The Shared Course Initiative: A Model for Instructional Collaboration Across Institutions

Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl

 

Dr. Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, Associate Dean, Yale College, Director of the Center for Language Study, Yale University.

Over the past decade, budgetary constraints and institutional pressures have forced many institutions to reduce the number of foreign languages that they offer, not only the less commonly taught languages (LCTL) but in some cases even the ‘traditional’ modern languages, such as French and German. In response to this—and with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—Yale, Columbia, and Cornell formed a partnership starting in the 2012-13 academic year to develop a collaborative framework for teaching LCTLs that uses high-definition videoconferencing and other distance learning technology to make additional language learning opportunities available to students.

Thus far, we have taught ten of the least commonly taught languages (including Bengali, Classical Tibetan, Dutch, Romanian, Tamil, Yoruba, and Zulu) and are planning to expand the project by adding more languages each year and by gradually building the curricula from the beginning through the advanced levels of instruction. The languages are chosen based on (1) the availability of a qualified instructor and the strength of an existing curriculum at one of the institutions (the sending institution), and (2) an identified need for a specific language at one or both of the other partner institutions (the receiving institution(s). The pedagogical model is based on a synchronous, classroom-to-classroom approach to instruction and is designed to offer a highly interactive, and learner-centered environment. Meskill & Anthony (2010: 64) note in this respect that “[t]he difference between real time versus delayed time in online communication is vast in terms of the essential nature of the communication process.” Students are expected to attend live class sessions each week in specially outfitted classrooms and report that this quickly feels like a ‘regular’ classroom.

While the practical issues are complicated, an intangible that we were less prepared for was the profound difference in institutional cultures.

Among the biggest challenges that we have encountered are the institutional differences, such as differences in the language requirement, length of the term, scheduling of semester breaks, hourly class schedules, etc. This has required a great deal of involvement and buy-in by high-level administrators and an inter-institutional agreement in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding that lays out the major principles for collaboration. For example, we have agreed to a maximum enrollment of 12 students per course; the sending institution sets the schedule; and students must abide by the policies of their home institution. While the practical issues are complicated, an intangible that we were less prepared for was the profound difference in institutional cultures. This has required ongoing conversations, both in-person and through videoconferencing, among the Principal Investigators as well as the technology and pedagogy support teams to create a shared understanding of how to approach teaching these languages. We have also encouraged the language instructors to travel to the receiving institutions to meet with their students at least once each semester and to engage with the broader intellectual community within which their languages are situated. In addition, there is a need for training and professional development for the instructors, both with respect to technology and pedagogy, and for sharing of best practices across institutions. This is done through informal on-campus training and support, distance workshops, annual intensive workshops, and attendance at national conferences and meetings.

In our process of assessment and evaluation, we are trying to address a number of questions:

  • What is the effect of the distance-learning environment on the educational experiences of instructors and students?
  • How do instructors adapt their instructional approaches to this multimodal, technology-mediated environment?
  • What are the major challenges and potential benefits for both instructors and students?
  • Is there a qualitative difference for students at sending institutions versus receiving institutions?
  • What are the learning outcomes compared with those in traditional classrooms?

Some of the challenges that the instructors have faced are “balancing the ‘far’ and ‘near’ classroom” and “fully integrating the multimodal learning resources.” At the same time, however, they also perceive many benefits, feeling that this mode of teaching is transformative for their pedagogy. They comment, for instance, on a more dynamic use of shared space, a greater focus on collaboration, deeper engagement with the students, and the ability to establish a sense of community across institutions. The students, for their part, point to the differences in institutional cultures and the difficulties in scheduling as some of the major challenges. They feel, though, that they have more autonomy and a greater control of their learning environment, have real opportunities for authentic interaction, and can build a shared community across the distance. While we are still in the early stages of this project and only have very preliminary data at this point, we are optimistic about the potential for this collaborative pedagogical model.

The second issue raises the broader question of whether this model has the potential for curricular and institutional transformation, as institutions could begin envisioning the creation of collaborative curricula for any discipline where, for example, local resources might be limited, where access to sources of knowledge could be available regardless of where they are located, or where lack of enrollments might jeopardize a program.

Finally, we are looking at the implications of engaging in this type of collaborative project. Two majors issues in this respect are the replicability of the model, i.e. how it can be adapted to different types of institutions, and its scalability, i.e. how it could be applied to other disciplines and used for different academic purposes. With respect to the first, the model is gaining momentum in a wide range of institutional contexts: the University of Wisconsin system has had a longstanding system-wide collaborative partnership to share critical languages through its Collaborative Language Program (Rosen, 2002), and—more recently—Duke and Virginia have begun collaborating on language instruction. We have shared our experiences with many different types of institutions: large and small state universities as well as university systems, liberal arts colleges, and European institutions.

The second issue raises the broader question of whether this model has the potential for curricular and institutional transformation, as institutions could begin envisioning the creation of collaborative curricula for any discipline where, for example, local resources might be limited, where access to sources of knowledge could be available regardless of where they are located, or where lack of enrollments might jeopardize a program. A collaborative curricular model can thus facilitate the creation of communal spaces in which students can develop the skills required to become effective co-creators of knowledge and engage in critical dialogue with both teachers and peers.

Language education is at the forefront of this innovative trend and has shown the potential of technology to move this forward. For example, Blyth (2013) points out the power of collaborative practices in creating and using Open Educational Resources (OERs); Kessler (2013) calls for greater attention to the role of participatory social media in language education as a way to engage students in the co-construction of knowledge; and the Committee on Institutional Collaboration (2013), citing its own successful LCTL collaboration, calls for a broader implementation of a shared model of instruction across its member institutions. Within our collaborative partnership, we have outlined a broad vision for institutional collaboration that we hope—though it starts with languages—will ultimately extend across the curriculum:

To share academic resources across institutional boundaries, enhance existing curricula, and provide students and faculty with opportunities for collaboration and exchange of knowledge.

NOTE:

I want to thank my colleagues Stéphane Charitos, Director of the Language Resource Center at Columbia University, Dick Feldman, Director of the Language Resource Center at Cornell University, and Bill Koulopoulos, Senior Project Manager for the Shared Course Initiative at Columbia University, for contributing to this article in many ways by sharing their ideas and providing information and feedback.

REFERENCES

Blyth, C. (2013). Special Issue Commentary: LCTLs and Technology: the Promise of Open Education. Language Learning and Technology, Vol. 17, No. 1: 1-6.

Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) Ad Hoc Committee for Online Learning. (2013). CIC Online Learning Collaboration: A Vision and Framework. Retrieved from: www.cic.net

Kessler, G. (2013). Collaborative language learning in participatory culture. Retrieved from: FLTMag.com

Meskill, C. & N. Anthony. (2010). Teaching languages online. Multilingual Matters.

Rosen, L. (2002). Language instruction: A system approach to distance delivery. Teaching with Technology Today, Vol. 8, No. 7.

 

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