Depending on whom you ask, Rosetta Stone is either modernizing higher education or jeopardizing the quality of foreign language instruction by offering classes for transferrable college credit.
Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association and a Spanish professor, calls the idea “scandalous.”
David McAlpine, president of the board of directors for the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), said teaching a Spanish class completely online threatens educational standards and leaves students floundering behind their peers in traditional courses.
But James Madison University officials say the academic demands in an online class they offer through Rosetta Stone are the same ones that students face in their Harrisonburg, Va., lecture halls. Of course, the people making these statements aren't Spanish professors – many language professors at the university don't like the idea, but weren't in a position to stop it. The university’s foreign language department chair is skeptical, arguing the software is best used as extra practice for students and not a course in itself.
In April, James Madison became the first college to partner with Rosetta Stone , an international company that creates instructional language software, to offer a for-credit course to the general public in which instruction is provided by the company's software.
For $679 and a $20 James Madison application fee – of which the college keeps $380 – anyone who has finished their sophomore year of high school gains access to a 16-week class designed to line up with the regular JMU curriculum.
Nineteen students have completed James Madison’s three-credit class since its launch, and five others are still finishing the work, university officials said. They were expecting numbers “in the triple digits,” but think enrollment will grow as word spreads. There have been talks about expanding the program to other languages or more advanced levels of Spanish, but nothing is imminent.
"If we don’t value the role a highly educated faculty member brings to the student learning process, then why should the public?”
--Rosemary Feal, Modern Language Association
Many of the first students are taking advantage of a corporate tuition reimbursement program or are K-12 teachers working toward a Spanish teaching endorsement, said assistant vice provost Jim Shaeffer. For them, commuting to campus might not be realistic, but earning college credit is a must.
None of the 24 are full-time James Madison students, which isn’t surprising, considering the idea is that anyone can take the course from Rosetta Stone – which isn’t an accredited college – and earn transferrable credit from James Madison – which is. On-campus James Madison students take traditional Spanish classes to fulfill degree requirements.
'Buying College Credit'
Feal, the MLA director, said James Madison’s program “sounds like buying college credit.”
“If a college is charging tuition and essentially turning their students over to Rosetta Stone with very little value added, that is scandalous,” said Feal. “Why would a student need to go through a college for that experience?”
Feal doubts students are getting an authentic cultural experience through Rosetta Stone, and said the program raises bigger questions about the role of professors. “It sounds like what our worst critics of higher education say. If we don’t value the role a highly educated faculty member brings to the student learning process,” she said, “then why should the public?”
Despite the controversy, the plan isn’t without precedent.
Fort Hays State University drew faculty criticism  in 2009 when it began offering $99 classes through the for-profit company StraighterLine. Going a step further than James Madison, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill moved all its Spanish 101 instruction online two years ago. The decision sparked similar criticism , but used faculty and graduate assistants rather than software like Rosetta Stone to teach the course.
James Madison faculty members screened the Rosetta Stone material before the class went live, said Carol Fleming, the university’s director for outreach and engagement. Professors then worked with the company to add content so the course would satisfy university requirements, she said.
But foreign language professors weren’t rushing to defend the program. The department's chair, Giuliana Fazzion, an Italian professor, said she doesn’t think an online language course can equal a traditional one. “It is never like you have it in class,” she said. “They stress conversation, which is good, but grammar is not too much on their schedule.”
Lecturer John Tkac, whom Fazzion asked to help screen the curriculum, was careful not to criticize the project. He asked Rosetta Stone to add some grammar and vocabulary lessons to the course, and the company obliged. But Tkac said an in-person Spanish class is always better than an online one. “It’s a different idea,” he said. “The foreign language department was cooperative, but we were reluctant to give out Spanish 101 credit.”
"We’re dealing with a population that wants to learn differently and might want to take the course further than they could before.”
--Cathy Quenzer, Rosetta Stone
Faculty members brokered a deal in which the credit given for the online class is for a continuing education conversational Spanish class, not for the Spanish 101 class taught on campus.
Tkac is reserving final judgment until the results of a placement test come in, but he has concerns about college credit being awarded for a class in which all contact is with a Rosetta Stone tutor and not a James Madison professor.
Fleming remains confident the class is adequate. “We would not be granting the credit if we didn’t think the student was where they needed to be,” she said.
A 2009 study at Queens College of the City University of New York seems to back James Madison’s decision. Professor Roumen Vesselinov found that 55 hours of Rosetta Stone study was of roughly the same value as an introductory college Spanish course for a sample of adults.
The study  is posted on Rosetta Stone’s website, but wasn’t cited by James Madison or Rosetta Stone officials in interviews with Inside Higher Ed.
In an online forum  on the ACTFL website, the retired University of Southern California professor Stephen Krashen took issue with the Vesselinov’s findings. Among Vesselinov's 135 research subjects, 40 percent had graduated college and an additional 36 percent had an advanced degree. Also, one-fifth of the students had previous Spanish experience.
That level of college education and previous Spanish knowledge led the researcher to overstate the software's benefits for a typical undergraduate, Krashen argued. He estimated it would take 80 hours of Rosetta Stone work -- not 55 -- to equal one semester of college Spanish work.
The James Madison course uses a new version of Rosetta Stone software. Company officials estimate the class takes 45 hours to finish.
Rejecting Online Approaches
For some language professors, concerns about distance education extend even to courses with instructors. David McAlpine, the ACTFL leader, tried such an approach. For eight semesters, he taught a section of online Spanish at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
He has since stopped, convinced that his weekly conversations and other efforts to engage students weren’t enough for them to keep pace with their peers in traditional lectures. He did not use Rosetta Stone.
McAlpine doesn’t doubt technology can be useful. He shows his classes videos of cultural sites in Spanish-speaking countries and assigns online homework in which students must select correct verb conjugations.
That’s great, he said, but he’s skeptical of any wholly online course.
“You need to engage the students in what language is all about,” he said, “which is human communication. Not communication with a machine.”
But that argument misses the point, said Cathy Quenzer, Rosetta Stone’s senior director of education. James Madison requires 50-minute online conversations with native Spanish speakers who assess speaking skills and give students a chance to practice the language.
For some students, she said, commuting to a campus on a set schedule might not be realistic. For others, being taught online might just be more comfortable.
“For them, learning with a computer is not that unusual,” she said. “I’m not saying what’s going on in these world language classes is wrong. What I’m saying is that we’re dealing with a population that wants to learn differently and might want to take the course further than they could before.”
Feal believes there is a place for technology to aid in language instruction. She points to the Five College Center for the Study of World Languages , which combines close contact with native speakers, faculty interaction, technology and individual study for students learning Uzbek, Zulu and other languages that aren’t taught on many American campuses.
Phyllis VanBuren, a Spanish professor at St. Cloud State University and an executive committee member of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, said a Rosetta Stone course could be better than a poorly taught traditional class. But effective face-to-face teaching trumps anything today’s software offers, VanBuren said.
“The technology might be a wonderful medium so that students actually get authentic reading and listening and viewing materials,” she said. “But for the exchange, I think face-to-face is better.”
But face-to-face isn’t always possible. On the Western Kansas plains, six community colleges have partnered to offer a series of online classes in all subjects. Many students live in rural areas or are full-time students elsewhere finishing their prerequisite work. Known as EduKan, the group has offered online Spanish courses through Rosetta Stone for three years.
Mark Sarver, EduKan’s executive director, is pleased with student performance. EduKan uses an older version of the software than James Madison, but combines it with scheduled phone calls with an instructor and traditional assignments.
If a student wants to one day become a Spanish major, Sarver would suggest they take a traditional lecture. But if they want to communicate at work or gain some knowledge while fulfilling a degree requirement, he sees the online class as a good option. “I feel like our class prepares you well,” he said.
Middle Ground at Liberty
At Liberty University, administrators feel they’ve found solid middle ground in the debate.
The college began offering online courses in Spanish, German and English as a second language this month. Geared mainly toward its 61,000 online students, Liberty’s courses combine Rosetta Stone software with faculty member interaction. A couple sections are also open on a trial basis to the 12,500 students on the Lynchburg, Va., campus.
More than 600 students enrolled in the first batch of classes, a university spokesman said, and others wanted to get in. Like James Madison, Liberty’s Rosetta Stone classes are listed as conversational classes. But unlike at JMU, where degree-seeking students don’t take the class, Liberty markets the courses to its own students in subjects like law and international business.
At the end of the course, Provost Ronald Godwin said, Liberty will give an independent assessment as its final exam. In addition to helping determine grades, Godwin said the test will show how much students are learning on the software.
If they’re not mastering the material, Godwin said he’ll scrap Rosetta Stone as they’ve done with other online classes where students weren’t mastering the subject.
But he thinks the combination of faculty interaction and the software creates the potential for success while keeping Liberty in control of the course.
“We’re not interested in being a wholesaler of Rosetta Stone,” Godwin said. “When you add what we’re doing to what they’re doing and then we’re doing our own assessing, we think we have a viable experiment going on here.”