Can Online Programs Replace Maine’s Foreign Language Teachers?

Oct 28, 2016

This week, we’ve been exploring why so many of Maine’s public schools can’t seem to find enough foreign language teachers. In his third and final report of the series, Robbie Feinberg takes us into one of these classrooms to see if technology could be the answer.

The foreign language class at Madison Area Memorial High School is unusually quiet. There’s no teacher at the front. Instead, students are just scattered around the room, donning headsets plugged into their laptops.

“We put the headphones in and we can hear it speak back to us,” senior Benjamin Peck says as he logs on to his computer.

Peck speaks French into the Rosetta Stone language-learning program on his laptop. It responds to each correct answer with a glowing green light telling Peck that his answers are right.

At Madison, this is how all foreign language learning will look during the 2016-2017 school year — no teachers, just computers. The reason, says Principal Jessica Ward, is that the school’s foreign language teacher left this summer and there was no luck in finding a replacement.

“But then foreign language, we had nobody,” she says. “I called [the University of Southern Maine], [the University of Maine at Farmington], the state even, And every place, the answer was, there is no one they knew of who has recently graduated. So we kind of were left with nobody.”

That left the school scrambling with just a few weeks until the start of the academic year. But then the guidance counselor had an idea — why not try Rosetta Stone, the same language immersion software that’s sold commercially?

“We were a little hesitant — is it going to be good?” Ward says. “But kids are so good with learning online. And they really can be independent with this program, go at their own pace. So it’s interesting, and it really has worked out well.”

With foreign language teachers in short supply, more and more schools now see Rosetta Stone and other language learning software as a potential solution. The company says the program is used in more than 4,000 schools nationwide. And other districts, such as SAD 13 in Bingham, are also embracing the program.

Ward, for one, sees the 50 different language options as an individualized learning experience she couldn’t have offered otherwise.

“That way, if kids want to take something that we can’t offer, they at least have the opportunity to do that,” she says. “And we’re not closing those doors or not providing those opportunities.”

“It’s kind of like fingernails on a chalkboard. It is disturbing,” says Linda Britt, a professor of Spanish at UMF. “Rosetta Stone, other programs, they’re programs. They’re useful tools if you have someone who’s motivated. And really wants to learn. It helps you learn vocabulary, verbs. But you have to be motivated. So the idea that you can take a 14-year-old and put them in front of a computer and say, ‘OK, now you’re going to learn,’ I think it’s very difficult. And it definitely does not duplicate what happens in a language classroom, right? Where there’s social interaction. And back and forth. Because it’s such an important part of the language.”

It’s a common response from foreign-language educators when asked to weigh in on language-learning software: It’s a solid tool for exposure and practice, but it can’t introduce you to the culture or traditions of a place, or help you learn to interact and think differently about the world.

“Rosetta Stone teaches vocabulary beautifully. Their lexical instruction pages are really nicely done,” says Gillian Lord, chairwoman of the department of Spanish and Portuguese studies at the University of Florida. “But it’s like it gives you the building blocks, but it doesn’t teach you how to put it together.”

Lord conducted her own small, exploratory study, in which she compared outcomes for students who learned Spanish in class and those who used Rosetta Stone. She says the Rosetta Stone group did see success in areas such as vocabulary. But she says they couldn’t really use that vocabulary in practice.

“If I asked them a question, they would give me this blank stare,” she says. “I would say, ‘What is this?’ and they could name, ‘Oh that’s a pen!’ But if I said, ‘What’s the weather like today?’ they would just look at me. And I’d say, ‘Is it sunny or cloudy?’ and they’d go, ‘Oh, oh, oh, oh, it’s sunny!’ They just didn’t have the skills to put the tools into something that resembled real language.”

In Madison, Ward says she doesn’t expect Rosetta Stone to be a permanent solution, more a temporary one until the school can find a teacher. And in the meantime, students like Peck and sophomore Jessica Turcott say they’re enjoying the unusual class.

“Honestly I like it better,” Turcott says. “You can work at your own pace. You don’t get distracted as much by the rest of the classroom. And you find yourself not really needing to ask questions because of how it’s set up.”

“I’m just not really good with paperwork, writing, reading,” Peck says. “I like to just go at it. And I feel like Rosetta Stone helps me just go at it and have some practice more.”

Ultimately, some educators believe that the solution to this shortage of foreign language teachers may have to include technology. Others say the answer may lie within the diverse communities that are already in the state.

Grace Valenzuela, director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Center at Portland Public Schools, says the state must find ways to recruit teaching talent from these communities.

“But they really need support in making sure that they get to a place where they can be qualified for the requirements from the [Department of Education],” she says. “So we have to have our higher ed should be prepared for how to support those students, and how do you reach out to them as well?”

Other states are developing collaborations aimed at bringing more foreign language teachers into their systems. Utah, for example, has created an international guest teacher license and partners with countries such as Peru, China and Brazil.

But in the meantime, more schools may have to turn to technology.