I regret that I never became proficient in a second language when I was an undergraduate. As I look back on the experience now, though, I realize that the structure of the world language program at my institution was not set up to promote my acquisition of a second language. My college had a limited offering of languages and it front-loaded all of the world language offerings in the first two years. Two years later, as a graduate, I could remember little if anything that I learned from my world language classrooms. Like me, these world language experiences have left many current faculty and administrators haunted by their undergraduate experience and questioning if language learning still has a vital place in the undergraduate experience.
Some three years ago, a series of fortunate events brought together chief academic officers from five institutions—Concordia University—Austin, Lubbock Christian University, Schreiner University, Texas Lutheran University, and Texas Wesleyan University—with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) to question why we continued to perpetuate the unsustainable approach to world language acquisition that we had experienced as undergraduates. Our existing approach was this: we all offered Spanish at the introductory and intermediate level, and—perhaps—we offered the introductory level of a second language. None of us believed that we were providing students a robust experience that enabled them to develop some measure of proficiency in a second language when they graduated. A significant part of the problem was that we could not afford to offer the breadth or depth of languages our students wanted and needed to take, and students therefore considered their world language courses a requirement to complete rather than an essential skill for the 21st century. As a result, courses were under-enrolled (and therefore frequently cancelled), faculty were unhappy with their load (teaching primarily introductory courses that were full of unmotivated students), and students were not developing the language or intercultural skills they wanted and needed.
All of our institutions are small, private, primarily residential institutions that are committed to liberal learning and the liberal arts experience. We recruit students by promoting the relationships that are at the center of our learning experience, and we retain students by having them experience a “high-touch” environment. While we anticipated that technology would be part of any solution to this situation, we did not want to undermine the high-touch culture of our institutions. NITLE helped us believe that it was possible create a learning experience that could be both high-touch and high-tech by focusing our attention on the possibilities of high definition video conferencing. Some of the CAOs had experience with this delivery tool on their campuses, but none of us had leveraged it in support of our traditional undergraduate experience.
We launched a proof-of-concept project in AY 2012-2013. As preparation for that launch, a decision was made to utilize existing capacity at each institution to offer languages that were not available at other institutions or that adjuncts were being hired to teach. For example, Texas Wesleyan (TWU) had a full time faculty/administrator on campus who taught French. On the other campuses, if French was offered at all, it was offered by adjuncts. Therefore, we asked TWU to provide French instruction for our campuses. Similarly, Schreiner (SU) had a full time faculty member on campus who taught German. Schreiner, then, became the provider of German instruction. Each institution had existing resources in place to offer Spanish, so we did not try to limit introductory and intermediate work to a single campus, but Texas Lutheran (TLU) provided Spanish courses that complemented and extended our on-campus offerings. Lubbock Christian (LCU) agreed to offer Portuguese, and Concordia (CU) agreed to offer Mandarin Chinese.
And—to our great relief—students enrolled in the courses. Instructional technologists provided superb support in helping faculty and students feel, if not comfortable, less anxious about teaching in this new environment. Students were largely unphased by the minor glitches that occurred with the technology or the expectation that their semester start earlier or later depending on the academic calendar of the host language institution at which they were taking the world language course. Faculty, too, adjusted extraordinarily well. In fact, they found that large monitors, sophisticated speakers and microphones, and the high-definition equipment gave students and faculty alike the high-touch experience of being in the same space together even though their physical locations were hundreds of miles apart. Before the proof of concept year had ended, faculty were meeting regularly to discuss the challenges and opportunities of teaching in this environment.
The Texas Language Consortium project has illustrated that, by working together, high-touch, high-tech projects can achieve efficiencies in our operations and improve the student educational experience on our individual campuses.
Charlie McCormick, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs