$150,000 for a Language Lab – I Don’t Buy It!

Cross posted on 1 to 1 Schools Net.

I saw this article yesterday in Digital Directions from Education Week and  it’s been on my mind ever since. While I’m actually a huge supporter of the use of technology in teaching and learning for languages,  I believe that there are problems with the way thinking that is portrayed in the article. Now I don’t know what the situation is at the school and I’m not in their shoes, but it seems to me that their view is myopic and that they are not looking at the big picture of the future. The future (and the present for many schools) is not in fixed labs where students and teachers have to be in a specific location for learning to happen. The future is anytime, anywhere ubiquitous access.

The article mentions that Robotel’s language lab software packages range from $500 – $1500 per seat. I’m assuming that this does not include hardware costs since the article states “software”. Based on this figure, the Holmdel foundation raised $150,000 and, according to the article, they had three choices on which to spend it.

The Holmdel foundation was presented with three options for a large fundraising campaign this year: the language lab, LCD projectors in every classroom, or installation of wireless Internet throughout the school building. The foundation chose to raise money for the language lab, Bals says, because parents felt it was important for students to learn to speak other languages, especially in preparation to compete for jobs in a global economy.

What if the money could be used to increase overall student access to technology and also provide students and teachers with access to tools that will help with learning languages?

Let’s take the one classroom scenario that Scott M. Hansen, a vice president of Sanako Inc., presents in support of the language lab solution.

… Advanced Placement language courses require students to undergo an oral exam that may take 15 minutes of speaking directly to the teacher. In the past, teachers would have to pull each student to the hallway for the oral exam, while other students kept themselves occupied in class. Depending on the number of students in a class, that activity could take the whole period.

With a digital language lab, says Hansen, the students can take the oral exam, using their headphones and microphones, all at once. Their comments are recorded, and the teacher can listen to each student later.

Let’s say that the school instead decided to invest in a number of laptops for students to check out so that they have access to a portable machine. With a wireless network, they can work anywhere in the school. I propose this scenario in support of investing in wireless, mobile access:

While the students are waiting their turn to speak to the teacher they can be …

  • recording their own orals using Audacity, which is a free program. They can then listen to their recording and self-assess their work or they can have a peer or the teacher review their work later on.
  • collaborating on a story using photos on VoiceThread, which is available for about $1/ user per year. Voice Thread can be used in all subject matter classes since it’s not just geared for learning a 2nd/3rd language.
  • studying vocabulary, listening to pronunciations,  or taking short quizzes for formative assessment by using one of many iPhone apps that are available for a minimal cost.

These are just three low cost options that I brainstormed within a matter of 30 minutes and these provide the teacher with a larger bag of tricks to use as he/she deems appropriate.

Lastly, this topic is a timely one since my family and I are beginning to learn Portuguese to prepare for our move to Sao Paulo, Brazil in July. One of the free tools that we are using is Livemocha and my wife and I are very impressed by the quality of this free web 2.0 resource. Aside from the video/audio lessons our written and oral work is critiqued by Portuguese speakers from around the world. Our responsibility is to do the same for users who are studying English. Livemocha has:

  • courses in 36 languages
  • over 160 hours of lessons for each
  • helpful tips from native speakers
  • a focus on conversation skills

While I’m not a language teacher, as a 21st century educator I’m for providing the students and teachers with the the portability that these other tools and a laptop provide.  To me they make more sense than investing in a fixed lab with costly software and hardware solutions.

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2 comments

  1. Advanced Placement language courses require students to undergo an oral exam that may take 15 minutes of speaking directly to the teacher. In the past, teachers would have to pull each student to the hallway for the oral exam, while other students kept themselves occupied in class. Depending on the number of students in a class, that activity could take the whole period.

    I absolutly agree with you, no need of a digital language lab,the students can still take the oral exam, using their headphones and microphones, all at once when you post the oral assignment on a portal, a ning or a wiki. They can also record their oral and I can listen to each student later.

  2. I was trolling your blog doing some counterintelligence for a possible upcoming interview for a position that isn’t really there, and I learned 2 new words…”myopic” and “ubiquitous”. Great Words! I had heard them before, but never new what they meant.

    I am banking on you being impressed that I would want to learn new words or that I have the forethought to counterintelligence, and not that am such a nube that I didn’t know those words or that I would feel the need to troll for a possible interview in the first place.

    I also youtubedownloaded (nice verb, huh?) the “Ok Go” videos. Awesome! I will show them as a discussion-starter in my drama classes. Not sure how I’ll use them, but they are too interesting not to be useful.

    Great blog, BTW.

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