Language Learning Goes Hi-Tech

September 1, 1998

Nick Martinello

In a classroom that looks more like it is used for teaching Vulcan than French, Spanish or Latin, the arduous task of mastering foreign languages is being facilitated at warp speed. With a central instructor's workstation, 31 student workstations, Internet access and a sophisticated projection system with two large monitors and an even larger projection screen, the classroom integrates the latest multimedia technology into a cozy, renovated room on the fourth floor of Newcomb Hall.

"It is very exciting for students," says Barbette Spaeth, associate professor of classical studies. "The classroom operates at different levels. It enables students to drill themselves on selected materials. Beyond that, the technology employs a host of resources to make the culture come alive."

According to Spaeth, while new languages, especially a classical language, may seem cold and distant to students, learning them can become a much more vivid cultural experience through the multimedia capabilities of an electronic classroom. Students, for example, can watch a live program from Russia or hear a South American radio broadcast via the Internet.

Videodisks of contemporary foreign films that are recorded with associated instructional programs can be projected for classroom use. Most impressive, perhaps, is a pedagogical software package that enables the instructor to view, project and control student screens. The software also allows for communication between student workstations, thereby promoting collaborative learning exercises.

According to Sara Wilson, director of the language lab, the classroom is part of a multi-phase plan to incorporate new technology into the foreign language curriculum. In 1992, the plan was initiated through funding from the dean of the faculty of liberal arts and sciences and a seed grant from Apple Computer Inc. that provided for new desktop computers, connection to the ethernet and local networking for the foreign language faculty.

In 1994, the plan entered its second phase when a Louisiana Board of Regents' grant and matching Tulane funds were used to create four multimedia instructional applications by faculty and also to evaluate and select commercial software. The university followed that up in 1995 by funding a 25-workstation, multimedia lab for use by foreign language students. The opening of the new classroom in April completed the fourth phase of the plan.

Along with several pilot classes, Wilson has already used the classroom to host a four-state regional affiliate meeting of International Association for Language Learning Techno-logy, as well as two orientation sessions for foreign language faculty and meetings of the provost's council and provost's committee on class room improvement.

This fall, she adds, the classroom will be used for all levels of language classes in basic language acquisition, culture, composition and literature. Beyond that, Wilson would like to see the classroom used eventually for distance learning and teleconferencing.

"I anticipate a demand for this facility," she says. "I have had a lot of faculty interest and classes are scheduled there for this semester." The next phase of the foreign language technology initiative, says Wilson, will focus on faculty development that will "train faculty members to exploit the full potential of this kind of facility and develop their own software in a newly created multimedia development center with high-end computer equipment."

To this end, in June, the university received a $280,000 grant from Charles E. Culpeper Foundation.

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000