Opening the University for Language Learning: the Open Language Programme

Author(s): G. García-Soza, A.Callaghan
Institution/Organisation: University of Essex (UK)


1.1 Scope of the initiative

The Open Language Programme at the University of Essex is an ambitious project which has been running successfully since its beginnings in the academic year 1999-2000, opening up language learning opportunities to all members of the University, students as well as staff, and to the outside community, covering mainly the Borough of Colchester within the County of Essex as well parts of the County of Suffolk. Within the University, the programme has expanded language learning opportunities for undergraduates, which were limited previously mainly to the Faculties of Humanities, Comparative Studies and Social Sciences to new areas such as Law and Management as well as Science and Engineering, targeting students on degree courses without a language component. Another innovation of the programme was extending it to all postgraduate students who previously had no access to any language study whatsoever within the University environment. Members of staff who have benefited from this new opportunity include many administrators, librarians, catering and cleaning staff, contributing to the University’s international and democratic profile. The fact that the department’s language courses are not career specific but language driven makes it possible to cater for this variety of student backgrounds.

The programme has had an impact on the outside community, complementing the local Adult Further Education Institution by offering different languages at more advanced levels within a rigorous framework. A growing number of people of all age groups now come to the University and are awarded the OLP certificates and diploma. The project is serviced collaboratively by the seven language sections within the Department of Language and Linguistics and the University administration and is available to some 8.600 students and 2500 staff plus population of the Counties of Essex and Suffolk (approx. 2 million). Promotional efforts are made on a regular basis to increase the public’s awareness of the OLP. It offers a Certificate of Continuing Education in Modern Languages, a Certificate of Higher Education in Modern Languages and a Diploma of Higher Education in Modern Languages.

1.2 Range of languages learned

The programme offers 6 levels of French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish plus 1 level of Arabic and Chinese, with courses running for a full academic year. Furthermore, students can choose several language courses at different levels and in various combinations. OLP students are free to select the language of their choice and there is no dominant language, even though Spanish and French tend to be the most popular.

The following are the 6 levels available to OLP students at the University of Essex, in juxtaposition with the comparable Common European Framework/CEF Attainment Levels:

1.3 Learning outcomes

The Learning Outcomes for the OLP courses are as outlined for degree courses and are defined according to the CEFR. Following a longitudinal progression for instance, a student would have to reach A2 to obtain the Certificate of Continuing Education in Modern Languages; B1 to obtain the Certificate of Higher Education in Modern languages; and B2 to be awarded the Diploma of Higher Education in Modern Languages. However, taking into account existing prior knowledge, students can start at any level in the structure and the credits they obtain can lead them to get an award at various CEF levels. Thus, the Learning Outcomes are tailored to individual needs, with the minimum requirements set out in the programme specification approved by the University.

However, the learning outcomes for the awards can be grouped as below according to the Essex and CEF levels:

Knowledge and understanding

  • Linguistic skills, both written and spoken which are articulated in the level of knowledge of phonology, morphology, syntax, lexis, and socio-stylistic variation plus techniques of translation, interpreting, and creative writing, the students have acquired
  • Sociocultural awareness of aspects of the culture and society of the country/ies which use the foreign language(s) as a medium of communication, drawing comparisons with their own culture and observing contrasts.

Intellectual/Cognitive skills

  • Communicative ability to articulate ideas, information and arguments in oral and written form in the specialist languages, with a level of fluency, accuracy, clarity and effectiveness (and sensitivity to register and style) which depends on the level of the courses taken.
  • Cognitive ability to abstract, analyse and synthesise information from authentic written and spoken language materials in the foreign language.

Practical skills

  • Transferable skills like organising and presenting (orally and in writing) ideas and materials in the specialist languages and gathering and processing information from different sources.
  • IT skills like word processing, presenting with PowerPoint, using e-mail, doing bibliographic and language searches.
  • People skills like collaborating with others to work creatively and flexibly as part of a team and working autonomously showing organisation, self-discipline and time management

1.4 Practical realisation

The OLP is an optional programme of language learning which can be used by students to gain credits for the courses they take. Many students come to the University to do one level and end up staying to progress onto other levels and gain a Continuous or Higher Education award. The awarding of credits by the University is subject to its rigorous quality assurance procedures and all OLP student work is monitored by external examiners.

The demands placed on OLP students are exactly the same as those for University degree students, which means that every language course taken at one of the 6 levels is considered to be a full University course with an award of 30 credits on completion. Students must comply with all coursework and exam requirements of the course successfully; the students who are unsuccessful are offered the opportunity to resit coursework and/or the end of year examination.

The Essex credit weighting for the OLP awards is as follows:

  • one language course has a weighting of 30 credits
  • the Certificate of Continuing Education in Modern Languages has a weighting of 60 credits
  • the Certificate of Higher Education in Modern languages has a weighting of 120 credits
  • the Diploma of Higher Education in Modern Languages has a weighting of 240 credits
  • The above are ESSex credits: ECTS credits are usually half of Essex credits

The language courses typically consist of three (levels 1, 2, 3) to four (levels 4, 5, 6) contact hours per week and run throughout the year in 2 terms of 10 weeks each and 1 term of 3 weeks, from October to June. Students are expected to do 5 hours of self-study per course per week, in order to assimilate all the material covered in class. To do this, they are free to use the extensive facilities (e.g. library, laboratories) available on campus. There is a total integration between registered University students, staff and outside community students who work to the same curriculum. The Department also offers thematic/content courses exploring, for instance, cultural topics in the five main languages taught. These may be taken alongside the core language courses, reinforcing the basic language acquisition process whilst offering a more varied and wider learning spectrum.

Students have access to all the University facilities in terms of academic and pastoral support, they can call on any member of staff for advice on any issues regarding their courses, learning process or problems which may be impairing their studies. Because of its nature the OLP attracts students of all age groups, ranging from 19 to 70 years old, making the programme unique and all-embracing at University level.

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