The universities are working to increase student access to languages like Khmer and Sinhala through videoconferencing. This is the second grant that the Mellon Foundation has given Columbia this year, following a September grant for Columbia and Ursinus College to work together to improve their core curricula.
The new grant, which Columbia announced earlier this month, will support an effort that the three universities started this semester, each of them offering language classes in which students at the other two schools can enroll via videoconferencing. They're already offering weekly lessons in Zulu, Yoruba, Indonesian and Romanian, and next fall Vietnamese, Sinhala, Polish, and Khmer will be added.
Stéphane Charitos, director of the language resource center at Columbia, said in an email that “Columbia, Cornell, and Yale University are among the few academic centers in the United States that can boast to have a genuinely global reach in their research and teaching activities.”
“Having a genuinely global reach means being able to offer instruction in a very broad range of language and cultures,” he said. “Among the notable academic strengths of Columbia, Cornell, and Yale, is the depth and breadth of language offerings made available to students, with annual course offerings in well over 100 languages across the three campuses including many of the so-called less commonly taught languages.”
Charitos added that Columbia, Cornell, and Yale discussed the challenges that each institution faces in maintaining infrequently taught language courses in their curricula, and decided that the traditional, face-to-face model of language instruction should be supplemented with other models.
“We concluded that the most realistic option available was to use videoconferencing and other distance learning technology, which would link our three campuses together in order to create a synchronous, interactive and learner-centered environment intended to closely emulate a regular language classroom,” he said.
“I don't foresee students experiencing difficulties in learning languages through videoconferencing,” Charitos added. “What we are trying to create is a form of blended instruction that closely emulates the experience a student has in a traditional classroom.”
Courses that use videoconferencing are capped at 12 students, in an effort to make distance learning technology as effective as possible.
This summer, University President Lee Bollinger appointed Sree Sreenivasan as Columbia's first chief digital officer, and he's been working since then to study Columbia's online education offerings.
“We'll have to see how it goes and what the response is, but I'm optimistic,” Sreenivasan said. “I think that it's a good example of a new approach.”
Sreenivasan said that many universities are still going through an “experimentation” phase of online education, and that its future trajectory is difficult to predict.
“In some ways, we've been doing this for a long time,” he said. “But there's a lot of new energy around online education.”