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Cheap calls compensate for a late start

Roger Frost considers the strengths and weaknesses of the German approach to computers in schools.

Pop into a German secondary school and you'll find a couple of computer suites just as in any UK school. Pop into a primary school and after you've seen the office computer, you'll not see a sausage. Since 1985, all the German states (regions) such as Bavaria, Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia, have run special projects to put computers into schools. Yet while such a federated system generates many diverse projects, the primary schools remain virgin soil. News that our Department for Education has bought millions of pounds' worth of CD-Rom systems for primaries would surprise the Germans.

Money for computers comes to the secondary school with two different aims, as Reinhard Donath, a languages teacher and computer expert in Stuttgart, explains: "One aim is to enable the teaching of informatics (computer studies), the other is to find out what sorts of subject software are effective.

"Several states concentrate just on informatics, but the cross-curricular approach you have in England is much less developed. We are trying to introduce generic programs (like desktop publishers) into other subjects. For example, talking about the press and writing a newspaper article is part of our curriculum. This is much easier to learn by using DTP software and assembling a paper yourself, rather than just trying to analyse one."

One growth area in Germany has been in the use of electronic communication. With English at the core of the curriculum, some 200 schools have linked up with the UK's Campus 2000 service and used this to communicate with students learning German.

Reinhard Donath sees this as a very "real" kind of dialogue. "When I say to my class: 'Good morning, boys and girls', it's slightly false. We pretend that we have to speak English. When students talk to their peers about things of mutual interest they are much more motivated to use their language."

Sadly, there are serious costs involved, largely because German schools have to use commercial networks to access Campus 2000. So schools have been attracted elsewhere to the Internet, which they can use cheaply via their local university. Already about 1,000 schools are connected to the Infobahn (information highway) and the number is set to rise to 3,000 by the end of the year.

Things are made better still by German Telecom's low prices for high-speed digital phone lines. Schools connect to the Internet via ISDN-2, which allows browsing at more acceptable speeds. This system doesn't use a modem and runs at several times modem speeds. Starker contrasts appear when comparing prices here and there: in Germany ISDN-2 costs Pounds 50 to install compared to BT's Pounds 400 fee.

But never mind the high-tech. Low-tech government cuts aren't helping and recent ones are starting to show: some say that you are more likely to find a 486 computer in the former East than West Germany.

That this will continue is cause for despondency, says Reinhard Donath. "Currently there is no will to invest in computers in schools, and especially software and training. It's just not prioritised."

* In March, the Goethe Institute in London and Campus 2000 are running a project called "Who's the foreigner?". Designed for A-level language students, it aims to raise cultural awareness. Interested schools should contact Campus 2000 on 0345 626253.

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