Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A Brief History of EFL Audio Equipment!

I began teaching English as a Foreign Language in the mid 90s and at that time listening activities were all about cassettes. (I'm not sure what preceded cassettes? 78s?) The first problem with cassettes, or tapes, was the machines that played them.

They looked something like this and came with two volume levels; a) so quiet nobody could hear it or b) so tinny and distorted that the whole machine vibrated and the audio sounded like somebody talking through a comb and paper.
They were also extremely temperamental. The player might randomly decide to jam closed, leaving the cassette marooned behind the smoked perspex, useless. This would ultimately lead to the cover being snapped off, giving the player a kind of stripped back, urban look. 

There was also a one in ten chance that the machine would chew and/or eat the tape and result in the dreaded ... tape mangle.

There was a nifty solution to this dilemma of course ... a good old fashioned pencil. 25 million twists later and voila! the tape is fixed. Crinkly, but fixed.

Next came the problem of queueing the tape up. Endless fun spent fast forwarding and rewinding the tape in a desperate bid to track down the starting point of the listening you needed. Trying to get into the mind of whoever it was who did the tape-to-tape in an effort to understand how Unit 5 appeared to come before Unit 4, while Unit 6 (the one you needed) didn't seem to be there at all. Unless it was on the other side. And all of this as the clock was inexorably ticking towards lesson time. Aaah, what sweet panic!

If you were lucky, your tape player may have had a counter on it so (if you could work out how to use it) you could queue it up more effectively. You may also have been able to access the master tape (rather than a copy of a copy of a copy) and so there was a chance that the quality might have been passable. And perhaps your boss even invested in a machine capable of filling the whole room with sound ...

Boom Box!

However, if your school was anything like mine then the chances of all of these factors coinciding was on a par with spotting Haley's Comet. 

Next, and from outer space, came CDs. Bright and shiny they promised a new beginning, devoid of background hiss. But, in the language classroom at least, they usually failed to live up to the hype.

The first problem was that there was often nothing to play CDs on. Tapes had existed for decades and no school could afford a whole new fleet of CD players.  So the older alternative was often favoured simply because it was what we were used to. CDs gathered dust. In addition, some of the books we exercises and units we treasure(d) were in books long out of print and with no prospect of ever being digitised. The answer lay in the CD / cassette / radio hybrid becoming the norm. 

Another drawback of CDs was that, if anything, they were even harder to queue up than tapes. If you wanted a separate track then that's fine, but if you needed to find a certain point in a track or to go back just a few seconds to listen again, fine motor skills were required. Pressing the button down long enough for it to register but briefly enough to prevent it from leaping too far forward or back was a frustrating art. 

I'm using the past tense here because we've moved on from the hi-fi era here at Anglolang. We spent a long time converting old cherished tapes to CDs and then ripping these CDs to mp3 files. These are now all stored on a central server that can be accessed from any of our classrooms. So no more mangled tapes. And no more cracked CDs. Marvellous!
It would be great to hear about your classroom experiences with audio equipment, or to find out how far down the technology road your school has travelled? Anyone?!


  1. It was fun to read the blog but even more fun to see the pictures which reminded me of times long past and times quite recent: When I graduated from Teacher Training College in the 1960s the topic of my thesis was "Learning English with the Language Laboratory". I remember visiting a school in Berlin where they used "very modern" appliances that looked similar to the one in the first picture. One or two buttons were manipulated so that the pupils/ students could record, play back and improve their language input. That was in the 1960s and it was not so long ago – believe it or not – that my college of adult education did away with cassettes. CDs – mostly coming with coursebooks- are now on our technology road. When I want to use MP3 files in my classes I bring my own private CD player, to be on the safe side, because even if I'm lucky to be in a classroom with a CD player there is never a guarantee that it has an MP3 port.
    Since I returned from Angflolang's training course for teachers in adult education (6-18 April 2014) I have been enthusiastic about ICT and there already seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel: I've persuaded my principal that 21st century equipment, i.e. at least one interactive whiteboard will be first priority to our financial budget for next term.
    Marianne Pelz
    Marl, Germany

    1. Hi Marianne and thank you for contributing :)
      The only ever language labs I saw were at state school in the 1980s and they were pretty much defunct by the time I got there!
      Anglolang still has a few cassettes lurking in dark recesses but we have binned 99% of them and our CDs are now gathering dust in a cupboard :)
      That's great that you have twisted your principle's arm and I'm sure (s)he won't regret it - enjoy the IWB! Dan