government cutbacks to NRCs,” Feldman said. “It seemed like we were a good fit to share languages.”
At the core of the program is the idea that languages – and not just Spanish, French, and Latin – are important, but not financially feasible if only two or three students are interested. By joining forces, the three universities hope to leverage the languages they don’t all have, affording students more options, and to deepen existing programs by, for example, facilitating collaboration between instructors of the same language at different institutions.
“The ability to sustain languages with very low enrollments, though morally and intellectually desirable, was financially going to be brutal in the short term and dubious in the long term,” said Walter Cohen, Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences at Cornell. “We thought distance learning might be a way of sharing resources.”
Fundamental to the program is the use of videoconferencing – not pre-recorded lectures, the modus operandi for massive open online courses, and not webcam video, which is static and is designed to show just one person. Videoconferencing involves higher-quality cameras, larger lenses, and faster compression for sending the video signal, allowing for two-way interaction. It’s a concept often found in the boardroom and occasionally in the K-12 classroom, but still rarely in higher education.
Videoconferencing makes the experience similar to a face-to-face class. Students go to the same video-outfitted classroom every day and sit around a table, but on one wall, instead of a blackboard, there’s a screen showing the teacher and the students at the other campus. There are also computers at the back of the room equipped with cameras, so students can do pair work with their counterparts at the other university. The universities are also introducing tablets and touch-screens, which will allow the teacher to demonstrate scripts and share them with both classrooms, and they use document cameras so students can submit written work in real time. In some classes, they’ve even come up with ways for students hundreds of miles apart to perform skits together, as they might in a regular language class.
Videoconferencing also works particularly well for small classes, Cohen said. These languages classes are capped at 14 or 15 students across all institutions, so the students and the instructor can interact and the class can be tailored to students' needs.
"It's not a good model for lecture courses," Cohen said. "There, you run into the obvious problems, and you might as well videotape it."
The technology, which includes large, flexible cameras and other hardware, requires an initial investment from the universities, some of which was subsidized by the Mellon grant. Cohen points out, though, that the cost of adding new technology to one or two classrooms is cheaper than hiring a professor or lecturer. And, he says, if the concept doesn’t prove viable for language instruction, it’s likely those classrooms will be useful for something else.
“It seems to me like [the language pilot] could be a practice run for other things,” Cohen said. “Even in large graduate programs, like English or history, individual sub-areas can be very poorly covered. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if graduate seminars could be taught in such a way that in relatively small fields, say Turkish history, if you have two people at one school and three at another, you could have a nice seminar.”
One college in Wisconsin has already seen videoconference seminars run successfully, and has recently upped the ante in the realm of two-way distance education.
Moraine Park Technical College’s three campuses are each about 30 miles apart, and in the early '90s the college began looking for a way to offer classes at all three locations with instructors at one location. It settled on videoconferencing, but at the time the program was limited by technology, and administrators found the virtual classes had a lot of downtime because of user error – the system was too complicated for instructors to use effectively.
In fall 2010, though, the college introduced TelePresence, a technology from Cisco Systems that makes participants feel like they’re all seated at the same table. The idea has gained the most attention in corporate boardrooms.
“The people at the other location appear to be the same size, there’s no delay at all when they speak to you, and when somebody speaks from one side of the room their voice comes from that side of the room,” said Pete Rettler, a campus administrator for Moraine Park who also oversees distance education. The college worked with CDW-G to develop the strategy.
TelePresence and other videoconferencing techniques – the college only has one room on each campus set up for TelePresence, so it still uses more traditional videoconference technology in other classrooms – allow Moraine Park to offer courses that a single campus might not have demand for, similar to the language program at Cornell, Columbia, and Yale. The classes are also more satisfying to Moraine Park’s students than online classes might be, according to Rettler.
“The average age of a student at Moraine Park is 36 or 37, so a lot of those students don’t want to do online learning or even blended learning,” he said. “There are a lot of students who still want that face-to-face experience, and it’s hard to argue that TelePresence isn’t face-to-face.”
The technology does not come cheap. Rettler said it cost about $150,000 to outfit one 14-seat classroom, and the college currently has two 14-seat rooms and one six-seat room set up for TelePresence. That $150,000 does not include costs for necessary infrastructure upgrades, either.
Still, Rettler sees it as a good investment and an efficient way to offer classes. He’s not sure how to quantify the return on investment, but said it does make for a good marketing tool, and he’s convinced it’s a good educational tool.
Moraine Park’s next step is to partner with four-year colleges to allow Moraine Park students who earn their associate degree to take classes toward a four-year degree from a campus near home. Several colleges already have the technology, Rettler said, so it’s a matter of coordinating credit and scheduling, which isn’t always easy.
Scheduling has been one of the main hiccups at Cornell, Columbia, and Yale, too, as each university has different vacations and different start times, so coordinating students on different campuses can be tough. The other challenge, Feldman said, is recruiting students, but he and his counterparts on the other campuses are discussing ways to reach out to those who might be interested.
As for long-term development, Feldman sees the program as a very specialized – and conservative – niche in the education technology landscape, and Cohen emphasizes that the model, if it works, would only work for seminar-style courses. Still, both believe the project has potential.
“If in foreign languages and other areas we find a way to provide better education at the undergraduate or graduate level, or for that matter faculty collaboration across campuses, than that seems like a great thing to me,” Cohen said.