American students soon will be able to learn Chinese over the internet at no cost, thanks to a new $3 million project spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in cooperation with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and Zhou Ji, vice minister of education for the People’s Republic of China, signed a memorandum of understanding Oct. 21 to jointly build a web-based system that will help students and educators learn a second language free of charge online.

Initially, the eLanguage Learning System (ELLS) will focus on teaching English and Chinese as second languages. ED officials say the project eventually will be expanded to encompass other languages, too.

Paige said the project will build cultural awareness and increase binational communications through the study of language. “The eLanguage project recognizes the importance of language skills in a world economy and advances education goals for children of both nations,” he said.

“We view this eLearning project as a very significant one,” said Zhou Ji. “Through it, our kids can learn not only each other’s language, but also society, culture, and history. We have a project which will benefit our children’s language learning today and subsequently help to build better mutual understanding and trust in the future.”

The project also has practical implications for both nations.

Considering the size of China’s population and its rate of adopting technology, the web will soon be dominated by Chinese, said Alan Ginsburg, ED’s director of planning and evaluation. Also, China is an important trading partner with the United States, he said, and many Chinese students are interested in learning English.

The eLanguage project was one of three web-based education initiatives announced by President Bush at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Shanghai last October. The other two projects are the Cyber Education Cooperation, which would create a web portal and knowledge bank of best educational practices from both hemispheres, and the Asia-Pacific eLearning Alliance, which encourages major computer companies to increase web-based learning opportunities around the globe.

ED will contribute $3 million over three years to the eLanguage project through its Star Schools program, which is designed to improve instruction in foreign languages and other subjects using advanced telecommunications technologies. If the Star Schools program is eliminated as the Bush administration has requested in its fiscal 2003 budget, Ginsburg said the department would seek alternative funding sources.

Because there is a shortage of qualified foreign language and English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teachers in the United States, ED is trying to determine the viability of using the internet to teach a second language.

Many foreign-language teaching materials already exist in print, but ED believes this material should be available online as well. “The private sector has not been willing to develop such a system, in part because of the high front-end costs to demonstrate technical feasibility,” ED said in a statement.

Because ELLS will be free of charge, the system will reach millions of children in underserved populations, including the disadvantaged, illiterate, and limited-English proficient, ED said.

The United States will develop and pay for the English curriculum, and China will develop and pay for the Chinese content.

Although China and the U.S. are working cooperatively to develop, implement, and study this project, ED will maintain ownership of the content and technologies developed.

“We are designing the eLanguage project so it is modular and other languages can be added. For the U.S., one of the first priorities is adding Spanish,” Ginsburg said. Other languages won’t be added until the initial phase is complete, which is estimated to take some 18 months.

ED will work with the U.S. Army Training Support Center on this effort, because the center already has the technical expertise to develop such a system. If this system is proven to be effective, ED believes the private sector would step in and further develop a comprehensive language program once the initial funding runs out.

Northrop Grumman Corp., which was awarded the contract through the U.S. Army Training Support Center, will develop a technology platform to run the program, as well as 35 fifty-minute modules of English as a second language curricula that emphasize listening, speaking, reading, writing, and comprehension skills.

Existing second-language learning activities also will be converted to work on this platform.

The lesson plans will incorporate the principles and standards of good language practice in K-12 education, ED said. Curriculum manuals used to supplement the ELLS project also will be developed.

The eLanguage project will have animated language-learning materials that motivate and teach students, such as a computerized speech tutor to produce accurate facial movements synchronized to audible speech.

It also reportedly will include real-time assessment that individualizes instruction, as well as online language support systems such as chat rooms, key pals, multilingual dictionaries, and references to support learning.

Links:

eLanguage Learning System (ELLS)
http://ott.educ.msu.edu/elanguage