York experiments with distance language education

Next September, a group of Japanese-language students at St. Mary’s University will attend advanced classes at York without ever leaving Halifax. Video-conferencing technology will enable them to watch, listen to and interact in real time with instructor Norio Ota as he delivers his lessons every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

Norio Ota“This is the first attempt of this kind to conduct Japanese language classes in real time between two distant sites and groups of students,” says Ota of the one-year pilot project. “I am hoping it will be a small breakthrough for distance education particularly for languages.”

Right: Norio Ota

York will receive $11,069 from the Japan Foundation to set up the distance education course for St. Mary’s students. The proposal received full requested funding for 2006-2007 from the foundation, which supports Japanese education in Canada.

The joint class in advanced Japanese features videoconferenced seminars, Web-based course materials and individualized videoconference sessions. Part-time assistants will help at both ends and the set-up includes a chat service and listserv.

This is an experimental one-year pilot project whose future will depend on student feedback and how well students do at both sites. If the project continues, Ota hopes to offer it at other sites across Canada.

“It is hoped that this project will become a precursor for the development of similar language courses in the future, particularly in such a large country as Canada,” wrote Ota in the funding proposal to the Japanese Foundation.

“On-line distance education via videoconferencing is the most powerful and effective means to implement university courses beyond the physical boundaries of learning spheres and without losing the benefits provided in the traditional face-to-face classroom,” he argued. “Language courses, however, have not been rigorously implemented with a distance education format due to the obvious constraints on interactivity and interpersonal contacts,” he wrote. But technology has improved and “students at different sites can not only participate in a real-time virtual lecture, but also cooperate, discuss and debate with all the students involved in a virtual classroom.”

This is not Ota’s first foray into using technology to provide distance education. The Japanese studies coordinator in York’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics offered online courses in elementary Japanese language for four years at Glendon, posting almost all the instructional materials for universal and 24-hour access.

York’s Japanese Section is also considering developing a degree program that could be offered online and grooming its Teaching Japanese as a Foreign/Second Language for distance education. The section is discussing joint lectures, seminars and courses over the Internet with Dokkyo University and Meiji University, two of York’s partner universities in Japan.