UNC’s online Spanish courses mediate budget woes

Students at a variety of schools, including UNC, are beginning to take online hybrid courses, which are a combination of Internet lectures and in-person office hours with the professor.
Students at a variety of schools, including UNC, are beginning to take online hybrid courses, which are a combination of Internet lectures and in-person office hours with the professor.

Every week, UNC freshman Zealan Hoover stares at his computer for one of his Spanish 101 sections.

He is not on Facebook. He is not on Twitter. In fact, he is doing what he is supposed to do, as Hoover’s Elementary Spanish 1 course is taught partially online. As part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s hybrid program for Spanish 101 students, every week, Hoover attends one Spanish lecture, a small group session and then conducts the rest of his Spanish coursework on his computer.

“The online aspect of it, I have to admit, leaves a lot to be desired,” Hoover said. “It’s a lot of tedious busywork.”

Next semester, many other Tar Heels will be doing the same—but even more often than Hoover. As part of a move to avoid larger class sizes, all of UNC’s beginning Spanish courses will be conducted entirely online.

Bruce Carney, UNC interim executive vice chancellor and provost, wrote in an e-mail that the decision to make the course online was largely because of class size limitations. Enrollment in UNC Spanish courses increased 9 percent from Fall 2008 to Fall 2009, he said.

The decision also comes partially because of UNC’s recent budget cuts, which have forced the university to cancel about 200 classes this year, The Daily Tar Heel reported Aug. 28.

Larry King, chair and director of undergraduate studies of romance languages at UNC, wrote in an e-mail that the romance languages department is cutting its budget by 7 percent this year. He added that money saved from running the hybrid program­—the combination of online and classroom coursework that Hoover is taking—for the past three years has helped offset that cut.

Hosun Kim, director of the UNC Foreign Language Resource Center and a Spanish 101 professor, said students in the online program will watch instructional videos, complete online assignments and work with assigned partners to develop Spanish skills. The students will also attend mandatory weekly office hours with their professor to receive “tips about Spanish language and culture.”

As a part of the hybrid program, Hoover said he is required to complete 15 to 20 online exercises a week, which range from fill-in-the-blank questions to sentence prompts.

Hoover said the hybrid course is a good solution to some of the university’s space and budget issues, but his thoughts on the completely online course model differ.

“It’s kind of funny because the school is constantly talking about how they’re cutting costs, they’re saving money, but they’re not compromising academics,” Hoover said. “And this just seems to flatly contradict that, so it’s a little disappointing.”

But Kim said the Spanish department is focused on academics. He noted that the department started preparing for the online version of the course three years ago, when the university was not facing budget difficulties.

“We are not doing this just to save money,” Kim said. “The most important concern that we have is student learning.”

He added that the hybrid program has been largely successful—hybrid students outperformed their peers in traditional courses in the reading and writing components, but there was a decrease in hybrid students’ oral scores. Although traditional students’ oral scores averaged 83.5 percent, the students in the hybrid version averaged 81.1 percent.

Amy Wentworth, a lecturing fellow in Spanish at Duke, said she is “old-fashioned” and prefers face-to-face interactions between professors and students.

“If the students are just sitting there listening to the teacher or just sitting there watching the video, they’re not performing,” she said. “It is so important to actually do something, to perform, to take something on as one’s own, to claim it. Basically, even in Spanish 1, a student has to claim Spanish as their own.”

Duke junior Wes Norris, who is enrolled in Spanish 1, said taking beginner Spanish online would make the course appealing to students just looking to fill their schedules.

“I think that would be blatantly retarded,” Norris said. “If you’re doing it entirely online, you’re going to have no interaction with people, and the entire purpose of language is to interact with people.”

The reasons for the creation of online courses go beyond mere budget cuts, but Hoover said that if UNC wants to save money, it can do so through other means. For example, UNC students are required to take a lifetime fitness course, which Hoover said could easily go online.

Duke plans to cut its operating budget by $125 million over the next three years, but administrators said the University has no plans to move any of its courses online.


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