Web Audio Lab overhauls foreign-language instruction

Web technology is changing the way Cornell students study a foreign language, allowing them to use their own computers to practice and giving them more control over the pace of instruction.

Until a few years ago, language students haunted the Language Resource Center (LRC) in Noyes Lodge, listening to tape recordings of native speakers, then repeating and recording their own voices for comparison, and sometimes delivering cassettes of their responses to their teachers for review. Tapes have been replaced by higher quality digital recordings, which students can hear either in LRC's study carrels or on the Web, but most Web versions are still listen-only.

Now the Web Audio Lab, an application initially created by Russian language teacher Slava Paperno and further developed by staff members of the Academic Technology Center and the LRC, allows students to record their responses on their own computers and upload the audio files for teacher review. The Web interface offers additional features, such as control of the pause length before responding and links to grammar explanations for the lessons. The system is so far available to students of Spanish, Japanese, Bengali, Khmer, Russian, Korean and three Chinese courses, with Zulu soon to be added.

Teachers have options that range from simply verifying that work has been done, to spot checking a few student responses, to listening to and commenting on every recording. They can then send text or audio comments back to the student.

The new technology is in tune with new ideas about language teaching, says Richard Feldman, director of the LRC. "In my opinion some parts of language learning are done better with a machine than with a person," Feldman explains. "Listen, record it again, try it again. The real-life teacher has limited patience and time to do that. In the '50s we thought it was all drill and practice, then that was dropped, now we're bringing it back. [A machine] frees up class time to do the more central part of language teaching, real communication among class members and teacher, all structured by the teacher."

Along with the traditional study carrels, the LRC operates audio and video production and videoconferencing facilities, and works with teachers to develop audio and video teaching materials. It also sponsors eight special events a year for college and K-12 language teachers.

The Web Audio Lab project was funded in part by the Faculty Innovation in Teaching Program sponsored by the Office of the Provost.

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