On Middlebury Interactive Languges (MIL)

By Guest Contributor

In recent weeks some faculty colleagues have questioned the College’s investment and participation in Middlebury Interactive Languages (MIL). MIL is a for-profit, joint venture created in 2010 by Middlebury and K12 Inc., a Virginia-based company that creates online educational and curricular content for students in grades K-12. Today, approximately 170,000 students learn languages through MIL courses in elementary and secondary schools across the country. For many of these students, these courses provide the only opportunity they have to study a language other than English.

This venture, something new for our institution, raised concerns from the beginning. Colleagues noted that one of the founders of K12 Inc., William Bennett, was a political conservative whom they viewed as hostile to public education. Bennett, however, was long gone from the company by the time we began MIL. Critics also claimed that K12 was aiming to undermine the country’s public education system because of its association with charter schools. In fact, MIL’s courses, which are taught in 1,200 school districts, are making it possible for public schools to continue offering language courses rather than eliminate them as has happened all too often during the past decade. In addition, many new teaching positions have been created as a result of the adoption of MIL courses.

This past year, MIL alone has hired more than 110 language teachers, certified in multiple states, to teach MIL courses. For example, the state of Delaware asked MIL to hire and train four language teachers (two Spanish, one Chinese, and one French), each of whom teaches in multiple schools across the state. For the coming year, Delaware will expand its MIL offerings, which will require the hiring of two additional Spanish teachers. The city of Baltimore, which has contracted this year to use MIL courses, will offer Spanish in ten elementary schools this Fall, and then in all of its elementary schools the next year. The city is hiring new teachers to teach across the 10 schools. And here in Vermont, Weybridge hired a Spanish teacher a couple of years ago to teach the MIL Spanish elementary course, and that teacher now offers Spanish in neighboring elementary schools where MIL is used as an after school program.

The latest round of criticism arose earlier this year after a high school Latin teacher contacted the chair of our Classics Department, Professor Marc Witkin, and noted that a course sold by MIL (but developed by a predecessor company) contained a number of errors, and could be misunderstood to say that the course was developed by Middlebury faculty. Understandably, Professor Witkin found this disturbing. He brought this to my attention and to the attention of others and I thank him for that. The management team at MIL acted quickly: it notified those taking the Latin course of the errors in the course, corrected them, and clarified in its marketing materials that the Latin courses were not developed in partnership with Middlebury or by Middlebury Classics faculty.

I believe MIL acted appropriately and we have put new controls in place to help prevent similar issues in the future. Though Middlebury is a “minority” partner in this collaboration (it owns 40 percent of the company), all new course development has been done by a Middlebury development team, with full authority over the content. This control is a non-negotiable requirement for Middlebury to continue in the venture, as the institution is keenly aware of the need to protect its reputation.

The incident with the Latin course opened the door for those who opposed the MIL venture to propose we sever ties with K12 Inc. and end the venture. Unfortunately, they have chosen to do so by putting forth a narrative that neither provides a full context nor aligns with the facts.  A proposed, non-binding faculty motion calling on Middlebury to sever the relationship with K12 Inc. suggests that MIL censored curriculum content to satisfy the Texas Board of Education or other unnamed entities. This is a misleading claim. MIL ultimately decided not use some raw footage it shot for the French and Spanish courses that showed people smoking and drinking alcohol. Such scenes were in the authentic videos shot on site as the courses were in the development process, but were never included in the courses themselves. It was understood that elementary and secondary schools (and parents) would not want to encourage those activities by having them in pre-college textbooks or courses. This strikes me as a sensible decision that hardly rises to the level of censorship.

More to the point, perhaps, is the criticism raised about the exclusionary nature of MIL’s course content; colleagues have objected to how same-sex couples and non-traditional families were excluded from MIL courses. This is largely true, and the MIL development team, led by Middlebury Professor of Linguistics and MIL Chief Learning Officer Aline Germain-Rutherford, has already begun to work on guidelines for a greater inclusion of lesser represented groups in future MIL courses. The team will follow guidelines established by state boards of education, including California, many of which now encourage and even require greater representation of diverse populations in K-12 textbooks and course materials.

Ironically, MIL courses today include greater diversity and are more inclusive of a range of family structures and multicultural perspectives than the course materials used in most, if not all, of the College’s introductory language courses.

Perhaps lost in the criticism, and what should certainly be of interest to all of us, is the positive reviews of MIL course from students, teachers, administrators, and independent researchers at Johns Hopkins University. In a comprehensive study released last year, researchers judged MIL courses to be among the best available of their kind.

It is worth restating the reasons why Middlebury entered into this venture:

• First, we seek to retain our leadership in language teaching, which began 100 years ago with the founding of the Middlebury summer intensive Language Schools and their distinctive approach to language learning. To achieve this goal, we need to experiment with new pedagogies, including online learning. We purposely pursued experimenting outside the “college educational space” so as not to interfere with the traditional pedagogies at the College or confuse MIL’s mission with the College’s. MIL has contributed much to our understanding of what works and does not work with online courses in foreign language teaching and learning, and continues to represent a valuable and cost-effective research and development (“R&D”) vehicle.

•Second, we believed it was important that, as leaders in language instruction, we expand access to language education for pre-college students. The United States continues to lag behind much of the world in language education, and recent cuts to public school budgets have affected the teaching of languages disproportionately: foreign language courses are among the first to be eliminated when budgets need to be trimmed. MIL has the potential to increase access to language education for many students across the country, and has already done that. While little of what we learn might find its way back to our residential liberal arts curriculum, there is no doubt that online learning will soon complement our Language Schools intensive summer curriculum, our Bread Loaf School of English curriculum, and a number of degree programs at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

•Third, we recognized that this venture was an opportunity for Middlebury to develop new revenue sources that would help us sustain our commitment to need-blind admissions, increasing our student body’s socioeconomic diversity through greater financial aid, small class sizes, and competitive salaries to attract and retain an excellent faculty and staff. We can no longer count on annual tuition increases to generate the resources needed to achieve all these goals, and so if MIL ultimately provides revenue to the institution, it will help us preserve what we value most in our residential liberal arts program.

We chose to partner with K12 Inc. due to its experience in creating online pre-college courses successfully in disciplines outside the foreign languages. We knew we could not launch courses independently, as we needed the technological experience and scale to allow for course development and meaningful student and course assessment. Our $4 million investment in MIL, for which we received a 40-percent share of the company, was an investment from our endowment and has no effect on our annual operating budget.

Middlebury’s long record of innovation and experimentation has frequently been questioned by those comfortable with the status quo. This was true in 1915 when the first summer Language School was founded here at Middlebury by a German professor from Vassar College. The Middlebury faculty opposed the idea, arguing that such a program had no place on the Middlebury campus. It was not part of the Middlebury mission, many argued. Thankfully, President John Thomas went ahead with the creation of the Language Schools despite the opposition.  Thomas recognized the risks, but also saw the possible long-term rewards from what was then a novel and new way to teach languages and culture.

One hundred years later, there is no doubt that everyone who has studied at Middlebury, whether in the summer at the intensive Language Schools, or here as an undergraduate student, has benefitted from the leadership in language education the Schools have brought to the College. Likewise, pursuing online education with a partner in the pre-college educational space, though beyond the traditional mission of our undergraduate college, has allowed us to experiment, learn, and, hopefully, remain in the forefront of language education for the foreseeable future. Such leadership for a liberal arts institution is rare, and we should neither take it for granted nor rest on our past accomplishments.

RONALD D. LIEBOWITZ is the President of Middlebury College

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