August 29, 2012

Going Dutch: A Look at Distance Learning

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With the rapid rise of modern technologies, it’s not surprising that we’re finally starting to catch up with our technology. Cell phones gave us the first viable means of portable communication; now, one-touch access to the global network jostles along in our back pockets. Facebook brought us just one click away from a new “friend,” whether it be the cute guy sitting across the room in Econ or a long-lost cousin living halfway across the world. Skype took us one step further, providing the intimacy of a face-to-face conversation at the convenience of two people miles apart. Our ever-growing world is rapidly shrinking.

So why not bring this technology into the modern-day classroom? The Dutch distance learning program between Cornell University and Yale University does just that. Cornell students learning Dutch participate in group activities, give presentations and converse with their professors in classroom G05 of the Language Resource Center. The catch? Their professor and their Yale classmates are 261 miles away, broadcasting from Yale’s Center for Language Study.

Due to the University’s economic woes, the College of Arts and Sciences made the decision to cut the Dutch program, which ended after Spring 2011. As a result, Dutch lecturer Chrissy Hosea made the transition from one Ivy League to another and established the inaugural Dutch Studies Program at Yale University in Fall 2011. Current Dutch students, however, still have the chance to participate in a distance-learning pilot program, in which classes taught by Hosea at Yale are transmitted to Cornell without rupturing the simultaneity and interaction of a traditional setup. Hosea and her students communicate with each other via a configuration of cameras, microphones and a large video screen. Group work is done face-to-face on computer workstations, with constant feedback from the professor.

Though some remain skeptical of distance-learning courses, the Dutch program has proved itself to be on the cutting edge of educational technology. To some extent, the pilot program has been successful thus far due to the sophisticated high-tech gear; however, it is Hosea’s creativity that magnificently brings two classrooms into one. Her unconventional teaching methods are enhanced by the seemingly infinite possibilities that this setup offers. When discussing a particular city, she can pull up Google Maps and annotate specific regions using a SMART Board. News clips and articles covering current events in the Netherlands are only a click away. Students work together on the workstations to write and edit texts together. Every so often they play Pictionary to practice vocabulary words, using a tablet to sketch an image that is projected on the screens at both Cornell and Yale. Last semester, the Cornell students had the unique opportunity to visit the Johnson Museum and give a live presentation about the art of the Dutch Golden Age to Yale, facilitated by the Skype application on an iPad.

Far from feeling isolated from a separate classroom hundreds of miles away, Cornell students still feel connected to the professor and their Yale classmates. Hosea makes semesterly visits to Cornell to see her students in person and holds a special mandatory office hours on Skype every few weeks to simply check in with the students and see how they are doing.

However, distance learning is not without its downfalls. Technology, though amazing in its capacity, is not always reliable, and can be limited by external — and often uncontrollable — factors. Video and audio connections between Yale and Cornell are sometimes disrupted by a malfunctioning audio system or an exceptionally poor Internet connection, which takes precious minutes away from productive class time. Lesson plans and activities will occasionally fall through, leaving Hosea and her technology specialist and assistant to quickly come up with an alternative. Beyond the classroom, Yale and Cornell run on different academic calendars and have discrepancies between official class times. In order for the continued success of a program like Dutch, preparation and communication between the two institutions is key.

Although this distance-learning experience leaves students feeling confident in their language abilities, there also remains the question of the limits of distance learning for the Cornell and its proposed consortium with Columbia and Yale. As the University begins to shift toward the gradual employment of distance-learning courses for smaller language programs, how will the students — and the professors who teach the courses — be affected in the long run?

As always, Cornell’s motto of “any person … any study” arises whenever the University mentions the termination of an academic program. Students with an aptitude for foreign languages are attracted to Cornell for its myriad of offerings, from Arabic to Zulu. Graduate students conducting research rely on tutelage from professors in these departments to read primary texts. Heritage speakers develop a cultural identity by formally studying their mother tongue.

Thankfully, the Dutch program lives on through airwaves and soundbites. Distance learning has officially arrived; how well can it bridge the gap?

Moniek van Rheenen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mjv63@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Moniek van Rheenen

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