It's 8pm on a Monday. Primary languages teacher Clare Seccombe logs on to her home computer to "attend" a Flashmeeting. More than a dozen teachers around the country are at the free video-conference, and another joins from Australia, to discuss how they use wikis - web pages that can be added to and edited by a class - to promote writing in French, German or Spanish.
Ms Seccombe is fired up, wanting to try out some of the suggestions right away. "It's often hard to go to sleep afterwards," she says. Luckily, the Flashmeeting can be saved and replayed, so she can revisit it whenever she needs.
According to a recent survey by the EU Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA), teachers such as Ms Seccombe are few and far between. The EU-wide study found that language teachers are failing to take advantage of social networking, and even see the phenomenon as a threat to their classroom authority.
But Ms Seccombe and her fellow Flashmeeting "delegates" believe they form a growing grassroots network of teachers who use online interactive, collaborative and social media, known as Web 2.0 technologies, to teach modern languages.
"Web 2.0 is important for language teaching because it is all about communication," says Joe Dale, co-ordinator of the TES modern foreign languages (MFL) forum and host of several Flashmeetings.
The micro-blogging site Twitter has a strong contingent of MFL teachers who use technology in the classroom. Tweeting "helps cut out teething problems", says Isabelle Jones, head of languages at The Radclyffe School in Oldham.
"There is a lot of activity on Twitter, sharing ideas and experimenting with different web tools. Twitter is very effective for continuous professional development as you get instant feedback," she says. Her own blog on the use of ICT in language teaching has a following of 300 teachers around the world, including the US and Canada.
"There are 50 or 60 amazing language teachers on Twitter," says Suzi Bewell, who teaches French and German at All Saints RC School, a specialist languages college in York.
The informal MFL network was behind a recent upsurge in primary languages teachers using Storybird, a free web-based collaborative storytelling tool. They found that the easy-to-use drag and drop Storybird images motivated younger children to produce their own small story books with French or Spanish captions.
"I posted the Storybird link and everyone went mad. It just exploded," says Ms Seccombe. Storybird has now spread to secondary MFL classrooms.
Wallwisher is another free web tool that spread rapidly, thanks to the network. Like a wall of online Post-it notes, teachers can use it for collaborative brainstorming. Even more popular Web 2.0 technologies for languages are free podcasting and editing tools, particularly the editing tool Audacity.
"Kids record oral presentations and pick out and edit what they can improve on, which you can't do with simple recordings," says Chris Harte, head of languages at Cramlington Learning Village, a 2,300 pupil comprehensive in Northumberland.
Also popular are vokis, or animated speaking avatars, which get even the most inhibited pupils recording and talking in the target language; and wikis, where pupils can share what they have learnt.
Personal blogs and collaborative wikis are "like an open notice board. Pupils can put up examples of work they have created, often outside school," explains Helena Butterfield, international schools co-ordinator for Ian Ramsey CofE secondary school in Stockton-on-Tees.
"You can include YouTube videos, put on some games to make vocabulary learning more active or put up questions or little tests for pupils to answer online. It works well with all year groups, but GCSE kids are keen to use it because they see it can help with their grades."
Northgate High School, a language college in Ipswich, was among the first in the country to use wikis and vokis five years ago. Now each pupil has their own wiki. A recent Ofsted MFL inspection said the school's use of ICT in language teaching was outstanding, enabling pupils to store their work online and staff to check and mark it. It also enabled pupils to communicate rapidly with staff about language learning.
The social networking service was used effectively to remind pupils about coursework deadlines, Ofsted said. It also noted that about half the 150 hits a week to the school's wikis were from other schools, including some abroad.
MFL teacher Alex Blagona pioneered Web 2.0 use at Northgate, but he doesn't think that technology should be used for its own sake when teaching languages. If traditional methods work better, then they should be retained.
One of the criticisms in the EACEA report was that language teachers were resistant to using these technologies because they thought they didn't fit in with "current pedagogical best practice".
But most early adopters among MFL teachers see the value of integrating the new with the old. "You are not going to notice a sea-change in how students have learnt," says Mr Blagona, but he observes: "Students are much savvier. There is a wider range of vocabulary because they are exposed to more sources on the internet, and I envisage that listening skills will improve. Subliminally students learn more (through using technology) than they think they do."
The biggest observable change is in pupils' attitudes. Jose Picardo, head of languages at Nottingham High School, was another pioneer of Web 2.0 use in MFL. He has noticed an increase in pupils taking Spanish to GCSE and going on to A-level. It has also encouraged more independent learning as pupils access web pages away from school, he says. Pupils can download audio files and learn in their own time.
Lisa Stevens, languages co-ordinator and teacher at Whitehouse Common Primary in Sutton Coldfield, widely regarded as a trailblazer for ICT use in primary languages, says: "Pupils were learning and improving because using technology was out of the ordinary and captured their imagination. It allowed them to do things they could not do before."
It also provides more direct access to the culture of the country in question, an important requirement in the new primary languages curriculum. "Web 2.0 technologies offer access to foreign language materials and stimulating activities that would otherwise require travel to France, Germany or Spain to experience," says Norbert Pachler, reader in education at the University of London's Institute of Education.
"MFL is certainly one of the subjects where new technologies are being used more extensively than in other subjects," he says. "Webquests, blogging, online partnerships and projects, digital storytelling are all things MFL teachers have used in the past in more traditional forms."
But there are still many problems and obstacles to overcome. Web enthusiasts among MFL teachers are the exception rather than the rule. School internet safety rules mean that many websites, including Twitter and YouTube, are blocked on school computers.
"If you have to ask parents every time you want to do something on the web, it can be frustrating," says Mr Dale, who is also a specialist practitioner for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.
Furthermore, wikis and blogs require moderation and podcasts need editing. Less enthusiastic teachers might find it a drain on their time. And in many secondary schools, the ICT suite has to be booked in advance, or a website may be down or functioning too slowly. "You always need a backup plan," Ms Butterfield says.
Some of the security issues can be reduced by using virtual learning environments (VLE), a form of "walled" wiki, widely used by universities. Hampshire local authority is rolling out WizKid, a more visual version of the StudyWiz VLE for schools, to 90 per cent of its 500 primaries.
It includes activities for every Year 3 languages lesson and other Web 2.0 tools such as vokis are embedded in a secure environment. Teachers can choose what activities to feature and personalise their area.
Every child will have their own virtual space, they can type in comments and upload as they would on an open-source wiki, says Jo Rhys-Jones, Hampshire's county adviser for languages. "We are starting it first for languages because it answers the need to provide support for languages. A lot of people are very nervous about the primary languages entitlement becoming compulsory in 2011," she says.
But many secondary school VLEs are barely accessed and used. "The criticism of VLEs is that they tend to be used as a repository of material and reinforce transmission rather than interaction. In the US people are pulling back from VLEs because they are perceived as managing learning rather than innovating learning," Dr Pachler says.
In addition, some teachers think that creating a wall around what they can access restricts spontaneity. "A `walled garden' takes away the excitement for pupils that there are people out there looking at their work," says Mr Dale.
What could accelerate interest in using web applications in MFL is the Government-sponsored MYLO (My Languages Online), also known as the Open School for Languages, which was recommended in Lord Dearing's 2007 review of language teaching. This is being piloted in half a dozen schools and will launch more widely soon. With activities devised by the Cambridge University Language Centre, its creators claim it will be content-rich, comprehensive and constantly updated. It will offer the openness of the internet, but with greater security, they say.
But until platforms like this spread and catch on, it will be up to grassroots MFL Tweeters and bloggers to prove just how vital web technologies and social networking can be in teaching another language.
TOP TECHNOLOGIES FOR LANGUAGE LEARNING
- Audacity Free audio software for recording and editing MP3 files. An effective way of rehearsing and peer assessing spoken work, raising pupils' confidence and improving pronunciation. http:audacity.sourceforge.net
- VoiceThread Allows pupils to leave written, voice or webcam comments concerning their own or others' images or videos in a moderated environment. Good for raising intercultural understanding and collaborating with native speakers over the web. http:voicethread.com
- Wallwisher An online notice board for sticky notes. Great for plenaries and Assessment for Learning, where children give feedback moderated by the teacher and share their ideas in the same place as a permanent record which they can then revisit later at home.
- Wikis Quick and easy to set up, wikis are ideal for small collaborative writing projects as well as showcasing pupils' multimedia creations to the wider community. They can be moderated or password-protected and used for storing downloadable files or embedding video and audio clips for pupils to access outside the classroom.
- Xtranormal This can turn text into movie files. Pupils practise their writing skills by creating animated characters that read back their texts to them with good pronunciation in a motivating movie clip. www.xtranormal.com
Joe Dale is co-ordinator of the TES Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) forum, www.tes.co.ukmfl.