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From Analog to Digital

One Language Centre’s Journey

Dr. Duncan Charters

The year was 1958. A small liberal arts college on the bluffs above the Mississippi next to the historic village of Elsah, Illinois was dedicating a “School of Nations” building to express its international outlook. In addition to “nationality rooms” for classes designed to reflect the style and furnishings of eight different world cultures, a large space was set aside for a language laboratory, with planning for another if and when needed. Principia College’s international vision at the time included supporting the study of languages on a campus which has today become increasingly internationalized, with over 12 percent of its students coming from outside the United States. As a unit of a K-12 school dedicated to providing a whole man character education for life, from the earliest days an international outlook was recognized as essential for a college graduate. The college boasts one of the oldest continuous study abroad programs in the country. Its current calendar scheduled includes off-campus on-site study of French, German and Spanish, the languages regularly taught in on-campus classes, as well as Chinese, Hindi and Japanese.

Since 1950 when the chair of the college’s language department set up 28 earphones wired along the walls of two rooms to a tape recorder, language teaching has evolved in part as the technology has developed to support it. Back then, students could listen and repeat aloud what they heard. After the move to the new lab facility, a full Rheem Califone reel-to-reel lab was installed in 1960, with a renovation at the end of the decade. Students could now listen, repeat and play back their recording for comparison with the master. By the mid-1970s a Telex cassette lab added more versatility with high-speed copying and easier class and library use. A decade later, a consulting team helped with the choice of a system that would be the opening door to the digital computer-driven era for language labs. The Sony 5510 MK-II incorporated a touch-screen monitor which advanced traditional lab functions an enabled the projection of multi-standard video with the sound track transmitted directly to the student stations. Teachers could pair up students as conversation partners, listening in rotation and providing corrections and assistance and a multiple-choice testing system gave students instant feedback on their answers.

After close to 20 years with this sytem, Renet is more than ready for the next generation. Renet soon determined that several companies were offering all digital software-based labs that could run over a LAN (local area network) rather than using proprietary hardware, software, and cabling. We found that these represented a considerable saving in cost over the “hybrid” labs available. During one university visit we were advised that if we did not have strong technical support, we might want to consider an all-software lab. We would then not experience the “hardware-software handshaking” issues that had required some attention from their support staff, who felt they would go in this direction for their next upgrade from their current hybrid system.

This made sense to us but would there be any disadvantages? We were aware that in the first generation of LAN-based labs there had been major problems with video and audio delay or echo as well as the quality of the audio and video. These would be unacceptable to us as the highest possible standard for both was essential to our needs. We researched these issues, talked with colleagues at other institutions and spoke with vendors to get a better sense of what was involved. We also checked actual user experience with both hybrid and LAN-based labs. Our faculty and technical staff paired up to do telephone interviews with three current users of each system under consideration. So as to be as fair as possible, we had asked vendors to give us their best references in each case.

Along with this reference checking, we looked carefully at the companies involved to determine their long-term viability, attitude and level of training and technical support, as well as the quality of their product. While we eliminated some lower-level systems from consideration, we found that there were at least five companies with various product lines that were worthy of our attention.

After much work on all the issues, we found the system and supplier that were the closest match to our needs. Some of the others had minimal distribution and support networks in the U.S. One hybrid system was not user-friendly enough since even teachers with considerable hands-on experience did not find its operation intuitive. One LAN-based system had persistent problems, as described by users, as well as limited development resources. Our final choice was ReLAN pro. ReLAN pro is manufactured by Renet in Finland, a triple-A (Dun & Bradstreet rating) certified company with active recent expansion in Europe, now extending to other continents. Unlike systems with their own proprietary programming based on older lab concepts, Renet had intentionally developed their products to Windows standards. The resulting Windows-like interface immediately felt familiar to faculty not technically inclined, the ReLAN pro also had a unique video-on-demand multiple-streaming distribution system which did not require a separate video server, essential for other systems, to provide video quality and flexibility. In order to avoid video or audio delay problems, we determined that we would run the system on a one gigabit LAN since the price differential compared to a slower 100 megabit network was no longer significant. For maximum system efficiency and quality, it was also clearly best to run everything under Windows XP from a dedicated 400 gigabyte Windows 2003 server located right in the Language Center.

The ReLAN pro digital language studio provides a full teaching platform from a dual-screen console, enabling the teacher to monitor everything happening during a class period. Using the ReCall conference feature, teachers can not only pair and group students but also record all the conversations for listening and checking from the office later. The system is heavily used for French phonetics work, and in addition, students regularly record poems or other readings for homework and put them in the teacher’s drop box. The ability to check recorded homework assignments from the office, after completion by students on the ReRec virtual recorder, has proved to be a real boon to faculty. They can still be available to students and colleagues, but may listen to student recordings and give feedback at any free time during the day. Through ReRec both teachers and students can make clear recordings on the system. Students can answer questions from audio or video sources in ReRec, and in ReWrite they can also do written assignments, from answering questions to free composition. ReABC allows the teacher the ability to create multiple-choice and cloze (fill-in-the-blanks) tests. The question can include text, pictures and audio in any combination. The teacher can supply up to ten answers and there can be multiple “correct” answers. Practice tests can be archived, and students can review immediately the items they missed. This is very helpful for mastering basic structures such as verb forms and dialogue exchanges. The variants “Who/What/Where/How…are you/they?” can have a range of responses: “I am/they are… fine/Mary/a student/in the Language Center.” Students gain confidence in responding quickly and are not embarrassed in front of their peers. When they internalize their responses both through class work in the lab and by doing homework outside class sessions in library mode, all students are better prepared for more truly communicative activities in face-to-face class sessions. Teachers can make classes more interesting with the amount of drilling reduced, and all students bringing a basic level of response that can be built on for more creative activities.

Language faculty have used the tool manager feature to send out websites or other media files that if not supported directly by ReLANpro software, could be played for example through Windows Media Player (MP3, MPEG-2 etc.). This also enables the teacher to disable the use of certain programs for the students; for example, during a test, the teacher might disable the use of Internet Explorer so the student can’t look up answers.

For her first French class the teacher took a map of the Paris subway in a PDF file and sent it to all her students. She paired them up and had the students as directions from each other on how they would get to certain Parisian landmarks. Our German faculty member would pair the students up with ReCall and have them do activities, which she would put on the Blackboard course management system, or she would use the Quia language exercise website activities. She would also make recordings of herself to use as quizzes and tests and have the students record their answers, and also send audio files from CDs to her students to listen to. We have been pleased with how quickly teachers have been able to use the different features in an individual way, facilitated by having their own profile on the system.

We are still exploring the possibilities of combining many of these features. A teacher could use ReRec to send out a video, use ReCall to group the students, record and/or listen in on their conversations about the video, and lock Internet Explorer so they couldn’t look up words in an online dictionary. In class, I have been able to use external sources such as an Elmo image presentation camera and CNN and other news and entertainment programming from Spain and Latin America, bringing material directly to the students for listening practice, response and interactive discussion. While students prefer to work with carrel dividers for privacy and better recording, these can be taken down for a more open environment when needed. One other feature, the ReDigi digitization studio, raised one of the issues we needed to face in digitizing materials. Virtually any analog or digital source may be used, from a cassette player to an iPod.  All material we had previously recorded on cassette could be readily transferred and placed on our server. However, we knew that we could not legally transfer previously purchased commercial material to our server since rights would not extend to use on a different medium. In acquiring new materials, we needed to make sure that costs for running programs from our server were reasonable for the number of students. We found a wide range of policies among suppliers. Sometimes we were given permission to digitize to our server because of previous purchases, or our requirement that students individually purchase course texts and accompanying materials. For other materials, we needed to pay a one-time or continuing license fee. We make use of local native speakers to create materials that are free of rights issues. Commercial television programming, which we have accessible through DISH network and can digitize directly to the server making it immediately available to students, for legal reasons has to be erased after a week even for educational use. We therefore decided to become a SCOLA associate since this gives permanent archival rights to material broadcast through their educational television network in over 70 languages.

Options for language labs are likely to continue expanding as suppliers offer an even wider range of products and pricing, from electronic systems not requiring computers to be web-based applications. Connecting to the world through videoconferencing and classroom exchanges will become routine. However, the current technology has already transformed what we can do to bring authentic language material to the students both in and out of class. This is making language learning a much more exciting and relevant enterprise than in the days when student work was limited to text and workbook exercises, along with routine dialogue memorization and pattern drilling in the lab. Course content comes alive, enhancing motivation and achievement both for language majors and students taking the formerly dreaded language requirement courses. When technology can serve the needs of the teacher and student rather than driving them, we have come a long way to making learning other languages as interesting and meaningful as this needs to be, given the demands of understanding and relating to our world and its citizens today.

Dr. Charters has been on the faculty of Principia College since 1974 and has been actively in each lab installation since that time. He currently chairs the College’s language department.

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