Online Chinese Learning

Students at a computer

Create an effective online Chinese language course, and you won't have to worry whether your students get enough practice with the language; not only will they get at least as much as in a traditional classroom, they might even get more.  

That's just one of the lessons so far from North Carolina, which has built a virtual language learning program that now teaches Chinese levels one to four and Advanced Placement, but also Arabic and Russian, with plans for Japanese.  

The trick to making it work involves careful decisions on lessons, assessment, scheduling, technology, and even the types of students and teachers involved in the online program, says Bobby Hobgood, who headed up the online Chinese language program for North Carolina.  

Students say they "had more interaction with their online teachers than they did with their face to face teachers," says Hobgood. That has helped allay one of his concerns about online language programs: How teachers could make sure students could competently communicate in the learned language if they weren't in the same room as those students.  

Some lessons from Hobgood on what's made it work in North Carolina so far: 

Use technology wisely. It's easy to get enamored with the options, Hobgood says, but you must treat technology like every other learning tool. Design everything else first--learning goals and objectives, activities and assessments--then consider how technology can enhance the language learning. 

Among the programs North Carolina uses: Audacity, for students to record and send audio files of their language practice, and Wimba Pronto, for live, audio conversations between students and their conversation coaches. Lessons also include videos via QuickTime to introduce the material with a storyline that moves forward as the lessons do.  

Give students access to the language. Students use digital textbooks, and with each lesson get a list of the vocabulary and accompanying audio files so they can hear the words and phrases. The audio clips also are in the voices of people young, old, male and female. This is key: In the traditional classroom, students typically hear the words only in the voice of their instructor, and that can make it hard for students to understand when someone else speaks the language.

Students also have conversation coaches, separate from the course instructor. Twice a week they meet with their coach in a small, online group setting (via Wimba Pronto) for 45 minutes each. They not only practice speaking the language, but get instant feedback and help from their coach, usually a native speaker.    

Screen students and teachers. Online students must be organized and disciplined; Hobgood advises teachers and counselors use a readiness checklist, to determine whether that terrific "A" student can succeed in an online course.   

Similarly, teachers need to be prepared for the online environment, Hobgood suggests they take professional development courses specific to online language instruction.  

Craft assessments geared for online learning. North Carolina uses LinguaFolio, which lets students document their own progress by checking off a series of "I can" statements, such as "I can greet someone." It's not graded, but gives instructors a look at their students' progress throughout the course.

Test security online is an issue, Hobgood says, so students create projects. For example, a level two Chinese student created a multimedia slideshow, with the student narrating about historical sites in China, Hobgood says. 

Schedule wisely. Despite being so-called digital natives, not every student has a computer, and in rural areas connectivity is dicey. Schools must provide a period during the day when students can access the course online, and work with their conversation coach. 

North Carolina's program has grown significantly since the nine students in the pilot Chinese course in 2007; this spring, there were 174 students across the state taking the various Chinese language courses.  

Hobgood says being at the "bleeding edge of technology" hasn't been easy, but he believes North Carolina offers a good start, and a model for others to follow.  

Author: Alexandra Moses
June 2010

Discussion questions:

What do you do to ensure students will be good online learners?

In your experience, how does online learning compare to traditional instruction?