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Posted in Uncategorized by Evan Lisull on 21 October 2009

Spanish InstructionHuge step forward for online education at UNC-Chapel Hill:

After several years of experimenting with “hybrid” Spanish courses that mix online and classroom instruction, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has decided to begin conducting its introductory Spanish course exclusively on the Web.

Spanish 101, which had featured online lessons combined with one classroom session per week, will drop its face-to-face component in an effort to save on teaching costs and campus space in light of rising demand for Spanish instruction and a shrinking departmental budget.

Meanwhile, the department’s budget was slashed by $150,000 this year. It had been planning to shift its introductory courses online even before the recession hit, King said, in hopes of freeing up money to hire another instructor. Instead, the anticipated savings from the move have so far spared his department from personnel cuts.

Even as a partisan of online education, a stance further entrenched by the positive experience with my current online class (of which more will be said after the class is over), this might be going too far. It’s an oft-repeated truism that daily, face-to-face interactions are essential to learning a language, and such accepted facts are used to justify the university’s stringent attendance policies for language courses. Yet according to UNC,

Hosun Kim, director of the college’s Foreign Language Resource Center, said survey data gathered by the department revealed that while students in traditional courses said they thought they mastered the material better than their peers in hybrid courses, a comparative assessment of learning outcomes showed no difference between the two.

That’s not entirely true, if the Daily Tarheel’s report is to be believed: online students did slightly worse overall, but “drastically” worse on pronunciation. But are there any Spanish 101 students who have decent pronunciation?

It’s tempting to turn all defense of relative ineffectiveness to a Hansonian signal (see: health insurance, child care, voting,  and the female orgasm (you mean, coitus?)), but that approach very much seems to apply to occasionally irrational defenses of in-class education. Without a classroom setting, neither teachers nor students are given the opportunity to demonstrate that they care about the material being taught (which has benefits for both, in the form of career improvement and grade improvement, respectively). The prospect of pure, unadulterated information comprehension is imposing. (If there any studies out there on the relative effectiveness of in-class language instruction versus online instruction, I’d be glad to be corrected.)

There are problems, though, beyond actual instruction. Not only are Spanish 101 classes taken primarily by freshmen, but as the most popular language Spanish is also more likely to draw in more academically-struggling students. Such in-person interaction is more necessary for students making the transition to college than for those taking upper-division courses.

At any rate, even if this program might be a step too far, it should highlight even more the ludicrous – and frankly, neo-Luddite – arguments against online education as a whole. If an introductory language course can be delivered effectively over the internet, there’s no reason that any other class (barring, perhaps, lab classes and other location-centric courses) can be done online as well.

NB: Also, only in Cloud-Cuckooland could you find a statement like this:

[Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association] did, however, caution against letting teaching decisions be guided by thrift. “The question of ‘How can we reduce the cost of delivering instruction’ is not what should be driving the decision, even though we all understand that universities are facing hard financial times,” Feal said. “A lot of tough decisions must be made, but those must always be made in thinking about what are the best instructional environment and opportunities for our students.”

So what should the university do – write the budget deficit off to structural oppression imposed by neoliberal, postcolonial hierarchies of patriarchal power, and proceed as though nothing has happened? This might actually be an approach Provost Hay could adopt – simply tell the professors that things like “salaries” and “budgets” are just vestigial structural concepts of the old world order, and that the professariat really needs to get hip and start liberating their consciousness.

One Response

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  1. Ben Kalafut said, on 21 October 2009 at 1:53 pm

    OMG in North Carolina taxes (which is = THEFT) are taken to teach people SPANISH? This is North America; we speak ENGLISH!!!!!1111!!!11!1!ONE

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