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Can Foreign Languages Go Digital with Online Education?



By Catherine Groux
Posted June 15, 2012 11:23 AM

Professionals question whether students can learn foreign languages online.
Professionals question whether students can learn foreign languages online.
Today, enrollment in online courses is growing at a faster rate than that of overall higher education, and more schools are striving to increase their web-based programs. However, while many courses made an easy transition to online education, some schools have struggled to create high-quality foreign language degree programs that are offered exclusively over the Internet. 

Professionals Have Their Doubts

Today, online education has largely become accepted as an integral part of learning; however, some professionals question whether foreign languages in particular can be studied exclusively online. Learning a new language requires a great deal of speaking, hearing and social interaction, these individuals say, which simply cannot be provided through the internet.

Last April, James Madison University made history when it became the first college to partner with language learning software company Rosetta Stone, Inside Higher Ed reports. Through the partnership, the school offers online foreign language courses based on Rosetta Stone's software, therefore marking a significant shift on how languages are taught to students.

The partnership forced many academic professionals to consider whether foreign language can and should be taught online. According to Inside Higher Ed, many of these individuals had their doubts. David McAlpine, president of the board of directors for the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said students cannot learn as much as their peers if they only learn online, and that web-based Spanish courses threaten the academic standards of classroom instruction. Additionally, Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said James Madison's online course is "scandalous." 

Schools Strive to Create New Ways to Make Online Language Courses Work

Although some professionals doubt the value of online foreign language courses, schools across the country are trying to find new and innovative ways to make them work. Recently, Oregon State University announced that it will launch an online bachelor's degree in German, which it believes will be the first program of its kind in the U.S.

The program, which will begin this fall, will use a wide variety of technologies to ensure students spend a significant amount of time hearing and speaking German. Professor Sebastian Heiduschke said in a press release that students will use video chat to speak to their instructors one on one for 20 to 30 minutes each week. This is more face-to-face time than most students receive in campus-based degree programs, he explained.

"Students need to practice speaking and hearing a new language in order to learn it, and that can only be done with a partner. This program provides that," Heiduschke said. "We interact easily with Skype, Google Hangouts and other online programs. It’s all very effective."

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