Online Language Learning
The Case of Spanish Without Walls
Robert Blake University of California at Davis
Ann Marie Delforge University of California at Davis
Two factors dominate the recent interest in distance learning courses for foreign languages: (1) their potential to make language education available to those who cannot attend traditional classes because of time constraints or geographical location, and (2) their capacity to provide increased access for the study of less commonly taught languages (LCTLs). In reality, both motivations respond to the broader issue of increasing opportunities for language study that is so desperately needed in the United States (Simon 1980). In recognition of how important knowledge of languages other than English is to the security and economy of the United States, Congress declared 2005 to be the Year of Languages.
Naturally, there are also financial motivations for distance language learning. Some educators are beginning to propose that university students be allowed to satisfy graduation requirements by participating in distance education courses or replacing a portion of class time with some form of independent learning as a viable means of alleviating the enrollment pressures experienced by consistently affected language programs (Rogers and Wolff 2000; Soo and Ngeow 1998). Likewise, perennially resourse-poor language departments—most of the LCTL departments—are looking for ways to keep their programs vibrant and even increase student access to their courses.
Online courses are a particularly effective option for meeting the needs of foreign language education. Various other types of distance-learning formats, including live satellite and cable transmission, as well as pretaped video and audio materials, have been employed to deliver language instruction to distance learners over the years, but none of these methods is capable of providing the type of interactivity or scaffolding that current theories cite as necessary to promote second language learning (Long and Robinson 1998; Gass 1997).
Recent innovations in computer technology, however, which include multimedia computer-assisted language learning (CALL) materials as well as the availability of systems capable of supporting computer-mediated communication (CMC), make it possible for participants in online courses to engage in the active construction of L2 knowledge and to interact with one another in ways considered conducive to language learning. Unfortunately, only a limited number of outcome studies exists for online language courses (see the review of the literature in section 3.0).
In this chapter, we evaluate the effectiveness of one such online course, Spanish Without Walls (SWW), taught through the University of California, Davis Extension, using both quantitative output data (i.e., grammar tests and compositions) and