Implementing a digital multi-media language learning environment

Author: Derrik Ferney


This article examines a number of the practical and pedagogic considerations involved in the implementation of a digital language learning environment. It makes a distinction between digital audio-lingual and digital multi-media learning environments and focuses mainly on the latter which, because they provide a computer for every user, have rather more pedagogic potential (and are considerably more expensive) than digital audio-lingual systems. The article - presented here in shortened form - aims to providing readers with an analysis of the practical and pedagogic factors involved in deciding to move from analogue to digital materials.

This article was added to our website on 01/02/05 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Needs analysis

  • Analyse current provision in terms of the spread of existing resources: language centre, tape-based (analogue) language laboratory, computers, library. What would a digital multi-media laboratory complement and what would it replace?
  • Analyse current provision for levels of usage and anticipated change. Would the use of the - lab increase or decrease as a result of the move from analogue to digital?
  • Estimate instructional (timetabled hours) v. referential (self-access) use.
  • Identify location. Is the Languages Department/Centre the best place? A central library or learning centre might enable longer opening hours, and this could be an important factor if substantial self-access is expected.
  • Think about layout. What will look and work best - serried rows of desks as in the traditional language laboratory, peripheral benching or islands? Benching can make for a lighter room, and is often cheaper than desks. Are a number of acoustic enclosures needed to afford privacy for more reserved students?

2. Investment

2.1. Set-up costs

Costs could be in the region of £70-80,000 for a 24 position digital multi-media laboratory with a computer in every student position, such as Tandberg's Divace . This would include:

  • Computers and standard Operating System (OS)/applications software
  • Communications manager software
  • Furniture
  • Air conditioning/ventilation
  • Security
  • Central recharges (if relevant)

(As stated above, digital audio-lingual laboratories can be purchased for a fraction of the price. Tandberg's Lab 100 (Elice), for example, is only around a third of the cost of Divace for a 24 position lab that offers the same audio-lingual features as analogue labs without using cassette players).

2.2. Recurrent costs

2.2.1. Training

  • Technical Staff Moving from a few standalone computers to networked provision is a big step. Initial training and support is provided by the supplier, but there are many new and often 'one off' problems to solve. These can be complex, as the supplier is unlikely to be aware of the intricacies of the institution's network, and the institution's central ICT services are unlikely to be aware of the complexities of a digital multimedia laboratory. The languages department's technicians therefore occupy a unique and sometimes difficult position between the supplier on the one hand and the institution's ICT services on the other. In some cases they become mediators between two dissimilar computer cultures.
  • Academic Staff The supplier usually provides initial training, but follow-ups are needed from technical and academic staff. It can be helpful to identify champions' to avoid uneven development between languages. Are all staff equally adaptable to new technology?
  • Support Staff Language centre support staff may also require training, not least in the cataloguing of digitised materials.
  • Frequent refreshers are likely to be required for all categories of staff.
  • Students In induction week and via skills module such as Computer Tools for Linguists.'

2.2.2. Other recurrent costs

  • Support and service contract. Costs can vary according to the level of service required from telephone support that is relatively cheap to full call-out which costs a good deal more.
  • Taking into account the purchase of computers, digital labs are considerably more expensive to buy than analogue labs. Furthermore, the shelf life of computers (approximately 5 years) is around half that of tape cassette decks. Since software change drives hardware change, additional upgrade costs are to be expected.
  • Digitisation of existing resources.

3. Involvement of central Information and Communication Technology (ICT) services

3.1. Planning

It is absolutely essential to involve central institutional ICT services from the earliest days of the planning stage. It is probable that the installation of a digital multi-media laboratory will be as new to them as it is to the languages department.

3.2. Networking issues

  • Consider the relative advantages of having a local network or being linked to institutional network? The latter has a number of advantages, not least of which is the management of authentication and security.
  • But it also has disadvantages. Reliance on central ICT services leads to a loss of independence. For example, central ICT services are likely to dictate downtime for network maintenance, the timing of operating system upgrades etc.

4. Digitisation of existing resources

  • Media objects
  • Electronic materials catalogue
  • Computer Aided Language Learning (CALL)
  • Process and costs

5. Teaching and learning gains

  • Media objects are a powerful pedagogic concept, adding value to materials through integration of different media, portability.
  • A digital multi-media environment may have profound effects on teaching and learning. It makes the computer into a virtual machine': text, audio, video, text tools (including proofing tools, concordancers), voice recognition (English) and CALL are available, while internet connectivity provides access to authentic L2 materials, machine translation, dictionaries, glossaries and software.
  • Authentic use of technology to facilitate local processing of global resources
  • Other users not just a languages facility
  • Meets student expectations and acts as a showcase

6. Is it a bird or is it a plane?

The longer version of this article reflects on the uncertainty within the language teaching community about digital multi-media learning environments. It discusses some of the preconditions for their full promise to be realised, with reference to the views of Seymour Papert on the QWERTY phenomenon' (Papert, 1993:33), Diane Laurillard on Hypertext (Laurillard, 1993:126) and Mark Warschauer on integrated' CAL (Warschauer, 1996). It concludes with a consideration of Maley's Twelve Generalisable Procedures' for flexible materials design (Maley, 1998: 288-9) in the context of producing digital media objects' that can fully exploit digital multi-media learning environments.

7. A possible media object

media object


Clarke, A. (2001). Designing Computer-based Learning Materials . Aldershot : Gower Publishing Ltd.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching . London : Routledge

Maley, A. (1998). Squaring the circle reconciling materials as constraint with materials as empowerment. In B.Tomlinson (ed.), Materials Development in Language Teaching , 279-295. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms . Cambridge , Massachusetts : Basic Books

Scrimshaw, P. (ed.) (1993). language, classrooms and computers . London : Routledge

Thorne, K. (2003). blended learning . London : Kogan Page

Warschauer, M. (1996). "Computer-assisted language learning: an introduction". In Fotos S. (ed.), Multimedia language teaching , 3-20. Tokyo : Logos International