MOOCs Need Foreign Language Specialists

MOOCs Need Foreign Language Specialists

Last December, I participated in a symposium organized by Ed Dixon and Christina Frei from the Penn Language Center. Focused on “advancing language education beyond the classroom,” the symposium convinced me that the foreign language community must become more involved in the open education movement. Here’s why…

One of the speakers at the symposium was Daphne Koller, Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University and co-founder of Coursera, a company that designs MOOCs for the global public.

Daphne Koller on Ted Talk: What We’re Learning From Online Education.

Daphne spoke about Coursera’s strategy of partnering with top universities to make education freely accessible. The goal is to reach millions of students worldwide by designing effective MOOCs in a range of disciplines. While Daphne presented a compelling vision, several educators raised concerns.

Sophie Queuniet, a French language specialist from Columbia University posed a pertinent question: “Will MOOCs be the end of foreign languages? Will we end up teaching the world in English?” In other words, will Coursera and other American attempts at MOOCs perpetuate the global dominance of English? Sophie’s question echoed a recent special volume of the online journal Language Learning and Technology entitled “Hegemonies in CALL.”

It was clear from Daphne’s response that she had thought deeply about the linguistic challenges of MOOCs. She pointed out that while most of Coursera’s MOOCs are indeed in English, students often form study groups in their native languages. And some students actually form groups to discuss the material in foreign languages! In other words, students are practicing foreign languages within the boundaries of an English language MOOC. Daphne went on to say that Coursera is actively seeking courses in other languages besides English. The bottom line is that MOOCs need foreign language specialists.

Open online education is a great opportunity for the foreign language community. We understand the difficulties of educating students across cultural and linguistic boundaries, and we have been on the forefront of active, collaborative learning for decades. So, let’s seize this incredible opportunity. Our community’s expertise can truly change global education.

So, here is my question: How can we get foreign language educators more involved in MOOCs and in open education?

Carl Blyth is Director of COERLL and Associate Professor of French, UT Austin.


  1. Check out this MOOC portal in Spanish – the “revolution” has started.

  2. It is no secret that more and more language departments in higher education have to face painful cuts, reductions in faculty, and attacks on their educational value and necessity when they are compared to more “profitable” disciplines. Why not open the doors and let the world decide if foreign languages are of value? Foreign language classes will sure get a boost in popularity if masses of students will sign up for FL MOOCs.

  3. I’m glad to see that the monolingual nature of many MOOCs is being recognized here. The Chronicle of Higher Education just published an article on the development of “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age””, which seeks to provide a philosophical framework for online learning during this time of rapid growth. (See The authors of this document include many commendable ideas, but within their descriptions of “The right to access” and the principle of “Global contribution” no mention is made of language diversity as a factor. The challenges of online learning within a context of language diversity seem to be mostly overlooked in the current conversation about MOOCs. We need to add our voices to the conversation!

    • Carl Blyth says

      Thanks for the link, Rachael. A Bill of Rights for Digital Learning is a great idea. But American Higher Education needs to break out of its monolingual bias. The Internet is a multilingual space par excellence.

  4. As you point out Carl, I believe too that MOOCs are presenting an opportunity for language educators rather than a threat. Language MOOCs can be used for outreach, as course teasers and preparing students for taking the multilingual MOOCs that Daphne Koller alluded to and are offered in various disciplines but in the native languages spoken by the experts. In response to your question: “How do we get foreign language educators more involved in MOOCs?” My first recommendation is that instructors enroll in a MOOC to understand how technology and pedagogy work together in community-centered learning environments. The Spanish MOOC that Victor recommends is a good starting point. Secondly, I would urge language instructors to use more communication technologies in their F2F courses with an eye for eventually turning their courses into live online courses. This sounds more easily said then done, since such transformations require training and an understanding of the new teaching and learning methods supported by interactive online networks. However, I can say from experience, that the first steps although difficult can lead to a better understanding of how students engage each other through collaborative online learning. Finally, teaching online obviously presents teachers with new challenges but as Marie-Noelle Lamy pointed out in her talk at the symposium, these challenges can create more knowledgeable teachers capable of adapting educational practices to meet the needs of the 21st century language learner.

    • Carl Blyth says

      Good point, Ed. It isn’t all or nothing. Teachers can begin the transition slowly by incorporating technology where feasible. Sound advice from someone who has helped a lot of FL instructors become more proficient!

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