WellesleyX Italian Courses Reach Over 125,000 Students Worldwide

January 17, 2019
Three women stand around a table before cooking

In 2012, Wellesley became the first liberal arts college to join the online learning collaborative edX with its launch of WellesleyX, as well as the first women’s college to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs). The course Italian Language and Culture has since become one of WellesleyX’s most popular offerings, combining best practices in foreign language teaching with innovative technology to bring high-quality, affordable Italian classes to anyone anywhere in the world.

Initially designed as a summer course for alumnae and incoming students by Daniela Bartalesi-Graf, lecturer in Italian studies at Wellesley, Italian Language and Culture was expanded and launched as an MOOC offering in 2016. It encompasses beginner, intermediate, advanced, and AP-level courses and has reached over 125,000 students in 197 countries worldwide since its debut.

“We heard from thousands of people, from Brazil to Iceland, Mongolia to Madagascar, that they had been looking for ways to learn Italian, but the high costs of private schools, the lack of flexibility, or simply the absence of resources in their area were major impediments,” said Bartalesi-Graf. “There is a clear demand for more flexible and affordable ways for students to advance their education.”

The WellesleyX Italian program has also allowed Bartalesi-Graf to offer more inclusive and flexible courses for current Wellesley students. Her blended on-campus Italian classes combine online content with in-class activities, quizzes, exams, and regular office hours. An added benefit is that the online materials are free, replacing textbooks that can cost upward of $300. 

Bartalesi-Graf has also used the program to enhance classroom teaching and create a model of online instruction for other departments and institutions. “Having thousands of online learners provides a global laboratory for testing the effectiveness of new technology and teaching materials,” said Bartalesi-Graf. By polling students online and receiving immediate feedback, she can revise and improve content—most of which she creates herself—to address different learning styles and strategies, frequently and in real time.

WellesleyX Italian serves as a model and resource for other language programs at Wellesley, including the Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures departments, which are developing online modules for campus courses. The University of British Columbia, the University of Tel Aviv, and Emmanuel College have adopted WellesleyX Italian courses in their classrooms, and many high schools are using the AP version in their advanced language courses. In addition, WellesleyX Italian has fostered research collaboration in language pedagogy with the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and the University of Naples Federico II.  

When WellesleyX launched its grand experiment with edX, the College’s “initial goals were reaching out to students across the world and showing them how different teaching and learning in a small liberal arts institution like Wellesley [can be],” said Ravi Ravishanker, chief information officer and associate dean of WellesleyX. WellesleyX Italian and other courses have accomplished that goal, and faculty have taken the lessons learned back to their classrooms via successful blended learning initiatives.

Bartalesi-Graf has seen many improvements in technology-enhanced language instruction during her 20 years of teaching, and she is excited about future developments, such as the use of adaptive online platforms and virtual reality to create more customized learning experiences. “Learning and teaching foreign languages is moving away from textbooks to online and social media resources,” she said. “Any tools we can provide that will allow students more practice on their portable devices will improve motivation, engagement, and ultimately proficiency and results.”

She is currently working to revise and improve the beginner, intermediate, and advanced Italian course modules. The new version of WellesleyX Italian Language and Culture is set to launch on February 11, 2019.

Wellesley’s Italian online program has been generously supported by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Photo: Video lessons and skits (like the one shown above) are some of the standout features that make Wellesley's Italian EdX program so popular, and accessible, for online learning.