New language lab

MARCUS GILLIAM | You may have noticed students from McGill's various language departments beating a path to the basement of the McLennan Library lately.

Dean of Arts Carman Miller has been spending time there too -- he claims he's figuring out how the Chinese language works, while his counterpart in the Faculty of Science, Alan Shaver, is learning Arabic.

The University's new Arts Multimedia Language Facility (AMLF), open now for a little over a month, is quickly becoming a popular resource. The fully digitized AMLF is relegating the old analog audio equipment that language students used to rely on to the distant past.

More than $150,000 in software and hardware has been invested for the first phase of this Faculty of Arts project. The new facility was spearheaded by the McGill English and French Language Centre.

Professor Hélène Poulin-Mignault, a former director of the centre, is the facility's godmother. She set in motion a pair of studies that looked into how well her centre's language laboratory was serving its students. The results convinced her that a major overhaul was required.

The idea grew: Why not create a spanking new facility capable of dealing with the needs of all of McGill's languages departments?

Some of Poulin-Mignault's counterparts in other units were initially hesitant. "Departments were slow to come aboard our plan. They weren't against it; it's just that there's a major factor of time. It's a time-consuming change."

The digitizing process that has allowed most of McGill's old language cassette recordings to live on required months of work. More importantly, the switch to digitized equipment and new software systems meant that a lot of people -- teachers and students -- would have to become accustomed to a radically different way of doing things.

"It's a fact that we have to take time to train people before we start programming computers. We must make people comfortable first to be successful," Poulin-Mignault says.

That's where Yannick Roy comes in. He is the facility's educational technologist.

"My job is getting teachers to get creative," says Roy.

This means, for example, that instead of a routine dictée piping in through students' headsets, Roy will help instructors create personalized exams with "follow-the-bouncing-ball" interactive videos, where students click on or type in instantly saved answers.

The new facility offers students the opportunity for exercises that are less generic and more tailored to fit their particular needs.

"Roy is going to help us create in a multimedia way, not the linear way that we've grown accustomed to," explains Poulin-Mignault. With the CAN 8 software the facility uses, there's no rewinding, ejecting and flipping over cassettes -- just instant cueing from the server with the click of a button.

Which isn't to say that everything always operates perfectly just yet.

A French 101 class was sitting down to its first exam in the lab last Wednesday when, at the half-way mark, someone realized that the keyboards weren't set up to render French accents.

"It's normal to experience bugs," sighs Roy.

"Everyone I know who's enrolled in a language class has been saying how much they love [the new facility]," explains French-minor student Scott Peters, who is on an exchange from the University of New Mexico.

Roy is not surprised that students are championing the lab's potential. And he appreciates their patience for the occasional bumps presented by new technological approaches. "Students are great. They understand when we say, 'The server is down. Could you wait a few minutes?'"

"The computer will never replace the teacher, but it does help him," enthuses Professor Hélène Riel-Salvatore, the current director of the English and French Language Centre.

She believes that the new, more nimble language lab will allow instructors to become more creative in the classroom.

"Render unto the machine that which is the machine's -- exercises, repetitions, preparation -- and we free class hours to spend on more relevant linguistic and cultural activities."

If anything, the lab and its 40 computers are currently too popular. Because of the demand, each student is restricted to using the lab for one hour a day -- 200 students visit the AMLF daily. Extended hours will be offered soon. And next year, the lab will expand into two more rooms.

"The Faculty of Arts has given us a large budget," says Roy. "The dean is really backing us up by opening up funds for us which is so important because a project like this could be a nightmare. It all depends on the will of the people working with it."

"If McGill wants to accomplish its international ambitions, it's clear that the AMLF has a defining role," says Miller.

"It is not part of an endeavour to save money, but to invest money." Indeed, after 25 years, the equipment in previous labs at Peterson Hall and the Bronfman Building had become "antiquated and inadequate," says Miller.

"Finally, we're giving McGill students the state-of-the-art language environment that they deserve."