Online language education company aims to prepare kids, grow jobs

MIDDLEBURY — Twenty-two people operating out of an 11,000-square-foot space in Middlebury’s industrial park are poised to deliver international language instruction to classrooms throughout Vermont — an effort they hope will help build the skills of the state’s workforce.
That was the promise issued on Monday by the founders of Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL), which offers virtual and in-person language courses for kindergarten through 12th-grade students. The company, founded in 2010, is a collaboration with Middlebury College, a national leader in language instruction, and Virginia-based K12 Inc., which is among the nation’s largest digital education providers.
Weybridge Elementary School, which has a successful Spanish language program, has already been piloting MIL services with great success, noted MIL CEO Jane Swift. And other students throughout the state will also get a discounted taste of the for-profit business’s “Vermont World Language Initiative,” a $2.6 million effort to provide Middlebury Interactive services to 30 Vermont schools over the next four years at “deeply discounted” prices.
“Middlebury Interactive is a unique employer in that it boosts the Vermont economy while helping prepare the state’s future workforce,” said Swift, who addressed a packed crowd at MIL’s new headquarters at 230 Pond Lane. The crowd included Gov. Peter Shumlin, former Gov. James Douglas of Middlebury, Vermont Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca, local legislators, entrepreneurs and educators.
“We believe that the market for world language learning is blossoming and that demand will fuel our expansion in Vermont for years to come,” Swift added.
Indeed, officials at MIL, which has tripled its employee headcount in the past year, are predicting the need to double their Middlebury workforce again by 2015. The new company also has workers in Provo, Utah, and in other parts of the country. But Swift — a former acting governor of Massachusetts who will soon relocate with her family to Addison County — said MIL will keep Middlebury as its headquarters. She cited two reasons for that decision: The proximity to, and ability to partner with, Middlebury College and its internationally renowned language programs; and the quality of life that Addison County can afford MIL employees.
“We are thrilled to have this space and to be a national model for what we do,” Swift said.
Middlebury College professors developed MIL’s courses based on the college’s immersion method of teaching languages. Students are expected to practice speaking the language they are studying inside and outside of the classroom. MIL has also translated the college’s world language curriculum into a digital online format, allowing it to be implemented across wide distances at client K-12 schools. Swift added the MIL program includes a training program for teachers so that they can lead their students through courses in Chinese, French, German, Latin and Spanish.
Shumlin, who in his inaugural address on Jan. 10 made education excellence and workforce training his top priorities for the next biennium, was effusive in his praise for MIL.
“This is a big deal,” he said. “It is without a doubt the most challenging, thoughtful curriculum for online language learning that could be developed anywhere in the world.”
He credited Middlebury College for lending its expertise to the venture and for the program’s ability to make area students more marketable in an increasingly global employment arena.
“Vermont’s job future — and our nation’s job future — in competing with other countries is tied directly to how we teach the 21st-century skills our workforce is going to need,” Shumlin said. “Anyone who believes that workforce is going to be communicating only in English is missing the very important ingredient of job success here in America. More and more … we are a melting pot of extraordinary creativity from all nations coming together to be innovators. If you can’t communicate in a variety of languages, as we approach 21st-century jobs, we will not succeed and will not prosper as a nation and as a state.”
Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz said the college is pleased to be a major player in the MIL effort, and in the “Vermont World Language Initiative” that will make discounted MIL services available for the next four years for up to 30 schools in the state. Any public or private school in Vermont is eligible to seek the services on a first come, first served basis. MIL will provide courses to those schools at a combined discount of around $1.9 million over the four years; participating schools will pay $6,000 annually.
In addition, the college will cover $3,000 for course content and $2,750 for on-site teacher professional development training for each participating school per year, amounting to another $690,000 in benefit.
“We are pleased that MIL is leveling the playing field for students, teachers and administrators who lack access to excellent language instruction today,” Liebowitz said, noting tightening resources in K-12 schools.
Ron Packard is CEO of K12 Inc. and the individual who hired Swift to organize MIL.
He explained he started K12 Inc. 13 years ago, while looking to boost the math instruction his young daughter was getting in first grade. He found a large void in Web-based teaching resources and decided he would work to fill that void.
“I got the vision that there is no reason, with Web-based technology, that you couldn’t go to an entire school online,” he said. “We have watched a company grow to where we are serving 130,000 kids full-time, have over 500,000 kids using courses around the country — there has been an amazing amount of change,” Packard said.
Web-based education, Packard said, can be done in an economical way throughout the year that can woo back drop-outs and be easily worked into one’s personal schedule.
“We are taking the best expertise available in language instruction and making it available to everyone,” Packard said.
Swift said MIL’s online offerings are not intended to supplant school language teachers; they are meant to complement what’s going on in the classroom.
“We think we are a great resource for teachers; of our employee base, more than half are teachers certified in states throughout the country, and we employ hundreds of the teachers during the summer for our summer academies,” Swift said. “In some cases we can supplement what (teachers) are doing or expand their capacity.”
Vilaseca believes MIL’s programs can help Vermont schools maintain quality education programming in the face of declining enrollment and resources. In 1997, Vermont had a K-12 population of around 107,000, according to Vilaseca. That number has now dropped to approximately 82,000, he said, with further projected reductions of around 1 percent annually going forward. He believes MIL could get children introduced to a second language earlier and therefore become more proficient by the time they graduate.
“A program like this is a great way of particularly getting our elementary school kids (language instruction) without having to hire a French teacher or a Spanish teacher or whatever, by taking online classes,” Vilaseca said. “So by the time they get to Middlebury Union Middle School, where they start an official foreign language program, students are already familiar with the language and may be able to start at a higher level, which would mean they would be able to get to a much more advanced level.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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