Scratching more than (the) surface

Hello everyone, so I am finally sitting down and writing my first post for LLU. Barbara and Erin, thanks again for having me here on your wonderful blog.

Always tricky to write the first post. I’m planning to write about new technology, software, and certainly new gadgets. All of those will relate in some way to language learning, language teaching, as well language center and lab design and development.

So today I thought I’d muse on the new innovative touch screen device presented a little while ago. No, not the iPhone, which is drawing all the attention these days. No, I’m talking about Microsoft. You heard correctly, Microsoft presented something cool, even though it won’t come out until later this year, and then not even for consumers. Called Microsoft Surface, this 30-inch flat and touch screen “coffee table” lets you collaboratively work with your fingers. It’s hard to describe, just watch the short clips on their web site.

I am not even so impressed by this device. Yes, it’s flashy and a cool new (and probably very expensive) gadget, but it won’t replace my Mac Laptop anytime soon. Many of the features shown are still concepts and will have to face reality once MS Surface is on the market. Not to mention that it’s running on Vista…

But my mind has been racing when I was connecting this device with our foreign language resource center (we’re building a new one as we speak). This “coffee table” is exactly why we should not build standard, so-called turn-key labs (I get mad when the first question about our upcoming center that people ask at conferences is “How many stations?” or “Sanako Lab 250 or 300?”). Not only is the whole methodology behind these simple yet expensive solutions completely outdated, Microsoft’s upcoming gadget also shows that new language labs and centers need to stay flexible. Who knows, maybe future hardware will look like a coffee table. Well, that will turn a traditional lab upside-down. The chronicle wrote in a great article on campus design that we don’t have to build around the technology anymore.

So buildings designed for the new generation of learners should be designed with flexible spaces, movable furniture that allows students to spread out, and a lot of natural light.

I’ll try to get one of these as early as possible and see. Maybe it’ll change collaborative work in language centers and classrooms, maybe it’ll turn out to be a fad or simply not practical. Time will tell, but this example shows us how to stay on our toes and not take anything for granted in language lab or center and classroom design.

So, I actually managed to create some controversy in my first post, dissing turn-key labs, behaviorist models, and the audio-lingual method , not to mention saying something positive about Microsoft (don’t worry, I’m an Apple fan, but it’s too easy sides against Microsoft). I believe that blogs need controversy.

So, besides some feedback on these issues, I’m looking forward to hearing about how we could use the iPhone in language education. I haven’t found a use yet, but finding one might justify buying one of those expensive, shiny little things…

Cheers, Felix

Felix Kronenberg is working at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. His research interests include academic space design, video games and language learning, digital storytelling, and the culture of advertising. He teaches German and language pedagogy, and maintains the Language Technology Boot Camp blog and web site.

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  1. Barbara · June 16, 2007 Reply

    Welcome Felix… we are glad to have you here!

    I am sorry it has taken me so long to post a comment. Life’s a little crazy for the next 10 days or so 🙂

    You have touched upon something that I think bears repeating over and over: it’s not the the number of machines…it is the space and what we invite and encourage people to do in that space that is the most crucial. Part of the reason, I think, social software has not taken off (as much as it could) in Higher Ed is that we are still thinking in cubicles… we keep our learning experiences in separate, discrete, little cubicles. We also keep our teaching in those same little boxes. As Ewan McIntosh once said (and I am paraphrasing…I apologize Ewan) “classroom teaching is one of the few professions where you can close the door and do what you want.”

    I, unlike you, do not think it is going to be snazy coffee table interfaces that is going to break this cycle, it is people like us showing how learning can be accomplished by letting go, by getting rid of the cubicles, and by collaborating.

    It’s a huge psychological/ pedagogical/ almost spiritual shift that needs to happen… and (I agree..) it is more than how many stations are in your lab.

  2. Doug Canfield · June 17, 2007 Reply

    I was just telling either Barbara or Heather M. just a week or two ago how I thought these new technologies were FINALLY going to kick the turnkey model to the curb. I don’t think this is that controversial, but then perhaps I am on the “wrong” side of the perennial “old-guard / new-guard” struggle to understand how we can still think that the audio-lingual method shouldn’t go the way of the grammar-translation method.

    I hadn’t yet seen MS Surface, but LM3Labs and some SF-based company that I can’t recall now have had some really cool transparent interface designs on YouTube for some time now. In a decade or so, when it becomes affordable enough to con deans and department heads into pilot projects, I think this kind of technology will blow the hinges off of the walls of Barbara’s cubicles, but I think that before that happens, we will already have done much to turn our centers into collaborative social spaces that will prepare faculty and students to accommodate these types of technologies. Maybe then we quit calling the language lab a “lab”……

  3. Barbara · June 18, 2007 Reply

    Thanks Doug.

    It is really funny to me how we can as teachers encourage collaboration in the classroom but as professionals we seem to have a hard time building it into our centers. Is it because we really don’t control our centers, whereas we think we control our classrooms? or, the corrolary is that we are afraid to “let go” in our centers the way we can do in our classrooms?

    It’s not the technologies that are gonna do this for us, it’s the mindset of the people who use the technologies and/or the people who control the centers where we do our work.

    In anticipation of of my IALLT schtick I found a great quote from Henry Jenkins about how parents have more info available to them about the need to limit media for their children, but relatively little info on how they can help their kids build a meaningful relationships with the media…

    THAT’S the work we should be doing, for our centers and our users, imho.

    More coffee…

  4. Doug Canfield · June 18, 2007 Reply

    I think it is mainly because, while we really control our centers, we sometimes don’t have full control on the pursestrings. Our classrooms become the “showcase” that we try to get the head/dean into so that they will fund more than the maintenance/upgrade cycle to which they are often accustomed.

    Seriously, if money weren’t an issue, would your centers not look and feel radically different than they do now? Or am I being overly assumptive in thinking that all center directors, when left to gaze at their centers versus their Ideal, experience angst?

    But like you said Barbara, mindsets must change before the money will flow…

  5. Ryan · June 19, 2007 Reply


    As much as I love me some technology, I’m similarly underwhelmed by the Surface. I think it’ll have some great applications in the business world, particularly in sectors that already make use of touchscreens (restaurants, bars, casinos – some of the Surface’s early adopters, in fact). But I’m reluctant to hop on the table-sized touchscreen bandwagon for the general public. The practical side of me thinks, “EW! Do you know how often we’d have to -clean- those things? And what happens if when someone spills their lunch on it?” The tech geek side of me glares at our Tablet PCs and wonders, “Will the Surface be able to accomplish everyday tasks without straining under its own weight?” The couch potato in me whines, “Give me something more comfortable to sit at, so I’m not craning my neck at an uncomfortable angle just to see what’s going on.” I am reserving final judgement, though, until I see where Microsoft goes with this. If they respond well to the needs of average consumers, instead of building for large businesses and expecting everyone else to follow along, the Surface could have some potential.


    Agreed: it’s not the size of your lab, it’s how you use it. But while we shouldn’t necessarily expect snazzy new toys to break the cycle, I think Shiny and New often go a long way towards easing transitions and getting people to think outside of their bubbles (boxes / bunkers / whatever) which is, I agree, what ultimately needs to happen. Technology can be a carrot on a stick … or a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. That’s a dangerous path to start down, of course, and we have to be careful not to drift into using technology for its own sake. But a little fun never hurt anybody, did it? 😉


    First, a caveat: I’m not a center Director, have only a couple of years of experience under my belt, and am lucky enough to work in a center that was thoughtfully and carefully designed, and that has as a result adapted well to changes in technology and in education. However (or maybe as a result?), I don’t feel angst and wish for more money when I look at our center. I wish for more cooperation, for more risk-taking from a technological point of view, and for -less- money spent. Specifically, I wish for a open-source lab that runs proprietary software only when no viable open-source alternative is available. I’d say more about this but it has the potential to be a rant … a separate-blog-entry-sized rant … and I’ll publish it as such in the next day or so. 🙂

  6. Doug Canfield · June 19, 2007 Reply


    If Oberlin is an instituion where every move you make is not associated with a cost center, more power to you. I agree with what you’re saying…doing it better necessarily means being more cost-effective, especially in the long run. The more flexible your design, the more able it is to adapt to growth/change, the more collaboration, the more intellectual capital and increased pull with administrators, etc. But where I come from, collaboration and risk-taking, even on open-source, costs major money and/or requires bureaucracy, and I suspect that to be the case at most public institutions, who are for the most part struggling to accommodate Web 1.0 when we’re all salivating at what could be done in our centers with physical space that complements Web 2.0 and 3.0 technologies.

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