March 27, 2018

Mumble: An Alternative to the Language Lab

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

When O’Sullivan College started offering an AEC in Insurance, the teachers needed a tool that would allow students to simulate a customer call to an insurance agent. The objective of the Business English class is to give the students the necessary skills to be able to communicate in English and complete an insurance claim form or answer policy questions when speaking with customers who prefer to speak in English on the telephone.

Depending on how they [students] do and on how their English abilities are, they could increase their salary and so you want to try to get them to learn the business writing and also oral business communication skills and Mumble is a great facilitator.

According to the company website Mumble is an “open source […] high quality voice chat software primarily intended for use while gaming” however its features, such as conversation recording, make it an interesting alternative to the formal language lab. “Mumble and its server software are available for free, for anyone to use” says the website, but the company does offer to set up a Mumble server for a fee.

How Mumble is used

Mumble is on every computer in every lab so the students can log on to practice in class or practice on their own. The students can make recordings and place them in the teacher’s account. The teacher could then listen to a completed call.

I have also set up a formative auto-evaluation activity where the student makes a recording of a call with a partner. The student then goes back and using a marking guide, listens for their own errors. Even though no one likes listening to their own voice on a recording, the students eventually realise that this is a good tool to teach themselves to catch their errors.

The summative exam is a recorded telephone conversation role-play similar to the formative activity the students practiced but where the teacher plays the role of the client.  Mumble makes an MP3 type of recording that teachers can download. I send my students’ exam recordings to my computer at home to mark them.

Mumble is used to simulate telephone conversations.

I use the software mostly to simulate telephone conversations; however, some of my colleagues use Mumble for pronunciation exercises, dictations or recordings that the students will listen to.

There will always be glitches

Students are computer savvy; however, some students really have a hard time logging on and making sure everything is functioning properly so the first time the teacher uses the software in class there may be some glitches. This is when some class management issues might arise. While the teacher is troubleshooting a sound problem on one student’s computer, other students who know how to work a computer may be having fun exploring software features not related to the activity they are doing.  To solve this problem, I project the teacher’s computer screen onto the whiteboard and so no matter where I am in the classroom, I can see on my desktop what the students are doing.

When there are glitches, the more positive you are, the more positive the students will be.

Life is easier

Mumble frees up more class time. Now I can be at my terminal and “pop into” each conversation. I can provide feedback either immediately through my microphone or afterwards by taking notes to give the students. For example, when the students do the formative activity, instead of having the teacher sit and listen to each student during class time, the students can assess their own recording using the marking guide provided. I also require that the students submit a formative recording that I listen to after class and offer further feedback.

Before Mumble, there was a telephone at the front of the class and one at the back of the class.

The telephone role-plays are much more realistic. Before Mumble, there was a telephone at the front of the class and one at the back of the class and there was a tape recorder. In that situation only 2 students could be on the phone at the same time.  Now it is much more efficient and it makes the students take more responsibility as the teacher can assign a series of objectives that they have to meet. It’s less of the teacher handing out simulations and supervising. Students know what simulations to do, they practiced in class the general dialogue, the type of things that can happen, certain phrases that are best used and now it is time for them to put all of that to use. This not only prepares them for the exam, it prepares them for the workforce where they will be wearing a headset and completing a form on the computer or taking notes while speaking to a customer.

Advantages for the students

The software provides the opportunity for more practice and more repetition allowing the students to gain more confidence. The first time they use Mumble, they are afraid of missing something, there are a lot of details in a complaint or in a claim that they have to get right. It is when they go to their internship and they have to deal with a real complaint in their second language that they realise that all of the practice they did in class is paying off.

About the authors

Susan MacNeil

She has had a busy career in education. With a M.Ed she taught all levels from kindergarten to university. However, most of her career was spent at the college level teaching ESL. She gave Performa courses, lead workshops at SPEAQ, RASCALS and l’AQPC. She served at the Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur where she contributed to the evaluation of the general education components. She received grants from L’Entente Canada-Québec for various
research projects. Susan is also the recipient of the AQPC Mention d’honneur Award. Having retired from teaching she became a contributor to Real Life Stories of education technology integration at Eductive. Chinese ink painting helps her relax and travel keeps her energized.

Kirsten Harris

She has been teaching for 14 years, 13 of which at O’Sullivan College in Quebec City. She is originally from Ohio but lived in New York. Her background is in communication and marketing. She was studying to obtain a Masters in Education at NYU when she fell in love, moved to Quebec and started teaching English as a second language. She now teaches ESL courses as well as core content courses in English. Before moving to Quebec she worked for GLSEN, an organisation that helps to ensure LGBTQ students are “valued and treated with respect,” where she was a communications coordinator.

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