A note from President Ron Liebowitz

To the College Community:

In my February campus address, as well as in several other recent statements, I have alluded to our exploration of opportunities for collaboration in the area of online language learning.  I write to let you know that the College has now entered into a partnership with K12, a technology-based education company, to create a new venture to provide language instruction for pre-college students. The company will develop new online language-learning courses, as well as expand the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA), the College's intensive language immersion summer program for students in grades 8-12.

The new company-to be called Middlebury Interactive Languages-will build on Middlebury's position as the leader in language teaching among institutions of higher education. Over the past century, the Middlebury Language Schools, the College's foreign language departments, and our Schools Abroad have achieved renown for their outstanding programs in language and cultural immersion. We are rightly proud of this reputation, but it is clear that if we wish to maintain our leadership role, we need to move beyond our current "bricks-and-mortar" programs and develop a presence online for language education.

As I have said in the past, I am optimistic that this venture will, over time, lead to new revenue for the College. However, we are not pursuing this venture simply for the financial benefits, nor does our financial model, which includes balanced budgets for the next four years, include any expected income from this initiative. In addition to solidifying our role as the leader in language education, this collaboration will expand access to foreign languages and cultures at a time when education in our nation in these areas has not kept pace with demand. Fewer than one in five Americans speak anything other than English, and Middlebury is uniquely positioned to respond to what is becoming an increasingly consequential gap in our nation's language education.

Indeed, we have been actively working to fill this gap since 2006, when I attended the U.S. University Presidents Summit on International Education, hosted by the Departments of State and Education in Washington, D.C. The leaders of those departments impressed upon the 100 college and university presidents in attendance the urgent need for more language instruction at the college and university level. But waiting to educate students in languages until they are college-age will not yield the same results as beginning quality language instruction sooner. Studies show that the ability to learn a second language declines after the age of 6, so simply adding capacity at the college level is unlikely to address this challenge. MMLA was our initial attempt to respond to the need for better language instruction for pre-college students. Our partnership with K12 will not only provide continuity through online learning for MMLA students after their summer sessions, but also provide access to language study for thousands of students who have had no access in the past, as well as supplement the language instruction offered through schools and programs that may adopt our materials

I do not believe we could find a better partner in this important work than K12. Founded in 2000 and headquartered in Herndon, Va., K12 is the nation's largest provider of online education programs to students in kindergarten through high school. For school districts, charter schools, and families, K12 provides curriculum and online programs ranging from individual courses to classroom and hybrid programs to full-time virtual school programs.

Since its founding, K12 has delivered more than 1.5 million courses to more than 150,000 students worldwide. K12 operates online public schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia. K12 Inc. also operates the K12 International Academy, an accredited, diploma-granting online private school serving students in more than 40 countries.

If we are to reach our goals of maintaining our leadership position in language education, increasing access to language instruction, and building a more sustainable financial model for Middlebury's future, we cannot pass up an opportunity that offers such great potential benefit.

The partnership with K12 has been a year in the making, during which time Patrick Norton, vice president for administration and treasurer, Michael Geisler, vice president for Language Schools, Schools Abroad and graduate programs, and I have worked closely with our counterparts at K12 to reach an agreement consistent with our respective institutional missions. Michael has worked with faculty from our Language Schools, along with a colleague from our Department of Spanish and Portuguese, in collaboration with K12, to develop the venture's first Web-based language courses (in French and Spanish).

The colleagues who have worked on this project include Ana Martinez-Lage, Middlebury College associate professor of Spanish; Barbara Sicot-Koontz, curriculum developer and French School faculty member; Aline Germain-Rutherford, French School director; Robert Davis, Spanish School assistant director; and Heather Quarles, Spanish School faculty member.

The first courses for high school students, beginner French and Spanish for high school students, will be available in late summer 2010. They will use features such as animation, music, videos and other elements that immerse students in the culture of the target language.  These components will provide a lively base for daily exercises to practice listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. Instructional games, online clubs and other activities will give students a wide variety of additional cultural and co-curricular opportunities.

Students will have access to qualified language instructors, native or near-native speakers of the language, as well as other students participating in the course. Students will also complete interactive, student-to-student virtual collaboration assignments.

Designed with a great deal of flexibility, the courses are intended for the individual learner, who would otherwise have no access to interactive, quality foreign language instruction. Language instructors will also be able to use the material to supplement teaching in a regular classroom environment.

To be an innovator and a leader, we must continue to take smart risks and adapt to changes-in this case the opportunities technology has to offer. Some of the steps that the College has taken previously were seen as tenuous at the time, but now we take them for granted.  In the 1880s, the trustees decided to take what was then considered a drastic step by admitting women to Middlebury.  This decision enhanced educational opportunities for women, strengthened the College, and helped the institution emerge from one of its financial crises.  And the establishment of the Language Schools nearly 100 years ago was not without controversy.  Many questioned loudly the founding of the first School, the German School in 1915, yet we would not be at the forefront of language learning today without having taken that crucial first step.  I believe the partnership we are forming with K12 is very much in the spirit of Middlebury's tradition of innovative leadership.

I will update the College community on the progress of this initiative as it unfolds. In the meantime, I invite you to attend one of the informational meetings that Michael Geisler, Patrick Norton, and I will be holding later this month to give the College community a chance to learn more about this partnership and ask questions.  Additional information about the partnership is available on the College Web site http://www.middlebury.edu/mil