Distance Education, Distributed Learning, and Introductory Language Instruction

Summary: In the current grant cycle, a course shell originally developed for online advanced reading and listening courses in East Asian languages is being used to develop a prototype distributed model featuring a mix of on-line instruction and face-to-face tutorials. An experimental two-year introductory course sequence in Mandarin Chinese is being developed and taught to cohorts of students at the University of Hawai‘i and Dillard University, an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in New Orleans.

The UH NFLRC has been carrying out a series of interrelated distance education and distributed learning projects since 1995. Projects have included developing models for teaching languages via interactive television as well as integrated CD-ROM/Web formats. The Center has conducted several distance-delivered summer institutes, including an on-line summer institute, "Web-Based Workshops for Advanced Reading & Writing Development & Maintenance for Non-native Instructors" in 2001. The Center has fostered the development of three advanced on-line courses currently offered at the University of Hawai‘i, two in Chinese and one in Korean. An on-line Japanese course is under development and will be offered for the first time in spring 2002. The third year Chinese and Korean Web-based reading/writing and listening/reading/writing courses feature UH-developed CD-ROMs based on authentic readings and/or video clips as the "core textbook," together with a robust interactive component in an online learning community where students perform role-play tasks, hold discussions, participate in a grammar clinic, and share compositions. 

These courses have attracted considerable attention and served as prototype course shells for the development of similar courses in other less commonly taught languages in a 2001 NFLRC Summer Institute, "Developing Web-Based Foreign Language Learning Environments." During the 2002-2006 grant cycle, the NFLRC will support the further offering of these advanced level courses through a variety of institutional arrangements. Specifically, the NFLRC will cooperate with the UH CIBER in disseminating these courses to CIBER-sponsored business schools and with the UH East Asian NRC in disseminating information about the courses to 4-year institutions that do not have advanced level Asian language courses, enabling their students to function more effectively in student exchanges, internships abroad, and overseas careers. 

However, the Center receives with ever increasing frequency requests for introductory Web-based course delivery. Given the current state of the World Wide Web and its probable direction of development, however, instruction delivered exclusively through the Web is probably not yet appropriate for beginning levels of language study. Web-based delivery is appropriate for skills other than speaking, and is especially suited to higher levels of language study where learners have established a foundation of reading and writing skills they can use independently, but beginning learners have special needs for instruction in the skills of listening and speaking. Ideally, they should receive ample ongoing, real-time support from a readily available instructor, and at present the Web is unable to facilitate such support. Instead, since Web technology advances quickly, within the next few years it will certainly become much easier for on-line learners to send and receive audio and video. Even when this happens, however, it cannot be assumed that the Web will be a popular medium for synchronous, or "live," distance instruction. Due to the universal reach of the Web and the need in instructional contexts to archive submitted materials, it is more likely that teachers and learners will interact asynchronously by emailing video and/or audio messages to each other or placing them in discussion forums (also known as threaded discussions). Under these circumstances, strong initiative and autonomy will be required from each user as he or she records and posts to the forums; teacher support will be after-the-fact rather than ongoing in real time. 

A more likely delivery format for introductory language instruction involving the Web will be some form of distributed learning. The boundaries between distance education and traditional education are dissolving as both distance and non-distance classes make use of multiple technologies, especially the Web, for delivering educational resources -- hence the term "distributed learning."  

One distributed learning model is a mix of face-to-face and on-line instruction to prepare students for "offline" learning. In this model of distributed learning the instructor focuses on preparing students for independent learning activities and then following up on those activities. Distributed learning is becoming a point of convergence between traditional classroom instruction and distance education as more and more traditional classroom instructors offload portions of instructional activities to the Web. In some cases, Web-based activities, whether independent (such as reading assigned websites to obtain information) or group-based (such as threaded discussion), supplant classroom time. In this model, of course, learners continue to have face-to-face time in the classroom, so there is ample opportunity for treating listening and speaking skills in a communicative format. As models for distributed learning and distance education develop further, it is to be expected that the advantages of both Web-based instruction and face-to-face contact may be realized even in distance education situations by distributing the face-to-face portion of instruction among multiple tutors. In such a model, a Web-based course serves as a central point of contact between students and instructor who are separated by geographic distance. The NFLRC proposes to develop and deliver such a model of distributed introductory language instruction combining a Web-based instructor with face-to-face language tutoring. 

The first phase in the project will be the development of websites for teacher-student and teacher-tutor interaction in these courses. The Web-based resources developed for the courses will consist of two distinct tracks, one concerned with training, and communicating with the tutors who will serve as speaking partners for the students in the course, the other comprising the course sites themselves, which will provide instructions for student learning activities and will serve as locations for some of the studentsÌ learning activities as well as for testing and receiving feedback from instructors. 

All materials for the performance-based sequence of instruction in first and second year Chinese were developed by Cynthia Ning of the Center for Chinese Studies, with major funding from the U.S. Department of EducationÌs Office of International Education. The first year materials, called Communicating in Chinese, were published by Far Eastern Publications of Yale University Press. They support heavily interactive work in the classroom to develop listening comprehension and speaking skills. They also support work in task-based reading and writing, based on a combination of authentic and teacher-concocted texts. The second year materials are called Exploring in Chinese. There are two major components of the set. One, called The Spoken World, is based on video segments of unrehearsed social and transactional interactions filmed in Beijing, featuring three U.S. learners of Chinese who function at intermediate to advanced levels, interacting with a wide range of native speakers in various settings. Classroom exercises accompanying the video segments provide for previewing, viewing, and follow-up speaking, reading, and writing activities, which support both skill getting (learning new vocabulary and grammar) and skill using (practice using vocabulary and grammar in simulated real-life settings). Exploring in Chinese: The Spoken World is currently being tested in a lively experimental class. The second component will eventually be called Exploring in Chinese: The Written World and will feature a selection of authentic texts, ranging from ads to essays. The series will also be published by Far Eastern Publications of Yale University Press.  

The second phase of the project will be to offer these courses in experimental learning sections of these courses on the UH campus, with additional cohorts of students and tutors at two institutions on the U.S. mainland. Chinese 101-102 will be offered in 2003-04 and Chinese 201-202 will be offered in 2004-05. The designated sections of introductory Chinese at UH will be divided into groups of five students each and be taught via Web by the instructor and face to face by a local tutor. UH graduate students will provide tutorials in the fall offerings of these courses (101, 201) as a class project, and the most successful of them will be engaged (and paid) as tutors in the spring (102, 202). Tutors for the U.S. mainland cohorts will be native or near-native speakers of the target language who are not necessarily teachers of the language. They will be recruited in coordination with the partnering institutions and be paid by the local institutions. The primary function of the tutors will be to serve as conversational partners in the communicative activities that are an integral part of the materials around which the courses will be designed. Tutor training will be provided via the Web, and communication will be maintained throughout the course so that they receive clear guidance and support as they carry out their tutorials. 

The Web-based courses will serve as "home bases" for students. In the instructional sequence, a series of online and offline activities (using materials such as books, videos, and CD-ROMs) in each instructional unit will prepare students for interacting with their tutors. After the students meet with their tutor, further online and offline activities will consolidate the skills gained in the unit. The sequencing of activities will be governed by established pedagogical principles, such as "background knowledge is activated before engaging with a text" and "comprehensible input precedes output." The websites, designed using a 3-tier client/server model employing open database connectivity (ODBC), will employ widely available Web technologies including client-side scripting and streaming media. Most needed applications will be developed in-house, although the possibility will remain of using external courseware or other helper applications. 


  • Develop websites for teacher-student and teacher-tutor interaction to be used in a special section of first-year Chinese (101-102). 
  • Recruit UH students for the experimental distributed learning section of Chinese 101-102 to be taught in 2003-2004. 
  • Recruit two US mainland institutions to enroll students in the experimental distributed learning section of Chinese 101-102 to be taught in 2003-2004. 


  • Teach the experimental distributed learning sections of Chinese 101-102 at UH using a distributed learning model with two tutor-student cohorts at UH and two tutor-student cohorts at two US mainland institutions. 
  • Develop websites for teacher-student and teacher-tutor interaction in a special section of second-year Chinese (201-202). 
  • Recruit new students as necessary for Chinese 201-202 to be taught in 2004-2005 to adjust for attrition. 
  • Offer summer institute on Distance Education, Distributed Learning, and Language Instruction. 


Teach the experimental distributed learning section of Chinese 201-202 at UH using a simulated distributed learning model. 


  • Continue to teach distributed learning sections of Chinese 101-102 and 201-202 to both UH students and cohorts at US mainland institutions. 
  • Launch plan to implement and institutionalize a first- and second-year Chinese distributed learning program nationally. 
  • Disseminate results of experimental distributed learning project.
Tagged as 2002-2006 online-learning