Livemocha Active French as Independent Study for High School Credit
Burlington High School, Burlington MA
At the end of the 2009 school year, three sophomores at Burlington High School in Burlington, MA learned that they would not be able to take French IV the following year. Low enrollment and budget cuts meant that BHS could not support the course in 2010. Though they had taken French since the eighth grade, the students knew that without continuing their studies throughout their junior year, they would be unable to succeed in AP French their senior year and would have weaker college resumes.
Despite the school’s decision to cancel French IV, Principal Patrick Larkin was determined to find a way for his students to get the French instruction they needed. He spent the summer researching alternatives and asked the students to do the same. After combing through a number of online courses, from distance-learning college language courses to online textbooks, the students were becoming discouraged. “When I was looking online,” one student said, “so many things looked, honestly, like a boring textbook.” So they were excited to see Larkin’s selection – an interactive, social online French course called Livemocha Active French. At the start of the 2010-2011 school year, Larkin set the students up with licenses for Active French and helped them create a study plan for the year.
Larkin and his students hoped that Active French would be an effective self-study tool for the students to maintain and improve their French in the absence of a structured classroom environment. They measured their success both in terms of skill improvement and the students’ ability to remain motivated throughout the duration of the year. Three major components would indicate their success:
- Vocabulary Development
- Greater confidence and skills in speaking French
- Continued engagement in French learning
The study plan the students established with Larkin included a commitment to completing one level of Active French per quarter in order to progress through all four levels by the end of the year. The first two quarters began largely with review, though Active French puts a greater emphasis on conversational skills than the students had previously in school. During the first half of the year, the students focused on their existing construct of vocabulary and grammar skills, developing conversational confidence. They built upon this foundation during the second half of the year as they added more advanced material.
Though the students are receiving credit for Active French, it is not part of their official schedule, so they are responsible for setting their own deadlines and completing the coursework on their own time. They are using Active French as a standalone, self study course, progressing through its sequence of lessons, units and assessments to develop proficiency in vocabulary, grammar, speaking, writing and listening. They are expected to take full advantage of the native speakers on Livemocha for practice and reviews of their Role Play and Writing exercises. They have informal check-ins with Principal Larkin and are using feedback from native speakers and quiz and test scores to track their progress throughout the course.
The students have been pleased to find that they have both reinforced and expanded their skill set, especially in terms of vocabulary. They cite the slideshows in Active French as key to vocabulary acquisition “because you hear and see the words first, and then do the exercises to practice them again and again.” The built-in speaking practice has also helped in applying new vocabulary contextually: “I think I’ve actually learned a lot more vocabulary than I did in school,” one student said, “and my speaking has really improved—it’s more conversational French than out-of-the-box study, which makes me more confident because you learn how the words are supposed to sound.” Another student added, “Now we’re learning a lot more about how French works in conversation and we are starting to use French the way you would use it in France. In school, it was so much about grammar and spelling, but Active French is much more about actually using the language.”
Pronunciation and Speaking Proficiency
By feeding the development of vocabulary into pronunciation practice, Livemocha Active coursework has strengthened overall conversational confidence. The opportunity to focus on speaking – both while working individually and with French speakers – has honed the students’ pronunciation. One student’s favorite activity is Role Play, because “it’s like having a conversation with someone.” After submitting the Role Play recording, the student then receives further guidance: “We never really focused much on the accent in school, so I wasn’t aware of the sound of the word, but now French speakers on Livemocha leave me messages saying, ‘This sounds a little off,’ and I never even knew that before.” Another student exclaimed, “I love the recordings so much!” and explained that Active French has done more than simply help her review old material—it has taken her conversational skills to the next level.
The most significant challenge faced by the students has been time management. The students receive minimal external deadlines and faculty guidance, and are individually responsible for scheduling Active French around their existing core curriculum and extra-curricular activities. They have found, however, that Active French’s structured and interactive format has helped keep them engaged despite the lack of external support. One student commented, “Livemocha is such an interactive site – you can make friends, there are lots of pictures and the exercises are very engaging. The format is friendly and the course is actually really fun to use.” Another student said that while it would be really helpful to have a teacher to help guide them through the course, Livemocha members have filled that gap. She explained, “We don’t have a set teacher, but we’re using actual French kids to give us feedback. They tell us exactly what we do right and wrong and you can rate them if they’ve been helpful.”
In the coming months, Livemocha will be working to refine an internal coaching program that will add structure and guidance for students learning with Active coursework. The pilot program launched on April 28, 2011 with 70 initial coaches. Coaches are trained native speakers of the learning language, and can supplement Active course materials with their own teaching materials. The coaching program includes expert reviews of exercise submissions as well as buyable “coach time” that is shaped and defined by the student and coach as needed to best achieve student goals; coach time might include live tutoring, designing a custom study plan or goal-setting, encouragement and follow-up. To further enhance the flexibility of the program, the formatting and scheduling of coaching sessions is entirely up to the student and coach. Coaching will provide engagement not only for independent learners within Livemocha, but also for schools like Burlington with motivated students but limited faculty resources.