The Stanford Digital Language Lab: Assumptions, Approach, and Future

Summary: When properly resourced and when connected to language programs in substantive ways, Language Labs play an important role in helping their users to attain the language proficiency necessary to serve and lead effectively in a global economy.   They also empower their users to expand the quality and breadth of their global social networks by enthusiastically partnering with foreign language programs.  This post is a slightly edited version of an EduCause post I wrote on behalf of Academic Computing Services and is intended to provide an overview of what modern Language Labs do.

Traditional audio-lingual oriented language labs with their cubicles and monolithic teacher’s console have died a curiously slow death. Gradually, they are giving way to a more open model.  In the past 10 years or so, language labs have morphed into online assessment facilities and teaching studios in order to support proficiency oriented, outcome driven teaching methodologies.

Language Center SOPIs in the Digital Language Lab: A technology mediated partnership. (image by Carlos Seligo Ph.D.)

Language labs have historically been nexuses for innovation in pedagogy and for innovative use of instructional technology in particular. This innovation arises out of necessity; namely, out of the necessity to support huge numbers of students engaged in multilingual and multimodal creative self-expression occurring across diverse and often complex spoken, written, and gestural systems. Modern proficiency oriented approaches to Additional Language Acquisition emphasize active CREATION WITH LANGUAGE and focus on what students can DO rather than on what they KNOW. For this reason labs have to create agile and scalable workflows for intensive use and capture of multimedia and multilingual assets. Put more simply, language labs innovate because they have to.   Creativity is born out of Necessity.  Productivity is born out of Abundance.   Productive Language Labs juxtapose both necessity and abundance as part of their daily operations making them dynamic and cost effective institutional resources.

Stanford Digital Language Lab Model

Below is a schematic description of the language lab model at Stanford University.  In 1999 the Stanford University Libraries reconceptualized the existing Language Lab as the Stanford Digital Language Lab  in order to actualize the Stanford Language Center’s program to deliver large-scale, program-wide online assessment, to expand access to enhanced learning spaces, and to modernize the Lab’s approach to foreign language content archiving and creation.  More recently Academic Computing Services has buttressed the Lab’s infrastructure and support services as part of its own ambitious and comprehensive Learning Spaces Initiative.

Organizational Locus: The Digital Language Lab is part of the Academic Computing Services (ACS) in the Stanford University Libraries (SUL), and supports Stanford’s largest academic department, the Stanford Language Center.  ACS is largely unsiloed; organizational units collaborate freely in fulfilling the ACS mission.

Language Lab Infrastructure
The physical space of the Stanford Digital Language Lab consists of three technology enhanced classrooms: a seminar room, a computer classroom, and a configurable teaching studio with touch screen projectors. Each room has a video capture cart for recording student presentations, sign language assignments, and cultural events. The lab’s 40 dual-boot Imacs with USB headsets and built-in webcams support multilingual computing and communication requirements. The entire lab rests on a raised floor with built-in power and networking.

Assessment in the Language Lab
Simulated Oral Proficiency Interviews (SOPIs): Every Spring the Language Lab hosts over 800 SOPIs for the Language Center. Based on the original SOPI from the Center for Applied Linguistics, these SOPIs were created by the Language Center, coded by Academic Computing’s Faculty Services, and delivered by the Digital Language Lab  to assess student progress from placement to completion of language requirement. These data help guide the Language Center in its mission to guarantee excellence in language instruction. The Lab provides a secure and dedicated testing environment and all of the technical support over a two week period.
Online Diagnostic Assessments (ODAs): ODAs are formative assessments taken in the open lab in CourseWork, Stanford’s Sakai-based LMS. The Lab provides hardware, headsets, cameras, and multilingual computing training, and general support for this expanding assessment initiative.
Placement Tests: EFS delivers online placement exams in both the Fall and Summer in the Language Lab.

Teaching in the Lab
Orientations and Workshops: The Lab’s computer classroom hosts multilingual computing orientations for students and also serves as a hands-on workshop area for instructors on new topics such as new Stanford technologies, Copyright, etc.  It also hosts ACTFL webinars and SWALLT-Online webinars.

Presentational Mode of Speech and Foreign Language Writing
The Language Teaching Studio supports video capture of student presentations in classes focusing on presentational language. The room has augmented lighting and in-room video capture capability to make video capture as simple as possible for instructors. Side-by-side projection systems allow for in-class text annotation and collaborative writing.
The design of the Lab and robust infrastructure allow for a great deal of flexibility and reliability for instructors and allow students to conduct multilingual tasks efficiently.

Lessons learned from supporting Language Center online assessments and in the Lab’s enhanced teaching studios are being incorporated into a new Digital Language Lab scheduled to open in 2014 as part of Academic Computing Services facilities in the eagerly awaited SUL-North Project.

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