Creating a Computer Lab/Learning Center
This website has been created for use by English language teachers and institutions internationally. It is based on what is current as of March, 2009. Given the volatility of software, availability of all packages should be checked before purchase.
Certain factors affect what is selected for a computer lab/learning center. These include:
- Types of users: Students in a specific course or program? Individuals coming in for self-directed study? Adults? Children?
- Goals of the users: General language improvement? English for specific purposes?
- Space available: 2-5 stations, 6-15 stations, more than 15 stations
- Internet accessibility: Limited or none; slow (okay for email); reasonable (email and web surfing); fast (online multi-player gaming)
- Money available: Very limited – only enough for 1-2 computers with software and teacher training; moderate – enough for 5-10 computers with varied software on each computer and teacher training; good – enough for 11-20 computers with the same software on all computers, extra tech gadgets, and teacher training
- Training and technical support: Are the teachers and lab facilitators tech-savvy, or will they need help learning how to run the software? Do the teachers and lab facilitators have a good grasp of basic principles underlying the effective use of CALL? What kind of technical support is available? (If you can’t get certain types of computers fixed easily, then don’t buy them.)
The basic recommendations here are for a self-study lab that can also be used for specific classes, designed primarily for teens and adults (software for children is noted where it applies), with 10 stations (or laptops in a mobile lab), reasonable Internet access, and a moderate amount of money to spend. Additional suggestions are made for those with more funding. The recommendations also assume that there is someone available to serve as a CALL trainer and that technical support is available. Decisions about software and hardware should be made in conjunction with the people who are expected to use them and those who are expected to maintain them.
A good first step when setting up a new facility in a school is to provide teachers with a resource room where they can be trained in using CALL effectively, try the different programs, and help decide which to use. Their buy-in will be a key factor in the ultimate success of a school-based lab. The training for teachers and lab facilitators should cover basic principles of self-access (autonomous) learning, making effective self-study recommendations, integrating technology into the classroom, and how to use the equipment and software planned for the lab. Some teachers and the lab facilitators should learn about the authoring programs for the lab as well.
Lab facilitators, whether in a school or a separate self-access facility, will also need to learn basic troubleshooting, advising techniques to encourage learner autonomy, and how to use lab management tools (record-keeping, tracking material, etc.).
At the heart of a successful computer lab/learning center is good communication with learners about what resources are available and the path to take through material in order for learners to achieve their goals. Most language learners are not language experts, and so they will need help in identifying good practices in self-directed learning, if they are working on their own. A simple list of material available is not enough. It may be best for novices to work with “comprehensive” packages that offer record-keeping, enabling them to have a clear path through material and to pick up where they left off on their return to the center. Learners who are further along may do well with more focused material that allows them to improve in specific areas of interest – reading, writing, vocabulary, test preparation, English for specific purposes, etc. Such learners still need a way to keep track of what they have worked on and their progress through the material they are using. Learner can keep track of their actions themselves with a paper log, or whole-lab tracking can be done relatively inexpensively with a spreadsheet, a database, or a course management system such as Moodle. Many learners prefer to work with others, so the center should be designed to allow for both independent and group work. An English Club can facilitate group work; specific meetings could focus on particular skill areas, for example, or work with specific material or activities, such as readings or multi-player language games.
Virus protection software is imperative in any facility with computers. Ideally, users will be given virus protection software, such as the free for home use Antivir, to install on their computers at home and work. The software needs to be updated at least daily for any computer that is on the Internet. In a busy lab, hourly may be better if users are allowed to use their own flash drives. In addition to virus protection software, a lab that is connected to the Internet must keep machines current with operating system updates. This is particularly important in Windows labs. An unprotected computer is likely to be infected with a virus within the first hour of being on the Internet. The computers can be set up for automatic operating system updates at the end of each day. For more information about anti-virus products, including some reviews and comparisons, see the Anti-Virus Guide at http://www.firewallguide.com/anti-virus.htm and Living Internet’s Virus Protection at http://www.livinginternet.com/i/is_vir_prot.htm.
Another highly recommended utility is one that protects computers again unwanted information gathering by advertisers, also known as "spyware." Look at PC Firewall Guide’s http://www.firewallguide.com/spyware.htm for free and commercial programs that serve this function. In addition, many virus protection programs also scan for spyware.
The software listed on this websiteis not the only software that could be used, but these are packages that are currently available. Freeware and shareware are listed with their download sites. Wherever possible, programs that can be used on both Macintosh and Windows computers have been listed. Lower-cost Macintosh computers are increasingly available. In addition, Macintosh users can run software that allows Macintosh computers to run Windows software, such as VMWare Fusion or Parallels. These factors have made Macintosh a viable option for labs.