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Language lab lives

Sony Virtuoso and Soloist Digital language laboratory technology, Price: Pounds 278+VAT (licence for 25 pupil, 2 teacher unit); outright purchase Pounds 1,200+VAT.

Installation and support: pound;5,000+VAT (includes project planning, technical installation, three years' free internet helpdesk and annual site visit for upgrades

Tel: 020 8530 2121

Lesley Marwood says reports of the language laboratory's demise have been exaggerated. In fact, it has just evolved

The traditional language laboratory may seem like a thing of the past. How can a room equipped with tape decks and headphones compete with the multimedia experiences our pupils have come to expect? The answer may well lie with Sony's Virtuoso product.

The software is actually in two parts - the Soloist software sits on pupils' computers and allows them to easily access sound and video files.

Playing files through Soloist allows pupils to set bookmarks and therefore "catch" words or phrases that they struggle to hear. Soloist also gives them the opportunity to record their own voices and then play back what they have recorded. Clearly these functions can also be carried out on other sound recorders but it is when the Soloist software is combined with the teachers' Virtuoso software that opportunities for use within the language classroom become truly apparent.

Virtuoso allows teachers to control what activity each pupil in the room is doing. Like the traditional language laboratory, teachers can decide which sound files pupils should open, or open a file for pupils, as well as monitoring what pupils are saying or doing. However, unlike the traditional lab, teachers can put together a set of multimedia experiences which brings together all four language skills. As the software resides on a normal PC or laptop, teachers can incorporate resources from the internet, Word and more. Listening, speaking, reading and eventually writing can therefore all be brought together in a slick way and pupils can multitask in much the same way as they do at home. However, the ability to tap into individuals'

computers from the teacher console means that those who have chosen to look at other sites which the teacher did not suggest can be easily brought back on-task, and all pupil recordings can be saved and then listened to at a later date.

Differentiation is inherent in the Soloist and Virtuoso software. Pupils and teachers can choose how much extra support is needed privately, by speeding up or slowing down and repeating, and the "call" feature allows pupils to ask for help from their teacher without the knowledge of other pupils. The ability to integrate exercises from the internet or school network also gives the opportunity to provide more support.

For teachers there is, of course, some degree of preparation required. Many internet resources are readily available and even basic activities can enhance pupils' learning. To make more everyday use of the product, initially sound files from old cassettes may need to be digitised, although the availability of CDs which accompany newer textbooks may speed the process up.

For pupils this product is a resounding success. At St Helen's School in Northwood, girls acknowledge that in the past they could get away without speaking, whereas now they know the teacher is going to listen to them.

They also note that the product has made them more ICT-aware and is equipping them for the future. At Merchant Taylor's School there has been an increase in the number of pupils studying German since the product was launched, attributed to the fact that Germany is a more hi-tech society and boys are more "switched-on" by the new resources.

For schools that can make use of an ICT suite for languages, the cost of the product is for the actual software, but other departments may need to purchase laptops on which to use the product. Possibilities using Virtuoso are endless and colleagues from other curriculum areas could also benefit from the easy integration of resources.

This is undoubtedly an expensive product but the increased professionalism and variety which it affords could make it worthwhile. The language lab of the future may well have arrived.

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