Online Chinese course connects business professionals to UW-Madison language resources

by Jenny Price, UW-Madison Communications

China holds the promise of major economic opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs, but having the language skills and cultural knowledge needed to make a good impression could mean the difference between closing a deal and going home empty-handed.

UW-Madison’s Language Institute, in partnership with the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature, is making it easier for busy, working professionals to acquire Chinese language skills with a new three-credit, online course that nontraditional students can fit into their schedules.

“It’s impossible for working professionals who aren’t on campus four or five days a week to take a language course,” says Dianna Murphy, associate director for the Language Institute. “This is really all about access.”

The UW-Madison institute is developing online language courses to reach new audiences, including adult learners, students at other colleges and universities, advanced high school students and others who can’t come to campus for classes.

Twelve students are enrolled this semester in Elementary Conversational Chinese for Business Professionals; many of them are full-time professionals also enrolled in the School of Business Evening MBA program. Murphy says several of the students have traveled to China for business or will in the future; believe their company may be expanding, or may already have expanded, into China; or see expertise in China and the language as helping their careers.

That includes Matt Krumenauer, who works in the state Division of Forestry and will be traveling to China next year with the Evening MBA program. “There’s a definite possibility I’ll be able to use this right away,” Krumenauer says.

What distinguishes the online class from a traditional one is the freedom and flexibility of its structure — students can learn when they want and where they want.

“If I happen to be up at three o’clock in the morning and want to work on it, I can,” says Chris Hinkle, a part-time graduate student in the School of Library and Information Studies who is taking the class to complement his studies in Korean.

But the students are not left alone to learn in cyberspace. In addition to working independently through online lessons, students must partner up with a classmate for conversation assignments via online voice chat tools. Students also speak with the instructor at least 15 minutes per week over the telephone or Skype, social networking software used to make free calls over the Internet.

“In some cases, students are getting more speaking practice in a distance course,” Murphy says.

Some of the students who are taking the Chinese course live in Iowa and Illinois; Duncan Davis is living proof the course can be taken from anywhere in the world. He enrolled in the online class when Chinese courses at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology filled up. Davis, a UW-Madison junior majoring in accounting and finance, is on a business management exchange program in Hong Kong.

“I’m surprised by how much interaction there is with other students and the professor. Each week I have a conversation with the professor and with my ‘buddy’ in the course using Skype. There is also a discussion board on which we students are asked to respond to questions dealing with business culture and differences between China and the U.S.,” Davis says.

The course is organized around six themes, including formal introductions, visiting a Chinese family and eating at a Chinese restaurant. The students turn in character writing and translation assignments by fax or mail and take timed tests and quizzes online.

Yang Liu, the course instructor, says the students get a more specialized and individualized learning experience than those in a traditional classroom setting.

“They have more autonomy as learners,” she says. “They have the one-to-one communication opportunities with their instructor every week — in the traditional language classroom setting, quiet students may not have chances to communicate with the instructor.”

The students listen to recordings of Chinese conversations and phrases online and also record themselves speaking the language so they can hear how they sound compared with the example. All of the assignments are put in a cultural context, which makes a difference for students struggling to learn a new language.

“It’s structured in a way that we’re learning it in a really practical sense,” Krumenauer says. “Instead of spending a whole lot of time learning how to call the sky blue or count or the days of the week, we’re learning how to introduce ourselves and learning about sentence structure.”

Paul Ledin, who works as an analyst in the economics and statistics department at the Credit Union National Association, was inspired to take the course after visiting Beijing with the evening MBA program.

“Seeing the country firsthand really got me excited about China as an emergent economy,” he says.

The online course is funded by the Division of Continuing Studies, the College of Letters and Science, the Center for International Business Education and Research, and the Center for East Asian Studies. The Language Institute is also receiving financial support from the Claire Giannini Foundation to develop and offer similar courses to high school students in Wisconsin.

Murphy says the Language Institute is using the Chinese class to develop the framework or “course shell” for future online language courses, including a second semester of Chinese for business professionals, but moving ahead with those plans largely depends on available funding. The institute is actively seeking external financial support to continue developing and teaching online courses.

It’s clear the demand for opportunities to learn is there. Yongping Zhu, an assistant professor of Chinese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature who is overseeing the course, says the number of UW-Madison students studying Chinese has increased dramatically since 2005, jumping from about 190 in 2004 to 330 this year.

“I truly believe that this course will have a brilliant future if we advocate it more,” he says.