A High-tech Touch: Mini-Disc Players in the Language Classroom

Tom Kenny and Mark Wright Nanzan University



  • Key Words: Technology-assisted language teaching, Student Projects
  • Learner English Level:All
  • Learner Maturity Level:All
  • Preparation Time:Varies
  • Activity Time:Varies

"Okay, now let's listen again . . . ." And the class waits, and waits and waits. "No, wait--not this one . . ." What is the teacher doing? Rewinding the cassette, of course!

With the dawn of the cassette player back in the 1970s, language teaching entered a new phase. Portable and easy to use, it provided the teacher with a new way to bring outside material into the classroom. The cassette player, however, presented a number of problems for the teacher. Most tapes cover a number of chapters; if tapes are used for more than one class, they are never in the right place for the next session. Newer cassette players have better search facilities, but rewinding is still a hit-or-miss proposition. Teachers can never be sure they have the right segment until they hit the play button. Then if the track isn't really the one students wanted to hear, they wonder what is going on as the teacher bumbles about with the cassette.

Then there is the rewind time. Sure, for a short piece, it isn't all that long, but on longer listening segments, those seconds seem like an eternity. And what about when students want to listen again to just a brief part of a long segment? The impreciseness of the cassette player wastes a lot of class time.

Teachers need every tool they can get to use class time efficiently, improve their lesson presentation, and keep students' attention. We've found a perfect tool for listening in today's language classroom: the Mini-Disc player. Watching the television commercials would lead us to believe that we are going to rush out and buy one because we want to be hip. But the truth is that this little technological development is a boon to language teachers, and can make managing outside listening materials in class a real pleasure.

MD Players and discs

The recordable Mini-Disc player is a portable, fully digital, audio recorder and playback unit. All units can edit audio digitally and come with two source inputs, line in and microphone. The Mini-Disc itself is a shrunken version of the music CDs that have taken over the music market. MDs are about the same size as the music single CDs you see in stores but they are self-contained in their own hard-plastic cover -- just like the 3.5 inch disks you use for your computer. You don't have to worry about scratching them or putting your fingerprints on them.

The greatest difference between the MD and the CD is that you can record on an MD. Recordable CD and CD-ROM machines are dropping in price--the rock-bottom machines are priced now at about 100,000 yen, while the new recordable MD players start at 35,000 yen. The Mini-Discs can hold up to 74 minutes of data; twice as much if they are recorded in mono rather than stereo.

Why Go High Tech in the Classroom?

What can you do with an MD player that you can't do with a cassette? First of all, anything you can play from a cassette can be recorded onto and played back on an MD with no loss of audio quality. Second, because MDs are digital, you have the power of random retrieval: you can pinpoint listening sections in a text for replay quickly. For example, when students want to listen to something again, with cassette recorders, you have to guess where things are on the tape. But with a recordable MD player, you are able to place track markers anywhere you like on the recording, and you can go back to exact points almost instantly.

What about the new listening materials that are coming out on CD? Most of these are well-produced and of excellent audio quality. Although these CDs are certainly more convenient than cassettes, they don't allow you to place markers where you like, change the order of sections, or eliminate audio sections that you don't want to use.

MD players are not only excellent for presenting pre-recorded audio from commercial sources; production of your own listening materials is another area where the MD excels. Since the players come with both line in and microphone inputs, you can mix and match inputs with teachers instructions, music lead-ins, or with previously recorded materials. After the original recording is made, it is easy to edit and encode numbers. You simply mark a certain track to be moved, switch to the new location, press another button and voila!, listening exercise number 1 has now become listening exercise number 4. For those of us who have spent hours cutting and splicing open-reel tapes for editing, or recording and re-recording ad nauseam on cassette tapes because someone sneezed during the final 30 seconds, this type of editing capability is a blessing.

Many teachers have found that recording student conversations and using them later in class is a very valuable teaching technique for developing learner-generated materials. It was possible with the cassette, but with the Mini-Disc, it's even easier. Conversations can be recorded, transcribed, and edited to produce a listening segment with the specific points you want to focus on. If necessary, cassettes of these specific language models can be recorded for students to take home and listen to.

To sum up, the MD player gives the classroom teacher versatility with audio materials that is not provided by either cassette or CD. We use it almost every day for playing bits of student conversation, commercially recorded materials, and songs for cloze listening. Although the sound quality is not quite as good as that of a CD, when you consider the MD's recording capability, the small decrease in quality is a small price to pay for the freedom to record and edit at will. As prices continue to fall, Mini-Disc players become an even more attractive tool for language teachers who want to use their classroom time more effectively.