Three Ivies team up for long-distance teaching of rare languages

Columbia, Cornell, and Yale universities have joined forces on an innovative education initiative to increase access to less-commonly taught languages.

(Illustration by Michael Helfenbein)

What started as a pilot project has attracted a two-year $1.2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop an expanded framework for teaching important yet marginalized languages through videoconferencing and other distance learning technology.

The funding will allow the three universities to build on an existing partnership which has already succeeded in presenting classes in Romanian, elementary Dutch and elementary Nahuatl, the Aztec language. The courses rely on live, two-way videoconferencing, during which, for example, students at two of the schools might participate remotely in a class at the third university. No more than 12 students altogether can enroll in each class because the effectiveness of computer-mediated learning drops off after that point.

“We are trying to recreate as closely as possible a face-to-face experience for the student through synchronous meetings with classes,” said Stéphane Charitos, the director of Columbia’s Language Resource Center and one of the central organizers of the project. “None of the material is recorded or canned. We want this to be an interactive experience in which the students are active participants in the language learning process. To accomplish this, we are exploring how technology can enhance the teaching and learning paradigm for language study by becoming a bridge that allows us to overcome physical distances.”

Taken together, the three universities are home to a wealth of language expertise, tradition and breadth, with annual course offerings in more than 100 languages. Utilizing videoconferencing and other new technologies will allow for the conservation of resources among the language departments while simulating the experience of in-person classroom teaching for students.

This fall, the schools added courses in Bengali, Indonesian, Modern Greek, Tamil, Yoruba, and Zulu using this shared course format. In the fall of 2013, they plan to add courses in Khmer, Sinhala, Polish, and Vietnamese. The selection of languages is based on student demand and on the relative strengths of the participating language departments.

“This grant and related collaboration give substance and structure to the idea of sharing Less Commonly Taught Languages that we had been working on together for a while,” says Richard Feldman, director of Cornell’s Language Resource Center. “Videoconference preserves what is best in the live, teacher-led language class, while allowing students access to languages that they would not otherwise have. The preparatory and collaborative work by these excellent teachers strengthens their programs and thus the college as a whole. The Mellon funding provides the facilities and organizational energy to make this complex process work.”

In recent years, all three universities have embraced the pedagogical advantages of global outlook and engagement. The course offerings contribute to an expanding curriculum with a global perspective that addresses a very broad range of language and cultures.

“We look so forward to working with our partners Columbia and Cornell on this forward-thinking innovation, and we are especially grateful to the Mellon Foundation for affirming us,” says Brian Lizotte, assistant provost for the humanities at Yale. “Our pilot projects have taught us how well this collaboration will work — the technology is stunning, the instructors innovative, and the students invigorated. This collaboration — by allowing students the opportunity to learn a language they might not otherwise have had — reinforces Yale’s mission to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge.” 

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