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Pilot review

Lingualearn Equipment Service

Some useful information and advice from one of our consultants:

Language Laboratory Pilot Operating Systems.

A look at three major players: Tandberg, Tecnilab and Edu4, following visits to working laboratories

The language laboratory. Defining our terms

There is sometimes a certain confusion as far as nomenclature for language labs and language centres is concerned. For the purposes of this article, I consider a language laboratory to be a place designed for language teaching in which there is language laboratory material (whether audio-based or computer-based), and a teacher organising or controlling a language lesson for learners. The lesson has a start and a finish. A language laboratory is not, therefore, a language resource centre designed for self-learning or guided learning in which learners choose what they want to do and when they want to do it. Both language labs and language resource centres can be equally useful for learners, but their purposes, their geography (in terms of physical layout) and their operating systems (pilots) can be quite different. This article reviews three different pilot systems, but does not discuss lab. furniture, servers, network systems, back-up services etc., which should also be taken into account when choosing a language lab.

Evolution of lab pilots

Language laboratories have undergone two major changes since their creation in the sixties, which have shaped their evolution: advances in learning theory and advances in computer technology. Early audio-lingual language labs were designed for ‘input and repetition’ work, this being based upon behaviourist theory in which the learner was expected to repeat ‘ideal’ phrases, and to ‘get it right, right from the start’ by repeating sentences that were emitted from a central pilot. These lines of cabins, often separated by panels, received ‘input’ from a central source. Learners were deliberately excluded from seeing one another. When Krashen’s ‘input theory’ replaced Skinner’s conditioning theory many labs maintained the old ‘input’ layout as input did not require interaction. Although computers then started to replace tape-recorders and television screens, the pilot system layout remained the same since the information was essentially from teacher to learner, and from learner to teacher. Pilots were normally capable of forming different groups and sending different input material to each group. 

Interaction theory (also known as communication theory) which got underway in the seventies, required a fundamental shift in language lab geography and pilot systems. If students were to learn by communicating with each other, then not only was it necessary that they be able to see each other in order to read each other’s facial expressions, but also the wiring system needed to cope with this development and obviously the pilot system as well. Lab layout changed to the famous ‘U’ shape as recommended by the IALL (International Association of Language Laboratory Technology). New pilot functions such as pairing became indispensable. In France, due to, in my opinion, an unfortunate idea that ‘multimedia’ meant that several types of media should be used at the same time, the ‘daisy’ pattern emerged, in which several round daisies, each consisting of a group of posts became fashionable. The initial idea was that learners in one daisy would, for example, be working via the medium of video, while another daisy would have audio input, another would be working via internet and yet another would be working on text input.  Learners would move from one daisy to another during the course of a lesson. As a resource method for self-learning, or guided learning, this layout might be suitable. But to teach in such a way, to get the timing right so that each group finishes at the same time, and to keep track of who has done what, is more than most teachers want and more than they can cope with.

 The move from non-digital to digital material, from tape recorders and television screens to computers, has also had a profound effect on language laboratories. Computers meant that source material could be picked up from an intranet system, so diffusion by the teacher was not always necessary. Lab pilots in digital lab environments allow the teacher to see what the learner is doing without leaving his/her desk, and also the possibility to intervene by taking control of the learner’s computer. Pilot systems have become more and more sophisticated as they are based on software rather than hardware and cabling. Differences in software / hardware solutions, however, sometimes mean that a lab can operate well with a few posts, but can encounter difficulties when the lab moves towards 20+ posts. The market for language labs is a competitive one where only the best have survived. Evolution is constant as teachers look for greater ease of use and greater flexibility. Although some major differences exist between suppliers of resource centres and language labs, the main players in the language lab market have arrived at a fairly homogeneous product, where the differences between suppliers are minor ones.

Common problems

Computer-based language labs have a common problem at present. In that most labs use a ghosting system to copy a ‘model’ format to all other units in the lab, if the hardware in a PC changes, then ghosting either becomes difficult or impossible. Even when PC’s are switched off, their supply is still ‘on’, which means that if, following a power cut, the return of electricity ‘surges’, it can not only burn out the power supply to the individual PC, but also damage specific hardware related to piloting. It is often impossible to find the same mother board or other hardware a year or more after the initial purchase. If ghosting cannot recreate the same model on each unit, then supposed malfunctions of the pilot system are more likely to be due to the fact that the units are no longer similar. This problem favours pilot systems which are based on software rather than hardware.

 Individual needs

Each teacher-user of a language laboratory has his/her particular goals and particular needs that shape the requirements for a particular language laboratory pilot or operating system. A lab for teaching simultaneous translation skills has different requirements than one used mostly for baccalaureate work based on reading comprehension. Each potential customer for a language lab therefore needs to have clearly defined goals so that s/he can compare suppliers in terms of what functions are the most important for his/her particular teaching/learning goal. In that most language labs are now also connected to an intranet system, the pilot system is only one part of the lab operating system, the netware system being the partner.

Three pilot systems reviewed:

Edu4’s Edulip Concerto, Tandberg 3000, Technilab IdmNet. Proviso: in that pilot systems evolve rapidly, it is possible that certain functions have altered or been added by a particular supplier. Due to this, before choosing an operating system, check with your supplier beforehand to make sure you have the latest information. Edu4 is now offering Edulip NetStar, a more recent version than the one reviewed here. I am grateful to the language lab users who accepted to be interviewed about their particular operating systems.  All systems offer some flexibility as far as the number of teacher screens offered. The teachers interviewed used three screens: one for the pilot, one to see the student’s screen and another for the teacher’s PC. This depends on the teacher’s style. I use two video sources at the same time, each source to an individual group, and therefore I use only one pilot screen to leave room for two T.V. monitors.  

All three pilot systems have the following functions in common, all of which work equally well:
 

  • Group formation (Tecnilab’s IdmNet allows 10 groups to be formed, Edulip Concerto allows 8 (Edulip Netstar allows 16) and Tandberg allows 5).
  • Group conference (open discussion between all members of a group).
  • Visualisation of a student’s screen by the teacher (they also have a ‘rapid review’ function which flits from one screen to another for a few seconds which no-one seems to use!)
  • Control by the teacher of a student’s screen.
  • Diffusion of the teacher’s screen to students.
  • Diffusion of a learner’s screen to other students.
  • Blacking-out all student screens.
  • Twin headphone sockets allowing two learners to work on the same post.
  • Lesson transfer from teacher to learners (whether audio, video or text).

The following functions have differences between pilots:

ICONOGRAPHIC LAYOUT AND EASE OF USE

Edu 4. Edulip Concerto: attractive and simple, if a little ‘schoolish’. Very easy to read, and hence quick to learn by a novice. The lab layout is adaptable and can hence be reconstructed on the screen, and the sources and functions are easily identified by icons. Group selection is easy and source selection to each group is also a simple operation.. The icon indicating that students are paired is a little obtrusive and only visible when moused-over. 

Tandberg 3000: easy to read, as the lab layout is copied on the screen. Sources are identified on a scroll list. The style is more formal than Edu4, and one or two operations are not obvious for the beginner (for example ‘PC control’ must be followed by and not preceded by ‘manual’ to send the teacher’s screen to the student). Fairly straightforward, but probably slightly longer to learn than Edulip. Pairs are easily identified. The earlier Tandberg 3000 version has the advantage of being able to identify which posts are switched on or off, something missing from the later version (Tandberg 3000 with Divace Duo).

Tecnilab IdmNet: the iconography is similar to that of Edu4, and similarly easy to read and quick to learn. This is an improvement on the previous Idm100 which could be pretty confusing for the beginner.

PAIRING Edu4. Edulip Concerto:

The weakness of this system is in its pairing function which requires two manoeuvres to select a pair followed by validation once all pairs have been selected. There is a time delay (10s) from the validation process until the pairing actually becomes operative. The operating system proposes pairs at random which the teacher must then change. The pairing only operates once all pairs are selected. There is no ‘pair’ of three, so in the case of an odd-numbered group, one student is left out. The particular lab visited with 18 posts was unable to pair the ninth of nine pairs as 8 pairs is the maximum. The way around this problem is to form a group with a final pair, or with three learners if the class has an uneven number of learners. This though adds unnecessary time and manipulation for the teacher. Intergroup as well as intragroup pairing is possible, even when the group is under ‘manual’, meaning that a source is being delivered at the same time. Edu4’s NetStar apparently offers better pairing facilities (16 pairs, instead of 8), but still cannot form ‘pairs’ of three or more without going through the group forming process. 

Tandberg 3000.

This pilot offers the quickest and easiest pairing system. The pairing icon opens up a selection box from which one can select random pairing, fixed (side by side) pairing or chosen pairing. One can also choose ‘pairs’ of 2, 3 or 4. If there is an uneven number of posts selected, the T3000 will automatically create a group of three. Each pair operates the moment it is selected, and requires a single operation. Each paired post indicates the partner post(s). Tandberg operates with the Divace sound system. Unfortunately the latest version (Divace Duo) does not allow the sound source to be part of the pairing, only the student voice. This is a considerable drawback to a pilot which otherwise offers the most flexibility in pairing. To avoid this problem, it is better to choose the original Divace (hardware instead of software) which allows pairing of the student’s voice plus the audio system. Like Edulip, intra and intergroup pairing is possible, including under source diffusion conditions.
 

Tecnilab IdmNet.

The pairing system has to go through two operations which is a little clumsy, but does not have the same time delay as the Edulip Concerto system. Like the Edulip system, pairing is limited to twos, so uneven groups leave someone out. Again, the solution proposed is to form a different group when a ‘pair’ of three is needed.
 

AUDIO and VIDEO

Edu4’s Edulip NetStar comes with their Virtual Laboratory which functions as a virtual tape and video player. The volume control is manual. Tecnilab leaves the choice of audio system to the client. The interviewed teacher used Logolab which provides a virtual tapeplayer. Tecnilab systems have a manual volume control fixed to the headphone cable. Tandberg 3000 comes with the Divace sound system and offers WinTV for video. The Divace doubles as a virtual tape and video player. The original Divace is hardware with a manual sound control. The Divace Duo is digital, but it is not necessarily an advantage to lose a manual volume control and has the disadvantage of not pairing any Divace recordings.  Edu4 offers the advantage of same-time digitalisation whereby a diffused video from the pilot system can be recorded as video and audio on the learner’s PC. Tandberg and Tecnilab can automatically record the sound but not the image. However, in that most labs now use integrated intranet systems, digital video is perhaps best pre-digitalised and picked up by the leaner from its server source. Technilab specialise in video- server systems. Tandberg 3000 offers 6 audiovisual sources, Edu4’s Edulip Concerto and NetStar offer 4 audiovisual sources, Tecnilab’s IdmNet is limited to two audio sources at a time. If you follow interactionist methodology with two sources at the same time, this poses no problems. However, if you’re into daisies with multiple sources then this could be a drawback.

CONCLUSION

All three systems are highly reliable and fairly homogeneous. Price differences depend upon locality as well as demand. The users of all three systems were repeat buyers and would again buy the same equipment for a new lab, even though none of them considered their system ‘perfect’. Feedback from teachers leads to constant evolution in the functionality of pilot systems. All are quite easy to learn to use (especially in comparison to some of the earlier versions).  

In that the use of institutional intranet systems is becoming standard, there will perhaps be less and less need for integrated servers as part of pilot functions. The three labs visited had an intranet system plus internet connection. Due to hardware failures and the difficulty in repurchasing the same hardware,  I think that software will take precedence in time over hardware.

As interactive methodology gains ground on input methods, flexibility in terms of group selection and pairing will, I believe, become more and more important. Language labs have suffered in the past from a poor reputation. Firstly, due to uninteresting bevaviourist teaching methods, language labs were remembered for being dreadfully boring. Secondly, many of those involved in the education system thought that the computer-based language lab would be a sort of linguistic magic wand that would produce excellent language learning all on its own. Many of the early labs were technically of poor quality, and creating more frustration than language learning. The technology has improved considerably, and language labs are now much more reliable. If labs are to be used in a creative, interactive way, as current theory suggests they should, then materials need to be adapted for that purpose, and teachers need to be trained not only technically but also pedagogicially. The three labs reviewed all have their individual  strengths and weaknesses, but all offer the teacher a wide range of possibilities to produce imaginative, creative and productive language lessons.

David Rees
13 February 2002

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