Continental drift

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Pupils at a North Tyneside high school now video-conference regularly with pupils across Europe. They are starting a Pounds 1million EU project - which their headteacher, Paul Kelley, says is changing the way they learn.

Eurospeak became a common language for Monkseaton Community High, Whitley Bay, when we found ourselves leading a Pounds 1.2 million pilot on electroncially delivered teaching materials across European schools.

We approached the task of putting together a development plan for the Telematics programme with a sense of experiment: it needed time, resources, and open minds - and some help from the Government's Superhighways for Education programme which helped us to formulate our plans. We anticipated frustrations and unexpected successes. We got both.

Communications technology is changing the way our pupils (aged 13-18) learn. We are in the midst of creating a new system of learning which goes beyond multimedia, combining IT technology with materials already available in other formats - including educational television and text.

Now our pupils regularly video-conference with students in Europe - and even e-mail them from home. They use high-speed computer networks for everything from integrated learning systems to e-mail, and share and work on the same documents on-line across Europe. European television, multimedia language-course materials and a new study centre are all available.

Getting to this stage was a learning experience for everyone. The needs of students came first, so establishing one-to-one conversations with native speakers to allow them to learn languages in a more realistic and motivating way was the first and most important step.

The technological solution was there: telephone and video-conferencing. The impact of seeing and speaking to another student in Europe was profound, and the technology deceptively easy to use: a Windows-based system on our machines (RM Multimedia PCs with a PictureTel add-on) meant staff and students learned to make calls in minutes. The full range of features - including file transfers, joint working, shared "whiteboards" and snapshots - was easy to master.

The problem with video-conferencing technology is that it was new to schools, especially in Europe.

Head of languages Mike Butler went to our partner schools to install the machines himself. This meant he could discuss a whole range of practical issues with them about the use of the machines, as well as help to train them. The personal contacts proved vital.

Computer technologies offered potential for other direct links between students. Our IT co-ordinator Dave Clouston got the school on to the Internet and trained key staff. Students were given e-mail addresses and relatively free access. The result - as is the way with new technologies - was that students soon began to teach staff. They taught me how to search the European Union databases and use e-mail.

We let two of the students have modems and asked them to create a WWW site, on which they developed a Web "art gallery" for students' work. This meant staff, in effect, commissioning students as designers, so changing staff-student relationships.

This term we hope to introduce computer-mediated conferencing which allows students to link directly on computers. The Open University uses the school to train its staff, and has installed its First Class software. And microwave links between the school and Newcastle University will connect pupils to Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) language students. This broadcast quality link will enable PGCE students to teach at a distance, as well as let our students link into resources on SuperJanet (the universities' high-speed network). The potential here is enormous, especially if SuperJanet is connected to European universities, allowing us another direct link.

Funding has come mainly from business sponsorship with Pounds 280,000 from the European Union. Most of the Pounds 1.2 million will go on course development and new hardware and software.

We were lucky that the Telematics programme was seeking projects on language learning. Dealing directly with Brussels meant learning new contacts - from WWW sites to the European Union itself. But the benefits of becoming connected with Europe have been a real learning experience for staff and students. Other departments in the school are now exploring the possibilities: the history department is considering video-conferencing to Hamburg to discuss the city's experience of bombing in 1944 and we're looking at revision materials in geography, English, science and maths.

* Monkseaton Web site: http:www. Paul Kelley is head of Monkseaton Community High. He will speak at the Central Bureau's "International Communication in Learning" conference in London on November 5 (contact Linda Pierre on 0171 389 4833) and the Cyber Space Learning Conference on November 25 and 26 in Manchester (contact 01274 383832)

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