CHWP A.7 Heimpel, "The Multimedia Network-based Language Learning Centre: An Historical Approach"

1. Introduction

In January, 1997, the Multimedia Centre for Learning in the Humanities at the University of Toronto welcomed its first groups of instructors and students. A joint project of the Faculty of Arts and Science and the language departments, the Centre is the first network-based language learning centre established at our university, and, indeed, one of the first of its kind in North America set up expressly for language teaching and learning.

The Centre is a hybrid facility, consisting of both IBM (Pentium 166) and Macintosh-type (Power PC) computers. In all, there are twenty-four computers, twelve of each type, as well as an instructor's workstation. [1] The instructor's workstation, which is located at the front of the room, is connected to a VGA projector, so that the instructors can, at their discretion, lead the lesson from a central point. Each of the computers is connected to the on-site Indigo server, which is reserved exclusively for the online material of the language departments.

However, the multimedia network-based centre is really only the most recent phase in the ongoing use of technology for language teaching and learning. To appreciate the significance of this important development, it is necessary to understand it from an historical perspective. To this end, the first sections of this article present an overview of the dominant trends and tendencies in the use of technology in second language instruction in North American post-secondary institutions.

Language departments have been using language labs (LL) since the late fifties. In fact, even before the invention of tape recorders, some pioneering language instructors used phonographs to teach articulation and intonation. A reaction against unsuccessful writing-based models of language instruction, the use of audio-technology and pattern drills emerged as the fruit of what experts in the field baptised the Audio-lingual Revolution.

Then, in the eighties, due to the availability of personal micro-computers and their increasing affordability, some language departments established separate computer labs, whereas others added computerized workstations to existing LL. In addition to the development of smaller, more powerful, less expensive machines on the hardware side, more intuitive user interfaces converted many technophobes into humanities computer-users. In step with these important changes, the eighties became the golden age of Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL). The sum of this series of events is known as the Micro-computer Revolution.

Since the late eighties, with the rise of network technology and the Internet, another revolution has emerged as a formidable social force: the Information Revolution (de Rosnay 1996). With the birth of the World Wide Web in 1992 and the explosion of new private Internet Service Providers, the Web has quickly become a household term. Likewise, with the increasing emphasis on "authentic documents" in language teaching, language instructors recognized the power and importance of the Web from the outset. Furthermore, the term documents covers not only text, but also sound, image and video documents -- in short, multimedia documents. Meanwhile, micro-computers have evolved into powerful (yet affordable) multimedia workhorses.

On the negative side, revolutions almost inevitably have their victims, and technological revolutions are no different in this respect. The Micro-computer Revolution and the Audio-lingual Revolution, for example, are quite strictly incompatible in that the Micro-computer Revolution of the late seventies and eighties emphasized writing over pronunciation, due to the fact that sound cards were not standard issue for most PCs. [2] Whereas the essentially method-driven Audio-lingual Revolution was able to adapt to different audio technologies, the Micro-computer Revolution clearly made method the slave to technology. In many instances, CALL replaced the methods and philosophies of the LL. In short, even though similar drills were used, they became more visual and writing-based since monitors and keyboards replaced sounds and microphones as output and input devices. The Multimedia Network-Based Language Learning Centre (MNLLC), [3] I argue, is neither the slave to technology nor method. Instead, due to the sophistication and flexibility of the new technologies, the MNLLC accommodates previous applications of technology in language and CALL labs, but, at the same time, proposes an entirely new approach to "authentic documents" and resource management.

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[1] The URL for the Multimedia Centre for Learning in the Humanities is: <>. Since the time this article was written, 6 new workstations have been added, and all of the computers have been upgraded to Pentium 200 MMX systems. Hardware information is located at: <>.

[2] Macintosh systems were, of course, already equipped with sound cards, but as I will point out in Part 3, most Canadian CALL projects use(d) IBM compatibles.

[3] The University of Toronto's Multimedia Centre for Learning in the Humanities is a specific example of the phenomenon to which I refer in this paper as the Multimedia Network-Based Language Learning Centre (MNLLC). See note 1.