Connection worth making

The Gemini project links schools in England and Africa via the internet. Chris Johnston reports

Ten schools in London will soon start working with schools in Ghana in a pilot programme that aims to add an international dimension to the school day. Students from Britain and Ghana taking part in the Gemini project will work together on geography and citizenship topics such as sustainable development and the Commonwealth.

The project, run by UK-based educational resources charity Africa Bookcase, is based on the penpal concept, but uses 21st-century technology. Henry Warren, Gemini's co-ordinator, says an internet-based communications system is provided to each school taking part.

Up to five pupils can use one computer simultaneously, each clicking on an icon representing them on the screen when they want to chat.

"We wanted to make it as real as possible, so it's very intuitive and easy for the children to use and they can pick it up straight away," he explains.

The system can run on quite old or basic computers and allows a phone line to be shared by two PCs - an important consideration in Africa where internet access is still very limited.

Many initiatives seeking to forge links between schools in different countries depend on the dedication and enthusiasm of one teacher, so Gemini has a centralised structure designed to be safe and secure as well as educationally valuable, says Warren.

Teachers are given training and Gemini staff help them to run their first few projects. The pilot will examine whether the initiative can be scaled up to allow many more schools to participate.

It follows an initial trial late last year involving the Stanway School in Colchester, Essex, and St Lawrence Citizens' High School in Kampala, Uganda.

John Tippett, head of Stanway School, says pupils very much enjoyed Gemini and it helped them learn a great deal about Africa. "My pupils have never been so motivated to learn," adds Rowena Simmons, the head of English.

It seems the initiative could do much to provide a more realistic impression of the UK for those in other countries and help break down stereotypes.

"Gemini has enlightened our pupils about life in Britain, especially about their cultural celebrations and natural surroundings," says Adoa Edunya Michael, assistant head of St Lawrence.

The possibility of exchanges between schools that work together is another option Warren hopes to develop.

Education minister Ivan Lewis says Gemini is "a valuable addition to the range of resource materials teachers can use in planning and teaching citizenship and ICT".

Education secretary Estelle Morris says: "Our children live in an international world, as far as their entertainment, communication and holidays are concerned. It cannot be that the only bit of their life that doesn't actually link with other countries is when they go to school."

www.africabookcase.org gemini_uk_schools_pack.htm

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