Online Learning Communities for Less Commonly Taught Languages

    To address the LRC mandate for “the conduct and dissemination of research on new and improved methods for teaching foreign languages, including the use of advanced educational technology,” NFLRC will build on previous work to initiate a new series of technology-based initiatives for advanced proficiency learners of priority languages. The project will be co-sponsored by UH Title VI centers (representing East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands) or the Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER). The basic model for all these online communities is the online language café, a place for people to gather for discussion, social interaction, language learning, and the development of intercultural competence. During the 2006-2010 grant period, NFLRC developed prototype online cafés for heritage language learners, enabling students of Filipino, Japanese, and Samoan to come together online with students at distant locations to explore issues of interest while using the target language. A Chinese for international business café was also created, enabling MBA students in the US to prepare for study abroad through cultural exchange with counterparts in China. These existing online language cafés will be continued, and five new online learning communities will be developed, with others added later as opportunities and additional support become available.

    The facilitators (instructors) can integrate these virtual communities of practice, engaged in inquiry-based learning, into traditional face-to-face instruction. In online forums, students can create their own source material and construct new knowledge, but at the same time, interaction in the cafés will be scaffolded to afford purposeful, task-based use of the target language to benefit the various groups of participants while socializing them in a target-language oriented community of practice. A description of each new project follows.

    Chinese, Korean, Russian Flagship Cafés
    In partnership with the NSEP Language Flagship program, NFLRC will develop Chinese, Korean, and Russian Flagship Cafés. Online learning communities will join Flagship students at domestic sites and study abroad sites. The online communities will have quite flexible parameters. Joining students together online across sites will enable second-year students to act as mentors for first-year students. First-year students will likewise be able to better prepare for their upcoming international experience, further improving their language skills and networking. For example, Flagship students engaged in the process of acculturating to their new study and work environments in the target language environment will be able to “blog” their experiences in the target language for domestic Flagship students, using text, images, and sound or video, while domestic Flagship students will be able to use the cafés to ask for firsthand reports on happenings on the ground in the target language environment. Information about the Flagship Cafés will be disseminated by the participating institutions to the other national Flagship programs as a potential model for online communities in other critical languages.

    International Teacher Development Café for Samoan Educators
    In partnership with the UH Center for Pacific Islands Studies (CPIS, a Title VI NRC), NFLRC will create an International Teacher Development Café for Samoan language educators. A Samoan diaspora spans the Pacific from California to Hawaiʻi to Samoa to New Zealand. A Samoan Educators Café will be created 1) to facilitate networking and the sharing of ideas, research, and materials among members of the Samoan Language Commission (an international organization whose mission is the enhancement of the teaching, learning, and speaking of Samoan) and 2) to assist them in creating their own Samoan heritage language cafés for their students.

    Japanese for International Business Café
    Building on the model of the existing Chinese for international business café, NFLRC will launch a Japanese for International Business Café, in partnership with NRCEA and the UH CIBER. The Japanese Café project will enable MBA students conducting internships in Japan to engage in facilitated target-language conversations online throughout Japan. The Japanese Café will serve as a virtual support group and networking venue for US business interns in Japan, where students may engage in facilitated discussions regarding issues relating to language, culture, and business practices. Information will be disseminated to the national network of CIBERs so that the project may serve as a prototype for creation of business cafés in other languages.

    Vietnamese Study Abroad Café
    In partnership with the UH Center for Southeast Asian Studies, NFLRC will launch a Vietnamese Study Abroad Café for students of VASI (Vietnamese Advanced Summer Institute), an intensive course of advanced language study conducted for eight weeks in Ho Chi Minh City. VASI is funded by the U.S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad, and VASI students represent a consortium of eleven universities collectively referred to as the Group of Universities for the Advancement of Vietnamese Abroad (GUAVA). The Vietnamese Café will serve as a virtual support group and networking venue for VASI participants.

    Future possibilities
    The online learning communities described above will all be implemented in the 2010-2014 funding period. Additional cafés may be added as opportunities arise and supplementary funding sources are found. It is possible that an online community for language evaluation and assessment specialists may be added later, and it is quite likely that as the model is disseminated, others will want to design and offer their own learning communities based on these models.

    BRIX Open-source Course Management System (CMS)
    Online education has encompassed virtually every discipline in academic institutions. In the development of tools for online instruction, however, one size does not necessarily fit all; different disciplines may require specialized features in online learning environments not found in commercial CMSs such as Desire2Learn and Blackboard. Over the course of several LRC awards, NFLRC has developed its own course management system, BRIX, as a valuable tool for the foreign language teaching and learning community. BRIX features specific tools enabling online learning communities to co-construct word banks, communicate asynchronously via threaded discussions with voice recordings, and engage in multi-draft process writing with peer editing. Over the last decade, these customized features have facilitated the development of over 60 online courses or learning communities for language learning, teacher training, and intercultural exchange. BRIX will be disseminated to institutions participating in the new and continuing NFLRC language cafés so that these institutions can, in turn, spin off and host their own online cafés with new partners.

    Timeline for implementation
    In 2010-11, NFLRC will continue to support existing Filipino, Samoan, and Business Chinese online learning communities, while designing shells for all new cafés. We will produce a training video on the model, conduct online orientation for café facilitators and continue to add functionalities to the BRIX CMS. In Summer 2011 a major workshop will bring together faculty from participating sites to build their respective language-specific cafés. At the NFLRC Summer Institute on “Online Learning Communities for LCTLs,” offered for project partners, participants will structure thematic café content rubrics, participate in training sessions on research-based pedagogical best practices for facilitating online learning communities, and receive orientation on the IT aspects of hosting the BRIX system.

    In 2011-2012 (Year Two), at least 4 academic-year language learner cafés will be launched, joined shortly thereafter by learners in intensive summer programs. Each subsequent year, a minimum of 6 online learning communities will be offered (new or continuing). Additional innovations to the BRIX system will enhance its usefulness as both a research tool and a free open-source online course management tool for the profession at large. NFLRC also anticipates hosting the national Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium (CALICO) conference in Spring 2013, providing an ideal venue for disseminating project results thus far.