The Digital Languages Lab

You remember the old languages lab don’t you? The big room, with the individual booths where pupils put on their headsets and listen to the audio recorded to the cassette in the booth?

Really? You still remember them? Gosh, your memory is good.

The department of which I am head embraces using technology in the classroom, and we are part of a school that is lucky enough to have Promethean IWBs aplenty plus lots of ICT support from the UCST/ULT group that we are part of. We are proud of our use of technology, and I know that many of us love to use engaging new technology in the classroom – in fact, today, I covered an ICT lesson for a colleague and found Year 9 creating Prezi’s on the future of technology. Cool!

So, languages labs. Unfortunately, our languages lab is approximately 18 years old, and, by machine standards, it is as they say “past it”. In fact, it is far beyond that – it is dead. As a dodo. Summer 2009 was the last chance for us to be able to use cassettes for the listening part of the A Level examination, and, with the new specification course we will never have cassettes again. In fact, this summer we caused a wee bit of chaos for the examinations officer as he tried to ensure that we had sufficient ICT bookings for the required time sand days, so this term he has been kind enough to purchase mp3 players for the department. This allows the pupils to do a listening exercise in lessons and get used to the machines,  before putting them to use in the exams.

For a long time, we have been considering a new digital languages lab, but, for one reason or another, it is still not a possibility. We have the space, but the new equipment and furniture, along with the software would cost a pretty penny, so for now, I am considering other options.

Earlier, I tweeted out to my PLN a question where I asked for an estimation for how much a digital lab would cost, and in amongst the replies came plenty of other ideas to avoid the purchase of such a lab, which got me thinking. Why do we want a digital languages lab? My predecessor wrote the following a few years ago:

  • Essential replacement for worn out existing language lab.
  • Necessary for external examinations.
  • local competing schools all have new ‘labs’, giving them a facilities edge
  • Software permits transfer of all analogue audio to digital format: this can then be made available to pupils via the new Learning Platform as well as be accessed directly by staff in each classroom (equipped with speakers) – this makes the cumbersome cassette players obsolete and vastly improves sound quality and ease of use for staff.
  • Pupils can work individually with downloaded video clips, web-based exercises and interactive multi-media tasks – this is particularly beneficial for VI form students, for whom exercises involving the latest news clips can easily be created.
  • The suite fully complements the new Learning Platform, since it encourages pupils to use their own area as a digital resource bank, accessible from anywhere.
  • Pupils will be able far more easily to chat online (in Target Language) and video conference with link schools regionally and abroad.
  • Pupils would be able to create their own audio files, recording their own answers to departmental questions and be able to upload them to use in a variety of ways.
  • Nationally ‘mfl’ is at the vanguard of the educational digital revolution, since the subject’s very content matter must reflect contemporary society and be authentic (the latter especially has been placed in a whole new sphere by the Internet age) – our mfl department is a digital department and has often been the first to implement new ICT technologies (interactive boards, data projectors, network based internal management, audio files on the shared area…), yet we are now stalling since we are unable to take the next step to integrate multi media resources and expand pupil and staff access without the new software and a specific ICT suite.
  • Given the current staff in the department, we are ideally placed to progress with this.
  • The ICT suite would be available for other departments, again complementing the whole school ICT development plan

So – as you can see, plenty of reasons for the provision of such a lab. But maybe we are being narrow minded by enclosing our learning space in a room? In fact, are ICT rooms becoming obsolete? Should we be considering the use of netbooks or laptops for each pupil? Or at least to have class sets available for regular use in each department? I know this is something that some schools do, but when considering my school and the layout of my department I over two floors wonder if this is a valid option?

@tomsale suggested the use of iPods with iTalks, all of which can be put online and on the school VLE. In fact an iPod Touch or iPhone, combined with internet access could provide many of the things we need, however, I worry that there would still be times where we would like to have access to a full size screen and keyboard, for example, when doing a piece of writing. I think there would be other issues with having a class set of iPods, such as, how to add things quickly and effectively, adding new apps in order to take advantage of tools such as voice recording etc. I have often thought it is a shame to ‘waste’ the technology most pupils have sitting in their pockets. They tend to have the latest phones, or at least have the ability with their phone not only to voice or video record, but to access the internet. Unfortunately, by pupils using their own technology they can often be tempted to use the tool for other, non-educational uses – such as texting their friends – when they should be doing a piece of work, so for now, I think this idea is not feasible.

I apologise now if my writing has become a bit rambling, but I have begun to write what I am thinking, and the thought I have now is that actually, a computer is still the best option. It would enable me and my pupils to have access to the teaching and learning tools that we require, but why should we make these computers permanently stuck to a desk? A trolley full of computers that can be connected wirelessly to the school network and internet would allow us to do nearly everything we would also want from a languages lab, plus a whole lot more (if the network filters aren’t too strict!). The only thing left to consider is how to record all of the cassettes that are gathering dust on the shelves without it taking a very, very, very long time? In fact, do we even need any of those cassettes anymore?

What do you think?

Advertisements

4 Comments

  1. Afterthoughts:

    Don’t go down the wifi laptop/netbook route. The feedback I have had from schools that have tried this is overwhelmingly negative. Laptops are less robust than desktops and require lots of maintenance by a technician with the patience of Job. And typing characters with diacritics is not so straightforward on a laptop – you need additional software to make it easy.

    As for the use of mobile devices by your pupils, yes, things are gradually moving this way. MALL (Mobile Assisted Language Learning) is a new buzzphrase, but it has a long way to go. Google for Agnes Kukulska-Hulme (Open University) on the Web. She’s a MALL expert – and also a friend of mine. You’ll find her on Twitter.

    A few weeks ago I asked a group of 20 university students if they were using their mobile devices to help them learn foreign languages, e.g. by downloading podcasts recommended by their tutors. Answer: 100% no. They probably will do in the future, but right now there is a lot of awareness-raising to do – and probably a lot of hard work to make this approach effective. BTW, I use my iPod to download podcasts from iTunes to help me learn Spanish – useful listening materials when I am on a 2-hour flight to Spain – but I’m a geek.

    Graham Davies

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Samantha. I appreciated reading them, as well as Graham’s comments, as my district is looking at incorporating language labs ourselves.

    I’d be interested to hear your take on one element of language labs that has come up often as my district has talked with vendors: the ability of a teacher to be ‘virtually’ everywhere in the class, listening to any student at any time without that student aware of when or for how long her teacher is listening. This seems like a boon for informally assessing student progress and something that’s not easily done using web technologies.

    Also, concerning the diacritical marks, our schools, who are running Windows XP, have found this resource to be especially helpful: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/306560 XP, Vista, and 7 all have a built-in international keyboard setting which speeds up touch typing once you’ve gotten used to the keystrokes (e.g. umlauts are created by typing ” and then a vowel: ö)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s