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Editor’s Note: This article is well supported by research. It meets a recognized need for integration of language with academic content for a more extensive and productive learning experience.

Widening Access to Education:
A Case for Bilingual Distance Curriculum

Irshat Madyarov
Russia / Iran / USA


The article discusses recent curricular developments at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education in a Middle Eastern country. The Institute is striving to provide access to quality education by outreaching to international English-speaking faculty resources, while still relying on the local Farsi-speaking professors. This emerging bilingual distance curriculum faces two challenges: how to seamlessly integrate English-medium instruction in a non-English speaking environment, and how to do it via distance learning. Due to its interdisciplinary nature, much of the paper contextualizes its discussion through current literature in foreign language instruction. It highlights pitfalls of some academic English programs and suggests how they can be overcome by the introduction of English content-based instruction, an approach that fosters English through a college-level subject matter. The paper also outlines the most current developments in this bilingual distance curriculum drawing upon some findings of recent studies conducted at the Institute. Finally, it offers several projected curricular adjustments in view of the given context and current literature.

Keywords: Middle East, higher education, English for academic purposes, English as a foreign language, human rights


Open and distance learning (ODL) is making education more accessible to marginalized populations across the world. However, this unique capacity of ODL to cross geographical borders creates linguistic and cultural barriers (Jegede, 2000). One challenge is how to make such education accessible to the world-wide population of learners who speak languages other than the medium of instruction.

This paper makes a case for the integration of English-medium instruction in a distance environment through an example of a Farsi-speaking university in a Middle Eastern country - Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). The university is striving to meet the needs of a large population of young people who are denied access to higher education on the grounds of religious beliefs in their home country. To overcome these local challenges, BIHE is adjusting its curriculum to include distance courses, which open up doors for international collaboration. Some distance courses are now taught by English-speaking professors from abroad, and this creates an inevitable linguistic barrier.

Context and Historical Overview

Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) has unique circumstances. Located in a Middle Eastern country, this university until recently used Farsi exclusively as the medium of instruction, except for the English linguistics major students whose courses have always been delivered primarily in English. Recent developments have been changing the shape of the curriculum dramatically by reducing face-to-face contact between students and instructors and by adding English as an additional medium of instruction.

BIHE was established in 1987 as a community response to violations of human rights that left thousands of Baha’i youth without access to higher education. Since its inception, BIHE has grown to offer 14 undergraduate and 3 graduate degrees totaling in over 700 courses (Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, 2008). With the emergence of distance education, BIHE started employing international faculty who use English as a medium of instruction. Presently, some courses are taught in Farsi, others in both English and Farsi, and a few completely in English. While this change provides more access to most current education, it also places high English proficiency demands on students. Successful integration of English as an additional medium of instruction in this online environment has become part of the commitment to quality education in BIHE.

The current BIHE semester lasts 20 weeks, of which four weeks are reserved for the preparation and administration of the proctored midterm and final examinations. An academic year at the university includes two semesters, with the fall semester starting in September and ending in February. The spring semester runs from April until August.

Given the new directions with Internet-based distance education and plans for the integration of English as a medium of instruction, BIHE commissioned a preliminary assessment of English proficiency of a small sample of freshmen students in Fall 2005. Forty-three students took the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), a measure of academic English readiness widely used in US universities. Figure 1 shows that only 21 % of these students were ready for English-medium instruction at an undergraduate level by US standards (TOEFL score of 500-550). Twenty-six percent of them knew hardly any English if at all (TOEFL score of 310-330). The bulk of the students fell in the category of intermediate level proficiency (this pattern remained more or less consistent in Fall 2008). This level of English proficiency of BIHE freshmen called for a rigorous long-term English program in the BIHE curriculum.


Figure 1. TOEFL scores of 43 freshmen students divided into three levels of English proficiency: beginners, intermediate, and advanced.

Prior to 2005, BIHE provided English instruction through individual departments. Each department would develop and offer a combination of face-to-face and correspondence English courses at different levels of proficiency with more focus on English for specific purposes at higher levels (e.g., English for chemistry, engineering, sociology majors, etc.). The amount of exposure to English throughout the academic career at BIHE varied from 40 to 420 contact hours within the period of 2 to 6 semesters, depending on the department and the major. This amount of exposure was largely insufficient compared to a typical academic English program in the U.S., where students may receive up to 400 contact hours of English instruction within a single semester. In addition, these efforts of individual departments were isolated and hence lacked a unifying framework and understanding. With the current vision of a bilingual online university, this situation is changing.

In 2005, BIHE launched the first online English course - EFL 101 course (a lower intermediate course) designed to be a core curriculum course across all majors. An evaluative study of this course showed some promising gains in English within a 20-week semester of instruction, as measured by TOEFL pre- and post-tests (Madyarov, 2009). These gains are more obvious among students at the beginning English level proficiency, which is not surprising given that the course was designed for this level in the first place (see Table 1). Even though these findings cannot be conclusive due to a small sample size, tendencies are obvious.

Table 1
t-test of TOEFL pre- and post-tests (N=27)

Proficiency level







Beginners (n=8)






Intermediate (n=10)






Advanced (n=9)






Note. *p<.05. **p<.01.

  1. Structure – primarily measures knowledge of English grammar
  2. TWE – Test of Written English.

In 2007, almost 1,000 students from different departments were taking four online EFL courses at a time: EFL 100 (beginning level), EFL 101 (low intermediate level), EFL 102 (intermediate level), and EFL 103 (high-intermediate level). These courses reflect the most recent developments in the BIHE curriculum. All EFL courses are Flash-based CD packages with integrated lessons on vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, and listening. EFL 100 is the only self-study course where students do not work with a live instructor due to the lack of faculty resources. Courses EFL 101 through 103 provide interaction among the students and with English-speaking tutors from abroad in the open source Moodle environment and via phone, Skype, and Yahoo Messenger.

Streamlining English for Academic Purposes

How does this typical English for academic purposes (EAP) curriculum fit with the needs of English-medium instruction, particularly, in the distance education environment? Literature abounds with discussion of non-native English speaking students who transition from EAP programs to mainstream university courses in English-speaking countries. In their seminal work, Leki and Carson (1997) offer a break-down of five types of writing assignments identified in EAP programs and mainstream US universities (see Fig. 2). Ironically, content-responsible writing assignments, which are based on course-related content (readings, lectures, experiments, etc.) and are the most common assignments in mainstream university courses, tend to be least represented in EAP programs. Conversely, personal writing, such as essays without reference to course-related content, which are least common in mainstream university courses, tend to be most represented in EAP programs. Indeed, such is the reality of most EAP programs, whose faculty are English teachers and not instructors of typical college courses who expect a firm understanding of course content and its application to practice.

Figure 2. Comparison of writing assignments in EAP composition
and mainstream university courses (Leki & Carson, 1997).

Content-based instruction (CBI) within the domain of foreign language teaching provides a pedagogical solution for this gap. CBI refers to teaching foreign languages by focusing on a particular subject-matter, which normally is not the language itself. A classic and simplified typology of CBI consists of three models: theme-based, sheltered, and adjunct models (Brinton, Snow, Wesche, 2003). All models integrate multiple language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking, as well as pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary components. The difference between the three models lies in the focus on these two key components: language and content. Theme-based instruction focuses most on language and least on content. Adjunct courses focus most on content and least on language, precisely the opposite, and sheltered courses fall in between the two. In this sense, the three models can be viewed on a continuum (see Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Continuum of content-based instruction.
Adapted from Brinton, Snow, Wesche (2003, p. 23).

Theme-based courses teach the target foreign language through unifying themes in each course module, such as academic achievement, health, global issues, culture, and so forth. Each module addresses listening, speaking, reading and writing, and integrates pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. The theme-based model is a good fit for beginning and intermediate levels in that the content is not academically demanding (Brinton, Snow, Wesche, 2003).

Sheltered courses are geared towards non-native speakers of the target language, just like the theme-based model. Unlike the latter, however, it is based on a university level content such as psychology, history, anthropology, and the like. Such a course would incorporate language support by adding the so-called modifications or adjustments to facilitate content learning (e.g., using visual aids, redundancy, repetition, simplification of material, glossed vocabulary, instruction on writing style and grammar for writing papers, etc.). In this context, language issues are addressed to the extent as it is supportive of content learning. This model is fit for students with intermediate to advanced levels of proficiency (Brinton, Snow, Wesche, 2003).

Finally, an adjunct course is a mainstream university level course for native speakers of the target language, and as such it has no language related modifications (Brinton, Snow, Wesche, 2003). In a course like this, non-native speaking students are minority and receive extra help with content and language in an adjunct class. This adjunct class is normally taught by a language teacher who collaborates closely with the professor of the mainstream class. This model is best for students with high-intermediate and advanced levels of proficiency (Brinton, Snow, Wesche, 2003).

When Content Based Instruction (CBI), particularly the sheltered and adjunct models, found its way into higher education, it proved very effective in killing two birds with one stone: 1) college-level subject-matter learning, and 2) further development improving the foreign language medium of instruction. Many studies showed that students who took college-level CBI courses, such as history, psychology, political sciences, social sciences, or education not only gained equal grasp of content compared to peers in the same courses taught in their native language, they often outperformed their peers who took foreign language courses in an intensive language program (Brinton, Snow, & Wesche, 1989; Burger, Wesche, & Migneron, 1997; Chappell & de Courcy, 1993; Edwards, Wesche, Krashen, Clement, & Kruidenier, 1984; Hauptman, Wesche & Ready, 1988).

Within the BIHE context, the online series, EFL 100-103, follows the theme-based model of CBI. EFL 101 and 102 provide ample practice for academic personal writing with some focus on argumentation and explanation. EFL 103 adds some assignments that are more content-responsible, by Leki and Carson’s (1997) definition, such as case studies and reports on scientists, which resemble assignments in mainstream university courses. This shift towards content-responsible writing, however, needs to increase. Unless students are made responsible for knowing the content at the level required by university professors, which is typical of sheltered courses, this shift is unlikely to occur.

In Summer 2008, BIHE launched the first online sheltered-based course on critical thinking, referred to as the bridge course. It transitions students from theme-based English instruction to English-medium college instruction with demands on content understanding. Choice of critical thinking subject matter was determined by  the BIHE curriculum. It had to be a course that would enrich the academic competence of all BIHE students’ regardless of their field of study. This online bridge course is the next stage for academic English development after EFL 103.

The course readings in the critical thinking bridge course are organized around eight modules, each running about ten days:

  1. History of Critical Thinking
  2. Intellectual Attributes of Critical Thinking
  3. Ethical Components of Critical Thinking
  4. Faith and Critical Thinking
  5. Asking Questions
  6. Evaluating Evidence
  7. Detecting Fallacies
  8. Consensus Building and Critical Thinking

This first bridge course had five sections taught by five instructors who were either college-level professors with solid experience in teaching critical thinking or English instructors with some experience teaching content-based courses in critical thinking. The students were held responsible for understanding the course readings and doing a critical analysis of articles and real-life scenarios. Students’ performance and grades depended greatly on the accuracy and depth of their understanding of the course readings and application of this understanding to critical analyses. This differs significantly from the online EFL courses including the most advanced EFL 103, where students’ performance is measured by the amount of work done and the accuracy of English produced.

The online component of the course was delivered through Moodle, which provided students with access to course materials, grades, synchronous and asynchronous discussion tools, electronic drop-boxes and other online tools typical of most content-management systems. Due to poor Internet connection and sometimes absence thereof, the reading materials were also available on CDs. In addition to the printout versions of the course readings with enclosed glossaries, the CD includes a web version of the readings. This format provided interactivity of Internet pages without having to go online. The glossaries in this format are embedded as roll-over boxes that appear when a student rolls over hyperlinked words (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. A print screen of the web browser version of an article that shows
a roll-over box for a glossed word.

Besides glossaries, the bridge course included other adjustments to facilitate content learning by non-native English-speaking students. Students had a chance to discuss course readings in an asynchronous discussion forum. Before submitting their papers for grading, students received feedback from their instructors on their draft papers that facilitated students’ understanding of the content and provided some guidance on language problems. Finally, students had a chance to talk to their instructors during weekly conference calls to clarify their understanding of the content and requirements of the assignments. In addition to these graded assignments, the course had an open forum discussion “Questions and Answers”, where students could post any concerns or questions related to the course content or delivery.

An exploratory study took place during this first run of the course. Preliminary findings indicate that students tend to exhibit learning behaviors quite different from those commonly found in the online EFL courses at BIHE. They were forced to re-read course readings many times, refer to dictionaries and encyclopedias for clarifications, seek help from their instructors and other people around them. While these behaviors signal of some level of frustration that could have been addressed more properly, they are also indicative of an immersive nature of content-based courses where students are actively engaged in the use of the target language as they try to meet their content-related demands. At the level of curriculum, such bridge courses promise to create a natural continuity of language instruction in the BIHE curriculum. They enable students to get adjusted to English-medium college-level courses, which come with serious linguistic demands as well as certain social discourse aspects, such as the roles of professor and students, expectations on certain assignments, and the like. (Casanave, 1995; Starfield, 2001).

Future Prospects

When it comes to creating an English-medium curriculum in a non-English speaking environment, a long-term plan is key. It takes years to acquire a foreign language, let alone a foreign language used for academic purposes. Cummins (1981a, 1981b), a recognized expert in bilingual education, proposed a theory of foreign language acquisition, where he divides foreign language proficiency into two broad categories: basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). BICS is characterized by context-embedded and cognitively undemanding language, typical of daily use of language in informal situations, whereas CALP is context-reduced and cognitively demanding common in schooling settings (see Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Cummins’s (1981b) model of language acquisition with four quadrants.

According to this strand of research, it takes children up to two years to acquire BICS in their non-native language if they live in the target language country. It may take them up to seven years to acquire CALP (Cummins, 1981a).

For adults, CALP acquisition tends to go faster due to more advanced cognitive development and possible prior experience in academia in their native language. However, the implication for the rate of academic language learning is clear. Intensive English programs in the US have at least five proficiency levels, each lasting one semester of intensive 20-25 contact hours of instruction. In this immersion academic environment coupled with the exposure to English outside of school, only highly motivated and capable students are able to transition to mainstream college courses after two years of instruction. This luxury is not available in a non-English speaking environment, such as Middle East, where students above all are busy taking many other non-English related courses.

Figure 6. Current and projected adjustments to BIHE curriculum.

BIHE continues to develop its curriculum in view of these challenges. Presently, freshmen entering BIHE take an English placement test that puts them in one of the EFL courses that matches their proficiency level: EFL 100 through EFL 103. Students with the highest level of proficiency skip the EFL courses and go directly to the critical thinking bridge course. Those who start learning English at the beginning level of proficiency (EFL 100) will reach the bridge course by semester five. This much exposure through only one English course per semester, albeit rather intensive – expected 15 hours of workload per week, is still not sufficient to start taking mainstream English-medium courses independently. Figure 6 highlights some current and projected developments for BIHE curriculum.

Currently, BIHE has three strands of courses: 1) Farsi-medium courses, 2) English-medium courses, and 3) Farsi-English courses. Farsi-medium courses have been traditional at BIHE and still occupy a major role in the curriculum.

The English-medium strand started in 2005 with a series of EFL courses discussed above with the end-goal to prepare students for English-medium mainstream college-level courses taught by international faculty from abroad. However, mainstream college courses at BIHE are different from those in English-speaking countries in that all BIHE students are non-native speakers of English who may still be linguistically challenged due to lack of exposure to English. Therefore, some supporting resources should be available to such students.

One of the proposed adjustments is the training of international English-speaking faculty. Training faculty to adapt their mainstream courses in English to non-native English speaking students is something that is done routinely in some English-speaking countries. In the United States, for example, most states require elementary and secondary school teachers to have the so-called ESOL certification or endorsement. This training ensures that all school teachers are sensitive to the needs of their non-native English-speaking children in class and are accordingly able to adjust their pace, language, and materials. Such a training would raise the awareness of the BIHE international faculty about the challenges their students go through and this faculty would learn how to adapt their courses by adding language-supporting materials: glossaries of key words and concepts, summaries or Power-Point slides of readings presented in a more simplified language, use of visuals and/or animations to demonstrate complex concepts, and the like. In fact, many of these adjustments are similar to the recommendations for distance courses: student support, interaction and feedback, and multiple sources of learning (American Distance Education Consortium, 2003; Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System, 1999; Phipps & Merisotis, 2000; Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, 1995; White, 2003).

Another proposed supporting resource for mainstream courses is the online English lab. The lab would consist of academic English tutors helping students with their mainstream course-related needs. This solution may be efficient provided there are enough tutors to support the online writing lab. After all, students at this level will still struggle with producing academic English and accordingly will need much guidance and attention.

Finally, the third strand in the BIHE curriculum consists of English-Farsi courses. As students are becoming more prepared for English-medium instruction, some Farsi-speaking professors in the BIHE home country start adopting English-based textbooks. These are a small number of faculty, most of whom have received their education in an English-speaking country. Such courses start when students are minimally prepared to handle academic readings, which occur on the fourth semester of the curriculum for the students who started from EFL 100. English-Farsi courses must be cognitively undemanding, according to Cummins’s (1981b) definition: introduction courses or courses that share much common vocabulary in both English and Farsi, such as computer engineering or math courses. All interaction in these courses is done in Farsi. This way, students can always ask their professors to clarify challenging concepts in Farsi. Students complete written assignments in Farsi. Thus, these courses provide extra exposure to English through receptive skills (reading and possibly listening), while students are still working on more cognitively demanding productive skills (writing and possibly speaking) in their EFL courses. 


Distance education is no longer a novelty. It is now reaching out to many developing and underdeveloped countries, thus making education more accessible and universal. Medium of instruction is one factor that defines this universality, and, more often than not, the preferred medium is English. Inevitably, such distance schools encounter a typical problem – preparing their target student population for authentic instruction in English. This new generation of bilingual higher education schools is unique to our time. In this respect, the author of this article attempts to contribute to the limited body of experience and literature in this interdisciplinary field and welcomes respective researchers and practitioners for collaboration and dialogue.


The author would like to thank Dr. Linda Evans at the University of South Florida as well as the faculty and board members of BIHE for their guidance and collaboration on this project.



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About the Author

Irshat Madyarov holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition and Instructional Technology from the University of South Florida. His research interests include bilingual education, English for academic purposes, distance education, and foreign language assessment, foreign language teacher training. He is currently an adjunct instructor at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, Iran.

Irshat Madyarov,

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