College Language Learning Labs Feature Media Distribution System

When Arizona State University's Language Learning Laboratories closed for renovations back in 1992, teachers had two options: they could require students take home audio and video material (hard to keep track of), or they could conduct makeshift language labs in classrooms.

While the classroom-as-lab idea was a good one, at a school that offers 45 sections of Spanish 101 alone, the thought (as well as the expense) of people wheeling around cartloads of delicate equipment was worrisome. The labs' renovation team concluded a much better solution would be a system that could send video and data from a central, safe source directly to the classroom.

With funding from the university, the renovation team organized a pilot outreach program in a single classroom. Their system consisted of a direct hard-wired link from a projector mounted in the room's ceiling to a PC (stored in a locked closet when not in use) with an Ethernet connection to a multimedia computer located in the labs' control room.

'Why Reinvent the Wheel?'

The system worked as planned, but Peter Lafford, director of the Language Computing Lab, and his colleagues agreed that to build and install such a system in additional classrooms was "more trouble than we wanted to have."

Lafford comments: "Systems had already been designed. Why reinvent the wheel?" He did not have to look far for what they needed. In November 1992, the ASU team was invited by Chambers Electronic Communications, a Ph'enix reseller, to see an exciting new audiovisual distribution system.

Lafford and his colleagues were impressed with what they saw on that first and subsequent visits. The product -- the Ranger Media Management System, created by the Rauland-Borg Corp. of Skokie, Ill. -- struck them as highly versatile, easy-to-use, safe and practical.

Ranger allows classroom instructors to access a number of video and data sources -- videotapes, videodiscs, still video, CD-i, satellite, cable, live and closed-circuit programming, CD-ROMs and the Internet. All resources could be accessed by touching a few buttons on a wall panel, remote control or computer.

The system, housed in a rack, would be located in the Language Learning Laboratories' control room; and the computers to access it could be kept in locked closets in the individual classrooms. Ranger could also be expanded by adding additional equipment.

A Successful Evaluation

Towards the end of 1993, Chambers agreed to provide the central control system for Ranger on evaluation for six months, so Lafford and his colleagues could test it out and make sure they were satisfied. They were.

Today, more than a year since its official debut, the Ranger system at ASU's Language Learning Laboratories can access five VCRs, two videodisc players, a CD-i player, and a video floppy player. It works in conjunction with two multimedia computers via ReachOut remote-access software (Stac, Inc., Carlsbad, Calif.) to access data and distributes these resources to nine locations throughout the building.

The Ranger system also provides access to live satellite TV programming, such as foreign news broadcasts, as well as to the school's Language Lab Channel and a new high-tech Audio/Video Studio across the hall. The software for controlling the media center is run on a Dell 486 DX2-50 computer (with 8MB RAM and 250MB hard drive).

Although some teachers found the Ranger a bit intimidating at first, they had little problem adapting thanks to orientations and workshops conducted throughout the school year. To reserve media equipment, teachers simply place a call to the lab and tell an assistant what they want, their room location and the time.

To stop, rewind, or fast-forward the source, the teacher presses a few buttons on the classroom computer's monitor. When finished, one follows a few more instructions to shut the system down.

Looking to the Future

Looking to the future, Lafford would like to see even more people use the mediated classrooms. He is currently working with Chambers and Rauland to install the scheduling software on their new Windows NT network, so teachers can schedule resources from any networked computer in the Language and Literature Building. (Currently the scheduling software is only on the language lab's central multimedia computer.)

Lafford and company are also looking into installing lesson-planning software on the network so that teachers can create innovative, interactive lesson plans using the Ranger.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.