Se Habla Technology

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Whether in the lab or without, advancements such as laptops, MP3 players, andvideoconferencing are helping enrich foreign language instruction.

Hardware & Software LAKESIDE SCHOOL, a Seattle-area private school for grades 5 to 12, counts several technological pioneers among its alumni base, including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, so it would be natural to assume that the campus resides at the cutting edge of technology. And yet it does not have a language lab. But that in itself goes to show just how cutting-edgethe school is.

Instead of having a conventional lab, Lakeside makes use of its laptop program—every student from seventh grade on receives a computer—in conjunction with other technologyto create a mobile language lab environment.

“Use of laptops is a much more student-centered approach,” explains Lupe Fisch, head of Lakeside’s Upper School languages department. “We can complete daily class research projects in native languages quickly, using foreign websites and Wikipedia in Spanish. Our advanced students review current topics from BBC Mundo, its Spanish language website, then research background during the week, and presentthe topic for discussion on Fridays.

“Recently,” Fisch goes on, “our French IV students completed an oral history of Francophone immigrants to the Puget Sound area from North Africa, Vietnam, and France. All conversations were conducted in French. The students recorded and edited the audio and video of these interviews on theirlaptops.”

Lakeside’s language teachers have more than laptops at their disposal. They also have the benefit of using Smart Technologies’ Smart Boards, upon which they complete web searches, annotate papers, and create lessons that bypass English entirely. “Our Smart Boards are great for kinesthetic learners because [students] can actually drag the noun under the ‘Noun’ rubric,” Fischsays, “expending energy while remaining focused.”

Lakeside’s efforts demonstrate how technology tools can be used in language instruction outside a traditional lab. It’s a unique approach—most schools still use language labs. But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been progress. Technological advancements such as portability, wireless technology, and digital platforms are all helping enrich language studies. Instructors are using multimedia software, MP3 players, and videoconferencing software to enhance presentations and student work. Additionally, the acquisition of language lab hardware is trending up as more schools are committing to advanced language instruction, and English as a Second Languageprograms are increasing in many districts.

The preK-12 Bolles School in Jacksonville, FL, is one campus that has invested heavily in language lab technology.“We have a 25-booth Sanako lab that isoccupied 90 percent of the week,” says Moya Marks, theschool’s foreign language chair. “The lab provides a perfecttool for preparing for applied language skills, as well as forreinforcing the language skills of our students in a 1-to-1 environment.For example, a level-1A Spanish student can read aparagraph about Don Quixote orally, listen to a basic descriptionof the character, and then discuss the content with theteacher, who is seated at the console. The teacher can introducesecondary text about Sancho Panza, refer the student toan online source, or simply assess the dialogue.”

Though the upper and middle schools at Bolles have selfcontained language labs, Bolles, like Lakeside, also integrates classroom technology into language instruction, using Toshiba tablet PCs. “Our teachers direct student attention to the corrections of a student’s work, or color-code parts of speech for our first-year students,” Marks explains.“They will also use the tablets within the language lab foradministering assessments or supplementing an oral lesson.”

Keep It Simple

One problem with language labs is that many teachers can be overwhelmed by the gadgetry available to them.

“Language lab systems have more features and capabilities than most teachers are willing to use,” says Gerry Sullivan, director of marketing at Robotel, manufacturer of language lab tools such as the SmartClass Symposium and LogoLab. Sullivan says his company makes ease of use a priority. “Our primary goal is to make sure we have the basics down. Too often when we assessed language lab usage, we found that teachers, especially in large schools, stopped visiting the labs altogether if there were too many complications. The feedback was very clear: There is notenough time in the day to author lessons in the language lab.”

As a remedy, Robotel designed Walk in and Teach, a program that reduces teachers’ prep time in the lab by placing more responsibility with the student. For example, the program puts the “rewind and review” option in the students’ hands, rather than requiring the teacher to determine each reviewpoint in the lesson.

Sullivan believes that hardware remains a critical part of language lab technology. The time will come to offload most material into the software, but keeping it simple for the teacher means letting the hardware complete most of the work. “Teachers don’t want to spend their class or prep time adjusting for software variables,” he says. “They want to walk into a lab and know they will complete theirlesson successfully.”

Hugh Harper, director of educational and international sales at the Fleetwood Group, a maker of language lab technology, adds that the inclusion of peripheral hardware is a key trend. Fleetwood’s Digicall Spectrum’s six-channel language lab downloads audiovisual content from an iPod, a DVD, a VCR, a CD, or a computer hard drive. The wireless systemturns any classroom into a language lab.

Engineers at Robotel believe the rush to digitization may be premature. While 1-to-1 wireless communication works seamlessly, multistudent conferencing often results in delay times and compression, which can distort clarity. “Obviously, clarity is the primary concern when designing a language lab system,” Sullivan explains. “And everyone wants to go digital. The technology just hasn’t caught up for multivoice, wirelesscommunication, though I am sure it will.”

Private Time

One edge the traditional language lab has over the classroom, according its proponents, is that the lab provides the forumfor 1-to-1 interaction.

“The real strength of the language lab is the instructor’s ability to interact privately with the student,” Harper says.“Articulating a foreign language can prove embarrassing forstudents, reducing class participation levels significantly.When students are certain of their privacy, they are much morewilling to take chances and to make mistakes.”

Harper cites another advantage the lab has over the classroom: “The student’s missteps do not become a pointof distraction for the general class.”

Some educators still believe that the lab remains a singularly effective instructional means. “Our language lab allows us to assess speaking, listening comprehension, and even reading,” the Bolles School’s Marks says. “It is the closest tool we have for mimicking authentic situations, whether the students listen to Radio Venezuela or watch a program on French television. They are able to see and hear not just the language butalso the culture behind the language.”

“I have been in this industry for 30 years,” Harper says, “and I believe that language lab popularity is cyclical. Slow periods occur when other, lesser methodologies are introduced that can play a small part in the process. Ultimately, the language lab is the proven technology that allows the student to work independently and intimately with the instructor, regardless of class size.”

Crai S. Bower is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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