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A digital dialogue: UWM expands online language offerings

Learning any new language can be hard, but studying Hebrew has a unique set of difficulties. It uses an entirely new alphabet, and students have to get used to reading from right to left instead of left to right.

Diana Thomawong has an additional challenge: Her language teachers are more than a thousand miles away.

“It works as long as you’re willing to put the time into it,” she said from her home in California. “The convenience of an online language class is nice.”

Thomawong is one of a new crop of students who are taking advantage of UWM’s online language offerings. The university now offers four semesters of Hebrew online, and will offer online classes in German for the first time in the spring of 2020. Plans are in the works to begin offering French and Italian online as well.

“I think these language offerings are going to be valuable, especially for less-commonly taught languages, like Hebrew, where students can’t necessarily go to their local university and find someone who’s going to be teaching Hebrew,” said Mike Darnell, “But they can ‘come’ to UWM and have that experience.”

Darnell is an assistant dean of curriculum and governance in the College of Letters & Science. He’s helping bring UWM’s language courses online so that students across the country can attend UWM without ever stepping foot on campus.

And now that UWM is offering these classes, Darnell added, students can more easily earn their degrees completely online as well.

An online bachelor’s degree

The College of Letters & Science requires that students take four semesters of a language other than English in order to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts, or two semesters of a language other than English to earn a Bachelor of Science. 

“I think you’re going to see students who already have college credit but dropped out for whatever reason coming back online for a completed degree,” Darnell said. “I think it’s going to be a huge thing for them.”

For Thomawong, it means that she’ll be able to graduate this May with double majors in history and Jewish studies.

Diana Thomawong smiles with her son. Thomawong takes classes from UWM online from her home in California. Photo courtesy of Diana Thomawong. 

“The convenience of online courses and also having a friendly user interface was what made the difference for me,” she said.

The convenience can’t be overstated. Thomawong is a 35-yearold mother who manages her parents’ Thai restaurant in northern California. Between her family and her job, Thomawong doesn’t have time to spend commuting to classes.

Learning a language online

There are several models for online language learning, including synchronous – where students will meet in an online classroom at a set time – and asynchronous, where students learn the material online but practice on their own time. Darnell says that the French and Italian classes UWM offers will be synchronous, while Hebrew classes are already asynchronous. German, will combine both methods.

In any language, “Students access the courses remotely and utilize multimedia elements such as group chats, web seminars, and video conferencing,” said Simonetta Milli Konewko, an associate professor in UWM’s French, Italian, and Comparative Literature department. “This approach presents several positive components that make this kind of learning very similar to a face-to-face delivery,” she added.

There’s not much research yet indicating whether online language learning is any more difficult or easy than traditional classroom learning, but Darnell suspects there might be advantages to learning a language at a distance from your classmates.

“I say this as a linguist. You can imagine the fear of some people have around embarrassing yourself when you try to say something (in a foreign language),” he said. “You can also imagine if you’re learning these things in a place where you don’t feel like anyone is watching you while you make mistakes, it could be considered easier.”

The drawback is that students don’t get to hear their teachers and peers practicing the language with them. In a traditional classroom, “You see the teacher every day. You can ask questions right away and you hear the repetition. You’re with other students and you can hear them pronounce the words too,” Thomawong said. “With online classes, it’s up to the student to be resourceful.”

With synchronous learning, however, those worries may be mitigated. Konewko notes that in UWM’s future Italian courses, “Instructors relate in real time proposing group activities, interactions among participants, and explanation of notions when students are struggling. Students receive immediate answers about any aspect of the learning process.”

Four courses in Italian will be offered starting the in the fall of 2020.

The wave of the future?

In an increasingly digital world, online language offerings are a way to help more students in more places access a UWM education. Even so, Darnell said, there will always be a place for classroom learning.

“There are cases where (students) simply prefer the classroom experience,” he said.

Online languages are also a way to extend UWM’s reach, especially at a time when the population of collegeaged students is shrinking.

“We see this as a real opportunity to allow students who wouldn’t be able to complete a degree otherwise to complete one. And too, the breadth of languages that we currently offer on this campus might well become much more sustainable,” Darnell added. “We’re expanding our campus.”

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science