DIY Virtual Language Lab?

ipad typewriter

I heard a story on NPR the other morning that got me thinking about hackers.  Not the type that break into computer systems to steal credit card numbers, but the kind that like to take existing technologies and repurpose them.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you won’t be surprised to learn I consider myself to be a bit of a hacker by this latter definition.

Hackerspaces have opened up in cities across the U.S. and around the world.  Think of these as clubs where like-minded people can share tools and expertise in order to collaborate as well as further their own projects.  Here in Columbus, Ohio, we have the Idea Foundry.  I haven’t been there yet, but the range of projects and classes on the website are intriguing.

So, what is the ESL equivalent?  And, a related question is, could Language Labs serve the same purpose?  I’ve taught in programs that do and don’t have language labs.  And the current trend I’m seeing in our program is that almost every student brings a laptop from home or buys one when she gets here.  Although I know this is a reflection of the demographics of our specific population and is certainly not the case for all ESL students, technology is becoming more and more prevalent.  Could a distributed model of a language lab (i.e. each student has one computer, so the lab is wherever the students are) be a good model?

I’ve always been a big proponent of exploiting Course Management Systems (CMSs) that make it easy for teachers to post supplemental materials online for students to access.  Taken a step further, materials could be made available in a way that students could access them and use them individually in a language-lab-like way.  The difference would be that instead of a whole class marching to a lab to sit together for an hour, students could access “the lab” from the library, a coffee shop, or their own home.  And the motivated ones could do so for more than the prescribed time.

Would this be better for students?  I think it depends on what resources are made available to students and how they are instructed to use them.  Finding some level-appropriate reading would be helpful.  Working through an online workbook might also be useful.  But do those options really allow a student to explore, be creative and become hackers with the language?  Perhaps a bigger question is, have ESL resources really moved forward along with other advances in technology (internet compatibility, web 2.0, connecting users to other users)?  Some of the resources I’ve posted on this blog have potential, but overall, I’m not sure that educational technologies have taken full advantage of these advances.

How would you design your own virtual language lab if each of your students had a computer?  How would you create an environment in which students learn by exploring the language?  Share your ideas in the comments below.

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