The question of language labs recently came up on an independent school listserv, and as a French teacher/Director of Edtech, I felt compelled to respond. I strongly believe that language labs are a waste of precious resources, both in terms of budgets and facilities. Here's why:
The idea of a separate lab runs counter to the idea of integrating tech into the everyday curriculum. Just as we've abandoned the isolated computer lab for more ubiquitous 1:1 or BYOD models, having to book a language lab and manage the hassle of getting students there and setting up/breaking down will limit the number of speaking/listening activities that teachers undertake. This is a bad idea for a communicative based language program. Speaking and listening activities need to take place as much as possible, both in school as well as home for homework. It is extremely counterintuitive for speaking activities to be recorded one way at school and then through another program at home. I'd suggest headsets for students paired with one of the options in #2 below. We keep our headsets in the classrooms in a cabinet. Students know where they are and how to set them up, creating an efficient workflow transitioning into and out of listening/speaking activities.
There are so many amazing options for recording and sharing sound files that are a fraction of the financial and facilities cost of a language lab. Dedicating an entire room to equipment that is occasionally used is a waste of space. Most textbooks now have an online component that allow students to listen and record their voice, as well as having voice based discussion boards. I used VHL and it was fantastic. If not the text, then your LMS will probably have excellent recording capabilities. At my former school Moodle had this functionality, and in my current one, Canvas has an even better and easier system. If neither text nor LMS, then there are great free Web 2.0 tools to check out. Audacity has been mentioned already, if you're a Mac school, Garage Band comes standard. Google Drive has voice recorder apps that are decent and easy to use. Finally, a free ridiculously easy cloud option is Vocaroo. Pushing video content to students is also easy with the plethora of options, including Youtube, Vimeo, Teachertube, etc.
The synchronous/asynchronous argument is a moot point. If your listening file is embedded into a website/discussion prompt/voiceboard, the activity and subsequent student responses will be as synchronous as a traditional listening lab. A good headset with mic isolates the students' voices so that only their response is recorded. If the idea of teacher synchronous listening is the issue, having the teacher walk around and listen to individual students performs the same function. (Protest: Having the teacher next to the student makes them nervous, anonymous listening is better! Response: Get over it! Our job is to prepare students for authentic communicative situations. Having a speaker next to them is much more authentic than being isolated in a booth!)
Changing from a system where the teacher has all of the control and students are neatly organized into tidy booths to a classroom-based anytime system can be intimidating. That's where good edtech coaching and leadership comes in. As technology administrators it is our job to set up the systems as best as we can so that they are as easy as possible for our teachers to use. We also need to logically explain the benefits to teaching and learning that will result from abandoning an archaic methodology such as a language lab. But sometimes we also need to console, reassure, and cheer on our colleagues as they take coerced leaps of faith into the unknown.
There is a fine line that we walk in language classrooms when it comes to pronunciation- overcorrecting errors impedes a student's communicative flow and can dim his or her enthusiasm to contribute, but allowing errors to fossilize is counterproductive. In the best case scenario, teachers should help students develop a sense of autonomy in their language career and to create systems by which they can auto-evaluate and fine-tune their pronunciation on their own, instead of relying on us to point out areas of needed improvement.
Using speech-to-text or dictation software is an easy and effective way for students to get instantaneous and objective feedback on their pronunciation without the intervention of a teacher. For those who use Google Chrome, Simple Dictation is a free and effective extension that students can access within their web browser.
To get Simple Dictation, go to the Google Chrome Webstore and input "dictation" into the search box. Adding the extension is then a simple click away. To activate the extension, follow the instructions in the video below.
To try the system out, give your students a few sentences that highlight common difficulties in pronunciation, such as accented vowels. Does the transcription match with what they were supposed to have said?
What I like best about this method is that it takes the teacher totally out of the equation. Students can visually see their pronunciation errors, allowing them to troubleshoot on their own. Sugata Mitra, an educational technology professor from Newcastle University, showed the effectiveness of using a speech-to-text program to improve second-language pronunciation in a fascinating experiment with children in Indian slums, which he discusses in his Ted talk on "A Child-driven Education".
An alternative to individual practice would be to pair students up, where one partner speaks and the other monitors the pronunciation and the transcription. When the monitor hears and/or sees a pronunciation error, he or she can alert the speaker and, using the target language, explain the problem and help him or her improve.
Thinglink is a fantastic image annotation site that I've used many times in my classes. The software is simple and easy to use, and it's a great way to visually curate information for classroom use. Simply upload or import your own images, or link to ones found on the web, and then tag the images with links, text, videos, and even other images.
A Thinglink image is a great platform through which a teacher can organize and visually contextualize related vodcasts, readings, diagrams, and notes in a flipped classroom. Conversely, students can easily use this tool to curate information on their own. For example, in my AP European History course, my students annotated Renaissance Art images with short texts and links to Youtube videos in which they analyzed the impact of Humanism on the works of art.
In my AP French Language & Culture course, I've been using Thinglink to aggregate various target-language sources and couple them with practice cultural comparison questions. In the examples below, I've linked radio broadcasts, short videos, graphs, and written articles to a thematic picture. My students have found these very helpful when it comes to preparing for the AP exam, and they are in the process of creating their own Thinglink images complete with practice exposé questions to help the class review.
You've got a solid grasp on Google Drive's Documents, Spreadsheets, Forms, and Presentations features, but what on earth is Drawing for?
Google's Drawing program is the perfect platform to practice orthography- the skill of writing characters and symbols to create words- in language classrooms with non-Roman alphabets, such as Arabic or Chinese. Students of these languages need lots of practice handwriting the new alphabet or pictographic symbols, which is difficult to do in a digital environment. In traditional word processing programs, typing pictographic languages, such as Chinese, requires the student to change the keyboard language and then phonetically type the syllables. Characters will pop out fully formed, which is efficient and useful, but bypasses the important orthographic practice!
Google Drawing presents teachers with an opportunity to digitally collect and monitor their students’ orthography without having to scan in and email worksheets. The Scribble Tool in Google Drawing allows the user to create free form lines and by extension hand-drawn language characters. Couple Google Drawing with a pen mouse and Chinese language students are fully prepared to complete short answer or extended writing assignments online.
As with all Google documents, Google Drawings can be shared, edited, and commented on. An added bonus with Google Drawing is that comments can be attached to individual strokes, so that feedback can be specifically targeted. When the student hovers their mouse over the comment, the stroke to which the comment is attached is highlighted in yellow, as in my example below!