College reimagines web-based language learning

MIDDLEBURY — Imagine a computer game where the user plays a waiter in a café, responsible for keeping the customers happy with quick service and small talk.
Now imagine that the game is conducted in another language, and that it is part of a foreign language curriculum.
That game makes up just one piece in an unusual program developed by Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), a company founded last year by Middlebury College and online education company K12 Inc. The program, part of the MiddWorld Online curriculum, aims to create a series of web-based foreign language learning programs that can be used in high schools across the nation.
In the MIL offices in downtown Middlebury, Senior Director of Marketing Jamie Northrup guided a character in a computer game through markets and down cobbled streets in a virtual European town. Along the way, the character picked up tasks — all in Spanish — that ranged from finding other characters to visiting the town’s café.
And, said Northrup, the points the character gathered by completing tasks would qualify him for upgrades — a new shirt, a haircut, or cooler shoes — that other students in his class would be able to see.
The virtual world, developed by Boston software company Muzzy Lane, is just one aspect of the MiddWorld Online curriculum. The programs also incorporate rigorous lessons in which students watch and listen to native language speakers, complete research tasks on the Internet, and read newspapers for an immersive language-learning experience.
Following the success of the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academies, which offer high school students the immersive language experience that the Middlebury Language Schools offer to college-level students, the MIL venture attempts to expand access to high school students who don’t make it to the summer programs.
“We’ve taken Middlebury’s hallmark of immersion and put it in an online environment,” Northrup said.
One year after its founding, MIL has first-level Spanish and French programs that it is piloting in three schools around the country. Northrup said the programs would be available more broadly to schools across the country next fall. The first-level Chinese curriculum will be finished by next fall, he said, and the second, third and Advanced Placement levels for each language will be finished by the time schools are ready for them.
Northrup said that depending on customer interest, MIL hopes to create programs for other languages — possibly as many as Middlebury College teaches. But right now, he said, Spanish and French make up 90 percent of foreign language instruction in the United States, and Chinese is the fastest growing.
Ana Martinez-Lage, a Spanish professor at Middlebury College who is working to develop the Spanish curriculum for the programs, said the MiddWorld programs use available technology to explain and immerse students in ways that few high school language programs are able to do.
“(The program) provides an immense amount of co-curricular activities,” she said. “Learning is based on many hours of videos, audio and articles. The goal is authenticity.”
The staff working to develop MiddWorld programs film and record native speakers of the languages speaking at native speeds, and they pull articles from newspapers. The program does not build upon grammar rules and simple vocabulary, said Martinez-Lage. Instead, from the very first lesson, students listen to clips of native speakers and must pick out small bits of information that they know in order to answer questions or complete tasks.
This, said Martinez-Lage, is the immersion technique. It encourages students not only to learn the language, but also to pick up skills that will make them better language learners.
“When you’re learning a language you’re exposed to material that’s way beyond your ability,” she said. “You have to learn to deal with ambiguity and tolerate frustration. You have to deal with bits and pieces at a time.”
At the same time, said Martinez-Lage, students are able to take things at their own pace in the virtual teaching environment.
“It’s a very engaging type of learning that the technology allows, as opposed to being in a class with 18 or 20 other students,” she said. “You can’t always have (a class) run at your own pace.”
Right now, MiddWorld programs are conducted in class groups, and they are only distributed on a school-by-school basis. The teacher moderates the virtual aspects of the world, which Northrup said keeps students speaking the language and helps to address any online bullying issues.
A school can choose between three models. In the full version, a remotely located teacher leads the class, and all activities, assignments and evaluations are based within the program. The second version allows the school to purchase the program to for its own teachers to use as a basis for the curriculum, instead of a textbook. The third option allows a teacher to use the program as a supplemental learning resource, in addition to a textbook or other curriculum.
Northrup said that while there are a variety of payment options, the program with a virtual teacher will cost approximately $350 per student per semester, while the curriculum-only program costs about $150 per student per semester.
This is more expensive than the average textbook, and Northrup said that is because the product development has a high price tag. But he said the interactive resources the program offers to students far outweighs the offerings of a textbook. And so far, he said teachers who have tried out MiddWorld Online programs have been impressed with the resources they offer students.
Northrup said there is a federal push for the teaching of “21st-century skills,” which include foreign languages. In an increasingly globalized world, he hopes the MiddWorld program will help increase the quality of foreign language instruction in schools across the country — especially in areas that struggle to find good foreign language teachers.
“Foreign languages build global awareness and cultural competency, but foreign language enrollments are dropping,” he said. “We want to offer greater access, no matter where you are.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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