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Alien presences on the Internet

It is the year 2032 and earthlings have discovered life on the previously unknown planet of of Zypholuxia. What are they like? What do they eat? And how will they respond to humans? These are the questions that students learning French at Stoke on Trent's Moorside High School are waiting to put to pupils at their partner school, Le College Louis Jouvet in Limoges, via the Internet.

While the Internet is still alien in most classrooms, Kate Townshend, head of languages at Moorside, says her students have been communicating electronically with pupils across the Channel for years. The two schools are writing a bilingual story on the Internet. Each writes a chapter and sends it to the other to continue in their native language.

This is not always as straight-forward as it sounds. The Internet can be a temperamental character, as most would-be users discover - Moorside included. On this visit it took a couple of hours to connect up for a session.

But it takes more than that to deter Townshend, who is on a personal crusade to dispel any ideas among pupils that a package holiday to Alicante is really a trip to the cultural heart of Spain: "Parents believe they are taking their children abroad but the truth is they end up staying in English resorts created by English people. The Internet allows pupils to really get in touch."

Since 1995 and the launch of the Schools on Line project, created by the Department for Trade and Industry and the Federation of the Electronics Industry, the opportunities in Internet education have mushroomed. Specialist programme writers have been asked to come up with lessons that pupils can access and research for projects has become far simpler. Pupils writing about holidays in France need only to key in a few words to uncover information about the country's hotels.

Next year Moorside's sixth form will do a project on the aniseed and wormwood liqueur Absinthe, popular with turn-of-the century French artists but now banned in many countries, France included. "They will be able to use the databases on the Internet to ask real people in France to help them with this," says Townshend.

Despite her unbridled enthusiasm, Townshend recognises the Internet presents more than just technical problems. She admits both teachers and students can get carried away and believes it should only be used as part of a project or theme being looked at in class. "You do have to keep the kids on task, otherwise they will end up trying to look at the football results."

On a practical level an entire class cannot sit around one computer, so Townshend splits them into groups of four to work with print-outs. Once they have finished writing their stories in a group, one member types it in. She believes this inspires teamwork.

Teachers also have to decide whether to correct their students' work or allow it to be sent around the world, perhaps riddled with embarrassing grammar and spelling mistakes.

"The extent to which you should correct your pupils' work has become an issue for teachers," says Townshend. "I believe the teacher should get a print-out of the work, correct it and let the pupil put it right on screen otherwise they won't learn anything."

Students at Moorside High first got in touch with their French school five years ago using a basic electronic mail system, called Commutex. But Le College Louis Jouvet did not appear by magic. Townshend met its head of languages many years ago while on a trip to France and discussed linking up.

She admits that without the support of her French friend, communication between the schools would have proved difficult and that all schools need to find willing partners.

* Schools will be invited to bid for Dialogue 2000 funds from this autumn.

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