U program to help foreign language learning in K-12 classrooms

CEHD researchers created an online program designed to improve second language skills for K-12 students.

Branden Largent

University of Minnesota researchers are working to bring foreign language classes to more local K-12 students with a program they hope will eventually reach the entire nation.

The University’s College of Education and Human Development is expanding its online language programs to schools in Minnesota starting this fall. CEHD’s Learning Technologies Media Lab signed a 10-year partnership with St. Paul-based EMC Publishing to build EMC Languages, an online learning program for teachers and students in K-12 foreign language classes.

EMC Languages will be available in Spanish and French by early 2014, said University associate professor and lab co-director Charles Miller. The lab’s goal is to reach 250,000 students across the country in the next two years.

The program aims to give students the opportunity to practice speaking and hearing foreign languages, said Eric Cantor, CEO of New Mountain Learning, EMC Publishing’s parent company.

This fall, about five schools in the metro area will implement the program, using existing EMC Publishing content and two platforms the lab created for University classes.

Miller helped develop one of the platforms, called Avenue, in 2004 for University American Sign Language classes. Avenue allows students and instructors to create videos of themselves signing.

The other CEHD platform being used, called Flipgrid, is a webcam-based program for group discussions. The lab launched it in 2012 and has had more than 25,000 users since its inception. It also offers the program to schools and organizations nationwide.

University researchers are redesigning the two programs for K-12 foreign language classes.

Students will be able to use lab time during foreign language classes to make video responses or answer webcam discussion questions. Teachers will then be able to evaluate responses after class.

“That type of time efficiency is a good use of technology,” Miller said. “Technology for technology’s sake is never a good use of technology.”

In the pilot program this fall, the CEHD media lab will work with teachers to assess their needs and make any necessary changes, Miller said.

Brad Hosack, one of the lab’s lead designers, said the program’s developers try to make it as user-friendly as possible so students and teachers can focus on improvement instead of learning how to use the technology.

University ASL teaching specialist Alex Zeibot, who has used Avenue in his classroom, said the program helps ASL instructors provide immediate and relevant feedback for students.

“It’s the way it should be,” he said. “It’s simplistic.”

After using the program — particularly after it was modified based on instructor feedback — Zeibot said he noticed significant student improvement.

University linguistics senior Madeleine Ibes said she liked using Avenue in her ASL class after it was revamped and thinks it would’ve been useful when she was learning other spoken languages.

Madison Graves, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in speech-language-hearing sciences, said using Avenue ASL last semester was “frustrating” because it had a lot of technical issues that prevented students from fully using it.

“I think if they sorted out the technical issues, it could be a great learning device and help engage students more,” she said.

EMC Publishing will provide 24/7 customer support and help expand the program to schools in other states.

The program doesn’t currently have a set price, so costs can be adjusted based on what schools can afford, Miller said. He added that the lab will reinvest any profit it makes to improve the technology and build a larger research team.

“We don’t really care about sales,” he said. “If you want to use it, we’ll make sure you can afford it.”

Cantor said researchers hope the program will increase students’ confidence in speaking foreign languages and their interest in other cultures.

“We think it’ll make a difference in terms of how world languages are taught in the [U.S.] today,” he said.