Starting Fall 2013, Duke will partner with University of Virginia to broaden language opportunities for students.

The two institutions hope to promote less commonly taught languages by providing students the opportunity to take courses at the other university. Using videoconferencing, Duke students will be able to enroll in a Tibetan language course at UVa. Students at UVa will use the partnership to take a Creole language course at Duke. By offering distance-learning courses, Duke and UVa hope to reach a larger pool of students. On average, there are fewer than 10 students in Duke’s Creole and UVa’s Tibetan classes—but the class size has the potential to significantly increase with the new collaborative initiative.

“This is a chance for us to network and create communities with other universities through distance-learning technology,” said Deborah Jenson, director of undergraduate studies and professor of romance studies who created and taught several Creole courses.

Yale University has a similar partnership with Columbia University and Cornell University, offering a total of eight languages to students from the other universities, and Duke originally approached Yale faculty about joining their partnership. But they denied Duke’s request, claiming the extra addition would be too much to handle, said Gil Merkx, the director of international and area studies and professor of the practice of sociology.

Merkx added that UVa and Princeton University then expressed interest in forming a partnership with Duke to offer language courses. Although a partnership was only formed with UVa, Princeton may join in a year or two, he said.

Duke and UVa will offer one course each semester to students. Duke students can use the UVa courses for credit and to fulfill the language requirement for undergraduates in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. Students at UVa will also be able to receive course credit through its French department for their Creole course.

Unlike other online courses, the language courses will follow the format of a normal class—students from the different universities will be able to ask each other questions, practice verbal skills and see each other with the advanced videoconferencing technology.

The TelePresence screens, made by Cisco, allow people to communicate with little delay. When a person talks, a voice-activated camera automatically zooms in on the speaker’s face, Merkx said.

“It is a classroom experience with a TelePresence screen, which is almost like being in the room with somebody else,” Merkx said.

David Germano, co-director of the Tibet Center at UVa, said the TelePresence technology will be an important asset.

“Having a personal presence, someone who’s actually teaching you in a small environment, is very important,” he said.

The program will provide online office hours via Skype so that students who do not attend the home institution will still be able to ask their professors for help, said Jacques Pierre, visiting lecturer in French, Haitian Creole and Culture in the department of Romance studies who teaches all three levels of Creole at Duke.

“It is a great initiative because now it’s kind of like a door open to everyone who’d like to study Creole,” he said.

The initiative is effectively cost-neutral for both universities, said Dean of Arts and Sciences Laurie Patton, who had the initial idea for the collaboration. There is little cost to either university because the program involves languages that are already offered. Both Duke and UVa already have TelePresence screens, so there will be no additional technological costs.

Merkx estimated that the program will eventually expand to include more languages and universities if it is successful.

But Pierre advised program developers against becoming too dependent on the system.

“You can’t rely too much on technology—it’s a great tool, but at the same time you need to think of some kind of backup,” he said.

The program is still in its initial phases, but Patton is optimistic about the collaboration’s success. She added that it is important for students to gain knowledge of diverse cultures, citing language as a key component of learning about different cultures.

“Lesser taught languages are part of a new vision of global education.... They are helpful for students truly wanting to be global citizens and understand knowledge in the service of society,” Patton said. “Universities in this day and age should take advantage of their own resources in lesser taught languages and share them with others.”