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Online Spanish program saves students $500K in textbook fees

Friday, August 08, 2014

LAWRENCE – A program developed at the University of Kansas to replace textbooks with rich online content has resulted in $500,000 in savings since its inception five years ago.

In 2009, KU developed Acceso, an innovative, open-access, web-based platform to serve as an alternative to textbooks. Since then, more than 3,000 intermediate-level students studying Spanish at KU and hundreds more in other learning institutions across the country have used the online resource.

Amy Rossomondo, an associate professor of Spanish, saw a need for a platform like Acceso because textbooks, while strong in grammar, weren’t offering the kind of cultural literacy that would remain with students long after they had forgotten how to conjugate verbs.

“While foreign language learning materials have gotten much better in terms of providing opportunities for students learning how to speak Spanish, the problem is they are not speaking about anything that will help them understand and interact with Spanish speakers,” said Rossomondo, who oversees Acceso as director of Spanish language instruction.

Cutting down on textbook costs was an added benefit, Rossomondo said. Instead of spending $150 on a textbook package, students just have to spend $40 for an online grammar workbook.

“It’s a motivator for us, and it’s important to us that we are saving money. And we believe strongly in openness,” Rossomondo said.

This fall, classes using Acceso will move from a traditional classroom to a computer lab in KU’s Wescoe Hall that has been transformed into an innovative Active Learning Classroom.  The design of the new classroom was a collaborative effort among Design & Construction Management, Information Technology and Space Management, in consultation with the Ermal Garinger Academic Resource Center, which will provide technical support for students and instructors. 

The new classroom has six workstations, each of which is equipped with a computer, a large flat-panel monitor, and a wireless keyboard and mouse. The instructor has the ability to display student work from any one of these stations onto all of the other monitors and to large screens at both ends of the room. Students can also connect their own laptops to the flat-panel at the workstation and project onto the screens at the end of the room by means of a USB-based wireless system.

The traditional classroom, with a single computer screen projected in front of rows of students, wasn’t conducive to the kind of teaching Acceso instructors wanted to do, said Jonathan Perkins, who is the director of the Ermal Garinger Academic Resource Center.

“This classroom was specifically built for collaborative, active student participation and for creating content and interacting with content,” Perkins said.  

The new room will make it easier to navigate and interact with the online component of Acceso during classroom time. To provide different perspectives from around the Spanish-speaking world, Acceso is divided into the geographical regions where Spanish is spoken, including the United States. Among other things, the materials draw from news articles that discuss social issues in Spanish-speaking countries, clips of native speakers from different regions of the world and videos that mix Spanish narration with graphics and text.

Ever changing, the material on Acceso is largely created and maintained by graduate student instructors, who have the unique opportunity of developing online teaching materials, connecting their research to what they are teaching and seeing their work put to use in the classroom.

Rossomondo admits that some undergraduate students are surprised by how different the intermediate-level courses are from the years of Spanish they took in high school and how much work is required.

“The students come out not only being able to understand and speak a lot of Spanish, but more importantly, they have a broad understanding of the people who speak Spanish,” Rossomondo said. “Ultimately understanding the perspectives of the people speaking Spanish, not just the Spanish, is what is going to help them serve people better.”