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Opening up the continent

All across Europe, experiments in the use of multimedia are changing our concept of teaching and learning.

Media Assisted Language Learning is not the snappiest title for a conference and its acronym, MALL, suggests at best something Americanised and very commercial. Nevertheless, this conference, recently held in Amersfoort in Holland, was very exciting. It focused on the newest developments in adult education in Europe. Organised by ERDI, a network of national institutions involved in adult education, representatives from all the major European Union countries spent two days looking at multimedia and open learning for the year 2000.

There were examples of courseware for teaching literacy and numeracy, CD-Roms and management systems. Some countries are well into e-mail while others are using broadband telecommunications and interactive television.

The conference began with a comparatively old technology: electronic whiteboards. "Because the technology was seen as being out of date before it started, no one's invested in this area, but it's ideal for our students, " says Alison Smith. Alison is from Thurso College in the very north of Scotland and is an enthusiastic advocate of whiteboards. She linked up to her college, and Marcus Mennie in Thurso taught Daniel Pianciola from Turin some chemistry and then Helen Menezes from Castelo Branco taught a Scottish colleague a few social greetings in Portuguese. The technology is impressive because it is quick, interactive and uses only ordinary telephone lines. Up to five centres can be linked to a bridge which can then be linked to other bridges so, in theory, the number of callers knows no limit. In practice, however, there are benefits to keeping it small and simple. Of course in the future, when we have videophones as standard, this technology will look old hat, but it certainly has a lot to teach us about ways of managing distance learning.

The problem of reaching people in isolated communities has been tackled in a different way in Holland. ITOF is a project based in Friesland, a rural area in the north, where lessons are presented via cable television. The TV stations are apparently keen to develop some kind of educational provision and are using a two-way cable network with Telekeys. The viewer watches a programme about spelling or writing a letter and after each topic the teacher poses questions which are relayed via a computer in the TV station. The learner types in a reply using the special keypad with the telekeys and when the answer has been registered the next question appears on the screen. The cable network collects and processes the results and, while the programme is still on the air, the producer acts as a spokesperson for the students and either congratulates the teacher or asks for clarification.

Television is being used in a different way in Spain. Mi Barrio (My Neighbourhood) is the first in a series of videos to be used in learning centres where images from daily life are taken as the basis for discussion groups and are linked to paper-based materials to enhance basic word recognition. Marta Soler from Baldiri Reixach in Barcelona says that in the past a great deal of literacy teaching was based on identifying deficiencies and finding remedies. In this project, they have begun to recognise that many people have competencies which they did not acquire through academic learning but which nevertheless can be harnessed to learning.

A similar attitude underpins one of Britain's contributions. The Reading Disc, developed by Cambridge Training and Development is for adults who want to improve their basic skills. It uses text, sound, graphics and video and is based on 24 different topics of interest to adults such as parenthood, housing, drugs and crime. The student can opt to write an article, join in a debate or work through a wide range of exercises and activities which can count towards a Wordpower certificate. The disc contains superb photographs and has a sound facility so that students can listen to text again and again. Unusually for a CD-Rom, there is also an authoring facility so that staff and students can create their own texts and activities and there is a student tracking system so staff can see how students progress. The Reading Disc is now available from the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit.

Roger Smith from Hull Easy Learning Project (HELP) showed Out and About in Hull. This was part-funded by the National Council for Educational Technology and presents a series of literacy and numeracy activities based on exploring a town. Now there is a new CD-Rom called Hull at War, which is based on oral history work in the area. This has been developed in conjunction with the Hull Daily Mail and Newspapers in Education. Many delegates saw these programs as an ideal way to teach English as a foreign language, since learners have to use their knowledge of English to complete the tasks which makes learning more active.

Living in Portugal is a similar project. This is a multimedia CD-Rom which gives the learner a basic knowledge of Portuguese. The opening screen is wonderful: a man appears in a window and reaches out to point to each of the buttons on screen while he explains what they do. Like other language CD-Roms such as Hotel Europa, this offers practice in reading, writing, listening and speaking, but what's new is an e-mail help service for students using the CD-Rom both inside Portugal and abroad.

Portugal is also involved in a number of other projects and is partnering Coventry Technical College in developing language and cultural awareness. Children are exchanging personal details, stories and songs and learning a little of one another's language. Future plans include adapting CD-Roms for use on broadband telecommunications network and providing versions of the CD-Rom in all the major European Union languages.

Not all the projects focused on language and literacy. Italy's contribution focused on numeracy. It was presented by Formazione 80, a private co-operative in Italy which has responded to demands from trade unions to provide training for workers. In the past, staff at Formazione 80 have worked on reading and writing skills, but they increasingly found that literacy problems were getting in the way of understanding basic maths. They have produced Mi Diamo i Numeri? which is a Windows-based package which uses icons, graphs, tables and pictures to help students to develop concepts of number.

Perhaps the most extensive project is France's Ateliers Pedagogique Personalisees (APPs for short). These open learning centres grew up out of demonstrations over unemployment in Lyons in 1981. They all provide short courses tailored to the particular needs of the student and have developed a sophisticated, student-controlled management system which enables staff to call up statistics.

There is a network of 480 APPs linked via Minitel on an e-mail system (les botes a lettres in French). This enables centres to exchange information and ideas, to keep in touch via a newsletter and to gather statistics on local regional and national networks. However, the main benefit is a sense of identity.

So, with such a diversity of European developments in multimedia, what are the common concerns? All the delegates agreed that multimedia has altered the way that language teaching can be presented. The use of different media allows for individualisation of learning so the learners can work at their own pace, at a time and place of their own choosing and, most importantly, using a level of language they are comfortable with. Interactivity is essential in adult education. The learner, not the teacher, must be in control. Above all, and most hearteningly, every country stressed that the media must fit the educational process and cannot be driven by purely commercial concerns.

Of course, the emphasis on the newer technologies raises questions about the role of the teacher. In 2000, will European classrooms be filled with computers and administrators without a teacher in sight? Delegates felt that this was unlikely and that the educationists would always be the lynchpin of every new development. However, Frans Thijssen of the Dutch team sounded a warning note: "Interactive media will never replace teachers, but teachers who use media may well replace teachers who don't."

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