Transforming a dinosaur on campus

From language lab to language center and beyond

Remember the language lab? That room outfitted with rows of massive carrels, microphones, recorders, and an elevated teacher console? Its usefulness has been contested many times during its nearly 100-year history. Over the past few decades, colleges across the country transformed these language labs into language resource centers, filling large rooms with computers, DVDs, microphones, assorted audio and audio-visual devices, and a variety of language learning and teaching resources.

But even those more modern spaces experienced the disruptive powers of technological development and educational innovation. Many of the language center’s technological capabilities today can be housed in handheld devices and in the cloud. For example, physical media are increasingly replaced by streaming services, live TV is replaced by on-demand videos, and audio-visual devices, such as camcorders, voice recorders, and microphones are now built into most mobile devices. Many students prefer online dictionaries to physical ones. So have the times finally rendered these physical learning spaces obsolete?

Recent research shows that many language centers have adapted quickly to changed needs, but that there are no more one-size-fits-all solutions. Compared to the old language labs with their single, clearly defined mission and purpose, today’s language centers are much more diverse and localized. They often perform a crucial role on campus as demand for their services has actually increased. The centers are now used for faculty development, especially for an increasingly contingent professoriate; they provide innovative physical and hybrid learning spaces; some provide physical media and realia (authentic materials used for language teaching and learning); many increasingly function as social spaces and as incubators the fostering of communities of practice; others offer research support and specialized services specific to language learning, such as translations, community-based learning, and  high tech and pedagogical support for students and faculty.

Here at Rhodes College, a national liberal arts college in Memphis, we created an innovative space that is open 24/7 to students and faculty, and it serves as a hub for all language-related formal and informal activities. Classes take place in the multi-purpose room that features flexible furniture, writeable walls, multiple projections units, and technological support. Everything is modular and movable. We focus on active learning, on the individual learner as well as communities of learners. Most importantly, Rhodes students and faculty took the lead in making language learning more engaging.

For example, students move the tables to the side, place mats on the floor and practice yoga in German outside of class led by a German faculty member. At Chinese tea, students play games in the language and listen to songs. In Spanish, students studying Spanish make their own Cartonera books and share them with the community beyond the campus gates. Other activities include international photo contests, cultural celebrations like the Day of the Dead, German chocolate tasting or ginger bread house building contests, video or board game evenings in the target language, movie screenings, lectures, a grading marathon for faculty, and teleconferencing with native speakers abroad.

In short, a carefully designed space like the Rhodes College Language Learning Center offers flexible, engaging, hybrid learning spaces. Rather than dinosaurs, language centers can and should be real places of innovation on campus.

More information on the transformation of the language center can be found in the recently published book “From Language Lab to Language Center and Beyond: The Past, Present, and Future of Language Center Design“ (International Association for Language Learning Technology, 2017).

Felix Kronenberg is an Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures and the director of the Language Learning Center at Rhodes College in Memphis.


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