On Monday, Jan. 14, Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL) and the College introduced a new initiative that will give up to 30 schools across Vermont discounted access to online language learning, developed specifically for K-12 students. The $2.6 million Vermont World Language Initiative was created to expand the progress MIL has already made in language access since its start in 2010.
The College celebrated the launch of the new initiative at its new headquarters, where Governor Peter Shumlin, President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz, Middlebury Interactive Languages CEO Jane Swift and other political and business leaders were in attendance.
MIL was created for two primary reasons: to provide quality language learning at a time when budgets were being cut across the country and to retain the College’s position as a leader in language teaching. President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz saw MIL as an opportunity to hold onto the leadership role in language education that the College has had for decades.
“We were fortunate enough to grab that mantle after our innovative summer language schools began, but after 95 years you can’t live by that alone, especially when the world is changing so rapidly,” said Liebowitz. “The world is becoming digital, and technology makes it possible to deliver quality content in foreign languages for the first time. So, in order for us to retain our leadership role as an institution, we needed to enter that space.
“There is no excuse for not diving in,” he added, regarding the new developments in technology that allow for access in rural areas.
The company, which is a collaboration between the College and K12 Inc., offers courses in Chinese, French, German, Latin and Spanish, designed by professors from the College and Middlebury Summer Language Schools. The Chinese courses in particular provide a unique opportunity for younger students, as secondary schools throughout the country rarely offer the study of Chinese.
The Vermont World Language Initiative is the next step for the company in taking advantage of the large reach of technology, and will also reciprocally improve the quality of MIL.
“With the wider access by the 30 Vermont schools participating in this World Language Initiative, MIL will better judge the effectiveness of the learning materials it has developed, and consequently improve the quality and determine how it might better be targeted at certain types of schools and learners,” said Chief Learning Officer Aline Germain-Rutherford.
Liebowitz explained that the initiative will also aid professional development for the faculty of the participating schools. The online courses will not be replacing teachers, but rather will be used as a resource to allow teachers to bring innovation into their classrooms. The goal of the courses, at least for now, is to create a hybrid learning environment, with human-to-human contact and digital content.
Germain-Rutherford also pointed out key advantages of online learning, highlighting its flexibility in pacing and its diverse authentic resources that allow the students to “flood” themselves with the languages they are studying.
In comparison with Middlebury Summer Language Schools, Liebowitz said, “You can’t do immersion online, so of course you lose something,” but added that full immersion is rare in any school setting or even when studying abroad. He explained that the benefits of online learning are in some ways different, but still important in keeping language education alive.
“Part of it is getting young people to stay involved in language learning,” said Liebowitz. “A lot of people might do it for a year or two, or to take care of a requirement, but I think both digital content and the pedagogy that MIL is trying to promote will go a long way in keeping and expanding the attention span of young people who are learning languages.”
While there is no assumed financial gain for the College in its participation in MIL, there is a strong possibility that it could become a source of revenue.
“It would be wonderful if this could become a revenue stream that allows us to reduce increases in tuition and even reduce the cost of a Middlebury education,” said Liebowitz.
“We are hoping down the road that it could become a revenue generator for us, but that’s not the primary motivation factor,” he added.
Liebowitz also suggested that the company may work in the future towards the goal of expanding its online courses to the whole country, and even internationally, to spread quality language learning as far as possible.
While MIL helps confirm the College’s current leadership role in language teaching and may potentially become a source of revenue, one of the main objectives in creating the company has always been to increase access to language learning and give students the skills necessary to succeed in the international workplace.
“One of the goals of MIL and [the] College is to help improve foreign language education in the United States,” said Germain-Rutherford, “and this Vermont World Language Initiative is certainly a promising, collaborative and important first step.”