Rocking the Virtual Chinese Classroom

Empowering CFL Learning through Videoconferencing

By Caryn Rossi Louie
Videoconference Chinese Teacher
North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics
Distant Education Extended Programs

“I like the fact that we can talk to classmates in a school that is in a different town – just like they are right beside us,” (Bin Chen, 11th grade, Barco, NC).

“What surprised me most about this course are all the fun things we do. I didn’t expect us to learn some calligraphy or about the foods or meet [in person] our teacher and the other students that we have class with via distance learning,” (Candice Coleman, 10th grade, Washington, NC).

“I never thought Chinese culture would be of any interest to me, but I have truly been enlightened. Learning about Chinese culture really makes me want to learn more about how people live and interact in other parts of the world,” (Zach Erwin, 11th grade, Kannapolis, NC).


Bin, Candice and Zach study Chinese together despite the fact that they attend three different high schools spread across the state of North Carolina. They are each enrolled in the distance learning Mandarin course I teach which is offered by the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM), located in Durham, NC. When someone learns that I teach Chinese “on TV,” the first question is usually “How does it all work?” In the following article, you will find a snapshot of how distance learning works in my program.
NCSSM has an extensive distance education department with four fully-equipped production studios and control rooms; each studio is staffed by a manager. The studio manager operates the studio and the videoconferencing technology from the control room which enables the teacher to focus exclusively on the instruction. I (the teacher) stand at a podium that has a laptop, document camera and smart board. Behind me is a green screen (think “the weatherman”) and in front of me are three TV monitors.

The first monitor shows the incoming image of students attending class at each of the distance sites. The second monitor displays the outgoing image of the “classroom” I am sending out to the students. This outgoing image can be generated from a variety of sources, including two cameras in the studio, the white board, computer screen, or green screen. The third monitor is the “preview” monitor and allows the teacher to preview what the studio manager is preparing to display next. At each remote site, there is a classroom facilitator who serves as my eyes and ears. Facilitators are an invaluable component of the program; their assistance includes printing out and distributing handouts, making sure students stay on task and providing feedback on student performance that I am not able to observe personally.

NCSSM offers a variety of high school courses by videoconference. Funded by the state, these courses are offered to North Carolina public schools at no cost to broaden curriculum offerings.

Our Chinese course meets every day for 90 minutes. On a typical day, students engage in whole class, partner and individual activities that reinforce the five skills: listening, speaking, reading, typing and writing. Activities that reinforce pronunciation and tones are woven into the class; student white boards are used on a regular basis to allow students to practice writing phrases and sentences they have already learned to say, read and type.

One example of an activity we use in class daily is Gmail Journals. In this activity, students respond to questions I email to them by typing characters on their computers. The journal questions are based on language structures and vocabulary that the students have already learned how to say and characters they have already been introduced to passively. This strategy is based on my philosophy of Speak First, Write Later. The benefits of Gmail Journals have proven to be multi-fold: 1) the students are actively engaged in creating meaning without the premature need to write characters by hand; 2) character recognition is strengthened and 3) the students receive immediate and continuous feedback. Equally valuable is the immediacy that is made possible by corresponding via 2-3 sentence journal entries with each student. This format gives me immediate insight into areas of confusion enabling me to redirect everyone’s attention to a one minute "mini-lesson" for clarification. Based on anecdotal evidence, this type of “just-in-time” teaching has proven very effective in helping my students remain focused; I believe this strategy addresses grammar and structure problems before they become ingrained habits.

An additional benefit of the Speak First, Write Later approach is that my students realize that learning Chinese is within their reach. When surveyed, eleven out of twelve students commented that Chinese is much easier than they anticipated. I believe this is due, in large part, to the fact that using the computer to type Chinese allows students to communicate in meaningful ways while simultaneously reinforcing and fine-tuning their pronunciation skills.

“What surprised me most [about the course] is how much material is covered. Each day the students shock me with how much of the Chinese language they have learned. I never would have thought that after one semester, the students would recognize enough Chinese characters to write full sentences, and even paragraphs,” (Amanda Spence, Distance Learning Facilitator, Currituck High School).


In addition to teaching language, I continually look for ways to incorporate culture into the class. Two months after beginning our course, I arranged a field trip bringing all of the students together in Raleigh to introduce Chinese culture to the group. Some of the students had never been out of their rural hometowns. Walking into the largest Asian grocery store in the southeast was like stepping into China – the sights, smells, and sounds gave the students a real-life experience of what the language they are learning to speak sounds like in real life, how people interact and what it feels like to be in a crowded market in China. During the same trip, I arranged a visit to the local Chinese Kungfu school, where we enjoyed the power of Shaolin Kungfu and a memorable demonstration of the culturally-rich Dragon Dance.
Last month, I arranged for a local artist to teach my students Chinese calligraphy and brush painting. During our regular class session, the artist used the document camera to display her stroke work at close range. At the sites, the students were given brushes and materials enabling them to participate in a hands-on workshop to learn one of China’s most ancient arts. I am currently arranging a field trip to New York City’s Chinatown over Memorial Day weekend. Field trips, while time-consuming to arrange, are valuable in building our class community and providing experiences for my students to experience authentic Chinese culture.


The biggest surprise for me has been the success of the videoconferencing format for teaching a foreign language. As a former ESL teacher program developer with 15 years of classroom experience, I was skeptical of the idea of teaching a foreign language without face-to-face contact. I felt it would be impossible to create the same level of intimacy without the personal touch that a teacher typically brings to the classroom. Videoconferencing combined with email, a document camera, an on-line curriculum and video streaming have allowed me to create the kind of intimate learning community that I previously thought was only possible in a traditional classroom setting.

The other surprise for me has been how technology and new teaching methods and resources speed up student acquisition of the language. When I began my Chinese studies in 1981, there were two textbooks that universities chose from and technology consisted of the language lab with audio cassettes. Today’s Chinese teachers and students have access to myriad web 2.0 tools and internet resources that allow learners to progress much farther in a considerably shorter amount of time.


While the course we are developing at NCSSM continues to receive positive feedback and demand for the program is growing, teaching Chinese via interactive conferencing is not without drawbacks. The main obstacles in our program are summed up below:

Regarding the teacher and administrators:

• Technical problems – not being able to connect or schools connecting late

• Computer problems – laptops that don’t work, internet connections that go down

• Not being able to hear students clearly due to microphone placement or quiet students

• Coordinating the calendars of four different schools, in terms of early release, snow days, assemblies etc

• Students keeping up with work they have missed – with three different schools, someone is absent, arrives late or leaves early every day

• Installing Chinese language support on the computers

Regarding the students:

• Lack of hands-on activities

• Not being able to develop the close friendships with classmates

• Lack of one-on-one help from the teacher

• Less personal interaction where you can work on your individual flaws

• Sound interference from the other sites

• Difficulty hearing certain pronunciation via videoconferencing

• Faulty laptops and microphones

Some of these challenges go with the territory, especially the technology problems and the scheduling issues that arise when dealing with multiple remote sites. Other challenges – such as installing language support and the difficulty hearing students – are easier to address. Though the challenges can be frustrating, with a strong commitment and the proper baseline facilities, I believe the benefits of videoconferencing far outweigh the negative points.


The 2008 Chinese Field Report states:

“In this age when technology is widely accessible, quality Chinese language programming via distance or web-based learning is a desirable and feasible solution. Technology cannot replace a good teacher and the face-to-face interactions that are essential for language learning and use, nonetheless, it has the capability to either bring an opportunity to learn to students in areas where Chinese language teachers are not available, or enhance learning beyond the walls of the a classroom.(1) ”

This is precisely what videoconferencing enables. With this medium, a personal bond can be built between teacher and student and reinforced each day of class.

Over the course of this past year, I have overcome my initial skepticism and even some fear of the technology. Back in August 2008, I knew nothing about videoconferencing. Overwhelmed when given a tour of the studios during my interview, I could not conceptualize how it all came together. Now I love the class and look forward to the experience of teaching in the studio every day. For me, it is a very exciting time to be in Chinese language education as technology transforms the parameters of the traditional classroom and expands opportunities for teaching at a distance. I feel fortunate to have access to state-of-the art studios and a highly-professional team at the NCSSM.

I hope that my experience will be instructive for other institutions interested in developing Chinese language programs using a videoconferencing format. In summary, these are the most important factors that have contributed to our success at NCSSM:

1. State-of-the-art production facilities

2. Personnel assistance at the originating site (studio manager) and distance site (facilitator)

3. ACTFL Performance Guidelines

4. Access to web 2.0 tools

I expect that emerging web 2.0 technologies such as web conferencing will lower the entry barriers for instructors and/or institutions. Beyond the technology, I believe that true success is measured by student mastery of the language and that the foundation for success in language proficiency lies in fully understanding and integrating the ACTFL guidelines. The technology, combined with a communicative-based curricula and other new paradigms for teaching Chinese, creates a powerful synergy and accelerates language acquisition. These are exciting times, indeed.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at I look forward to collaborating with other like-minded teachers and institutions with a similar vision for learning Chinese in the 21st century.


In addition to a residential program, NCSSM also offers distant education courses. In 1994, the program, known as Distant Education Extended Programs (DEEP), began offering student instruction and professional development workshops statewide. This is accomplished through videoconferencing on the North Carolina Information Highway (NCIH). In August 2008, at the request of several school districts across the state, DEEP added Mandarin 1 and 2 to their course offerings. Since its launch date, the Chinese language course has received overwhelmingly positive feedback and demand for the program is growing.

(1) Chinese in 2008: An Expanding Field. Asia Society and the College Board, April 2008.