The enrollments issue: What can language teachers do?

Terrible Ideas for Increasing Enrollments  

  1. Cooking the books: In this case, one increases enrollments by adding fake students, such as highly advanced students enrolled in 101 that only take the final, or requiring students who place into a higher level to still register for lower ones.  This increases enrollments on paper, and is popular with students who can use it to get an easy A, but I find it unethical.  
  2. Personalized scheduling: There’s that student that really wants to take third year, but has a conflict on Fridays, and that other one with a conflict on Wednesdays, so the instructor bends over backwards to do personalized accommodations for these students to keep them in class.  This increases instructor workload, and also why does no one ask these types of accommodations of STEM classes?
  3. Course sharing: This is where multiple universities bring together enough students for a class by combining enrollments, usually with the instructor with a few students on one campus, and the others attending online.  This is a strategy recommended by the MLA report, and one that I do in fact know of instructors doing well.  It makes it possible for students to take languages not usually offered at their campus.  So why do I think this is a terrible idea? Because in my experience teaching students simultaneously online and in person is extremely draining.

Ideas I want to work to increase enrollments, but struggle to implement

  1. Hybrid formats: This is all the rage due to COVID, but we were actually trying to figure out how to do this prior to COVID, in order to cut down on some of the scheduling conflicts.  The trick is that in order for this to actually resolve scheduling conflicts, it has to be asynchronous (so students can do it at a time convenient to them, rather than in class).  This sounds great, but seems to only work for very organized, independent, self-motivated students or students without substantial other obligations. Many of our students have so many pressing commitments that asynchronous work gets shoved to the side or hurried through, making it less effective. Making it work for all students is a challenge I haven’t figured out yet (though please send ideas!).  One suggestion has been more robo-graded, remote activities but I’m not convinced these are useful either.  
  2. Combining content and language classes: As a scholar focused on translingual approaches to language learning, this is another idea I find highly appealing–a team taught class on a specific topic, where the language is integrated and not optional.  As we know from research, learning content and language at the same time is mutually reinforcing if done well.  The issue here is multiple language levels (can you do this and include students with no background in the language?) and the fact that it doesn’t fit at all with how classes, teaching loads, and enrollments are done at most universities.  As a result, it’s usually only possible with some sort of special funding, like a grant or administrative initiative, and this makes it hard to sustain.  The MLA report I mentioned previously also highlights this, but most of the examples are again grant-funded.  I’ll know a lot more about this experience next year, after my own experience with a grant-funded version, but the question in my mind already is how to make this a regular practice?
  3. Reward incentives: This is another one suggested by the MLA, where students can do language work, and get a special “bilingual” or “global competence” certificate.  Leaving aside the fact that these types of awards often don’t recognize the competence of immigrant students or those who grew up speaking languages other than English at home, I think they still mark language as “extra” rather than essential. 

Ideas that are more likely to be successful

  1. Making the content more relevant: This generally involves moving away from language textbooks to more personalized material students can relate to their lives, as well as more culturally relevant materials.  We’ve been working on this for a while, and while our enrollments are still dropping, I hate to think where they’d be if we were still using a textbook.  
  2. Making the content more relevant to careers: This is also important, but I think we often miss it by focusing on careers that require an extremely high language proficiency, such as translation, or being able to work full time in the language.  Most language students are not going to get to that level in the 1-4 years they commit to a language in college.  At the same time, language skills have benefits beyond being able to translate or work in a predominantly monolingual environment.  For example, they can help people be more sympathetic to speakers of English as an additional language, and better at understanding a variety of accents in English.  This doesn’t require a high level of proficiency, but it does require some.  
  3. Teacher training: This should go without saying, but in higher education at least, there’s often very little training for language teachers, it’s assumed that speaking the language is enough.  I would add training in language ideologies to this of course, because it is something I think we all need to be constantly thinking about!
  4. Community relationships: Connecting students with communities that speak the language they are learning is another aspect of language learning I think is key, and that we’ve had a lot of success with in our (grant-funded) summer program.  At the same, this can be very challenging in terms of scheduling and making sure there is a real benefit to community members as well (especially in cases where there are power differentials at play).  

So that is my potentially more upbeat, but perhaps not really take on this issue.  If you’re a language teacher, and have other ideas, I’d love to hear them! I’d especially love to hear about ideas that work in a regular university system (without grants or special initiatives) and don’t add extra burdens to the language teacher workload.  Or, if they do add an extra burden, what do you get rid of in the workload to balance it out?






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