The idea of having a digital language lab is simply great. It reminds me of the language labs we used to have in Lawrence College Ghora Gali (LCGG) Murree. I joined LCGG in 1987 as a student of the fifth grade. It was probably the same year that language labs were set up in LCGG. They were much hyped and quite rightly so. The labs were set up huge rooms that were carpeted wall to wall. Their walls were embellished with sceneries with some scientific content. Cabin-like desks were fitted in the room. The material used to make those desks was also exclusive. Each desk had a headphone in it and a pair of switches through which the pupil could switch the context between what he could hear from the two audio visual channels the lab could broadcast to each of the desk. Behind each desk lay a huge, comfortable, well-cushioned and a beautiful chair. In front the room was a white board on which the instructors could scribble important points from their lectures. In a corner of the room in the front of the class lay a huge cupboard that hosted a colored television along with a VCR to play useful documentaries and interesting films to the students. Ms. Burrows used to take our classes. She was an English woman who was especially hired by the college to teach us the various hues and aspects of the English language.
The lab was quite extravagant for its time. And the learning experience was also good. Even now when we have a get together of friends we cherish those times and a mention of the lab comes in.
Another experience I have had of learning a language is to learn the Danish language. I have visited the sporg center (language center) of Copenhagen for quite a few months to learn a few modules of the Danish language. The teaching mechanism of the Danes is simply brilliant. They have a simple philosophy that every human being has a natural knack for learning any language. They make the learning experience so easy that after a while the student leaves the sporg center as an expert of Danish language. They employ all sorts of tools to make the learning process fun and enjoyable. The students get to read, write and listen to a lot of Danish. The center has a library from which the student can borrow books. The students can play online games on the web portals that help in learning the language. Students even get a chance to participate in concerts in which they get a chance to sing songs in Danish. It is by this steady exposure to the language that the student becomes proficient in that language in the long run, no matter what his (her) age or ethnicity is.
Setting up a digital language lab can be much easier and a lot more cheaper in relative terms nowadays. This owes to the massive advancement of the computing machinery. In what follows a reflection on the various tools that may be required to develop a world-class digital language lab is presented. This document has been written with the candidness of a casual and lucid article. The expression of it is such that if read from this point onwards, it has the tone of a formal report.
The idea of having a digital language lab is that it would make the process of learning a language and a lot more fun and easier. The lab should have all the conceivable tools that draw the attention of the students and glue them to the process of learning by their own free will. The nature of inspiration should be such that a student should himself want to learn a language as opposed to being forced by other means to learn it. The various aspects of learning a language include the development of abilities of reading, writing, listening, speaking and also thinking in that language. I once heard from a friend of mine that a person has learned a language when he begins to think in that language.
Normally such a lab should be equipped with appropriate computing devices that have adequate audio-visual aids. The ability to archive and play appropriate music and movies that can help in making the overall learning experience enjoyable and worthy is also important. Computing devices can also make the dissemination of lessons, quizzes, and assignments easier by hosting appropriate software. Automated computer-aided grading tools and plagiarism detection software can also be conceived as desirable features of a good digital language lab. It is much easier to host them on our day’s advanced computing devices. Thanks to our digital age and especially to the cloud computing era we live in. The facilities that we could not even envision in the past have become mundane and commonplace now.
It must be mentioned here that it is beyond the scope of this article to reflect on the hardware requirements of setting up the digital language lab. It is also beyond the scope of this article to envisage that how the laboratory would internally look like or what would its size be. However, a ballpark estimate could be that the language lab should be able to host roughly fifty students at a time for an extended period of time spanning a few hours. The lab should accordingly equipped with proper seating facilities. It would be nice to have computing devices placed accordingly in the lab. The computing devices could be full-fledged personal computers, laptops, or even sets of computing terminals comprising of monitors, keyboards and mice. The latter can be useful depending on the type of IT infrastructure of the organization. This is to say that, for instance, if the IT infrastructure of the organization is enabled with cloud computing and has its own private clouds running, then it would be all the more convenient to have nice looking terminal devices placed in the lab instead of personal computers or laptops, as the former may cost substantially less as opposed to the latter.
Among other things, it would also be nice to have the lab adorned with appropriate furniture and paintings that make it look more like a modern lab. It would be really nice to have the lab designed in such a way that it has appropriate acoustic qualities, something which is taken care of while designing good cinemas and theaters. It is needless to say that it would be really nice if the lab ran on electricity that is generated from a renewable source such as a wind farm or a solar energy system. How all of this shall be accomplished is, however, beyond the scope of this document.
There are plenty of platforms now available that allow easy development of learning management systems (LMS). It really depends on what type of software is desired and who would be the intended audience of such software. There are plenty of online LMSs that are doing a great job really at disseminating knowledge. Having a learning management system online is also beneficial in the sense that it can be accessed by a much wider audience through the Internet. Coursera, Udacity and KhanAcademy are few of the very good names, although there are a handful of other LMSs too.
The choice between having an LMS online or offline (accessible only within a lab, for instance) is rather a personal one. There could be benefits of having an LMS offline only if there are serious security threats of putting the LMS online, such as by hackers. Other than that it is a good idea to have an LMS online so that it can be accessed by the general public.
Today there are plenty of content management systems (CMS) that can be used to design and develop a world class within a matter of a few hours, if not minutes. Some of such CMS are WordPress, Joomla and Drupal. They are all free and open source software. All of them have their typical pros and cons due to which they differ from each other slightly in one aspect or the other. WordPress, for instance, is the easiest to use. Initially it was designed as a blogging platform. However, now people use it to deploy full fledged e-shops online. It is widely being used by many of the notable universities and academic institutions worldwide to deploy their websites. Drupal, on the other hand, is the most difficult to manipulate among the three. However, it gives a tighter control to the web designer on as to how he (she) whats the web application to look and function like. However, wordpress does not assume any web development experience on the part of the designer. Drupal assumes that the designer is fairly skilled in web development.
WordPress is free and many web hosts allow it to be installed fairly easily once a user signs up with them. How wordpress works is very easy and interesting. WordPress allows the user to install various themes and plugins. The themes control how the website is going to look like. For instance, if it is desired to make a website for a university, one has a choice to pick up a theme that one likes from a large pool of relevant themes online.
Similarly, the plugins affect the functionality of the web application. There are plugins for doing almost everything with wordpress. There are themes for creating and equipping websites for real estate dealers, automobile dealers, book shops, laundries, academic websites, online shops, e-commerce solutions, forex trading, social networks like facebook and twitter and also LMSs.
There are a handful of plugins for creating LMSs. For instance, namaste LMS is one such plugin. It allows the user to create courses, lessons, assignments and quizzes. The web-master can also control the flow of the lessons and install plugins to allow or disallow particular users from subscribing to the service.
There are plenty of other useful plugins that can be used to develop a nice LMS. For instance, if the LMS has online subscribers then a way may be sought to email them lessons periodically and successively. Drip autoresponders are required to accomplish this periodic and sequential dissemination of information (class lessons in this case). WordPress has plugins to achieve such purposes too through plugins.
Similarly, it is quite easy to embed multimedia content such as audio or video lectures in wordpress enabled websites. So embedding lectures from social audio websites, such as sound cloud, and video lectures, from vimeo or youtube, is fairly easy.
Creating a website with wordpress is also easy. It literally takes a few minutes to have a website up and running. After that it is a matter of design that how the website is going to look and work like. Of course, a successful website is highly dependent on the kind of content it hosts. This is more true about an LMS than any other enterprise. It all depends on the kind of content development strategy the designers of the LMS wish to adopt.
There are plenty of nice web hosting providers across the globe. Bluehost, Hostgator and hostinger are a few names that instantly come to mind. They charge reasonable prices for hosting a website and for providing domain names for it.
Most of the useful plugins for wordpress are free. There are a few that require nominal charges and some of them also have discount prices for students or academic institutions.
Finally a few words about the IT infrastructure are in order. Today the IT infrastructures of most of the leading institutions around the world are cloud enabled. Most of those that are not are swiftly making the move. The ones who are not bothered by the advent of cloud computing are living in oblivion. Their plight is contemptible. They are literally the cavemen of this post-modern age.
Enabling the IT infrastructure of an organization has become extremely easy too. It is easier to deploy a cloud on a handful of devices today than it was to install an operating system on a single personal computer a decade ago. The cloud has obvious benefits that should especially be more than obvious to a person having even a slight background in computer science. Stated succinctly, cloud computing glues the available resources of any computing ecosystem together. The benefit is that the overall performance of the cloud is manifold better than if the computing devices were functioning alone. The reader should look elsewhere for the apparent benefits of cloud computing.
A really nice way to deploy cloud on campus is to use Ubuntu cloud. Ubuntu is a linux-based operating system that is developed by canonical. The goal of the Ubuntu community is to make an open source operating system freely available to humanity that can be used by anyone. The fact that Ubuntu is Linux says too much about its reliability.
As the name suggests Ubuntu cloud is the cloud operating system (OS) that is distributed by Ubuntu. The cloud part of the OS utilizes the open stack operating system which is basically a cloud computing operating system. Open stack is currently being used by many companies worldwide to enable their clouds. Open stack is also developed by canonical and comes bundled with Ubuntu cloud. A great benefit of Ubuntu cloud is that it is free. Moreover, it is easy to install and deploy. Add to this the great promise by the Ubuntu community to provide long term support for the cloud freely, and the whole experience of cloud computing can appear totally exhilarating at once.
The LMS, like any other system on campus, can immensely benefit from the cloud. One of the benefits is that it will allow for easy and convenient storage of the data. Data is going to be quite central to the LMS. A lot of data will be generated while developing the LMS and that would be stored in the form of audio and video files. Having the LMS run on the cloud would ensure that the latter would take good care of the problems associated with storage of such huge swathes of data.
Having a cloud can otherwise reduce the need for extravagant computing machinery. For instance, cloud could allow terminals to be attached to it so that the latter could benefit the computing power of the former. The need for having seprate CPUs with every set of terminals would be reduced.
The crux of the whole document is that it is fairly easy to develop a world class LMS nowadays from the point of view of the software requirements. Most of the software discussed above are free to use and deploy. How the LMS matches with its world class counterparts is really going to depend on the creative cravings of its designers. The designers would, instead, have to focus on the content development strategies.
This brings us to the final, and possibly the most important, question that how content development would be done for this LMS? A related question can be that what sort of content would be embedded in the LMS? The answer simply is that the LMS would have student, assignments, quizzes and lessons in it. The instructors, along-with the help of teaching assistants, can be supposed to develop the quizzes and assignments for the LMS. They can then bet uploaded to various parts of the system appropriately. WordPress allows users to create multiple choice questions through specialized plugins.
Creating lessons would be possibly the most unique part of this LMS. In order to answer this question one may naturally wonder that how do the instructors who collaborate with LMSs like Coursera, Udacity and Khan academy prepare lectures? The answer is simple! They normally use a screen recording utility (like Quicktime on mac, or RecordMyDesktop on Ubuntu) to record the slides of their lectures. Along with that they employ a webcam or a nice camcorder to record their own presentation of the slides, as they normally sit in front of the monitor and reflect on their slides. The material captured from the two is then synced using a video editing tool. A nice tool for mac is iMovie and a cool tool for PC is Camtasia. These tools are not free however. Other notable tools for screen recording are Kazam and Istanbul. They can be installed for free on Ubuntu distributions. The camcorders obviously cost something. There are other tools too and can be looked up on the Internet. This is all what it takes to create a good LMS from the vantage point of the tools required to develop such a system. Other than that, of course, there is a lot of human effort involved in developing good quality content. This may require substantial input from the teachers as well as their assistants. However, this may be considered as a one time effort in the beginning. By the passage of time, however, as the lectures can be used over and over again, the teachers and their assistants can go away and relax. This may as well be considered to make the teachers, and their assistants, to become redundant in the long run. However, newer types of jobs and roles can be thought over for them. Teachers can spend more time on research and their students can pursue higher studies in more specialized fields. They can even think about ways how they can develop a society in which nobody has to work and that everyone can relax and live a serene life.
It may be desirable to embed questions, questionnaires, tests, quizzes and multiple choice questions in the lessons so as to test the pupils ability to understand the contents that are being taught. To achieve this one may want to integrate the ability to conduct computer adaptive tests (CAT) online that are conducted during the progression of the course. Anyone who has taken a GRE, SAT or GMAT test in life must be familiar with what CAT is all about. CAT is based on the item response theory (IRT). Open source CAT software are also available online. Such software may have to be fed with the test samples as well as they may have to be trained in the sense of similar artificial intelligence applications. In order to integrate them with a WordPress based LMS they might have to be embedded into appropriate plugins that may have to be developed.
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