In this issue of the FLTMAG, Jeffrey Samuels interviewed Lauren Rosen, Director of the Collaborative Language Program at the University of Wisconsin. The program uses distance learning to connect students across the state of Wisconsin who want to learn languages that wouldn’t otherwise be offered.
Jeffrey Samuels: How did the Collaborative Language Program start? What was the impetus for it?
Lauren Rosen: In 1997 the Deans of the College of Letters and Science (L&S) from the 13 comprehensive state universities in Wisconsin convened and determined that they needed to diversify the language programs offered to students on each of their campuses. At that time they realized that languages were critical to the economy and national security and they weren’t able to always offer the full range of languages and levels most needed. The charge was led by Michael Zimmerman, at that time Dean at UW-Oshkosh, an Evolutionary Biologist, and co-chaired by Carol Pollis, at that time Dean at UW-Green Bay, a Sociologist. Together the L&S Deans applied for and received UW System grant funds in 1998 to start a collaborative project to solve this problem with little knowledge themselves of how to do so. Their first step in using those funds was to hire someone to figure out how to make this happen using the technologies that they currently had in place and to develop an infrastructure of collaborative support around shared resources for languages.
Jeffrey Samuels: Can you tell us a little about how the Collaborative Language Program works?
Lauren Rosen: Trust, flexibility, communication, and not always making the popular decision. To explain, it’s important that all the players trust each other and view the needs of campuses as a whole, not just what is best for their own campus. While individual needs play into decisions, all decisions must be in the best interest of all students and campuses involved. For example, if you have a fabulous language instructor whose course is lower enrolled and another campus has a need for that course, this could be a way to help out both. However, if this instructor happens to have a disability that would prevent them from being able to spend extensive time on a computer screen, they are likely not the best fit for teaching a language course that requires a significant amount of online communication and development. That instructor is great for local sections but not for a distance section as the receive site students may suffer from the distance learning experience. We want to prevent that from happening. Sometimes decisions are made in the best interest of the majority and there are others who aren’t in agreement.
Flexibility is important throughout all stages of shared courses, from choosing times for synchronous meetings, to campus policies, to what to do when technology isn’t working as expected. Administrators, staff, technical support, and instructors have to exercise flexibility and problem solving skills rather than finger pointing. Effective and regular communication at all times crossing hierarchical boundaries so that joint decisions are made rather than decisions made in a silo, is what keeps the interdependence running smoothly in a large collaboration with so many moving parts. Regular email communication keeps everyone in the loop. The difficult decisions are often made during executive board meetings. The executive board includes representation from all campuses participating in the program. Members are a combination of campus Deans, Associate Deans, Language Department Chairs, and myself as the director of the program. Since I make regular visits to campuses and meet with instructors, technology staff, administrative staff, students and anyone else with involvement in the program, I try to do my best to be their voices as well at the table.
Jeffrey Samuels: The Collaborative Language Program started back in 1998. It was way before its time! What things have changed in the last 20+ years? Do today’s technologies make it easier to implement such programs?
Lauren Rosen: Everything has changed in 20+ years. Technology is the obvious piece. When we started it was equivalent to dailing 3 phone connections for each course call, lag times were excessive, picture was grainy, sound would cut in and out. However teachers and students were dedicated to language learning and knew why it was important. They were tough and resilient so for the most part, despite the technology issues, our attrition remained low in languages like Russian and Japanese. As time went on, technology improved making it significantly more stable to share courses and assess language proficiency even for students who are not in the same physical space as the instructor. Many of the logistical issues of passing content between remote and origination sites have all but disappeared.
While we started with pilots in Russian and Japanese, we have expanded to include Arabic, Chinese, French, and German. We are moving into Hmong and ASL. One of the “saddest” changes for me in the past few years with the expansion to include French and German, is the fact that we started being approached, not for the purpose of “diversifying” language programs, but because campuses needed to “save” language programs. I love working with all language instructors. It’s just unfortunate that the primary reason that they started getting involved was due to budget cuts and other strains that forced them in this direction, rather than simply choosing to share their expertise more broadly for more intrinsic reasons. The CLP has really made a concerted effort to never require anyone to teach in a distance environment, but rather have it as another choice for those that wanted to try and grow their reach and enrollment through alternative modes of instruction.
Jeffrey Samuels: You have worked with a lot of instructors over the years, helping them to learn how to teach using distance technology. What would you say are the biggest things that help teachers succeed when they are starting to work in your program?
Lauren Rosen: An open mind and flexibility are the keys to success for sure. Those who come in and are afraid of change–and try to replicate what they are used to doing because it’s what they know and it feels easy–are the least successful.
We currently are running 4 different models of instruction with anywhere from 100% over synchronous ITV [interactive television] (our original model) to online with a local synchronous discussion section. Instructors choose which model they want to use for which course. Those who look at this from the perspective of increasing their enrollments, making it easier for students to choose a language class that isn’t required, typically do the best regardless of which model they choose.
Those who teach typically love what they do and are very passionate about their content. However, if we don’t focus on the passions of our students and we get locked into our own interests, we are less likely to recruit and retain students over the long haul. Getting instructors to view what they do through a new lens helps facilitate their choices in both what and how they teach. As long as they are making the choice, they are more apt to be successful than if it is forced down upon them from administration.
Finally, those who have a truly intrinsic ability to teach tend to be the most successful. It takes a different effort to stay in tune with where students are in their proficiency path when you aren’t in the same physical space. Almost anyone can learn which buttons to push when, but not everyone has a sense of how to connect personally with a diverse audience. While this is true in a traditional setting as well, it is slightly more complicated in a distance environment.
Jeffrey Samuels: What are the biggest challenges for teachers who are starting out in your program?
Lauren Rosen: They typically wonder how on earth they will be able to teach as well in a distance environment as they do in a traditional one. Then when presented with different models for how to teach, they wonder how students can learn as much with less physical time with them. Once we can get over these humps by recognizing that the number of physical minutes with a student doesn’t necessarily correlate to their level of proficiency (or all traditionally taught students would be superior level speakers), we can talk about changes in pedagogical approach.
The next challenge is time. As instructors move more content online, find or create video lessons, test out different technologies for assessing what students know and can do, redesign and develop a course…they realize that all of this takes a great deal of time. It’s like being a first year teacher all over again. Each year gets easier and better as it is a matter of improving upon what they have done in the past. The struggle of course is that not all seasoned teachers want to go back to that place of starting over with that level of work. For some it is an exciting new change and they thrive on giving it a go while others really struggle with change and spend a great deal of time struggling to let go of the way that things were.
Michael Zimmerman once said to me, “Change is hard. Wait 10 minutes and it will get better.” I believe he is right. All of the instructors that I have been working with for at least 4 years or more are really glad to be teaching in these new models. They enjoy the diversity that the students bring them from not all being in the same location. Those that have flipped their lessons and are in face to face environments fewer days are developing successful systems of knowing what their students do and don’t know. They have refocused the majority of their synchronous time to getting the students communicating in the target language. Fewer synchronous meetings have led to more spoken practice than ever before.
Jeffrey Samuels: What would you say have been your biggest successes in the program? Along these lines, what languages are supported and taught? Do you see a significant presence of LCTLs (less commonly taught languages), for example?
Lauren Rosen: I would say that one of my greatest successes has been the ability to create a stronger network of post-secondary language educators from around the state. With 13 state universities (we were 26 until 2 years ago), most instructors were isolated on their own campuses. In many cases they were the only instructor of their particular language. Through my program I have been able to connect instructors across the state and they work together often in shared curriculum and resources, resolving pedagogical concerns, etc.
When the program started we had 69 students and 2 languages. We now average over 300 students per semester and have a solid 6 languages looking to add 2 more. Our attrition is typically around 30% which is lower than the 50% national average in levels 3 and 4 difficulty languages (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian). I believe this is largely due to the pedagogical approaches we take, the dedication of our instructors, and the stability of a program with strong oversight and support.
I consider the languages that we offer to fall more into the category of critical to Wisconsin’s economy and national security than that of LCTLs. When we started, yes some of them were LCTLs, but times have changed. I now define LCTL more with indigenous languages or truly lessor taught such as Hmong, Euskera, Zulu… Since the UW System institutions outside of Madison aren’t currently requesting these languages we don’t offer them in my program. Most recently there has been talk of adding Korean as well, but again this is a language that is moving more and more into mainstream. Our language choices are based on what students are requesting and we do our best to fulfill those requests. For example, there was a time when we offered Portuguese. It was later dropped due to a lack of student interest despite economic links to Brazil.
Jeffrey Samuels: What do students say about these kinds of classes?
Lauren Rosen: Each semester we conduct mid-semester surveys. This gives us time to adjust and improve a course whether the issue is technological or pedagogical. We prefer this over just doing an end of semester evaluation when it is too late to make changes. Here are some direct quotes from our surveys:
- Everything is right there on the screen, and you are capable of accomplishing anything you would need to accomplish in a standard classroom (Russian student)
- It allows everyone to participate in the class. It’s almost like having the professor in the room with us (Japanese receive site student during ITV session)
- Neat to hear yourself and others speak. It helps clear mistakes. Provides more practice than just the class. (References web-based speaking tasks)
- The instructor’s availability via Skype has proved invaluable for when students have questions or need help. (Arabic Student referencing online office hours)
- I really love the flip classroom concept for this class specifically. We are given the material and homework to study and come to class actually using what we learned and apply it in conversation. (Several Japanese students)
- I really liked having a flipped classroom; we had so much more time in class to practice and it really helps. (Several Japanese students)
- It would be nice if the instructor would visit our campus more frequently. (Several students)
What I find most interesting about the above comments is that really all except for the last one could be from any course. If you didn’t know that students were talking about a course that had synchronous ITV sessions, you would simply be reading what students like in their language classes. This speaks to UDL (Universal Design for Learning). If the pedagogy and instructor are strong, the environment/format won’t inhibit learning. In many instances what the CLP instructors have changed for their distance classes, they have also applied to their locally taught classes simply because it works well.
Jeffrey Samuels: How have you been able to continue to make the case to the administration of the University of Wisconsin system that this is a worthwhile investment?
Lauren Rosen: It’s really all in the numbers and the amicable relationships we have built among institutions. We are serving students around the state and it is an example of a collaboration that costs nothing to the students but meets a huge need. With the extreme budget cuts we have had recently and the 13 state colleges merging into the 13 comprehensive universities, everyone is looking to do more collaborative course sharing than they used to. The CLP serves as a model for how that can work. Our budget is very small and I’ve worked as a one person show. Admittedly this is getting significantly harder to do as we grow and move into more initiatives that make sense. I’m hoping that showing that will allow us to fund an assistant director in the near future. Time will tell. I believe that we could be a larger stronger program if I weren’t stretched so thin. The bigger we are the harder it is to cut us off. As long as what we do can remain inexpensive in the scheme of most budgets, I think we will keep going.
Jeffrey Samuels: What do you see on the horizon for people who teach languages using distance technology? Are there other technologies beyond learning management systems themselves that you see being used currently or in the future, in this context?
Lauren Rosen: First, I don’t think that distance learning technologies are really any different from what should and could be used in a traditional class setting. What is good for one is good for the other. It’s the way that technology is implemented that makes the difference. The most exciting technologies that I have seen in all my years as a language educator and technology integration specialist have come out in the last few years. I just can’t say enough about Extempore. It is genius to have come up with a way to do spontaneous communication in an asynchronous environment. It is the closest I think we will ever get to putting students in the same physical space. Yes it is awkward at times, as is the turn taking in a synchronous video conference. None of these is 100% natural but I do think that they can help prepare students for real situations of being with target culture speakers and having to communicate naturally without a dictionary in their hands. H5P is another phenomenal technology for assessing what students know. It has an ever-growing array of content types. The most used features by the language instructors I’m working with at the moment are interactive video and course presentation. What is particularly interesting about these is that many of the other content types can be integrated within them as pop-up questioning and practice. Activities can be set up as self-check and embedded into any website, or one can purchase the LTI–as we have–and the analytics go directly to the gradebook in a course management system. The final one that I must mention is Flipgrid. There is a great deal of flexibility in the types of activities that can be developed for this tool. Flipgrid works as an asynchronous video discussion board. One of my favorite examples was from Kaishan Kong, a Chinese instructor at UW-Eau Claire. She has her students create a video talking about their perfect date. Truth or fiction, it doesn’t matter. Students then listen to their classmates’ videos and respond with why they think they are the perfect match. This gives students real reasons for wanting to listen to each other, not just to get points. They are funny and the students enjoy it. They choose to listen and be creative with the language and the videos they create.
Jeffrey Samuels: Is there anything else that you would like to tell us about your experience with the Collaborative Language Program?
Lauren Rosen: While the UW System Collaborative Language Program was first and foremost designed to serve the students of the state of Wisconsin, we have partnered with institutions outside of our state. At one time we offered Chinese and Arabic to the University of Dayton, for example. So, if we have a course that would be useful for your institution, please reach out to me and we will do our best to make a match. Ultimately we want to spread language opportunities to all students, not just those in our state. Check out our 2020-21 course listings and see if there is anything that meets a need you have.
Jeffrey Samuels: Thank you for your time and for sharing your expertise, Lauren!