Asynchronous Online Foreign Language Courses (Distance Learning)


In 1999, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia (USG), in collaboration with a number of its member institutions, began developing a fully online set of courses that allows a student to complete a core curriculum that is transferable across the USG. The result of this effort is the USG’s eCore® Program, developed by the Advanced Learning Technologies (ALT) unit of the USG. The eCore® Courses were created using a collaborative course development process that engaged teams of USG faculty, technical support and an instructional designer from ALT. The collaborative course development process was utilized in order to take full advantage of the expertise of the team members and to incorporate multiple perspectives of the content into the courses. In addition, a set of guidelines for the development of eCore® courses was established to ensure the courses were of the highest quality possible. The eCore® course array was developed over a period of seven years. While many of the courses were well suited to the asynchronous online approach, there were content areas that were more controversial, such as physics, chemistry and foreign languages, due to the highly specific requirements in each of these disciplines.

The last courses to be developed for the USG’s eCore® Program were two that comprised the Intermediate Spanish sequence. This course development process began with an intensive examination of the viability of an online language course by a team of content experts from a team of USG Foreign Language faculty. Foreign Language (FL) courses, by nature, must incorporate exposure to the target language and extensive practice communicating in that language. Technology is increasingly becoming an integral part of the FL classroom as students use computer-mediated communication (CMC) to practice the language with their peers, instructor, and native speakers of the language via chat rooms and message boards. The following discusses the development and implementation of the Intermediate Spanish levels I and II courses for the USG eCore® Program.

background: computer-assisted language learning (call)

The study of Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL), an emerging topic for educators and researchers, has provided language instructors and learners a great realm of possibilities in Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Warschauer (1997), in his study “Computer-Mediated Collaborative Learning: Theory and Practice,” provides a succinct review of relevant research in the second half of the twentieth century, confirming the relationship between the significant increase in investigation in the 1990s with the advent of the internet and the rise of the accessibility of computers. Warschauer firmly asserts that online communication “encourages collaborative learning in the classroom” (p. 472). Some of the more salient studies (Kern, 1995; Warschauer, 1997;Kinginger, 1998, Abrams, 2003; Poza, 2005) emphasize the advantages of incorporating CMC into face-to-face language courses. Kern contends that: new medium-specific conventions . . . compensate for the absence of prosodic and paralinguistic features found inface-to-face oral communication. For example, facial expressions such as smiles [:-) 1, frowns [ ):-( 1, or winks [;-) ] become icons, and tone of voice is represented by capitalization, underlining, exclamation marks, and other symbols. (p. 459)

Many researchers agree that text-based computer conference technologies create a setting in which students experience a decrease in anxiety when compared to face-to-face conversation (Beauvois, 1994, 1996, 1999; Kivela, 1996; Lee, 2004; Meunier, 1998; Skinner & Austin, 1999; Warschauer, 1996). In addition, research shows that students indicate they feel a significantly lower fear of negative evaluation via the computer (Beauvois, 1996; Chun, 1994; Kelm, 1992; Kivela, 1996).

Recent advances in computer conferencing technologies expand communication from simple text-based tools, such as email, chat rooms, or bulletin boards, to voice-based technologies, further enhancing the language learning environment by allowing students to communicate with their own voices on their own time. Little research exists concerning the use of voice tools for CMC in foreign language classes; however a recent doctoral dissertation, “The Effects of Asynchronous Computer Voice Conferencing on Learners’ Anxiety When Speaking a Foreign Language” by Poza (2005) provides an in depth study of the many advantages of online oral interaction. Poza’s research utilizes an asynchronous voice web board developed by Wimba, a software company dedicated to the online education market. As defined by one of the co-founders and former CEO of the company, K. W. Ross (2003): “Asynchronous voice is the interactive communication process of people leaving voice messages for other people and the other people responding to their voice messages” (p. 60). The results of Poza’s investigation reveal that “a number of students experienced reduced anxiety attributable to both the elimination of the time pressure of the classroom, as well as the opportunity to edit their contributions before posting them to the voice board” (108).

developing and implementing ecore® intermediate spanish i and ii

In the spring of 2003 The Foreign Language Team (FLT) was formed to investigate the efficacy of an online eCore® Spanish course. This team was made up of USG Spanish, French, German and English faculty. The FLT report, (Barron, et al., 2003) was a comprehensive evaluation of the “state of the art” of online language education and offered a set of specific recommendations for developing asynchronous online language education courses for the USG eCore® proj ect. The report began with the following:

This report examines issues surrounding the implementation of2000 level online foreign language courses and makes specific recommendations to the University System of Georgia regarding implementing such courses as part of its eCore® program. In our examination, we consider outcomes and standards, pedagogical approaches, instructional materials, technology, teaching activities, and transferability issues.

The central challenge in designing an online foreign language course is to use technology effectively to assist in developing the students’ skills in reading, writing, speaking, and understanding. A related challenge is to create an online course that will effectively assess the students ‘performance and growth. (p. 2)

In addition, the FLT recognized the importance of students having a foundation in the target language prior to taking online courses This resulted in the implementation of the eCore® Spanish courses at the intermediate level with a prerequisite of elementary Spanish in a traditional classroom setting.

While this report provided an important framework for the eCore® Spanish courses, the actual development ofthe courses would be a greater challenge. Beginning in April, 2004 a team of four Spanish language faculty, an instructional designer and a programmer began to develop the courses. As the FLT report emphasized, skill development and assessment were crucial components of any successful language course.

The first challenge was to determine how the oral aspect of language education could be accomplished in an online environment. The FLT recommended several possible technologies including Wimba, a suite of “voice tools” specifically designed for online language education, a voice enabled web conferencing program called Elluminate, as well as telephone and tape recorded audio sessions. After careful consideration, Wimba was adopted because of its ease of use, asynchronous application, and compatibility with Blackboard Vista, the course management system used within the USG. Wimba allows students to record their oral exercises and post them to a “voice board” where they can be retrieved by the instructor for review and comment. In addition, the application includes voice email, a voice recorder that allows faculty to record audio and a synchronous component called voice direct.

Next, the team developed the actual course content including the lessons, labs and assessments. While there are many Intermediate Level Spanish textbooks, Enfoques by Vistas Higher Learning had several advantages that led the development team to adopt it for the courses. One of the primary advantages of Enfoques is the online lab, Web SAM (Student Activities Manual) provided by Quia Books. The labs, which include the workbook, laboratory manual, and video manual, are based on the text topic and this saved the team countless hours of development time. In addition, the textbook package includes CD-ROMs with video, audio and tutorials that are also linked to the textbook. These ready-made resources allowed the development team to focus on writing the course content.

In addition to the written course content the development team had native speakers of the language record readings that allow the students to experience in-depth recitations of literature in the target language. Finally, the team used the USG’s Interactive Media Object Development Tool (IMOD) to develop flash cards that presented key vocabulary in each unit. These cards show the Spanish and English spelling of word along with audio of the word being spoken in Spanish.

The pilot eCore® Spanish course began in the spring of 2006 at the intermediate level with eleven students. Because the textbook, Enfoques, is integrated into the online course, students are able to use its many resources to guide them as they work through each lesson. Enfoques includes a unique and engaging situational comedy video episode in every lesson featuring native speakers from several different Spanish-speaking countries. As students watch the video, they see the structures they are learning put to use in the everyday lives and adventures of the owner and his employees ofthe lifestyle magazine Facetas. In addition, in every odd-numbered lesson, students watch an interesting short film by a contemporary Hispanic filmmaker. Because the textbook emphasizes authentic language and practical vocabulary for communicating in real-life situations, students are provided with abundant opportunities to both experience the language in context and practice speaking it in communicative activities, all of this despite the fact that the students may never meet face-to-face. In addition, in each lesson there are literary readings, cultural viewpoints, fine art, and quotations by famous Hispanics that recognize and celebrate the diversity of the Spanish-speaking world and Spanish speakers.

When students sign in to their eCore® Spanish course, they enter into a Spanish-speaking world, an environment where they can listen to the language in authentic situations via the videos, the interactive CDROM, the mp3 files, the comprehensive laboratory activities, the recordings within the course in each lesson, the Wimba voice boards, and the iMods. Using the materials within the WebCT course and the textbook with its ancillaries, students have maximum exposure to the language, providing them with ample opportunities to improve their ability to speak, read, write, and understand Spanish.

Individual student language acquisition was the top priority in the design of these courses. One of the key features of the online eCore® courses is the dictation done by native Spanish speakers of much of the course content imbedded within the course itself. Students experience much ofwhat students in a face-to-face class experience in that aspect, as they read along while the instructor explains the material to them from the textbook. As a follow up, the students are asked questions concerning the context and vocabulary ofthe lesson, and they must answer by recording their own voices to the Wimba voice bulletin board Also accompanying each new grammatical structure is an additional explanation (in addition to the textbook) in Spanish for students to use as a guide. At the end of each chapter, students have the opportunity to listen while they read pieces of literature. Face-to-face students, for the most part, are unable to enjoy this luxury due to time limitations in the classrooms, but one can imagine how effective it would be to have a native speaker recorded for each piece of literature that is introduced in class.

One of the greatest advantages of an online FL course is the increase in communication in the target language among all students. In face-to-face classrooms, FL instructors often find it challenging to convince each student in a classroom to participate openly in oral activities. Poza (2005) affirms “that there is a strong relationship between anxiety and risk-taking in oral participation in a foreign language,” and that “if foreign language educators can provide an environment where students can concentrate on language and meaning, rather than on fear of failure and negative evaluation, their level of anxiety will be lowered, and they will be able to speak more often and openly in the target language. (p. 18-19). The affective filter, an expression used to describe the negative emotional environment created by high anxiety and low self-esteem in acquiring a second language, is indeed reduced in CMC. Students in a face-to-face classroom who fear negative evaluation, either from the instructor or their peers, are less apprehensive when communicating online, given the absence of both certain social cues and the intimidating presence of others nearby. In addition, “people with disabilities and those who would otherwise be reticent to participate in the communication act feel more inclined to take part in the interaction” (Poza, 2005). The online Intermediate Spanish eCore® courses provide a comfortable learning environment in which students communicate with ease. In addition to the added benefits of lowering student anxiety, CMC allows for students to produce more language with a richer vocabulary than they do in face-to-face conversations (Beauvois, 1997).

Table 1.

Table 1.

The scope and sequence of the eCore® Intermediate Spanish I and II courses is shown in Table 1. (taken from Enfoques):

Due to the quantity of topics and structures covered in each chapter, the eCore® Intermediate Spanish courses are more time consuming for both the instructor and the student than the equivalent face-to-face courses. The activities within the textbook that are designed for use within the classroom are now assignments that students must complete on their own. Students type their answers to the corresponding textbook activities listed within each lesson in WebCT, record their voices in specific exercises, and complete the workbook activities, video manual, and laboratory manual on the Quia Books web site. The first semester that Intermediate Spanish I was offered in eCore®, spring 2006, the course included lessons 1 through 6, and students turned in each textbook activity separately, inundating the instructor’s assignment dropbox with dozens of submissions each chapter. Over the summer of 2006, the course was restructured to incorporate only lessons 1 through 5 and revised so that students would compile their textbook activities on one document per chapter and submit those at the end of each lesson.

The second offering of this course, fall 2006, was more efficient and better organized. In both the spring and fall semesters of 2007, two courses of Intermediate Spanish I and one course of Intermediate Spanish II were offered. Both courses are currently undergoing another revision due to a new edition of the textbook, Enfoques. These changes will provide the student with more contemporary cultural activities with the integration of a new and exciting video series titled Flash Cultura, which depicts on-location scenes of real-world events and real Spanish speakers. In addition, Enfoques includes a new Supersite online which features an expansive set of tools and resources for both students and instructors.

future trends

As mentioned above, there are few studies on the use of voice tools in online language courses. There is a great opportunity for research in this area, especially concerning student evaluation both prior to and following taking the fully online course. As video conferencing is gaining in popularity, it would provide another avenue of research for the possibility of incorporating into these online Spanish courses. In addition, podcasting has become an excellent way to reach students via their most chosen media, providing them the opportunities to view video and/or listen to audio files via their iPods as they approach learning a foreign language in a fully online classroom.


As of the spring of2006 over 13,000 students had taken eCore® courses in 489 sections of the 25 courses offered. One advantage of these courses is that their credits are accepted system-wide by the 35 USG institutions.

This flexibility, combined with the fact that the courses are offered in an “asynchronous” or anytime-anywhere format, has a wide appeal to non-traditional students. Nearly 45% of the students enrolled in eCore® courses are over the age of25, 72% are female, and there has been a steady increase in the number of minority students to almost 30% since the inception of the program. In the Intermediate Spanish courses now offered in eCore®, students are quite pleased with the many resources available to them, and several have expressed interest in continuing the language as a minor, perhaps even a major field of study.


Affective Filter Hypothesis: The hypothesis credited to Stephen Krashen, an expert in linguistics, that declares that a student’s anxiety, low self esteem, or lack of motivation can serve to cause a mental block preventing the successful acquisition of a second language. If the “affective filter” is lowered by creating a learning environment in which students are more motivated and suffer from less anxiety and low self esteem, the possibility of success in achieving SLA is greatly improved.

Asynchronous Course: A course that does not typically meet for regularly scheduled class meeting times and is available any time, any place and at any pace. This allows students to participate from any location. These courses generally make use of the Internet, CD-ROM, independent study, or a combination thereof. Students access the course material from a course web site or a course management system.

Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL): A wide encompassing term that represents a methodology of language teaching and learning that involves the utilization of computer technology in assessment, reinforcement, interaction, communication, and presentation.

CALICO: The Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium, a professional organization whose members emphasize the combination of technology with language teaching and learning.

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC): Any communication between two or more individuals using a computer as the means to exchange data.

Second Language Acquisition (SLA): The process by which people learn languages in addition to their native language(s). The term second language is used to describe any language whose acquisition starts after early childhood (including what may be the third or subsequent language learned). The language to be learned is often referred to as the “target language” or “L2″, compared to the first language, “L1″. Second language acquisition may be abbreviated “SLA”, or L2A, for “L2 acquisition”.Synchronous Course: A course that meets for regularly scheduled class meeting times.

USG’s eCore® Program: eCore®—short for electronic core curriculum—allows University System of Georgia students the opportunity to complete their first two years (the “core” curriculum) of their collegiate careers in an online environment. While originally designed for the non-traditional student, many currently enrolled students find eCore® presents an opportunity for increasing flexibility and convenience in their course load management. eCore® consists of online freshman- and sophomore-level courses designed, developed, taught, and supported by faculty and staff from the University System of Georgia. eCore® offers courses in English, mathematics, science, history, and the social sciences. Courses comply with ADA standards to meet the needs of students with disabilities or special needs.

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