Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times
  • Language immersion software proves a challenge for local school districts

  • Middlebury Interactive, a state-approved immersion software designed to teach students languages though interactive videos, recorded conversations and weekly interactions has caused local district administrators to become frustrated with the software’s technical glitches and program errors.
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  • Middlebury Interactive, a state-approved immersion software designed to teach students languages though interactive videos, recorded conversations and weekly interactions has caused local district administrators to become frustrated with the software’s technical glitches and program errors.
    Implemented as part of Gov. Jack Markell’s world language expansion initiative, the Middlebury software is used statewide. The idea behind Markell’s initiative was to offer access to world language study to Delaware’s school children at a younger age. The Delaware Department of Education selected Middlebury through a bid process, which is required by law.
    In the Caesar Rodney School District, Middlebury is used to teach Spanish and Chinese to seventh- and eighth-grade students, while it is used to teach French to seventh- and eighth-graders in the Capital School District. Both districts have experienced problems working with the software.
    Capital’s issues stemmed primarily from the Middlebury software itself, said Dr. Darren Guido, supervisor of instruction for the Capital School District. Students ran into obstacles while completing lessons, attempting to move on to the next lesson and having the previous lesson begin again, Guido explained.
    Parents and students also experienced a problem looking up grades at home, said Central Middle School Principal Shan Green. During some of the webinars in the course, administrators cited problems in which abbreviations were being used that the Middlebury paraprofessional and students hadn’t been introduced to. The issues that Capital has run into have been ones that were caused by problems in the Middlebury program’s coding. The paraprofessional and district technology staff attempted to work out the problems, but eventually had to be hand it over to Middlebury’s technology staff for the problems to be rectified.
    Since those issues have been cleared up, Middlebury has been running smoothly, Green said.
    In Caesar Rodney schools, the nature of the program’s problems varied from web browser issues to software problems. The issues are primarily with the Spanish program, rather than the Chinese course, said Superintendent Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald.
    One of the issues that Caesar Rodney has encountered is the internet browsers. Middlebury creators recommend a specific browser and a specific version of that browser be used to run the software. Dan Farley, director of support services for Caesar Rodney, illustrated a typical exchange between Caesar Rodney and Middlebury.
    “Middlebury will say ‘You need Chrome, Java, this, that and the other thing installed,’” Farley said. “I’ll say, ‘Well they are installed and it’s still not working’ or ‘Yes we didn’t install something.’”
    If the wrong browser is being used, it can cause problems running external programs or to voice recordings not registering.
    Page 2 of 3 - There have also been issues with students losing work, according to Jamie Northrup, vice president of Middlebury Interactive. After students completed certain activities within the program, the results of their work wasn’t always being saved. The district has also run into other issues, according to Scott Lykens, director of instruction for the Caesar Rodney School District.
    “There were issues that you always have with computers,” Lykens said “Like logging into the website, saving data and those types of things.”
    Cort Boulanger, a spokesman for Middlebury, said after working through some temporary fixes, the company was able to find a long-term solution that addressed the issues Caesar Rodney staff and students were encountering.
    Farley offered his own take on where these issues are stemming from.
    “Our sense from dealing with Middlebury is it’s a program that was written that wasn’t ready for prime time,” Farley said. “Our students are using it and discovering issues and problems and as we put in trouble tickets they’re fixing it. Last year was the first year for it and it was, surprisingly, pretty well received. There were issues, but not to the extreme we’re having this year. This year they had a new version and in my opinion it was not ready to be put out for everybody and they’re re-writing it on the fly.”
    The software, which is taught by a Middlebury online instructor, allows students to progress through the program at their own pace. They are given regular feedback from the instructor based on graded and non-graded assignments. Students can access the program anywhere outside of school that has an internet connection.
    Through Middlebury, students learn languages by utilizing the Middlebury software and with the help of Middlebury teacher who communicates with the students through email, message boards and video chat. Students also meet with a Middlebury teacher in person once a week, at least when a teacher is available.
    Over the course of a year at Caesar Rodney, the Chinese program has had one teacher, but the Spanish program has gone through two teachers. During the six-week interim between teachers Middlebury Spanish students still had access to a Middlebury teacher through the web, but they weren’t participating in the weekly live sessions.
    The district is looking into hiring a world language teacher to provide students with a live teacher, Lykens said. In both districts, students are supervised by a paraprofessional during the Middlebury class period.
    During the Caesar Rodney Board of Education’s regular November meeting, Farley made his feelings about Middlebury clear.
    “The state is very aware and I’ve had discussion with the COO of Middlebury and we as a group are discussing what we are going to do with Middlebury because currently it’s unacceptable, in my opinion.”
    Page 3 of 3 - Though, according to Caesar Rodney District officials, the problems with Middlebury are improving.
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