Improving the Recipe for Effective Language Learning

Improving the Recipe for Effective Language Learning

Fernando Rubio checks back in with us after finishing his first year teaching a Spanish MOOC.

I ended my previous post inviting you to think about the role of MOOCs and the intersection between teaching and certification.

The conversation that has been going on since my last post has been just as polarized as it was before. MOOCs have recently been called a new form of colonialism because they are an attempt to address the demand for higher education by some of the top universities in the U.S. They have also been touted as a disruptive game changer if MOOC providers can create the right recipe that combines free access and credit. Let’s take a look at some offerings from MOOC providers.

Fremium Model

MOOC2Degree is a result of a number of universities teaming up with online course developers Academic Partnerships. Students receive the first course in an online degree program as a free MOOC in hopes that they will then pay tuition to complete the degree through regular online coursework. This is simply a version of the freemium model that we all know and love.

User-Centered Model

Outside the U.S., as part of the UK’s Open University, Futurelearn has thrown its hat in the ring by promising a for-credit MOOC-like experience without the drop-out rates and plagiarism problems of a MOOC. As they say, “it would be a shame to deliver that on a platform and infrastructure that was powered on another continent.” (Did anyone mention neocolonialism?)

Blended MOOCs

I am writing this blog post as I read the New York Times’ front page story on how San Jose State has “outsourced” to Udacity some of the mentoring for its basic math courses. The article includes this interesting quote from a higher education officer at the Gates Foundation: “2013 is about blending MOOCs into college courses where there is additional support, and students get credit.” This quote gives me the perfect segue into the point that I want to make today.

My main concern is still the same it was when I started teaching my MOOC — What can MOOCs teach us about learning and how can they create a more effective learning environment? And perhaps blending MOOCs into regular for credit (either online or face-to-face) courses is the way to take advantage of what the two formats can offer. My next challenge, for Fall ’13, is a blended course on Spanish Applied Linguistics that will combine 50% face-to-face instruction and 50% MOOC. For-credit students will participate in both formats and will hopefully benefit form the opportunity to interact with a large number of students who will be following the free and open MOOC component of the course. I will keep you posted!

In the meantime, please send your thoughts on developments in the world of MOOC language learning. 

Fernando RubioFernando Rubio is Co-director of the University of Utah’s Second Language Teaching and Research Center (L2TReC) and Associate Professor of Spanish Linguistics.  His research focuses on the acquisition of Spanish as a second language and on the intersection of language learning and technology.


  1. Thanks for the update about your first MOOC experience, Fernando. I’m curious to know whether or not you solicited feedback from students who enrolled in your Spanish MOOC. I think that your question (i.e., whether or not MOOCs create an effective learning environment) will primarily depend on how students enrolled in these kinds of courses perceive their own learning, their interactions with you and with fellow students, etc. It would be interesting to hear their reactions and insights about the course.

    As far as your next MOOC adventure, I think you’re on to something by coupling a more intimate, f2f experience with a much more public, online MOOC component. At first glance, that appears to be the best of both worlds. But again, I think the input from the students who take your new course in the fall will be helpful to know the benefits and drawbacks of combining the two contexts of learning. Please do keep us posted! I’m sure you’ve already seen this, but I thought I would mention that Inside Higher Ed has recently put together a free collection of essays and articles about MOOCs (called ‘The MOOC Moment’) and will be offering a free webinar about issues raised in the collection at the end of this month. Here’s a link with more information:

  2. Thanks for your comment, Joshua, and for the link to the IHE compilation. This whole thing keeps getting more and more attention. I found out yesterday that there is a new journal, MOOCs Forum, dedicated exclusively to MOOCs
    To answer your question, I did get feedback from the students. Of course, as is usually the case, the ones who take the time to give you feedback are the ones who are really happy with the results. The beauty of the MOOC is that you can see how everyone interacts with the course (learner analytics) and learn from those who learned, but also from those who didn’t.

    • Carl Blyth says

      Hi Fernando,

      Thanks for the update on your MOOC experience. I wish more people could read your reasonable prose about the whole MOOC thing. There is still so much hyperbole and fear out there in academia land. But that is to be expected given the economic downturn and how it is affecting higher education. You mentioned San Jose State in your post, but have you seen the open letter from the chair of the SJS Philosophy department. He touches on all the concerns that I am hearing from my colleagues in the humanities. They feel like MOOCs are a way to outsource them and therefore give administrators a convenient way to cut these “underperforming” units. Have a look:

  3. There are inevitably some limitations within MOOC. However my experience has been that this issue has not been the problem. The main issues relate to the understandings of how people learn languages and what educators can do about that.
    Currently language teaching in the main produces very poor outcomes across all mediums, if you look at those who manage to get to full proficiency as as proportion of those who started. This contrasts with our first experience in learning languages – L1! We need to re-examine the understandings that underpin our teachings. If we do not do that, even the best MOOC platform can give not give the outcomes we are looking form

    • Andrew, you are absolutely right, that’s why I see MOOCs as one more way to explore how to improve the L2 learning experience. We need to focus on how to do things better and avoid knee-jerk reactions and doomsday predictions like the San José State letter that Carl mentions above. MOOCs will probably not be the answer to the problems that you mention, but I want to give them a try just in case they help. Thanks for your comment.

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