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(Originally posted on the Columbia LRC Blog)

What happens when you gather hundreds of professionals in the language education field from multiple continents and give them the run of Harvard’s campus during a few summer days? The FLEAT6 conference.

A number of us from the Columbia Language Resource Center spent the week in Boston participating in this year’s FLEAT conference, which was co-sponsored by the International Association for Language Learning Technology (IALLT) and the Japan Association for Language Education & Technology (J-LET). While the conference program covered a range of topic too wide to summarize here, including everything from how to use Wikipedia as a tool for Academic English instruction to the impact of particular spaced-repetition flash card tools on the study of Mandarin, a single theme did run through the proceedings: what to do with the language lab in a post-language lab era?

Over the past 15 years digital networks have spread the ability to listen to or record audio into computers and phones in every dorm room. This has undermined the traditional role for the language lab as a dedicated space for students to go and either listen to pre-recorded language practice materials or record their own practice sessions. Adapting to this networked reality has freed up significant resources for new types of collaborative and more flexible language education initiatives, many of which were discussed and had their merits debated during FLEAT6. I saw three major approaches to this change, though my view was necessarily limited since there were more sessions running than any one person could have attended. These three approaches each focused on a different aspect of the work done by modern Language Resource Centers: the use of space, the building of materials, and the building of bridges between institutions.

Re-examining the use of space by LRCs was the most common approach I saw to re-examining the role of the LRC, largely because all discussions included some re-purposing of older spaces. The simplest version of this approach suggests converting old lab space into open collaborative space for students to use as they wish. As Steve points out, this leaves open a number of questions about effectiveness. Also, as Jonathan Perkins discussed later in the conference, LRCs are unlikely to win a competition for best open collaboration space when libraries and student centers are already far along in that effort. Most discussions favored a more nuanced approach that incorporates re-purposing old space as part of larger changes to the activity of the LRC.

The most novel of these new approaches I saw was presented by Jonathan Perkins of the University of Kansas, who presented a compelling argument that building Open Educational Resources (OER) is the competitive advantage for LRCs in today’s university environment. He argues that LRCs are ideally positioned to coordinate cross-institution construction projects that can harness the expertise of multiple instructors as well as the pool of talented graduate student workers available on our campuses. Because of the low costs involved, materials can be distributed freely online, saving students in your programs thousands of dollars while increasing the visibility of those institutions building the materials. His case study is Между нами, a freely available Russian language textbook newly released to the world and written by instructors at Brown, the Portland State, and by our own Alla Smyslova at Columbia. I am a big supporter of community-built and freely sharable resources so I was particularly happy to see this approach working on such important resources and doing so through a continent-wide partnership of world-class universities.

These kinds of partnerships are also the focus of the third major strategy for the evolution of the LRC, though the focus here shifts from material production to direct student engagement. In this model, the LRC fosters collaborations between individual language classes, as in the CIRCLE and multiple other projects, or between whole programs and institutions, as in the Shared Course Initiative between Columbia, Cornell, and Yale. As with the construction of OER materials, this strategy builds on the LRC’s position outside of the departmental structure at most universities. Building cross-institutional collaborations can require the investment of time to build relationships around the country, expertise in collaboration tools and strategies, and even specialized spaces like distance learning classrooms or demonstration and workshop rooms. Making these investments in a single LRC can be much more efficient than building parallel capacity in each interested department. I am most familiar with this strategy since it is the foundation of so much of the work we do at Columbia’s LRC, but we were in great company pursuing this strategy at the conference.

Adapting to the challenges and opportunities of the post-language lab era is a large task but that task is made easier by the kinds of open discussions among leaders in the field that took place at FLEAT. I look forward to returning next year to continue discussing that and other areas of shared concern across the field.