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Yue “Heather” Zhou PPS’19 is an international student from China and speaks three languages, Chinese, English, and French.

“I’ve always been interested in learning languages,” Zhou says. “But, I found out that in the states, learning a foreign language is not high on the priority list, especially for K-12 education.”

In her initial research for her honors thesis on world language education, Zhou discovered that virtual public schools, an increasingly popular form of secondary school, can play an important role in increasing enrollment in world language courses across the U.S. 

The North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) system is the second largest state virtual school system in the country and provides more world languages courses—8 languages over 25 different courses—than any other state virtual school.

While almost all virtual public schools offer courses in Spanish and French, NCVPS is unique in that it is one of the few virtual public school systems to offer untraditional language courses, such as Arabic, Russian, and Japanese. Zhou found that for all North Carolina students learning untraditional languages, 30-40% of them, on average, are taking their courses through the NCVPS system. Zhou believes that if NCVPS did not offer these courses, the students would not have the opportunity learn these types of languages. 

Teaching Challenges and Benefits

student smiling in front of poster board
Senior Yue "Heather" Zhou will present her honors thesis project on Learning Languages in Cyberspace at the American Educational Research Association in April. Zhou was selected from 12,000 applicants to give a round table presentation of her work during a session for researchers studying online learning.

In a survey of teachers in the NCVPS World Languages Program, Zhou found that one of the main challenges to teaching languages online is how to monitor cheating. Teachers say that many students use online translators to complete their assignments and there is no way to verify the authenticity of their students’ work. Zhou suggests that virtual schools develop features to monitor cheating, perhaps using a software similar to the Electronic Bluebook, which is commonly used for online assignments at Duke.

One of the main benefits to learning languages through virtual school is personalized learning, according the teachers Zhou surveyed. Students can practice pronunciation and grammar as many times as they want, and many of the untraditional language courses have coaches who specifically target students’ needs.

In talking with NCVPS administrators, Zhou learned that there is not one typical student participating in virtual public school classes. Students choose to take online courses for various reasons, including schedule conflicts with extra-curricular activities or their regular public school does not offer the language they want to learn.

However, a key skill required for any student to succeed in online courses is self-discipline.

Zhou says, “You can learn equally well in the classroom or online, it just requires you to be motivated and self-driven.”

She suggests that local schools pre-select students with self-discipline skills to enroll in the virtual program and assign onsite teachers to supervise students in order for them to have the highest chance of success in their courses.

Presenting Her Findings

In April 2019, Zhou will be presenting her research in Toronto at the annual meeting for the American Educational Research Association. Zhou submitted her proposal while working on a Duke Engage project in Serbia, and was selected from 12,000 applicants to give a round table presentation of her work during a session for researchers studying online learning.

Zhou’s advisor, Sanford Professor Leslie Babinski, says that it “is quite an accomplishment” for a student to be selected to present at a roundtable session, especially for an undergraduate researcher.

Zhou is most excited to share her knowledge of the impact of virtual schools and to make people aware of the opportunities that virtual public schools provide, especially in North Carolina. She wants people to learn “how NCVPS provides untraditional language courses and how that increases access and provides resources for students who might be interested in taking world languages.”