Designing a Multimedia Lab for Foreign Languages

by BETTE BRICKMAN, Instructor ELFIE MANNING, Instructor Community College of Southern Nevada North Las Vegas, Nev. An urban community college in the southwest is building an interactive computer learning center, part of which will house a multimedia foreign language laboratory/learning center. A committee of foreign language faculty and computer specialists was formed to design the center; its chairperson had extensive experience in writing proposals for language labs. At first, the task seemed daunting. However, committee members broke the task down into manageable steps and, after one arduous year of research and planning, submitted a recommendation on hardware, software and personnel needs to the interactive laboratory center's manager. The steps we followed are detailed below. New Mission Requires New Facilities Community College of Southern Nevada recently added a new goal to its Master Plan: To prepare its students for competition in the global market. This goal entails offering courses in business and the humanities that take into account those skills needed for international negotiation. Considering this new direction, the Foreign Languages department felt they needed to create foreign language classes that presented students with pragmatic, real-life situations via a multimedia language laboratory/learning center. The college is undergoing several phases of a large construction project, including an interactive computer center for students and faculty. Foreign Languages was offered a 40' by 44' room in this center. The task, therefore, was to first determine the department's needs and then how to accommodate them in the allotted space. Our Foreign Languages department comprises eight full-time faculty members who teach American Sign Language, English as a Second Language, French, German, Japanese and Spanish. Part-time instructors teach the less frequently offered classes of Chinese, Greek, Italian and Russian. Approximately 2,500 foreign language students are taught each spring and fall semester; summer sees an additional 200. Presently, the department is allocated desk space for 12 audio cassette recorders (although we own 50) in the Learning Assistance Center. This location also holds 17 computers (14 IBMs and three Macs) plus three VHS VCRs, which are utilized by all students. This space is over-utilized at times, such as the beginning and end of each semester and when special lab assignments are given, and under-utilized at other times. Students can listen to tapes that relate to their textbooks, and copy tapes for home. In addition, there are grammar, vocabulary, reading and writing software programs to be used only in the lab; computer material cannot be taken home or duplicated. An additional problem is that while software is located in the lab, the videotapes and audio cassettes are also available in the library. Such dispersion confuses faculty and students alike, plus many of the materials are outdated. The current lab is staffed by two full-time assistants, Monday through Thursday, 7:30 A.M. to 8:00 P.M. and Fridays 8:00 A.M. to noon. On average, about half the seats are occupied. The new language lab/learning center would be open weekend hours as well, and students would be able to telephone in 24 hours a day to access cassette tapes and computer programs. n Faculty Survey of Needs According to a survey form sent to all full-time and part-time foreign language faculty, a majority indicated they would use the lab for both classroom activities and for individualized study. Most faculty members envisioned computer programs as part of their instruction. Others insisted the lab have adequate space for audio tape players, as many language courses still rely on that media. ESL instructors requested a designated area to test, place and advise students (we administer the Michigan Test of English Language Proficiency as a placement tool). Finally, the center would have to serve at least 2,500 foreign language students per semester. A subsequent survey asked for specific hardware and software needs. Most instructors requested textbook-related computer software, including CD-ROM programs. Foreign language instructors (other than ESL and ASL) also deemed equipment capable of receiving and storing satellite transmissions as necessary. Lastly, the American Sign Language (ASL) instructor requested special video equipment that would allow her to monitor her students' practice, administer quizzes and tests, and film students while they signed. Getting Our Space and Filling It Once the needs were gathered and analyzed, the committee next obtained detailed plans for the facility and talked to the lab's director about the space allotted to Foreign Languages. A 40' by 44' room would house the primary language laboratory. However, the main Interactive Learning Center (the size of a football field) would also have a designated "spill over" area in which students could use the lab's materials while a regular class was being conducted in the lab. How to Choose Among Vendors Next to address was selection of the language laboratory equipment that best met the department's needs. The leaders in the field—Tandberg Educational Inc., Sony Corp. and ASC Telecom of America, Inc.—were invited to the campus to exhibit their technology. Tandberg made two visits, Sony one. ASC was unable to send an exhibitor. All college personnel were notified of the upcoming visits. Representatives from both Sony and Tandberg were on hand all day to demonstrate their equipment and answer questions. While interviewing vendors, some committee members realized they did not understand some of the terminology or the technology it denoted. Specialized vocabulary such as analog versus digital, and discussions about megabytes required to run certain programs left them puzzled. Yet they needed to be sure to order equipment that would be compatible with, and powerful enough to run, the software. Some members, therefore, took a crash course in "computing as a second language" by reading computer-related books and journals and querying professionals. The chair of the language lab committee took two university summer courses in higher-education technology. In addition, professionals working within the computer liaison departments of the community college and the state university were especially helpful in assisting the committee in clarifying questions relating to multimedia integration. Software vendors were very supportive and willing to send demonstration disks. The software distributors kept in touch with the committee, made useful suggestions and answered technical questions. One even periodically sent copies of journal articles she thought would interest the committee. The committee evaluated numerous CD-ROMs as well as regular software and chose those judged to be most effective for foreign language instruction. Committee members were then able to recommend specific hardware to support those particular programs. Some required special computers and printers. Although we had originally envisioned the lab to be based on IBM compatibles, the Japanese instructor had requested several Macs. There is more Japanese language software available for Macintosh than for IBM, and the computer and printer are able to generate clearer characters. After further research, the committee decided on Power PC-based systems, Power Macintosh computers, which would support both operating systems (99% of the time). Site Visitation and Product Research In spring of 1994, the chair of the Foreign Languages department visited Arizona State University's new Tandberg laboratory. Concurrently, the chair of the language lab committee attended a workshop at the Southwest Conference on Language Teaching, which happened to be conducted by the decision makers for the ASU lab. Also that spring, three committee members visited Brigham Young University's language laboratory, subsequently upgraded with the latest in Tandberg technology that summer. The director of the new Interactive Learning Center and the chair of the language committee visited BYU again, after the equipment was installed. Additionally, COMDEX offered us the opportunity to test hardware and software we were interested in obtaining for the learning center. Finally, from the hardware vendors we obtained user lists for institutions that had installed their equipment. From reports elicited from those institutions, we were able to evaluate the hardware as it is really used and learn of any weaknesses and strengths. Writing the Final Proposal Since the chairperson had previously succeeded in securing two language laboratories at two universities, she and one other committee member used those as models, tailoring them to the requirements of the Foreign Languages department to produce the final proposal. Major divisions of the proposal to which the committee had to adhere were: 1.How proposed methods of instruction represented an improvement over traditional classroom/chalkboard techniques; 2.Classroom and other instructional activities/functions; 3.Software that would be used; 4.Hardware that would be used; 5.Project costs (itemized); 6.How proposed instructional activities fit with the existing course definitions; 7.How multimedia technology would be integrated into the course curriculum; 8.Number of students that could be accommodated per semester by the proposed new learning center. 9.After several weeks of brainstorming, writing and editing, the first draft was ready to be critiqued by the entire learning center/language lab committee. After each critique session, the report was revised, mostly for rhetoric; when the committee as a whole was satisfied with it, the proposal was submitted for consideration to the director of the Interactive Learning Center and the echelon of decision makers. After the final BYU visit the committee was able to make its final decision on hardware and software with confidence, at the end of the fall semester of 1994. The language lab/learning center will be developed and installed by Tandberg by the summer of 1995. Ultimately, this project took two years—from initial conception to implementation. Our Twelve Steps Our recommendations for institutions considering a new interactive learning center for foreign languages as follows: 1.Identify key language laboratory committee members; 2.Engender support from faculty and administration for the project; 3.Ensure funding for the language lab/learning center; 4.Develop questionnaire(s) for faculty on specific needs for hardware and software; 5.Research multimedia equipment and software and become familiar with terminology; 6.Attend seminars and classes on language lab technology; 7.Arrange on-campus vendor exhibits; 8.Visit other institutions that have compatible systems; 9.Communicate with other language lab directors who have similar systems by phone, fax and/or mail; 10.Evaluate hardware and software; 11.Decide on the above; and then 12.Write and submit proposal. Bette Brickman is a professor of English as a second language (ESL) at the Community College of Southern Nevada. She has published on computer-assisted instruction, teacher education and methods for publishing student anthologies. E-mail: Elfie Manning is an instructor of German and French in the Foreign Language Department at the Community College of Southern Nevada. She has designed and implemented multimedia language laboratories at two universities and one community college. E-mail: Language lab vendors mentioned: Sony Education Systems, Montvale, N.J., (800) 472-SONY Tandberg Educational, Inc., Brewster, N.Y., (800) 367-1137

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.

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