Distance no object;Internet

16th April 1999 at 01:00
Taking learning to faraway places can be a godsend for extending the reach of teachers and trainers. Chris Abbott reports on a refreshing Swedish project

Some headteachers may feel that their schools are spread over a wide area, especially those coping with split sites, but for Ingrid Giesecke, rector of Sofia School in Stockholm, the school boundaries extend over thousands of miles. Ingrid joined Sofia School when the building was restored in 1994 - it's an 80-year-old building in a part of central Stockholm that is becoming popular with media people, so there is a big mix of pupils. Although there are over 800 students arriving every day at the school buildings, the Distance Learning Unit teaches a further group of students through a unique "virtual school".

Sweden took the decision in 1995 to change the system of education at a distance for all students who were away from their home country because their parents were working overseas. Previously, contact between these students and their teachers in Sweden was by post, but the plan for the new unit at Sofia School was to use email and online conferencing to vastly improve this process.

There are now 40 teachers at the Distance Learning Unit, and their classrooms are small offices containing a chair, a computer and a phone line - the technology room, for example, looks very much like the modern languages or maths room. Each year, packs of materials are sent out by subject specialists, and much use is continued to be made of books and video. Teachers have to teach at the main Sofia School as well, so they continue to get real human contact with students.

Students can be in very remote parts of Bolivia, Ethiopia or Tanzania, especially if their parents are missionaries. Others are in European or US cities, but they still follow a Swedish education at a distance. Originally, the funding was linked to the number of students, but now the school has received a development grant of SEK1.5 million (about pound;115,000) and this will cover an expansion of activities over the next three years.

Currently, there are Sofia distance students in about 30 schools around the world. Each student is lent a portable computer, modem and printer. The teachers in the local school act only as tutors - the actual teaching is all done from Stockholm, mostly using the FirstClass conferencing system. This was chosen rather than, for example, a web-based forum, because some of the students are using very slow Internet connections if they are based in a remote area. Some of the students in Africa log on using satellite phones which can only connect at a slow rate (1200 rate) so browsers are too slow.

The centre develops software too - a recent project within modern languages teaching involved developing a software program that would support students as they attempt to pronounce phrases in French or German. As well as playing back the phrase and listening to it, students can see their intonation displayed graphically and match their result to the teacher's version. Developing such materials is not cheap; on this occasion a programmer was bought in for a year to work with the languages teacher.

The scheme has been so successful that there are even some home-based Swedish students involved - 30 or 40 of them - who have emotional problems or cannot cope with normal everyday school life.

Sofia recognises the need for its teachers to understand the position of the remote students, and it is Ingrid Giesecke's aim that each teacher should take a journey to one of the remote schools every two or three years. Distance learning on this kind of scale is an expensive undertaking, but as teacher Peter Lindqvist says: "We think it is very important that we help these students to stay Swedish."

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