Are Online Classes the Way Forward for French Departments?

French departments threatened with closure in the United States are finding a solution online. Four universities in Georgia recently joined forces to create the first online bachelor’s degree in French.
© Mimi Thian

Dorothée Mertz-Weigel meets her French students for an advanced conversation class every Monday at 9 pm. The discussions takes place online via Skype. The students include office workers, soldiers and homemakers, and most don’t have the time during the day to travel to the Armstrong State University campus in Savannah, Georgia. In an attempt to make her classes accessible to all, Dorothée Mertz-Weigel has turned to technology.

Armstrong State University and three other public universities in Georgia (Valdosta State University, the College of Coastal Georgia and Clayton State University) recently signed an agreement to introduce an eFrench program, the first online bachelor’s degree in French. By pooling their resources, the four establishments hope to improve the standing of their classes and attract new students.

Armstrong State University closed its French degree program in the late 1990s following a drop in enrollment. Similar reasons led to the removal of French classes at Eastern Kentucky University last December, at Concordia College in northwestern Minnesota in February 2016, and at the University of Maine in the northeast of the country in October 2014.

“The French language has to constantly justify its place in universities by producing graduates,” says Ofelia Nikolova, head of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and coordinator for the eFrench program at Valdosta State University. This university in southern Georgia has 19 students in French, including seven in the online program. Between two and three students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in French every year. And “some years there are none at all,” says Ofelia Nikolova. “We created this online degree in order to survive.”

Discussion Groups and Online Exams

The online French program has attracted some 30 students since being created in August 2015. Several take the classes from another state entirely, including Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington D.C. The prerequisites and conditions for enrolling are similar to those in a traditional degree program, but the tuition fees are variable. Students should expect to pay 24,000 dollars for an online bachelor’s degree, compared with around 45,000 dollars for its traditional equivalent.

Originally from Indiana, Hilary Bataille now lives in Chapel Hill in North Carolina. She signed up to the eFrench program last spring to “improve her French” and “to be able to speak French with [her] husband,” who is from Toulouse. The mother of three takes two French classes per semester – the equivalent of six hours per week – and does her homework in the evenings after dinner.

Students work at home, but the professors are available online and lead discussion groups. A weekly workshops gives students the chance to have 30-minute conversation sessions with a Francophone person, and an instant messenger service means they can share texts, PowerPoint presentations and audio and video messages with their professors and classmates. The students can also choose whether to take their exams online or on their university campus.

“The online classes require students to be motivated, while providing our department with much more visibility,” says Dorothée Mertz-Weigel, a coordinator for the eFrench program at Armstrong State University. One student who joined the program at the very beginning received his degree last December. In Chapel Hill, Hilary Bataille hopes to graduate in 2018. She is pleased with her progress, and delighted to have found a program that allows enough time to look after her children. “Without a program like this, students like me would never be able to learn French at university!”