Liz Heron logs on to the information technology research that is producing exciting on-line possibilities for language teaching.
No more the wait for summer exchange visits to practise talking to authentic speakers of your language of study. If developments on the information superhighway continue at their current rate all you will have to do is drop into a virtual coffee bar and talk over the fibre optic cables to like-minded students across the Continent.
For interactive coffee bars and on-line film-making are just two examples of services that will soon be available to language teachers through the superhighway.
Pioneering research in universities is leading to the development of systems such as Multimedia Integrated Conferencing for Europe, a project funded by the European Commission, and spearheaded in Britain by University College London. MICE allows academics at opposite ends of Europe to hold live meetings through on-line computer screens equipped with sound, video images and a shared "whiteboard".
UCL is fine-tuning the system, which runs on low bandwidth telephone lines, so that the video image of the person at the other end of the line and the sound reproduction of their voice is good enough for teaching pronunciation. And this summer the college will join forces with Exeter University to trial MICE for teaching languages at a distance. Through live on-line tutorials postgraduate students at UCL will join a French course taught entirely from Exeter.
Dr Angela Sasse, project manager, says: "We're currently concentrating on small group and one-to-one tutorials, but when we move this to a European level, you will have peer interaction."
Students could use MICE to drop in to an electronic coffee bar, where they could look for a partner to join in with a language practice session. "An English student learning Italian and an Italian student learning English could make a deal so they talk for an hour, with half an hour in English and half an hour in Italian," she says.
Dolores Dittner, head of UCL's language centre, says it's possible to reproduce all aspects of language teaching over a system like MICE. It would also enable institutions to offer a wider range of rare languages - by forming non-geographically based consortia - and give students wider access to experts and native speaker teachers.
She predicts that a student coffee bar on MICE will be opening within two years. Schools may have to wait longer before similar fully interactive services become widely available, but not much longer. In January 1995 Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, indicated the Government's interest in broad bandwidth communications - which have greatest scope for interactive and multi-media applications - for schools, and launched a consultation on how an "education superhighway" should be used.
A huge variety of on-line language-teaching services and resources are already available to schools through Campus 2,000, British Telecom's education network. The French Embassy offers France la carte, a comprehensive resource for pupils including direct access to France Telecom's on-line information service Teletel, the latest news in French, German and Spanish from Agence France Presse, an open computer conference in French and follow-up conferences for pupils who have made an exchange visit to a French school.
Teletel alone is an immense resource of some 17,000 services, including travel and tourism information, comics, news, and scientific, environmental and business databases. Penny Johnson, Campus's project co-ordinator, says: "You can look up the world weather on Teletel and use a Michelin service that includes information on hotels and restaurants to get students planning a journey across Europe in French."
The Spanish Embassy provides a weekly news service in Spanish edited to GCSE and A-level standards, supplemented with lesson plans for teachers to print out, and London's Birkbeck College supplies a weekly Spanish language magazine for pupils which includes news and features from Spain and Latin America, quizzes and vocabulary lists.
A similar news service in German is delivered by the Goethe Institute, which is funded by the German government. This also runs "German days", when A-level pupils can send their questions on-line to a range of experts in Germany.
Campus offers regular newspaper days, when pupils can make their own foreign-language newspaper, using items from Agence France Presse, and then compare it with a real newspaper in their target language the following day. And it puts on a variety of collaborative projects involving schools in different countries. French and British pupils are currently working together on 100 Years of Cinema, a project that involves planning a short film, including writing a script, drawing story boards and working out costings and submitting it to the French Embassy. The group with the best plan will be funded to make its film.
Campus 2,000's e-mail, conferencing, fax and file-transfer facilities are currently based only on text and simple graphics and images, but in June BT is moving the network on to the Internet, providing faster access speeds which will permit services combining sound, video and text to be piloted.
BT is also working with 120 schools trialling new interactive services in a number of subjects including languages. Education consultancy The Database is offering matched funding to 30 schools with technology-school status prepared to use their funds on multimedia projects using Proshare, a system similar to MICE from the computer firm Intel. It has so far found 20 schools.
The National Council for Educational Technology is undertaking an evaluation of what is available on the Internet that could be useful to language teachers. Roger Blamire of NCET says: "Usenet groups currently offer conferencing opportunities with French, German, Spanish and Russian speakers and electronic mail and conferencing will certainly be one of the major Internet activities for language students."
NCET is also taking part in an EC feasibility study on making language-teaching materials from various countries available over the Internet. To log on to Campus 2,000 all you need is an IBM-compatible computer, a modem and an ordinary telephone line. There is a monthly subscription of Pounds 20 for secondary schools and Pounds 10 for primary schools and all time on-line is charged at a local call rate.
Comenius Centres, the national in-service training network for language teachers, have free access to Campus 2,000 and will train any teacher to use it. They also demonstrate CD-Rom language materials and computer-based language courses. Leicester and Birmingham Comemius Centres hold regular courses in the use of IT and Leicester mounts an annual conference where the latest products are put through their paces.
o For more information contact: Pam Haezewindt, Leicester Comenius Centre, tel: 01533 313399; National Council for Educational Technology, tel: 01203 416994; The Centre for Information on Language Teaching, tel: 0171 379 5101.