From the editor: We had the opportunity to interview Scott Rapp, co-founder of the Instreamia language learning platform and the designer and instructor of a new first-year Spanish MOOC (4,762 students enrolled). Check back with Open Up to find out about Scott’s new Language Teaching MOOC for creating blended learning environments.
OU: How did you learn Spanish and what motivated you to create Instreamia?
SR: My brother, Ryan, and I each spent two years abroad volunteering, Ryan went to Japan, and I went to Honduras. Learning Japanese and Spanish was a necessity.
Years later we were both working for Deloitte–Ryan in Japan and I in DC. We began discussing our strategies for learning languages, which was especially on Ryan’s mind as he had to do everything in Japanese, and he was also constantly being asked how he learned Japanese and recommendations for how they could learn English.
We decided that a well-indexed set of reference tools combined with natural language processing really took a lot of the tediousness out of learning a language. We gradually worked on building a product around RSS feeds and text-based sources when the “big idea” hit me like a ton of bricks: What if we could go beyond text-only sources, and focus our strategy on subtitled videos? Then we could integrate our powerful toolset into a video player! This led to other breakthrough innovations, like the dynamic exercises and adaptive learning with time-series depreciation that Instreamia includes today.
OU: Why did you decide to make your courses open?
SR: Developing the Instreamia software, we wanted it to have a positive impact on the most people possible. We also recognized that many of the ideas for improvements and future developments would come from language learners and teachers, and that has proven true time and again. We still feel strongly that content development efforts by educators (including ourselves) are best made in Open Educational Resources. Our platform can’t work without excellent content, and obtaining and maintaining licensing for hundreds of videos, learning modules, dictionaries, and explanations would greatly undermine the scalability and versatility of our platform.
OU: But you are going to start charging a $99 registration fee? (Learn more.)
SR: All the investment in Instreamia has been founders’ capital. Before quitting Deloitte, Ryan put away a substantial seed investment that he was able to live on for over a year while he began the development of Instreamia. I still work full-time, and work on Instreamia and the SpanishMOOC in my free time, and invest a portion of my salary to Instreamia.
We knew the time would come for us to change from an entirely free platform to having paid services or premium features. We want to stay true to our decision of making all the content free and open, and we will continue to publish all the materials we or any users create through Creative Commons.
OU: What were the factors behind the decision to charge the fee?
SR: During our initial offering of our Spanish MOOC, we realized the level of effort and commitment to our students (especially hand-grading assignments) could not be handled solely by volunteers. We were faced with a difficult decision: we could shut down the Spanish MOOC offering altogether, degrade the experience by excluding any teacher interaction, or … offer an improved course with paid TAs and graders, and charge a registration fee. We decided to add the fee, so we could offer a much improved learning experience.
OU: What are aspects of your courses that remain open?
SR: Our technology and code-base is not open-source. It’s proprietary and has a patent pending. But we’re committed to openness in content creation. Here’s how teachers, graders, and even advanced learners can contribute to each of our content categories:
- Native-Content Subtitled Audio/Videos – These are either user-created (under CC), Instreamia-created (under CC), or they are used with permission from YouTube. Teachers can write text, record audio, and translate the transcript through Instreamia’s Video Editor.
- Instructional Videos – These are videos we make available on our YouTube Channel (under CC). Any teacher can contribute by creating their own YouTube channel and embedding their videos on the Instreamia Lesson Creator.
- Lessons – These are either user-created (under CC), or Instreamia-created (under CC). Teachers can write text, embed Instructional Videos, and create exercises based on the Native-Content library.
- Grammar Explanations – These are lessons with special indexing, so that teachers and graders can direct their students to them. For example, typing @gustar anywhere in a lesson or comment would create a link to the Gustar grammar explanation.
- Dictionary Entries – Every word has audio pronunciation (Forvo, not CC), definitions (Princeton’s WordNet, free license), and multilingual relations, or translations (Instreamia, CC). When a user notices a word with an inaccurate or missing translation, he/she can edit it, so our users are making our translations better all the time.
As a community we can make and maintain content that frees us from using archaic textbooks. (See “Got Textbooks? From This Century?”) Together as a group of educators, we can provide a better learning experience without having to license content. This will make teaching languages more scalable and affordable, and it will allow for rapidly-evolving curricula.
OU: Do you have any questions for our readers?
SR: We have so much to say and to discuss, and we’d love to hear comments from you!
- How would your classroom change if a computer were able to assign and grade homework based on each individual student’s needs?
- What methods have you found to make students fall in love with the subject matter
Scott Rapp is professor of SpanishMOOC, an open initiative to teach Spanish to large groups of people online. He is also the co-founder of the adaptive language learning platform Instreamia, which enables blended teaching by dynamically creating interactive lessons based on native content.