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Discovering the Unexpected

Administrator’s research proves that learning a language online is just as effective as it is in traditional classrooms

Susana Rivera Mills, Oregon State University

Susana Rivera-Mills’ research helped OSU and other institutions discover the enriching nature of online foreign language courses. (Photo by Frank Miller)

By Tyler Hansen
April 30, 2013

The proposal came to Susana Rivera-Mills’ desk at Oregon State University, and her alarm bells started blaring.

Foreign language courses taught online? What a misguided concept, she thought.

After all, Rivera-Mills had a history of success teaching traditional, face-to-face language classes, and by 2009 she was the chair of Oregon State’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. With nearly two decades of firsthand experience, she knew that in-person interaction is a great way for students to learn a new language.

But is it the only way? Do online language courses meet the same learning outcomes as face-to-face classes?

Rivera-Mills had to find the answer to those questions through extensive research, even though many of the colleagues in her department felt it would be a waste of time.

“The way I was able to persuade them was to say, ‘Let’s try this for the next year or two, and if it doesn’t work, I will be the first one to put a stop to it,’ ” she said. “I convinced them to step out there with me and see what we could discover.”

The results, she says now, were beyond belief. Two years of researching OSU Ecampus online Spanish classes revealed that there is no difference in student achievement between those who take foreign language courses on campus and those who take the same courses online.

“I was ready and expecting to find that the face-to-face environment was much better for students, but that just isn’t the case.”

“That just blew me away,” Rivera-Mills said. “I was ready and expecting to find that the face-to-face environment was much better for students, but that just isn’t the case.”

The findings had an immediate and lasting impact: Equipped with the blueprint of how to effectively teach language proficiency online, OSU educators and Ecampus have unveiled an abundance of foreign language courses online in recent years.

Ecampus currently offers course sequences in Arabic, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Russian and Spanish. OSU’s distance and online students can also earn a B.A. in German as well as a minor in German.

To ensure that all the courses benefit students as much as those examined in Rivera-Mills’ research, Ecampus instructors go to great lengths to engage their students, using technologies such as Skype to communicate the intricacies of a foreign language.

In fact, Rivera-Mills and many of her colleagues say Ecampus students receive more oral interaction than students in OSU’s face-to-face courses.

“When I talk to my students, they can hear and/or see me. I feel it’s important they see my body language and hear how passionate I am about the Hebrew language,” said Yael Beged-Dov, an instructor of Hebrew for Ecampus. “Speaking and pronouncing words is harder than writing and reading a language, and by making sure they speak it, I’m helping them internalize their knowledge.”

Beged-Dov’s highly interactive teaching strategies have a profound impact on her students’ learning experiences. It’s a common theme among OSU’s online language offerings, including in German courses, which feature weekly, one-on-one video chats with instructors that last 20 to 30 minutes.

“It really helped in hearing how I was supposed to pronounce the German words, and the course also had other audio components so that I could learn more easily,” said Michael Boyd, a former U.S. Marine who will complete his natural resources degree with Ecampus this June.

Since Rivera-Mills published her research, she has become an expert on the topic, having been invited to present her full findings at a national conference this fall in New Jersey. She also expects to be a key contributor to two books about online teaching.

Not only did her in-depth studies beat back the skepticism and give students greater access to an OSU education, but it also created a framework to guarantee all parties involved receive the assistance they need.

“We learned what type of support system needs to be in place for both students and faculty to succeed online,” said Rivera-Mills, who is now the interim director of OSU’s new Center for Latin@ Studies and Engagement (CL@SE). “We built a support group for Ecampus teachers so they can share pedagogical ideas, best practices and help instructors who are new to Ecampus learn the ropes.

“And, ultimately, that all goes back to benefit the students. We know how to create great courses for them online.”