Shared Course Initiative, renewed this year, bridges campuses, continents

Through the Shared Course Initiative, students at Yale, Columbia, and Cornell can take “live” for-credit language courses from all three campuses.
In a technology-enabled classroom in Dow Hall, Kunsang Dorjee and Andy Archer participate in a course in modern Tibetan.

In a technology-enabled classroom in Dow Hall, Kunsang Dorjee ’22 and Andy Archer ’20 M.Div. participate in a course in modern Tibetan language taught by Sonam Tsering at Columbia University through the Shared Course Initiative. (Photo credit: Christian De León)

In a brightly lit classroom on the lower level of Dow Hall, a lone undergraduate sits at a table —textbook spread open in front of him — and speaks in halting Ukrainian. His voice echoes slightly off the walls of the small space; save for the student and an onlooker peeking in at the door, the room is empty.

From 70 miles to the southwest, delivered to New Haven via state-of-the-art videoconferencing, Yuri Shevchuk smiles encouragingly at the student’s cautiously conjugated verbs. Shevchuk, a lecturer at Columbia University, is teaching this class to a small group of students scattered around the northeastern United States. Some are physically in the room with him; others — from Cornell University in addition to the student from Yale — are attending the class virtually. All of them are receiving instruction in a language that their respective institutions otherwise would have found it impractical to offer.

This is the Shared Course Initiative, a three-way collaboration among Yale, Columbia, and Cornell that enables students on all three campuses to enroll in “live” courses for academic credit in languages ranging from Bosnian to Zulu. Launched in 2012 with initial funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative has flourished in the intervening years, growing to include 19 different languages and now reaching more than 571 students (as of spring 2018) across the partner universities.

The impetus for the program was a combination of pedagogical invention, student need, and budgetary necessity, according to Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, director of Yale’s Center for Language Study. Yale students, whose educational and career paths take them all over the world both during and after their time on campus, “depend on our breadth and depth of language offerings,” Van Deusen-Scholl said. Faced with cutbacks to federal funding for language instruction, Yale, Columbia, and Cornell began a “conversation across institutional boundaries” and discovered their shared abiding commitment to languages as a cornerstone of 21st-century liberal arts education. “It became an innovative way to continue to offer a broad scope of language courses,” Van Deusen-Scholl explained.

The offerings in the Shared Course Initiative can be summed up in two acronyms favored by those in the language-teaching profession: the LCTL (“licktle”), or less-commonly taught language, and the ANTL (“antle”), almost-never taught language. Often the student demand for an individual LCTL or ANTL on any one campus in a given semester is tiny. Yet for those students, the ability to acquire competency in the language may mean the difference between pursuing an international internship or field research or being forced to abandon those possibilities. At Yale, a university committed to fostering global leaders for all sectors of society, the initiative has played a crucial role in empowering students to connect across cultures.

A student watching a remote video feed of a language course through the Shared Course Initiative at Yale.
(Photo credit: Christian De León)

Distances and screens notwithstanding, the Shared Course Initiative differs markedly from an online course in other ways. To begin with, students on all three campuses attend the courses in dedicated classrooms specially designed so that, regardless of where the instructor is located, the experience is all but indistinguishable from in-person interaction. Each room is outfitted with interactive whiteboards that allow both teacher and students to transmit content across all three locations. Via shared screens, the instructor can show a video or a text to all participants simultaneously. Using the whiteboards, a student at one university can practice writing in a new alphabet and receive immediate feedback from an instructor at another university. All of the equipment is hard-wired to provide high-definition visual elements and high-quality audio. The result is a technological interface that Van Deusen-Scholl characterized as “synchronous, but very unobtrusive.”

Students also receive a careful orientation to the course technology from the minute they first enter the classroom. “There is almost this ‘aha’ moment,” Van Deusen-Scholl said, “because they don’t know what to expect.” The spaces’ configuration — with large screens where students can see themselves as well as their remote peers — “creates a very immediate sense of being part of the same environment. You feel like you’re in the same room,” she added.

At least once per semester, students and teacher actually are in the same room — yet another defining quality of the partnership. According to John Mangan, the senior associate dean in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences who oversees the Center for Language Study, from the initiative’s inception, an essential component of the program has been instructor travel between “sending” and “receiving” institutions. “This personal contact with the instructor,” Mangan said, “builds rapport and tightens the learning space.”

Although the Mellon Foundation’s support expired on June 30, the three partners in the Shared Course Initiative were eager to continue building on the program’s successful outcomes. In New Haven, the initiative received support from the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale, which awarded five years of funding to underpin Yale’s participation in the effort.

The opportunity that the Shared Course Initiative provides to students is invaluable,” said Ian Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Henry R. Luce Director of the MacMillan Center. “Not only does the program share academic resources across institutional boundaries, but it also promotes global engagement. The MacMillan Center supports SCI because it focuses on identifying and cultivating new perspectives on the dynamic interplay of global and local knowledge.”

Columbia and Cornell secured similar institutional commitments — the three universities signed a new memorandum of understanding over the summer — so classrooms on all three campuses continue to echo with Finnish and Punjabi, Sinhala and Tamil, classical and modern Tibetan, and other languages from around the globe. This academic year, Yale upgraded the technology used in the initiative — now encompassing a total of five fully outfitted videoconferencing rooms for the project — and introduced a new course: advanced Polish, taught by Krystyna Illakowicz, a senior lector I of Slavic languages and literatures.

Two students watching a remote video feed of a language course through the Shared Course Initiative at Yale.
(Photo credit: Christian De León)

For Yale, Columbia, and Cornell — and for other universities looking on with interest — the Shared Course Initiative’s first six years have opened up opportunities for further innovation. “This new way of thinking beyond institutional borders can be a model for other programs, too,” Van Deusen-Scholl said. “It only makes sense to pool resources, to work past long-established boundaries of intellectual space. Other institutions see that it is working, and that there is a possibility to explore other subjects.”

Sandra Sanneh, a senior lector II at Yale, has taught beginning, intermediate, and advanced Zulu since the initiative began. “Each year ends with African Skit Night,” Sanneh related, “and we’ve been able to involve the remote students in these student-written skits in various ways. One class had a skit that involved an interview, and the remote student filmed his responses, which were then projected onto a screen onstage and presented on cue. Another skit involved consulting a doctor, who was called up on Skype and projected on screen. Last year, a student from Columbia came to Yale to play her part in the skit.”

It is through this kind of rich interpersonal exchange that students make connections far surpassing the simple exchange of new vocabulary, said Van Deusen-Scholl, noting that this potential has been in evidence since the program’s earliest days. In the initiative’s pilot year, a group of students from Cornell used iPads linked to the in-classroom technology to give a Dutch-language tour of a university exhibit on the history of the Netherlands to their classmates on the other two campuses. Like Sanneh’s course, noted Van Deusen-Scholl, it was a vivid illustration of the Shared Course Initiative’s capacity to bridge campuses and continents, to bring scholarly resources into not just one but three classrooms, and to give students a window into worlds that once would have been closed to them.

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