Mike Prestage reports on a pilot language programme bringing the life of the East to the West Country Pupils learning Japanese can use new technology on trial at their Devon school to manipulate video film of a street scene, absorbing gestures and background sounds as well as the language. In time, Tavistock College will produce its own videos shot while on school trips, to bring scenes from other countries into the modern languages department.
While pupils and staff may be oblivious to the workings of the technology deployed, they are being used as guinea pigs in the trial of the latest state-of-the-art equipment which may transform modern languages teaching.
With its heavy emphasis on using moving videos, it is hoped to overcome the frequently heard comment from modern language teachers of "if only the pupils could visit the country itself".
Paul Richardson, the managing director of ExpLAN, one of the business sponsors who raised money to bring the equipment to Tavistock, said: "We can use the technology to bring the country, with its culture and language, to the pupils, rather than taking the pupils to the country."
ExpLAN has been involved in developing multimedia and multilingual Bible software and as a company has explored lots of ways of using computers with multiple language work.
College principal Peter Upton said: "We are not replacing teachers with information technology equipment and we are not raising unnecessarily the role of IT. Rather, this equipment improves the effectiveness of the teacher who will have more time for individual students than if he was in the traditional role, stood in front of 30 students."
In the school the equipment can be used in many ways. At its simplest, Japanese characters can be called up and, using a pressure-sensitive stylus, can be copied on screen, over the original, underneath it or with the original blanked out.
Using another window, a moving video can be stopped after a phrase or passage of speech for analysis. Story boards can be produced and pupils can write down what they think is happening on the video. By hitting the save key, the child's record of achievement is stored.
Helen Side, who teaches Spanish and French, said: "It is not teacher-led, which is the really motivating thing. Children can happily progress in the language without having a teacher stood in front of them." She said her initial fear was that the technology would be too complex and too inaccessible for teacher and student, but she had quickly been able to get accustomed to it.
Mr Upton said the 1,875-pupil school had achieved language college status with all students in Years 7 and 8 studying Japanese as well as a European language. Year 9 pupils study two core languages (one of which can be Japanese) and a subsidiary language.
"If we are going to provide young people with a positive learning experience and equip them adequately for future employment and lifelong learning, then languages are an important part of that," he said. "And it is not only the philosophy of making languages a central part of that experience; it is also applying some of the latest technology and allowing young people to be independent learners."
Initially the equipment is being tried by a small group of staff and students before its wider three-stage use from September.
The first phase will involve developing the architecture and training the staff. The architecture will include creating a communications centre which will have traditional classrooms, but there will also be an electronic classroom in an open-plan area, where up to 50 students will work with two teachers and two support staff.
The second phase will see staff and students developing their own databases, video clips and tailored individual learning programmes, some of which will be developed in-house.
Finally there will be a move to develop the school's own multimedia packages, video clips and CD-Roms and create individual learning packages. Students will be working next to each other at different levels, but running in parallel with traditional lessons.
The computers the school will be using are state of the art Acorns. Local business sponsors donated Pounds 100,000 and are helping at the school with training. The Department for Education and Employment gave a Pounds 100, 000 capital grant under the language college initiative and, in addition, the school receives Pounds 100 per pupil on roll each year for three years. The extra money has been spent both on equipment and extra staff.
Local businesses have shown an interest in exploiting the technology, with requests for new packages in Polish and for a learning programme relevant to business executives. At the end of the three-year pilot the school may be able to market its material.
School pupils who have tried the new modern language equipment have picked it up quite easily. Nicky Ricketts, aged 16, said: "I think the new technology will be beneficial in many ways. There is not going to be so much of the teacher talking all the time. You can get on separately with the work at your own level. We study information technology, so using the system was easy. "
Mr Upton believes the new equipment will make learning modern languages fun and enjoyable. Children will be able to work after school and at lunchtimes if they want to.
The school has to evaluate the success of the system and then see how to develop it further: electronic links with schools abroad and the use of cable so that students, and perhaps parents, can study at home, are possibilities.
Mr Upton said: "It is the first time in my 20 years in education that not only are we introducing something that is an important initiative, but we are being funded to do it - provided with the equipment and given the resources to staff it. It is a pity all schools don't have such an opportunity."