About eTower


In 2015, the eTower Project initiated as an infrastructure grant from the STARTALK Project, a federally-funded project initiated by the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2006, and administered by the National Foreign Language Center (NFLC) at the University of Maryland. While the overarching mission of STARTALK is to increase the number of U.S. citizens learning, speaking, and teaching critical need foreign languages, the infrastructure grants seek to carry on that same mission at the national level, thereby expanding the reach of the STARTALK project to as many learners as possible. In that spirit, eTower was born to connect learners to openly accessible, effective resources to increase both language and cultural proficiency. The eTower team spent 2015-16 establishing a model to create and freely distribute learning modules for critical language learning study. The scope of this initial grant included the design of a pilot module, which can be found here on this site, along with a design plan that might be utilized to build out additional modules in Chinese (and scalable to other STARTALK languages).


The designers of the eTower project sought out to create an online learning environment that would encompass the critical characteristics of the face-to-face environment that support language proficiency. As such, at the heart of the module design was the creation of performance-based learning activities, strategically positioned to assess the user’s abilities and provide targeted content to move the user to the next level of proficiency.

The learning content is rooted in the STARTALK-endorsed principles, utilizing a standards-based curriculum, authentic integration of culture, and the STELLA model to create a learner-centered online environment. Rather than focus their content solely on customary topics related to culture and daily life, the team bridged the modern interpretation of transportation as it relates to ancient wisdom found in the famous painting Qīngmíng Shànghé Tú. Built with the authoring tool Articulate Storyline in conjunction with other emerging technology applications and open educational resources, the designers were able to develop the activities as Integrated Performance Assessments, allowing students to interact with the lessons through listening, speaking, and writing activities, as well as receive in-time feedback. While the task of creating an IPA in a self-paced, online environment was a daunting task, the designers leverage emerging technology to create the opportunity for users to answer interpretive questions, engage in interpersonal communication informed by system feedback, and present ideas and opinions. We invite you to explore the links below to learn more about the painting and its rich history:

Inspired by the mission of the STARTALK Infrastructure Grants to increase the reach, access and impact of the STARTALK Project, the eTower team made a choice to design each module as a freely available open educational resource (OER). This approach has the direct benefit of reaching more learners (particularly those in need of ways to continue their language studies in places where no opportunities exist), but also the indirect benefit of supporting instructors in need of robust and interactive, performance-based assessments for use in their classrooms.


Dali Tan (Program Director and Content Expert)
Dr. Dali Tan (PhD in comparative literature in 1997) is Assistant Professor of Chinese and China Coordinator at Northern Virginia Community College. She has extensive experience teaching Chinese to students from 5th grade to college seniors as well as adult learners and heritage Chinese school students. She was a board member of Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (NECTFL) from March 2010 to March, 2014 and the President of Chinese Language Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools (CLASS), co-chairs Chinese K‐16 standards project and serves on the CLASS Curriculum Committee. She is the co-project director for a five year research project entitled “Language Socialization in Chinese Study Abroad Homestay” which is a 2010-2014 research project of CALPER (Center for Advanced Language Proficiency Education and Research at Pennsylvania State University) funded by a Title VI Grant from the Department of Education. Dr. Tan is also a consultant for the College Board and served on the College Board SAT II Chinese Committee for five years and the AP Chinese Committees for two years. She has conducted many AP Chinese one‐day workshops and AP summer institutes for the College Board since 2006 both in the US and in China. She was the 2003 recipient of the Teacher Recognition Award issued by the U.S. Department of Education.

Angela Gunder (Director of Technology Applications)
Ms. Gunder (M.Ed. in Education Technology) has worked for Northern Virginia Community College since 2003, first as a member of the college’s web design team, and then as webmaster of the Alexandria Campus. Prior to her current position as Senior Instructional Designer for The University of Arizona, Angela served as an instructional designer for the Extended Learning Institute, webmaster for The City College of New York and Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. With over 14 years of experience as a web and print designer for higher education, Angela’s work is focused on usability, engagement, and open access for all learners. She has worked as a designer for the State Department and Foreign Service Institute, and her work has been shown on both CNN and Nightline. Angela currently serves as an Associate Editor for the Teacher Education Board of MERLOT, peer reviewing open education resources for their pedagogical value in the classroom. She is an Associate Editor for the Teacher Education Board of MERLOT, and a Quality Matters certified peer reviewer and online facilitator. Her research and pedagogical interests include the design and facilitation of innovation makerspaces, open educational resources, and emerging technology for second language acquisition. Additionally, Angela has served as webmaster, technical lead and an instructor for NOVASTARTALK since 2009.

Shaoyu Chi (Director of Instructional Design and Lead Curriculum Developer)
Dr. Shaoyu Chi has more than 15 years of professional experience in instructional design, development, and delivery. As an Instructional Designer at the ELI-Distance Learning Center at Northern Virginia Community College, Dr. Chi has been helping faculty design and deliver distance-learning courses while helping administering the learning management system for the college’s online courses. An avid user of instructional technology in language courses, she has extensive experience in assisting faculty designing language online courses—both synchronous and asynchronous. She has been working closely with faculty and providing pedagogical consultation, instructional design support, and software instruction. She has also trained faculty on how to develop and deliver successful and effective online, hybrid, and technology-enhanced courses. Dr. Chi has presented at many national and local conferences in instructional design. She received her Ed. D. in Instructional Technology from Northern Illinois University. In addition to her work on the eTower grant, Dr. Chi has served as the Lead Chinese Instructor and Instructional designer for the NOVASTARTALK Program for the past decade

Susan Picard (Director of Web Applications and Technical Lead)
Ms. Susan Picard (M.Ed. in Education Technology) has over 15 years experience in web development and design, including back-end server configuration maintenance. She currently works for the Extended Learning institute of Northern Virginia Community College as the Coordinator of Technology Development where she supervises a Help Desk specializing in support for online students, faculty, and staff. She has created numerous websites on multiple platforms, and has helped NOVA earn several Digital Community College Survey awards, to include their 1st place ranking in 2015. She has also taught continuing education courses for publishing, design, and website development.

Laura Franklin (Open Educational Resources Consultant)
Dr. Laura L. Franklin is a Professor of French at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) in Alexandria, Virginia. She teaches face-to-face and hybrid courses and online language classes at all levels at NOVA’s Extended Learning Institute. She is the founding co-Editor of the World Languages collection of the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) and its founding World Languages portal editor. She has designed and implemented many faculty development workshops and courses, including the grant-supported STARTALK workshop “Power Up Your Chinese and Arabic Classes with Technology.” Dr. Franklin has led the STARTALK grant, NOVASTARTALK, since its inception in 2006. In 2007, she was the recipient of the ACTFL Houghton Mifflin Teaching Foreign Languages with Technology award with IALLT, and in 2015, the NECTFL Nelson H. Brooks Award for Outstanding Leadership in the Profession.