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Nudge and a wink

An online revision 'class' is taking the stress out of exam preparation for pupils at a Lincoln school. GCSEs will never be the same, reports Stephanie Northen

One of your GCSE students is at home, biting her nails and clawing at her brain. Soon she will be so anxious she will sleep badly, if at all, and turn up for the exam tired and tearful. The only person who can answer her questions and calm her nerves is her teacher. But it's Sunday evening, so hard luck. Getting in touch is about as likely as seeing a pig fly - though not at City of Lincoln community college.

Nearly half of the college's GCSE students have private access to instant answers from teachers in six subjects, boosting confidence and, hopefully, results. And while pigs don't actually fly there yet, despite the school's specialist engineering status, they do dance. The sight of a cavorting hog gives heart to students ravaged by revision. Clare Satchwell, head of history, awarded one of her students a dancing pig for winning a Sunday evening "pub quiz" on the Weimar Republic. This didn't require dragging a hog, kicking and squealing, into a bar, of course. She simply sent it from her home computer to his.

The pig is a "wink", a little animation with sound that livens up the cyber-chats teenagers have on the internet's instant messaging services.

Like "smileys", winks are just part of normal communication for tens of thousands of youngsters who meet up with their mates online.

And not just their mates. Since last October, 40 Year 11s at City of Lincoln have been meeting up with teachers, too. The school has been using Microsoft's MSN Messenger to offer teenagers free, fast and confidential access to staff from their own home. If the medium is the message, no flesh-and-blood private tutor could rival this service. It's so popular that students and staff are queueing up to join in. A trial carried out by the head of PE last year produced that department's best-ever GCSE results.

"The students are under so much pressure and can get depressed. They need to know that there is someone to talk to. The best person is their teacher," says Ian Jones, City of Lincoln's head.

Clare Satchwell's history GCSE students know she is available to "talk"

between 7pm and 8pm on Sundays and Wednesdays. Usually the communication is one to one, but sometimes, as with the pub quiz, she will invite other students to join a conversation so they can spark off each other. Her responses are not restricted to text or "winks". She can post images, too, chairing an online discussion about, for example, the meaning of a cartoon of Hitler stuffing children into a sack.

"The students use MSN Messenger all the time," says Ms Satchwell. "It's their medium. They're comfortable with it, they're at home and they're relaxed. And I can do it when it's convenient for me too, usually after my young daughter has gone to bed."

Diana Bushell, head of maths, also appreciates the convenience of the service. "I might be painting my spare room and I'll hear the computer ping and go and answer a question," she says. She uses an on-screen "interactive whiteboard" to help her 25 students. As she draws graphs or shapes, her students see them appear on their computers and she watches their answers emerge. Ryan Robinson has reason to be grateful to online tutoring. He asked to join the service, which was initially targeted at borderline C-D pupils, and a last-minute question to Diana paid off when the topic came up in his exam. "MSN is good because it's in your own home," he says. "No one will think you're stupid for not knowing, so it gives you more confidence to say if you don't understand something."

"It frees students from the time constraints of a lesson," says Clare Satchwell. "It encourages them to carry on when they get revision fatigue.

And it's fun."

MSN sponsored broadband connections for staff whose home computers were stuck on dial-up. As well as basic on-site training, the company also provides technical back-up; for example, the music teacher can now use musical notation in her sessions. "We are helping Microsoft develop their software," says Ian Jones. "We've gone back to them and asked for what we need. We've got a commitment to our students to create more flexible ways for them to learn, to arrange learning to suit modern lifestyles."

For more information phone City of Lincoln community college on 01522 882800. MSN Messenger changes its name this month to Windows Live Messenger

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