Evolution of Technology in the Classroom: An Exhibit on the Use of Technology at the Army Language School and the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.
The text for this exhibit, written by Ben De La Selva, originally appeared in the October 2006 DLI Alumni Association Newsletter.

There was nothing high-tech about the early days at the
Army Language School, as the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) was known back in the late 1940s, and students and teachers alike used orange crates for desks. Obtaining blackboards was a major step forward at the time, and teachers had to make do with simple textbooks and the projection of their own voices to teach students language.






During the 1950, teachers produced textbooks with manual typewriters and in some languages the characters had to be manually written down with a pen or brushes. Audio-visual aids were exploited to a great extent. Apart from a wealth of pictorial aids, a wide range of three dimensional objects were utilized, as well as mock-ups of battle sites known as military terrain (or sand) tables.

A push to introduce 78 RPM records in the late 40’s and early 50’s did not last long, as these could only be played in class and were not durable enough to be shuffled from classroom to classroom. In very few classes, students were issued record players and records for homework practice, but only during the initial pronunciation phase of the program. As for 78 RPM record labs, there is no written record available, and only scanty recollection from either students or teachers of that era.

It was not until the 1950s that the reel-to-reel tape recorder was introduced. This large 40-pound monster was used by the teacher in the classroom, where the same dialogues and mechanical drills contained in the textbooks were played over and over while the students repeated, substituted, modified, transformed, and expanded the models provided on the tapes.

In some buildings a contraption between a classroom and a lab (called CLAB) was assembled. This contrivance consisted of a strip built around the classroom walls where a tape recorder and 10 student headsets could be plugged in. This setup was mainly used to administer tests to groups of students without going to a lab.

The reel-to-reel system was later converted into 36-position labs, where now three sections of students could be made to perform more of the same drills in unison, with only one teacher at the console. Obviously, the ratio of teachers needed for each section of 10 students was reduced to a minimum of 1:33. Later on, students could take the bulky tape recorder to their barracks or home, and perform the same drills in a more individualized fashion.







They could memorize the daily dialogue, which had been dissected into segments so as to provide a progressive lengthening of words into phrases, then into sentences, and finally into dialogue lines. As dialogues were normally between two individuals, the student, with the help of the recordings, would memorize both dialogue parts and the following day pair up with another student to recite the lines in front of the teacher in class. As Voice of America recordings were received, they were duplicated and the tapes issued to students.

Authentic reading materials consisted of newspapers and magazines that the language departments obtained several months after their publication. In the 1950s, some of the labs, auditoriums, and the bigger classrooms were used to show 16mm films that contained training materials and sometimes old movies. In the late 1960s, the overhead projector was introduced. The teacher was now able to use a piece of acetate and draw verb and other charts that he or she could project onto a screen.


Later on these teacher-made charts could be duplicated and used by other teachers. Eventually, each teacher was issued a set of transparencies that were developed with each new course. In the early 1970s, some teachers made use of circular carrousels attached to a projector containing 35mm slides that projected onto a screen. The same principle was used with filmstrip kits, which advanced the slides in synchronization with
a cassette tape player.

The cassette player was the big technological leap in the early and mid-1970s. The use of cassettes allowed students for the first time to carry their players from the classroom to the barracks and do some of the listening exercises on an individual basis. The first cassette players were about the size of a cereal box, and weighed several pounds. They were capable of recording, which some instructors took advantage of by assigning speaking tasks as homework, or recorded mock oral proficiency tests for the students. In the 1970s and 1980s, the cassette lab replaced the reel-to-reel lab, with a recorder installed in each student station. At this time, being able to play tapes at their own pace, students could do transcription and gisting (summarizing) exercises in the lab. During these two decades, the videocassette recorder (VCR) was introduced.


Not only were teachers able to play cultural programs that the language departments purchased for the program, but also movies were eventually available. The ability to make their own videos at the Institute studios set off the creative juices of the faculty, who produced and modernized lots of adjunct materials to supplement old and new language courses. 

For a short time in the late 1980s, the Institute experimented with wireless labs. In each building, certain classrooms were equipped with thin wire-antennas attached to the walls near the ceiling. Each classroom was also equipped with a rolling big box containing a cassette player with listening materials. The box sent signals to the wires, which in turn send the same signals to the students’ headsets. Accordingly, students could move around the classroom with their wireless headsets on. Reception problems plagued these devices, with resultant failure.

The stand-alone PC computer, without a hard disk, appeared on the scene in the late 1980s. These were first used in conjunction with laser-disc players. For example, in 1988 DLIFLC obtained
permission to convert the Arabic commercial program “From the Gulf to the Ocean” from film strip/cassette to laser disc technology. In this program, a laser disc player hooked up to a computer was used to deliver the introduction of Arabic lessons in 1990. The Arabic program was thus the first program at DLIFLC to have a stand-alone computer in every classroom. In the early 1990s, there was an attempt to introduce the use of Apple computers at the Institute level. Accordingly, a short training course was mandatory for all instructors. As there was a dearth of software programs in the Apple platform, the IBM PC was the preferred option.

Because Arabic course developers had been working on computer-based exercises for a couple of years, in 1990 the first stand alone computer lab was established in the Middle East School, then only one school. These standalone computer labs were established in all DLIFLC schools and most used commercial software and DLIFLC developed programs.

Unfortunately, many of these programs contained countless fill-in, multiple choice, and mechanical exercises. At the beginning these labs were not networked, providing only materials contained in each computer’s hard drive, on diskettes, or CDs, many of them developed in house. However, throughout the late 1990s, several schools were able to establish networked computer labs. For example, in 1997 two computer labs were networked in Middle East Schools I and II. Other DLIFLC schools subsequently networked their labs, using commercial software and DLIFLC-developed programs, and included Internet access. By this time, the Educational Technology Division was producing language materials on CDs, and the language departments were able to have CD libraries available for students in the lab and to loan for home use, as more and more students were purchasing desktop computers for their own use.

In the meantime, students were still carrying cassette players back and forth to the barracks, but these players were now made the size of a Walkman, and besides recording capabilities,
some of them could adjust the speed of recording without altering the pitch. In 1998, in a trial attempt to supplement the then recently developed Spanish course, every student in one Spanish class was issued a laptop computer. Laptops were principally used for assigning homework, which consisted of a CD that included some of the same workbook exercises in the textbooks.

In 2000-2001, after many DLIFLC buildings had been networked, a program dubbed TEC-1 began in the European and Latin American School (ELA). It consisted of a rolling cart equipped with a computer
and 32-inch monitor, a VCR, and DVD player.
This was the first Institute-level attempt to network
a classroom computer to other computers in the
building and to the Internet.

 Digitizing course materials using PCs made it easy to go to the next step, which was the creation of CDs containing documents (Doc), audio (MP3), and video (AVI) files. This technological advance made it possible to compress files in ways not imagined before. As a result, for example, the Spanish course homework numbering some 30 audiocassettes could all fit on one CD. Accordingly, each school started issuing MP3 players capable of playing CDs with text and audio files. Additionally, some departments purchased MP3 players with an internal storage capacity of 512 megabytes. With the introduction of MP3 players, some schools flatly discontinued using audio-cassette players and tapes in all their programs. But as with the labs, audiocassette and MP3 players were
allowed to coexist.

As early as 2002, with the creation of the Emerging Languages Task Force (ELTF), the use of tablet PCs and Smart Boards, or interactive white boards, was initiated.
Accordingly, students were issued portable tablets for classroom and homework use. As most ELTF courses were being developed as they were taught, the course contents were immediately digitized and loaded onto a server.
Students would then select the appropriate tasks assigned by the teachers and would download them to their PCs. The success of the interactive white boards in ELTF was so great that the Institute
leadership decided to install them DLIFLC-wide. Through such a device all text, audio, and video materials could be delivered.                                                               The inter-activeness of the Smart Board has literally transformed the classroom into an interactive working and learning environment, with the combined power of a projector, computer and whiteboard. Teachers can do everything they do on their computer – and more, by simply using their index finger as a mouse, to touch the whiteboard and highlight key points, access applications and websites, and write notes in electronic ink. Instructors are then able to save their work to files that can be reused later, printed, e-mailed or posted to a website. At the end of 2004, there was a Smart Board in every DLIFLC classroom.

In 2004, the Institute saw an opportunity to introduce in arge scale the use of laptops.
The ELTF programs had already switched the previous year from tablet PCs to laptops. In 2005, the other DLIFLC schools followed suit and started issuing laptops to every student. One of the assignments was to have students record speaking tasks that were sent to the teacher by e-mail. The teacher in turn would listen/review the file and gave feedback to the student in class. In 2005-06, iPods began making their way into DLIFLC classrooms. With a bigger display and much bigger storage capacity than MP3 players, students were better able to navigate through the myriad of exercises stored on the devices. The latest iPods could store 20 and more gigabytes of audio files, making it possible for students to carry a whole language course in a gadget the size of a pack of cigarettes. As advertised, these tiny giants could carry an entire library of music – up to 20,000 songs.

Presently, some of the schools (e.g., the Middle East Schools) have set up websites on DLIFLC’s intranet and have made available hundreds of hours of video programs and movies from the multi-language channel SCOLA, Aljazeera, and other sources. These files can in turn be converted to iPod-ready files for students to download into their pocket-size prodigies. As new generations of iPods are being purchased, the imagination of the teachers is finding other ways to utilize them to enhance language teaching and learning.


True to the advertising slogan: “Movies, TV shows and music are now playing on an iPod near you.”

Since the 1950s, advances in technology have been systematically applied to language teaching and learning at DLIFLC. Appropriately, DLIFLC has gradually moved from chalkboards and overhead
projectors to Smart boards, from reel-to-reel labs to multi-media labs, and from analog tape recorders to digital iPods. Without doubt, one can say with confidence that the application of technology at DLIFLC has indeed come a long way.

DLIFLC 1759 Lewis Rd. Bldg 614, Ste. 251 - Presidio of Monterey - Monterey, CA 93944 (831) 242-5119, (DSN-768)