College teams up to develop online language courses

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College’s language programs, already prominent nationally and globally, will soon reach a new frontier: cyberspace.
After 14 months of planning and negotiation, the college last Wednesday announced its decision to team up with K12 Inc., a Virginia-based online education company, to develop virtual language courses for primary and secondary school students. The spin-off company, named Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), is set to release its first courses for high school students in the late summer of this year.
“There’s a dire need for language instruction out there, and we know it,” said Patrick Norton, vice president for administration and treasurer of the college. “We could sit on the sidelines wringing our hands and do nothing, but that’s not us.”
The initial idea for online courses was as an extension of the institution’s renowned summer intensive language program, said Michael Geisler, vice president of Middlebury’s language schools and schools abroad.
“We had actually been looking into the possibility of providing some kind of online community for the language schools for a long time,” he said. “The idea was to find a place where you could deliver programming to (students), and they could participate online with some of the activities here.”
Geisler still hopes that this sort of language school extension program will come to be as Middlebury develops its online presence. But when the administration began speaking with K12, it became clear that a focus on middle and high school programs would combine each institution’s area of expertise.
And for Middlebury administrators, this focus dovetailed nicely with its growing Middlebury Monterey Language Academy, which this summer will expand to run programs for seventh to twelfth graders at four locations nationally.
“At a time when foreign language opportunities for primary and secondary school students in this country are declining, the need and demand for high-quality language learning is growing exponentially,” said Middlebury president Ron Liebowitz in last Wednesday’s press release. “Learning foreign languages and cultures has never been more important to our nation’s global competitiveness.”
Accordingly, Middlebury Interactive Language programs will be geared toward students who are home-schooled or whose schools do not offer adequate language education. The eventual product will include cooperative activities, videos, music and live help and evaluation by MIL teachers — the idea, as with all of Middlebury’s language instruction, is to provide insights into the culture that accompanies the language and to encourage active use of the learning, rather than simply rote memorization with a textbook or a computer program.
Geisler hopes the program will be versatile enough to serve as a supplement for language teachers as well.
“We believe that the programming will be flexible enough that instructors in traditional schools can use it because it’s lively and entertaining,” he said. “They might use it in their classrooms to supplement.”
Financially, Norton said the college is not relying on its initial investment of $4 million to make an immediate profit. Ideally, he said, it will provide a financial benefit for the institution, but any payback will be over the long term.
“It’s essentially a venture capital investment,” he said. “We make investments all the time. But here, we’re investing in ourselves … We’ll see the outcome in two ways: (financially and) pedagogically. We hope it will give the Middlebury name an even broader appeal.”
Geisler said the online venture has already created jobs locally — several new employees are already working on development of the program, and he expects that MIL will be looking to hire more in the near future.
Building accommodations are also being made for the expansion of the extended language programs: the Middlebury Monterey Language Academy recently moved off campus into a more spacious office in the Marble Works complex in downtown Middlebury, which has space to accommodate the future growth of that program and the MIL programs.
In the days following the announcement, critics of the program said the college’s reach into the online field was a for-profit venture that would cheapen the college’s reputation as an elite institution of higher education. Geisler said that was an oversimplified analysis of an unprecedented venture.
He explained that in 1915, a professor from Vassar College had approached Middlebury College administrators with the idea for a language summer school where people only spoke the language they were learning — a crazy idea at the time.
“And look where we are today,” Geisler said. “We have 1,500 students. We are the biggest and most intensive language program with the strongest reputation.
“Any time you think of these new things, there’s always some risk involved,” he continued. “But there are also people who won’t understand what you’re doing at the time. That was the case in 1915, and that’s the case now.”

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