MSU’s Confucius Institute leads in Chinese-language learning

Coupled with declining budgets and enrollment over the past decade, plus the growth of online learning and virtual schools, an increasing number of Michigan school districts have sought creative ways to offer specialized courses such as Mandarin Chinese to students.

Michigan Virtual School, a nonprofit online education and training corporation funded by the Michigan Legislature in July 2000, helps fill that gap by providing supplemental online courses in a variety of subjects. It delivers virtual Mandarin Chinese courses to middle and high school students through an innovative partnership with Michigan State University’s Confucius Institute.

As online learning continues to evolve, these partnerships demonstrate how technology has become a powerful tool to expand access to students everywhere as the industry continues to research, re-evaluate and revise ways to provide the best service to students and educators alike. 

CI-MSU — a collaborative effort of Michigan State University, Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban) and Open University of China — has developed various products and learning tools to meet the needs of students hoping to master Mandarin Chinese, a language that is intrinsically challenging for native English speakers to learn.

Established in 2006, MSU’s Confucius Institute has become one of the leading CIs in the world, offering custom-designed products, programs and services for young children, K-12 students and adults. Its popular e-textbook Chinese Your Way has won international Chinese-language curriculum awards. In addition, CI-MSU was the first to offer online Mandarin courses for high school students and the first to design and offer community college-level courses in the virtual environment Second Life. It was also the first to release a Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game for teaching language and culture.

A global network of learning

CI-MSU is part of the larger Confucius Institute network of more than 300 CIs in 78 countries, and it offers Chinese language and culture instruction to more than 30,000 students worldwide. It has been chosen as the Confucius Institute of the Year by the Chinese Ministry of Education several times.

CI-MSU courses use both synchronous and asynchronous learning methods, where students complete self-study lessons on their own time, four days a week, and then come together to interact with each other and the teacher on the fifth day. They use technologies such as Adobe Connect, Blackboard and live chat to stay connected. They also build interpretative, interpersonal and presentational skills as students progress in the language.

“This isn’t just a prepackaged program,” says Dr. Jiahang Li, associate director at CI-MSU. “That’s one of the unique pieces because it allows for greater opportunity to interact with a native teacher who is the course instructor and also gives students the opportunity to practice the language with other students in the class.”

The Mandarin courses meet Michigan world language guidelines and proficiency standards and are free to public school students through an arrangement with their local district. They also are available to families of home-schoolers and other learners who want to explore a language on their own and pay for the courses.

“It’s been a nice partnership since Michigan Virtual School focuses on marketing and recruiting students while CI-MSU focuses on research and course delivery,” says Dr. Nancy Romig, associate director of CI-MSU.

Chinese Your Way is a Chinese culture and language courseware system designed by CI-MSU specifically for English-speaking middle and high school students. It enables students to learn Chinese at their own pace with thousands of interactive multimedia and video language encounters. 

“We try not to do too much drill-and-kill,” Romig says. “Language isn’t fun if you’re just listening and repeating back. We try to get them thinking through the language. They have the opportunity to practice and speak out dialogue, but we want our students to be able to use that language in a real-world context.”

Some students take two years of Mandarin Chinese to meet the state’s foreign language graduation requirements, while others opt to continue on to advanced coursework.

Taking it to the next level

Besides introductory classes, CI-MSU picks up where other world language course providers leave off, Li says. Many providers offer levels 1 and 2, whereas CI-MSU offers 10 different levels of Mandarin Chinese, including Advanced Placement courses.

“We provide Chinese language courses online to over 20 states and even to students in other countries,” Li says. “You don’t have to be in the state of Michigan to take the course.”

CI-MSU develops the interactive courses and other materials, along with devoting time to research best practices for Chinese language learning, and recruits and supervises the teachers. They have to have the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree and scores from the Test of English as a Foreign Language or International English Language Testing System to demonstrate English language proficiency. They are native Chinese speakers who move to Michigan for two years, pursue additional education and participate in other community outreach activities along with traditional face-to-face programs, Romig says.

“Once we get them here, they teach out of our offices and are housed right here in the MSU College of Education,” she says. “They help with our community outreach activities, design course materials for Chinese language teaching and also do research. The research we do is an integral part of our process in making sure we’re providing a sound education for our students.”

Today’s global business environment, along with a push from both the U.S. and Chinese governments, has driven the expansion of Mandarin Chinese language programs. The Office of Chinese Language Council International provides most of the funding for CI teachers.

“The increase in Chinese language programs has been developing over 10 years after the United States government and Department of Defense identified it as a critical language,” Romig says. “Districts are looking at how to promote language programs, so we also work with school districts for face-to-face Chinese programs.”

This story is part of a series on online education in Michigan. Support for this series is provided by Michigan Virtual University.

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist, veteran education reporter and professional writer who lives in West Michigan. Connect with her at or

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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