I sometimes hover outside the door and listen. It gives me great pleasure to hear them experiment with the target language. I have heard some terrible things but I have heard some wonderful things too. I love it when I hear laughter. It means they are enjoying themselves."
The door in question leads into the videoconferencing room at Monkseaton Community High School in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, and the speaker is head of modern languages, Mike Butler.
It is six years since a small group of sixth-formers from the 13-18 language college conducted their debut conference with Lycee Europeen Montebello in Lille. Today more than 100 students from Years 9 to 13 communicate with their peers in France, Germany and Spain each year.
A typical session lasts about 20 minutes with a maximum of three participants from each country. "It's all about speaking and getting a reaction, and if people are sitting on the sidelines they don't get that experience," he explains.
"However, we do run occasional whole-class conferences where a couple of students do the talking while others take notes. But given the average youngster's concentration span, it is not easy to make this effective."
While these are designed to give Years 9 and 10 a taster, provision in Year 11 consists of a 10-week programme of topics agreed in advance with partner schools. Teachers arrange carousel lessons or ICT activities to fit in with the conference timetable and about 20 volunteers take part in each cycle.
One of these is David Whalley, who believes the experience has improved his speaking and listening. "It's different talking to native speakers because you have to get used to their accent and listen very carefully," he says. "Sometimes they ask us questions we haven't prepared and you have to figure out what they mean."
To make sure everyone does try to figure it out, sessions are divided into two distinct halves, one for each language. This prevents pupils from resorting to their native tongue at the first hint of trouble and encourages the development of effective communication. Partnerships remain constant, and as participants get to know each other better they begin to relax and take risks they would not dream of taking in front of their classmates.
This is particularly true for AS and A2 students, who link up with their opposite numbers every week. They are expected to explore topics that feature in their oral examinations, but there is scope for digression too, as Gillian Proud of Year 12 explains: "We prepare questions in advance but sometimes the conversation takes off in another direction or we discuss something that has been in the news. This week we spoke about the French presidential elections."
Her regular conversations with people her own age have given her confidence to embark on a spell of work experience in France this summer. "It's not just the language but the whole social aspect," she says. "We have talked a lot about what we do at weekends and our different lifestyles, so I have a better idea of what to expect."
The potential of videoconferencing to bring foreign culture alive is one of its major benefits, as the recent experience of Year 13 illustrates. They drew up a questionnaire to sound out their partners on the subject of drugs and incorporated their findings into their coursework. As a source of information, it was authentic and more immediate than anything in a textbook. Moreover, Mike Butler now has an excellent resource for next year as he captured their conversations on video.
The video recorder, part of the Swiftsite kit the school uses, opens up exciting possibilities, although he would never record students without their permission for fear of destroying self-confidence. Another facility he finds attractive is the snapshot tool, which allows students to take a picture of their partner and incorporate it into a Word document to illustrate a profile.
Several analyses of examination results suggest that videoconferencing has had a significant impact on grades, although numbers are too small to be conclusive.
Mike Butler has no doubts in his own mind, however. "This is real communication with real people. You cannot create that through some artificial role-play with an imaginary character you pretend to meet on holiday," he says.
"Not only have we noticed an improvement in comprehension, accent, intonation and fluency, we are also benefiting from a much more positive attitude towards languages."
His last comment is echoed by his colleague, Kim Easton, who was responsible for two community projects designed to support language learning in neighbouring schools. One involved conferencing with Year 8 pupils to consolidate recent class work. The other consisted of a series of lead lessons she delivered to Years 3 and 4, backed up by conferences with the language college. In both instances, the virtual tutors belonged to Years 10 and 11. It is a novel approach, but were they up to the challenge?
"I was very impressed with their level of maturity," she says. "We did not just focus on top sets and some unlikely characters were involved. They perceived it as a privilege and took their responsibilities very seriously. The level of language was simple, so other than encouraging the revision of some basic structures, I doubt if it enhanced their grades. But it certainly improved their motivation and confidence. These count for a lot in our subject."
Initial costs: Desktop videoconferencing kit, Pentium 2 computer, ISDN 2 line, microphone and speakers, webcam Approximately pound;1,790 Swiftsite or equivalent kit (see suppliers below), television, optional video recorder, ISDN 2 line. Approximately pound;3,100 Running costs: ISDN 2 line rental is twice the price of an ordinary line. Monkseaton pays pound;280 a year. International call charges also cost double. Monkseaton spends about pound;1,500 a year.
These and other case studies feature in Videoconferencing in the Classroom, pound;3 from Devon Curriculum Services Publications available from May 27.
Tel: 01392 384846
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TEN TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL VIDEOCONFERENCING
When communicatingin a foreign language, the prime consideration is sound quality. Although more expensive, an ISDN 2 line or above is superior to a broadband internet connection.
* The ideal site for the VCU is a small room with no distractions. If this is not possible, it should be screened off to provide privacy.
* A secure location helps ensure everything runs smoothly. "In some of our feeder schools, the kit was very accessible," says Kim Easton. "We might set it up to be spot on for the next session, only to find that curious little fingers had tampered with the settings in the interim."
* The optimum group size is two or three. Not only does this allow everyone to participate, but larger groups tend to talk among themselves. They may not mean to be rude, but this is how it comes across.
* Students need to be drilled in basic video conferencing techniques. They must learn to adjust the camera so that their faces fill the screen and remember to look at it throughout. "It's no good if you can only see the top of someone's head," says Mike Butler.
* A programme of topics should be drawn up in consultation with partner schools and built into schemes of work.
* Students should feel free to explore other issues if they wish. However, the programme provides a framework to ensure they do not run out of things to say.
* Preparation in class is essential to provide the vocabulary and structures needed for the next conference. Knowing that the goal is real communication motivates pupils.
* Support materials are equally important. At key stage 4, GCSE revision booklets serve as a reassuring prop, backed up by worksheets to provide a focus. Some might demand specific information, others could be open-ended to encourage spontaneous conversation.
* As a follow-up activity, students might report back to the class, either in the target language or in English, depending on the complexity of the subject. Alternatively, their classmates could ask questions to elicit replies.