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Language Laboratories

Frequently Asked Questions

Aren’t language labs an “old school” teaching method?

If you were learning a new language back in the 1960’s or 1970’s, and your high school had a language lab, you might remember that “my language lab was boring, confusing, and unfriendly”.

But just as technology in general has evolved dramatically over the past 60 years, so too have language labs. Today’s 21st century language lab platforms are exciting, interactive, and easy-to-use – especially for a generation of students who have grown up with iPads and smart phones.

And perhaps more importantly, language labs excel at improving students’ communications skills (listening & speaking), which are extremely critical in today’s “global village” environment, where travel to foreign countries is no longer only for the privileged few.

Today’s language students are not tethered to a study carrel. Modern language learning platforms provide 24/7 access to study materials – and students can access these materials from anywhere they have Internet connectivity.

Additionally, students can work with any device from traditional Windows or Mac computers – to Chromebooks – to iPad tablets – to Android or iPhone smart phones. That is definitely not “old school” or “old technology”!

Why do I need a language lab?

In today’s classrooms, the teacher-to-student ratio is often 1-to-30 or worse. In this type of environment, it is a significant challenge for teachers to provide speaking practice opportunities for individual students. A definitive German study identified that the average student may only have 20 seconds of speaking practice per hour of class time in larger classes.

Language labs address this issue by making it possible for all students to practice speaking concurrently, thereby amplifying speaking time by a factor of at least 10X. This is accomplished by providing students with quality headsets that isolate them from their neighbors and running group activities (such as conversation pairing) and/or providing self-study recording/speaking activities that students can tackle individually.

What is the significance of an “integrated” language laboratory solution?

The concept of an integrated solution is that of combining all facets of language lab classwork and homework into a single platform that uses a common database for classroom activities, self-study activities, homework activities, pronunciation activities, sign language activities, etc.

The benefit of integrating all activities into a single platform is multi-fold:

  • Users – both students and teachers – can access all aspects of their portfolio of activities from a single central database, so that all information is always at their fingertips
  • There is a single login profile for all activities so that personnel changes are easy to manage
  • Users have a common, consistent, and familiar framework for performing all types of activities so the system is easy to use
  • Teachers can easily access and share creative student responses from one type of activity (e.g. self-study) in any environment (e.g. classwork) to highlight exceptional learning experiences

In a nutshell, integration is the most basic form of automation, as it eliminates the need to transfer materials amongst multiple different platforms.

I’m a teacher and not a technologist – are language laboratories easy to use?

Ease of use varies greatly from system to system – so if your school is looking at the acquisition of a new lab, make sure that you have some hands-on experience before making the final selection of a specific language laboratory solution.

In developing the SmartClass language lab platform, great emphasis has been placed on keeping the user experience as simple as possible through techniques such as:

  • Organizing on-screen controls logically and with uncluttered visual simplicity
  • Displaying only those functions that are relevant to the current activity
  • Providing step-by-step guidance for compound tasks through context specific “wizards”

This approach has allowed Robotel to provide rich functionality in a highly teacher-friendly fashion.

What if a dedicated room is not available for my language lab?

Modern language lab platforms can be configured to operate in almost any environment. Having a fixed room is great, but it is also possible to configure portable carts with up to 40 laptops, Chromebooks, or tablets. These carts function as mobile language labs that can be wheeled from room to room.

The educational community is now embracing BYOD, (Bring Your Own Device), where students bring their own portable devices, (usually Chromebooks, laptops or iPads), with which they can join a live class. These same devices can be used after class for completing homework assignments. The BYOD approach works extremely well in schools having one-to-one technology programs.

My department can’t afford a language lab – is there a way of cost-sharing with other departments?

In situations where the Foreign Language Department does not have sufficient resources to fully utilize a lab, a multi-discipline, multi-department approach to lab acquisitions works well.

Language lab platforms include a broad range of classroom management functions, including; screen sharing, audio intercom, webcam sharing, remote control, launching self-study activities, launching programs, recording students, and managing courses and classes.

While foreign language departments, (also known as World language departments and/or Modern language departments), typically have the most stringent requirements for classroom management, the majority of system capabilities can be used to teach any subject from Math to History to Physics to ESL (English as a Second Language). Language class management systems are readily usable for generic class management activities.

Can I use any headsets with my language lab?

Technically “yes”, but practically “no”. Make sure that the physical connector on your target headsets is compatible with the interface on your workstations. You might have a pair of jacks (headphone and microphone), or a single “combo” jack.

Make sure that your headsets have large padded ear cushions to block out ambient sound, and a padded headband to ensure comfort with extended wear.

The most important part of the headset is its microphone. When all students are speaking concurrently, you need a highly-directional, noise-cancelling microphone that eliminates unwanted background chatter.

Remember that sound quality is extremely important, so as a rule, don’t cut corners with the headsets!

Can’t I just cobble together a collection of free-ware programs to mimic a language lab platform?

Yes and no. If you are a tech-savvy teacher, who can easily visualize how a group of disparate programs can be integrated to deliver some of the functions of a language lab platform, then such an approach might be practical.

Most teachers, however, do not want to get bogged down with the details of file dissemination to students and file collection from students. They don’t even want to know which computer folders are used to store different types of files.

Language lab systems – apart from providing outstanding teaching tools – do so in a highly integrated and seamless fashion that lets teachers focus on “teaching”. Teachers just need to click on buttons like “open” or “save” without the need for mastering the intricacies of computer file system architecture.

Language lab platforms simplify the logistics of logging in and running activities both in the classroom and for self-study homework assignments so that the average teacher can become proficient quickly and can confidently manage a broad range of activities with minimum lost time in dealing with technology. And they enable teachers to manage all preparatory work and assignment review and grading from home.

What type of network is best for my language lab?

It depends. Generally, there are three types of networks:

  • ASDN (Application Specific Dedicated Network)
  • Wired
  • WiFi

If there are no restrictions, then an ASDN network having its own dedicated cabling provides the highest overall performance. On the other hand, if your students are using iPads or Chromebooks, then a WiFi network may be the only solution that makes sense. SmartClass uniquely supports all three networking options.

Perhaps most importantly, for whichever network you have selected (ASDN, Wired, or WiFi), ensure that the implementation is optimized for performance within the language lab with only lab participants.

School-hosting or Cloud-hosting – which is better for my language lab?

There is merit to both approaches for database hosting.  School-hosting gives you better control over data security. Cloud-hosting eliminates the need for having external access to your school’s network, and so provides better network security.

That is why SmartClass supports both options!